Why I Respond

As one of a handful of instructors at Code Fellows, I often get questions about programming from my students. It's good, and I heavily encourage them to send their questions my way. From time to time I also get questions from people who aren't my students at all, aren't my students yet, or are no longer my students. It can be a little annoying, especially when I'm engaged in something else. It can annoy and it can exhaust, as often it'll take me out of my stream of thought, and it's really hard to get back on that train.


Whenever I start to feel that prickle of annoyance boil up within me, I think back to a distinct moment during my Physics undergrad, 10 years ago. Sweet Jesus, that was a while ago. Anyway, I was but a young buck, barely a man of 21. The year was 2007, and I had just started my journey into Physics. I was filled with questions and a lack of understanding of so much. At the time I was in Physics 151, the lowest-level physics course you could take while still being relevant to a major in physics. There were a lot of new concepts and I liked to ask questions.

On one particular day, I had a question and couldn't find my professor. So, I went around the physics department looking for him. During my search I came across another physics professor. He was an older guy, one of those that had been in the department for decades. I figured he'd know the answer, so I figured that I could ask him instead.

I don't remember the question that I asked him, nor do I remember the exact wording of his response. However, I do remember him saying something along the lines of "You're not my student. I don't answer questions if you're not my student."

A dismissal like that seems pretty trivial in retrospect, however that interaction has been burned in my mind since, and will remain there until the day I die. It made me feel so insignificant at the time; like I was worth so little that he couldn't even bother to answer a question that may have taken maybe only 5 minutes of his time. It's absolutely silly, but there will always be a part of me that will hate him for it. Not because of what he said, but because of how he made me feel.

To ensure that I'll never make someone feel like that ever, I answer what questions I can. Whether I know you or not, whether I teach you or not, I'll at the very least postpone an answer for a question that's sent my way. When I can tell a question wants to be asked but isn't, I'll prompt for it. I try to make sure that if someone has something to ask, even if they think it's the stupidest question to pose, I can make some space for it. And when that feeling of annoyance comes up, I breathe. I remind myself that they're just trying to learn, that they're just looking for a resource, and that I can help.