The fine art of asking for help

Alex King, one of the premier plug-in developers for WordPress (the blogging software that runs this here corner of the Web), is getting pretty frustrated.

Every time he releases a piece of software, all of it free of charge, he’s deluged by support requests — often questions that could be answered if the users had just read the documentation that goes along with his code (a phenomenon addressed by some with a terse “RTFM”).

Rather than just commenting on his page, I wanted to share this with you (and Alex’s audience, through the miracles of trackback):

Let me just echo the comments of others, and underline the usefulness of turning support requests back to the community.

I don’t always blame newbies for RTFM-style questions, by the way. They’ve often been told how easy blogging is, and then how easy WordPress is (“just a one-click installation!” — and if they have Fantastico on their site, even easier)… and they haven’t gotten to the point yet where they can understand much of the documentation out there, or at least be confident that their understanding is accurate. They’re a little scared, they’re hoping for hand-holding… and that’s what the rest of us are for.

And it takes a lot of them a while to realize that even the developers of really, really popular software are often just volunteers working in their off hours, who can’t run 24-hour on-demand support lines. That education process takes a little time, as expectations adjust.

I’ve asked my share of dumb and not-so-dumb questions. Sometimes a generous developer has helped me along; more often it’s been a mentor-of-the-moment from a discussion forum. And there’s no clear moment where you pass from being clueless to being a guru; asking for help remains a go-to tool for nearly everyone.

The good news is, instead of having to rely on a frustrated wage slave working a tech support line from a cubicle farm*, I’m getting to join a community of enthusiastic folks who are helping out because they want to — whether it’s in coding the software or helping others use it.

* (flame-forestalling disclaimer) Not that every paid tech support person is a frustrated wage slave. Some are genuinely engaged and talented people.

Whaddaya think?