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How to Get What You Need From Q/A Sites

Revised 2014/09/09

A small glass of beer Sooner or later every web developer will need to use a Q/A site. How do they improve their chances of getting help?

Every web developer has those days when they run into a problem that has no apparent solution and every attempted solution fails. So they have to look to external sources and most commonly they look to a Q/A site, forum, or other online sources. Some get help in minutes others hang around for days without ever getting the problem solved. Why do these sites just not work for some? Maybe I can offer some advice.

What qualifies me to give such advice? I participate on about a dozen sites offering my time and effort to help solve problems. There are a number of other members of this site who also participate as expert volunteers. One thing I know we agree on is that if you don't get the help you need on Q/As, then look in the mirror for the problem.

All kinds of people use Q/A ranging from long time professionals to novices working on their first page. They have in common that they need help. Those that fail to get the help they need share a common trait; they do not have a clue about how these things work, and are not open to learning.

Q/A does not exist to blow smoke up your butt and tell you what a great job you are doing. If you are not prepared to hear negative stuff and criticism then hire a hooker who will tell you what you want to hear. It won't solve your problem, but then you won't get your ego bruised.

So, let's get to it. Q/A from the expert side of things.

Here you come. Who are you? Have you given the site volunteers any clue about your skill level; the job you are in; your culture; your language limitations?

To ask a question, you probably had to register , but did you also provide some information by filling out the profile. Did you supply information to help others understand who you are? If not, then do not be surprised if they say something insensitive or you think they have insulted you. Without information about yourself, you start out on the bottom rung. Your assumed skill level will be set by individual members at some arbitrary level that they apply to strangers asking questions, and they will assume you are part of their culture.

Next. What do you want? The responsibility to explain the problem and supply the necessary information to solve the problem is on YOU. If the experts trying to help don't understand what you want; most will simply ignore your request. Many will not be willing to waste their time coaching you on how to ask a question. If they find themselves ASKING questions they will lose interest before they get to the ANSWER part.

The problem is in a page? Have you included a link to the page? There is a code based problem? Ten lines of code where you THINK there is a problem is probably worthless without context. Too much is always better than not enough. A screenshot of a page tells what the page looks like and gives absolutely ZERO INFORMATION about why it looks that way. The problem is not the way the page looks. The problem is the code that causes it to render that way. Don't waste the time of volunteers, by expecting them to dig through crap trying to figure out what you need help with.

Why should anyone with the skill to solve problems spend time on a site helping without being paid? Let's look at motivation: status and stature; enjoyment from teaching; helping results in learning more; it is fun; challenging competition. All interesting, but the truth is that in the end it comes down to EGO. Volunteers on Q/A sites do what they do because it feeds their ego no matter what other reason they might give. On Q/A sites the relationship is expert volunteers lead and you are the grateful student. If you try to change that relationship, you will find that the best of the expert volunteers will not offer you much help. You are the student; not a boss.

It should be noted that there is a different relationship when the person seeking help is an established member of the expert elite. In that case the relationship is a collaboration. Therefore if you can answer questions, you will improve the response you get by participating as an expert volunteer.

A Few Rules

  1. Give the volunteers enough information about you and your situation so they can give you information in a form you will easily understand.
  2. Post a link or enough code to give the volunteers something to experiment with.
  3. Be prepared to do some work. The volunteers are not going to do everything for you or complete a full project. They are there to offer advice and help. They are not there to do your work for you.
  4. Respond in a timely manner to comments posted by volunteers.
  5. Be polite. You may be frustrated and tired, but the satisfaction you get from issuing an insult will cost you big time if the volunteers walk away because they think you are a jerk or a troll.
  6. Do not get into an argument or debate with the volunteers... you will always lose because they can just quit on you at any time.
  7. Sometimes "you can't do that" is the correct response. If you insist on doing what cannot be done then you look like a moron and you will probably get treated that way.

Finally, remember to say thank you. comment box The next time you need help, you will be remembered; and the response you get will reflect the impression you left behind.

Every year millions of questions get answered on thousands of Q/As and forums. Most of them result in top-quality answers and about 15% do not go well. If you find yourself in that 15%, then you need to ask yourself why the same expert volunteers doing good work 85% of the time are not giving you what you need. The only thing that is different in your question and the 85% is your involvement. So if you are going to fix that problem you need to start with the most likely cause of the problem... YOU.


Comment by: drifter 2013-06-04 13:40:39

You know this actually works. It used to take me a lot longer to get answers and some jerk was always yelling at me about something. After I read this I tried seeing it from the other side and I'm getting a lot better results.

Best of all no one is yelling at me. :)

There is a little Homer Simpson in all of us
big D

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