How to ask for help

Tuesday 6 January 2004

I like being part of the wider geek community. When I’ve written a piece of code that I think works well and solves a problem that other people will have, I like to share it so other people can use it. When people have problems with those pieces of code, I like to help them. But people, please, learn how to ask effectively.

This is an actual email I received this morning, referring to a cursor creation function I posted at pygame.org:

Hey, I’m in a hurry, so this isn’t going to tell too much. I was having problems with your cursors pygame code. See if you can see what’s wrong/fix it. I need to leave the office, see you later.

What am I supposed to do with this? Even if I wanted to spend time figuring out what this guy needs, where would I start? There’s no information here. When asking for help, keep these tips in mind:

  • Ask nicely.
  • Put some effort into your question.
  • Be specific about the problem you are having. If you say, “I was having problems”, I’m going to have to say, “What problems?” You might as well send the actual error message (or whatever) the first time.

This isn’t just me being difficult. These things always make it easier for the helper to help the helpee.

Comments

[gravatar]
Jim Dabell 7:40 AM on 6 Jan 2004


Yeah, I notice things like that fairly often. Send them links to How To Ask Questions The Smart Way.

[gravatar]
Ben Langhinrichs 8:25 AM on 6 Jan 2004

I get questions like this for my products, and I am always amazed that people have such faith in my intuitive powers.

Of course, since the products are commercial and provide my living, I answer as nicely as possible and try to elicit more information, but you can be sure that far fewer of these queries get a final resolution than those which provide a clear, coherent explanation of the problem, and possibly even a sample db or script or something to look at.

[gravatar]
Ben Poole 9:05 AM on 6 Jan 2004

Oh those emails.... sigh.

You mean you can't read minds or access enquirers' screens by telepathy?

Dammit Mr. Batchelder, how can you call yourself a software engineer?

[gravatar]
freddyMac 10:49 AM on 6 Jan 2004

Why is there air?
- Bill Cosby

[gravatar]
Bob 3:22 PM on 6 Jan 2004

Reminds me of postings in Usenet comp.lang groups made by students asking questions that were clearly homework assignments. (Hey, I'll get Usenet to do my homework for me...)

[gravatar]
Jeremy Dunck 4:13 PM on 6 Jan 2004

Bob:
Because the Earth has gravitational pull whose force exceeded the escape velocity of the molecules in proximity. And because the molecules in question are in a gas state in the thermal range typical on Earth.

Next? :)

[gravatar]
Jordan 4:17 PM on 6 Jan 2004

I spend a lot of time answering questions at PHP-Forum.com, which is generally rewarding, but when we get questions like that (and we do, continually) it just makes me wish that it were possible to stab people in the face over the internet. And I spend a lot of time resisting the urge to just type RTFM.

[gravatar]
Jake 3:02 PM on 7 Jan 2004

Wow. that's an amazingly rude request for help. I don't think I'd even respond to that one.

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