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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

You get out what you put in.

I spend a fair amount of time on the MySQL forums and also over on the Quest Pipelines answering questions. I've mentioned on a few occasions about how I think this benefits me as much as the person asking questions, but one thing I've noticed a lot recently is the amount of, for the want of a better word, bad questions.

In reality there are no bad or wrong questions, we all have to start somewhere, but what appears to be a problem is people only putting in the minimum of effort when asking, which often results in an equal amount of effort when people answer. Despite the rewarding nature of answering, a person is far more likely to help if they can answer the question easily or at least is given enough information to be able to answer fully. One of the problems with forums is that it doesn't lend its self to a conversational style, especially given the international nature of the web, I'm often dealing with questions from people around the world* where I'm answering one day and don't get a response until the next.

So here are list of tips I'd give people wanting to ask questions on the various forums, so that you don't waste your time and people answering don't waste theirs.

1. Be as descriptive as possible, context is all important. Often a solution can vary greatly on the context in which it will be used. I often see people simply asking how do I do X, this often gets the standard read the manual response. If you tailor the question people are much more likely to tailor the answer.

2. When giving data structures and examples make sure it's all included. People often trim down their SQL examples to try and make it easier for people to answer, this often leads to relevant information being missed and an incorrect or less complete answer being given. I've often see perfectly good answers wasted by people responding that the solution doesn't work because they are using a join or something equally fundamental to how the SQL should be written.

3. What’s slow? Many times people ask questions about slow running queries, but what's slow exactly. As fantastic as MySQL and Oracle are sometimes it's simply not possible to reduce long running SQL statements down to seconds. Somebody who works in a data warehousing environments definition of slow might be very different to someone working on a transactional system for example.

4. Post it in the relevant place. Most forums have a category structure and often people will tend to answer in their area of expertise. The best possible chance of getting your question answered is to target these people. If your unsure there is normally a general area which is fine.

This is just a short list and I'd welcome comments from others about what they would like to see. But above all give as much detail as possible, if its important enough to ask then its important enough to spend just a little extra time on.

* The nature of the web means that often people are asking questions in a second tounge. I do realise that this can be difficult but people are pretty forgiving of grammer and spelling if the question is well structured. Its also worth mentioning that the language you're writting in is not your first as often people who seem to speak English for example actually speak another language.


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