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For a while now, I've been having a bit of a problem with a fairly untrained intern, who does not have a huge amount of experience in programming. Early on, I told him he could ask for help, knowing I would have liked help in that position.

However, it seems like he does not go to the minimal effort of figuring out the root cause of a problem before asking. Many times, it has been the same variety of problems with the same solutions and same methods to diagnose.

We are working on a web application. I have been trying to drill basic practices in by repeating them whenever he asks a question. No matter which question he asks, I start the answer with:

  • did you read the error?
  • did you check what data is being published?
  • is that data what you expect it to be?

I've figured after enough repetition of this formula, he would know that there's no point in even asking if I am just going to guide him through it in exactly the same way (and it works for 90% of problems). However, he still consistently asks questions, often which are complete repeats of what we've done before and are easy to find on google (such as "how to merge git branch")

What would be the polite and workplace-correct way to deal with this? I simply can't be there to answer his every question, and it's not good for him in the long run either.

  • 2
    Related: workplace.stackexchange.com/q/9623/325 – Monica Cellio Apr 30 '15 at 0:53
  • It's not just interns; I know plenty of 'experienced' developers who still find it hard to "read the error"... – AakashM Apr 30 '15 at 7:20
  • The internship has fulfilled its purpose and you have discovered he's no good. No further action is required other than not hiring him. Of course your point-haired bosses will hire him anyway and he'll be your manager in a few years. – TheMathemagician Apr 30 '15 at 9:14
  • There's a lot more to mentoring than merely answering questions. It takes time and repetition to learn things right and you will need to devote a significant chunk of time and effort to see results from a "green" person. If he's "untrained" someone has to train him and that's you. – teego1967 Apr 30 '15 at 12:06
  • Have you tried empowering your intern? He may be scared to death to make a mistake. Let him know that if he finds an error to correct it and come to you after he's tried to fix it. – Brian Apr 30 '15 at 13:37
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I think from my own experience people often ask questions like this when they lack confidence in themselves. They often know the answer but doubt themselves to the extent where they feel it's better to ask and not risk making a mistake. Does the guy often respond with things like 'of course' and 'oh yeah, you said that last week'?

I don't disagree with anyone else's answers but if this might be the case you should look at ways to boost him up a little bit rather than take him to task. I mean you say this guy is 'fairly untrained', how is it handled when he makes a mistake? Do you encourage him when he does something positive? Maybe spend ten minutes of lunch giving him a chance to chat to you about what you're working on? I think responding to his questions with one of your own might also boost his confidence. If he asks 'What does this error mean', don't get angry but just say 'what do you think it means?' If he answers correctly you have a chance to offer some encouragement and you've made him think for himself.

If he constantly asks you simple questions get him to write a crib sheet. I have one from Git when I first started and it helped me answer my own questions.

  • I agree. As a newbie, sure I can google how to merge a git branch, but I'd certainly appreciate someone talking me through it to be sure. It's easy to be nervous about getting it wrong – Fiona - myaccessible.website Apr 30 '15 at 8:49
  • Definitely +1 on getting him to write a cheat sheet so to speak. That way he'll know he's doing stuff right (as you've told him) but he also has the reference so he doesn't have to ask multiple times before he learns. If your company has a wiki/confluence set up, encourage him to start a cheat sheet on there with the answers you give him, it will also be helpful for future interns/new hires. – clairebones Apr 30 '15 at 8:59
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It's time for some tough love: you are going to be blunt and tell the intern that his software engineering career will be short-circuited, if he is caught asking the same questions over and over by anyone but you and he makes no effort to find things for himself. And that while you are patient, he is putting the ability to return to your company as an intern at risk. If you are not going to tell him straight from the shoulder, who will?

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Type your three questions into a word processor, leave 1/3rd of a page space between them, then print twenty copies. The next time he asks, hand him a sheet of paper to fill out.

Writing it down may help by itself. Forcing him to put effort into it, even just the effort of writing things down, might encourage him to put effort into finding a solution itself.

