Hi. What are you doing? Can I help?

The origin

Those two questions, without a doubt, changed my life in a very meaningful way. I learned that sometimes domain expertise is an obstacle in getting to the best solution, and lack of domain expertise can be a huge advantage in a conversation. It opened me up in conversations on subjects that I had no competence and encouraged me to ask a lot of “stupid” questions that I shouldn’t even care about, but for some reason, my colleagues were very happy to talk me through.

I remember the first time I heard it. I went through a very rough period in my life, got strong enough to apply for a job again, and joined Activeweb, my first agency job, summer 2011. Our company was in a three stories single family segment. First floor was support and office management. Second floor was IT. Third floor was project management. We were like a big family, but second floor family seemed much tighter than the others. It felt like technical people clicked with each other a little bit more. Thats probably not true, but I have no comparison and I like to romanticise.

I was 24 years old, stupid and very shallow on many fronts. I didn’t think too much of the social interactions that were happening around me. One of the first days of my work there our leader, Bartek came to my desk, and he said hi and asked me two simple questions:

At first I thought it was a joke or he was trolling. He had a troll inside of him and weird sense of humor. As a new guy in the company I didn’t know if it was a trap or what. I was very suspicious back then. I said no, thanks. I noticed that this custom of asking “Can I help” was not just him, but couple more guys, mostly the funny guys that liked to joke around. I still didn’t make any of it as the atmosphere and general attitude on our floor was very loose.

But it happened again and again, so i figured, maybe it’s not a joke but a genuine question. One day when I felt confident enough I said: “You can try”, not hoping for much. To my surprise he gave me an idea on how to cut the scope of the issue, pointed me to a person that I can discuss it, and finally unblocked me.

This normal, usual and very common thing that happened didn’t make any impression on me at that time. But since I was a part of the company now, I started asking if I can help more often than not. Backend devs were treating me as a rubber duck, I was learning and making friends at the same time. It was win-win, but the real value of that attitude showed its value couple years later when I was more senior and I interacted with junior frontend devs that were in the same position as me - they were shy, unexperienced, didn’t want to waste anybody’s time on stupid questions.

How it affected me

Simple help offer turned out a great conversation starter, ice-breaker, rapport creator. When conversation went constructively, both parties were happy and knew more than before. Again, win-win. It is extremely rewarding to watch junior devs grow quickly around us.

Asking juniors if I can help is one side of the coin, but asking completely random people in a company (not necessairly my company) taught me a lot too. I was involved in a much wider variety of tasks than usual frontend developer. I had an opportunity to build some developer tools, internal tooling, write docs, improve performance, teach non-technical people git, lower AWS bill, learn more about business, and many more.

In my opinion offering help was one of the most important catalysts to teach and learn at the same time. And my whole life revolves around those two. I often jokingly say I’m addicted to learning… it’s only half joke.

Can I help you somehow?