What can you do to prevent going down the rabbit-hole of answering a question where the original poster just doesn't get it?

Questions that seem innocuous or should have a straightforward answer quickly devolve into comments that reveal how big of a mess the OP is really in. And maybe I'm looking for a more graceful way to exit.

Start with this - a disk failure: HP Proliant DL180 G6 - Smart Array P410, bay 11 error

From there, it goes into conflated error messages, YouTube videos, screenshots, firmware, lack of documentation, an explanation of RAID and ends with multiple suggestions to just replace the disk... But wait, how DO I replace the disk? And why is my system with a failed disk performing slowly? And even more tangentially-related fallout.

Oh, and finally, "How do I check the progress of the disk rebuild?"

Is this the state of Professional in 2014?

Or this simple FreeNAS drive failure: zpool status reports error ... what next?

"Replace the disk"

This spawned numerous followup questions (some with great. answers.):

Need to identify disk in zpool ... how?
Need to replace disk in zpool ... confused
FreeNAS: "/var: write failed, filesystem is full"
FreeNAS: "swap_pager: I/O error - pagein failed"

But in the end, looking at this in the context of the poster's history, there was nothing but a disastrous string of bad situations, each linked to the previous. Is there a point where you just give up? If I were an employer or this poster's superior, I would have serious concerns about their ability to solve problems or that they were wasting time with a solution they could not manage effectively.

Yes, this guy, too!

HP ProLiant DL380e Gen8 has high fan speed after installing second CPU

A server with a fan speed issue following a hardware modification. Poor feedback to requests for more information. Normal OS and firmware recommendations made sense, given the environment described. OP had problems updating firmware... Poor followup.

After 2+ weeks: After upgrading all the software, the fans kept blowing 99%. However I suddenly noted a warning during boot time that fan 1 was missing - I switched fan 6 to slot 1 and the issue is now resolved.

What about the front-panel indicators on the server that clearly display fan status and hardware health?!? The ILO? The POST messages during the OS and firmware updates? And what if the fan is still bad? Motherboard issue?

Facepalm :(

Or a networking question:

How to use iSCSI MPIO to increase bandwidth with XenServer?

I saw back-and-forth in the comments section. Multiple users tried to explain the flawed logic of the question via comments. One excellent answer was posted, but the OP still wasn't on the same page. I gave a terse explanation describing what the real focus of the issue should have been.

Maybe it was colder than intended, but I notice that a lot more hand-holding is needed in questions that should not require it.

(Sometimes guidance is necessary, but there's a difference between working with someone knowledgable who's in a bind and teaching someone the basics along the way to answering a question)

