Cone Of Answers

A phenomenon in which a person comes to you with a question, but in asking the question discovers the answer on their own and leaves without you saying a word (or perhaps even knowing what they were talking about).

AKA WhiteCoatSyndrome?

Some years ago I was working on a project with many, shall we say, low skill programmers. There were a few bright people on the team, and we tended to hang out in each others cubes. We even did some ExtremeProgramming type stuff, e.g. PairProgramming, despite not being familiar with it at the time (this was 1995, before XP made its splash).

Anyway, our colleagues got this crazy idea that whatever cube we were in was a good place to get questions answered. Most of the time they would ask questions about how to fix a technical problem they were having, or how to do something somewhat complicated. The problem was that in many cases we didn't know very much about the part of the project that the person was working on. Another problem was that most of the time the person was asking a very specific question based on faulty assumptions or poor prior decisions.

To overcome the lack of context we were faced with, we got in the habit of asking many questions before making any suggestions, or saying, "Sorry, we can't help you". Nine times out of ten, the first question we asked was, "What are you really trying to do?" As the conversation proceeded the solution to the original question often surfaced. In many cases the faulty assumptions or poor prior decisions were revealed and the original question was invalidated.

Eventually our colleagues began anticipating our questions. They would drop by, ask a question, but before we said anything they would say, "Well, what I'm really trying to do is...." In some cases they went through the entire process of discovery on their own. In at least one case we never knew what the person was talking about.

At some point we became self-aware of the role we were playing, and we dubbed our area the ConeOfAnswers, which of course is a nod to the ConeOfSilence. -- ChrisHines


I HaveThisPattern. At one point when designing my programming language, I ended up getting stuck figuring out how to get GeneralizedReferences working when every DataStructure is a function. So I figured I'd ask the folks on the LL1-discuss mailing list, many of whom have designed similar languages in the past (the list include 2 of the Gang of Five that designed CommonLisp). In the process of writing the e-mail and clarifying the issues enough that other people could understand them, I came upon the solution. I ended up never sending the e-mail, turning the half-written document into a design note. (Discussion about eventual solution moved to GeneralizedReference) -- JonathanTang


A colleague and friend of mine confessed he never even listened to the question. Instead he answered "Could you take that again?" and in many cases the pupil got to the answer by himself. In the cases (s)he did not find out the answer by the time the question was repeated fully; my friend started thinking and asking and helping.


See CardboardProgrammer, NoddingDummy, and many others

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