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​Top 10 Ways to Ask Better Questions

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Jim Horn
Microsoft SQL Server database developer, architect, and author specializing in Business Intelligence, ETL, and Data Warehousing.
A Top 10 list on how experts can tailor their questions to get better answers.
Contributing experts here can answer all kinds of technical questions.  In return for our time and expertise we get some pretty cool stuff, such as T-shirts, polo shirts, backpacks, bathroom bags (wonder whose idea that was?), these mythical things called 'points' and 'ranks', and the more deserving are awarded Most Valuable Expert (MVE) or a trophy or three.   But we also have jobs, outside hobbies, and other obligations going on, so our time and attention span regarding reading questions and deciding whether to answer it or not can be short. 

This Top 10 Ways to Ask Better Questions​ is not the official opinion of Experts Exchange.  It is the opinion of myself and an informal group of experts that have answered a ton of questions over ten plus years each, learned from our experiences, and not only have scars to prove it but a big photo album called Chicks Dig Scars.   There are other good articles out there on how to ask a good question, but this one is great.   So by adjusting grammar, wording, content, and expectations, this article becomes a how to increase the odds of getting a working solution, hopefully within minutes or hours and not days.  

Also, this article is primarily for question askers, but attempts to dance the fine line of helping question askers, question answers, and those that do both.   If you currently only ask questions, don't be surprised if in a year or so you're regularly answering questions, and getting points and ranks and T-shirts and other cool stuff.   And experienced experts do not know it all, so we ask questions too.   So Daniel-son, right now you're mastering Paint the Fence, but next year you might be going up against Cobra Kai in the All-Valley Karate Tournament.   Ayye?!

So here we go, from an undisclosed location, the 
 

​Top 10 Ways to Ask Better Questions

Number Ten..  State your requirements upfront, and provide additional requirements when asked
A common question developers are asked is 'What's the percentage of requirements given upfront compared to overall requirements needed to complete a project?'  The answer ranges from around 25% to 75%.  We're used to performing requirements elicitation as our first project task, see this link for my requirements template for a reporting project, and EE questions are no different.   We'd prefer that we get everything upfront but we're used to not getting it, so when we read a question we're compiling a list of clarifying questions that we have to ask to get to a solution.   That, and we are good guessers and could guess things, but sometimes we guess wrong which takes time and more comments to resolve. 

So if we ask you questions back, please provide answers.  No big deal. 

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Number Nine..  Ask a question, don't read a fairy tale!
I read questions from top to bottom, and if I can't see what the question is in the first couple of paragraphs then I start to wonder if I will find a question, which leads to closing it without answering.   This is very similar to someone leaving a voice message on your phone and after two minutes you still don't know what they want.    

So please ask your question in the title and first sentence, THEN tell the story with details needed to give us the tools necessary to solve it.   That makes for efficient use of our time, which translates to solutions for you.   If your question requires a lot of details to answer that's fine, but question first, then details. 

This also means ... ask a question.  These are not questions:

  • Three statements without a question.
  • Statements that end in a question mark are not questions either.  
  • 'Please do the needful'?  Yep you guessed it, not a question. 
  • 'Give me your thoughts'.  You do not have a good enough security clearance to hear my thoughts, so not a question. 
  • 'Here's a link, now go fish through this for what I'm trying to do'.  

Number Eight.. Tell us if there's a large gap between your skill sets and what is necessary for a working solution
We get it.  We've all been there before, and many of us will go there again multiple times in our careers where we have to learn something new.  I feel for you, I really do, but here's some helpful tips to handle this situation: 
  • Admit you're a newbie.  When I was a private and then lieutenant in the military, you'd be surprised how many times people answered my questions when I started with 'Hey I'm a new guy, can you help me understand...' or 'Can I ask a stupid question?'  Worked darn near every time. 
  • Don't try to impress us by throwing out technical terms.  We'd prefer you speak non-technical English as much as possible and let us figure out the technical details.
  • Sometimes we recommend activities outside of an answer inside the question, such as getting a local IT person to help you, it should be done/it shouldn't be done. and here's why, or that someone else more qualified should do it.  So please be flexible in your expectations.  We provide solutions, not necessarily a guaranteed road map. 
  • If you're a manager and you've inherited a mess, experts will tend to tailor our answers on how to best manage the solution, knowing that you'll be responsible for a technical person to actually implement it.  Many of us were once staff managers too. 


antonio-montero-you-keep-using-that-word
Number Seven..  Don't ask us to answer homework questions
We can smell a homework question a mile away...
  • General questions with entities such as student, class, and schedule that you'd see in a clas
  • Lots of theory, little to no real world content. 
  • Life doesn't present problems with A, B, C, or D answers ... only homework. 
  • Saying 'this isn't homework' usually means that its homework.

