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What if Google doesn’t have the answer? 3 ways you can outsmart the smartest search engine

On Tuesday we talked about the single most important tech skill you can get: the, I-know-how-to-Google-that skill.

But sometimes, even Google has an off day. When you are stuck and Google doesn’t have the answer, give these three techniques a try:

1. Ask the rubber ducky
Often you will find that you can answer your own question just by asking it. Most developers have had the experience of chatting up a friend to ask for help, only to realize that they know how to fix the problem before their friend has had a chance to respond.

For this reason Greg Sterndale, a Ruby developer based in Philadelphia, recommends the ‘Rubber Ducky Method’ to all of his junior developers. The idea is that you place a rubber ducky on your desk, and when you find yourself at an impasse, you explain—out loud—what’s going on, to the rubber ducky.

More often than not, you will find that you don’t need to ask for help after that. THat’s one helpful rubber ducky!

If that doesn’t work, it’s time to…

2. Step away from the computer
Even if just for a minute or two. When Boston based developer Emily Davis finds herself ready to “dropkick my laptop in traffic” she knows its time to back away from the keyboard.

“Even a five-minute break can help to clear away frustration.” So go take a walk around the block, do some cartwheels, or eat a celery stick with almond butter. “More often than not,” Emily says, “you’ll solve your problem after distracting your mind for a few minutes.”

If talking to a rubber ducky or taking a break doesn’t do the trick, then it’s time to…

3. Go to the source
New Yorker Stacy-Marie Ishmael was recently considering a move back to her hometown in Trinidad after she had spent hours debugging an authentication issue. After dozens of attempts to Google the problem and reaching out to her network of developer friends, Stacy had the brilliant idea of looking up the contact info for the author of the Ruby gem she was working to implement.

Stacy fired off a short email explaining her issue (after complimenting his fine work, of course) and within a few hours he responded and she was happily on her way.

Now, this technique won’t always work (we don’t recommend emailing DHH about your Rails questions, for example), but its definitely worth a try. After all, no one will be better at debugging a bit of software than the person who wrote it.

The most important thing is to remember when you are staring at your computer screen with a mix of rage and humiliation, that this is totally natural and to be expected. What makes you a good developer is your desire to tackle hard problems, and the guess what? Those problems are HARD to solve. For the sake of your sanity and self esteem, give yourself a little grace.

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3 comments

  1. stephenbooth Replied

    Regarding #2. Taking a short break from your desk every hour or two is a good idea any how. It combats tiredness, reduces risk of muscular-skeletal issues, gets the circulation going and gets some fresh(er) air into your lungs.

    Everytime you hit a natural break (e.g. finish a method/class/module), if it’s been more than an hour since you last did this, just stand up, stretch, take a deep breath, walk a short distance (maybe to the water cooler to get some water) and walk back then get back into whatever you were doing. Does wonders for your effectiveness, concentration and general health.

    • Yes, stephenbooth, yes! I’m a retired chiropractor, now a songwriter/guitarist and online entrepreneur. I may be sitting for 12 – 15 hours a day. And sometimes I grumble about having to get up and put my work aside for a moment or two!

      • stephenbooth Replied

        I recall reading many years ago, in the back of a physics text book IIRC, that for most people their effectiveness on mental tasks drops off after about an hour without a break. It was a section of how to revise for exams (I think the publisher included it in all of their text books) but I’m sure the same principle applies to other ‘brain intensive’ activities. It also said that if you plan your breaks for set intervals then your effectiveness not only doesn’t drop as far but also rise slightly towards the interval as you’re looking forward to your break so your brain perks up a bit as it approaches.

        I’ve seen similar statements in books, videas, podcasts and webinars on presentations (meaning where you have a number of people delivering back to back presentations, e.g. a sales meeting or new product presentation), meetings, lesson planning (both in school/college/university and at work training) and self study. Aim to have a short break once per hour. As well as helping concentration it helps avoid the situation of people missing parts of the session due to popping out to go to the toilet or get a drink.

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