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I was told by colleague A that a database table would be helpful to me, but a field name and its comment in it were not that self-explanatory and detailed and I cannot get to know how the values of that column were derived, then I asked the person A what that field is. But A told me that he didn't need that field and didn't know either and referred me to B who created the table. I asked B if he had written some documentation or codebook about the table, and since B is a middle-level manager he just referred me to one of his subordinates C. Unfortunately I found that C is also a manager, and unsurprisingly he referred me to one of his subordinates D. I asked D the same question but to my surprise D was just a new hire and let me turn to his teammate E. E told me that he didn't know briefly.

What is such a phenomenon in a company? How can I deal with that?

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  • 6
    Chaos, incompetence, running away from responsibility, the Dead Sea Effect, etc. Can be any number of things.
    – Bogdan
    Jan 23 at 9:15
  • 13
    I think the problem is that you're not in possession of permit A 38.
    – Peter
    Jan 23 at 9:27
  • 3
    @Lennart Don't mind me, I was just making an obscure joke...
    – Peter
    Jan 23 at 9:32
  • 6
    I think for most places it's called "business as usual" :)
    – Erik
    Jan 23 at 10:00
  • 1
    @Peter Doesn't he need the blue form to get that?
    – Doliprane
    Jan 24 at 15:13
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What is such a phenomenon in a company? How can I deal with that?

People evading responsibility or action is common enough in many places.

You deal with it by cheerful persistence, just keep asking until you get an answer or decide that you don't need a field which you have no idea about anyway like your colleague.

If you feel you must know the fields details, then ask your manager to assist. He or she is on a level which might get your query answered.

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    The only person avoiding responsibilty is the OP. it is not A's responsibility to know everything about a table created by somebody else. It is B's responsibility, but B handled it well by delegating the task to a subordinate, which is standard behavior. This subordinate, C, also delegated the task to D, which is also standard behavior, and to be expected as managers have different priorities. The fact that D and E didn't know the answer is unfortunate, but also something to be expected. At this point, it is OPs responsibility to revert back to the managers B and C and ask them again.
    – Jaood
    Jan 23 at 10:02
  • From the surface meaning of the field name, it seems important to me. Jan 23 at 10:06
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    @Jaood no, you don't approach a manager a second time, you get your manager to do that. Ideally it's handled at the level the first time. You shouldn't be approaching other managers without yours knowing on the say so of a colleague, it's ok informally, but not if there's any hint of a problem.
    – Kilisi
    Jan 23 at 10:12
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This kind of thing happens a lot. It's not necessarily the case that the people you asked are being evasive or incompetent. They might not know, or might not remember. After all, no one can keep track of every little detail in their minds and be ready for on-the-fly questions.

At this point you have to think of this task as a kind of "investigative" project and take some ownership for finding out where this piece of information comes from, how it's used, and who uses it.

This could mean framing your question not as an informal chat where you just ask what it is, but more like a request for help in researching the purpose and function of the item with an expectation that there will have to be some follow-up (eg searching of codebase, etc). You may need to re-involve management if the people you're asking aren't free to allocate some of their time and effort.

Another thing to keep in mind is that if there's one thing that's confusing, there's probably a lot more questions that will pop-up, and you'll have to be strategic about how you get help-- there's no easy way to do this.

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  • I am learning how to negotiate/communicate and let others spend more time on what I am doing. I wonder if you could recommend some books to me? Jan 29 at 16:16
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How can I deal with that?

If the database schema is version controlled, see when that column was introduced and what other code/queries were introduced at the same time. Absent a good version control system, take a look at the other queries, stored procedures, views, unit tests, etc.

After all, even if you find the original author of that column, it's likely that this person may not even remember exactly how they populated that column in the first place. And they may also need to look at the code themselves.

I was told by colleague A that a database table would be helpful to me, but a field name and its comment in it were not that self-explanatory and detailed and I cannot get to know how the values of that column were derived

But sometimes, you may just need to recreate the data from scratch yourself. As well-meaning as your colleague A was, he may just have been wrong about the actual usefulness of that database to you.

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    I didn't use that column after I reviewed the source code. It was not what I thought it should be. Jan 29 at 16:04
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This is a problem with lack of documentation.

In a perfect world, there would be a documentation which tells you what that table is for and what each of those fields mean. That documentation would include the name of its author, so you can contact that person for more information.

But it seems that in your organization, there is no documentation. Or perhaps there is, but nobody knows where that documentation is to be found. Which is just as bad.

What can be done about that?

  1. Agree on an internal platform where all documentation should be stored.
  2. Make sure everyone knows about that platform, how to use it and has access to it.
  3. Establish rules about what needs to be documented there, how and when. Those rules should not just govern the creation of the documentation but also how to keep it up-to-date when there are changes in the future (wrong documentation can be worse than no documentation at all).
  4. Make sure those rules are followed by making them mandatory steps in your development processes.

But perhaps that already exists in your organization? When you aren't aware of that, then that's a failure of the person who mentored you.

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  • Yes. My leader asked them to help us explaining the data they gathered and at the same time, they should document the important fields. Jan 29 at 16:13
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What is such a phenomenon in a company?

It could be lack of interest or not wanting to spend time to help you.
Then bad luck for you.

It also could be a large database structure with lots of people involved over a long time and you just haven't found the one knowing more about this particular field.
Said field could have been created long time ago by someone who works on something completely different now or even no longer is at the company. The usage of this field could be deep inside of code that hasn't been touched for ages.

Documentation would help. You still don't know if there is no such documentation or you haven't yet found it. Perhaps things were documented from start but documenting was given up later before this field was added.
So your situation is unfortunate for you but it is possible and realistic and not necessarily a result of pure ignorance.

Welcome to where reality diverges from theory!

How can I deal with that?

Keep asking broader, don't only ask "who knows about that field?" but also "who can help me find more information of any kind?".
If required and not frowned upon send an email to a team (perhaps better: ask a team leader to do that) asking for more help.

I see two options.
Either someone can track down a person who can provide you with information from the time this field was introduced.
Or you find someone who hasn't introduced this field or used it actively but deals with the application nowadays and is able to find more hints to this field in that application.

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  • I reported this issue in a weekly meeting to the leader of my leader and he managed to make someone responsible for answering my questions(and our teammates') on the tables they created. Jan 29 at 16:09
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The only person avoiding responsibilty is the OP. it is not A's responsibility to know everything about a table created by somebody else. It is B's responsibility, but B handled it well by delegating the task to a subordinate, which is standard behavior. This subordinate, C, also delegated the task to D, which is also standard behavior, and to be expected as managers have different priorities. The fact that D and E didn't know the answer is unfortunate, but also something to be expected. At this point, it is OPs responsibility to revert back to the managers B and C and ask them again, this time telling them that their subordinates did not know. At this point, if B and C refuse to answer, then there's a problem.

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    How can OP be accused of avoiding responsibility if OP never has seen this table before and now wants to find out more about it?
    – puck
    Jan 23 at 14:22

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