Experts here have worked hard to get to their level of expertise, and aren't real excited about using those skills to help you cheat your way through homework or an exam, and Experts Exchange as a company has multiple reasons for not wanting to be known as a homework site.

We can help you understand concepts.  You can point to something in homework or certification preparation and say 'I don't get this, please help me understand it'.  But don't ask us to flat-out do your work for you. 

Side note:  Also don't ask us to do anything illegal such as password hacks. 

Number Six.. Avoid unrealistic expectations of a single EE question, also known as 'Paint My House'
Wow, you're attaching an entire Access database?  There's hundreds of tables, maybe with or without proper normalization, naming conventions, relationships, and data types.  Hundreds of queries that nest on each other.  Forms that nest, reports that nest, and lots of VBA code that a contractor built and he's now gone*.  How deep do experts go? There could be a year's worth of problem solving here, and for us even touching this application presents a slippery slope of expectations as we have to decide how deep to go into the app to solve the problem. 

We'll gladly answer your questions, but asking us to sift through a large custom application is a different story. 

Also keep in mind that sometimes a sufficient scope of a question is to figure out what you should do

* I have nothing against previous contractors leaving, and over the years have even appreciated the ones that are junior developers, as I get a lot of gigs inheriting other people's applications. 

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Number Five.. Don't depend on a single expert to answer all your questions. 
It occasionally happens.  I have my own job, clients, commitments, domestic constraints, a crazy desire to play league amateur ice hockey and run Tough Mudder races, and the occasional vacation.   Bermuda was fun.  Glad you weren't there. 

Other experts also go through these phases.  For example, I'm connected on Facebook and LinkedIn to the number one expert here, who has forty million points (yes, forty million), and this guy answers questions in the same SQL Server topic area that I do.  If we were to step into a boxing ring and go 10 rounds answering SQL Server questions, I wouldn't make it past the first round.  He is THAT good, and he's not the only one here who is THAT good.  But the guy is freshly engaged, life is bliss and includes sunshine and unicorns, mainly German-speaking unicorns in his case, and he's not answering many questions right now.  Good for him, not so good for members needing questions answered.  

There are other insanely good experts here.  I attended PASS Summit 2012 with SQL Expert ValentinoV, who lives in Belgium and has written seventeen articles on SQL Server Reporting topics.  If someone asks me a reporting question that I can't answer, or maybe not answer very well, he's six time zones ahead of me.   SQL expert Paul Maxwell lives in Melbourne, Australia, and has also written multiple articles that I frequently use.    

So if I don't answer, there is worldwide coverage.   

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Number Four.. Acknowledge all expert comments that offer solutions
You asked, I answered.  Then some other dude answered.  Then another guy.  Then you responded to a subsequent expert or maybe didn't ask us a necessary follow-up question, so I'm figuring that either you didn't read my comment, or you did and it didn't give you a solution so you moved on.  Fair enough.  I'll move on.  

If you expect experts to stay engaged in a question, then please provide feedback on their comments.   Most of the time experts will cheerfully provide any clarification to their comments, so replying with 'I don't understand this part of your answer', or 'How does that work?' is perfectly fine. 

Side note:  If someone just tries to be funny, be funny back.  When in Rome do what the Romans do. 

The next two both deal with multiple questions in a single EE question: 

Number Three..  Handle most of your follow-up questions as future questions, also known as '42 follow-ups'     
The Offspring have a song 'She Has Issues', and this place often imitates real life.  Once you solve someone's problem, you're their buddy, their go-to person, and they'll keep asking questions, sometimes within the same question.  So after the first couple of follow-on questions we tend to get gun shy and offer up a crazy line like, 'Does this freight train of questions have a caboose at the end?', and ask for closure.  

