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Co-workers ask an absurd amount of questions

It's flattering, but distracting....

4:08 pm on Mar 2, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I work for a small/medium (~150 employees) internet marketing company as a web developer/jack of all trades, and lately I've been having an increasingly difficult time getting my work done because I am constantly bombarded with technical questions all day long. One week I kept track, and I was asked fifty questions during the week. When you subtract 15 or so hours I'm in meetings each week, it comes out to about one question every 30 minutes I'm at my desk.

Almost all of our tools are custom (read: quirky), and about 60-70% of our staff is non-technical, so they *always* have questions.

What I'm wondering is do other people have this issue? Any solutions or ideas? I've tried talking to my boss about it, but she's non-technical so I don't think she understands. I think the root of the problem is that we don't train well enough or we don't hire the right ratio of marketing::technical people. But I don't have control over that so I need some ideas I can execute on my own...

Thanks in advance for any ideas!


4:19 pm on Mar 2, 2007 (gmt 0)

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If I was you, I'd do this:

1, Email the whole company and explain your situation. Every one should sympathise - no one gets anything done if they're constantly interrupted.

2, Set up some 'surgery' times when you're available for questions, and ask people to come to you at those times only. Maybe have 2 or 3 hour-long sessions a week. Don't be available outside those hours, except in dire emergencies.

3, Find out what the common questions are, and set up specific sessions to cover them e.g. how to use our in-house widget tool.

4, Identify people in the company who have good knowledge of your technology, and let the rest know they can ask them too.

4:23 pm on Mar 2, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I should add that you can't not answer people's questions. If you have knowledge that other people don't, then you have to disseminate it.

I'd speak to you boss and say that it's bad practice to allow knowledge to reside with one person. As a good business manager, she should want to help you out on this.

4:59 pm on Mar 2, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Thanks for the reply - some good things to consider. I should focus on continual training/documentation, and will try to implement a better way of managing those queries, i.e. with "office hours" or the like. Might help if I had a door I could close...sadly no doors on the cube.

We are working on a knowledge base, that will help quite a bit since I'll be able to post answers to all common questions and then say "check the knowledge center".

We're already load balancing to some extent, we have a distribution list of about 10 people that can answer these questions, but I'm one of the more experienced on the list, so a lot of people just want to come straight to me. I need to be active about saying "no" when that happens.

Finally, you're spot on about needing to answer these questions. It's important that this knowledge be shared, it would certainly be very easy to just say "sorry that's not my job" (because it's not, but it's not anyone else's either) but that wouldn't be very sporting of me.

Thanks again.

8:11 pm on Mar 12, 2007 (gmt 0)

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How about offering training ?
8:31 pm on Mar 12, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Is answering technical questions part of your specified job duties? If not, then talk to your boss and tell him/her that you are being bombarded with non-work related issues all day long. If so, if the volume/scope is beyond your job description, bring up the issue with your boss.

Track the issues- have peoiple fill out a trouble ticket describing their problem and what they tried before coming to you. Discuss the results with your boss. It may be a training issue that needs to be addressed company-wide. Or the volume may indicate the need for a dedicated tech support staff (certainly not expected in a company of that size).

Be proactive so that the company can fix the problem and also so that you have a record of why your work level is being affected.

8:42 pm on Mar 12, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Warning dont try to be the techie people-pleaser, people will just take advantage of you and your performance will suffer.

If you can manage it then do it strategically, earn favours with the right people to make your life easier.

If you cant manage it then take control of it. When they turn up, stand up - it makes them feel bad, tell them to email you and arrange a good time as your busy right now. Move your desk position, wear headphones etc, theyll soon go back to google groups.

12:04 am on Mar 16, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Thanks again for the replies. It's not specifically in my job description to answer these questions, but I am a senior member of my department, so in some ways helping others in the group is expected.

My performance probably doesn't suffer as a result of all of this, but I bet I work more hours because of it. And I can't let that happen anymore.

Ironically, we do have a tech support staff, but they aren't all that good yet. They a new group, and they are primarily for customer support, secondarily for internal support. Perhaps I need to spend some time trying to improve that group.

