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How to answer questions

by DrHyde (Prior)
on Feb 28, 2007 at 10:26 UTC ( #602469=perlmeditation: print w/replies, xml ) Need Help??

There have been a couple of threads here in the past about how to effectively ask questions, but none that I could find on how to answer.

I vacillate between just answering the question, and trying to find out what context it's being asked in and then proposing a completely different solution. What's the right way?

The latter is more helpful for newbies, although at the expense of taking longer to get them an answer and pissing off more experienced supplicants. The former is more useful to experienced supplicants, but at the expense of leading novices down dark alleys full of muggers.

Replies are listed 'Best First'.
Re: How to answer questions
by xdg (Monsignor) on Feb 28, 2007 at 12:11 UTC

    I address that a bit in Re: "Baby" Perl versus "Bad" Perl. To quote my last paragraph there:

    As monks, we should recognize that ignorance of better technique is part of the learning process, and we should tune our responses to questions to help the questioner learn at a level they can absorb, not demonstrate our mastery of better techniques. These are not always the same thing.

    I think the key to good answers is divining whether the questioner doesn't know or doesn't understand.

    For the former, a short answer of "try this idiom" or "use this module" or "see this perldoc" is probably sufficient to get them on their way to solving whatever problem they have so they can continue to learn on their own.

    For the latter, a more complete dialog or explanation is appropriate -- perhaps even addressing the underlying conceptual issues if it seems from the post that the questioner doesn't understand the problem, much less whatever Perl they are trying to use to solve the problem. (Typically, I'd guess this is what leads people to point out an XY Problem.)


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Re: How to answer questions
by lin0 (Curate) on Feb 28, 2007 at 12:53 UTC

    Hi DrHyde,

    "There have been a couple of threads here in the past about how to effectively ask questions, but none that I could find on how to answer."

    You might want to look at On Answering Questions. It is a really enlightening thread.


Re: How to answer questions
by jonadab (Parson) on Feb 28, 2007 at 12:35 UTC

    It depends on the question. Sometimes the question is either obviously already well-explained, or obviously not. In the former case, you just answer it (if you can), and in the latter case, you conduct what a library worker would call a reference interview, wherein by a series of questions of your own you attempt to find out what the real question is that you should be answering.

    Of course, some questions are in a sort of in-between zone where they can be answered outright, at least on the surface, but you're not quite sure whether you're getting at the best possible answer without probing further. Not sure what to tell you about those.

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Re: How to answer questions
by agianni (Hermit) on Feb 28, 2007 at 15:39 UTC

    Back when I worked as a consultant (not Perl, unfortunately) I considered helping my clients find the right questions to ask a very important part of my job. If I just assumed that they knew what they wanted to know I knew I was likely to end up with an unhappy client in the end.

    I think we can apply that same notion to answering questions here within reason. I also think that it makes sense for monks answering questions to use their judgment based on the context. While I'm only just getting involved in this community (I've lurked for some time), I've spent a lot of time asking questions on email lists, newsgroups and bulletin boards. Generally, if I mostly know what I'm talking about, I try to provide that context to avoid getting the "try this different module" type of answer. When I get that, I know that either I wasn't clear enough in my question or I really don't know what I'm looking for :)

    I think it might also come back to crafting questions well. For example, if I'm confident I know what I'm doing or I'm bound to use a specific module for some reason, then say so to avoid getting useless answers. If you're open to alternative solutions, say so. I think that would go a long way towards helping those trying to help you.

Re: How to answer questions
by exussum0 (Vicar) on Feb 28, 2007 at 14:54 UTC
    1. The questioner is smart. He or she knows that they do not know something. They took the first step.
    2. The questioner knows what he is looking for specifically, but may be making a bad choice. It does not remove the fact that they do not know something come the day they actually wish to do that. There are no wrong answers. TIMTOWTDI.
    3. The questioner may not be clear, or in some cases, given us too much information. Asking for clarification is not bad if you do not understand the question.
    4. The questioner can be asked questions so long as we are polite about it. Nothing is wrong with asking a question while progressing the conversation. It's typically done in sales. "I got you N, is there anything related you may need." "This is how you write a CGI by hand, but you may be interested in the CGI module as it makes it cleaner."
    5. Sometimes people are rude jerk faces and you are doing pro bono work. You are on the net where your reputation is all out in the open. You do reserve the right to end the conversation in a not-unkind way to preserve such. People frequently forget this.
Re: How to answer questions
by extremely (Priest) on Feb 28, 2007 at 17:47 UTC
    You should pick the type of answer you are comfortable with and feel you can truly add value to the discussion with. The benefit of PM is that someone else will cover every possible way of answering them. :)

    Further tuning of your posting style can usually be done by dealing with the comments to your comments and voting you get.

    That said, I tend to try and find something unique to add to the discussion when I post these days.

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