Why I may not be able to help you

February 6th, 2013 at 6:05 am

Since this blog features a lot of programming content, I’m receiving quite a bit of email from people asking for help and advice about either something specific I wrote, or just general questions. This isn’t new – it’s been going on for years. But my attitude towards this has changed over time. Some years ago, I was almost always willing to help. It was an opportunity to learn, and I was very proud that someone I haven’t ever met comes to me for advice just because I wrote a blog post about this and that. These days, however, it’s getting harder and harder for me to find the time.

You have to realize that the amount of time I have for these things is extremely small. I have a full-time job I find challenging and interesting, and most of my off-work time is spent with my family. In the scant weekly hours I have remaining for “hobby programming”, I’m hopelessly oversubscribed with taking care of my active open-source projects, contributing to Python and writing new articles.

This doesn’t mean you should not ask. If the question pertains to a project I actively maintain, I will certainly answer. The issue tracker for that project is the best place to ask though, not email. If it’s about something I wrote relatively recently in the blog – there’s also a high chance of getting an answer, but please use the comments for that. If it’s something I wrote a while ago, it depends on how much I’m still interested in the subject, so I may not be able to provide a good answer (I always answer all email, but I may just say “Sorry, I can’t help with this”).

The chance of a question getting a good answer also depends on the question. If it’s a short question asking about something very specific, and requiring a short answer, it has a higher chance of getting a good answer. If you’re dumping a 50-page spec on me asking “how to design this” (this happened so many times it doesn’t even surprise me any longer), then not so much.

There’s also the issue of consulting. In general, I very rarely accept consulting gigs. Historically, I’ve been mainly doing this to compensate for a certain lack of challenge and passion in my day job, and this is no longer an issue. However, you may try. I’ve been known to take some consulting gigs of varying lengths if the subject interested me enough. Folks have also paid me just to have long and meaningful email conversations about subjects they believed I’m knowledgeable in. So if you need help with a work project and are willing to pay, you may approach me with a consulting proposal, but please state it explicitly. The amount I’ve been charging recently is $150 per hour, but a new quote may depend on my mood and the nature of the project.

To conclude, while I’m certainly happy to be receiving such emails and often can provide the answers, this is not guaranteed. If you only get a polite “I can’t help” from me, don’t take it personally. I’m just a person with limited free time who has to carefully allocate what it’s being used for.

3 Responses to “Why I may not be able to help you”

  1. DanNo Gravatar Says:

    A couple of pretty high-profile technical bloggers that I know well have told me the same thing – they are hammered with lots of detailed technical questions that aren’t answered with a single, simple answer.

    I guess it’s a hazard that comes with being a public blogger who has a good following – there are probably plenty of bloggers who never hear from anyone & would *love* to have such a problem!

  2. anatoly techtonikNo Gravatar Says:

    I’d say +1 if your blog had this button. =)

    With amount of unread emails getting close to 3000 I feel like I am loosing control over my conversations as well. Not only not being able to respond to new requests, but also failing to sustain existing communication as well. For open source projects like Python I think about distributed tracker with personalized priority queue. If people will be able to see what I am working on or currently interested – there will be less questions and more effective chit-chat.

  3. Peter TeohNo Gravatar Says:

    +1.
    Yes, that’s what stackoverflow.com and stackexchange.com are for. 1 to 1 exchange only benefits 2 person.

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