I listened to the SO podcast today and one comment Joel made was is that if you're posting a question about a problem you're having, he prefers you do not mention the troubleshooting steps you took so far.

If I don't do this, I am going to get all kinds of answers which would treat me like a newbie or steps anyone would have done as a start. I went through this and its frustrating and time wasting. I want answers that take me forward from the point where I am out of ideas. Because SO suffers from questions getting stale quickly, I need to take advantage of the "smart productive" answers which hopefully will get posted the day my question is posted. That's why I have to mention "I tried this and this and that.. now what?".

Joel wants a checklist in the answers. This is where we have a conflict of interest. As an SO user, I want to solve my problem NOW. Joel wants his site to be a reference, a repository of information, in the web where it doesn't matter to him if it takes days or weeks to build a good repository for each question.

(this is part of a comment on the blog also I made)

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    Didn't Jeff say he didn't agree or was I not listening close enough? Commented Jul 24, 2009 at 21:50
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    This is an even bigger problem on SU. Without steps taken you get a lot of, did you turn it off and back on.
    – C. Ross
    Commented Jun 21, 2010 at 10:33

10 Answers 10


SO won't be the reference Joel wants if StackOverflow doesn't prove to be a fast and effective tool for programmers.

By all means, please tell us what you've already tried. I don't want my time taken writing an answer attempt that you've already ruled out by experiment.

On this point, it's currently

Abdu: 1

Joel: 0


I don't really play on SO so I can't speak for how things work there. On Server Fault, not providing your troubleshooting steps seems to be a recipe for getting a plethora of poor and unhelpful answers and for making it take a lot longer to get a helpful answer.

I'd look at asking a question on Server Fault (if I ever do ask any) a little bit like how I ask questions of technical support. I start by "doing my homework", and I develop a written description of what I've done so far that I ship off to my tech. support rep. at the beginning of the case. This gets a lot of the simple questions off the table quickly and gets us down to the brass tacks of resolving the issue faster.

Not having heard the podcast yet I can't comment directly on what Joel might've said. It seems only natural to me that the posters asking questions are here to find answers to their questions, not to build a reference resource. The fact that these sites are becoming reference resources is just an artifact of their function. (As long as the jerks who run the "hyphen site" get run out of business I really don't care what happens anyway... >smile<)

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    +2 (if I could): one for the answer, one for your "hyphen site" comment.
    – splattne
    Commented Jul 27, 2009 at 10:58

I say keep putting your steps in the question until there is a better way.

I listened to him talk about putting that content in the answers as well, but even he didn't seem to understand how it would actually work. I agree with Joel in principle, but the fact he needs to understand is that SO.com simply does not work the way he wants it to. The input he is giving probably should have been made at the start. Changing this behavior in the system (I don't believe users can just change their behavior to fix this) would be chaotic at this point.


I think there is quite a bit of the original vision that didn't quite end up the way Joel wanted and it has to do with ownership.

Since everyone owns their own answer, there is a natural desire not to "steal" the information and combine into one answer. There is no culture of trying to grab all of the relevant information and make "the clear answer" out of it for every question. First, this really messes up the voting, as what was voted on has nothing to do with the question as edited. Second, it is frowned upon as reputation grabbing, and third, it mis-allocates reputation to the one who does the final editing, rather than the one who gave the real information necessary to have an answer.

It just isn't how the community evolved (if it was even possible to direct the community to actually do that).

One way of getting there is have a community "ultimate" answer on every question that fulfilled that checklist vision, but I don't think too many people would volunteer to edit the question and answer to get it to that point.