  • 35
    Sadly yes, this is the state of the professional today. As a consultant I see companies who want enterprise data storage on a mom & pop budget so they have very junior staff handling things they don't understand (or the office manager is the "computer person") and when things go wrong they don't understand why all this other stuff is effected.
    – mrdenny
    Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 15:53
  • 3
    Run away at the earliest opportunity.
    – user9517
    Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 21:04
  • 9
    @mrdenny When you say “who want enterprise data storage on a mom & pop budget” I tend to agree. But I think the larger issue is that computing hardware & software is so disposable to some—and there is a such a high demand for skills—that any clown who can “fake it to make it” will get a gig, do what they think is best & nobody questions it. This kind of work is inherently invisible & the problems only show up years later. Basically, incompetence is rewarded in I.T. nowadays. Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 11:27
  • Haha just saw this topic in the sidebar, this just kinda happened to me and I got downvoted because of OP not getting it lulz!! @lain advice is best, run and avoid eye contact...
    – Daniel W.
    Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 14:38
  • 9
    Obligatory: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/19665/the-help-vampire-problem
    – Andrew B
    Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 16:12
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    Keep in mind this xkcd comic: xkcd.com/386 and don't become that person. It is not our responsibility to rescue every helpless techy who might have a job they're aren't qualified for or don't care about. Offer help, but don't let it drive you to frustration.
    – uSlackr
    Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 21:39
  • 11
    Hi! I totally regret not being an expert or knowledgeable in the subject. And I also make an apology than I'm being one of the person who made you frustrating. I'm pretty much new to the subjected questions which I've asked. In our organization, I did had a senior supervisor who's responsible for these typos, who suddenly left the organization leaving me no choice, no training & not even a technical documentation. The comments and questions that I've asked is to make sure that I'm not doing anything wrong and I'm on the right path. I will further improve my self before asking a question. :(
    – AzkerM
    Commented Apr 12, 2014 at 5:40
  • 8
    @ewwhite - Though I became a pain, I really would like to thank you for helping me out knowing that its frustrating to help further. My supervisor was no good to me nor helpful to me at all. If I would've had a mentor like you, I'd definitely improve myself learning the things I handle without just shooting questions. Also, my intention was never to bother anyone taking my load. It just me packed with so many tasks and left alone doing all in no time. Once again, thank you for all the help & this post made me think of improving myself a alot more as newbie. God bless you!
    – AzkerM
    Commented Apr 12, 2014 at 5:44
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    @AzkerM You're one of the good ones. Thank you for going the extra mile, as usually these types of situations are very thankless for us. Pardon any jaded attitudes; your reception to this type of advice is by far in the minority.
    – Andrew B
    Commented Apr 12, 2014 at 19:08
  • Sorry to get off topic here, but if this situation is true with professionals today, it's be much better than the situation with "professionals" in previous centuries. Back then, there were fewer people to fill all the jobs, with several having jobs in more than 1 "industry", not to mention all the nepotism. Think about it: would you rather be in an industry because of your parents, that you don't like, where nobody is really an expert, or an industry you like being in, where you can get a lot of help, where people actually know what they're doing?
    – trysis
    Commented Apr 13, 2014 at 0:12
  • 3
    It's curious to see my question here. Well unfortunately the OP (me) get the point when debating with @JedDaniels, and your answer wasn't what I'm expecting but I up voted it because it's still right. As I stated in my question I was just following the guidance from oficial documentation for the product that I'm using and I asked in srvflt expecting an answer just like Jed have done. Of course there's a lot of bad questions in srvflt, but no one born knowing everything, and if it's forbidden to ask, this site loses it's purpose. Commented Apr 14, 2014 at 3:08
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    With your 89K reputation, nobody can argue about your dedication to ServerFault. I understand that is difficult to step back, but sometimes you really need to have a break, take a long walk ... clear your head. Anyway thanks again for being who you are.
    – Ouki
    Commented Apr 15, 2014 at 17:36
  • @Ouki Thank you. I'm taking that advice and cutting-back on participation.
    – ewwhite
    Commented Apr 15, 2014 at 17:42
  • 1
    well, also remember that alot of programmers dont know much about hardware .. but still need to use it time to time :) ... doesnt necessarily mean they are clueless. nowadays w/ JS, browswer side computing, cloud, machine learning being so important setting up servers is a skill that not all of us are specialized in.
    – jayunit100
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 15:12
  • 4
    yup. just keep sharing the knowledge. sometimes its frustrating but , i would just keep sharing. if you think someone doesnt know something fundamental: Share with them the means to fix the holes in their knowledge (i.e. "read chapters 5-7 of this book ..." or "watch this talk on ...").
    – jayunit100
    Commented Apr 21, 2014 at 3:33

6 Answers 6


Others have said you should “Just walk away.” and “Stop doing it.” but I wanted to add a small piece of advice. Looking at your reputation of 89.5k in addition to they type of question you are asking, it’s clear to me you have deep skills based on years of experience and (key point) you most likely gained those skills during the computing era when there were less techs doing similar work.

I can relate. I have 20+ years experience doing Unix/Linux work to varying degrees. And in the early days the level of entry to learning this stuff was higher. So your skills had to be better and—key point here—people who had that pre-existing experience were more of mentors to new folk learning these skills. Why? Easy. As proud as we are for our skills, nobody can do this alone. And honestly I hate being in a position of being the only guy on staff who knows something. Spread the wealth!

Which is all to say that nowadays, the level of entry is much lower & many problems don’t need deep skills to solve most of the time. Just throw someone who kinda knows how computers work, throw them some money & BOOM you have an I.T. department. But the second the proverbial crap hits the fan, these guys are up a creek without a paddle.

It’s not your problem. And life goes on. They are in over their heads and—are most likely—getting paid to be that incompetent. What do you gain by doing free work to help someone who is clueless?

