Blatantly stolen from the meta.maths elections

This thread is opened for questions addressed to (all) the candidates in the January 2011 moderator election.

If questions are kept simple enough they can be answered fully in the comments, and doing so would reduce the tendency for pre-election voting on the candidates rather than their comments. This thread is NOT meant as a candidates' debate or a pre-election poll but a way of eliciting candidates' views on matters relevant to the site that arise from their nomination statements or discussions prior to the election process.

Naturally, candidates (and non-candidates) are as free to contribute or not as in all other threads on this site, no candidate is obligated to spend time answering any question, and (in my opinion) not answering should not count against any candidate. The opportunity to clarify views of moderators and users about site management would be of value even if the number of candidates is no larger than the number of moderator positions.


2 Answers 2


Concerning ServerFault Culture

  1. What do you see as the top two most valuable cultural elements of ServerFault?
  2. How will you perpetuate those cultural elements as a moderator?
  3. What do you see as the top two flaws in SF's culture at the present time?
  4. How would you address those cultural flaws as a moderator?


Cultural Good/Bad

First of all, we are a group of people who like fixing problems. We like fixing them even when they're not entirely topical, though this impulse is moderated somewhat by the vote-to-close system. We even work together, keying off of other answers, to solve them. That's great!

Also, the tone of our answers is a real positive. With few exceptions, our answers do not include "WTF were you thinking" style verbiage when we're solving problems. This sets us above other similar sites, and that is a Good Thing.

On the other hand, mocking in comments of seemingly stupid, incoherent, or otherwise odd questions is on the rise. Kyle has mentioned in the past that Sysadmins in general tend towards mockery as a self-policing method, and that's definitely not the tone we need to set here. I strongly agree. Mocking is particularly insidious because it provides a barrier to entry for new people, and we don't need that.

Secondly, we do have a problem with minimum standards and where they are. We've had many debates over where the 'professional' line sits, as evidenced by the prior set of questions, and that leads to a lot of variability at the entry-level end of our career spectrum. We seem to be OK with people explicitly declaring that they're learning to do what we do, but have a low tolerance for people trying to do the learning but not stating that they're doing the learning. New SF users seem to want to answer anything they can, where the long-time users or deep-experts are much more likely to vote-to-close or worse, mock.

Moditorial fixing of culture

The diamond by the Moderator's name does not provide a strong bully pulpit. When a diamond-mod posts a comment it does carry more weight than even high-rep users, which is about as strong as it gets. Therefore, the largest influence of a mod is behind the scenes; removing things unilaterally (spam and bad questions), merging tags, responding to flag-for-mod-attention flags.

Mocking in answers can be addressed by 2K+ users and doesn't require mod-attention. Mocking in comments is another thing, and if I have the power I intend to do something about them when I see it happening. A mod-comment reminding people that such behavior is not encouraged here can do a lot to signal that such things shouldn't happen. Particularly egregious examples will be, if possible, removed.

Dealing with the minimum standards issue is an ongoing process and is a hearts-and-minds thing. We've been doing some of that work here in Meta, and I'll happily continue to contribute in that. Being a moderator changes my role in the debate somewhat, but I hope to continue to be a good influence in the debates.

Robert Moir

Two most valuable cultural elements and two worst flaws of SF

The sysadmin community as a whole is very much focussed on "see a problem, fix a problem" directness, which maps well to the ethos of the Stack Exchange sites idea to be a question and answer site. The downside of this is that it tends towards sarcasm and rude dismissal of people whose questions don't fit into that pattern. The BOFH stories on the register are funny because a lot of us recognise our own wishes at the end of a bad day in them, but its all too easy to forget the BOFH is a joke when you've had a bad day yourself.

The second aspect of SF that I like is that the regular contributors are always willing to help both people asking and people answering questions - by answering questions, editing and improving answers and, yes, closing duplicates with a link to a previous question/answer. The downside of this is that its possible to become jaded after a while, and be a little too quick to pull the trigger to close a question or to edit one yourself rather than allow/guide the author to improve their statements by themselves.

How moderators can boost these strengths and help deal with the weaknesses

In all the above cases, both strengths and weaknesses, I think that the moderator tools might well add a few features to make it easier, but an experienced user of the site should already be leading by example; editing and commenting (with as light a touch as possible) and generally helping people to improve questions and answers themselves.

