Julia Evans

"Ask if you have questions" isn't enough

I’ve helped out and taught at a few programming workshops for beginners now, and I’ve noticed something. There are always helpers who have tons of experience and are super willing to answer questions. And there’s always an announcement where someone says “Here are the helpers! They are here just to help you. Raise your hand if you have questions!“.

And it’s not enough. Inevitably people will not ask because they’re scared or they think it’s their fault and then they’ll get stuck.

Here are some things I try to do when I help out at workshops.

  • Circulate! Ask people “hey are you okay? Everything working well?”
  • If everybody’s saying yes, some of them are not okay and just not telling you. Ask more questions! “How are you finding it so far?”. If you talk to someone for a minute sometimes they’ll come out with “well everything is fine but this weird thing is happening… can you take a look?”
  • Watch out for confused faces and sad people! Go talk to people with confused faces and try to see how they’re doing!
  • Keep asking the same people if they’re okay over and over again. If you keep talking to them, they’ll be much more likely to ask you when they do have a problem.
  • When someone raises their hand I have a lot of dialogues like this:
    • Hey I have a ques-
    • GREAT. I LOVE QUESTIONS. WHAT IS YOUR QUESTION
    • question question
    • That’s definitely something we can solve! Oh that’s actually a mistake in the directions! That’s totally our fault! Sorry about that!
  • I really do like answering programming questions, so I act super excited about it. I think/hope this makes it easier for people to ask me because they don’t feel like it’s a burden.
  • A script: I love questions! We can solve that for sure! Lots of other people are having that problem! You’re doing great! I’m happy you’re here!

It feels weird to ask the same people if they’re doing okay over and over and over and over and over again, but I think it really does help.

This feels more effective and like a better use of my time as a helper than standing in the corner waiting for someone to flag me down. And more fun!