Wednesday, November 1, 2006

How to Ask (and Not Ask) for Free Consulting

James Bach has posted a great blog about how to and how not to ask industry leaders for assistance.

This rang true with me and my experiences, but some folks seemed to find his perspective to be arrogant or rude. Below I've copied a representative quote and my response.

But the way he handled it, and because I know that James Bach is a very experienced person in answering forum like questions, it looks as if Bach planed it all and maneuvered the poor guy to this corner, maybe to show him how he should behave. The way Bach handled it is IMHO was one of the worse that I have seen. Instead of getting healthy results (the guy understands his mistake, apologizes and learns from it) it looks like Bach did what ever he could to insult the guy in order to get that kind of reaction. I can learn a lot from James Bach but I am not going to take this approach as a good example to learn from. As Linda said, it doe’s him no credit. 

I have to disagree. I admit that I consider Jim to be a close personal friend. I further admit that my first impression of James Bach was that he was a pompous ass. It was only after meeting him that I came to absolutely adore conversing with him for all the reasons that can be taken as "pompous ass" to anyone who approaches him with defensiveness and self-righteousness.

Jim will give anyone with a desire and willingness to learn, a genuine interest in improving the science and craft of software testing, and/or the ability to challenge his thinking on a topic through well formed, experiential, professional discourse an insane amount of his time for free. He is an absolute altruist when it comes to information sharing and software testing advancement.

Sure, Jim is among the smartest individuals I've ever met... and I've spent a lot of time with some damn smart people... so sure his questions are leading, but all Mr. W. had to do was respond to the first email by saying...

"I am new to all of this and I've been tossed onto a project that is over my head. I figured that maybe I could get some assistance from the person I most respect in the field. If I have not asked the correct questions, it is because I don't yet know what questions I should be asking. I am happy to do the legwork to get the information you require to assist. Unfortunately I don't know what that information is. Any guidance you can offer would be greatly appreciated."

'Cause, let's face it, if you're shooting an email off to an industry leader, you are obviously doing so because you believe they know more than you do about what you are asking. If that is the case, what is the point of being defensive?

Don't take that as me saying that one needs to feel or act deferential to James Bach (or any other industry leader) to get an answer. I, for one, have had amazingly fruitful professional discourse with Jim (and some with Jim and Cem at the same time) where I started from the position that they were wrong - or at least overstating their position. To date, we are running close to 50/50 on which one of use conceded that we needed to put more thought into our position based on the argument presented by the other.

The key is to respond to poking, challenging, and questioning with data and experience rather than defensiveness. Anyone who has ever had a conversation with Jim knows this, and knows that he does the same.

You can think he is rude if you wish, but I think that if you really look into the cases where you have made those opinions, that he was asking legitimate questions, was met with arrogance, defensiveness, and/or unprofessional responses and responded in a blunt, reasonable manner though possibly not a gentle manner.

But does blunt really equate to rude?

Does blowing sunshine really equate to polite?

Is it better to be gentle and make someone smile, or direct and make them think?

Think about the teacher you learned most from in your life. How often did s/he make you REALLY angry by answering your questions with questions and sending you off to learn more so you could ask the question to which you really wanted the answer?

Remember the parable (paraphrased) - Give a person a fish and feed them for a day, teach a person to fish and feed them for life. Which would you prefer? A fish, or to learn how to fish? As far as I'm concerned, if all you want is a fish, you can pay (me or someone else) for it. If you'd like me to teach you to fish, then let's chat.

Scott Barber
President & Chief Technologist, PerfTestPlus, Inc.

Co-Author, Performance Testing Guidance for Web Applications
Author, Web Load Testing for Dummies
Contributing Author, Beautiful Testing, & How To Reduce the Cost of Testing

"If you can see it in your mind...
     you will find it in your life."

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