On being helpful

I am guilty. Over time I have served in several online communities. I have tried to provide some of my limited knowledge to help people overcome some of the struggles they were facing. I have a confession to make: I am addicted. I am addicted at offering help. I am addicted to help others. I am addicted to keep them in a symbiotic relationship. Over the years, here is what I learned by trying to be more helpful.

Let Others Work

In my earlier days, back when I was hanging around in IRC, I had a particular time when I was passionate about becoming an IRC op. In the networks that I was around that involved helping out about IRC issues on the #help channel. I remember a particular week between Christmas and New Years, right before heading back to university classes starting from the second week of the New Year. It was the same period of my life when I joined a channel dedicated to learning how to do IRC client scripting, called #help.script. I saw similar patterns occurring there.

People would join, ask a question, sometimes they even waited long enough for someone paying attention to them. At high peaks in a game related channel after a new release, people would join a lot. We are talking 300-2000 people here. New people would join, ask a question, becoming desperate as no one answers, and leaving again. I have a quote somewhere from these days:

* guy joins channel
[guy] I will ask a question
* guy left channel

Oftentimes there were folks who joined, and rather asked whether it’s ok to ask a question, instead of asking it. There were folks who asked who could help them for a particular problem they were facing: “Who can help me with X?”

When looking at my mailing lists, I still see the same pattern occurring. We had an acronym for these types of persons, and I think we educated them to stick with that pattern of behavior. We called the behavior: LOW – that’s short for Let Others Work.

Oftentimes, it’s easier to raise a question towards a forum where you can find answers. Oftentimes it’s easier to consult with someone who claims to be an expert in their field. Oftentimes it’s easier to rely on the expertise of the experts.

LOW taught me, that you don’t need that. You don’t need confirmation. You need that kind of feedback only if you find yourself in an environment that favors blaming for failure rather than encouraging learning from it. LOW occurs in environment that are not safe-to-fail. LOW occurs in environments where the demand of a task is at least two levels higher than the current ability of the person that the work is delegated to. In either case, there is a problem behind problem. If you only solve the facing problem, you are giving a fish to someone rather than teaching that guy how to fish.

Next time, someone asks you a question, teach the guy to answer that question on his own.

Terrible ideas stick

Back then, there were a lot of people that tried to achieve something. Oftentimes someone would join the #help.script channel, and ask how to implement an away script. Me, being a jiggling artist came up with ideas like a here-script as a response to that.

Seriously, there were a lot of away scripts already around. Of course everyone needed to have their special style that fit their purpose. I – and others around me – found the motivation for these things terrible. First of all, an IRC chat is a replacement for a face-to-face communication. Face-to-face communication comes with the drawback that, if you are not available, you won’t be responding. An away script will not solve that.

I think it’s similar with today’s vacation notification in email. A notification that you hate receiving another email in your response will not solve the underlying problem. The underlying problem is that some folks are good at online communication, others are terrible at it. A few weeks ago I considered myself good in online communication. Today, I turned on my vacation responder to indicate that people should take care of their messages to me, since I might not respond for another month or so.

That said. I try to be helpful by putting up a sign. But that might or might not fix the underlying problem. The problem is that – as a species – we have educated ourselves that it’s ok to respond to email quickly. We shouldn’t do that. If someone wants to have an urgent answer from you, he should pick up the phone, and not write you an email. In busy environment, I figured that it’s mostly a problem that you are so busy attending (probably unimportant) meetings, that people will not get you on the phone, so that they need to write you emails, so that you will have less time for meetings. An epic downward spiral.

The whole point? Terrible ideas like away scripts, dependent automated tests, and emails stick to the minds of people. Learn to unlearn stuff, and fall back for some of your habits to the ones that you used when you didn’t have mobile phones, and internet all day. These channels are way more efficient.

Some people won’t understand

Of course, there are some people that will not understand what you’re saying if you paraphrase me. Of course, there are certain people that will stick with their behavior as that served them well for the time being. Help them read the appropriate stuff. Help them to open their minds.

Some of these minds will remain douchebags. Some of these minds will never understand even if their life depended on it. Don’t focus your energy on these folks. Instead focus your helpful energy on the ones that are open for whatever you have to offer. Of course, there is an element of expectation management in here. And be aware that there are lost minds. Give those some more time. They will need it to unlearn their current behavior. If you don’t, you will overload yourself by forming a symbiotic relationship with the folks seeking that help.

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One thought on “On being helpful”

  1. What you write about being used to get a quick answer is interesting. People (me included) tend to feel stressed about not being available all the time.

    But this messes up our effectiveness of working. Many methods for increasing your personal effectiveness will suggest that you schedule one or two times per day for answering emails for example (Pomodoro, your brain at work, etc…). Anything urgent should be handled by phone, chat, in person.

    I try to choose my method of communicating and keep email for non-urgent. Often I’m surprised by how fast I get an answer from someone I expected to be working. They probably were working, but with the email notifications, you are constantly available.

    Anyway, I can’t help but wonder what people would do if they didn’t get an answer right away, would they solve the problem themselves?

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