# Asking Technical Questions
CS 3110 Fall 2017
Last fall, CS 3110 had 2700 Piazza posts. At that volume, there's a tendency
for noise to drown out signal. That is, it can be difficult to find answers to
your question or to related questions. And there simply aren't enough
instructor resources to answer that many questions in the full detail we would
So I offer this guide in an attempt to help students to improve their skills in
asking thoughtful technical questions: questions that are well posed,
and that are likely to receive useful answers. This skill will
transcend CS 3110 and be useful throughout a career in computer science.
Of course, I am not the first person to give some thought to helping people ask
better technical questions. The classic guide is by [Raymond and Moen][smart].
It is highly recommended (though acerbic) reading. Here, I summarize
some of its main points and interpret them in light of this course.
*Acknowledgement: nearly all the prose in this document is excerpted from
or inspired by *Raymond and Moen*. They deserve any credit; Clarkson deserves
## Before Asking
**Try to find the answer.** Search Piazza, the web, or a manual. Google and the
Find function (probably Ctrl-F) in your browser are your ally. Read the course
notes, slides, handouts, and textbooks. Do some experiments with whatever
software you're using. Read any available, relevant source code.
Take your time. Complicated problems can't necessarily be solved with a few
seconds of googling. Read, sit back, relax, and give the problem some thought
before posting on Piazza. It is often obvious to potential answerers when a
question has been asked "off the cuff" without any research, and that tends to
diminish their enthusiasm for answering. So avoid instantly firing your whole
arsenal of questions when your first search turns up no answers, or too many.
When you violate this advice for particularly easy to find information, you
might receive an answer in the form of a vague pointer: "The answer to that is
in the course notes" or "see the assignment writeup." These replies mean that
the responder thinks you will learn more if you seek out the information than if
you have it fed to you. Try not to be offended by this kind of response; it is
helping you become a better question asker. If you truly can't find the
information, use the advice below to help you continue in your search for it.
## When Asking
**Prepare your question.** Think it through. Hastily-asked questions tend to get
hastily-written answers, or none at all. The more you do to demonstrate that
you have put thought and effort into solving your problem before seeking help,
the better the help you are likely to receive.
Display the fact that you have done your homework by trying to find the answer
first, per the discussion above, and what you have learned from that research.
Even saying "I googled on the following phrase but didn't get anything that
looked promising" is a good thing to do when requesting help, if only because it
records what searches didn't help.
**Summarize carefully.** Put careful thought into what Piazza calls the
"Summary" of your question, or what in an email might be called the
"Subject". The summary is your golden opportunity to attract attention
in around 50 characters or fewer. (Although Piazza allows up to 100,
shorter is better.) Don't waste your space on fluff like "Please help
me" (let alone "PLEASE HELP ME!!!!"; messages with summaries like that
get ignored by reflex). Don't try to impress others with the depth of
your anguish; use the space for a super-concise problem description
One good convention for summaries, used by many tech support
organizations, is "object - deviation". The "object" part specifies what
thing or group of things is having a problem, and the "deviation" part
describes the deviation from expected behavior. The process of writing
an "object - deviation" description will help you organize your thinking
about the problem in more detail.
* **Bad:** HELP! A1 issues
* **Good:** A1 - specification broken
* **Splendid:** A1 method Foo.Bar() - inconsistent precondition
(This Bad/Good/Splendid classification is borrowed from Lyn Dupré's
splendid book *Bugs in Writing: A Guide to Debugging Your Prose*, a classic
and still relevant manual for technical writing in computer science.)
Another good convention is to phrase the summary as an actual one-sentence
question, then provide a longer-form rephrasing of the question in the body
of the post. This works well on sites like Stack Overflow but less well on
Piazza, which typically shows only three to five words.
* **Bad:** Is this right?
* **Good:** Does a monad always have a bind operation?
* **Spendid:** Must monad have bind?
Imagine looking at the left-hand pane of Piazza, with just the summaries
showing. Make your summary reflect your question well enough that the
next student searching with a question similar to yours will instantly
recognize your post as being related to their question, so that they
won't need to post the question again.
**Focus your question.** The less of a time commitment you implicitly ask for,
the more likely you are to get an answer from someone really good and really
busy, whether that's a fellow student, a TA, or the professor. So it is
useful to frame your question to minimize the time commitment required
for an expert to field it.
* **Bad:** Would you explain snarks again?
* **Good:** Would you give me a pointer to a good place to start reading
* **Splendid:** I've googled for snarks, read the Wikipedia article on them [url],
as well as the paper cited as  there, which seems to be the main source for
the article. But I'm confused about what it means by "mixing" and the paper
it cites for that [url] is behind a paywall. Can you point me to a place
where I can read more about "mixing"?
**Write in clear, grammatical, correctly-spelled language.** Spend the
extra effort to polish your language. It doesn't have to be stiff or
formal. In fact, I enjoy informal, slangy, and humorous language used
Spell, punctuate, and capitalize correctly. Don't TYPE IN ALL CAPS;
this is read as shouting and considered rude. Don't use
instant-messaging shortcuts and acronyms such as "u" or "lol", unless it
is with calculated irony.
