Solving Your Own Problems By Writing Good Questions

By Deane Barker

I really like Jeff Atwood’s post about the Rubber Duck method of problem solving. Apparently, the name comes from a manager who would have people ask their questions out loud to a rubber duck he kept on this shelf. Usually, in the middle of explaining the problem, they would stumble on the answer.

I’m a big fan of asking good questions. Several times, I’ve linked to Eric Raymond’s treatise on asking good questions, and just a few months ago, I was enraptured by this method of breaking down analysis into different question categories.

Like Atwood mentions, I will often find the answer to my problem in the middle of asking the question. I have an account on Stack Overflow, and whenever I post, I ask myself, “If I was interviewing for a job, and the interviewer looked up this account, would this question make me look stupid?” I hope there’s nothing in there that would.

I have an account on the Episerver forums as well, and my motivations for asking good questions there are much the same, except exacerbated by nationalist pride. When I joined back in 2008, I was one of the few non-Scandinavians on the forums. Thus, I was paranoid about not wanting to be “the stupid American,” so I went out of my way to support my questions with testing and debugging output. And, as I mentioned earlier, for every 2-3 questions I asked, one never got submitted because in the process of writing and documenting it, I figured it out.

I’m to the point where, if I have a sticky problem, I’ll start taking notes on it offline in Evernote, just to start documenting it and my thought process around it. When I’m at the end of my rope on one, I’ll ask myself, “If I submitted this problem to a public forum, would I look stupid?” If the answer is “no,” then I’m ready to ask.

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