This is a follow-up on How to Ask Good Questions.

Just like asking questions is an art form, answering them requires some skill. Here are some general recommendations on things to think about when answering a question:

Keep a friendly tone Link to heading

A person asking a question is implicitly in a vulnerable position; They expose themselves to not knowing something. I think that makes it extra important to treat the person with extra respect for stepping out of their comfort zone. This is particularly important with new-hires.

As such, keep a friendly tone. Assume good intent, and try to put your annoyances aside.

A friendly answer involves writing full sentences. Sloppy responses shine through. This also means that simply pasting a URL should be avoided. It is similar to responding with RTFM. Don’t just respond with

Instead, a better response is

The ArgumentParser has a parameter called store_const. Have a look at

Further, if this is someone asking questions from another part of your workplace, remember that helping them out can be a great way to build bridges and network across your workplace. Maybe one day that person will help you out.

Avoid assumptions Link to heading

It’s easy to make assumptions about what the person asking a question has done or tried. Not all people ask the perfect question! Instead of assuming, ask questions. For example, the example in the previous section could be rephrased even better:

The ArgumentParser has a parameter called store_const which I think is what you want to do. Have you had a look at this?

In this example, we don’t assume they haven’t had a look at the URL. Instead, we ask.

Getting all the context Link to heading

Sometimes you don’t get the context you need in a question. If so, counter with clarifying questions! This helps the person asking to know which information to include next time they ask a question.

Make sure you ask as many clarifying questions as possible in one message (to avoid something similar to NoHello). Having a lot of back-and-forths can take a lot of time. If you notice there is a risk of having a lot of roundtrips, reaching out to schedule a call might be faster than written communication.

Start with the answer Link to heading

The Minto Pyramid is a communication framework that focuses on saying the most important thing first, adding your most important key arguments, followed by details.

In the context of good answers, the Minto Pyramid means “start with actual answer, share the key arguments why it is so, followed by optional additional details”.

As an example, let’s say someone asks:

What are the main components of a computer processor (CPU)?

The non-Minto Pyramid approach to answering this would be something like

This is documented [here][cpu]. Registers provide temporary storage for instructions and data. The Control Unit (CU) manages the execution of instructions and data flow. The Arithmetic Logic Unit (ALU) performs arithmetic and logical operations. Therefore, the main components of a CPU are the ALU, CU, and Register Set.

Notice how the answer to the question is the last sentence. Someone needs to read the entire blob of text to arrive there.

Answering using the Minto Pyramid inverts this. Here is an example answer:

The main components of a CPU are the Arithmetic Logic Unit (ALU), the Control Unit (CU), and the Register Set. The ALU performs arithmetic and logical operations, the CU manages the execution of instructions and data flow, and the registers provide temporary storage for instructions and data. You can read more about this here.

Notice how the question is answered in the first sentence, followed by more details, and then followed by even more details as a reference. The reader can stop at any time and still have gotten their answer. Much better.

How did you get to the answer? Link to heading

The last part of a Minto Pyramid answer, the “details”, is an excellent place to share how you got to your answer. What did you look at? Is some log message, or some piece of code, useful to understand why something works the way it does? Please share it! Doing so enables someone to answer a similar question themselves next time without your involvement. Enablement, ftw!

Similarly, how did you learn about this? Did you read some books? Read a useful blog post? References to things like that can also act as an inspiration to learn a completely new subject and allow your colleagues to grow.

Verify the recipient understood Link to heading

“Did what I wrote make sense?” I think this is an inviting question after writing a response. In certain cultures, saying that you did not understand is rare. At least, help someone to express if there was something they didn’t quite follow!

Don’t be too fast Link to heading

In this day and age, a lot of people expect immediate answers to questions posed on chat/instant messaging (Slack, Microsoft Teams, etc.). This is somewhat controversial, but sometimes you are doing yourself and the person asking a disservice by answering too quickly.

Adding a delay to answer questions can have the following positive outcomes:

  • You give other people the opportunity to answer. I have seen other people hindering other people’s growth or time to shine by being faster than them to answer questions.
  • You make people not expect immediate answers. This makes it less stressful for you to answer quickly in the future. If people don’t think you are answering quick enough, have a conversation chat reply expectations!
  • You force people to practice searching for answers themselves. If people don’t learn how to do this themselves, you are making yourself a bottleneck for your team!

Can you answer in public? Link to heading

I once used to be hammered by questions in DMs. People would reach out to me personally, and every answer I gave had a single recipient.

This meant that every answer I gave only benefitted a single person. If you have ever been in a position of being a local expert at something, you quickly start to notice that multiple people ask the same question. Could I do better? (Hint: Yes!)

Every time someone reached out privately with a question that I thought would benefit other people, I would respond with

Hello! Would it be possible for you to ask that question in a public channel, instead? That way, other people can benefit from the answer. I will make sure the question is answered, either by me or someone else.

Doing this had multiple benefits:

  • I contributed to a culture of transparency where conversations were not just happening in silos.
  • I made sure that answers to questions could be read by other people. Knowledge sharing! I was making myself a true force multiplier.
  • I made people less dependent on me to answer their questions. This reduced my bus factor and made it possible for other engineers to offload me. It also allowed others to show off their skills in public by getting to answer some questions themselves!

Build quality in Link to heading

The last tip I have is also to ask yourself why a question is being asked in the first place? Asking something like the Five Whys can be very useful and help you to answer future questions implicitly instead of going through you. Some realizations I have had when doing Five Whys are:

  • Realising that my workplace is lacking any formal training on something. This has made me give presentations on workshops to be proactive.
  • Realising that error messages are too cryptic and need to explain better what they mean or what action a user must take.
  • Realising that a logged message is really unclear and needs to be clarified.
  • Realising that the UX of a product is not good enough.
  • Realising that there is actually missing documentation that needs to be added somewhere.
  • And more.

Closing thoughts Link to heading

If you write well-written responses, you can use them as reference material if someone asks the same question again. Most chat apps allow you to copy the URL to a response and paste it as a conversation (but remember, don’t just answer with a link!). Common answers can also be [pinned][pin-slack] :pin: in certain chat apps such as Slack to make them easily found.

Also, if you notice someone isn’t that great at asking questions. You can of course also recommend that they have a look my previous blog post on “How to ask good questions”. 😉