One thing a moderator needs to remember is that they are in the limelight, so while experienced site users should be leading by example, any mistakes made by a moderator can generate far more ripples than those made by someone else. It isn't realistic to expect moderators to never make mistakes. It is realistic to expect them to remember they are moderators and think before using a moderator tool.

This leads me back to encouraging people to do the right thing rather than forcing them - be firm and always be consistent, but use a light touch if possible and explain your actions as a moderator so that people will know why you acted and what they need to work on in the future.

Mark Henderson

What do you see as the top two most valuable cultural elements of ServerFault?

For the most part, we're people who actually give a shit about the problems that we're helping to solve. So many times when I'm googling for issues and I see forums (mainly TechNet and Expert Sexchange threads) where answering peoples problems are almost done rudely, and only done because whoever is doing it is required to do it to keep some sort of status. I have no idea whether or not that's true, but that's mostly the impression that I get. When I joined I specifically decided I wanted to get to 10k rep and then I would quit (because I had "won" the game). But it's many moons after I reached the 10k threshold and I'm still here, and I would be still be here if you took rep away completely.

Secondly, I'm actually glad to say, this is mostly an impartial place (see my answer for the flaws of SF for a continuation of this!). People come to get an answer, and an answer is what they get. They (usually) don't get any "That's stupid, you should just use Linux it's got that built in", there's very little preaching and when people disagree, they usually agree to disagree. When there are people making others feel un-welcome, they are flagged into oblivion by the wider community.

How will you perpetuate those cultural elements as a moderator?

Honestly, the great thing about the community here is that there's not much a moderator needs to (or even can do) to let the site continue being a caring place. The community is a fluid thing but it seems to be that when new people join, they see the attitudes of those before them and continue this attitude, thus leaving a legacy for those that come later. Just as long as we clean up the few spills along the way, new users will have nothing to fear about here. This applies to both my favourite elements on SF - clean up the spills along the way and they won't continue to happen in the future (much).

What do you see as the top two flaws in SF's culture at the present time?

Server Fault is now at an age where cliques start to form, and this can be counter-productive in multiple ways:

  1. Comment spam can build up that's totally irrelevant to the question. I am guilty of this myself - leaving little 'in' jokes around the place for other grandfather users to see and have a little giggle about.

  2. It can be a barrier of entry to new users. Admittedly Server Fault overcomes a lot of these issues through its innovative design and process, but I remember when I first came to SF and I went to meta.stackoverflow - I felt like a complete outsider and really unwelcome. When I raised my concerns I was shot down and my question was long-since deleted. I know that at the time there are other (now departed) SF users who felt the same way. I really, really hope that SF does not go down that path. Particularly meta.serverfault. Everyone here should be made to feel welcome - and 99% of the time we do, but we need to make sure it stays that way.

The other main flaw in SF (well, it's not really a "flaw" as such...) is that it's definately the 3rd of the trilogy sites, even though it was the 2nd site launched. If you look at Stack Overflow, there are questions and answers there that literally have a THOUSAND upvotes, and questions with dozens or even hundreds of votes are not uncommon. The only way a question or answer on this site EVER gets that kind of attention is when Jeff posts a link on twitter or codinghorror about it. The perceived lack of voting here has two issues:

  1. I realise that SU and SO have many more users than we do, and SO is one of the most popular websites in the world. We can never, ever even begin to think about matching that sort of popularity. For starters there are orders of magnitude more programmers than sysadmins in the world, but the lack of voting users can be dissapointing. I've seen stupid, stupid CW questions upvoted 40 times when a really great, thought out question gets 5kviews and a grand total of 2 upvotes. People who post GREAT questions and GREAT answers need to be rewarded appropriately, and I feel that they are not at the moment.

  2. Not enough of our users vote enough. I believe that upvotes are more imporant than downvotes, but ANY kind of vote is appreciated. I'm also an offender of this. I have proudly voted 2759 times (u:2516, d:243) which makes me one of the most proliferant voters on SF, but even I don't do enough voting. I've only run out of votes maybe 3 times since I joined.

How would you address those cultural flaws as a moderator?

