We see a fairly steady stream of questions by people who for one reason or another find themselves having to do a sysadmin's work but have no experience or qualifications whatsoever. Very often they are simply the only person who knows where the on/off switch is and so are deemed to be the best qualified of those available.

Their questions make it clear they are way out of their depth and often the best advise that can be given to them is to seek the services of someone who knows what they're doing. Their questions are also generally very poorly worded, at least in a technical sense, and tend to get seriously downvoted. Plus, it's often clear that they would not cope with a properly detailed technical answer.

Despite all that, these people are being paid to do the job and so are in the strictest sense professionals.

As a moderator, how would you react to such questions if they have not previously been flagged for moderator attention?

5 Answers 5


The approach I tend to take with questions like that, especially ones where someone asks for a very wide-ranging set of knowledge without any appreciation of the size of what they've asked for is to give them the "mile-high overview" of the various things they need to do, to help them appreciate how vast the subject they're tapping into is. I then suggest that qualified help might be a good idea or that at least they need to start by re-thinking their ambitions or breaking it down into manageable chunks at least.

We were all new once, and there's nothing wrong with asking a question where you don't even know the terms of reference the answer will come in - that's how we all learn in new areas. At the same time this site isn't a substitute for qualified on-site help and there are limits to how much knowledge someone can take on-board in one or two posts on a site like this before they reach information overload.

Where possible, I would continue with that approach. We want to encourage people to come back in the future even if the answer to today's question is "Hire someone to help you. Really."

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    If you do that, it's probably best to then largely ignore the comment stream that inevitably follows. Jun 8, 2013 at 22:02

These kinds of questions are fundamentally problematic. The best of the lot are those who cop to their complete newness and are just looking for clue. They sound a lot like this:

I'm the developer for this company. The last guy set up the server, but he left a year ago, which means I'm all they have. I am not a system-administrator, but I get to be one now. Right now our application isn't working. It looks like Tomcat is completely locked up somehow, and a reboot isn't fixing it. That's about as far as I can get. Help?

This is a question being asked in good faith, and in distress.

They're also the kind of question where the sheer weight of the troubleshooting contingency tree threatens to topple over and crush my answer under a whacking big pile of words.

These are the questions that benefit most from the Q/A/Q/A/Q/A/Q/A/Q/A style encouraged by forums. Since we're Q/AAAA, it's a poor fit for their needs. Some data can be teased out through long comment threads, but the bigger they grow and the more edits the original question earns, the uglier the entire thing gets (Qcccccccccccc/AcccccccAccAccccccc), and it gets even less useful for posterity.

As a user I only touch these questions if they're close enough to my deep competencies that I can handle the training and troubleshooting required, and the time.

Being a moderator changes the dynamic. If the question has survived long enough to be seen by some of our $Technology experts (it helps to know the active users!) and hasn't been flagged, it's time to give the questioner at least some engagement. Ignored questions are bad overall. Then post a comment asking for more information. If I don't get one, then it's a drive-by and I have no problems closing the question.

If I get a response I'll have a better gauge for their skill levels. Are they a Pee-Wee? Do they have some grind? If the question still hasn't gotten attention from an area expert, it's clear that it isn't likely to get any. At that point, urging them to find paid help becomes more urgent because we can't help them. It's always hard to tell someone, "I'm sorry, I'm afraid I can't help you," but as a Mod it becomes my job to do that out loud.

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    Agreed. Being a "professional" means giving "professional" advice and in these situations the advice is to find a professional. It's not the answer that people what to hear, but it's the right answer.
    – user62491
    Jan 12, 2012 at 8:58

One thing comes to mind: Where are the newbies going to go eventually if we close the door completely?

I'm also sick and tired of the questions, but I choose to not answer them..

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    I would also downvote the ones you think are asked in bad faith, where the asker is not even demonstrating a willingness to do basic due diligence. Jan 22, 2011 at 2:11
  • Could the person who downvoted me please explain why?
    – pauska
    Jan 24, 2011 at 9:32
  • you've missed the context of this question and the answers. Nobody here (in this question) is talking about closing any door. There are other discussions on meta that do address that issue and I for one hold quite strong views on appropriateness, as you will see in those other discussions. Jan 25, 2011 at 21:05

The first thing I tend to do is to try and help the user make their question clearer and easier to read, to discourage the downvotes. If the question has value then it should be retained.

As regard to answering the question, sometimes the answer is "Get a professional in to help" If you can see from the question that the user is looking at getting themselves or their company into a lot of trouble (such as I deleted my Exchange database, help!) then the best course of action is to make them see how much of a problem this is, and the best way for them to get out of this situation.

That said, if the question is not a critical problem, and the user would gain from learning how to solve this problem, then why not help them with their education. We all had to start somewhere, often this starting point was with the water way above our heads.


Whether it's been flagged or not, if it seemed like a legitimate question, but one that needs much clarifying, that's what comments are for. If it's been flagged or gotten some close votes that I didn't agree with, again, a comment is appropriate.

For questions that seemed to me to be clearly bad (ones that are very close to meeting "Not a real question"), I'm honestly not sure what I'd do. It's one thing to be able to cast one of 5 votes to close, and to post a link to the Vote To Close chat room, but it's a much swifter, stronger response to just step in and close it in one step as a moderator. If I were elected, I would initially be more cautious and simply comment (not close) and pay closer attention to which cries for help could be turned into answerable questions, and which ones were most likely going to be ignored.

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