  • I've helped the winner with suggestions when it was clear I was too late to the party. There is some community spirit.
    – Nosredna
    Commented Jul 23, 2009 at 22:37
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    I agree there is some, but the dynamic to make even the majority of the answers conform to Joel's vision isn't there.
    – Yishai
    Commented Jul 23, 2009 at 22:50
  • Yeah, that's probably true.
    – Nosredna
    Commented Jul 24, 2009 at 0:54
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    If every question had your "Ultimate answer" concept that was edited somewhat like a Wiki, this could have value for some questions. Reputation could be assigned for good edits rather than good answers. But for other questions it might be nothing but redundant. This may not be harmful if it's presented correctly, though. Lots of kinks to work out in the idea, but I think it's a good one. Commented Jul 8, 2011 at 19:02

Not providing that information is a waste of time for those answering and for the one making the question. I did not listen to the podcast yet, but that sounds like a bad idea.

I think most people answering questions would prefer to have the steps already tried listed in the question. In fact, I have seen many questions/answers where people have had to ask "what steps did you take" and many times there was a long comment discussion when answers had already been tried and the OP had to state that.

I think the solution is that some editing AFTER the questions is resolved might put the question/answer pair it into the form that Joel seems to want.

Not giving steps you've already tried might work out ok for asking questions about turtles, but it is not a perfect fit for all our other questions.


I tend to agree with the advice in the essay by Rick Moen and Eric S Raymond How To Ask Questions the Smart Way , and one of the key points it makes is that mentioning what you've already done to try to solve the problem is essential.

all my experiences in every tech forum i've been in over the years backs up that point - if you want good answers, ask good questions. i've seen that from both sides - asking questions and giving answers. i'm more likely to get good answers if i ask a good question....and i'm far more likely to give an answer if the question gives me the impression that my time and effort won't be wasted.

and, as you say, it also helps to eliminate the annoyingly useless answers that assume you're a newbie (or come from a newbie).


I can sorta understand Joel's point I think. You notice this kind of thing when dealing with programming problems at work. If you tell people what you've done so far or what you think the problem is, you can bias those people into taking the same path as you. Sometimes you really need a fresh perspective on the problem and it can be more beneficial for someone to go in "blind".

The other point against a troubleshooting list is that it makes the question longer. The shorter the question the better. A shorter question will more likely get read and answered.

If it's a pure coding question and it's short that demonstrates you've reduced the problem to a simple test case. You can mention what else you've done or tried but too much information can be counterproductive (both in terms of bias and readability).

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    Good point. If your troubleshooting is good, you've bracketed the problem down to something really small. Then the history is just extra info. Commented Jul 24, 2009 at 2:17

I guess you could put a description of the steps you took in an answer immediately following the question. I suggest composing the answer notepad/gedit to reduce the window where others may try to answer the incomplete question in a way that will not be helpful.

However, I tempted to suggest that Joel can go push it.

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    This only serves to obfuscate the sharing of knowledge.
    – spoulson
    Commented Jul 24, 2009 at 20:45

There are two goals of Stack Overflow, which are often aligned, but in this case are in tension:

  1. Be a comprehensive searchable repository for software information.
  2. Provide quick answers to developers to their questions.

I think Stack Overflow has in general resolved this tension in favor of goal #2, for a few reasons:

  1. Jeff controlled more of the coding, and he is more for goal #2.
  2. From the perspective of someone asking a question, goal #2 is a more powerful motivator.
  3. People generally don't enjoy getting RTFM type answers, and technology forums do not have a reputation for delivering those answers gently.


So, I think the horse has left the barn for Joel's vision, at least initially. Perhaps it is possible to edit, answer questions after the fact to make them more comprehensive, but I think most incentives point toward including steps you've already taken.


I have many of these problems, since I adopted that rule a long time ago, thinking that other users would know that it's somewhat logic that I have tried the basics, but it is not what happens. They usually treat me as a noob.

There should be a tool like a list where you could populate with the steps yo have took, outside the question body, as a new kind of field, so some user could simply ignore or read that, or even a new kind of blockquote like font.

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    It's just easier, and vastly more productive, to assume people don't know anything if they don't explicitly indicate that they have the knowledge. Debugging isn't a difficult thing to do, but it's still a skill a lot of people posting on SO seem to lack. If you're not including even a brief overview of the basics, you're not doing your job of asking a good question properly. Commented Jun 24, 2013 at 13:12

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