I know this has been a very, very long speech, but this one is a short answer:

I will vote more. A lot more. Even if I don't become a moderator, starting right now, I'm going to try and use up my daily votes at least once a week.

This is more difficult than it sounds as 00:00 GMT is right in the middle of my work-day, so my votes roll over half-way through the day, and voting that many times in a single day would just mean voting meaninglessly


What do you see as the top two most valuable cultural elements of ServerFault and how will you perpetuate those cultural elements as a moderator?

This might seem like an obvious statement, but the most valuable thing we have is a community of users willing to answer people’s questions and not just with a quick answer. We have a collection of people willing to look at a question, apply their knowledge to it, and then go off and research a solution, often to very complex problems, and provide an answer to a person on the internet who they will likely never meet, or see how they benefit from their work, because they can.

There is an easy way for moderators to help perpetuate this by making it easy for them to do so. Remove the spam and the advertisements that get in the way, help to clean up the inappropriate or misplaced questions, edit these questions to make sure they can reach the people best able to help them. If the moderators can help to do this, the users are able to focus on what really matters, quality answers.

Another great point about Serverfault is that a lot of the time, moderators aren’t needed. People have invested so much time and effort into this site, that they are also invested in keeping the site clean and organised and editing, migrating or closing questions where it is needed. I also feel that by operating in this way users feel better when they have their questions edited or moved. It seems much less personal when 5 people have voted together to close or move your question than when a single superman jumps in and does it. I’m be much more inclined to consider that my question had problems if 5 of my peers agreed on that.

There is an easy way for moderators to help perpetuate this, keep their fingers out of the pie! There are some tasks that a moderator should be very keen on dealing with, spam, abuse etc. But I feel a good moderator shouldn’t be visible to users until it is clear that they are needed. There is no call to use the mod hammer to close a question that will get closed by users (often with positive feedback to the user that asked the question), there’s no need for moderators to come in and make sweeping changes to a question when they know the users will help evolve this question over the time. Moderation is a power to be used lightly and honed over time, not a chain gun to be used on all that get in its way.

What do you see as the top two flaws in SF's culture at the present time and how would you address those cultural flaws as a moderator?

One of the increasingly common faults I have seen with the community is the fact that we can be somewhat elitist as to what questions we will answer. We look at a question that is badly worded, with spelling or grammar mistakes as being written by someone too lazy to make the effort, so why should we spend time answering it. However more and more of the time, these sorts of questions are from people whose first language is not English, or who are struggling in trying to put their thoughts into words, but are trying very hard to put together a question.

We should be more accommodating in this area, particularly as high rep users and moderators, and spend some time helping these users clean up their questions and make them better, rather than jumping on the close button. I’m as guilty as the next person in this sometimes, and I need to do better at taking the time to try and establish what someone is trying to ask. If we can get this far, then the question has value and we can help by editing and formatting the question so that it gets good answers. No question should be written off just because it doesn’t read well at first glance. A moderator’s role should be as a guide, to spot these users that might be struggling and help and encourage them to write better questions.

My final bad point is something we’ve all done at some point I’m sure. You see a question where you think “OMGZ how can they not know that” because the answer is so blindingly obvious..... to you. We’ve all learned so much over our careers that we can sometimes forget what it is like to not know the basics, especially those times when you know that the answer should be obvious, but you can’t get it. We’ve all been there, but now our heads are so full of the incredibly intricate solutions to complicated problems that we forget and we leave condescending comments or LMGTFY links. It has probably taken that user some courage to ask what they know is a simple question, but we make them feel bad about it.

I’m by no means saying this is happening all the time, but we have all thought that way I’m sure, when we’re busy and stressed, but it’s not fair to that user. As a moderator I’d like to think that I can help dissuade this behaviour by leading by example and letting people know that snide comments and LMGTFY links don’t help. Along with reassuring the, often new, users that it’s ok to ask questions that might seem simple, because you can guarantee that they are not going to be the only ones who benefit from the answer. A moderator’s diamond adds some weight to your responses and it should be used for good.


