Make it Easy for People to Help You

OK, there are probably a dozen or more of these kinds of posts, but I’ll dive in anyway. From time to time, people send me e-mails or comments on this blog asking for help. Sometimes it’s on the topic at hand, and other times the topic just jogs their memory about something else.

Often I’m happy to help. If I know the answer without doing any research (or even if I have to do a little) I’ll interrupt what I’m doing and dash out a note with the answer. But of course I have a job (three, to be exact) and so any time I help with a question I’m lengthening my day, spending less time with my family, and so on. If you think about it, everyone that you ask (and everyone I ask) is in the same boat – when someone helps me, I am taking their most valuable asset: their time. So I learned a very important lesson very early on: Make it easy for people to help you.

So here’s the steps to follow to do that – it really isn’t that hard:

  1. Request, don’t demand. I got an e-mail yesterday (on Sunday) where someone found a blog entry about one topic, and basically said this about another topic: “Tell me where I can find ‘x’ so that I can alter it.” Guess what I did? That’s right, I hit the delete key. If you are asking a question from a professional, you need to understand that they normally get paid – very well, sometimes – for their time. Make sure your question is a question, not a demand.
  2. Be clear about the problem. Vague statements don’t help – and very few people have the time to dig the real question out of you. Be specific. Ask the single question you really need help with.
  3. Keep the problem limited. “Rewrite my code for me” isn’t going to happen. “help me with this line” might. “Where do I go to find out more about the SELECT statement” is even better. If your problem takes more than a few minutes for someone to answer, then you should probably get someone on-site to help you.
  4. Explain what you’ve already done. This, of course, means you’ve already actually done something. What have you looked up, what do you already understand, where have you looked, what have you tried?
  5. Be polite. Please and Thank You are magic words, whether you get the answer you were looking for or not.

I’ll add one thing when you’re responding to a blog – not just mine, anyone’s. If you want to ask a question, ask it as a reply to a post, not an e-mail. The author wants to answer the question once, and it’s almost a guarantee that you’re not the only one with that question. Also, other readers might know the exact answer and help you even more. I know, you have to register, all that stuff. Just consider it the price of getting your answer.

Comments (6)

  1. When somebody asks me a question via email and it’ll take more than 30 seconds to answer, I’ve got a default reply template:

    This is a really interesting question.  I wish I had the time to dedicate to give you an answer that’s just as interesting, but there’s a lot of possibilities here.  The best way to get help on something like this is to narrow down the question as tightly as possible, then post it on or  Include as much example code as you can so that others can quickly run it and get an idea of what you’re asking, and they might even post your code back with fixes.  If you don’t get good answers within a day or two, let me know and I’ll take a look at the question to see if there’s a way we can get better answers.

  2. BuckWoody says:

    BrentO – I am TOTALLY stealing that. Awesome!

  3. isddarms says:

    Perhaps you’d comment sometime on what a DBA should do if they *need* support. Does MicroSoft provide such a service? If so, what does it cover and how is it accessed? Other options?

    I’m fairly new to SQL Server and there have been times where it would be more cost effective to pay someone for help than to invest hours in trial and error (mostly error!) and researching on the web, but I’m not really sure where to turn.


  4. BuckWoody says:

    isddarms – what a GREAT question!  I’ll do a whole post on that tomorrow. Thanks!

  5. says:

    Nice Article Buck… Im sure Steve would like you to add to your list ;-)

  6. Can I add:

    6) Only include relevant information. I don’t care that, when it works, your code is going to solve 3rd world hunger, just let me know what the problem is.

    7) If you get an error TELL US THE ERROR MESSAGE. (Constantly amazed by people that don’t do this)

    8) If the forum you are using provides a code formatter (such as the MSDN forums) – use it!

    And to reiterate one of Buck’s points, above all be polite and courteous.

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