If you didn’t like the answer, asking the same question again is unlikely to help


I find it surprising how often this happens. A customer liaison will send a question to a mailing list like this:

From: X
To: Gizmo Discussion

Hi, everybody.

My customer is using the Gizmo Toolkit and wants to frob a gizmo without first registering as a frobber. They created the gizmo with CreateGizmo, passing all the default flags, and then they call AttachGizmo to attach the gizmo to a sprocket. When the sprocket detects that its host is decycling, it tries to frob the gizmo by calling FrobGizmo, but the call fails. They can't register the sprocket as a frobber because the sprocket doesn't have the right frob context. They tried setting the DefaultFrobContext registry key to Any but that didn't help. How can they frob the gizmo?

Somebody from the Gizmo team will reply, "Sorry, but you have to register as a frobber before you can frob a gizmo. The DefaultFrobContext registry key doesn't help you here; it's for cogs, not sprockets. There is no analogous registry key for sprockets, sorry."

That seems to be the end of it; there is no further response. Then about two weeks later, some other person will ask a suspiciously similar question.

From: Y
To: Gizmo Discussion

Hello. I hope somebody can help us with this.

My customer is using the Gizmo Toolkit and wants to frob a gizmo without first registering as a frobber. They created the gizmo with CreateGizmo, passing all the default flags, and then they call AttachGizmo to attach the gizmo to a sprocket. When the sprocket detects that its host is decycling, it tries to frob the gizmo by calling FrobGizmo, but the call fails. They can't register the sprocket as a frobber because the sprocket doesn't have the right frob context. They tried setting the DefaultFrobContext registry key to Any but that didn't help. How can they frob the gizmo?

Hm, that question looks awfully familiar, let me look in the archives and... hey, it's a word-for-word copy of the same question somebody else asked two weeks ago!

In situations like this, I tend to respond by attaching the original reply with the text, "I refer the honourable gentleman to the answer given some moments ago."

Okay, maybe the customer was not happy with the answer and instead of elaborating on their situation (so somebody might be able to spot an alternate design that avoided this problem), they just reopened the case and got a different liaison the second time. Maybe person Y was simply duped into asking the same question.

And then this happens.

From: Y
To: Windows Programming Discussion

Greetings.

My customer is using the Gizmo Toolkit and wants to frob a gizmo without first registering as a frobber. They created the gizmo with CreateGizmo, passing all the default flags, and then they call AttachGizmo to attach the gizmo to a sprocket. When the sprocket detects that its host is decycling, it tries to frob the gizmo by calling FrobGizmo, but the call fails. They can't register the sprocket as a frobber because the sprocket doesn't have the right frob context. They tried setting the DefaultFrobContext registry key to Any but that didn't help. How can they frob the gizmo?

Okay, so much for the theory that person Y was a victim. Person Y is clearly fishing around, hoping that if you ask the right person, you'll get an answer you like. It's sort of like the teenager who asks his father, "Can I borrow your car?" When Dad says, "No," the teenager goes to his mother and asks, "Can I borrow Dad's car?" in the hopes that maybe Mom will give a more favorable answer than Dad.

But if you're asking a question about the Gizmo Toolkit, it's going to get routed to the Gizmo team one way or another. And if you ask the same, identical question, you're going to get the same, identical answer, just with a greater degree of exasperation each time you ask it again.

"Can I have a pony?"
— No
"Can I have a pony?"
— No.
"Can I have a pony?"
— No.

Let me draw you a picture.

Comments (33)
  1. John says:

    Tell those guys to be careful.  I’ve heard that if you frob your gizmo too often you’ll go blind.

  2. Dave says:

    The case is merely an irritant. When it gets genuinely dangerous is when enough people are asked that someone who doesn’t understand some problem says there really is a way to solve it.

    Particularly when the people asking are management, take this as gospel, and blame the entire team when it doesn’t happen. Sadly, I’ve seen this happen, despite the multiple layers of incompetence and unhealthy dose of ostrich syndrome it requires.