I sometimes get caught in a mess when I answer a question as best as possible & then it is clear that the original poster has no clue & basically wants you to do their work for them. I react to this in different ways, but honestly you cannot expect to post ad infinitum to a brick wall that has no clue. You answer the best you can, and move on.

And here on the Stack Exchange of sites, just flag a question as a problem if you feel the original poster is wasting everyone’s time.


Just walk away.

It may be sad that this is the state of "professionals" in 2014 (it may also be a lucrative opportunity, or a road to a comfortable living through slacking by against weak competition), but regardless, you're not going to fix the state of IT professionals as a whole by answering questions on ServerFault, and especially not by spoon-feeding answers to some lazy or impossibly dense guy who's just treating you like an answer machine, and using you for free professional services.

Since you're not getting paid, it's OK to just walk away. Maybe they'll be forced to learn something on their own for once (something that the education system in our country certainly doesn't attach any value to), maybe they won't, but either way, it's not your problem, and it's not worth getting burned-out over.

Besides, I may need your help one day with a question of my own about HP gear or ESXi, which won't happen if you burn yourself out trying to fix some clueless help vampire first. :p

  • +1 That first line... I honestly feel bad, but 9/10 you aren't going to be the solution anyway.
    – Chris S
    Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 17:09
  • 1
    I disagree. I learnt a lot from a guy I used to work with when I first entered the industry 5.5 years ago. Now, he comes to me for help. If he just walked away when he realised how little I knew, I would not be in a well paid job now and still be on the bottom of the IT support food chain.
    – Simkill
    Commented May 1, 2014 at 11:00
  • @Simkill ...and you are aware of the slight difference in the hordes of clueless people asking for "HALP!" on the internet, and assisting a coworker... right? Commented May 1, 2014 at 12:47

What can you do to prevent going down the rabbit-hole of answering a question where the original poster just doesn't get it?

Stop doing it?

You're clearly the type of guy I'd want to hire if I had a problem - widely and deeply knowledgeable, dedicated to finding root causes, energetic, hard-working... But I'd expect to pay for someone with your level of competence, not get hand-holding from you over the Internet for free. You might get an attaboy from some of these posters, but that's all you're gonna get, not even the satisfaction of unraveling an interesting technical issue.

And even in terms of Glowing Internet Sparkle Points (e.g. rep), it's probably not worth your time. I look at questions like the ones in your list and while I might throw the odd sympathy vote on an answer, I tend to avoid the whole thing, even if it does have nice pictures.

  • 10
    +1 Glowing Internet Sparkle Points
    – Chris S
    Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 19:24
  • 7
    I thought I was helping people :(
    – ewwhite
    Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 21:17
  • 2
    You can't have it both ways... it's admirable to help people, but if unstinting in your help you'll sometimes get burned: some people will take advantage of your helpfulness, some will make you waste your efforts because they just don't know that they're totally out of their depth and doing everything wrong. You've gotten 3 essentially identical answers: run away, walk away, stop doing it. Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 21:40
  • 2
    I mean, haven't you ever dealt with a help vampire in real life? If it's your job to help someone then you can try and there are ways to be nice about it, but even IRL you sometimes walk away. Like I said, it's admirable to try to help people (I'm not at all like that, I assume the worst right off the top), but you have to know that some people can't be helped - someone has to be on the left-hand side of the bell curve. Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 21:43
  • 1
    @ward is this happening with greater frequency? Maybe that's what's throwing me off.
    – ewwhite
    Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 22:20
  • @ewwhite - I definitely feel like it's happening on the site w/ greater frequency. (I'm also totally w/ you on the 'I thought I was helping people' comment.) Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 11:16
  • 1
    Adding to what @Ward said, sometimes the best thing you can do is help someone recognize that they're out of their depth. This will often lead into the same responses we get out of challenging the professional applicability of a question: indignation, "I don't care the business demands it", and the occasional person that it clicks with. You put in the effort for the third, but the effort stops the moment you hit the first two.
    – Andrew B
    Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 18:24
  • ...Case in point: serverfault.com/questions/588623/…
    – Andrew B
    Commented Apr 12, 2014 at 18:55

Sadly, the more popular serverfault and stackexchange in general become, and the higher they rank in google searches, the more clueless people we attract.