Never, ever flag your question as "Urgent" and especially not "URGENT".
Doing so runs the risk of being perceived as selfishly attempting to
elicit immediate and special attention. A well-written question
is more likely to receive that attention than a so-called "urgent"
Courtesy never hurts, and sometimes helps. Use "Please" and "Thanks". To be
honest, this isn't as important as being grammatical, clear, and precise. But
if you've got the rest of your ducks in a row, politeness does increase your
chances of getting a quick and useful answer.
This advice especially applies to the main question. Sometimes
a follow-up thread will proceed casually, and that can be okay.
But if your follow-up is pursuing an answer to the original question,
keep it linguistically shiny.
**Use plain text as much as possible.**
Piazza offers many formatting options, which can be used for better or
for worse. Bold face, bullets, and headings can all be useful for
conveying structure in longer questions. Unfortunately, the rich text
editor has been rather buggy at times with respect to preformatted text
and code blocks. If you take the time to use these features, also take
the time to re-read your post to make sure they are being rendered in
the way you intended.
Screenshots are useful supplements to a post but should never be the
primary content. The contents of them are not searchable and might be
difficult to read on the viewer's device. Make sure to clearly prepare
your question in descriptive text first, then provide the screenshot
purely as augmentation.
**For tech support, skip Piazza altogether.**
Remote tech support is always a poor substitute for one-on-one
problem solving. Come to office hours instead.
**Don't rush to claim that you have found an error.** When you are
having problems with an assignment, don't claim you have found an error in it
unless you are sure of your ground. It's especially undiplomatic to yell "error"
in the summary line of your post. It is best to write as though you assume you
are doing something wrong, even if you are privately pretty sure you are right.
If there really is an error, you will hear about it in the answer. Play it so
the instructors will want to apologize to you if the error is real, rather than
so that you will owe them an apology if you have messed up.
It's also best to construct your question with what you think the fix
to the error is, or at least a candidate for that fix. For example,
if you think a sentence in an assignment is in error, you should provide
the original sentence and what you believe to be a corrected version of it.
The above discussion applies to slides and notes, too, but I freely admit
that the probability of errors on those materials is much higher than
the probability of errors on assignments, which are vetted quite closely.
I certainly want to fix any errors in the slides and notes, so please do
not hesitate to write a post suggesting corrections. When it comes
to small typos, if they are of a technical nature I'll certainly fix them,
but do forgive me if in the rush of the semester I fail to fix smal
* **Bad:** BUG in A1?! That `41` can't be right lol.
* **Good:** On Problem 2 of A1, I think the `41` is wrong.
* **Splendid:** On Problem 2 of A1, I tried completing the problem with the
`41` that is given as a sample input, but I got an answer that is
nonsensical (and that I won't post here because of AI concerns). Can you
suggest where I read more about the material behind this problem,
so that I can figure out what I'm doing wrong?
* **Amazing:** On problem 2 of A1, it gives a sample run of
`answer(life, universe, everything)` and says the output should be `41`.
I noticed that's inconsistent with the writings of Douglas Adams that
we studied this week. In the course notes [url] it says `42` instead.
I was just wondering whether that inconsistency was deliberate or not.
## After Asking
**How to respond to an answer you don't understand.** If you don't
understand an answer, avoid immediately bouncing back a demand for
clarification. Use the same tools that you used to try and answer your
original question (Piazza, the web, a manual, Google, course notes,
slides, handouts, textbooks, etc.) to understand the answer. Then, if
you still need to ask for clarification, exhibit what you have learned.
For example, suppose you receive the answer, "It sounds like you've got a stuck
zentry; you'll need to clear it."
* **Bad followup:** What's a zentry?
* **Good followup:** Thanks! I read the man page, and zentries are
only mentioned under the -z and -p switches. Neither of them says
anything about clearing zentries. Is it one of these or am I missing
**How to interpret seemingly terse answers.**
Sometimes students find answers on Piazza to be terse. Unfortunately, your
fellow students and your instructors rarely have the time to write a gushing,
emotionally effusive response. Efficiency demands terse writing. So, as an
answer seeker, please don't confuse terseness with hostility. And as an answer
giver, don't cloak hostility in terseness: be respectful, and give your peers
the benefit of the doubt.
**What if your question is going unanswered for several days?**
Unfortunately, at the volume of questions we experienced last year in this
course, it's inevitable that instructors will not be able to respond to all
questions. But if even other students aren't providing useful answers to your
questions, don't take it personally. No response is not the same as being
ignored, though admittedly it's hard to spot the difference from outside. Simply
re-posting your original question is a bad idea. There is some *reason* your
question isn't being answered. So go back to the advice above. Figure out how to
improve your question, then edit or retract the original. Even better, go to
office hours to ask there, and afterwards, do everyone a favor by turning the
question into a note with an improved version of the question and a
summary of the answer.