  3. Jim says:

    Ray asked a good question. It’s a human tendancy not to change their positions as much as possible. It is happening all the times. We ask those "stupid" questions and get hold on to them, and never let them go.

    Thinking is much harder than it seems.

  4. Bob says:

    Then there’s the ever popular asking amateurs on the internet trick, being told "try fribbing your frob" and even if it does happen to work, a month later it turns out that the fribbing was actually a security bug.

    Then it gets patched, and suddenly it’s another round of "I was doing this, it worked, now it doesn’t – why did you give me a pony then shoot it?" That’s followed by another compatability shim in Windows and more abuse for Windows being "bloated", and another Microsoft employee with an alcohol problem, because its the only thing that makes dealing with support issues bearable.    ;)

    And, as always, the correct answer is "why do you want to frob your gizmo, anyway? because if you don’t have all the right data to make it work, you’re probably doing the wrong thing with your gizmo".

    Trace it back, and someone was probably told to frob the gizmo as a half-baked solution to another incorrect question.  ;)

  5. Scott says:

    Sometimes this stragey works with scripted tech support.

    Let’s say my DSL line goes out.  I can ping my router, but if I go into the status pages it clearly says it can’t even get DSL link.  I know how to operate my home network, so by the time I ever call tech support I’ve narrowed down the problem to "Not Me".

    Most of the tech support operators will try to make me:

    1. Reinstall the bundled CD software that I don’t use.
    2. Reinstall the Internet Explorer that I don’t use.

    3. It must be a virus – go buy Norton.

    4. It must be spyware – go reinstall Windows.

    5. Replace the CAT-5 wiring between the computer and the router because "over time electrons build up and it becomes no good".  This is not a joke.  Someone actually said that.

    And so on.

    So I keep calling until I find someone who isn’t a total moron.  Apologies if other people apply the same logic to you, it’s not personal.

  6. Reminds me of a nice story my math professor once told:

    Dad, what is the largest number?


    Son, there is no largest number.


    Hrmkay. I’ll ask Mom.

  7. Cooney says:

    another Microsoft employee with an alcohol problem, because its the only thing that makes dealing with support issues bearable.    ;)

    What makes you think it’s only MS? Lots of people around seattle keep whiskey in their desk (wine goes bad too quickly after opening).

  8. Cooney says:

    So I keep calling until I find someone who isn’t a total moron.  Apologies if other people apply the same logic to you, it’s not personal.

    Rather, you keep calling until you find someone who doesn’t treat you like a moron. Tier 1 tech support for cable modems is a bit different from a technical mailing list where one might ask about frobing gizmos or whatever.

  9. Dale says:

    ‘In situations like this, I tend to respond by attaching the original reply with the text, "I refer the honourable gentleman to the answer given some moments ago." ‘

    That is one classy reply, which I’m going to steal.

  10. Tom says:

    Scott (January 20, 2009 3:38 PM): #5 is a polite way of saying: "Please check if it’s plugged in" without getting an indignant reaction.  I think Raymond even did a post about it.

    Migrating electrons is one of the sillier excuses that one can come up with, though.  A better way to say it is: "Please reverse the cable; sometimes the mechanical tolerances aren’t the same on both ends of the cable."

    What Raymond’s post really seems to be suggesting is that Exchange needs support for moderated lists, a la Mailman/Listserv.  Might bring on an EU antitrust suit, though …

  11. Susan says:

    Unless the question being identically asked is a licensing question.  Call back to the Microsoft licensing phone number, ask the same exact question and you will indeed get a different answer.

  12. Ens says:

    Swear to god, I actually had a CAT-5 cable that would only work in one direction between my router and my computer.  I re-reversed it several times to my astonishment.  I can only conclude that, just that once, there really was a mechanical tolerance that wasn’t quite the same on both sides of the cable.

