Asking Questions on Forums the Right Way

I’ve spent a lot of time on technical and non-technical forums over the last 10+ years. I’ve written thousands of posts on places like CPUG, CPshared, Thorntree, Packetpushers, NetOps, HP Support Forums, IEOC, etc. I’ve never received any financial gain for it, not even so much as a free T-shirt. No jobs, no promotions, nothing. But I believe that participation in technical forums is an important part of developing your career - you learn something technically, and maybe you’ll learn a bit about people along the way. I’ve also learnt a few things about the “right” way to participate in forums. I think I can sum them up as:

  1. We’re not mind readers
  2. You get what you pay for
  3. You get out what you put in

We’re Not Mind-Readers

We know nothing about your network. Nothing. You work on it every day, but we have had zero exposure to it. We know as much as you tell us, and nothing more. If you don’t tell us about the specifics of your topology, we don’t know it. If you don’t tell us exactly what the error message says, we can’t guess. So don’t hide things. When you’ve got a problem, tell us all the relevant information - what version are you running? On what OS? What changes did you make recently before it broke? What’s the full scope of what you’re trying to achieve? The last point in particular is important. I see people asking how to solve some very specific technical issue, without revealing the overall context - but then later when they do tell you, it turns out that their whole approach is flawed, and they’re never going to solve the issue that way. So tell us: What’s the overall problem you’re trying to solve, what steps have you taken to resolve it, and what results have you seen?

You Get What You Pay For

Almost all support forums are free. Volunteers like me get nothing for participating. We’re also quite probably in a different timezone to you. So don’t post a question, then 4 hours later post “No-one can help me??????? Plzzzzzzzzzzz it’s really urgent, my boss says I have to fix it!!!!! Waaaaaaaaaaaa!” We’re not paid support. If you need that, get a support contract. Hey, if you’ve got a support contract, you should be logging a case through there too. If there hasn’t been any answers after a few days, it’s either because no-one knows the answer, or you haven’t given it enough time. No need to bump it. We’ve seen your post, and we’re not ignoring you - well unless you’re being obstructive with providing information, or have proven difficult to help in the past.

You Get Out What You Put In

You get out what you put in - don’t just expect to take. You need to put in something too, or people will stop answering your questions. You will frustrate people if you seem unwilling to do ANY work yourself. If you just post “Help my boss gave me this project and I don’t know anything” people aren’t so willing to help. You have to do some work yourself. Show us that you’ve tried something, you’ve tested some hypothesis, and you’ve collected some results, but you’re still confused. People are much more willing to help if you’ve made an effort yourself.

If you want to really frustrate those who try to offer advice, the most annoying thing you can do is abandon your question. Many, many times I answer a question, or at least propose some possible solutions, only to never hear back from the original poster. If I’ve taken the time to respond, the least you can do is let us know if it helped or not. But if you want to really, really annoy people for years to come, you post a complex problem, maybe get some answers, then later respond with “Oh don’t worry, it’s fixed now”…and leave us hanging! Remember, people are going to come across this years into the future. Do them a favour, and let them know what the fix was. If you really don’t know why it works now, then at least say that. It’s OK. We’ve had those bugs too. But don’t imply you’ve done something to fix it, but hoard that knowledge. Pay back the help you get.

Don’t Be Afraid to Jump in

Forums are great. There’s an amazing amount of knowledge freely shared. But there’s also a lot of dross. Jump in and help out. Answer questions. You might not know a lot about the technology, but if there’s a question you can answer, then start there. You’ll grow, and maybe you’ll just make someone else’s day that bit better.