Asking for Help as an IT Pro… The Right Way

I have a bit of a pet peeve: IT Pros asking for help… the wrong way. Don’t get me wrong…  I love sharing my knowledge. I love writing articles, responding to comments on those articles, responding to forum posts, and just general interaction with other enthusiastic IT Pros! But, I need you to help me, help you.  My hope in writing this is to give guidance to any IT Pro’s out there that are looking to have a question answered.  Just a little extra up front work by you can help out other IT Pros that want to help you solve your problem.

Here are a few of the common wrong ways to ask questions as an IT Pro and how to avoid them:

The “Do It for Me” Question

To protect the guilty, here’s a [pretty heavily] modified example I got via email:

I received a list of a few thousand accounts that need to be disabled in Active Directory. For the accounts with short usernames, the Active Directory Users and Computers search comes back with more than one account. It is very time consuming to go through all these accounts one by one to find the right account.

Is there a way that PowerShell can read a text list of the accounts and then move them to an OU named “Disabled” so that I can manually skim through them before I run the script to disable them? I’m not good at PowerShell. Could you give me the commands or a PowerShell script to do this?

If you send me a question like this, I’m probably going to ask you what you’ve already done to solve the problem. I totally get that you may not know PowerShell, may have been handed AD support even though that isn’t your normal area, or that you’re just busy at work.  But, you need to do some additional leg work or ask your question differently:

  • Perhaps a better question would have been: “Do you know of any good resources for managing user accounts in Active Directory with PowerShell?” or “Do you know some good resources for learning PowerShell?”
  • I hate to use the, “have you tried Google,” response, but have you? A quick search found me numerous scripts that do exactly what the IT Pro wants here.
  • Give me something to start with. Don’t ask me to tell you how to fix the problem if you’re not going to dome some upfront work first.

Honestly, I don’t think this person did anything to answer the question on her own. Always try to do some upfront leg work to solve the problem yourself. If you’re wanting someone to just do the work for you, you’re really looking for a consultant.

The “No Background Information” Question

Here’s another example:

I’ve got some VM’s that are not restarting correctly in Hyper-V. Any ideas why they aren’t restarting like they’re supposed to be.

Yep… that was the question. It’s a bit… light… on details. I don’t need your organization’s full infrastructure history, but you’ve got to include pertinent information. In this case, the IT Pro should have included which OS the VM is running, what version of Hyper-V they’re running, storage back-end, etc. Most of us aren’t mind readers, so I usually need some background information:

  • Include pertinent information about the environment.
  • Definitely include anything that may be unusual or out of the ordinary about your environment.
  • Make sure to include things you’ve already tried to resolve the problem.
  • Has something changed in the environment recently?
  • Has the system been working for a long time and now isn’t? Or, is this a new deployment of some kind and it has never worked correctly?

The “I Have a Question” Question

This example came in on the contact form on my blog:

I’m having some problems with some servers and you wrote some posts that are similar to the problems I’m having. Do you have some time to talk on the phone about it to help me out?

I’m not really a consultant… I’m a blogger. I have a day job outside of writing and, honestly, don’t always have time during normal business hours to talk because I’m working. I don’t always have time to talk outside of business hours because I have a home life too. For me, communicating via email or forums (for questions) is usually the best way to go.

  • Just ask your question… Who knows? Maybe it’s a simple answer.
  • Don’t reference something I’ve written without including a link to it. I’ve written a lot of articles and I may not remember the specific one you’re referencing.
  • Quite a few of us that blog and are active online on places like Twitter and forums have day jobs and may not be able to consult due to work or time constraints.
  • If you’re looking for a consultant, just ask! You may be surprised how many of us can refer you to someone who can come take a look at your problems.

The “Help Me Fix My Unsupported Production Configuration” Question

I don’t have a specific example I’m sharing on this one, but if you’re having a problem in your production environment and you’re not in a supported configuration, getting to a supported configuration is probably your answer.

  • I’m all about experimenting and trying out new things, but not in a production environment.  If this is a lab or test environment, tell me and I’m probably going to be more likely to help you. Just don’t tell me it isn’t production if it really is.
  • Read the vendor documentation! Most vendors are very good about spelling out what is supported and what isn’t. Most vendors are either going to require you to change your configuration to something they support or, if you’re lucky, give you minimal support to get you back up… so you can fix your configuration.
  • Don’t get mad at me if I point out that you’re doing something that isn’t supported. I’m just the messenger.

The “What in the World Are You Talking About” Question

Final example:

I’m trying to use screen sharing from my Windows 8 laptop to my Windows 7 desktop and it isn’t working right. I’ve tried it with tunneling on and off and that isn’t working either way. Do you think this is a problem with ports, IPS or what?

Huh? I honestly had no idea what this person is talking initially about based on his first email. I can make some guesses; but, because he didn’t use any standard terminology it slowed the process down while we ironed out what he was trying to do.

  • Use standard industry terms and correct product names.
  • Use current industry terminology. Things change… so does the terminology over time.
  • If you don’t know the correct term, just tell me so I’m not left scratching my head.
  • If you’re a newbie, just say so! I love helping out newbies! There’s nothing wrong with not knowing all the jargon if you’re still learning!

TL;DR

  • Do some leg work up front. Don’t expect someone that is helping you for free to do all the work for you.
  • Let me know what you’ve already tried and some basic background information on the problem you’re having.
  • Ask your question, not something like, “Hey! Can you help me?” Just ask already! 🙂
  • Respect the time of the person you’re asking for help.
  • If you’ve been told something isn’t supported in your production environment, getting to a supported environment is either the fix or a prerequisite for the fix.
  • User proper product names and terminology. If you don’t know them, let me know before you try to describe what you’re doing so I can try to figure it out.

Thanks! You can ask your question now!!! 🙂

~~Kyle

Kyle Beckman

Kyle Beckman

Kyle is a Systems Administrator with 15+ years of experience. He currently works in Higher Education supporting everything from smartphones to desktop PC's to Hyper-V Failover Clusters. (If it has a IP address, he probably supports it!) He has also worked in Small Business IT consulting supporting a wide variety of businesses and non-profit organizations.

Kyle is also the Vice President of the Atlanta Windows Infrastructure and Virtualization User Group (WINVUG).You can find additional articles he's written on 4sysops.com.
Kyle Beckman

1 Comment

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  1. Nothing burns me more than when I do a quick Google search and on the first page their answer is easily found..

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