Friday, October 06, 2006

Being Helpful by Not Answering Questions

As some of my readers (I have readers?) may know, I am a frequent of #python over at Freenode. A great place. One of the most supportive IRC channels I have ever been a member of. Over the years I have been a frequent member of this channel, I have received an awful lot of help. It is where I went when I first decided to learn Python, and the kind folks there did great things to guide me along. I learned and I stayed, because I still need some good minds to knock ideas around with, and figure things out. I also stayed because the best way I can repay the help I received is to return it to others who seek just that.

I want to think my help is appreciated. I happen to know it is. There is an increasing number of regulars, learning their way through, who explicitly seek me for help, send me entire projects to look over, and generally befriend me in response to the advice I give them. I try not to think highly of myself, but I do believe I am valuable to that channel and that many others would agree.

A few, however, seem to hate my guts. A growing minority of users are continually harassing me over my methods of giving advice. They have a problem with how I talk to people that ask simple questions, even with those people not being them and happily taking my advice over the complaints of these few difficult IRC'ers. What they seem to have a problem with is my tendency to answer questions with questions, investigate why someone thinks they want to do what they ask how to do, and suggesting other ways to reach their goals that may be better than what they came seeking.

This is not a technique of myself alone. Python has a strong community of developers with strong opinions. It is not unusual for people to ask about threads and be told that Twisted, separated processes, or Stackless is better. If someone asks how to set a variable with a name in some string, they aren't told about globals() and locals(), but to use a dictionary instead, and usually will be given a small talk about how all variables exist in dictionary, including the globals and locals, so there is no overhead in this and its a perfectly good thing to do.

People aren't given a gun to shoot themselves with. They are given advice not in answering their question directly, but delving into the source of the question and solving the problems that lead to their asking a question, although sometimes misconceived.

Is it wrong to assume you know someone shouldn't do what they ask how to do, and tell them something else instead? Does anyone have the right to insult and verbally abuse those who practice such techniques of helping others?

Does anyone have thoughts on this? Lending a hand is important, so we should be doing it right.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I say keep on trucking as you are.

vanderkerkoff said...

I'm trying to access the freenode python chat room for the first time, but my IRC client is stalling.

It's telling me I need to be identified to join the channel?

I'm on a macosx 10.4.8 using Conversation 2.14

You haven't seen this issue before have you my friend?

vanderkerkoff said...

I think I know.

I need to register my nickname

That's another quesiton :-)

Anonymous said...

I only spent one evening in the python channel. I was insulted for a good 30 minutes for wanting to use threads as a limited form of concurrency. They kept offering processes (which didn't offer interactive responses at the time on all platforms), or async programming (was not possible with the system I was asked to maintain). I was asking because I was getting segfaults, and I decided that I'd rather fight with my problem than to be insulted because I had a question.

I write here about programming, how to program better, things I think are neat and are related to programming. I might write other things at my personal website.

I am happily employed by the excellent Caktus Group, located in beautiful and friendly Carrboro, NC, where I work with Python, Django, and Javascript.

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