Stack Overflow and personal emails

This post is partly meant to be a general announcement, and partly meant to be something I can point people at in the future (rather than writing a short version of this on each email).

These days, I get at least a few emails practically every day along the lines of:

“I saw you on Stack Overflow, and would like you to answer this development question for me…”

It’s clear that the author:

  • Is aware of Stack Overflow
  • Is aware that Stack Overflow is a site for development Q&A
  • Is aware that I answer questions on Stack Overflow

… and yet they believe that the right way of getting me to answer a question is by emailing it to me directly. Sometimes it’s a link to a Stack Overflow question, sometimes it’s the question asked directly in email.

In the early days of Stack Overflow, this wasn’t too bad. I’d get maybe one email like this a week. Nowadays, it’s simply too much.

If you have a question worthy of Stack Overflow, ask it on Stack Overflow. If you’ve been banned from asking questions due to asking too many low-quality ones before, then I’m unlikely to enjoy answering your questions by email – learn what makes a good question instead, and edit your existing questions.

If you’ve already asked the question on Stack Overflow, you should consider why you think it’s more worthy of my attention than everyone else’s questions. You should also consider what would happen if everyone who would like me to answer a question decided to email me.

Of course in some cases it’s appropriate. If you’ve already asked a question, written it as well as you can, waited a while to see if you get any answers naturally, and if it’s in an area that you know I’m particularly experienced in (read: the C# language, basically) then that’s fine. If your question is about something from C# in Depth – a snippet which doesn’t work or some text you don’t understand, for example – then it’s entirely appropriate to mail me directly.

Basically, ask yourself whether you think I will actually welcome the email. Is it about something you know I’m specifically interested in? Or are you just trying to get more attention to a question, somewhat like jumping a queue?

I’m aware that it’s possible this post makes me look either like a grumpy curmudgeon or (worse) like an egocentric pseudo-celebrity. The truth is I’m just like everyone else, with very little time on my hands – time I’d like to spend as usefully and fairly as possible.

55 thoughts on “Stack Overflow and personal emails”

  1. Great and very informative post. Thanks a lot!

    It is also worth mentioning that if you answer a question on an e-mail, you will be answering only for one person. If you do it on Stackoverflow or somewhere else on the internet, you will be answering for the whole community.

    Like

  2. I think it is great that you are so active. Of the times you have answered my questions on StackOverflow the question has been hard for me to find a solution for, and the answer has been high quality.

    I agree with tugberk that answering in a public arena helps everyone.

    As a side note, I could not see the captcha image (win7 google chrome 21.0.1180.83 m).

    Like

  3. Well at least they have the decency to send you an email, not a self addressed letter with a memory key and a poorly labeled letter “help pls kthx bye”

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  4. well its high time you change your email and do not disclose it to any body or else just apply filter to spam it up.

    But yea i understand this annoyance. Since you are the chuck norris, hence peeps love to get answers from you.

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  5. Hey, can we template this and substitute s/private email/SO chat room/ so we can reuse it for all the question-banned or just patience-deprivated people flocking into the chat rooms to get their ‘help-me-first’ thirst quenched?

    Well spoken

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  6. @zenwalker: No, I *deliberately* like being open – for those who want to get in touch with me for legitimate reasons. It’s just that I don’t deem impatience or regarding me as a fall-back plan after being banned on Stack Overflow as a legitimate reason.

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  7. Well, I totally understand your point of view, but do you really think this post is going to help ? or you wrote it just so you can bookmark it and use it with such future emails ?
    :)

    On a different subject:
    The captcha on your blog doesn’t work with my chrome.

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  8. I know your pain… I have a similar problem on another programming forum where I’m very active, although I probably don’t receive as many of those messages as you do.
    Anyway, now you can just create a canned reply in Gmail pointing to this page to get rid of those emails in no time ;)

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  9. Although you are an egocentric pseudo celebrity, you are making the web a favor by posting this simple truth. Do not let your guilt prevent you from helping the world, occidental man.

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  10. I’m sure my problem is nowhere the scope of yours, but I get about one email a day related to a jQuery plugin I wrote. Now, these emails ARE usually directly about something I care about, and am the best source to answer, and for that reason I don’t mind responding (or direct them to something that exists already if it’s an faq).

    But every now and then I get someone who basically wants me to do their work for them. I tell them to set up something on jsfiddle. I tell them I don’t have time to teach them Javascript, I can only help them with specific problems. Yet they keep coming back. One guy (who really had no business doing anything at all in Javascript) even started threatening me and telling me I was going to destroy his life because he would lose his job if I didn’t basically do his work for him! Naturally, he entered my spam list at that point.

    Anyway, I feel your pain.. I hope this post changes things, but I’m not sure there’s a cure for crazy, or maybe people who just don’t want to do the work.

    Like

  11. Anyone ever heard of the delete key? Reminds me of people complaining about certain programming they dislike on TV. Just change the channel…

    “Oh the thought of those little pheasants asking for help in an improper way is offensive to ‘The Jon’…”

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  12. @Dev Dude: The thing is, I don’t want to just be rude. I want to let people know that I regarded their request as inappropriate, and that there are better alternatives (like writing a *good* question on Stack Overflow). Just deleting the email without giving any indication that I’ve done so feels unnecessarily rude to me.

    I can now reply in a matter of seconds, just saying “Please read http://tinyurl.com/so-jon-email” which at least means they know where they stand.

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  13. I know my comments are harsh, but seriously at the end of the day you are a huge help and asset to the community so please know that (you can add +1 to the ego count *here*). It’s just it’s hard to convey this type of post and sentiment without sounding a little ‘elitist’ by criticizing the ‘how’ of those that need help.

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  14. Good post, and you are being totally fair.

