3 Tips for Using Tech Forums

Posting a question to a tech forum can be a coder’s equivalent of staring at a pile of Legos when you’re a child: You know that if you had the right skills, you could turn those Legos into some specific bit of coolness. But instead you have to give up and ask your parents to help put them together.

There’s no doubt that tech forums, from Stack Overflow to Github, are invaluable. One person can’t always solve every issue – and putting a problem out there for a community to solve harnesses the collective smarts of a larger group to offer insights you may not have had on your own.

But the process of posting to tech forums can be uncomfortable. One programmer I spoke to – and all asked to remain anonymous – said: “I dread posting questions on technical forums. It's the developer's version of admitting defeat. You just know some recent grad will post a snarky reply that makes you realize your best coding years are behind you.”

Another developer added: “Posting to a forum is like saying, ‘Hey, I know I suck right now. So can you guys all review this stunning example of failed code and then give me a pointer or two about how to not suck so much?’”

Don’t Go Down a Coding Rabbit Hole

Even so, they agreed that posting to tech forums is often a necessary – and helpful – part of the job: You should always try to solve the issue on your own, but this isn’t the main problem for most programmers: It’s knowing when you’ve spent too much time on your own trying to solve an issue and are going down a coding rabbit hole.

“The ability to ask for help is a rare trait in a developer. The ability to ask for help at the right time is even rarer,” said a developer.

What’s the right time? Developers I spoke to said if you happen to be bumping up against a case that isn't well documented and you’re on a tight deadline, it’s time to ask for help. They typically start with a peer. If that doesn’t work, they move onto a tech forum.

Tech Forums: Etiquette 101

So what’s the best way to use tech forums? I asked frequent tech forum user Robert Mann, a Robert Half product manager who writes for this blog, for some best practices. Here are his top three tips:

  1. Search the forum for the answer before posting. Look through posts and answers to see how people are posting and what, if any, “rules” there are before posting a question. Chances are your question has been answered and entering the topic again will make the forum less efficient and/or create work for the moderator. It also might elicit some snarky comments from users.
  2. Place your post in the correct category. While it’s tempting to float a topic in the first available or general category, this again will make the forum less efficient and/or create work for the moderator. Taking time to review options will increase both the quality of information and the response time.
  3. Give context and provide examples. Presenting an isolated line of code or error message without context can be a dead end, unless dedicated forum members attempt to pry out more information. Offer high-level information such as the goal of your project and the software or application you are using to bring the specifics to life. Most forums also have tools for displaying code and screenshots, so guesswork can be eliminated. The end result is quicker resolution.

If you’ve successfully answered other questions on a forum, all the better: You’ve already established credibility in the community. “If you use the same forum frequently, other members will recognize you and respond positively to good community practices,” said Robert Mann.

Still nervous about posting a coding question to a tech forum? The truth is, if you’re a seasoned programmer and a recent graduate can answer your question immediately, then, as one developer said, “It’s time to put on your big boy pants and realize that sometimes even geniuses need to ask for help.”

What are your tips for posting on tech forums? How often do you use them? Let us know in the comments.

Tags: Career RX