Thanks again everyone!

12:13 am on Mar 17, 2007 (gmt 0)

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There have been a number of excellent suggestions in this thread.

Three more I can add:

1. You should make it a rule that all requests be preceded by a summary of what they have already tried on their own, and the results. This forces the requestor to think, and by so doing, perhaps find the answer. This is especially effective for those who ask a question only because they are too lazy to do the research. I used to regularly turn back requests worded as "it doesn't work" with a requirement that they define what "doesn't work" meant in explicit terms.

2. Consider leveraging answers by holding "brown bag lunch" tech sessions for all interested. One answer could apply to many people. If a particularly active questioner never shows up, then strongly suggest it. Hint, get your boss to buy into this, and show up once in a while to say hi to the troops. The news will get around.

3. The cost/payback for the answer ought to be that the person asking the question be responsible for at least the first draft of the "knowledgebase" article. You may need to fine tune it. Offering a standard template for this makes it easier.

my $0.03 :)

8:38 pm on Mar 17, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I am constantly bombarded with technical questions all day long

I've been through this and 2 things that helped me were.

1. Make sure people write down notes when you respond (enforce that). If you continue to get the same question don't be afraid to tell people to bring you their notes and you'll help them go over them.
2. Start a Common Knowledge Base for the folks in your company to use.

12:16 am on Mar 18, 2007 (gmt 0)

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if its not part of the job how about the good old " I dont know " solution ;)
2:30 am on Mar 18, 2007 (gmt 0)

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oh, believe me I can totally relate!

my employer dealt the same situation (people constantly interrupting me) by enforcing that all inquiries go through a bug-tracking knowledgebase program. The pretense was that they wanted answers to technical questions to go into this searchable repository. The inquirer had to fill out a ticket before they got their answer!

that slowed down the constant questions to a trickle! It was a brilliant solution, worked like a charm.

2:40 am on Mar 18, 2007 (gmt 0)

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My advice from my experience, do teach them but teach them smartly. I am into the same business as a Grmtech Leader, here are the tips,

  • Have an internal forum (only visible to company), for simplicity you can integrate it with email system as well. No one is allowed to ask you a direct question, all questions to go here.
  • People will refrain from asking stupid time consuming unwanted questions in public. We all need to ask stupid questions sometimes but not always. Some people will consume your hours and you should know how to avoid them. So Ask them to post the queries on the internal forums.
  • Do not give them proper answers all the time (thats what I learned from my marketing professor at management school), give them links to read sometimes. For every query no simple answer, knowledge is not cheap, let them study hard.
  • Use Camcorders and record the sessions, refer to the videos for repeated queries.
  • Document it, make a simple book.
  • Buy more books on related topics, <url removed> and for some people put a criteria to read before asking.

If you start catching fishes for someone they will become dependent on you, teach them how to fish and let them fill their own bellies. And enjoy teaching, its an art, its a God gift and you will become a better manager, a better leader if you teach. Do not just be a teacher, be a mentor and take pride in what you do.

Enjoy life,

[edited by: stuntdubl at 2:54 pm (utc) on Mar. 19, 2007]
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3:01 am on Mar 18, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Try to exlain to the next asker what these words mean in 2 short centences:

"The power of CAN DO"

First sentence should include partial "advice" to the previouse asker.
Second should be just a part of what you would say to the one after him.

They do talk to each other, chanel the thoughts(dont call any one names)

The flow

3:06 am on Mar 18, 2007 (gmt 0)

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My suggestion is when people ask you a question, say you'll send an email to them or get back to them at another time when you're not so busy.

It is critical that you *always* get back to them and in a detailed and thorough way. If you don't, you'll seem arrogant and incompetent.

However, delay is completely acceptable, after all, we are all busy and nobody has the right to expect that you're their first priority .. unless of course this is your direct responsibility.

Also, certain individuals (ie, senior management, people with critical path responsibilities, etc) need to be gotten back to much faster than others.

Generally, when people don't get back to right away they'll think twice about approaching you unless they are desperate .. usually because they need answers right away.

