Greetings. If you have arrived at this page via your own volition and intent then be aware that this is an abridged, slightly more modern, IRC specific version of Eric S. Raymond’s “How to ask questions the smart way” which is excellent, but lengthy, reading.
If, on the other hand, you have been directed to this page by someone else and quickly want to find out what this is about, Read on.
How to ask for help properly
- Don’t ask to ask
- Give the helpers some details
- Ask suitable questions
- Be polite
For the purposes of this article I will introduce “Terry” and “Gonad” (Of “Zero punctuation” fame). Terry shall be our long suffering helper in the “Spiffy” project’s IRC channel and Gonad shall be the person asking for help (badly).
1 - Don’t ask to ask
This one drives people up the wall and many channels have special bots that will print out an entire spiel about not asking to ask, so let’s get it out of the way first.
1 2 3 4
Let us look at the obvious first. The entire channel is dedicated towards helping people with Spiffy, this is usually hinted at in the channel name and outright does in the topic. Do you think they have a personal grudge against you that is going to stop them answering? (they might possibly later, but right now it is a blank slate) of course they can help you. Just ask the question straight out.
What Gonad should have done was:
1 2 3
Which leads us nicely onto the next point
2 - Give the helpers some details.
Let us follow on from the previous point and continue Gonad’s sentence.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Moral of the story, “Helpers are not psychic”. When you post a problem we need something to go on. Preferably some or all of the following:
- The error page (Or output thereof).
- A list of steps taken which generated this error page and what you are expecting it to do instead of the error.
- The version of the software you are running along with any plugins you might have installed. If you think it is pertinent then the OS version and Database if used.
A note about including error pages or output. Because these things are traditionally huge, pasting them directly into the channel will make you as well liked as a clown at a funeral. Instead use a “paste” website like “Pastie”, “Pastebin” or “Gist” and then paste the URL into the channel. These sites also offer syntax highlighting which is very useful.
If the problem is complicated, or the steps very detailed, then consider posting a summary in IRC and more detail in your linked paste.
So once more let’s look at what Gonad should have done.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
And they all lived happily ever after.
3 - Ask suitable questions.
I hang around in some programming channels and every now and then we get a question illustrated by the following:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Let us take a real-world equivalent. Your town has a local club of burly men, covered in engine oil, who like messing around with car engines: tuning, fixing and the like and they meet every night. Now imagine a someone walks into their workshop and asks “Hey guys, I want to design and build an engine, can you quickly tell me how to do that? I have my notepad and everything”
Be thankful that at least online you have a certain amount of anonymity and are not vulnerable to immediate physical retribution.
We are a help channel, this means we usually answer technical questions. We sometimes answer non-technical questions but don’t ask anything that will require an entire business/technical specification or 4 year education course to answer
Further reading on this subject can be read at the “Help Vampire” site (Which is very funny and better illustrated that this site). Make sure you don’t end up as one.
4 - Be polite
Common sense dictates that when you put yourself in a position where you are relying on the kindness of strangers if behoves you to be polite to those strangers.
Remember how much you paid for the support contract on the software? Exactly. 99.99% of the helpers are not being paid, they are volunteers and generally nice people doing this because they like the warm fuzzy feeling they get from helping. Acting like a prat really discourages them from continuing this noble endeavour.
Examples of bad behaviour:
- Being arrogant.
- Discarding/ignoring answers because they aren’t quick fixes or require using your brain a bit
- Not thinking for yourself and expecting to be spoon fed. (Not Googling your problem before asking is a prime example).
5 - Wait
This is the internet, land of many timezones. Therefore questions might not be answered immediately. Let us look at Gonad again.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Sometimes answers can take hours/days in a relatively quiet channel, state your question and wait. Most people will type your nick when replying so make sure your IRC client is set to alert you when your nick is typed.
If you have read this far and actually read everything then congratulations. You should now know enough to not be a prat and get ignored whenever you ask a question in IRC. However this is only the first step; I still recommend reading Eric S. Raymond’s “How to ask questions the smart way” for a more thorough explanation of everything… go on, don’t be adequate, go and be clued up.
Real Life Examples.
Fun competition time. Can you sees what rules are being broken with the following real life examples? (Names changed to protect the… innocent.)
1 2 3
1 2 3 4 5