IT professionals must learn the art of asking stupid questions

IT people must not be afraid of asking apparently stupid questions if something is not clear to them - their questions will...

IT people must not be afraid of asking apparently stupid questions if something is not clear to them - their questions will probably help the entire team.

That was the message from Dorothy Graham, founder of IT testing specialist Grove Consultants, to a recent conference held by the BCS Software Testing Specialist Group.

IT system development and testing demands total clarity of specifications and understanding, said Graham. "If you have a requirements document, a test strategy, someone's explanation of a feature, or whatever, and you do not really understand it, it is tempting to say, 'I'll try harder, it must be my fault that I don't understand'."

She recalled an incident where renowned IT consultant and author Tom De Marco was asked to look at requirements specifications for the US Federal Aviation Agency and said they were terrible. "No one had said this before, yet everyone thought they were terrible, but they felt that as no one else seemed to have a problem with them, it must be their own fault.

"However, after dismissing the first option - that you must be stupid - don't assume the person telling you the information is stupid.

"Don't nod and hope it will become clear later: this is just storing up trouble for yourself. If you don't understand it now, and miss the opportunity to clarify it, it will only get worse, because what you don't understand now will become compounded by other things later.

"Challenge things. Challenge the facts: where did they come from? Challenge your own assumptions, and other people's assumptions too: how do you know something is always the same?

"But the way you challenge is important. Don't go in like a bull in a china shop, saying, 'That can't be true; you don't know what you're talking about.' Ask open questions - those you can't answer with yes or no: 'Could you explain that to me?'

"Take the onus on yourself: don't say, 'This isn't very well written,' but 'This isn't clear to me: can you help me?'"

Graham said IT people need to learn the art of asking stupid questions. "Start by saying, 'This may be a stupid question butÉ' Don't ever be afraid to ask questions, to probe things, to challenge things. Sometimes we are reluctant to do this, it feels like a weakness on our part if we don't understand.

"This is not so, you are an intelligent IT person, and if you don't understand it, it is not clear. This may also educate the other person and increase their understanding too, because it is in explaining something that you truly understand it."

Graham recommended using "reverse psychology or perversity" when needed. "If people refuse to prioritise, say, 'OK we will do the tasks in alphabetical order: is that OK?' Alternatively, arrange things in clearly the wrong order and say, 'We will spend lots of time on this really obscure user screen and if there is enough time we will get around to looking at the main functionality: is that OK?'"

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