But in general, delay but get back to completely always works in these cases.

5:30 am on Mar 18, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I would not only document how many questions you get asked, which was a great idea by the way, but also document the time you spend answering those questions and who is asking them. You might find some patterns emerge. I'd also keep a list of the questions and sort them by category. Managers love data and charts. :)

Then present them to your manager along with some of the recommended solutions as others have suggested in the posts here. If you spend 10 minutes on average answering questions each week and get 50 questions a week, then that is an entire extra day's worth of work that it seems like you are doing, presumably on top on your current full-time assignment(s).

We had a similar problem at a place I used to work. The people were very bright but the systems were just really complex, so we ended up just assigning one of the senior staff to do nothing but answer questions and develop and administer training programs. It worked out really well and improved productivity noticeably.

On the bright side, if you are the person everyone is coming to with questions, then you must be known for being the person who knows all the answers, which is probably good for your career. :)

[edited by: Jane_Doe at 5:33 am (utc) on Mar. 18, 2007]

6:19 am on Mar 18, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I'm a bit split on this one.

There's a big part of me that enjoys the mentoring process, and at my current employer, that has served me well. A big part of good leadership is mentoring, and that is recognized at my current employer, and has lead to my becoming promoted and gaining more and more responsibility.

But, one of the key reasons it's working out well from me now is because I learned an important lesson at a previous employer. That lesson is: Document everything and make sure that two layers of management above you know what you're doing and how your time is being spent.

At a previous employer, I had been there for 5 years, and was easily among the most senior ground level employees. People didn't last more than a couple of years at this job. The first four years, I had quietly plugged away, enjoyed my job, and kept quiet. Always received excellent performance reviews.

Somewhere into my fifth year people started cluing in that I knew the systems inside out and backwards, and I started getting more and more technical questions. My boss encouraged this, because it helped bring the new guys up to speed quicker. Over the months, my time became more dedicated to training than it did to doing the work.

The problem arose later on. I wasn't getting nearly as much "work" done because I was spending most of my time training and doing technical support. The company had seniority based raises, so I was getting paid almost double what the "new guys" were getting. The training arrangement was informal, and outside of my direct superior and my coworkers, people weren't aware of how my time was being spent.

So when my next review came up, all my boss's superiors saw was an expensive employee who wasn't very productive. I got put on waivers and was encouraged to resign. I negotiated strong letters of recommendation as part of my severance.

Now, I'm not saying that kind of sandbagging goes on everywhere, but it's more common than you might think. I thought my boss would go to bat for me, but he didn't because he had his own job to protect.

In retrospect, I was young and naive. But I learned from it. Like I said, I enjoy mentoring and training. Nothing better than the feeling you get when you see someone look at the monitor and suddenly get that "I understand!" look. This time around, I just made sure I kept track of the time I spent training, kept track of who I trained, and made sure both my direct boss and their boss was aware of what I was doing. A good organization will recognize the ability to train and communicate and promote those who can do it.

8:21 am on Mar 18, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Iím currently in a mentoring situation on a technical level to a couple of people in my team; Iím also expected to answer other questions both within my department and company wide (although the company is a lot smaller at ~45 people). For a time it did feel like I wasnít able to get much real work done due to the flood of Qs, but I came up with the following:

1) No non-mentor questions after 1pm

2) To make sure that when I answered a question I spent that bit of extra time convincing myself that I hadnít just answered it, but had taught the answer.

3) To start suggesting to people to talk to someone else, if Iíd already taught the answer to that someone.

#1 gives me a block of solid time to work on projects without fear of constant interruption. Youíd be surprised how much this helps on a psychological level :) #2&#3 are knowledge dissemination: rather than being the single point of contact for a whole range of subjects, if I ensure that other people gain the knowledge Iíve got then not only does the company reduce points of failure but thereís a parallelisation of answering ability - each person only has to bear half of the workload.

The above seems to be working for me so far!