Best bits

In my opinion the best two elements of Server Fault (and the reasons I registered as a user in fact) are the overwhelming sense of friendliness and willingness to help. I have registered on many internet forums in the past, and posting as a newbie I was often put down in some way by someone who had a high post count and was thus "more important" than me. My first posts were usually disagreed with and I wasn't made to feel particularly welcome. Here at Server Fault, I "lurked" for a while so I could get a feel for the place, and was bowled over by the sense of community and real friendliness, even by the high rep users (who on forums I'd experienced in the past I would generally consider to be jerks). When I had a problem I couldn't figure out, I was confident that when I posted it on Server Fault I would be met with some friendly and awesome answers by some incredibly clever people.

As a moderator, I would continue to encourage this friendly behaviour and try to make Server Fault a better place by removing the "noise" posts we get (non-answers and spam). I want Server Fault to be the place for people in our profession to go to share their knowledge, and in my efforts to remove all the noise I hope to encourage even more professionals to join and participate.

Worst bits

As mentioned by the other candidates, we do seem to have a problem with inappropriate comments. It's not a major problem, but a problem that needs to be addressed nonetheless. I am certainly not playing totally innocent here - I have posted the odd snarky comment at the end of a long and hard day, but I usually deleted them after a few hours when I'd cooled down. I have since realised that such grumpy comments are unacceptable, and as a moderator I would work to remove such comments that poke fun at people or don't really add anything to the discussion. I would give gentle reminders of what comments are designed for, as people seeing a moderator discouraging something will be less inclined to do it themselves.

Another problem is we can be very quick to jump on the close button. We need to figure out what the original poster really wants and try and edit the question to fit. Bad English and grammar can easily be fixed with an edit, and can really salvage a potentially good question. I have recently started to do this to poor questions that I see, and as a moderator I would continue this trend. Again, people seeing a moderator do this might be more encouraged to do it themselves, or at least not go straight for the close button and try and figure out what the question asker really wants.

  • I'll get to your questions later, Wesley. I think they're good questions, but it's late. Commented Jan 22, 2011 at 9:29

First question:

From the ServerFault FAQ as of January 20, 2011 (emphasis mine):

Server Fault is for system administrators and desktop support professionals, people who manage or maintain computers in a professional capacity.

Please enunciate what you believe is a good definition of "professional capacity".

Second Question (related):

What determines if a question is asked in a "professional capacity" and deserves an answer and what should be closed and/or migrated to another site (usually SuperUser)?

Response: Mark Henderson

First Question:

If you are in charge of more than just your own computer at your company, or your company has appointed you to a position where you're expected to manage hardware or software, then you can ask your question here. This includes both beginners and old-timers alike. That said however, we expect you to take a professional attitude towards your question, and not ask "plz send teh codes, kthxbai".

Second Question:

Does the question include the word "home"? If it does, can the question be re-written so that it applies to the sysadmin community. For example, if you're setting up "Windows Home Server", then it should be moved to Super User. However, if you say "I'm having trouble applying a GPO policy to my Active Directory that I've set up at home", then by removing the last few words of the question the question is then applicable to a wider audience.

Response: SysAdmin1138

First Question

"Professional Capacity" means you get paid to do what we do, or in a better funded organization would normally be paid (I'm sure we have some non-profiteers around here somewhere). That's about 80% of it right there, which is the easy part. We also expect a certain foundation of learning in questions, unless they're specifically tagged as seeking learning. The topics vary, and so does system-administration, but some depth in your field is expected. Depth provides the ability to ask focused questions, which yield answers and not multi-page essays on the potential gotchas of $Technology.

Second Question

Questions asked in a professional capacity and not deserving of closure/migration, have a few key features:

  • Is implicitly not about something in the home, or devices/technologies rarely seen outside of the home.
  • Displays at least some understanding of the technology causing the problem.
  • Is asked with enough focus to allow an answer with just the supplied information.
  • Focuses on technology in the context of the enterprise or web-services, or policy relating to that technology.

Migrating to another site needs to be done with care. The SuperUser community is tired of being the dumping ground of the trilogy (see their moderator nomination-statements for proof of this). Webmasters.SE, one of our migration targets, defines "webmaster" differently than we system administrators do. A good question for migration needs to be topical on the destination community as well. Because of this I've been voting to close-as-off-topic questions that are earning migration votes.

