I Need To Be Chris

Between 2002 and 2007, I worked at a medium-sized company in Canada that was best known for its calendars and other print materials. I started in the warehouse and, over the course of 3 years, moved into different roles that culminated in a position as a software developer and worked with a number of very smart people who taught me a lot about software development, and a lot about how to ask the right questions to find out what people want the software to do, rather than making the wrong assumptions and delivering something that isn't at all what they're looking for. The person I learned from the most, however, was a man named Chris1.

Chris had a rather wide range of knowledge on just about every technical subject, no matter how obscure the tools might have been. His knowledge on certain subjects would often run circles around others, even when it was their area of focus. And, while he most certainly did complain when he was called in to fix somebody else's problem, he tried to make education part of the solution. There really isn't any point being "the only person who knows X" in a company, because that doesn't benefit anybody in the long run2. The guy seemed to know everything he needed and then some, and was honest enough to say "I don't know" when he really didn't know right before investigating whatever needed to be learned so that he wouldn't answer the same question the same way later.

I learned a lot from him in the two years or so we worked together, and would be happy to work with him again if the opportunity arose.

The way Chris handled situations was often incredibly efficient, and it's something I really need to work on myself. The last few weeks at the day job have been incredibly stressful as I attempt to do four very different tasks simultaneously in order to deliver a project that should have started limited trials back in August. I've recently complained that I shouldn't be doing four very different tasks if bugs and enhancements are going to be resolved by arbitrary deadlines, but complaining about reality will rarely resolve the problems one faces.

I've been incredibly fortunate over the last two decades to have worked with a lot of very different technologies and worked in a lot of very different roles. This sort of make me a little like Chris, in that I can look at a problem from different angles, apply lots of experience to find a solution or — at the very least — know how to find a solution, and have the capacity to do it without necessarily asking for a great deal of help. What I need to learn is how to make common distractions from various groups into learning experiences rather than seeing them as work blockages. When people have questions about databases, I need to guide rather than brusquely answer. When people have questions about X over Y, or the alternatives to Z, I need to outline the gist and provide some basic links to sites with more in-depth answers. The people I work with are not fools. They genuinely want to do a good job and go home knowing they accomplished something, and this is the same goal I have at the end of every day. The question I have now, though, is how to do this without coming across as dismissive or as though I'm "mansplaining"3 something.

Having spent the better part of 8 years working in a classroom, you'd think this would be natural. That said, the teacher-student dynamic doesn't work with peers, nor do I want to have that dynamic with my colleagues. So how does one turn a work-stoppage into a learning opportunity while also meeting all of the arbitrary and constantly shifting deadlines that managers are all to happy to create?


  1. He had a last name, too, but I'll just use his first one here.

  2. Seriously. You don't want to be the person to receive a 3:00am phone call when things go bad … especially if it's with something that isn't technically your responsibility.

  3. I hate this pseudo-word like you wouldn't believe … but it seems to be part of the lexicon, now.