  13. Gizzle Shizzle says:

    It’s obvious, you just need to open the sprocket handle (a handle of type HSPROCKET) in the gizmo hatch using the widget allocator. After that, it’s a simple matter of nutching the frobber with the gizmo of the sprocket. See, the sprocket has it’s own cobble class which is incompatible with the gizmo frobber since in order to actually yank the fluke it has to clutch the acme. (It goes without saying that using the HFROB there would lead to a race condition in the fluke gizmo.)

  14. Kelli says:

    What makes you think it’s only MS? Lots of people around seattle keep whiskey in their desk (wine goes bad too quickly after opening).

    Maybe the key is to just drink the whole bottle of wine?

    As a side effect, it would probably produce an interesting answer to the repeated question…

  15. Nick Lamb says:

    Completely agree with Scott

    If I had simply gone along with the first person I called when I moved into this flat, I’d have paid the incumbent telco £100 new line install fee (despite the line right in front of my eyes) and waited up to 28 days for service. Arguing got me nowhere, so I hung up and re-dialed. The guy I got the fifth time was absolutely convinced his colleagues were using the "old database" and that it was impossible to provide service until Monday. But the sixth guy had my line working the same day.

    Now in that case I was insistent because I knew how the system actually works, and I knew what I was asking for wasn’t merely possible but easy. All I needed to do was iterate until I got someone who had been trained to use it properly (unlikely) or was smart enough to pick it up for himself.

    And at higher levels the trouble is that the expert employees are too valuable to see every apparently nonsense question from outsiders. There’s a chance that frobbing a gizmo is easy, you can synthesise a sprocket context – since they’re really just a container for a foo handle – and frob the gizmo that way. But only one guy knows that, and he’s too busy putting out fires caused by imbeciles above and below him. So the only way you’ll find out is to meet him in a corridor at a conference on a topic that’s of mutual interest. "They couldn’t tell you how to frob a gizmo?" he’ll say incredulously – "There’s really only one trick to it. Mail me and I’ll knock up some sample code when I’m back at my hotel".

    The repeated questions are annoying, I’ve done my share of support work and I know that. But the trouble is that asking again actually works better than just putting up with "No, you can’t have a pony" sometimes. However, you do need to ask someone different, and that’s where email falls down, often two apparently separate avenues of enquiry lead to exactly the same people reading your query.

  16. <blockquote>The repeated questions are annoying, I’ve done my share of support work and I know that. But the trouble is that asking again actually works better than just putting up with "No, you can’t have a pony" sometimes. However, you do need to ask someone different, and that’s where email falls down, often two apparently separate avenues of enquiry lead to exactly the same people reading your query.</blockquote>

    Completely agree with that.

  17. Ian Boyd says:

    X: Can I have an order by in a view?

    SQLTEAM: No

    X: Can I have an order by in a view?

    SQLTEAM: No

    X: Can i have an order by in a view?

    MVP: Yes. SELECT TOP 100 PERCENT ORDER BY

  18. Steffen says:

    Off topic: SELECT TOP 100 PERCENT ORDER BY

    will be optimized (at least SQL2005) to SELECT

    not using any ORDER BY

  19. MS says:

    I read the subject originally as "Gitmo Discussion."  I was worried someone was being waterboarded.

  20. Anonymous Coward says:

    I sympathise so much! All my mirror neurons are fried now…

    I’ve encountered stuff like this in all areas of life (not just software-related) and while I try to give gentle answers, sometimes there comes a point when I get dark urges involving real clue sticks.

  21. Holy crap, that photo with the pony was bloody hilarious.  I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time.

  22. MOZ says:

    sudo can I have a pony?

    Moz

  23. JM says:

    @Steffen: There is actually a way to rewrite those views in SQL Server 2005. I’m deliberately not saying how. Sneaking in ordering in a view is one of the deadly SQL sins that will ensure a place in that special SQL hell. You know, the place where your indexes will be fragmented for all eternity.

