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Asking for help in IT in a senior position while keeping credibility

By Cantalope
    2017-09-18 01:24:25.870Z2017-09-20 08:32:22.787Z

    I am working in a senior position in an IT department.
    Having learnt a new technology recently and being quite experienced, I rarely, if ever, get stuck on programming matters.

    Lately, I have noticed a colleague who takes pride in his technical proficiency and acts as a de facto leader. I appreciate his competence and thought to ask him help on a very specific matter on which he worked a few months back.

    Lo and behold, while he could help a bit, I overheard at the coffee break from a more junior colleague that he thought "that I was better than this; if I ask for help, it does not show much proficiency". Basically, me asking for help was seen by this junior as a sign of weakness.

    I am strongly trying to ask for help even more because I believe, as a senior team member, I need to be able to be more vulnerable and simply ask when it is needed.

    The perverse effect it does seem to have is to make me look weak, seemingly. I am fighting against this because this is a misconception, but in a competitive environment, you never know. Especially in IT, where I do work, where promotions are few and far between, some are more "cutthroat" than others.

    How would you ask for help, given the situation at hand, without losing credibility?

    (This page is mostly a copy of this StackExchange question, license: CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Solved in post #2, click to view
    • 33 replies

    There are 33 replies. Estimated reading time: 22 minutes

    1. M
        2017-09-18 01:44:21.683Z

        Asking for help when you don't know something isn't weak - no one person can know all the details of each technology they will encounter. And assuming that it's not happening with every aspect of the job, but instead on specific things where you know a colleague has specific knowledge that will help, then it's actually the sensible and efficient thing to do.

        The junior staff member is the one in the wrong here. I've seen it time and again - a junior/inexperienced person can sometimes get locked into that weird mentality where they feel that to ever admit they don't know something or need help will forever mark them as incompetent. It's ridiculous, of course, but it happens all the same and it's the bane of good team work.

        Unfortunately, you can't control someone else's perception. All you can do is control how you act. And the best thing to do with this sort of thing is simply not to feed the false perception. You need to own the fact that you don't let your ego get in the way of you getting the job done as best and as efficiently as you can.

        Don't act like it's a shameful thing or be embarrassed about it because it's not and you don't need to be. Should this junior or anyone else comment about it directly or when you are otherwise in a position to respond, then you point out that, of course you do so, and you would expect any member of the department to do likewise because there is no point in spending hours or days figuring something out when the person in the next cubicle can give you the answer in five minutes.

        Reply9 LikesSolution
        1. MMatthieu M
            2017-09-18 02:06:07.563Z

            I personally consider asking for help a sign of maturity.

            1. SShaamaan
                2017-09-18 02:08:39.529Z

                I have noticed one thing in our little IT / coding company. Asking for help is OK... as long as you put in a minimum effort to try and solve the issue yourself. If something doesn't work / compile and someone instantly runs over to the senior developer... then we don't look kindly on that kind of behaviour. But if you Googled the issue and / or it's a broader "architecture" trick question? Then sure, ask away! It's almost like on StackOverflow!

                1. DDoktor J
                    2017-09-18 02:10:09.825Z

                    As @Shaamaan said, put some effort into figuring it out yourself -- then ask. Worse than "spending hours or days figuring something out", I've seen where people who were afraid to ask did the wrong thing, sometimes with catastrophic results. Thus, it's always better to ask if you can't ascertain an answer on your own; and no one knows all the answers.

                  • NNat
                      2017-09-18 02:13:11.824Z

                      This answer seems to start off by assuming that the junior developer's criticisms are invalid. How was that position established?

                      1. Mmotosubatsu
                          2017-09-18 02:14:20.635Z

                          If the events are as-described the in OP (and I've not seen anything yet to make me doubt that) then I believe that the Junior's criticisms are invalid for the reasons I outline in my answer. There are circumstances where such criticism may be valid, and I gave a caveat for one such circumstance in the answer as well.

                        • DDennis Williamson
                            2017-09-18 02:17:42.419Z

                            "Fred: Why does that rich person scrimp and save?" "Bob: How do you think he got rich?"

