How to Ask for Help

Like many other technical bloggers, I receive requests for help on a regular basis. Since I’m constantly learning and evolving I approach others for help as well. A couple of years ago, I received an email from a new reader which began with:

Always two there are, no more, no less: a master and an apprentice.

The line is from Star Wars, of course. Being a huge geek, it’s easy to understand how his email got my attention right away. His approach was polite, respectful, and most importantly demonstrated that he had in fact read some of my blog. That got me thinking, what are some tips I could give my readers on how to ask for help? Of course, I couldn’t just produce a list. In my geekitude, I have prepared a list of movie scenes to explain my suggestions.

Show Respect

What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? – Godfather

Be respectful in your request and if at all possible, offer your friendship before you need help. Attend user group meetings and get to know people. Volunteer. If it’s a forum, do your best to participate and help others in the forum. As in the movie, you’re more likely to get help when you need it if you already belong to a group.

Be Nice (Politeness)

Be Nice

If somebody gets in your face and calls you a &^*%*$!!!, I want you to be nice. Ask him to walk. Be nice. If he won’t walk, walk him. But be nice. If you can’t walk him, one of the others will help you, and you’ll both be nice. I want you to remember that it’s a job. It’s nothing personal.- Dalton in Road House

Don’t go overboard but a complimentary remark never hurts when asking for help. If you’ve seen them present, read their blog, or answer questions in forums, complement them on their abilities. Just make sure that your compliments are sincere. I can’t tell you how many “requests” I’ve gotten for help which sounded more like demands for help. People don’t tend to respond well to demands.

Communicate Clearly

Chris Tucker

Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?!?!? – Detective Carter in Rush Hour

Take some time and compose your question so it can be easily read and understood. If I have to waste cycles trying to decode your question, or need additional information, chances are that I won’t bother. In my experience, most people are like this. Depending on your problem, explain the steps you have taken to remedy your issue and the result of those attempts. Take time to use a code prettify-er before posting it and if possible the code to generate a sample data set people can use to help you. Make it easy for people to assist you. Now that I’ve just told you how complete your questions should be, remember that at the same time you should….

Be Brief

Let me ‘splain… No, there is too much. Let me sum up. Buttercup is marry’ Humperdinck in a little less than half an hour. So all we have to do is get in, break up the wedding, steal the princess, make our escape… after I kill Count Rugen – Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride

The longer your question, the less likely people are to read it. Therefore, it’s in your best interest to be as brief as possible while still providing the background information to solve your problem. Try to leave rants or opinion out of it and just state the facts.

Work for Your Own Answers

Wax On Wax Off

Before asking for help, do your due diligence. RTFM, Google it, and try to find the answer yourself. Nothing exasperates people more than being asked questions with simple answers that can be found in two minutes with a search engine. Make sure you indicate that you have already searched for the answer so others will take time to answer you. Sometimes the answer to a problem is as simple as knowing the right search terms.

Ask for Guidance, Not Solutions

It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory. Bruce Lee

This goes along with RTFM. People are more likely to help you if you ask for general direction and not the complete solution to your problem. People do not want to do your homework, but they will direct you to information sources that will help you. A question framed like, “Can anyone recommend a resource where I can learn to…..” is likely to be answered.

Be Patient

We’re running out of time!!!! – Jack Bauer in 24

You often see this in forums. “Help!!!! My Server is down and I have no backups!!!!” Then five minutes later the person bumps their topic again because people haven’t responded fast enough. If you have a time sensitive emergency, then pay for immediate support. Don’t expect a forum to substitute for that kind of assistance. Your behavior won’t get your question answered any faster, and may in fact alienate people who would normally be willing to help you.

Don’t be Greedy

The point is ladies and gentlemen that greed, for lack of a better word, is good.- Gordon Gekko in Wall Street

Yes, I know that the movie quote says the opposite, but stay with me. Similar to my last point, if you continuously ask questions without reciprocating, you may find that the answers stop coming. People don’t want to feel used, so you should prioritize your issues/questions and use community resources sparingly.

Don’t Argue

Pai Mei

That, my dearest, depends entirely on you. Now, remember: no sarcasm, no backtalk. At least not for the first year or so. You’re gonna have to let him warm up to you. – Bill in Kill Bill, Volume 2 (speaking about Pai Mei, plucker of eyes.)

I’ve seen this more times than I can count and it’s often hilarious. Some newbie asks for help on a forum regarding how often he should be shrinking his database. Paul Randal (Blog/Twitter), who has forgotten more about SQL Server than most will ever learn, advises him that shrinking should be avoided. The newbie then proceeds to argue because he heard somewhere that database shrinking is akin to nirvana. Will Paul pluck your eye out like the infamous Pai Mei? Probably not, though I wouldn’t bet against him having those skills. However, if you argue with folks trying to help you, you’ll most likely get less assistance next time.

If Possible, Offer to Pay

Give Me Paw!!!

Listen! We’re not just doing this for the money! We’re doing this for a S*** LOAD of money! -Lone Starr in Spaceballs

I’m not suggesting that everyone is motivated to help others by money, however it doesn’t hurt. In fact, you’ll most often find that people will refuse money that is coming out of our personal pocket. However, it does indicate to them that you are serious about getting help and answers. Also, offering to buy someone lunch or a drink or whatever goes a long way. I’ve bought more than a few meals in my day as a way of thanking people who helped me.

Follow Up

“Just pay it forward.” – Thorsen in Pay It Forward

If you ask a question on a forum, and you find the answer yourself, make sure to go back and update the thread with the answer you found. This gesture doesn’t benefit you personally, but it will help others when they have a similar problem.

Also, if a answer or suggestion helped you, follow up with the person and let them know. This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how often people neglect to do this. Let’s face it, it feels good to receive a thank you message, and you’re more likely to get help with your next question.

So, that’s my list. Do you folks have any other suggestions?

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