How To Answer Questions The Smart Way


Eric Raymond’s “How To Ask Questions the Smart Way” was published in 2001, and has been very popular ever since. It gets referenced on my local Linux User Group mailing list with some frequency (usually alongside an admonishment to stop top-posting). To be sure, it contains a lot of good advice for how to perform research, how to frame a question, and what salient information is generally a minimum required to solicit help.

And yet, I absolutely despise this document. Raymond spends roughly ten thousand words telling people what is expected of them when they seek help, including how not to react like a loser, but can’t be bothered to write more than four hundred words on how to answer questions in a helpful way.

In an effort to remedy this glaring oversight, I share here some guidance I’ve learned over the last dozen years participating in open source communities, as both a novice and an expert.

I counter that the people asking for help are equally Very Busy People, and deserve to be given the same respect that you expect.

Many times, people asking for help are frustrated. They may be under a deadline. They may have inherited a problem about which they know next to nothing. Solving the problem is not what they want to do: they want to do whatever it is that the problem is preventing them from doing.

The person asking for help is already taking time out of their busy day just to ask for help. Quite often in this day and age, the most expedient solution to an open source problem is to stop using open source. Anyone who takes the time to ask a question deserves our support.

Are we, as a group, more interested in enforcing a specific set of behaviors or are we more interested in fostering a culture of respect, collaboration, and participation? To view interlocutors as “offenders” ensures the former. I’m much more interested in the latter.

So if someone doesn’t follow every one of Raymond’s pronouncements for asking a good question (or, God forbid, top-posts!) I say “Who cares?” Be nice to them. Demonstrate that they are amongst friends. Gently and positively encourage them toward preferred behavior, but do so in a way that makes sense. There’s a history to many of the cultural elements of open source, and new members won’t be privy to that history. To scold, reprimand or “correct” people, off-line or on-line, is to promote a culture of negativity, and to preserve the perceived power differential.

Why not share – openly – the history of why cultural norms are what they are? To do any less is to say that things are the way they are by simple fiat.

An important corollary exists: be willing to accept that times have changed and the original reasons for any specific culture behavior no longer obtain.

You should be as patient with the first new member as with the ten thousandth new member. These are people who have taken their time to participate in the forum, just as you have. In time, they too will be expected to shepherd new members, such that the burden of cultivating culture is shared and distributed.

The end result of your efforts will be a gradual increase in the number of like-minded people willing and able to help share the burden of providing help to those who need it. And isn’t that community empowerment one of the reasons we all like open source to begin with?

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