Whenever I spend any amount of time playing with sophisticated new software, I usually break things or maybe never quite get them working properly in the first place. Luckily, I can tap into the expertise handful of incredibly patient people who spend a considerable amount of time helping me put them back together again (or get them working in the first place).
When telling a friend that a lot of people are incredibly generous with their time but I secretly wonder if they all hate me, he shared this post explaining how to ask technical questions the smart way. This incredibly thorough post, incidentally, is not all that dissimilar from books like the Hamster Revolution or advice I’ve gotten from friends on what to write in emails to score interviews with busy people.I recommend reading the whole post, but here are some suggestions that stuck out to me…
- Drop the sense of entitlement. Nobody owes you an answer to your questions, even if you have problems and they have the ability to solve them. Don’t act like anybody owes you anything–they don’t. And asking for pointers or resources is preferable to asking for exact answers.
- Do your homework before asking questions. I think we can all relate to someone asking us a question that they could just find the answer to online or in free resources we offer. It’s frustrating and time-consuming and doesn’t have good prospects for actually helping the person in question, who comes across as lazy. When people feel technically inept, they often forget about this. Before asking for help, try to help yourself by reading the manual, using the Google machine, looking through the archives of the list you want to post to, experimenting, asking skilled friends, or reading the source code (if you can grok it). If you’re going to post on a forum or list, make sure you’ve spent some time researching it and are reasonably sure that it is the correct place to ask.
- Mention what you’ve done ahead of time and what you’ve learned from it. This is a mistake I’ve made, often saying things like “I spent 30 hours on this” or assuming that it was a given that I’d spent a lot of time trying to fix something before approaching someone for help. Instead of talking about how I’ve been working on trying to fix something forever, I could explain what I read and why it didn’t apply and what I may have gotten out of it. I’ve also made the mistake of trying to diagnose problems, instead of just describing what I tried and what happened to, you know, an expert who would actually be able to diagnose the problem.
- Write good subject headers. If you’re posting on a mailing list or forum, subject headers are important for getting the help you need. Make sure they’re specific and technical. The post explains that object-deviation subject headers are best, ones where you describe the thing that’s broken, followed by how it is broken. I’m thinking even if your contact with someone isn’t through an email list, having good headers (or asking the initial question in a logical way) would be just as important.
- Put some thought into your questions, and be sure to ask them in a logical order. I’ve found that throwing out multiple questions, even if well-researched, can be really frustrating for someone who wants to approach a problem in a linear and logical way. (Usually they’ll just say “STOP” and redirect the conversation, but delicate snowflakes like me probably want to avoid this from happening in the first place.)
- Be crazy specific. Just because you’re asking your questions in a logical way rather than delving into a prolonged monologue about Still Life With Laptop doesn’t mean that you can neglect to include all of the pertinent details, so make sure to describing the symptoms, when they occur, what you researched, what steps you’ve tried and the results, any relevant changes in your computer or software configuration, and how to reproduce the problem, if possible. Describe the symptoms in chronological order.
- Follow up to let people know (and say thank you) if something works. Jotting off a quick note to people who spent a lot of time helping you with a solution solution means they won’t feel like their work is disappearing into the ether.
Check out the full post here: How To Ask Questions The Smart Way. Also, my comments are working again; feel free to leave yours.