Michael Lee

Why ask why?

In a child’s development, there are words that kids fixate on. As a small toddler, they might reply to every question with a no. A little past the no stage, comes the why? stage. Where they’ll question every request that you have for them.

As a parent I do my best to respond back to my kids’ curious minds. I think it is important for people to ask the question why?

Me:

Don’t touch that stove!

Kid:

Why?

Me:

Because it will hurt you and you won’t enjoy the experience.

But obviously there are times where no explanation will satisfy the kid and it’s most likely they aren’t curious anymore and just playing around. At that point, a response that turns the table on them is, “Why ask why?”.

The point of this post isn’t about child rearing but it’s more about interactions that I’ve had online in developer communities. Without the existence of communities like StackOverflow, GitHub, CodePen and the likes I don’t think I would be where I am at as a developer. My growth because of them have grown from so many folks sharing their collective knowledge with the world. And to them, I sincerely am thankful.

As a result I do my best to serve that community as well. To pay it forward for all the value that I have gained and continue to gain. But I must admit, there are times when it’s quite draining to give to the community when there are individuals that seem to ask you to justify your contribution.

Some examples that I’ve experienced:

  • Posted a question on StackOverflow, it was downvoted because people thought the question was asked incorrectly. What…? I mean I understand if a question has grammatical errors can be annoying but I was asking a legit question that I thought was concise.

I ask a question like once a year now on SO out of fear of not “asking” or “answering” correctly.

  • Triangle Tech Jobs was shared by someone on a local subreddit the week I launched it. Someone ask why? Then pointed out that it looked like it was just created and couldn’t see how it would be valuable to anyone.

I replied back politely and pointed out that it had just launched and I was simply trying to serve a community. To which they replied that they now understood my good intentions and wanted to grab coffee to discuss some ideas. Mmmmm nah, I’m good.

  • Ran across an issue that I was also trying to solve for a plugin that wasn’t maintained anymore. I shared a possible solution that I had experimented with. Only to realize the solution wasn’t working that well. I found an alternative, active plugin and shared that I had success with that plugin. Original issue poster responded back with you’re suggesting to use an alternative plugin but that doesn’t solve the issue with this plugin.

Ughhh yeah, the plugin isn’t maintained anymore, think looking at an alternative is a viable solution.

In all the examples above, after bouting with some self-doubt, I usually come to a place of replying with a positive reply with some snark sprinkled in, but it’s draining and honestly discouraging to be part of these communities. Aside from the usual positive replies back, I sometimes resort to taking a break from the community or sometimes leaving the community altogether. Heck, at one point, I tried creating my own dev community as a response.

But in all seriousness, if someone like me who has been a dev in these communities for a long time is being turned off by them, I have to wonder how they are effecting the newcomers. If as a community we’re asking each other to justify a question, essentially saying it’s a stupid question, or being hyper critical of a project that someone who has spent a lot of time on or devaluing someone’s input, how can we expect for people to continue to grow in their craft or elevate the community to continue to produce a positive experience for future developers?

Regarding questions. I think it should be encouraged a lot more in our community to ask how instead of why. How invites the person answering to walk you through their solution, why asks them to justify it. If you find a solution on StackOverflow for a problem you’re having, ask how they got to the solution. I think it’s important to understand how a dev got to a solution more than the solution itself. That way it allows the dev receiving the solution could also learn how to get to a solution for themselves, not just be force-fed a solution.

In ending this rant/observation/sharing of personal experience and question, I really would love to enter into positive, constructive dialogue on how we can move the dev community forward for the better. We’ve all got better things to do with our time and energy and I don’t think wasting either of them on folks who are creating negative experiences in our communities is helpful. Perhaps I need to grow some thicker skin, but I truly would like to believe that being a positive person and user in these communities is better.

If you’ve experienced similar situations in dev communities, I would love to hear how you handled the situation positively and what you’re doing to create positive experiences.

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