9:45 am on Mar 18, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I had the work-from-home version of Jackson_Hole's problem. My friends and family thought it was OK to call me at any hour and ask me technical questions. I wasn't nearly as overwhelmed as Jackson_Hole but I couldn't tell myself that being helpful was for the good of the company. I was losing time and money for being helpful. I knew the problem was getting out of hand when I started having not only friends and family call me, but family of friends and friends of family too.

My solution was simple. I started greeting every question with another question; "Have you asked Google?". Some times I told them what to search for so I didn't come across as being rude. People pretty soon got the idea and I hardly ever get get called anymore.

10:12 am on Mar 18, 2007 (gmt 0)

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1. look for another job where they have a real training department that listens, talks and acts effectively.

2. when you find they don't exist, do all of the above.

3. make sure superiors know you are working "outside" of your job description and insist on building or acquiring people and tech (on someone else's money and time budget) to deal with this problem / opportunity.

4. spend as little time developing systems, doing documentation, training, etc as necessary until someone in the executive team "gets it" and starts shoveling resources in your direction.

5. do none of the above and figure out who the brightest lights are and build career-building relationships with them and delegate the rest of the questions to someone you've trained (again on someone else's budget if at all possible).

6. see #1

7. be on the lookout for career building, program building or product building patterns. If you don't get support for these internally, look elsewhere.

2:02 pm on Mar 18, 2007 (gmt 0)

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If there is an issue affecting your productivity at work then you need to take responsibility to fix it yourself. Nobody else is going to fix it. Expain the problem to management and so long as you provide a solution, you'll find them supportive.

Those people asking the questions aren't doing it to piss you off - they're doing it because they need to know something and the only way they know they can find it out is by asking you.

If somebody is being asked too many questions about a system then it is a clear indication of lack of documentation. It often happens when smaller companies start to grow & they don't have the correct methodologies in place - i.e. the documentation should have beeen written in the same dev phase as when the systems were created.

Exaplain to your boss that you need to create some documentation to free up your tech time, then write it and put it on a shared file-system / wiki etc. Then email anybody who might be interested with the location of the docs. If anybody comes to you with a question which is already documented, explain that they should have looked in the manual first. If questions come that aren't in the manual then add the answers to the documentation.

2:06 pm on Mar 18, 2007 (gmt 0)

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You seem to be in a perfect position for 'asking' a raise ;)
2:22 pm on Mar 18, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Some really good suggestions in this thread...

I can relate to what you're going through - I've been in similar situations, and since I *like* to help and mentor people it could easily have gotten out of hand.

1) ALWAYS keep your manager advised of how you're spending your time.

2) Set boundries and don't be shy about making people aware (nicely) about how helping them can impact your own workload. If you're busy and it isn't an emergency something like "Listen - I'd be happy to help you but I'm REALLY busy right now {compassionate but pained expression here} and {mention some consequences} if I don't get this done by {due date}! I should have a few minutes {mention a more convenient time} - how about if we chat then?"

3) Talk to your manager about prioritizing documentation of the custom software and maybe offering a short training class to go with it. Or, if you get a lot of redundant newbie questions, maybe just a FAQ will do. Every time someone asks a question, document the question and the answer for future use.

Since you are already documenting time spent, you should be able to clearly point out the costs/benefits in a way your non-techie manager will understand.

4) If you happen to be of the minority gender in your workplace, hiding in the appropriate restroom is another, though temporary and somewhat cowardly, option :)!)

[edited by: MamaDawg at 2:26 pm (utc) on Mar. 18, 2007]

3:25 pm on Mar 18, 2007 (gmt 0)

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The in-house FORUM solution and FAQ are your best bets so you can answer the question for everyone, not just the single person asking the question. The only challenge is potty train them to RTFM first before bothering you.

Headphones, the final frontier

As a programmer that needed lots of uninterrupted time, I found the best defense was HEADPHONES! I mean full over the ear headphones, not just those wussy little earbuds that the iPod freaks wear. With headphones you can work without hearing the surrounding noise and people will be just a wee bit more intimidated to bother you when you have the headphones on unless it's really URGENT.

After a while people got the hint:

- Headphones OFF, questions OK
- Headphones ON, busy, approach with extreme caution

Plus I had a sign on the wall "EMAIL ME!"

