Main illustration: Shawna X
An inevitable fact of life is that no matter what team you work on, you’re guaranteed to run into problems you get stuck on.
Whether you’re a customer support representative or a product engineer, you will encounter issues and problems that you just don’t have the answer to.
In these situations, you essentially have two options:
- You can try to persevere with the problem until you find a solution
- Or you can ask for help when you realize you’re stuck
Either option will appeal at different times, depending on circumstances, and both have their benefits – they are two different ways of learning, after all. But they also have drawbacks – with the former you can sink valuable time into a problem that has already been solved, and with the latter you can miss the opportunity to learn for yourself.
Follow the “15-Minute Rule”
This is where the 15-Minute Rule comes in: “Take 15 minutes to solve the problem any way you can. However, if you don’t have an answer after 15 minutes, you must ask someone.”
It seems like a very simple maxim, but adhering to it can actually supercharge your own growth – you learn the value of self-sufficiency, but you are also forced to reach for the life raft when you need it.
“If I kept escalating bugs without even trying to figure it out, I never would have learned how to solve problems for myself”
I was taught the simple rule by Jeff Gardner, back when I was a junior customer support engineer and he was the head of our Customer Support team. If I was stuck on a particular customer problem, he told me to first take 15 minutes to try find the answer before looking for help. If I still didn’t have an answer after 15 minutes, I had to ask him for assistance.
It wasn’t that Jeff didn’t want to help me – he did. But if I kept escalating bugs without even trying to figure it out, I never would have learned how to solve problems for myself.
Navigating the way to a solution
Taking 15 minutes teaches you the skill of not only knowing what to look for, but how to look for it. One of the most valuable skills in any customer support or product engineering team is navigating internal codebases and documentation – this is how you learn that, more often than not, the answer is there if you take the time to look for it.
“When you do ask for help, you’re at least armed with the full context of the problem at hand”
Just as importantly, it means that when you do ask for help, you’re at least armed with the full context of the problem at hand. You might have tried looking in the codebase, searched old conversations, trawled through Slack, and pored over internal documentation, but still come up short. However, 90% of the time you’ll be encountering valuable threads of information, which will be useful when talking to the person who’s helping you out – so you can both solve the problem quicker.
Asking is essential
Being forced to find a balance between working on problems yourself and seeking out the assistance of teammates has multiple benefits for you and for the team at large.
Most of us enjoy the challenge of working on a knotty problem, testing ourselves to unravel the issue and achieving that satisfaction that comes from finding a solution.
“It’s way too easy to disappear down the rabbit hole trying to solve problems, but the fact is, your time is expensive”
But there are situations when you cannot unblock yourself even if you looked all day. It’s way too easy to disappear down the rabbit hole trying to solve problems, but the fact is, your time is expensive.
It might feel good to learn things the hard way – and for sure you’ll build valuable skills along the way – but there are no prizes for spending three hours on a problem someone else could have solved in 10 minutes. In these scenarios, the 15-Minute Rule forces you to step back and ask yourself: “Am I really the best person to solve this problem?”
How the 15 Minute Rule can help the whole team
For anyone working on a team that focuses on problem-solving, the 15-Minute Rule has real benefits:
- New hires are taught self-reliance.
- Everyone knows they have an all important safety net if they get stuck.
- Junior teammates can get mentored by senior colleagues and see the logic of how they solve problems.
- Senior members get to informally review and give feedback on the team’s work.
I learned this skill as a support engineer, where it had the added advantage of ensuring customers don’t have to wait too long for answers. But even now I’m a product engineer, the 15-Minute Rule is still something I use regularly. It teaches you to respect your colleagues’ time, but not to be afraid to get help when you really need it. Ultimately, striking that balance is the surest way to supercharge your personal growth.