'Just Google It' is not enough

The negative impact of 3 simple words

When I had just transitioned into a senior role a couple of years ago, a junior developer in my team asked me a technical question. I was busy tackling a pretty important issue which required my full attention so I didn’t give him the time he deserved. Basically what I answered him was:

“Just Google It…”

Fast forward a couple of months. I am scrolling through Twitter and see an interesting discussion. The subject is not relevant here but the discussion was between 2 people who seemed to be experts on the topic. Me being me, I asked for more resources, eager to learn more. I got a simple and straight answer:

Just Google It, we do not have to do the work for you."

… thanks?

Giving vs Receiving

Looking back at those two moments, it started to realize two things.

Telling my junior colleague to Just Google It was easy, too easy. Being new to the senior role, I hadn’t yet realized the full scope of my new assignment. And with 3 words, I was able to go back to my tasks like I never became a senior.

Being on the receiving side however, being the one with the questions, this doesn’t feel good at all. The motivation and eagerness to learn were somewhat replaced by other emotions, like anger, sadness… feelings which lead to the Dark Side. I decided not to look into the subject at all and moved on to other things.

Considering this, I reflected on my own behaviour. How did those 3 simple words impact my colleague? Did he feel the same way I felt after being “Just Google It”’d? Perhaps he did.

Impact of “Just Google It”

So… what happens when you tell someone to “Just Google It”?

We live in an age where software engineers know where to get information. People know how to Google and most of the time they already tried Googling for an answer before they asked you a question. At that point, telling them to just look it up online is almost an insult. In a way, you are telling them they are incompetent, unable to do the simple thing of looking up some information online.

We all struggle to get something working on almost a daily basis. Either it’s because CSS is being annoying or because you are trying to run 3 different Java versions at the same time. Not getting any help when struggling might leave you desperate and ready to quit. Is it an good working environment when your motivation is perpetually drained by your senior developer not taking the time to help you? Not very likely.

There is one thing I see a lot of junior developers struggle with: Being able to speak up when they get stuck. A few years ago there was one junior colleague who was visibly struggling with this. He would just sit at his desk, head in in his hands, trying to figure out a problem. During a 1-on-1 talk I had with him, he explained the reason for his behaviour.

Bothering you with questions just makes me feel like a junior developer
- a junior developer

If someone asks you a question, in a very real sense, they are looking up to you. They turn to you for expertise. They want to learn from you. If all you do is say they should look it up online, this will impact how they view you. No matter how great your skills are, they will turn to someone else who actually helps them.

A Positive Change

While sending your colleague a “let me google that for you” link can be funny when done in good sport, it can be taken badly as well. So just how do we turn this situation into a Win/Win situation:

  • Instead of saying “Just Google It”, ask them “What are the things you have tried already?” or “What is holding you back? There is a big chance they’ll show you an entire search history filled with information related to the problem.

  • If you already have an idea on how to solve the issue, try out your solution together by pair programming. Not only are you solving the problem, you are sharing what you know at the same time. Great return-on-investment if you ask me.

  • If the issue is vague or you don’t know the answer, try Googling together. You might be using different terminology leading to better search results. This also helps your colleague to get better results in the future. It also shows you don’t know everything either (despite them thinking you do…), helping to create an environment where it is OK to not know something.

As senior developers it isn’t our job to solve the next issue. It is our job to enable our team to build amazing software. We can do this by helping them out, guiding them through the ocean of information available on the internet, share what we know. Foster a safe environment where it is normal to express doubts and fears, where asking questions is seen as an opportunity to learn for all parties involved. Don’t just disregard questions and uncertainties of your teammates.

In short, it is pretty clear: “Just Google It” is Just Not Enough.