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Buck Woody

Carpe Datum!

Make it Easy for People to Help You

OK, there are probably a dozen or more of these kinds of posts, but I’ll dive in anyway. From time to time, people send me e-mails or comments on this blog asking for help. Sometimes it’s on the topic at hand, and other times the topic just jogs their memory about something else.

Often I’m happy to help. If I know the answer without doing any research (or even if I have to do a little) I’ll interrupt what I’m doing and dash out a note with the answer. But of course I have a job (three, to be exact) and so any time I help with a question I’m lengthening my day, spending less time with my family, and so on. If you think about it, everyone that you ask (and everyone I ask) is in the same boat – when someone helps me, I am taking their most valuable asset: their time. So I learned a very important lesson very early on: Make it easy for people to help you.

So here’s the steps to follow to do that – it really isn’t that hard:

  1. Request, don’t demand. I got an e-mail yesterday (on Sunday) where someone found a blog entry about one topic, and basically said this about another topic: “Tell me where I can find ‘x’ so that I can alter it.” Guess what I did? That’s right, I hit the delete key. If you are asking a question from a professional, you need to understand that they normally get paid – very well, sometimes – for their time. Make sure your question is a question, not a demand.
  2. Be clear about the problem. Vague statements don’t help – and very few people have the time to dig the real question out of you. Be specific. Ask the single question you really need help with.
  3. Keep the problem limited. “Rewrite my code for me” isn’t going to happen. “help me with this line” might. “Where do I go to find out more about the SELECT statement” is even better. If your problem takes more than a few minutes for someone to answer, then you should probably get someone on-site to help you.
  4. Explain what you’ve already done. This, of course, means you’ve already actually done something. What have you looked up, what do you already understand, where have you looked, what have you tried?
  5. Be polite. Please and Thank You are magic words, whether you get the answer you were looking for or not.

I’ll add one thing when you’re responding to a blog – not just mine, anyone’s. If you want to ask a question, ask it as a reply to a post, not an e-mail. The author wants to answer the question once, and it’s almost a guarantee that you’re not the only one with that question. Also, other readers might know the exact answer and help you even more. I know, you have to register, all that stuff. Just consider it the price of getting your answer.

Published Monday, February 8, 2010 7:17 AM by BuckWoody
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mjswart said:

I had a chance to talk with Steve Jones last year (I doubt he remembers) and I follow his advice. He says he replies to question-askers by asking them to post the same question in some forum (Me, I always suggest stackoverflow, especially if I don't know the answer myself)

After all, sharing knowledge is what the MVP program seeks to recognize, right? And by redirecting the discussion to some other forum it helps everyone out.

February 8, 2010 11:30 AM

AaronBertrand said:

Plus, there are plenty of people on StackOverflow and such places that will be meticulous about making sure the poster follows at least some of Buck's suggestions above.  :-)

February 8, 2010 11:57 AM

Adam Machanic said:

Here's the ultimate guide to properly getting help:

February 9, 2010 10:45 AM

BuckWoody said:

Wow Adam - that IS comprehensive!  I wonder if the folks who say "do my work for me" are going to take the time to read that?

February 9, 2010 11:08 AM

Adam Machanic said:

They will if you send them the link as--and as often as--necessary.

February 9, 2010 11:28 AM
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