So, keep your EE question a single deliverable and actionable question, and be happy with the answer.   If your overall project involves multiple deliverables, there is no problems at all with asking them in multiple EE questions.   We're suckers for points. 

Besides, there's no guarantee that a single expert can answer all parts of your overall question, or even in a timely matter, so sometimes multiple experts need to be involved to get you to your overall solution.   We're here to help.  

So that was the stream.  The big bang is...

Number Two..  Cheetahs with ADHD on drugs:  Fun to watch, not fun when they ask questions
Question.  Singular.  One.  A wrinkle or follow-up is fine, but if you ask more than five questions in a single EE question right off the top then we have to figure out where they are all at, which one you really want answered, and how to deal with conflicts between questions.   This usually involves exercising our psychology skills to figure out the priority of each question.  Sometimes we get it, sometimes we don't, but we've learned that assuming is not an efficient use of our time, which results in experts avoiding a question, which means delays in getting to a workable solution. 

Sorry, its human nature. 

And the Number One Way to Ask Better Questions .. Be our pal!
We love points.  Truly we do, we're all suckers for points.   Just like in the military, you'd be surprised how much work a grown adult will put into solving a problem for a little colored piece of ribbon to hang on their uniform, or in our case, a rank and a T-shirt.  So ... we're already motivated to help you out, and your job is to not unmotivate us.  if you come across as being friendly and patient to those that answer questions, chances are we'll be friendly and patient back.   Anything less thatn that, well you get the idea. Remember - suckers for points. 


Bonus material:  Some reasons why I don't answer a question that weren't covered above, in case you're wondering
  • Some excellent experts have already replied, and they don't need me to add my two cents.
  • Multiple experts have already replied, and the question is now a dogpile of competing interests. 
  • I've answered once, so did five other people, and we're waiting for asker clarificaiton before answering again.
  • Generic 'Need help' question titles aren't descriptive enough for motivate experts with very specific skillsets to look at it an click to open the question. 
  • YOUR QUESTION IS IN ALL CAPS AND SEEMS LIKE YOU'RE SCREAMING.  Either that or you're using a Commodore Vic-20, which was the last PC that only had upper case letters. 
  • Simple spelling errors make me wonder too many things I'm not going to spell out here. 
  • u tlk lk a 13yr old & use smiley face emoticons like :) :P :().   We're adults here.  Well, most of us. 
  • If English is not your native language and you're using a translator, try to ask a question using non-technical terms.  All translators lose something in your translation, and my English dialect is not easily understood by others that speak their own English dialect or have it translated. 
  • I don't know the answer, but someone else does. 

Super Bonus Material:  When you start answering questions please avoid these..
  • Searching Google and posting the first thing I see.  Yeah, like no one else can do that.  Its called Google Monkeying, and EE catches grief from multiple parties when these links go bad, as they always do over time.  
    • Google gets mad at EE becuase there are pages that do not have an answer, which affects EE's SEO, which it deeply cares about. 
    • Future experts get mad at EE because they search to find an answer to their own solution, only to find an accepted answer with a bad link. 
  • Posting a Blind Link.  I can post links, see how smart I am?  Maybe it's a direct answer to your question, maybe it's a half-ass hail-Mary link requiring you to fish through it for an answer.  Maybe you'll get lucky and find an answer, maybe you won't.  Let's show some expert pride and not do this. 
  • Guessing, when there are others that really know.  Many of the rock-star experts in my zones live six time zones after me, so if I pass on a question that I can only marginally answer one of them will likely provide a complete answer.
  • Many of these same experts have written articles in topics and clearly know more about them than I do.  When that's the case, I'll often post with a link to their article saying 'SQL Server expert X has written an excellent article on that topic, please read and feel free to contact him or her directly.'

The end.  Good luck!
 

Thank you for reading my article, feel free to leave me some feedback regarding the content or to recommend future work.  If you liked this article please click the 'Good Article' button.
 
I look forward to hearing from you. -  Jim Horn  ( LinkedIn ) ( Twitter )
 
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