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Are You a Bad Expert?  A case study of an asker in distress.

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I've recently had a problem where I needed to ask for help.  I didn't come to Experts-Exchange to ask my question because it had to do with a vendor product and the issue was pretty clearly a bug in their code.  So only the vendor was capable and authorized to fix it.

However, my experience is potentially the same thing that could happen to an asker here or on any help site.  It could just as well apply to face-to-face situations of professional tech-consulting or helping a friend trying to save their wilting garden.


Discovering the problem and starting a question

First, I identified an issue in my program, I tried for hours and then days to get it to work assuming I had made a mistake.  I will admit I am not an expert in this particular feature.  Fortunately, the vendor product has excellent instrumentation which let me see what they were doing with my data, and it became quite clear that what I passed in was not what they were processing.  Their own logs showed me the problem.

So, I begin the question process.  I log in to their help site and click to open a new request.  Immediately I'm confronted with the problem, how do I classify my problem?  I imagine this might be similar to what some people think trying to pick an EE Zone.   I have a very specific problem but my categories to choose from are very broad.  None of the choices seem to fit perfectly but I picked as best I could and then left a comment about why I had picked the category. Maybe I was lucky  but I was directed to somebody that seemed to know what I was talking about.  So, whether I picked correctly or if I was internally "re-zoned", I don't know; but things seemed to start out well.

Additionally I was thrust through a series of stock questions.  What's your version?  Is this new?  Does the system continue working after the problem?  Is this an emergency? etc.  I don't think there is an exact parallel to this at Experts-Exchange,  I'm not sure if that's good or bad.  From the vendor standpoint I can see why the stock questions exist, but for me, I had a very specific problem and most of the questions didn't seem to apply.

The Moron Filter

Next I entered what I call "The Moron Filter".  Imagine your neighbor is having trouble with their computer and your first question is "Is it plugged in?"  Again, I can see why the vendor's support team does this.  They have thousands of customers and I'm sure they get lots of calls, emails and help requests from people misusing and abusing their product. And, to their credit, their product is good, that's why I use it.  So there is a reasonable assumption that any problem coming in is likely because of the user (in this case, ME) and not actually their application.

Similarly, this happens on EE.  If the asker's problem is vague or even if specific but could have multiple possible causes you have to do some basic interrogation.  I work in the Oracle Database zones, so I frequently ask people to post some sample data. Not only does it help me build a test case, but before I dive too deeply into the problem I want to see if their SQL even applies to what they are querying.  Are they trying to query a date that is really an alphanumeric-string? Typically these trivial opening questions move along pretty quickly.  Either the problem really is that simple and the asker thanks you for the quick response, or you clear the basics and move on to the more meaty and interesting parts of the asker's problem.

This, unfortunately, is not what happened to me and my question.  Due to network security and regulatory issues it would have been difficult to expose my live system to the internet for the vendor to examine directly.  So, I posted the parameters I was using, the output I expected and what I was really getting from their logs.  Furthermore I constructed a simple plug-n-play test case that demonstrated the same behavior but didn't require any of my internal systems or applications to function.  They could run the code on any of their own systems and see the same issue.

First response back was surprising but fair.  Between the time I had installed this add-on to the vendor product and the time I reported this error the product had been upgraded.  But, the upgrade didn't apply to the add-on, only the base product.  So I had to uninstall the old version and reinstall the upgraded version of the add-on.  Fair enough, I was running an unsupported combination of product and add-on.    That's my fault, so I posted the results of the add-on upgrade log (successful) and then reran my sample.  Same error, and posted the results demonstrating the problem still existed.  I also tested my internal application as well, just in case it somehow worked, and the error, as expected, was replicated there as it was in the sample.

And then the tide turns...

Here things start to really fall apart.  

I was asked if I had tested the example.  Yes, of course I had. Not only had I tested, but I had posted the results!  Hadn't they read my replies?  

Then I was asked to try to keep to a single topic per question.  If my issue was really with a "perceived bug" or if I needed consultation on how to properly use their add-on.  Maybe the parameters I was using were erroneous and I needed proper instruction on how to format the inputs.  To be fair, the vendor doesn't know that I had spent days trying to get this to work before finally giving up and contacting them.  On the other hand,  I gave them a self-contained test case.  All they had to do was run it.  If they get the same results I do then the problem is fairly self evident.  If they get different results, they can post those and it's obvious that something is different in my system and we can try to pursue that route.

So, even if I have no idea what I'm talking about, I have at least given them something to look at.  If it's ludicrous they can have a laugh at my expense and then explain what is wrong with my test case.

I've provided the logs of everything I've tried.  My question all along has been.  "I pass in parameter X,  their logs show they are processing Y."   My claim is their code is manipulating my input.    Of course, it's possible I'm misinterpreting their logs;  but I have provided what I'm reading, as well as what I think they are saying.  If I'm wrong, they can again laugh at me if they want but then explain what I'm not seeing.

Of course I don't want to be laughed at for my mistakes, and I don't know if they would anyway. But my point is I  provided what "I" thought was adequate information.  If it was incomplete tell me.  If it was wrong, tell me.  If I misinterpret what is right in front of me,  tell me.  But that's not what happened.  Instead of really looking at what I  provided I was stuck in their Moron Filter.

If this article seems like one-sided whining, or if it sounds like a fair explanation of a question gone bad.  That's fine,  either interpretation is good. That's the whole point of why I'm writing.    This is supposed to be about what I think went wrong with my question.  This is supposed to be one-sided. My side.  The asker's side.

From the asker's perspective he or she is doing what they think is right and are providing what they think is correct and complete information.  I'm willing to believe I was wrong above; but I supplied what I thought was good info with all due diligence applied to investing the problem on my end and gathering useful feedback.  My complaint isn't that I was asked for more information.  My complaint is that I was being asked for information that doesn't take into account what was already provided.

Of course, there are bad askers, but there are plenty of articles, thread comments and expert profiles ranting and/or explaining good asker practice.  Having been on the other end of the question spectrum I want to remind myself and others that when we agree to help someone there is an implicit agreement to actually be "helpful".  To listen to what is said, to take what is given and make whatever we can of it.  If the asker feedback is incomplete, erroneous, disconnected or otherwise failing... use what you can of it and ask for more; but first "look" at what was given and try to see the context of the asker.   When you, the expert, run somebody through your own "Moron Filter" remember they may already be at their wits end with the problem you just saw 2 minutes ago.  Your innocent question may be the one that finally pushes the asker over the edge to frustrated hostility.

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Author:sdstuber
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