    If anyone asked, my only answer would be "you shouldn’t be doing that". Anyone insisting on doing it anyway should be smart enough to find out on their own. This policy applies to a lot of hacks: if you have to ask, you probably can’t be trusted with the answer.

  24. Dave says:

    I point out that asking the same question *of the same person or audience* is unlikely to help.

    If instead of asking (however indirectly) the Gizmo team, you ask the Gizmo user group…

    or you ask the vendor of the competing Gazmoid product who knows *exactly* what’s wrong with a Gizmo…

    or you allocate sufficient delta-T that your interlocutor has grown in wisdom and grace and is thus no longer "the same person" (don’t expect millisecond response times here)…

    … then you may get better results.

    Or, of course, not.

  25. Morten says:

    $ sudo can I have a pony?

    password: _

  26. Maurits says:

    Why did they not want to register as a frobber?

  27. Dog says:

    Of course most of the time when you are asking this sort of question you get the "This behavior is by design." response. As if the design is some sacred infallible document.

    Of course "This behavior is by design." usually translates to "There’s no real reason why you can’t do that, we just didn’t think of it when we implemented the API, unfortunately that API is now frozen for all eternity, but we’re working on some highly-complicated, over-engineered grand unified model for all sprokets, cogs, gizmos, widgets and apple pies which will debut in version n+2 that will definitely do what you want."

    Then six months later the new feature is dropped and the issue is never resolved, leading to hacks and bad workarounds…

  28. Cog Itator says:

    Maurits: they wanted to register as a frobber, but they were trying to register a sprocket, which does not have the right frob context.  A cog has the right frob context, so they need to use CreateCog, use AttachCog to the sprocket and AttachGizmo to the cog, then they can frob the gizmo with the sprocket via the cog.  Its in the docs.

  29. Ian Johns says:

    "Can I have a pony?" — No

    "Can I have a pony?" — No.

    "Can I have a pony?" — No.

    Let me draw you a picture.

    The more appropriate ending to your post (although minus sad pony pic) :

    Bart+Lisa: Can we have a pool Dad?

              Can we have a pool Dad?

              Can we have a pool Dad?

              Can we have a pool Dad?

              Can we have a pool Dad?

              Can we have a pool Dad?

              Can we have a pool Dad?

                …

  30. Blackcrack says:

    Can we have a pool Dad?

             Can we have a pool Dad?

             Can we have a pool Dad?

               …

    [img]http://www3.whdh.com/images/news_articles/389×205/071219_Randolph_car_into_pool.jpg[/img]

    eehhmm omgh…. no ?!!

  31. ashleigh says:

    Gee, sounds like you work where I do.

    Question comes in to technical support, gets routed to engineering. Answer sent. Customer no like answer. 2 weeks later, URGENT request comes in from (select channel here: sales, marketing, management, general manager, country manager). Usually attached to some kind of guilt-trip: "we must make this customer happy".

    How do you say "customer is a tosser" in 27 different ways?

  32. Igor Levicki says:

    There’s also this problem of not being immediately obvious why something is a no-no or can’t work the way you want it to work.

    It is usually a result of poorly designed API and/or poorly written API documentation where one has to spend hours in agonizing pain trying to decipher what the docs are really trying to say, and how to make that damn incomplete sample work.

    Not that it can be the fault of those who designed the API or wrote the docs, no, those types are infallable.

    In such cases, it’s safer to ask "what’s the best way to do XYZ?" because trying to do it on your own and asking for directions is bound to get you the answer "you can’t do that" instead of "here’s how to do it right".

  33. Igor Levicki says:

    In other words — if you don’t know how to do something don’t pretend that you do know. Be a total n00b. That way you will just get scolded for "not doing your homework" and "needing someone to babysit you through the problem".

    The truth is that which ever way you ask some people don’t like sharing knowledge and answering your questions.

Comments are closed.