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Welcome to my weblog. My name is Jeff Smith, I am software developer in Boston, MA and I was recently named a 2009 SQL Server MVP. Check in frequently for tips, tricks, commentary and ideas on SQL Server and .NET programming.


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A Follow-Up on Programming Forums ....

I have to wonder: is it a sign of good writing when people interpret your words in multiple ways, or is it a sign of bad writing?

I really don't know -- I think it can go either way, I suppose it depends on what your intent is.  If you want to express a clear, concise thought or view point, and people come away with different opinions of just what you are writing, then perhaps in that case it is not very well done.  But, if you just intend to throw some thoughts and ideas and observations out there for general consumption, and leave things relatively open to interpretation, then I suppose it is perfectly acceptable and to be expected that others will take what you've written and form their own conclusions.

Why do I bring this up?  I've had many posts misinterpreted over the years, but none quite like my last one.  I generally don't feel the need to defend or clarify what I've written (though I've certainly had to do so in the past), but sometimes it is worth spending a few moments just making sure that my points aren't grossly miscommunicated. 

My previously mentioned post was certainly a broad one, left open to interpretation. It was more of a rambling of thoughts (how unusual for me!), but there was an underlying point that it seems many people missed.  It also is funny because it is yet again one of those posts where the responses fall neatly into two categories:  "you are 100% correct" and "you are 100% wrong".

First, let's do a quick recap of things I am not saying:
  • Helping people is a bad thing
  • People should never ask for help
  • Forums are bad
  • Beginners are annoying and should not be asking questions in forums
  • I personally don't like helping people out in forums
If you read my post and formed an opinion that somehow led you to believe that I "hate newbees" or that I dislike helping people on forums, maybe read it again. 

Next, let's review what I did say:
  • Forums are a great place, helping people is great, but responding to questions that you can literally cut and paste  into a search engine and get an answer in the very first search result returned is not really the point of a forum -- it's for those who have already tried that approach, but could not find the answer on their own.
  • Are we really helping people out by doing obvious, simple, basic searches for them?  Will they ever learn on their own?
  • Can a person ever be a successful programmer if they refuse to even try using Google?  Isn't learning to find simple information on your own a very important prerequisite for success in this profession?
If any of that is not clear, or if somehow you feel any of that leads you to conclude that I am saying some of the things I just indicated I am not, let me now.

Finally, of course, there is the primary "revelation" that I had one day while helping someone who apparently knows how to locate a website that has a forum on SQL Server, sign up for an account, post a topic, and wait for responses, but somehow doesn't know how to use Google:
  • Then again, perhaps these people who refuse to learn to search or use reference materials on their own are quite a bit smarter than me -- after all, they somehow have me convinced me to do much of their legwork!
An idea which I thought was a bit funny yet not entirely untrue, to be honest.

A few people brought up the "search engine optimization" argument, which goes like this:  All these forum posts, which are eventually responded to with simple links, help to elevate that link in subsequent search engine results, thereby strengthening the indexing on that topic in general, so it really is helping people out by asking and responding to these questions.  My response is:  That is great -- but remember two things:
  • These web pages are already at the very top of the search results, which is my entire premise.  I guess strengthening that top spot is great, but if it is #1, it is #1 -- it can't go much higher than that.
  • Strengthening search engines in general is great for me and you, but not for people who refuse to use them. 
It's those folks -- the one who never learn to find answers on their own -- that aren't helped at all in this scenario; they are simply enabled when perhaps what would be best is for them to be forced to learn how to be self-sufficient. 

I guess it all comes down to this:  Helping people is good -- after all, that's pretty much why I write this blog.  But helping people who refuse to learn to help themselves is not really helpful at all!  It is simply perpetuating a significant problem with many people in our industry: those that only ever learn to cut and paste, and never learn to think on their own.

Print | posted on Wednesday, February 06, 2008 9:27 AM |

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# re: A Follow-Up on Programming Forums ....

I fully agree with your articles on this subject. One related thing that bugs me is when someone posts on forums to get us to do their school assignments and homework for them. Like you, I am quite glad to help newbies (we are all newbies in some subjects). BTW, I am not an expert but not a newbie either-in my chosen development platform--Microsft Access. So I use the forums when I get stuck on a problem and my research has not found a suitable solution.

Thanks for the great articles.
2/21/2008 11:38 AM | Patrick Wood
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# re: A Follow-Up on Programming Forums ....

Yeah, I think so too. Sometimes people do not want to think. Let's help them on the right path.
2/28/2008 7:17 AM | Manie Verster
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# re: A Follow-Up on Programming Forums ....

At a previous workplace, my co-workers all claimed that I was "better than google". They would be talking about something while I was nearby or they'd ask me something, and I'd often have the info back from google within a couple of seconds (using keyboard shortcuts and the browser's quick-search box).

Eventually, I started to respond not with direct links to their answers, but instead with links to the google search that I used. I figured that I would not only "give them a fish", but also "teach them how to fish".

And then I discovered... I really *was* a little bit better at using google than they were! I consistently chose better keywords and could weed through the results for the better items faster than they did. That was interesting for me to discover.

So now, if someone asks what the URL for something or another is, I'll still answer with "www.google.com", and if someone has a hard time finding the a bit of information, I'll still respond with http://www.google.com/search?q=foo+bar. But I don't begrudge them for coming to me instead of asking me. I know that they are the smart ones. ;-)
3/6/2008 5:03 PM | nicholas a. evans
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# re: A Follow-Up on Programming Forums ....

Hi there!

I thought your first post was really good... but I admit, even at first I didn't realize your agenda. I had to re-read a couple sentences first. But good for you for posting a clarifying follow-up :)

You (& other readers) might be interested in reading something I wrote a while back with a similar take. I took the sarcasm to its logical extreme... and I coined a term for these smart folks who make use of the resources available to them, wrote up some prescriptive steps, etc...

http://www.slash7.com/articles/2006/12/22/vampires

Thanks for the blog!
3/14/2008 1:40 PM | Amy
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# re: A Follow-Up on Programming Forums ....

I'm a little late to the discussion, but I also find it annoying sometimes when a poster could just as easily have googled the problem like I did (which I do on probably 1/2 my forum answers). It is even more annoying when you experience what Nicholas expresses in his post, co-workers who keep you from your work by asking you to solve their problems before they have even tried. I like his method and will probably do it now. My favorite answer in interviews is, "I don't know the answer right now, but I know where to go to get it". That answer has gotten me second interviews and jobs offers.
5/28/2008 11:20 AM | Jack D Corbett
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