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I have recently started a new job. My peer, who is supposed to be training and helping me, basically shuts down as soon as I start asking questions.

His answers are very high level where he skips important granular details. I am left with more confusion every time I ask him something. So I started emailing him to get a better understanding. Now with with emails, it seems his answers are either bare minimum or insufficient.

It has been a big challenge to effectively communicate with him. I now hesitate to ask him anything. I'd like to excel at my new job but I think I will have a hard time getting up to speed if things remain this way. What strategies/techniques could I adopt to effectively communicate with him?

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    @JoeStrazzere - perhaps was selected because of the knowledge, but doesn't have great teaching/communication skills and experience. Kind of like how managers are often just picked from the most senior and technical workers, instead of being the ones with best managing skills and mindset. – PoloHoleSet Nov 16 '17 at 17:45
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It is also possible that your questions are way too broad and not focused on a specific problem, which would make it difficult to give a detailed answer. Try to ask your questions in a manner that elicit the answers with the required level of granular details.

For example, "Why do we use C++ in this project?" cannot be meaningfully answered without a long-winded speech. "Why do we use private inheritance in this class?" can be answered somewhat more specifically.

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  • As a matter of fact, my questions are very specific (mostly about the company processes and how things are done internally). He has the longest tenure in our whole team so he knows the ins and outs. I have asked very direct and specific questions. For example, I asked him if I could shadow him for couple hours and he just simply declined it. – Khloe Nov 15 '17 at 15:06
  • Your example is not matching your question. You asked if you could shadow him, and he said no. That isn't missing any granular details, he is just answering the question you asked. – Masked Man Nov 15 '17 at 15:26
  • Yes, I agree the example does not match. I added that just to give a sense of his communication style. I personally have never experienced this scenario because usually shadowing is a good way to learn the ropes. – Khloe Nov 15 '17 at 15:35
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    You asked a direct and specific question, and you got a direct and specific answer. Perhaps there's a hint for you there. Besides, shadowing may not be his preferred style of teaching you, and that doesn't imply his communication is the issue. When you need someone's help, you should adapt to their style, not the other way round. – Masked Man Nov 15 '17 at 15:38
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    I wonder if that is it. He doesn't want the answer to one question to invite a dozen followup questions; you're a long distance from the 'answer you want' so you ask something that provides you with an explanation not meeting your expectations. I suspect if you ask for ELI5 you'll get your answer. Put yourself on a 'Question Counter' one great question per hour. – Rob Nov 17 '17 at 6:09
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Take the "Rubber duck" approach. Ask him to talk to you as if you were a layman. There's an old saying that "If you cannot explain the subject simply, you do not understand it yourself."

It could be that he's a bit confused or overwhelmed himself. Putting him into this position will get his brain into a different mode and will probably help both of you.

For more information on "Rubber duck debugging", which I reference above:

Rubber Duck Debugging

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    I agree with your suggestion, but this is not the rubber duck approach. The Rubber duck approach is used when you are stuck. Often when you explain a situation out loud you find the answer. So do that first (to a rubber duck for example) before asking a question to someone. You can talk to the rubber duck at any level you want. He does not care, he will just listen regardless. What the OP could do is try to explain it in layman term himself (to the peer in this case, not the rubber duck). This would force the peer to correct the OP. – Jeroen Nov 15 '17 at 15:41
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Now with emails, it seems his answers are either bare minimum or insufficient

You are on the right track with sending this individual emails with your questions. If they respond with answers that are not good enough, continue pressing for the details.

If after some effort you cannot get the details you require, send a final email and CC your manager. Be specific on the points where you feel the answers are lacking.

This clearly gives your colleague multiple chances to answer prior to bringing in the manager, and when you do CC the manager, it will be clear you have made multiple attempts to get the answers you need.

Short answer: Keep pressing while building a paper trail demonstrating the lame answers, and finally if your forced to, copy your manager on the message.

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    Very well. I think I have what I need to navigate through this situation. Thank you!! – Khloe Nov 15 '17 at 15:45
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    This seems a bit aggressive if one does not understand why he's not answering. – employee-X Nov 15 '17 at 16:12
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    @employee-X Why does it matter? This person is supposed to be helping the OP. If he is unable to, that is fine but he needs to say so and work with the manager to get the information the OP needs. – Neo Nov 15 '17 at 16:15
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I think you're dealing with someone who doesn't really want to help you. If you're going to stop asking questions, you've probably help him reach his goal. You have to persevere.

Be explicit in your need for more details. You may find that he has other time demands that limits his ability to help you. This could be a case where the two of you need to speak to a supervisor about how to handle the lack of time. Maybe something can be taken off of his plate. Onboarding is not easy for technical positions and can take more time and energy than some people realize. Some projects or tasks need to be moved back.

Hopefully, everyone realizes you're just trying to do your job the best you can. No one wants to be a drain on everyone else. Based on the fact that this person was instructed to help you, no one should think you don't have the horsepower to figure things out on your own. Asking for the name of the test server isn't something you can find on the web.

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