Analogy time, kids!

You go to the doctor and you’re trying to quit smoking. “I’ve tried everything!” you say. What do they ask you? “Well, what did you try?”

That’s both a useless explanation from you, and a frustrating reply from your doctor.

The point is you never try ‘everything.’ Ever. It’s just impossible. And while I understand you say things like that as hyperbole, it’s a useless thing to say in a support forum. The number of posts I’ve seen with ‘I tried everything, so don’t suggest…’ drive me up the wall. What you really did was try everything that you could think of. Which means me, without being able to know what you could think of (i.e. I’m not psychic), has to ask “Okay, list it.”

Pink Pony PressThat sort of report is often called a ‘Shrug Report.’ Something you normally get with the words ‘It doesn’t work.’ It’s useless information that doesn’t help anyone debug. It just means we have to ask more questions and pester you, when you’re already clearly annoyed. In your inability to state what the issue is and what you’ve done, you make it harder for yourself.

So how can you ask for help correctly?

Back to the analogy.

“Doc I’m trying to quit smoking. I tried cutting down, then I tried bringing only a certain number to work, then I put all my ashtrays outside, then I threw out all my lighters. I tried that gum, too. Every time I got a craving, I took a piece. I just can’t seem to quit. What can I do?”

Now you’ve given us something we can work with, and the doctor will ask things like, “Do you find it hardest not to smoke in specific places or times?”

These are leading questions, ones that should make you start to think about the bigger picture. If you only have trouble at the end of the day, thats different than having a problem every time you walk past a smoker or smell cigarettes.

When you ask for support, you should keep in mind that very rarely do two people have the exact same problem. I know this sounds weird, since you can think of the number of people who successfully solve issues with tech support scripts, but the disturbing truth is that most of those are blind luck, and the rest are people who can’t be bothered to search on an error message.

The secret sauce to getting the best help possible is easy.

First, drop any attitude you might have.

You’re asking for help. You don’t ‘deserve’ support, not even for companies you paid. That we happen to get help instead of being told ‘figure it out.’ is a miracle. But the notion that ‘I got this from you so you must help me!’ is a false one, and puts too much stress on everyone. Forget it. Be a nice person and remember there’s a living human at the end of the line. Don’t be a dick starts with you.(Someone recently accused me of not ‘assuming good faith’ and honestly I don’t. I’d love to, but if, out of the gate, your attitude rubs me raw, I’ll walk away before dealing with you, because you feel like a dick to me. And while I always attest that it’s half-me/half-you, it’s still half-you. If more than one person says you have a bad attitude, take a good hard look at yourself. They’re probably right. I’m called a bitch a lot, and I usually smile and thank them. I am Brave, Intelligent, Tenacious, Creative and Honest. But I also feel no need to spend time on and with people I don’t like. I don’t have to like you. The point to this Melvillian digression is that I won’t have to assume good faith if you’re not acting like a dick.) People are going to help you, so you should be kind in the beginning.

Every time I’ve up front said “I screwed up, can you help me?” in a sincerely humble manner, I’ve had the best results. I need your help, I’m going to be nice to you to get it, and I’ll probably thank you later.

Second, state your problem clearly and with detail.

It’s okay not to really know what’s going on, or all the technical terms, but you should have an idea of what’s not working ‘right.’ “I’m trying to add a user to my system and I get an error.” Okay, that’s a good start. You should include the version of the system, the error message, though, so try “I’m trying to add a user to System Foo, version 2.3, and when I do, I get this error: blah.” Awesome!

Third, list what changed.

Don’t say nothing. Something changed. Something happened. While yes, anything can ‘just break’ it’s not that common, so take the time to review. When was the last time you tried to do this? If, using our previous example, you last added a user in January, what’s changed since then? A lot, right? Well, we actually need to know what all changed. And when, that would be nice. In order to know what changed, you have to keep track of everything that changes, and when it happened. It’s work, I know, but you should make sure to add in “This is the first time since January I’ve tried to add a user, and since then, I’ve upgraded X component, add in feature Z, and removed function A.” Remember our Hecht! (Herbert Hecht wrote, in Rare Conditions – An Important Cause of Failures,  that “rarely executed code has a much higher failure rate (expressed in execution time) than frequently executed code during the early operational period.” This was mentioned in Failure of Imagination, back in January 2011.)

Fourth, list what you tried.

We already talked about this, so you know what to do. List it. Everything. It may be long, but it’ll be helpful. You don’t need an example on how to list what you did, just keep track of it while you’re doing it, or put in a caveat “What I know I tried…”

Fifth, be willing to try anything.

To get all the way back to that doctor analogy, if your doctor says ‘We should try putting you on this medication to help you quit smoking,’ then you need to shut up and listen to the doctor! The doctor’s been around a lot longer than you, the doctor has studied and proven their worth, and not killed anyone (yet). So maybe, just maybe, the doctor knows what they’re talking about. If you find yourself bring up ‘But on the internet I read…’ arguments, sit on your hands, make a backup, and try it.


What about you? What are your tricks to giving good information to get good help?

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Comments

  1. What about you? What are your tricks to giving good information to get good help?

    When asking for help, for me it’s a) use small polite sentences, b) don’t interrupt when being helped, and c) answer questions concisely and completely. Oh, and be grateful. 🙂

    I’m lucky to work with some amazingly smart people and recently I got into a jam in the middle of my production change. I was considering backing out the whole works (that would have been not good).

    I called my pal over and he looked at my work, asked some questions, and together we got the work done in minutes. It was after hours and he could have gone home and had I been even a little bit dick-ish I sure he would have.

    But by being concise, polite, and providing all the information I was asked, it worked out and I picked up some good experience with that technology.

  2. Lorraine says:

    REALLY GREAT POST 🙂 i was getting agitated because of this actually.

    thank you loads elf

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