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The Death of Email Questions

One of my policies is not to answer questions from people about SQL Server in email. That includes emails to me, the webmaster, or in private messages. It’s not that I want to be a jerk, but I have a couple reasons.

  1. I’m busy, and if you need custom help, you ought to pay for consulting. One on one answering is time consuming, and it leads, or has for me, to a regular amount of “you’re my expert now” follow ups.
  2. It’s inefficient. I rarely have people ask questions that are unique. If you have the question, likely others have it as well. Let them see your issue, and more importantly, the answer.

I have a standard signature that I paste into email questions, either directly to me, via Private Message on the site, or the webmaster inbox. It directs people to the forums politely, letting them know email isn’t the appropriate place.

Not everyone feels this way, and I know some people on the site will take questions in email, or direct a people to email for more detailed follow up. I get that, and if you want to do it, that’s fine. However it’s not something I think is widespread, and I think fewer and fewer people use email.


I think some of it is the overload of email, especially SPAM, that makes people shy away from more. However I think that both me and the MVP program in the Microsoft space are partially to blame as well. The MVP program looks at contributions from people to the community, and a lot of the awardees depend on regularly answering questions in forums like SQLServerCentral and MSDN to prove they are helping the community. That means that every question they answer in email is one less point they get to the community at large.

Why me? I have been giving a presentation on branding over the last year, encouraging people to build a bit of a brand for themselves. I don’t address this, but reading between the lines, if you want to build a brand for prospective employers to see, you don’t want your work to be private, as in private email conversations.

Is it a problem? After all, I don’t answer things in email. I’m not sure. For me it is, since I can’t handle a large volume of questions in email, and I’m trying to continue to promote and build my community. In doing that, I push people to the community and public asking (and answering) of questions.

However there’s a drawback. Not everyone wants to post publically. There are people that don’t want to post something since they think they’re showcasing their ignorance. Or they’re private people. Or they just don’t trust advice they get from some anonymous person on the web. I have friends that IM or email me directly with SQL questions. They want “the Steve Jones answer", which might not necessarily be the best thing.

I get that, and I try to push them to post, saying I’ll answer in a forum. Or that they aren’t stupid for posting.

I don’t know how things will evolve. The advent of social networking, with real time questions and answers on Twitter, semi-private networks like Linked In and Facebook, means that there’s a push to be more social and more open online. That’s not for everyone, and I worry that those people who are more private as losing out.

Not because they don’t participate, but because less people are willing to help them.

The Voice of the DBA

Steve Jones is the editor of SQLServerCentral.com and visits a wide variety of data related topics in his daily editorial. Steve has spent years working as a DBA and general purpose Windows administrator, primarily working with SQL Server since it was ported from Sybase in 1990. You can follow Steve on Twitter at twitter.com/way0utwest


Posted by Brent Ozar on 20 April 2009

I agree 100% with the whole shebang.  I find myself logging into instant messaging less and less for that same reason - I get nailed with IM questions, and it's more of a hassle than a productivity drain.  I haven't tried the copy/paste approach in IM, and I guess it's time to start doing that.

Posted by GilaMonster on 20 April 2009

I'm with you on the emailed questions. The only people I answer direct mailed questions from are friends, colleagues and paying clients.

My main reason (other than that I don't want to be someone's personal 'expert' on call) is that answering questions by mail benefits just one person. Answering the same question in a forum may well benefit a lot more as people with the same problem may find the thread and have their problems solved without needing to ask.

Posted by Wesley Brown on 20 April 2009

I agree with you too.

I am personally in a little different position though, as a chapter leader I do get a fair amount of email questions, even walk ups at the local book store and phone calls from my members who are stuck. I do redirect them if it is something I know that has been covered somewhere like SSC, I keep a list of books and sites to help people out. Sometimes I may help them find a consultant or contractor if it is something complicated, since I know so many people in the local SQL Server community.

I will caveat this with it is my own doing. I invite people to ask questions any time they need help, not just once a month at meetings.

Posted by Steve Jones on 20 April 2009

Good to know I'm not way off here. I hate to think that I'm leaving people out of participating, but with all the anonymous ways to get on the Internet, I think this is the best way to promote the community.

Posted by Alex Rosa on 21 April 2009

Great, I agree too.

I have a similar problem, off course less than you, but I’ve decided to do the same thing some months ago.

My biggest problem occurs with IM questions, and I wrote this phrase in my IM profile: “Alex Rosa -- Sharing my knowledge at www.keep-learning.com  (Articles and FORUM)”

I usually recommend for these people to make a research first, and to post questions in my own FORUM, MSDN and SSC.

I created my own FORUM, just to have my own channel where someone can ask me help. I’ve decided to create it, because I figure out that I was spending a lot of time just answering questions and not improving my knowledge. So, if someone wants my direct help, they can go to my address.

I’ve been answering questions in MSDN Brazil yet, but less than I used to do.

Posted by Lynn Pettis on 21 April 2009

I'm in commplete agreement.  I have, however, on very rare occasions sent an email request to specific individuals looking for expert guidance.  It isn't something I'd do on a regular basis as it would not be appropriate unless I was paying them or we were exchanging information.

I would also accept such questions from a very select group of people on an occasional basis.

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