People Who Ask Why

There are a lot of things I want to teach my kids, but at the same time, I find myself not wanting to for certain things. Let me explain.

For the first years of my children’s lives, they made very little decisions for themselves. They ate when we fed them. They slept when we told them. They bathed when we told them. They played when we let them. And on and on it goes. As they have grown, they make more of their own day to day decisions. At some point, they will leave my house. I will not be around to tell them what to do 24 hours a day. It will be up to them.

Most kids are naturally curious. My son, for example, is always asking me why he has to do things a certain way, or at a certain time. While some of those things are not up for discussion(ie bed time, brushing teeth, bathing), a lot of them are. I always tell my kids that there is generally a reason for everything I do. If I drive somewhere on a certain route or  require certain attire at church, there is a reason. I don’t mind explaining that reason. Sometimes the answer is acceptable, but other times, I am the most unjust father in the world in their eyes. Such is the burden of parenting!

As my kids age, the questions become more complex. Why is the sky blue? Why do airplanes fly if they are made out of metal? For many of those questions, I find myself telling them to figure it out. Of course, discretion is warranted. I don’t want my kids hitting up Google to find out about human reproduction as I fear the answers might be muddied with improper websites. :)

What I want is to nurture that curiosity trait. I want them to question why. Always! Even if the answer they get isn’t what they want to hear.

A few years ago, I wrote a post entitled Chasing the “Ah-ha!” Moments. It was about those times in our IT careers where we got a little bit of clarity on some technical matter. It becomes an addiction. You look for those things that you don’t understand as well as you should, and you run it down until you have it figured out. Someone can explain it to you, but I think there is more value when you discover it on your own. Variable length subnet masking was one of those things for me. When it finally clicked in my head, I was excited. Some people might think that is a relatively trivial thing, but for me it was huge.

A big part of what we do in IT is education. Whether it is another IT professional or an end user, we are constantly explaining why things work the way they do, or more commonly, why it broke. For the end user, just explaining why it broke is generally good enough. Sometimes they don’t even care as long as it is fixed.

For the fellow IT professional though, I recommend a different approach if possible. Don’t explain why. Have them research it and see if they can explain it to you. Don’t just give away answers. At some point, the hope is that they will stop asking for answers and find out for themselves. In some cases, that isn’t an option. If it is a simple question from a co-worker(ie Which TCP option is it that Riverbed Steelheads use to discover each other?), just answer it. Don’t be an idiot. Use discretion and never condescend. However, when the question is more complex and you have the luxury of time, let them figure it out, with you providing hints or clues as needed. It will serve them well in their careers.

The end goal is not to seem like a jerk that won’t help out co-workers. The goal is to teach them how to solve problems on their own. I hate calling vendors for support. I’ll do it after a certain amount of time has passed, and the amount of time I wait changes based on the situation, but I still hate it. I hate the not knowing. Hate it with a passion. I want the same for everyone else. If you don’t care, I probably won’t work well with you over the long run. If you do care about the “why”, we’ll probably get along just fine. :)

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2 Responses to People Who Ask Why

  1. Kevin Gray says:

    I keep teaching this to my junior IT architect colleagues. Architects focus on the “why”. Engineers focus on the “how”. People too often do the same things they’ve always done because they’ve always done it that way, no matter if the technology has changed or not.

    “Why are we using two layers of firewalls?” Well, it turns out that is no longer recommended. Compare NIST 800-41 rev 1 to NIST 800-41. Ask why.

    People say “think outside the box”. You’re only inside the box in the first place if you’re focusing on “how” to get something done. Focus on “why” you’re doing it by focusing on the business and technical requirements and a solution should be more readily attained.

    I always like this quote from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. James T. Kirk: “You have to learn why things work on a starship.”

  2. I also hate calling the vendor. In part because I want to know and understand, but also because it always feels like such a waste of time. You spend so much of your call repeating everything you have already done while trying to get to someone who knows more than you. It feels very inefficient, even understanding why it must be done.

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