Abhin Rustagi

Asking the right questions — an underrated soft skill

I recently completed my first full-time job as a Product Engineer at Openhouse, an early-stage startup based in Bangalore. Throughout my tenure, I had the opportunity to work with experienced and knowledgeable professionals, which taught me an important lesson — to solve a problem effectively, one must first ask the right questions.

How do I start asking the right questions?

We’ve been told as students to ask questions in the classroom, oftentimes even prompted by professors to ask the same question repeatedly. Although, if the question is not comprehensive and well laid out, the person who asked may never receive a satisfactory answer.

This concept aligns with what data scientists often emphasize — collecting data is meaningless unless you know what questions you need to answer using that data. The ability to ask the right questions is a skill that develops over time and through experience. However, making a conscious effort to improve this skill can greatly enhance one’s problem-solving abilities.

It is a skill that comes with time, and experience. However, a conscious effort to work on it may help exponentiate how quickly one can ably exercise it. It contributes immensely to one’s problem-solving skills.

In the workplace, I think it comes down to precision and resource management. Resources here refer to time and effort. The more comprehensive and precise you are in formulating your question, as well as in the way you communicate your point, the better you can convey your expectations and help others understand and plan their tasks. For example, instead of simply asking if someone can deliver a certain task by a deadline, asking for an estimated number of hours needed provides more clarity and allows for better task planning.

For developers, asking the right questions can be crucial when accounting for the impact of building a feature or making a production-level fix. By inquiring about how a new feature may affect existing users or the flow of the system, significant amounts of unnecessary development time and potential code breaks can be avoided.

In his book “The Pragmatic Programmer,” Andy Hunt emphasized the importance of Critical Thinking. He outlines five key tips to foster critical thinking, which I find applicable to developing the skill of asking the right questions:

  • Ask a question, and get an answer. Dig deeper by asking “Why?” Repeat as if you were a petulant four-year-old (but a polite one). You might be able to get closer to a root cause this way.
  • Who does this benefit?
  • What’s the context?
  • When or Where would this work?
  • Why is this a problem?

As mentioned earlier, the skill of asking the right questions develops over time, experience, and repetition. It is important not to be afraid of asking many questions, as this process gradually leads to the discovery of the necessary and impactful ones.