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How to get help in a team where the culture around questions seems a bit off?

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Junior Software Developer at Consulting Company5 months ago

I'm a little over two months in at this large (10k+ employees) org, and I work remotely in internal tools to try to automate processes. My immediate development team is fairly small and mostly junior. Most of us onboarded right before the 2023 holidays when things were winding down.

I am trying hard to fit in here and balance, but I am struggling. Our group chats are pretty dead, and it doesn't seem like group-questions are rewarded. We have daily standups, but a lot of work here seems to be conducted "behind-the-scenes" and in 1:1 conversations. I've gotten a bit of a vibe check on this scenario from folks who don't work in tech, and that seems to be normal for those environments. Things feel like they take an age.

For some reference: I get that everyone is different, but also sense a direct correlation between curiosity (to get questions answered and work done) and our team velocity. Maybe it's not something I should be worried about nor even my business, but I still am. I'm still working on disambiguating how performance reviews work, but in the meantime, it seems like we will be judged on velocity metrics, probably sometime in Q3/Q4.

I come from a space where questions were welcomed / encouraged. It doesn't feel that way here, which I feel like I need to adapt to healthily for the near future. A conversation starter model I've found helpful from a managerial relationship is "I've noticed a different communication style here. Is there any way we can discuss?"

Any additional suggestions for coping at this stage would be enormously helpful. I also definitely want to be mindful of being careful what I wish for and the impacts of "going fast" on junior devs, especially because there's a bit of trauma for me there on that side.

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Discussion

(5 comments)
  • 2
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    Founder of Expanded Skills • Former Head of Engineering
    5 months ago

    Reframe a question into something that's more declarative.

    Example:

    • Question: How does X work? Or, what do you think about X?
    • Alternative: Hey everyone, I did these things with X the other day and here's what I found.

    The alternative indirectly "asks" them -- what is your reaction / do you have feedback on what I did?

    If what you did was thought-provoking, people can't help themselves and will engage. Once you get 1-2 people to break the ice, the others will follow.

    It's unfortunate that the people are not comfortable leading and would rather follow, but this starts working in your favour once you push past the initial barrier.

  • 2
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    Team Lead (people manager) at Mistplay
    5 months ago

    I wouldn’t write off your company too soon. My team is small and very collaborative but we don’t really use group chat to solve specific implementation issues or questions unless it’s an all hands on deck emergency. What people do instead is build relationships with each other and when they have a question they know someone they trust or someone who has domain knowledge and have a 1:1 slack/call with them.

    Starting remotely to get this going is super tough, but there are options. At stand up you could identify someone with domain knowledge and ask to pair with them later. Or pick anyone you want to get to know more and slack them, “Hey want to crush some tickets together tomorrow and help each other out for an hour?” Book the time on their calendar and then the key during the session is to focus on being present and upbeat so it’s a good experience, and ideally you will solve a major issue or two in the hour. Then you can talk about how fun and productive it was during retro and schedule more. If it doesn’t work with the first person you can just try another.

  • 2
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    Junior Software Developer [OP]
    Consulting Company
    5 months ago

    Thank you for the notes, concrete action items, and kind perspectives on this situation. While personally challenging right now, I’m pretty thankful for this moment, as I’m learning and growing. I appreciate the Taro community.

  • 2
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    Tech Lead @ Robinhood, Meta, Course Hero
    5 months ago

    Different companies have different cultures, and culture is unfortunately extremely hard to change. A big part of succeeding as a software engineer (or just any employee at any company really) is learning how to be flexible and adapt to different cultures. This is ultimately good for your learning. Here's a good video about this topic: How To Quickly Understand Company Culture - Airbnb Example

    While 1 on 1s aren't scalable, they're actually the best way to get advice in a vacuum (i.e. one that ignores scale):

    • Talking is faster than typing, so you can ask more detailed questions and get higher-quality, more thorough advice
    • You build up the relationship as you and the other person can see each other, be friendly, and observe body language
    • If you have follow-up questions, you can just ask them right then and there instead of needing to wait for another round trip in Slack/Teams. Here's a video with some concrete examples around this: How To Actually Learn Software Engineer Skills

    So as Ryan mentioned, I would embrace this and just start setting up some 1 on 1s. Maybe even make them recurring.

    Here's another good discussion about all this: "What to do when manager disapproves of asking questions?"

  • 2
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    Tech Lead @ Robinhood, Meta, Course Hero
    5 months ago

    All that being said, you shouldn't be afraid to try changing culture. Since your team seems to be mostly newbies, there is a culture vacuum and people are probably just afraid of sharing in public. I think the difference is that you need to flip your approach:

    • Before: Asking questions into group chats to get help.
    • After: Sharing useful information and soliciting questions to provide help. Here's a quickly made-up example: "It took me a while, but I finally set up microservice X! If you have any questions about this, I'm happy to share my learnings - Just reply to this thread 😄"

    In general, people will be much more tentative around you if you're trying to extract value. On the flip side, people will be much more warm and welcoming when you are trying to provide value.

    I believe that most people are innately good, but initially skeptical of others. This is why leading by example is so important. Championing that positive behavior yourself (i.e. answering questions posted in an async way by your teammates) is often the necessary spark to get the ball rolling.

    Be the change you want to see.