Saturday, February 15, 2014

On Asking for Help

I've noticed a disturbing trend on Server Fault lately. People are asking for help with things that they have not tried to find the answer to themselves. Some of the regulars on the site have speculated that it's concentrated within certain cultures. Others have said that it's from a younger inexperienced generation that want quick answers. I'm not sure if either of those are accurate, but it's got to stop for the long-term success of our profession.

You are doing it wrong if you are asking for help on a public website and you haven't tried to solve the problem yourself. Imagine that you ask a question about DNS and you haven't even read the Wikipedia article on DNS, never mind a more in-depth source like the relevant RFCs. When I start asking followup questions about your TTL or rDNS settings, you are extremely ill-equipped to answer. You have to ask a followup question - this leads to even more followup questions. Now you're bordering on annoying. Someone has taken time out of their day to help you and you can't even give that person the info they need without asking additional questions. This is bad. You should be embarrassed about your lack of preparedness. You should be even more embarrassed if you do this to a co-worker instead of a stranger on the Internet.

Many times when this happens, the person asking the question doesn't know that they should be embarrassed. They just want their free help from the free website rather than actually wanting to learn something.

As an IT professional, we need to know when we should seek help. I'm not suggesting that people should barge head-first into projects that they can't wrap their heads around. What I am saying is that you should do background research on the topic and read the manufacturer's documentation before asking any questions about the product. If you don't read or can't understand documentation, then you're doomed to toil away as a junior-level admin for your career.

Before asking for help, especially on a free website from people that you don't know, you should have completed the following:

  1. You should have read the documentation for the product. All of it. I don't care if it's 200 pages. If you haven't read it, then you aren't prepared to manage the product.
  2. You should have tried to resolve the issue yourself. Be prepared to talk about what you did and why it didn't work.
  3. You should use the proper terminology. If you're asking an AD question and you say PDC/BDC, I can only assume you're talking about an NT4 domain. If you aren't, then I'm hesitant to answer, because I assume I'm going to have to educate you on the last 15 years of directory services before my answer makes sense.

Everyone runs into problems, but there is a clear "right way" and a clear "wrong way" to ask for help. When you don't try and solve your own problem before asking for assistance, you appear helpless and you should be embarrassed. If you don't appear embarrassed, then you appear clueless and that may be even worse.


  1. Well stated. In regards to using Wikipedia as a reference though, I always cross-reference any information from that site as it is community maintained as well. Not saying it's wrong to reference, but the information may be 95% instead of 100% correct. Best recommendation is research wisely... I'm a newer user of Server Fault and other Stack Exchange sites and I've noticed the same trend, even homework problems being posted. As someone who tries to use the sites for legitimate information and provide assistance when possible it is annoying to try to help people who haven't put in their due diligence. Just wanted you to know you're not alone...

  2. As far as i can tell, the "certain cultures" part is true where I'm living.

  3. Indeed. Some questions you see on diverse forums are jsut plain lazyness. I don't think it's a cultural thing though. Also, people should learn to google first, 99/100 times they're not the first person with that specific problem or question... :)