Last week I read about Jeff Atwood having some database problems on his new site. Being a popular blogger, he soon had hundreds of comments, most of them telling him how elementary his problem was and how disappointed people were that someone of his skill and reputation did not know how to solve such a trivial task as avoiding database deadlocks. Luckily, one person was wise enough to provide a different view (quoting an earlier comment):

“It’s always a little disturbing to see a well-known coder ask a dumb question, but come on, database locks?”

Wrong. Dead wrong and incredibly dangerous. And egotistical. If I were interviewing you I would immediately flip the bozo bit and thank you for your time.

It’s impossible to know everything. The hallmark of a good programmer is not what they know but their ability to learn what they don’t. If you do not promote an environment where any question can be asked, no matter how naive and trivial, problems become intractable because people are too afraid to ask for help. Just because someone has been in the industry for a while doesn’t mean they know everything.

Chris on August 25, 2008 12:09 PM

As children, we ask “stupid” questions all the time, and (hopefully) nobody gets their head bitten off for doing so. We might laugh and smile, but after all, we expect children to ask about everything, as this is how they learn. But does this method of learning stop being valid once we grow up? I hope not.

I remember once sitting on a public city bus observing a small child asking her father if the buses were on teams. The father, somewhat baffled by the question, did not seem to know what to answer. After a pause of silence, his expression of surprise transformed to a smile, followed by a short “no”, while trying to hide his laughter. The question may have appeared silly to the father, but considering we were on a red bus and a yellow one had just passed us, it made perfect sense to me. Assuming the child was familiar with the tradition of sports teams wearing different colors, it seemed logical that she would infer this also to be valid for buses. The analogy of sports teams might seem strange applied to public transportation, but even though both the yellow and red buses were operated by the same company at the time, the green ones were not.

In my opinion, there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers. Never bite someone’s head off for asking a “stupid” question—it can be very destructive. In these situations I think it is best to follow the good advice of Marge Simpson’s mother. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Belittling someone by lecturing them on how trivial their question is, or how what they are asking about is something they should already know, does not really help anyone. If you don’t want to or don’t have the time to help someone, tell them so, but don’t ridicule them for asking.

Also, if asked about something you think the person should be capable of finding out themselves, you don’t have to give a direct answer. Often I find it better to provide the person with some reference material or relevant search keywords. That way they can do their own research, and hopefully gain a better understanding of the subject than a quick explanation or a direct answer to their question would have given them. When people do make an effort to conduct their own research, you should also be more willing to answer specific questions that may come up while they are studying the topic.

Often, asking a “stupid” question can reveal holes or misconceptions in your mental representation of a problem or knowledge domain that would otherwise go undetected. I much prefer someone to be honest about their uncertainties, and ask a stupid question, than pretending to understand something they don’t. In many cases you may not even be aware of your own lack of understanding until you do ask that “stupid” question, which is what makes asking them so important in the first place.

That being said, there is a huge difference between asking about something because you are unsure if you understand it correctly, or something is unclear to you, and asking because you are simply too lazy to look up the answer yourself or think through the problem properly. Personally, I ask stupid questions all the time, although these days most of them can be answered by Google or Wikipedia. However, if you do indeed make an effort to find and answer and you are not successful, please, don’t be afraid of asking someone.