                          • N
                              2017-09-18 01:49:02.274Z

                              This junior developer has a flawed understanding of what a senior developer is supposed to do.

                              A senior developer is senior, not because his technical knowledge overlaps everything a junior can do (it can, but doesn't have to), but because he can do things that a junior doesn't even understand. The senior developer can (should?) understand broad implications of decisions, keep the big picture in mind, can delegate tasks, understands the importance of trusting your reports, and is able to build a team.

                              Deferring to another member's expertise is a learned skill, and is part of the "big picture" mentality, which this junior obviously does not have, and that's why you're the senior and he's not.

                              You have to realize that the task you're asking for "help" is not something you are unable to do, but it is something you are delegating and trusting the junior to do. If he gets stuck, you don't go "Oh, too bad. I'll fire you now." Instead, you will be able to assist, point to the right resources, brainstorm new ideas, investigate new leads on potential solutions, consult your own contacts, ask for help in different channels, etc.

                              With the specific thing you overheard, first, you need to make 100% sure you are not offended. This is up to you and needs to be processed without involving the junior.

                              Once this is done, and you are 100% sure that no offense is taken, then recognize this is something the junior MUST learn to grow into a senior developer. Anyone senior who thinks asking for help is a "weakness" will naturally create a very toxic environment.

                              Try to be honest and just ask him, in a non-confrontational manner, something like "Well, I overheard you saying (what he said). Why do you think that?" Make sure it is not defensive, and try to probe him on why he thinks the way he does.

                              If you look at the broader picture, does a CEO do everything his reports can do? Of course not. That's why there is a team of C-level executives, which then have their own senior reports, then they themselves have junior reports. You also can have managers who have no technical expertise themselves, but they can successfully manage senior developers.

                              1. Aangarg12
                                  2017-09-18 02:21:25.874Z

                                  To add to this, hiring juniors that have a very specific knowledge (e.g. cutting edge technologies) that seniors lack is extremely common. That's why you hired them on the first place.

                                  1. Uuser32882
                                      2017-09-18 02:23:39.446Z

                                      Im not a senior but I don't agree that he should go and confront the junior about this. especially not the "I overheard you saying..." part. Small coffee break chit chat should remain as such. I would probably elevate myself above the discussion and ignore it. I would stop ignoring it if the junior came up to me and said it to me directly. Then that would be disrespectful on the part of the junior and he would deserve to be reprimanded for it.

                                      1. AAllTheKingsHorses
                                          2017-09-18 02:24:46.535Z

                                          Especially as a senior/leader the OP has a certain responsibility for the work culture in the team and needs to make sure that the junior doesn't spread this weird "never ask for help" attitude around (e.g. to other juniors). As Nelson writes: this can create a toxic environment - and leaders are responsible for the environment their team has to work in.

                                        • NNelson
                                            2017-09-18 02:29:07.227Z

                                            In this case, the junior probably influenced another junior and now we have two people that will not ask for help. This attitude is highly destructive. It takes tremendous skill to deal with this, and hence why the OP is the senior. He's asking for help.

                                            1. TTemporalWolf
                                                2017-09-18 02:33:20.242Z

                                                It is all too common for someone to bang on a problem for hours because they can't bring themselves to ask someone who can help them solve it in 5 minutes... and it boils down to not wanting to show weakness.

                                                1. VVolker Siegel
                                                    2017-09-18 02:35:44.950Z

                                                    I think the very important point in talking about it with the junior is to explain to him why asking for help is a good thing - he seems to not understand it.

                                                    1. NNat
                                                        2017-09-18 03:17:21.787Z

                                                        In a lot of threads, I've read claims about how senior developers are hired at much higher pay because they're experts; their work's better, faster, and more proficient, such that when you really need a job done well, it's best to shell out the extra cash for senior developers. This answer seems to go in a very different direction, asserting that senior developers aren't necessarily more skilled than juniors, but rather that they're able to act in a managerial role. Could you elaborate on this position, especially with regards to what should be expected from senior developers?