Response: Robert Moir

Professional Capacity

A good definition of this needs to be flexible rather than a rod to beat ourselves with, but I'm happy with the idea that if you are managing all or part of a network or group of computers as all or part of your job, then this site is for you. I like this definition as I think the site should be inclusive of all levels of ability, and this includes not just veterans and newbies, but also people who work in a specialised area (e.g. deployment) and people who are not full time sysadmins but who have to manage them as part of their overall duties.

Good questions, and the issue of migration

Firstly the obvious qualifiers, such as talking about a business network rather than a home one and talking about "real life problems" as opposed to "I saw a movie once where the computers did whatever and I thought it would be neat if... discuss".

I think a good "professional" question is one where the asker has invested some time in thinking about the question prior to asking it - or where people need help with asking a good question, where they are prepared to clarify their question and to work with people who are trying to help them. You only get as much out of sites like this as you put into it, and a professional question shows some recognition of this.

As for migration to other sites, I know I feel frustrated sometimes when we get questions dumped here by Stack Overflow with little thought, so I can only imagine that Super User people must be frustrated because sometimes I think we must do that to them too. I know I've probably been guilty of voting that way myself wrongly when I first had that ability. As such, I've started looking at questions and if they can't/aren't being clarified then probably opting to close rather than just migrate unless its clearly a case of the question being on the wrong site.

Response: Ben

First Question:

For the most part, this describes somebody whose primary job function is to manage servers or computers other than their own. Job titles often include System Administrator, Helpdesk Analyst and IT Support, but I won't exclude the smaller shops where a developer might also double up as the System Administrator for the company. As long as they are asking a reasonable, coherent and on-topic question, I have no problem with the question being on Server Fault.

Second Question:

If a question is relating to hardware or software which is specifically used in professional server applications (RAID, redundant PSU's, Windows Server OS, Microsoft SQL Server etc) then the question is on-topic for Server Fault. There will obviously be some grey areas such as Linux installed to run a web server for home use, but if the same question can be asked and it still be relevant and helpful for somebody whose primary purpose in their organisation is to manage the company web server, then I think it should stay here.

Ultimately though, questions should reside on the Stack Exchange site which they will receive the correct and best answers.

Response: Sam

First Question:

Whilst I suppose the technical definition of "Professionally Capacity" would be getting paid for doing that work, I think there has to be some flexibility to that, otherwise you exclude potentially quite a large area of those that are trying to learn, but don't get paid for it. This includes students, people trying to learn the trade to get a job and hobbyist. Whilst their questions don't come from the perspective of getting paid for delivering something, it comes from an interest in being professional and wanting to build a professional solution, even if it might not end up in a commercial situation. Having a professional outlook is more important, to me, than a job title.

Second Question:

In tandem with my first answer, my definition of whether a question should be open rather than closed or migrated is based on the value of the question itself. If this question is asked by a student trying to set-up a Cisco lab under his bed, but would provide value to those doing a similar thing in a million pound (or dollar) server room, then it get's to stay. I think the mind set and aim of the question is far more important than the job of the person submitting it. Conversely, if a 20K rep user asks a question about his home AV setup, it's going to get closed.

As Sysadmin1138 has already pointed out, migration needs to be done carefully. We all got fed up with Serverfault being a dumping ground for Stackoverflow when things first started, so we all know how annoying that can be. We don't need to inflict it on others. Bad questions about superuser topics should get closed here, not moved to SU to get closed by them, we all have enough to do without doing other peoples work.

Response: Ward

First Question:

I don't think this issue deserves two closely-related questions. We all recognize "a professional capacity" when we see it, and I don't think the site is harmed if the edge cases are sometimes migrated, sometimes not.

In any case, "professional capacity" means that you have a business responsibility to make it possible for other people to use computers. In principle, if you are one member of a two-person business, and you do tech support for the other person, sure, you're a pro. Most of your questions will be better suited to SuperUser, but not all of them.

Second Question):

As mentioned above, even if a question is clearly asked in a "professional capacity" it might make more sense to migrate it. The usual indicators of "not a professional sys admin" are questions about "my PC," ie a single or very small number of PCs. But you could have a small office where they use WSUS and have a question about using it w/ only two clients, so there'll always be borderline cases.

  • @sysadmin1138 - good point regarding the migration of questions off-site. Commented Jan 21, 2011 at 3:52

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