Book Preview: On Being Questioned

(Here’s an excerpt from my book “The Four Questions Every Monitoring Engineer is Asked”. To keep reading, check out this page for the print and ebook editions:

How to Handle Being Questioned

Too often in our daily work in IT, being questioned causes us to go on the defense, to look for reasons to reject either the question or the questioner. Challenges to our work, our designs or our processes, even sincere and thoughtful ones, can be hard to respond to dispassionately. It can be emotionally fraught because it inspires fears about one’s expertise, reputation, or the result of hours of hard work.

On Pesach (Passover) night, there is a framework that may potentially help us move past those feelings. We find that framework in the narrative of the Four Children. As Rabbi Davidovich mentioned in Chapter Five, they are actually described as four sons in the traditional text, although this has been updated to gender-neutral descriptions in more modern versions of the Haggadah.

חָכָם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר?
Chacham mah hu omer?”
The wise child, what does he ask?”

מַה הָעֵדוֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם?
Mah ha-eidot v’hachukim v’hamishpatim, asher tzivah Adonai Eloheinu etchem?
What is the meaning of the laws and traditions God has commanded?” (Deuteronomy 6:20) is the answer.

And how are we, around the table, expected to answer? The Haggadah supplies us with the words from the Talmud:

וְאַף אַתָּה אֱמָר לוֹ כְּהִלְכוֹת הַפֶּסַח: אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר
הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן.
V’af atah emor lo k’hilchot hapesach. Ein maftirin achar hapesach afikoman.”
You should teach him all the traditions of Pesach, even to the last detail.”

The four sons run the gamut of personality types; from smart to stupid, outright rebellious to merely reticent. The Haggadah labels them the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the son who doesn’t know how to ask. But because I love alliteration, I’m referring to them here as the Scholar, the Skeptic, the Simple, and the Silent.

Regardless of moniker, each asks their own variation of the same basic question, “What is going on here?” As mentioned before, the Scholar makes a detailed request for detailed answers.

Like the response to the Scholar, the Haggadah records answers to the Skeptic, Simple, and Silent children that each meet them at their place and attempt to move them forward toward understanding.

This leads to the first, and most obvious, lesson the Haggadah provides on this topic: that we need to meet people where they are and proceed from there. Giving the Scholar’s answer to the Simple child will not only not answer the question they asked, but it can shut down any possibility of dialogue and further questions.

But this is by no means the only lesson we should take away.


Dig deeper still and you’ll find a lesson that hits at the heart of the problem I identified earlier. This lesson isn’t about the imaginary four children at all. It’s a pedagogical cautionary tale. To the rabbis, teachers, preachers, tale-spinners, and lesson-givers, the narrative of the four children whispers, “If you are not ready for these and the hundreds of variations of these archetypes, you are not truly ready to teach. Share what you’ve learned, because Judaism (and, for that matter, IT) values everyone sharing their knowledge, but understand that these are common learning modalities and, as a true teacher, you cannot pick and choose the students who will come to you seeking answers.”

This translates to our work as monitoring professionals. If we are not prepared to present, explain, and even defend our solutions to each of the “children,” it’s incumbent upon us to go back and prepare more diligently, document more clearly, and find additional ways of speaking to both the overarching philosophy of monitoring and the specific details of this implementation. We need to be ready, willing, able, and excited to:

  • Answer all the detailed questions of the Scholar and their likely follow-up questions. Be prepared to also provide architecture diagrams, process flows, and unit test results.
  • Respond to the Skeptic’s challenging questions without rising to the bait that their sharp words might elicit.
  • Answer simply when presented with simple questions.
  • And finally, explain monitoring in a way that engages the Silent child so they’ll be inspired to ask questions of their own.
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