                                                        1. NNelson
                                                            2017-09-18 03:18:15.309Z

                                                            They're not skilled solely on technical knowledge. A senior's knowledge is also in how successful projects succeeds, and that requires a lot more than technical skills. This answer deals with the false idea that a senior developer is the pinnacle of technical knowledge. He can be, but that's not why he's senior.

                                                            1. NNat
                                                                2017-09-18 03:18:56.302Z

                                                                It'd been my impression that the "Senior" qualifier was meant to highlight a honed expertise in the position in which the employee is a Senior; and while being a Senior often comes with some obligation to manage Juniors, Senior employees are still primarily there to do the same job, as opposed to Managers. If my impression was correct, then a Senior would have legitimate reason for concern if they were consistently outperformed by a Junior, while a Manager would be free from such concerns for the reasons that you'd described above. Is your experience with job titles different?

                                                                1. NNelson
                                                                    2017-09-18 03:19:31.524Z

                                                                    It's gonna be hard to even discuss titles themselves because they are both full of meaning and meaningless. It's not something that can really fit in comments.

                                                            2. R
                                                              Richard U
                                                                2017-09-18 01:52:25.116Z

                                                                Weakness is undermining a teammate who asks for help.

                                                                When I was starting out and there was no www, all help was in the form of manuals and advice from overworked colleagues, it was expected that you were supposed to know just about everything.

                                                                The world has changed. There is so much out there that no person can possibly even begin to know everything. If this were true Stack Overflow would not exist.

                                                                If you were working with or for me, I would be RELIEVED that you were asking for help. It would INCREASE my confidence in you because I know that you wouldn't be the one to go off and do something half-cocked, screw things up, and then try to blame someone else.

                                                                I once worked for a newspaper where when I interviewed a candidate and deliberately asked him obscure questions that he could not have known the answer to because I wanted to see him say "I don't know". He did, and we hired him. Why? Because we'd rather have someone say "I don't know what I'm doing here and I need help" than see a mistake make it into the newspaper and embarrass the company.

                                                                It is not a sign of weakness of incompetence to know your limits and seek help when you need it. It is a sign of professionalism and self-awareness and a trait I would LOVE to have in a colleague or in someone who worked for me.

                                                                The gossip is the weak one, and if I were your manager, he and I would have a conversation behind closed doors over this one.

                                                                Do not let this get to you, if he continues talk to him directly and then to your boss. He is undermining teamwork and slowing employee growth.

                                                                1. S
                                                                  Steve Smith
                                                                    2017-09-18 02:39:39.451Z

                                                                    "me asking for help was seen by this junior as a sign of weakness". He is a junior, and still naive enough to think that those above him should have all the knowledge of everyone below them. His statement says more about him than about you

                                                                    1. RRomaH
                                                                        2017-09-18 02:43:41.465Z

                                                                        Though I agree, I find that overly charitable to the junior dev. Belief that an elder should have all the answers to any given topic should be something most adults should have abandoned before leaving secondary school. It shows a lack of maturity and if this continues to affects the working relationship of the team, it should be addressed.

                                                                      • D
                                                                          2017-09-18 02:40:37.204Z

                                                                          Why do you use the term "junior" instead of "moron"? Shouldn't it be "was seen by the moron as a sign of weakness"? Seriously, most of the colleagues just thought that the moron is a really shallow guy if he thinks what he said them. You too should ignore this behaviour until he grows up :)

                                                                          1. E
                                                                              2017-09-18 02:44:59.350Z

                                                                              Such a competitive place would not be anything I want to experience at work.

                                                                              1. S
                                                                                  2017-09-18 02:47:19.657Z

                                                                                  If it makes you feel better, I helped a couple of senior techs when I was an intern. Not because I was better than them or even smarter (I am not), it was because I happened to know the answer because I had done what they wanted to do before.

                                                                                  Asking for help is not a weakness. This junior doesn't know what he is talking about (probably why he is a junior). A good senior tech knows what he knows, but more importantly, he knows what he doesn't know.

                                                                                  What good would it do if you pretended to know something and couldn't do work because you were too proud? Keep working like you always have, and try to forget that this happened. Your credibility should not be harmed in any way (unless you keep asking the same question over and over again and never learn).

