Quite recently I came across a number of texts (e.g. “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?“), which suggest that trying to be helpful to others is not only altruistic, but also helps the giving person. This is certainly true for me, so let me tell you my story.
My employer is running a number of internal mailing lists that cover all our products and are used by folks to discuss all sorts of (mainly technical) stuff. I have been subscribed to many of those lists for close to ten years now and they helped me to learn an awful lot about our products and their real-world application.
Most of this information cannot be found in official documentation or training, simply because it is relevant only in a very specific context. What I realized, though, is that it is exactly this context-specificity, which helped me understand the products better. Because if you discuss, along with your own use-case, the border conditions, you develop a “feeling” how the software works internally. And this, in turn, allows you to analyze totally new use-cases.
So on average I spend about 30-60 minutes per day on those mailing lists (you typically get 150-200 mails per day in total). Some of them I just scan through rather quickly. But others I follow much more closely. And of course after some time I had identified various folks that stood out in terms of amount and quality of their contributions. Many of them I have never met personally in all those years because they live on another continent. But still we have a relationship.
After some time, when I had learned enough from following the lists as well as my actual work with some of the tools, I started answering questions myself. Soon enough people knew my areas of expertise and also added my personal email address next to the mailing lists when sending their questions, to make sure I would take a look.
So apart from my ego, how did helping others on the mailing lists help me? The obvious thing is that I am known to be an expert on various topics (e.g. ALM, performance, HA) for our products. But more importantly, when I have a question, people are willing to spend time and return the favor. Because, on the other hand, we all know the lone wolf character who only asks, but never helps others. And guess how many replies they usually get …
The same approach also works on public mailing lists, by the way. In the mid-1990s I had basically the same experience in the Novell NetWare group of the German FidoNet (basically a proprietary version of UseNet). I was a university student then and also had my own small company. Following the group was critical to building up my NetWare expertise, which I then used to charge a nice (at the time) hourly rate.
In conclusion I cannot overestimate the role that helping others played on my professional success. Plus, it feels really good :-).