19

When trying to provide an answer, I sometimes found myself hesitant to provide the exact recipe that would be a solution for a particular problem.

I think it is better (it has always been better when it's been me at the other end, at least) to provide an answer that does not give a step-by-step recipe, and instead points to the relevant docs, that can provide a much better, in-depth, detailed understanding of the issue.

Where should one draw the line?

Is it a better answer one that would only "partially" solve a problem?

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    That was even worse than being rickrolled. – Michael Hampton Mar 20 '14 at 21:13
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    I'm sorry what did you say? For the last 4 minutes and 27 seconds I was... distracted – Mark Henderson Mar 20 '14 at 21:20
21

Personally I think people should be prepared to do some work themselves so yes it is good practice. I've tried giving answers that outline the process rather than spoon feeding. If someone else posts a spoonfeed answer alongside almost every time it 'wins'.

Most of the people who ask questions here don't care to do any research themselves, if they did we wouldn't be inundated by so many crappy questions.

I am saddened by this.


This really happened

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    "I've tried giving answers that outline the process rather than spoon feeding" . This is my general opinion as well, and I think it is empowering to do so. – dawud Mar 20 '14 at 21:48
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    @dawud: Absolutely, I've had several juniors over the years and the all benefited from being pointed in the right direction and shown how to find things out rather than being shown how to do something (if time allowed). Being able to read documentation and find things out is a key sysadmin skill which is lost on most of the devs who ask questions on SF. – Iain Mar 20 '14 at 21:52
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    "I've had several juniors over the years and the all benefited from being pointed in the right direction" - I absolutely concur, never was able to help another sysadmin by telling them what to do step-by-step. They forgot the steps the next day and then become robots "if XYZ occurs, do steps ABC". They don't understand the system. Pointing them out in the right direction give them a chance to understand and act intelligently and thus make less mistake later when the situation resembles but is not the same as an earlier one. – ETL Mar 20 '14 at 22:59
  • As a frequent asker but infrequent answerer (due to experience) I prefer the answers with links to the fine manual, but I do tend to accept those answers with teh codez as the added effort by the answerer does deserve the reward, and also to help those who come after me find the relevant info quickly. Perhaps I should state clearly in the question that I'm looking for documentation, not a solution. That does seem to be against the scope of SE sites in general, though. – dotancohen Apr 3 '14 at 11:30
  • @dotancohen: Here is a recent example. It describes how to solve the problem in a generic manner which is useful to more people than just the OP. I believe the answer is complete and useful. A little effort on someones part and it can be converted to iptables commands (which I chose not to do). I was surprised that someone didn't just provide the codez. I prefer that people learn how rather than learn to copy/paste but hey. – Iain Apr 3 '14 at 11:47
  • Yes, that is a very good answer. It addresses both the general situation and the OP's specific issues. I might edit to add a link to the documentation. – dotancohen Apr 3 '14 at 12:24
30

There is nothing wrong with a nice generic answer. They are frequently better than nothing. If this is the type of answer you prefer to give, feel free to continue doing that.

On the other hand, if we assume in good faith that the person has already researched the question, then they might have already read the docs you have mentioned, and they are not clear to that person. Providing a practical example or specifics can be very useful.

There are some problems there can be a cases where a syntax error or some other obscure thing that the documentation mentions or implies in an off-hand manner. A nice good specific example will often help a person.

In summary, provide answers if you think they information will be helpful and get the person closer to solving their problem. A more generic answer may be better for the community at large, but a more specific answer may help that particular person. The answers that rise to the top often provide both the generic bits, and the specifics.

  • Good point. Thanks! – dawud Mar 20 '14 at 21:42
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    A generic answer is all very well but often people are stuck on the specifics. It takes more effort to understand exactly which part they haven't got if you don't just go through the whole process. (don't forget a question is for others than the OP too) There is fine line between them being lazy and you just not being very helpful. – JamesRyan Mar 22 '14 at 14:38
  • if they had read the documentation, we shouldn't have to assume this. OP should have mentioned that they had done so in their question. – strugee Mar 24 '14 at 4:18
  • @JamesRyan I don't think that "them being lazy" and "you just not being very helpful" are distinct options at all, I rather think that there is a strong correlation between lazy questions and people having a less helpful attitude. I would actually go as far as saying that widespread laziness can easily make people reading the questions feel frustrated and/or used, which can lead to spite instead of helpfulness. – Håkan Lindqvist Mar 30 '14 at 14:11
  • @HåkanLindqvist as I said, you should not forget that the info is for people other than the OP too. Regardless of whether you are inclined to help the OP, even a badly asked question is an opportunity to share some knowledge with the wider audience of people who find the question later with a similar problem. Often the devil is in the details, there is nothing more frustrating than seeing that someone has dealt with the same issue but given too general an explanation to fill in the vital assumption or implication that you are missing. – JamesRyan Mar 31 '14 at 10:46
  • @JamesRyan The problem with sharing your knowledge in an answer to a poorly stated question is that it's less likely to actually help anyone else and for redundant questions it can easily end up just being wasteful. As for the original point, I'm not arguing against answering specifics/providing examples when that actually serves a purpose other than spoonfeeding the OP but I do think that going straight for the very specifics runs the risk of not teaching anyone anything worthwhile (including the OP). If there are specifics that remain unclear it's always possible to ask for clarification. – Håkan Lindqvist Mar 31 '14 at 20:20
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Server Fault is a site for professionals.
As such you can reasonably expect that an explanation and a link to relevant documentation is adequate for our target audience - there is no need to spoon-feed professionals with "First eject the CD tray. Now put the CD in the tray. Now close the tray. Now double-click on the CD icon on the desktop. Now double-click on 'install program'...." Internet-for-Idiots instructions.

