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To be Forearmed is to be Help-ready

Tue 15 December 2015 | tags: irc, help, programming, beginner, pastebin, documentation, practice, dev, planet, -- (permalink)

I felt compelled to write this after my personal experience trying to get help with my code on IRC.

We all love to make the computer do things exactly the way we want, so some of us choose to take the bold step of learning to communicate with the machine. And it is not uncommon to find many of our burgeoning kind go from location to location on the web space trying to get help along the way. We are prompt to ask questions when we sight help.

When you learn to program, you are often encouraged to learn by doing.

The domain of computer programming or software development is a very practical one. Before now, I had carried this very principle everywhere with me -- in fact, preached it -- but hadn't really put it to use.

The thing about learning languages (or technologies) by reading big manuals is that, often times, beginners will approach the process like they would any other literature book. But that is clearly a wrong approach as empirical evidence has shown. You don't read these things to simply stomach them. Instead, you swallow and then post-process. In essence, you ruminate over stuff.

In truth, the only way you can really process what you read is to try things out and see results for yourself.

Weeks ago, while building an app, I visited IRC frequently to ask questions on just about everything that was unclear to me. While this mode of communication and seeking help is encouraged, abuse of it is strongly discouraged. The good guys over on the IRC channels get pissed off when it appears you're boycotting available resources like documentation, preferring to be spoonfed the whole time. (Remember this is not Quora, where the philosophy is for you to ask more and more questions).

This was the sort of thing that happened to me when I began flooding the channels with my persistent querying. Most of the time the IRC folks kept pointing me to the documentation, as workarounds for most of the issues I had were already documented. A lot of things became much clearer when I decided to finally read-the-docs.

What did I learn from that? "Do your own research!" It's so easy to skip this part, but if you make efforts at finding things out for yourself, you'll be surprised at how much you can dig out without having to bug people. However, this does not guarantee that even the few important questions you'll ask may not be met with hostility, but do not let that discourage you. The people who appear to be unwelcoming are doing so only as a way to discourage you from being over-dependent on the channel. Another advantage of finding things for yourself is that, you learn the why and not just the how.

I think it's fair to quote Armin Ronacher here,

"And it's not just asking questions; questioning other people, like what other people do or what you do yourself.

By far, the worst parts in all of my libraries are where I took the design from somewhere else. And it's not because I know better, it's because pretty much everything everybody does at any point in time has some sort of design decision behind it ... that major decision process.

So someone came up with a solution for a particular problem, and he thought about it and then wrote it down. But if you look at someone else's design, you might no longer understand why the decision was made in the first place. And ... in fact, if the original implementation is ten years old, who knows if the design ideas behind it are still entirely correct."

Personally, I like to answer questions and help put people on track. Nonetheless, if the queries got too overwhelming -- especially coming from the same person -- I would eventually lose interest in answering questions.

Let me remind you of some tidbits or etiquettes of IRC:

  • Construct your questions well (concise, well written and straight-to-the-point questions are more likely to attract help)

  • Don't EVER post code in a channel! Pastebin[1] it and share the link in the channel instead. While at it, don't post your entire code (unless you specifically need to). Post only the relevant portion -- the one you have an issue with. The only exception to this is if the snippet of code is considerably short, say one or two lines.

  • Don't be overly respectful. Yes, dont be too respectful -- cut all the 'Sirs'. Only be moderately polite.

  • Ensure you have and use a registered nick. This gives you an identity.

  • This last one is entirely my opinion but it's also based on what I have observed. Don't just be a leech, try to contribute to the community. Answer questions when you can.

So where do you look to before looking to IRC? There are three sources you may read from before turning to internet-relay-chat for help:

  • Read the documentation. * Documentation is the manual the creator or experts of a software product or tool provide their users with. So you want to know the ins and outs of a technology? That's the right place to look.

  • Read blog posts related to your topic-area. Blog posts are often based on people's experiences, so you're likely to find help from there, especially if the writer has faced the same issue. Remember to bookmark the really helpful ones as you go ;).

  • Last and very important. Read the source code!. This is two-fold: First is actually looking into your own code carefully and seeing what syntax or semantic errors you might have made. Secondly, you look into the original code of libraries/frameworks you are using if they are open source, otherwise revert to documentation. With this, you have it all stripped to its bare bones. Point blank! The source code reveals everything you need to know, once you know how to read it.

So why not arm yourself properly before going to post that question. That way, you would not only make it easier to get help [for yourself], but you would be better informed.

  1. Some Pastebin platforms I use:

Note: Because Hastebin heavily depends on Javascript, some people have complained of text-rendering issues possibly arising from browser-compatibility issues with it. So take caution using it. That said, I love its ease-of-use. It supports the use of keyboard shortcuts such as [Ctrl]+[S] to Save.

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