    I believe that far too many developers these days ask questions too soon, rather than taking a few minutes to think for themselves.

    And what many people seem to have missed… Kudos to you for your choice to be open in this horribly anonymous virtual world. Far too few are.

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  15. Completely agree! And kudos for taking the time to answer some of those emails you get. I know alot of people that prefer to keep that type of traffic confined to a blog or fourm.

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  16. The funny thing is that even I, who has a mere 6k rep used to get emails like this (people looked me up on Facebook because I used my real name on the site). I stopped doing that :)

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  17. I saw you on Stack Overflow, and would like you to answer this; How the hell do you even answer so many question of StackOverflow? You have answered 3 of mine out of the millions there are on SO. You have a job, wrote a book, a family and I presume a life outside of coding. Do you sleep? Have you cloned 5 of yourself?

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  18. George: I love these people, you can’t ask ’em questions. They’re so mentally gifted that we mustn’t disturb the delicate genius..

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    1. I don’t believe you people understand what it’s like when the number of mails per day make the reading-answering process non negligible in time, and some of these people (not all) are taking your help for granted, as Jon quoted. It saddens me when I see people commenting about Jon being egocentric, because to me, he’s not at all. He’s being awesome answering questions in his free time for nothing but a score increase whose main purpose is to know which user is most reliable, even if as a side effect it allows us to notice the most awesome people, which is not a bad thing.
      I know the posts I’m answering to are really old, but I couldn’t leave this page without trying to even the balance between nice and bad posts, on his own blog !
      Personally, I would never contact someone personnally for that kind of help, unless they stated on their description that they wanted to. Or if I paid them, because then it would be fair to let you do my job.
      Jon Skeet, keep on being awesome.

      Like

  19. That’s fair enough, I completely agree.

    Oh while you here, I keep getting this error message and was wondering if you could help:

    “Object reference not set to an instance of an object”

    :)

    Like

  20. Personally, I think being banned from Stack is not entirely about how bad/good your question might be, but the context in which a user provides. I am a Java Beginner student and i write codes, the moment i reach the debugging dilemma, i do sometimes get a problem. But i am sure people who are experienced like Jon would never have a problem to help with about 3 or 4 errors. But then again who am i to say. anyhow, keep up the good work on stacks

    Like

    1. To me, “the context in which a user provides” is part of what makes a question good or bad. But the context isn’t how experienced you are – it’s about what you’re trying to achieve, where you’re getting the error, etc. It’s entirely possible for a beginner to write a good question which is still a “beginner level question” – but often beginners need help in doing so.

      Like

  21. @jonskeet.. You might have answered atleast a few questions (either on stackoverflow or personal mails) in the time you posted this lengthy article. Did u posted this article in the hangover? Just kidding..:) Good luck.

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  22. Well said Jon. I can understand your pain.
    The article might sound a little “grumpy” to some people, (maybe including myself), but what I still admire is you have not yet removed your email address from SO, even getting bombarded with dozens of emails everyday.
    Like other people I have come to your profile just by accident, with “Who might be the best user in SO?” kind of childish thought. But I totally agree I should get help from community with all my questions.
    Maybe I will try to contact you though, because (a) as a personnel working in the same field, I am impressed with your bio, and (b) I would like your opinion on some points regarding C# and general programming.

    I wish you best of luck!

    Kind Regards,
    Ethan

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  23. @jonskeet, Ok Jon, I have just one question: How to get a string value from a static method C# ?
    … tra ta ta, Just kidding..:) Good luck.

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  24. This has nothing to do with SO, but I really need some help. I started C# in Depth, 3rd Edition, and so far I’ve been making console apps to work with the examples. But there are all those source code files that I downloaded, and I would really like to know how to (or if there is a way) run them directly in Visual Studio and compile them into a larger solution. It seems like there is an organization there, but it’s got me stumped. If there’s an explanation in the book, I apologize but I haven’t been able to find it. I’ll keep putting parts of the various files together to learn the lessons you’re teaching — and I have definitely been learning a lot. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

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  25. I agree with Jon Skeet, this is true that everyone want to get the solution of their problem therefore they email him, but we all should understand that he also have his own work and family :), he can’t answer all question, i think he already spend good enough his available time to answering people. Thanks bro whatever you had done for us.

    Like

  26. It’s interesting to see some people’s reactions to a reasonable blog post.
    Reeks of chip on shoulder syndrome.
    Or
    These people obviously have no idea how busy you are … (Compromised IQ syndrome)
    Let them scream at being criticized for doing just that.

    Jon, you’ve set a good example of how to cope with criticism.

    Like

  27. Hi Jon,

    Very understandable blog post :) Naturally, your time is limited and you have no obligation whatsoever to help anybody who sends you an email. Those who can’t understand that are behaving like egocentric suckers with a sense of entitlement.

    Don’t worry about looking like a grumpy curmudgeon or like an egocentric pseudo-celebrity, hardly anybody outside SO will even have heard of you! :P

    One a more serious note, you come across as a nice, reasonable, helpful guy. Your contributions to SO have helped me learn! And that’s the best gift you could give, thanks! :)

    Like

  28. I would say that it is also worth mentioning to those in the learn that Jon is also available in wisdom from on Pluralsight.com along with many others such as Scott Allen, Julie Lerman, Mosh Hamedani and Simon Robinson.

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  29. Chill Jon, People love your answers but I understood such emails will be really annoying.

    Why don’t you try writing a script or apply filters and send this post link to all such emails automatically? I’m sure it will take just a few minutes for you :P

    Like

  30. StackOverflow shows this message when you’re viewing a question with no answers:

    Know someone who can answer? Share a link to this question via email, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

    Perhaps this has something to do with it.

    Like

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