Users who will only accept "do it for me" type instructions are frankly not our target audience. I wish them well, but I see no need for us to pander to the totally incompetent.

"You need to do X, Y, and Z because A, B, and C. Go look at the documentation here for more information" is a perfectly adequate answer.

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    Don't forget to mention to take the coffee cup out of the cd tray, if needed. I agree though, professionals who have at the very least a vague understanding of what they are trying to accomplish should only need to be pointed towards relevant documentation. – canadmos Mar 22 '14 at 2:17
  • I think the site "rules" are too easy to miss. Especially for the kind of people who ask this type of questions. It was a long time ago that I registered, so maybe it is apparent for a new user, but perhaps they forget or too easily click past the site description. I know for sure that I in my daily use never stumble across the site description. Apart from that, I recall moderator candidates mentioning their evolving from "do-it-for-me"-asker to well-adjusted site citizen more than once. So, I let my daily form decide if I educate or ignore the question. – MattBianco Mar 25 '14 at 13:51
  • @MattBianco A lot of work has been done to make "the rules" more obvious, like big obnoxious banners for unregistered/new users. If we go much further we're going to be in "punch the monkey" ad territory, with blinking borders and autoloading sounds. We've got 2 "help" links for everyone else, and a badge for reading through all of /help -- hard to provide more encouragement unless we start using a taser on people who don't read it :-) – voretaq7 Mar 25 '14 at 15:36
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    Professional or not, the ACTUAL steps required to complete something are often mindboggling and littered with a history of workarounds that just don't exist in the original documentation. Providing any kind of incomplete solution just renders an answer useless IMO. An incomplete answer will not save anyone time, and people coming here for answers are probably trying to save time after wasting too much looking at unhelpful documentation. I generally always provide working code if possible. – Triynko Mar 25 '14 at 21:04
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    @Triynko Sorry, but IMO you're wrong, and the attitude of "hand me a full step-by-step solution!" is absolutely wrong. Server Fault is here to TEACH people - to ensure that they have an understanding of why things work the way they do and can apply that understanding to solve problems. If someone needs an expedient solution and is expecting us to say "type these commands in this order and it will all magically work for you" they need to hire a consultant or find a new line of work - that kind of cookie-cutter system administration has no place in the profession. – voretaq7 Mar 25 '14 at 21:19
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    I think @Triynko has a point. I am often looking for cookbook answers, in the sense of " you need to use modprobe blahblahblah" because some essential detail or often workaround did not appear in the documentation. Libvirt documentation for example is very thorough and often confusing. It doesn't do anything to teach context, and this is a perfect place to provide that but the user also needs some explicit help- "use attach-disk not attach-device". Also I am seeing a lot of people for whom English is not their first language - they need an extra break. – John P. Fisher Mar 28 '14 at 21:16
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    @JohnP.Fisher I have no problem pointing someone toward the right command as you describe in your comment, particularly when the documentation is inadequate or misleading. I DO have a problem when folks seem to expect me to point them to the command, then take their hand and carefully guide their index finger to poke every key in the right order, which seems to be what folks are expecting these days. Folks are coming here expecting us to give them 100% complete cut-and-paste solutions like they can get on Stack Overflow - that to me is unacceptable. – voretaq7 Mar 28 '14 at 21:48
  • Why is it so unacceptable to provide a complete answer @voretaq7? Is this part of that mindset "It was difficult for me, it should be difficult for you too?" Or is it part of the Wizard of OZ mindset that keeps all the details behind the curtain. SO has a friendly set of world class pros (in the truest sense of the word) that are there to help other people in a very open way and it works wonderfully. In contrast SF comes across like a bunch of angry old men gathering around the BPOE to complain about peole that are trying to learn. Makes it seem like SF is peopled by the Tea Party. – boatcoder Mar 29 '14 at 14:39
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    @mark0978 A "complete answer" is NOT THE SAME THING as a cut and paste solution. It is unacceptable in my mind to coddle and spoon feed the folks who want a cut-and-paste solution: A system administrator who cannot think on their feet and can only post a question and cut/paste the answer with no underlying understanding of what's going on is less than worthless - they're DANGEROUS. It has never been our goal (or any other entity in the pro sysadmin realm) to cater to those folks. Go read meta.serverfault.com/questions/5475 & meta.serverfault.com/questions/4111 – voretaq7 Mar 29 '14 at 19:59

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