3:41 pm on Mar 18, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Encourage the company to teach some basic search/research skills. They can start answering their own questions by being more resourceful. Also, I know it can be frustrating, but understand that these people obviously have a great deal of respect for you. Each person may not be aware that 40 others have already disturbed you today. Try to find a solution without sounding too irritated; be flattered :)

[edited by: crobb305 at 3:47 pm (utc) on Mar. 18, 2007]

3:47 pm on Mar 18, 2007 (gmt 0)

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We had at a former employee of mine the same problem in our R&D department...
What we figured out we'd do was to set up a "Ask R&D hour" which lasted from 1500 to 1600 daytime!
Other than that hour you weren't allowed to ask an R&D employee as much as what the time is!
It might sound Nazi, but it's worth it!
5:25 pm on Mar 18, 2007 (gmt 0)

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You could direct them to specific forums, newsgroups, blogs etc..., but since they are non-technical you would have to show them how, or you could set up an faq on an internal wiki. That could cut out a lot of questions, if the same ones get commonly asked, and maybe others can answer certain questions. It's too bad jotspot is closed to new signups while google swallows them. It was the only wiki system I've ever seen with a nice gui.

There's also experts-exchange.com, which is like a meta-support forum, which charges a monthly fee.

Personally, I'm so glad I'm working for myself from home. I recently got away from full-time webmaster/seo/Windows support hell. Now all I do is seo for small businesses. The money is slow starting out but eventually I'll be skilled enough and well known enough to command dollars. Well, at least until someone comes out with a perfectly seo'd cms.

Anytime I hear of companies who have alot of tech support problems I just know with certainty that they are using Windows on everything.

[edited by: m1t0s1s at 5:53 pm (utc) on Mar. 18, 2007]

[edited by: stuntdubl at 2:52 pm (utc) on Mar. 19, 2007]
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5:26 pm on Mar 18, 2007 (gmt 0)


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I used to manage on-site tech guys, and they often ran into productivity issues because as they walked around they were constantly getting pulled into offices and cubes with, "Hey, can you take a sec to look at this weird error I'm getting?" Naturally, this impacted the stuff they were supposed to be working on.

We usually addressed this in a few ways. First, we talked to the key client contact, in essence our guy's "boss" while on site. In a few cases, they were happy that our guy could put out all these little fires and didn't worry about it unless there was some kind of real emergency. More often than not, though, we established a procedure for help requests in which the client was the gatekeeper and priortizer. When our guy arrived on site, he had a to-do list with a priority assigned to each task. New interruptions were met with, "Sure, I'd be happy to help - just email Bill so he can get it in my schedule." That worked most of the time, and frivolous requests were eliminated by the client before they even got to our guy.

Many of these spur-of-the-moment requests reflect laziness on the part of the originator - it's easier to ask than to RTFM or even think about it for a minute.

Years ago when Gartner Group pegged the annual cost of corporate PC ownership at $12,000, "peer support productivity loss" was a big element in the expense - you've got both the person with the problem AND a co-worker futzing around with the computer instead of doing what they are paid to be doing.

6:14 pm on Mar 18, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I understand what you mean, I work for a larger company with about 1 500 employees in my department, most of my work is web-related. Like your tools ours is also customized/quirky. A side from web-development I also do some training for our employees in our web-tools, with the training I get lots and lots of questions each week. Both by phone, e-mail and in person.

I pile all questions and answer them on Thuseday afternoons and Friday mornings. If people meet me in person I tell them that I will get back to them about their problem.

But if you don't get paid for answering questions from employees you should really talk to your boss. My boss got my back when I get lots of other stuff to do, so it works out that way.

The only problem is the interruptions you get when people comes and ask questions. I use headphones so that I seem busy, or unreachable :) Another really good thing for productivity is if you get in early, there is often one or two hours of complete calm in the early morning.

Good luck!

6:41 pm on Mar 18, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I'd post a link to the infamous USB Missile Launcher, but that would be against TOS. ;)
This 49 message thread spans 2 pages: 49

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