Asking for tech help the right way

Here’s the problem: a lot of people have one, maybe more, tech friends in their life. Unbeknownst to you, that person is likely the tech person for others as well. In any case, they get tech support requests from friends and family. Most of those tech people are happy to help–but without the right information, they can’t–and there’s nothing more annoying. A lot of the tech requests we get are the equivalent of telling someone their food tastes bad, but offering no other information. How are they to diagnose anything?

A lot of people will ask, “My X doesn’t work, do you know why?” Nope, we don’t have a clue, because you haven’t told us anything else. It’s inconsiderate of their time. In most cases, there will be some kind of error message which contains information needed to diagnose a problem. Moreover, in a lot of cases, the tech person will simply search the error message online, and will tell you the same thing. There’s no magic here: we’re just looking things up. Do everyone involved a favor: look for an error message, search it up, and see if the solutions online solve your problem. Most of the time, they will. Usually, there will be several solutions that address different reasons for the error, and the first one may not work, but one of them will. You might want to check for the most recent solution to the problem, since that might be most relevant to your case.

But maybe you have done this. You’ve searched it up, you’ve looked at the solutions and tried them, but none of them work. At this point, it’s worth asking for help. It’s best to present your research when asking for help: “My X doesn’t work, and it gives me an error saying Y. I tried A, B, and C as suggested online, but those didn’t help.” When you present it this way, they know you have at least tried something, and they have much more information. The error message usually specifies what the problem is (or why something didn’t work), and your attempts show what didn’t already work. It saves everyone’s time and respects theirs. Remember: they’re volunteering their time to help you. They could be doing some work, or watching Netflix, or whatever they want to do, instead of helping you.

Stack Overflow gets a mean reputation for this, but it’s at least partly justified: people volunteering their time to help others with their code were tired of people posting questions with little to no research, and expecting others to do all the work for them. Try something, see if it works, and if it doesn’t, tell us what you tried. This is helpful because you could be close to the solution, and someone can tweak your existing code instead of starting from scratch.

A related issue is the XY problem. This refers to a situation where you want to solve a problem X. You think doing Y would work, but you can’t figure out how to do Y, so you ask how to do that. The problem here is that you don’t know if Y would help solve X; moreover, there could be a better way to do X in the first place. This is an example of an XY problem: the OP wanted to get the unique set of values in each column of a CSV, but asked a very different question.

It’s not a big ask: do your research, ask the right question, and show what you tried.

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