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This seems to relate to newer users asking directly, "Hey, go do this work for me" but to a lesser extent.


Often the question shows up of something along the lines of:

I'm trying to learn {some subject}. Where should I start?


I'm trying to do {this thing}. Where should I start?

Why are these questions considered poor questions, and how should I go about asking a good one when just starting out?

Are questions of this type acceptable?

share|improve this question
recommended reading: Where to start – gnat Mar 20 '14 at 6:48
@gnat that comment definitely helped me, you should make it an answer. – Mar 21 '14 at 0:24
there you go - made it an answer – gnat Mar 21 '14 at 5:46
up vote 23 down vote accepted

My favorite reference on “Point me where to start” questions is Where to start? at Programmers meta, reposting it below for your convenience, slightly rephrased.

The "where do I start?" question has several issues with it that make it a poor question to ask. It is unclear what the level of knowledge of the asker is, has too many possible answers, and ultimately doesn't have a clear problem defined.


Let's head over to Seasoned Advice (Cooking Stack Exchange) and think about a hypothetical question to ask there.

I want to learn how to bake a cake? Where should I start?

A person attempting to answer this question doesn't know what your skill level is. Do you know how to read a recipe? Can you operate an oven without supervision? Are you trying to make a simple pound cake or are you attempting to make a multi layer red velvet cheesecake with frosting from scratch that should match something from pinterest?

Without this knowledge of where the OP is at, the person attempting to answer is either going to engage in a hopelessly long series of comments trying to find out the level, or is going to take a shot in the dark and probably not answer the question satisfactorily for the person asking it, or the next person viewing the page from a google search.

Too Broad

Back to programming as the idiom and away from cakes.

The next part of the problem is that there are numerous approaches to learning a language or projects one can do. There are an unprecedented number of different things one can do to start. Dozens of programming challenges out on the web that can be good starting points for programming (search for them) and hundreds of open source projects that are out there that are at an appropriate level for someone learning (no, don't tackle trying to do something huge, but find a nice little utility that could do with some additional functionality).

Such questions have people leaving short answers that are little more to a link. Stack Exchange works very poorly as a link aggregator - if you are looking for that type of answer, look to link aggregators instead.

No Clear Problem

You have a problem - you don't know where to start with a design. But that isn't a clear problem. Are you stuck at the modeling of the data objects? At the structure of the classes and their responsibilities? trying to figure out how to use Spring or Rails or ${overly large library}? Is the ORM just not connecting to the right neurons in the brain?

All of these are part of the "I don't know where to start" set of problems. Obviously you have gotten to some point in the design. You want a program that can do X, Y, and Z. You've fired up the IDE and you've... this is where you need to describe what you have done, what you have thought of and where you are stuck.

You need to try something before you have a good question. The design from an enterprise coder could steer you into strange n-tier designs, while others are going to suggest strange metaprogramming idioms or sneak a monad into your design. These aren't wrong answers, but they may not be right for where you are at in your learning and figuring out the design.

Consider also, that the best way to figure out how to design something is to learn how to design something. For personal projects learning about how to do something, the paths down the wrong way, while discouraging, are some of the best learning experiences to be used in the next project. Be wary of the programming architect who has never designed a bad system, for when they do they won't know what to do at all.

Try Chat

If you have 20 rep (four up votes on questions, two up votes on answers, one up vote and an accept on an answer, ten accepted edits or some combination of the previous), you can in the chat rooms. Chatroom regulars may be open to answering the questions that don't work well on the Q&A part of the site.

The advantage of chat for these type of questions is that we can engage in the dense back and forth that would otherwise be in comments to determine your skill level and also work through different problems. Remember though that chat is not a tutorial service despite how helpful people may be.

share|improve this answer

A comment requesting clarification and a downvote is a reasonable first action. If the original questioner doesn't respond in a reasonable amount of time (i.e. days), or does so and makes it clear they are just looking for someone to do their work for them, I would just leave the question alone until it was improved. I would reasonably conclude they are not demonstrating a clear understanding of the problem they are trying to solve, and the question is therefore off-topic,

"Questions asking for code must demonstrate a minimal understanding of the problem being solved. Include attempted solutions, why they didn't work, and the expected results. See also: Stack Overflow question checklist."

Although neither question explicitly asks for code per se, it's reasonable to say that these two you've linked to seem to lean that direction.

On other off-topic reasons, the questions are clear in what they are asking, are not spam or offensive, etc., and so simply need more meat in them. It's possible that they be too broad to answer properly, but that evaluation would require someone familiar with what they are asking.

My conclusion: Are they ("point me in the right direction", without much else) acceptable per the letter of the law in their current form? No Yes, but they doesn't mean they could be improved.

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... then there's the matter of which close reason to use. – Qantas 94 Heavy Mar 20 '14 at 4:06
@Qantas94Heavy Probably off-topic, I don't have the rep to close/reopen so I wouldn't know from experience. – jdphenix Mar 20 '14 at 4:08
Haven't you flagged questions as off-topic before? ;) The reasons are the same as what we get for closing, except the "custom" close reason isn't available. – Qantas 94 Heavy Mar 20 '14 at 4:10
@Qantas94Heavy Gotcha. Yeah, definitely off-topic, but I wouldn't be using that flag unless I get the sense the person asking is just hunting for someone to work for them, or they just post the question and are never seen from again. It's certainly reasonable to say "Oh uhm, here's the basic guidelines, please fix" and give a chance for them to do so – jdphenix Mar 20 '14 at 4:11
Um, off-topic -> minimal understanding has been removed for a while. You might want to replace that with a more appropriate close reason. – michaelb958 Mar 20 '14 at 4:19
I don't use the off-topic flag that often, sorry for the misunderstanding – jdphenix Mar 20 '14 at 4:29

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