                                                                                  1. IIan Kemp
                                                                                      2017-09-18 02:56:19.252Z

                                                                                      "he knows what he doesn't know" This, so much this. The most competent people are those who are aware of their limitations and strive to go beyond them.

                                                                                    • N
                                                                                        2017-09-18 03:07:00.110Z

                                                                                        The way I see this is that your junior colleague already has a negative look on asking for help.

                                                                                        I think the right answer here is showing him that asking questions is not bad and in this case it is even smarter since your other colleague already has experience in the matter you need help with

                                                                                        1. SSteve Smith
                                                                                            2017-09-18 03:08:47.313Z

                                                                                            "The first step to wisdom is admitting that you do not know". Or something similar.

                                                                                          • J
                                                                                            Jon Hanna
                                                                                              2017-09-18 03:10:43.289Z

                                                                                              You have the problem the wrong way around.

                                                                                              You have a junior developer that thinks there is something wrong with asking for help. That is bad both for them personally, and for their employer.

                                                                                              If there is anyone working in a specific mentor role to them, have a word with that mentor about that problem.

                                                                                              Meanwhile, not only should you continue to ask for help when you need it, but if they complain about that, call them out on it. Otherwise they'll never learn any better.

                                                                                              1. Aakostadinov
                                                                                                  2017-09-18 03:12:14.403Z

                                                                                                  It's important to establish an environment where asking questions is normal. When I started with my current team I knew almost nothing about the project and asked so many questions, although I was in the senior position. I can admit that some people felt strange at the time but one year later I don't think anybody had any concerns. And I still ask questions as the product is huge and different people know better different parts.

                                                                                                • C
                                                                                                    2017-09-18 03:13:37.362Z

                                                                                                    Team working is all about that, TEAM!

                                                                                                    Everyone (including the misguided junior) has something to offer, and it's the job of the seniors in the team to organise the efforts of the team to be most effective.

                                                                                                    It's not a "mine's bigger than your's" situation; far more a "every day's a school day" theme!

                                                                                                    Changing the culture and outlook of your team is a real challenge, but one which will reap massive rewards/productivity/promotion/pay raises/etc/etc

                                                                                                    That's what leaders are really about (whilst generating the code to finish the project, of course)

                                                                                                    To directly answer your question: Openly and publicly (in a team meeting, perhaps) elicit the help of the "whiz kid", invite the junior to attend if appropriate.

                                                                                                    Be comfortable saying "I don't know, show me". The whole team will work better as a result.

                                                                                                    1. P
                                                                                                        2017-09-18 03:14:58.533Z

                                                                                                        I am not an IT manager but have run projects in different areas. One way to deal with this is to change the way you view this situation. Your job is not to show vulnerability but to be a good judge of efficiency.

                                                                                                        Tasks should not assigned by who can do the specific job the most quickly but by whose time is best spent on the task. You as the senior have other, important jobs to do and should have better judgement on how to divide the work to efficiently accomplish the project goals. Use your judgment and exercise your authority without apology and learn to be comfortable in doing that. Transform the feeling of needing to show "vulnerability" into being open to ideas from team members, being willing to change your planing for good reason, and being liberal in passing around the credit for the work.

                                                                                                        1. K
                                                                                                          Karl Bielefeldt
                                                                                                            2017-09-18 03:15:47.889Z

                                                                                                            I have found that the best way to maintain credibility when you ask for help is to offer help in return on other occasions. In my pair programming opportunities with less experienced colleagues I don't have as good a memory for details, but I usually have a better insight into what will make a cleaner design or where a bug is most likely to be.

                                                                                                            I think that's because, for example, the details of the syntax and standard libraries of the language we're programming in get mixed up with the dozens I've used over the years, where a younger programmer has only used one or two. But that breadth and depth of experience helps me form insights that are harder to intuit otherwise.

                                                                                                            And when those flashes of intuition hit, your pair programmer will fully appreciate what value you bring to the table, even if they know all the trivia you have to google.

                                                                                                            1. A
                                                                                                              Akbar @akbarw
                                                                                                                2020-02-29 13:02:50.524Z

                                                                                                                Such a competitive place would not be anything I want to experience at work.