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I am a software engineer of 8+ years of experience and joined a company 5 months back. Recently, one new project was assigned to me, and my reporting manager has asked one of my team members to give Knowledge Transfer (KT) to me as he has been in this project for more than 3 years. I am facing challenges with him while getting KT. He feels that when he gives KT to me about any functionality, 100% of that should have been grasped by me. If I ask any question to him later he tells me that I have already explained that to you.

How should I deal with him? Should I escalate this issue to reporting manager, or just say "even if you have explained it to me, grasping it 100% is not practically feasible".

  • Is "I have already explained this to you" really the end of the conversation? For example, it's possible that your colleague is loaded up with other tasks and so this sort of response is just him trying to get you off his back so he can get his projects done. Getting dedicated time for the KT is probably key here. – Brandin Jul 19 '15 at 17:59
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Start by being patient. Explain to him that there's a lot to take in, so you're probably not going to grasp all the details immediately, and you're going to need him to go over some of the knowledge from time to time. Add that it's better that you learn this stuff well, and make sure that you've got it right, than have him just deliver one presentation, expect you to immediately learn and understand everything, and then have you make mistakes.

On the other hand, also try to reduce how much you need to ask him by writing down as many of the details as you can when he's transferring knowledge. Hopefully this will help you remember things, but more importantly, you have the details written down somewhere which means you can consult that source of knowledge, rather than your colleague.

His expectations of instant understanding are unrealistic, but there's little to be gained from direct confrontation, so if you explain what you need to know, and point out that it'll improve the quality of your work if he tells you this - plus you make an effort to write it down - then he can't have so many reasons to grumble.

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  • Seconded for writing notes - not only are they useful to refer back to, but the act of writing things down will help you remember. Especially if you take notes on paper and later type it into your computer - it feels like a waste of time to not type it in immediately, but doing it this way will increase your retention of the information. – Jenny D Jul 18 '15 at 18:00
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    A lot of people tend to forget how hard it was to figure something out the first time through... as over time they have become very familiar with it. Also, if knowledge transfer doesn't involve slides, notes or other artifacts that one can review later it's probably inappropriate to assume everyone has an eidetic memory allowing them to replay the transfer session on demand. – A Smith Jul 18 '15 at 19:21
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He feels like when he gives KT to me about any functionality then 100% of that should have been grasped by me.

Well, that is the point of communication, yeah?

The thing that I've seen happen quite a bit in knowledge transfers is that people think it is a one way dump of information. And unsurprisingly, that goes really badly. The point of a knowledge transfer, and communication in general is understanding.

Having the person explain it to you is only half of the job. Your part of the job is to ask questions and otherwise communicate until you have sufficient understanding of what they're trying to tell you. Writing down notes isn't going to make you understand what you've written any more. Saying "oh, this will make more sense when I see other parts" is a dangerous guess, since you don't know about the other parts.

At the very least, you need to make the other person understand when you're not 100% clear on things (and why). They can then try to elaborate, or move on to some topic that should help your understanding. And they can be prepared for follow up questions later.

Should I escalate this issue to reporting manager, or just say "even if you have explained it to me, grasping it 100% is not practically feasible"?

During your 1:1 with your manager (which you have, since it's the #1 thing for managers to do, right?) I would bring it up. They might have solid advice about how to deal with the other engineer. "Escalation" seems premature, since your first step should be to try to work through problems yourself.

Sure, perfect knowledge transfer is a pipe dream, but if you're asking enough repeat questions for this to be a problem, the problem probably lies outside of the inherent inefficiency in knowledge transfers.

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  • I am not sure that communicating directly all the unclear points is always possible, if that is what you suggest. Complex systems at least for me require some level of deeper understanding before I even understand what is still unclear to me/what questions to ask. – Johanna Apr 19 '17 at 19:48
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Some people are just awful at explaining things, or may refuse to do it right because of other factors. When that happens, it means you need to take control of the knowledge transfer process.

One way to do this is to take extensive notes and frequently stop the discussion as needed to get clarification and go through realistic examples. The main idea is to NOT to proceed to the next topic until you fully understand what has just been explained. You'll need to periodically test your understanding by actually performing some tasks with guidance of the instructor.

Many times when people explain things, students tend to nod their heads like they understand but really they're tuning out thinking that they'll be able to reproduce the knowledge later. A good teacher will notice this, stop, and use the "Socratic method", engaging the student with questions to challenge and strengthen their understanding. People who can't teach, just expect that everything is being absorbed and then get surprised when they see the student failed to grasp some key concept. If you have an unwilling or unskilled teacher, you just need to take responsibility for making sure everything is captured.

The trade-off here is time. This means that the instructor can't just drone on and on without stopping. You have to stop him before he moves on to each new topic.

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Explaining the same thing multiple times is quite annoying, especially if the person you explain it to acts like its the first time they heard about it before. It would probably help you a lot if you acknowledge in advance that he might have already told you but that you didn't fully grasp it fully the first time round.

Also try to make sure you don't ask too many things that you could find out yourself from looking through the code (it will take you a bit longer, but your more likely to retain the information).

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Well, your collegue seems to have a problem here. His job isn't to explain it to you, but to transfer his knowledge to you, and until that knowledge is transferred, his job isn't done. (And it doesn't matter whether you understand as quickly as you should do or not. His job is to transfer that knowledge).

If he doesn't agree with this, he can of course refuse to give any further explanation. Which is something that his boss should know about. So if he says "I explained this already", the reply is a polite "could you explain it again, because I didn't understand all of it". If the answer is "No", you ask "so you refuse to explain this? ". At that point it becomes a refusal to do his job.

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