How I Became a Coach

Once upon a time I was the C++ programming language guru in an organization of 200 software developers. People would come to me with all sorts of esoteric C++ problems, and I'd give them the answer. It often seemed—more often than mere coincidence can account for—that whatever problem someone was having, I'd had the same problem myself, and solved it, only the day before. So I was often able to give the answer off the top of my head, which gave me an aura of being smarter than I really was.

This encouraged people to come to me with even more problems. Eventually they posed problems—not only about programming but also about other sticky issues—that I couldn't solve off the top of my head. In order to understand the problem better so that I could solve it, I'd ask questions to get more information. Simple questions such as What have you tried so far? and What happened? and What else did you try? I noticed that often as people were answering my questions they would suddenly say, "Ah, I've got it!" It turned out that I didn't need even to understand the problem, much less to solve it.

I began to enjoy helping people with those problems most of all, the problems that I had no idea how to solve. I learned to notice what puzzled me and to ask questions about my puzzles. Not leading questions with embedded advice ("Have you tried regrafting the Johnson rods?"), but questions simply to help me understand more clearly what was happening. And in answering the questions, people became more clear themselves about what was happening. I was surprised and delighted to learn that as people understood their problems better, they were usually able to come up with great advice of their own, advice that was far more useful than anything I might have offered.

Over time I've added other questions to my repertoire, questions not only about understanding the problem per se, but about understanding how the person is going about trying to solve the problem. Those "meta-problem" questions, such as the ones I asked Paul, the dream-home builder, seem to have great power to help people create their own advice. And they help people learn to examine their own problem-solving process, to jiggle themselves loose when they're stuck so they can better solve their own problems.

One day Sriram poked his head into my cube, raised a finger, and said, "Dale, I— No, I got it." And off he went.

Later I asked him what that was all about. He said, "On my way to your office, I was asking myself, 'What questions would Dale ask me?' I answered those questions, and I came up with the answer myself!"

I'd helped Sriram without even being there! That's the moment I knew I could be a great coach. If only I could find a way to get paid for stuff like that.

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