2018-03-26

Things to be prepared when asking for support

It is fairly common to see someone drop into an IRC channel, ask a question and then quit 10-20 minutes later if they don't get an answer. [It isn't just IRC, I have seen this on other 'group' chat interfaces.. ] They may randomly jump from channel to channel trying to get anyone to answer their question. It is frustrating for the questioner and for anyone who comes online, writes up an answer and finds the person has left for some other channel right before they hit Enter.

Here are some useful guidelines if you are looking for help:

  1. The older the software, the longer it is going to take to get support. Most online communities go through a standard lifecycle. There is the first year or so where it seems like everyone is online all the time, and there are plenty of people to answer questions. However as time goes on there is a fall off as many people find other interesting things. It can look like the community is comatose, but there are usually people still around but with other jobs and problems taking up most of their time. [In other words, you will be able to find someone quicker to help on a nodejs problem than a Red Hat Linux 7.2 problem.]
  2. The more complicated the software, the more complicated the medium needed to support it. Communication tools like IRC and twitter are good for getting quick answers, but fall over quickly trying to go over a complicated configuration file. Especially when other people are trying to have conversations at the same time 😅. For really complicated problems, email is not going to be enough as more and more people need to answer things.
  3. FLOSS communities help those who help themselves. This means that a person needs to be willing to look up things first, read manuals, and have explored the entire system problem first. When someone has done this and can answer things like: "How much memory does the system have?", "Which version of the software is it?", "What extra components are there?" the problem can be solved quickly. Otherwise it can be 10 emails slowly having the person do all the exploration they should have done first.
  4. You can get online help quick, cheap, or easy.. pick 1. If someone tells you can get two of the three in software, they are usually selling you something. If they say you can get all three, it goes from selling to a con job.  There is usually a quick solution which is neither easy or cheap. There is usually an easy solution which is definitely not cheap or quick in the long run. And finally there is the expensive solution which will neither be quick or easy.
  5. Be prepared for contrary answers. As much as they call it "computer science", most software development and operations is part cargo-cult and part performance art. Some people will say you have to dance naked in front of the database server for the accounts receivable to work, and others will say that a chicken sacrificed is all that is required. We all know that the few times we didn't do it, bad stuff happened.. but we can't be sure which one gets us a paycheck or not. [This of course an exaggeration. Payroll completes because the plane gods flew over and no amount of dancing or chicken sacrifices will fix that.] 
  6. Be honest. Nothing makes a support session go bad faster than when someone feels the other side lied. If you have made configuration changes be open about it. If you don't remember what changes you made or that someone else made, just say that. The mistake many of us make is to say "Nothing" which is nearly always wrong. 

I think that list of metaphors got away from me somewhere around 3.. In any case, if you need to get help in most FLOSS online communities be patient, be prepared, and be kind. [This also goes for the person giving help.]

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