A Guide to Getting What You Need from Very Busy People

As a software developer, you will almost certainly have more available time than the key decision makers on your project. Before you find yourself totally blocked, it’s important to make good use of the time you do get with them. Here are five ways to make the most of that time.

1. Ask in Writing First

Before attempting to schedule any time for a meeting, I have found it best to ask your questions in writing. That might be as simple as drafting a quick email or Slack message. More complicated issues might warrant a markdown file or code snippets. Whatever the format, capturing questions in writing first is always helpful.

For the simpler questions, you may get your answers back via email or Slack. This prevents wasting time scheduling and participating in unnecessary meetings. For the bigger issues that do end up requiring a meeting, your written request can set the discussion up for success by providing an informal meeting agenda.

It can also be helpful to reply to your original messages after the meeting with a quick summary of any major decisions made. This clears up any lingering uncertainty and makes it easier for your decision maker to confirm the plan set during the meeting.

2. Come with Your Own Answers

I like to show up to meetings with a proposed solution to my problem. Problem solving — brainstorming ideas, evaluating potential tradeoffs, creating plans, etc. — is time-consuming work. It’s helpful when people who have the most available time do the bulk of it.

Having an example of a possible solution can be a big help and a time saver. It’s much easier and quicker for your decision maker to either approve the proposal or point out flaws in the plan that need to be addressed.

3. Be Thoughtful About Other Attendees

A meeting with a large audience (such as a daily standup) is usually not the right place to seek clarity from your decision maker. You’ll be aware that the discussion is irrelevant to several people listening, and your conversation will likely be rushed or unfocused. Instead, opt for dedicated time with the decision maker.

If other people need to be present at your meeting with the decision maker, make sure they all have enough context about the issue. If possible, spend time getting the non-critical participants up to speed on the matter ahead of time. Otherwise, keep the audience very small, and communicate outcomes to the larger group after the fact.

4. Keep a List of Low-Priority Questions

This likely goes without saying, but try to take advantage of every minute scheduled. Have an ongoing list of minor, non-blocking issues that you’d like the decision maker’s input on. If there are a few extra minutes left at the end of your meeting, request to move the discussion to another issue. It can be courteous to give a warning when doing so, in case other meeting attendees would prefer to drop out.

5. Be Opportunistic with Last-Minute Schedule Changes

When someone’s daily agenda is always very full, it’s also likely that there will be a lot of last-minute adjustments to that schedule. Try to be aware of these cancellations. If a meeting you were both invited to gets canceled, or if someone mentions an event getting rescheduled, that means some time just became available. Is there something you feel ready to discuss? Suggest an impromptu meeting to replace the original event.