I came across this question today, in which the asker was clearly out of their depth. What bothers me more than anything is that they said "I have to give a presentation to client that wants such a system", despite clearly not knowing enough about software development to perform such a task. It's not the first time I've seen such questions, nor, I'm sure, will it be the last.

My response was simply to tell them that they clearly shouldn't be talking to clients if they can't write the code in the first place. However, I'm now left wondering whether this was the right thing to say. Clearly they would be a commercial nightmare to anyone that hired them, so I feel that I have a duty to say something, but on the other hand I don't want to appear rude.

How would you suggest such situations are dealt with? Is there a way to phrase such a response that doesn't appear rude?

Original Text of the Question for non-10k users...

about desktop application

Hello there i want tio ask u a question that i am developing a c# desktop application, and give that application to an organization in which there are several departments, each department maintains the whole db, now at the end of the i want to merge the data of all the departments into the main server of the department with the chage logs that each department performs how could i do this operation in Desktop applications???? Becoz these applications are disconnected from each other.................

  • Related, not a duplicate: Is "Don't do it" a valid answer? – Time Traveling Bobby Dec 20 '11 at 12:18
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    @Bobby - Yeah, that's pretty much the same sort of deal, except in this case the negative repercussions of the user ignoring the "don't do it" are significantly greater. It could end up with the client losing a lot of time and money and the asker getting in all kinds of trouble. – Polynomial Dec 20 '11 at 12:21
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    Deploy the snarkatron! – Tom O'Connor Dec 20 '11 at 12:27
  • @TomO'Connor - I'd flag your comment on the question for being inappropriate, but it's just too damn funny. – Polynomial Dec 20 '11 at 12:31
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    Sorry, I thought that link was a request for snark. Being British, it's my default response. – Tom O'Connor Dec 20 '11 at 12:35
  • I'd do it with a link to this compilation from The Big Lebowski (warning: language): youtube.com/watch?v=H0OaeMYTbs4 – George Stocker Dec 20 '11 at 13:11
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    He might not be a competent developer, but he may very well be an accomplished liar. I don't think I've ever worked with a client who could tell the difference between the two (or even cared about the difference while writing the checks). I wish him luck with his upcoming trial by fire. Who knows, maybe he'll pull through. – David Dec 20 '11 at 13:21

I would say start off by answering the question to the best of your ability. If they are out of their depth, that does not mean the next visitor with the same or a similar question is. So start with a general answer.

Then perhaps state the background knowledge needed to tackle the problem in the first place. If the OP does not have that background knowledge, at least they might get an idea where to start. Or if they are far off, they might realize that they are simply not up to the job.

I would not let recommendations go much further than that. It's fully up to the OP to make a fool of him/herself. All we can do is answer honestly and sketch the situation in as clear a light as possible.

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  • Whilst I understand and accept that completely, I still feel duty bound, as a professional programmer, to warn them that they could be getting themselves and their client into a real mess. Is this considered acceptable to do? If so, is there an accepted way to say it that doesn't sound rude or elitist? – Polynomial Dec 20 '11 at 12:25
  • Not sure about acceptable or not. I would personally keep it general. Something along the lines of "If you do not posses this level of background knowledge, you might want to spend some time studying up on it or perhaps reconsider the project". I would personally not say more than that. I'm not here to hold hands, but just to answer to the best of my ability. What the OP does with it is up to him. But that's just my opinion. I would love to hear others chime in. – Bart Dec 20 '11 at 12:44
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    I disagree. In this instance the very premise of the question was predicated on the asker being clueless. Someone NOT out of their depth would never ask or need an answer to this question. – JNK Dec 20 '11 at 13:33
  • @JNK'sMetAccount So what would your response have been? (Unfortunately the question seems closed/removed now so I can't read it back). – Bart Dec 20 '11 at 13:40
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    I would have posted a comment along the lines of "This question is preposterous and akin to asking how to do an appendectomy with no medical knowledge because you are teaching medical students tomorrow", and voted to close a NARQ. – JNK Dec 20 '11 at 13:41
  • @JNK'sMetAccount Okay, if it's NARQ, sure, go ahead, close it. I would do the same although my wording would be different. But hey, each their own style ;) . My answer was based on a more general "Fair question, but you probably don't have the ability (yet) to tackle this". – Bart Dec 20 '11 at 13:45
  • @Bart - added the text of the question to the OP for you – JNK Dec 20 '11 at 13:46
  • @JNK'sMetAccount Thanks. Yeah, poor question. I can see where you're coming from. NARQ I would say. I would personally not feel the need to add more than that though. – Bart Dec 20 '11 at 13:57
  • @Bart - well polynomial tried to give him a generic answer and the asker persisted and mentioned he needed to give a client presentation, which prompted the comment – JNK Dec 20 '11 at 13:59

I would be very careful making assumptions about a person's technical capabilities based on their English language skills. While it certainly could be the case that the OP really doesn't have enough background to attempt the task, it's also possible (based on my reading of the comment trail) that what he lacks is a sufficient vocabulary to clearly express his ideas. For example, when he says "I don't know networking," it's entirely possible that he means "I don't know how the clients are networked." It's also possible to be a competent programmer but not have an in-depth knowledge of database replication.

My suggestion, with people who have obvious problems with English, is to ask leading questions to clarify their message. Instead of assuming they don't know what they are talking about, assume that they have trouble expressing it. Ask "do you mean A or B"-type questions to get more information. If they then demonstrate that they don't know what they're doing, feel free to suggest that they'd be better off finding someone who does to help them, but I'd be hesitant to jump to that conclusion as quickly as seems indicated by the comment trail.

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I have, on occasion, asked people with PHP/Javascript questions to clarify whether they actually understand the difference between server-side and client-side code. (It's astonishing how many people seem not to.)

How can I pass this variable from javascript to PHP?

My head hurts. I am far from the best coder in the world, but even when I was first learning, even when I didn't understand that $foo inside a function is (usually) unrelated to $foo outside a function, I easily, almost instinctively, knew the difference between server-side and client-side code, so it's hard for me to get my head around the questions of people who don't grasp this distinction.

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