Understanding understanding

I have spent the past month talking individually with everyone on my team (there are 13 people, not including me), and something kept coming up in every conversation: knowing how to find information.

WordPress is a content management system, and Happiness Engineers are knowledge managers. To be successful long-term, Happiness Engineers really need to understand how they understand what they need to understand (🙃 ). In other words, the most successful Happiness Engineers do not rely on memorizing answers. That isn’t true knowledge acquisition, and it’s certainly not a scalable knowledge management system (unless you’re a computer, in which case, database tables are exactly designed for you!). The most successful Happiness Engineers have considered carefully how they approach understanding the question being asked, and how to approach providing an answer.

It’s vital the Happiness Engineers know how to parse a customer’s questions — we don’t always use the same words so clarifying questions are helpful. Similarly, sometimes a screenshot speaks a thousand words! A trap that Happiness Engineers should always be careful of falling into is thinking “I absolutely know exactly what this customer needs,” without first confirming the request with the customer. We’ve all seen those memes where a comma placement changes the tenor and fundamental meaning of a sentence. Well, same thing here.

The other thing that a Happiness Engineer needs to be able to do is know how to find the information they need. We have a wealth of information at our fingertips. Some of it is internal, some of it is external. Internally, it might be on a P2 (we have 672,000 posts on more than 700 P2s), it might be in the Field Guide, it might be in Github or Trac. It could be in a Slack conversation (or in IRC, for the teams that still use IRC regularly… Systems). Considering that WordPress.com is always changing and we’re constantly tuning, patching, fixing, polishing, and overhauling, the idea that you might be able to “just remember” everything is ludicrous.

Therefore, the best skills you can develop are cousins — understanding what is being asked, and understanding how to find the answer. Quality is deeply embedded in each of these. Wanting to know exactly what a customer is asking, and what they have in mind as an ultimate goal is the precursor to being able to provide a top quality reply. If any customer could only see one sentence from any Happiness Engineer, it should be a sentence they can understand and feel empowered by – that’s only something you can do when quality matters. Just as you need to think critically when a customer asks a question, you must think critically when asking yourself what your next steps should be.

Knowing where to search for an answer is definitely a skill. While we have a global search that can find answers in Slack, P2, the Field Guide, and our support documentation, sometimes nuance is lost in the volume of returns. It’s typically easier to find what you need if you know where you should be looking in the first place, specifically. What P2 does information like that usually reside on? This sounds like it would be in Github. I can check the theme Trac to see if this is a known bug. It’s the difference between looking for a specific tree in a forest, and looking for a specific pen in a cup.

We also need to be able to rely on our peers. Occasionally an informed search fails. We know the answer exists, but we can’t find our way to it. In those cases, asking our peers almost always unearths what we need. Everyone thinks a little bit differently, and those variations give us the ability to reach out through someone else and find information that may be eluding us. In our work, we want people who think and approach work differently from each other, but who understand the work in the same way. Those differences are actually what makes our ability to efficiently and effectively find solutions possible.

Finally, it’s vital that Happiness Engineers never stop learning. Knowledge isn’t static, and our ability to reflect on the meta of how we’re understanding something is something we should take pride in. It’s something we should be doing regularly and with vigor. It’s at the heart of asking a “stupid” question in a public place. It’s what underlies our ability to change our minds and to try something new — a new way of searching, a new way of talking with our customers, a new way of solving a problem we think we already know. It’s the mentality behind saying “how’d you know to do that?” and “can you show me that again?” Most importantly, it’s the only way to be able to use “I don’t understand” as a tool to move towards wisdom. And really, when we get right down to brass tacks, we want Happiness Engineers who know that the only way to understand is to walk deliberately towards things they don’t understand, with the intent to find out.

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