You might print twenty pages with "google" in big letters as well :-)

  • Writing Google on a piece of paper may not be enough. Sometimes, you have to ask them which combination of keywords they used for each of the query they tried on Google. – Stephan Branczyk Apr 15 '16 at 4:55
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I will tackle this question from an interns point of view and try to give you some perspective of what your intern might be feeling, his reasons for his actions and some tasks to set which should hopefully improve this experience for yourself and your intern.

An important thing to remember when hiring an intern is that you shouldn't be expecting them to work like a normal member of staff. It is very likely that this is their first full-time experience of working in a corporate environment and so their confident with both their technical ability and communicating with colleagues will need some developing. Having said that, I would expect to see a high level of motivation and enthusiasm as the goal from a intern perspective should be to create an positive impression with the aim to create further job opportunities on conclusion of the internship. Now lets move onto topics that you might want to address.

Identifying your interns preferred learning style

One of the really important points that you should try to identify is your interns preferred learning style. I was lucky enough to join the application development team of my company but I had no previous experience with programming. I myself am much more of a visual learning and you might find this is the same for your intern. When you're a beginner programmer and you're being asked to "Google it", the answer might be right in front of you but you don't have the knowledge to identify this. Additionally, if you don't know where to look, you can find yourself trying to sieve through some very technical documents which you quickly lose interest in.

I would advise to suggest some alternative resources for learning. One of the resources I found which really helped with my programming was this website. I see that you are doing some work with git and this website has some really fantastic foundational level videos that should help your intern get to grips with the basics if they are struggling. If they forget how to carry out a certain function, they can always refer back to the video instead of taking you away from what you need to do. There are also a ton of videos on youtube for these kinds of this. This will create a more interesting learning experience and also shows that you are making more of an effort to help you intern.

Make your intern aware of your concerns

Now although us interns are marvelously intelligent (sarcasm), unfortunately we can't read minds. Therefore I think it would be very beneficial for both parties for you to make you concerns aware to your intern. You might even find that your intern is having concerns of their own so try to create an environment where your intern will be confident in explaining how they feel. I don't believe it would be fair to go at them with "all guns blazing" if these concerns have never been raised before. Setup a weekly meeting with them, make them aware of your concerns, listen to their comments and then if no progress is being made, you know you've made the effort to help as much as you can and there are grounds to take further action.

These are some areas to address to get you started but I would also suggest looking at my answer on this question as it might give you some additional areas to work on. A lot of underlying problems with interns stem from not having a solid structure in place. Make sure you doing everything to aid their learning and don't be afraid to tell them what they're doing wrong. Quoting from @Vietnhi Phuvan answer, "If you are not going to tell him straight from the shoulder, who will?".

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No matter which question he asks, I start the answer with:

did you read the error?
did you check what data is being published?
is that data what you expect it to be?

Your approach is almost right. You're trying to show him what data he needs. For some people that educational approach will be effective. However, due to differences between people, that approach won't work for everyone.

If a person isn't learning what is needed from such questions, then add to the workload, making the question-asking experience a little more unpleasant. Instead of asking if he read the error, say:

What is the error?
What is the data that is being published?
What are your expectations?

Establish a rule that such information needs to be gathered and presented when asking for help. If he says, "I don't know", then tell him, "find out". Also, don't allow him to just stop the help session if he finds success. If he found out what the error was, and found the solution to the problem, make it a rule that he still needs to report the solution to you so that you know things are resolved.

I've seen this approach work with multiple people (including myself). If you provide useful information that resolves problems, he will come seek your advice whenever necessary (as long as he feels sufficiently compelled to make sure the required tasks are being accomplished). Yet, with a slightly higher barrier to entry, he will learn that it is less work to have the necessary information than to approach you without having that necessary information. Eventually, when he gets into the habit of gathering the basic details, you can lighten up on these extra requirements.

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(Assuming he puts effort at least in terms of hours) I have been involved in training and this type of behavior some times originates from other reasons as well.When a intern feels that asking frequent questions is good for his "visibility" he will ask them.

You have to guide his progress from time to time using different practice at each phase. Like first you encouraged him to ask questions now its time you say to him "you are slow in problem solving or you cant solve things on your own".

You can always tell him to go and google,He might not think higly of you but he will learn to catch his own fish.

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