Yes, this is the state of Professional in many places. There are a lot of clueless people out there who either think they are IT people, or get shoved into the job of IT because they are the smartest of an office full of clueless people.

The only solution is to try to identify which type of person you're dealing with. In my book, there are two basic kinds:

  1. The people who want to learn, and have the capacity to learn. They know how to logically work their way through a problem, they just don't have any experience with this particular problem.
  2. The people who want a solution, for free, right now. They either can't or don't want to learn on their own. They couldn't problem solve their way out of a paper bag.

The first are the kind we want to nurture and help here - they learn, and pass that knowledge off to others. The second kind are the ones that become huge time sucks - they don't want to learn how things work, they just want you to do your job for them.

At the first sign that a question's asker falls into cateogory 2, I vote to close it. I spend enough of my paid time answering and fixing things for people who don't want to learn how things work. I'm not doing it for free. And those are the questions that don't help out other people later on, they aren't useful to anyone but the asker. Answering them just teaches them to come back here and ask another question before even thinking about the problem.

On the upside, there is a huge amount of money to be made for the more intelligent people that get called in as a consultant to clean up these guy's messes!

  • You sir! your points are purely valid and it make sense for me to enhance my skills. But I would also like to make a point that just because an OP ask continuous question relatively doesn't mean all of them are just try to find a solution using you or another. My intention was never to do that but I had to post it to make sure that a professional like you answer and say that yes, I'm on the right path. Anyhow, I'm now trying to better my self learning before I come up with any issues. Main reason was, I'm new to the subject which I posted and there were none to help me with. :)
    – AzkerM
    Commented Apr 12, 2014 at 5:48
  • 3
    This is why we have the "Questions must demonstrate a minimal understanding of the problem being solved" vote to close reason.
    – Andrew
    Commented Apr 14, 2014 at 1:25
  • @andrew and sadly I find myself clicking that reason a LOT.
    – Grant
    Commented Apr 14, 2014 at 3:23

I think this is a great topic and very valid, kudos to the OP. I heartily agree with a lot of the points presented in the discussion, but mainly the ones presented by @Grant when he said the key is learning to differentiate two types of people that ask for help:

1) The people who want to learn, and have the capacity to learn. They know how to logically work their way through a problem, they just don't have any experience with this particular problem.

2) The people who want a solution, for free, right now. They either can't or don't want to learn on their own. They couldn't problem solve their way out of a paper bag.

These points really are key in dealing with people both in and out of the internet. As a project manager I don't have nearly as much experience as most of you (barely being a couple years as sysadmin), I firmly believe in passing the wealth as someone else said, but it has to be someone who is going to in turn do the same and who is deserving (as imposible as that may be to determine) of the time invested in helping them since after all, it is for free.

If we want to really contribute and keep alive the open source community and vision, I believe we need to continue helping those that ask for help when possible, and keep the spirit alive of collaboration and camaraderie that is common and unique to the linux community.

I also personally believe that its imperative as individuals to continue growing professionally and maintaining and cultivating that hunger for knowledge that will make us excel in our jobs, not just finish the day and be complacent with what we are. It is this type of people with a desire to excel and be better just because they want to, not because they need a promotion, that I'd help whenever possible because I know that its time well invested and 9/10 times, they will in turn do the same to others because they value what they have and know how hard it is to learn on your own. They do not need you to hold their hand, just a pointer in the right direction, then they will take it from there, even learning what is necessary along the way, to get there.


It's not just the state of professionalism, but also of humanity, sadly. I came to that realization recently : you can't fix everything, get over it. You can laugh at it...professionally.

I myself know I'm not getting it from time to time and I hate it and I don't know how to express it. There's been a knowledge vacuum since a few years because older IT specialists retired and we didn't see much knowledge transfer sadly.

In my case, I wish I could do teamwork to exchange and learn more or even have a mentor, but can't have it all eh..? I know my weakness and can admit it - I have poor networking, coding skills mostly.

Sadly, lots of people can't even admit they fail...that they are human.

Prove us you are by getting over those people "not getting it" (PEBCAK) for your sanity ;)

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