Spent the last two days buried deep in a complicated problem with my code. Back when I was a kid – before the internet existed – if I ran into a problem with a program, I grabbed one of the thick manuals and searched the index or the table of contents for words that seemed related – then I turned to the page and read a bit, skimmed really to see if it looked helpful. if it did – I’d read it again more carefully – if not – I was back in the index, looking for another word – or back to the shelf for another book. And if I really could figure it out – I would ask my dad, he knew everything.
Not much has changed. Except now I type my search words into google and see what pops up on the first page. (If I can’t find a possible lead on the first page – I’ve used the wrong words) I follow the first seemingly relevant link then I skim to see if it looks close to helping me – if not, it’s back to the search results. Etcetera…
Anyway, as my dad knows – and as anyone working with any coding knows – google will invariably lead you to StackOverflow.com. It seems it is the only manual on the shelf these days. Which is a shame. It’s an awfully nasty book. Full of nasty (male) know-it-alls who will call you an idiot and scream RTFM!* or GO DO SOME RESEARCH! at you with the least provocation. They do NOT believe in the statement: “There are no stupid questions.”
I have never asked a question there myself – I’m too afraid. Just being a woman amongst all that testosterone is enough to make me uncomfortable – I’ll think long and hard before exposing myself to that sort of vitriol.
Now – in their defence, I will admit that there are plenty of times even I’ve rolled my eyes at a seemingly inane question. Usually they are written simply: “How do I do X?” and for those, the answer is just as simple: go read the manual. But often it is painfully clear that the asker is struggling to write a coherent question because either they don’t know what they don’t know or English is a foreign language to them. Often it is both.
I read those questions and I think of some poor overworked, underpaid developer, newly graduated from a for-profit tech school, thrown a mass of crap by their new boss and told they have one day to fix the problem, or else.
I think of the worst of the nasty know-it-alls as being time-rich hobbyists. Living off their mother’s or their wife’s income, and spending all day luxuriating in the deep waters of the esoteric conundrums of their favorite programing language. They surface occasionally to take vicious swipes at the children barely treading water – just for the fun of it.
They say they are harsh because they don’t want the site bogged down with crap – that if every question is legitimate and well written then everyone using the site will benefit. And yes, of course that’s true. But how is it helpful to the sincere beginners out there to have a website they can’t use? If the manual is written by and for the experts who already know what they’re doing, then my newbie search words won’t lead me anywhere. The gap between beginner and intermediate is too far to jump on your own.
I was lucky when I was just starting out. If I was so flummoxed that I didn’t even know what word to look for in the manual, I always had my kind and gentle father to help me out. Not everyone has someone to help them to learn how to ask a question.
There needs to be a place to ask the stupid questions too.
*RTFM – Read The Fucking Manual