Answering questions of Debian users on various support channels

When you start your journey with Debian, you tend to have lots of questions. You’ll find some answers in various documentations but there always are remaining questions. Those can be asked on various support channels:

Those are the places where you can also start your journey as a Debian contributor… instead of asking questions, you just have to answer questions of other users! Let me share some advice if you want to do some user support.

User support is difficult…

It’s not always an easy task. Some users are more skilled than others and there might be difficulties related to the language, English is not always the native language of a user who asks a question in English.

Be respectful and courteous when you answer user questions, even if they made mistakes. You’re effectively representing Debian and you should give out a good image of the project. If you don’t have the patience or the time needed to do a good answer, don’t reply and let someone else take care of this user. I invite you to read (and follow!) the Debian Community Guidelines.

Avoid RTFM answers, instead you should show the users how they could have found (alone) the solution to their problem. We don’t want to scare people away, we want to grow our community.

But it’s also rewarding

In some cases, the problem reported by the user will be a real problem and you’ll have an opportunity to file a good bug report, thus helping to improve Debian for everybody.

Often, you don’t even have the answer to the user’s question. But you’re more skilled than him/her to do researches on the web, or you know of a good documentation that might contain the relevant bits of information, in any case you’re doing further research to help this user. In this process, you also grow your own skills since you’re learning stuff that you didn’t know yet.

At least that’s how I learned many things during my first year in the Debian community… there’s no reason why you couldn’t learn lots of stuff that way, in particular if you also read the answers of other skilled people on those channels (it takes a bit of training to learn who are the skilled people though).

I still believe that doing user support is one of the best ways to join the Debian community and to start contributing. It helps you to grow your skills, and to slowly progress from “average user” to “advanced user”.

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7 mistakes to avoid when participating to Debian mailing lists

You’re eager to start contributing to Debian, your first action is to subscribe to some high-profile mailing lists (like debian-devel and debian-project) to get a feel of the community. You read the mails for a few days and then you find out that you could participate to the discussions, it’s a simple first step after all. True enough.

That said, it’s not as easy as it looks like. There are many mistakes that you should avoid:

  1. Don’t fall in the trap where your mailing list participation is your sole contribution to Debian. If you want people to give credit to your messages, you should already be doing something else for Debian.
  2. Don’t participate more than once a day to a given thread. There are many people subscribed, you should leave room for other people to express their point of view. You can always follow up one day after and reply to several messages at once if you believe you still have something new to add to the discussion.
  3. Don’t reply to off-topic threads. Someone asked a simple question and someone else pointed out that his message was off-topic. Don’t reply, or if you really need to, do it on the correct list or with a private response.
  4. Don’t ask questions unless it’s useful to bring the discussion forward. Development lists are not here to fill the gaps in your knowledge. We already have debian-mentors for this. Furthermore there’s no better way to learn than to find yourself the answers to your questions. :-)
  5. Don’t believe your opinion is so important. We’re all very opinionated and discussions that consist only of contradicting opinions tend to go nowhere. Thus don’t give your opinion unless you can back it up with new facts or another experience.
  6. Don’t participate to all threads. There are surely some topics where you are more knowledgeable than others, participate where you add the most value and leave the others threads to the other experts (and learn by reading them).
  7. Don’t hide your identity. In Debian we like to know each other. Use your real name and not some anonymous nickname. You need to be able to stand up behind your words, otherwise you’re not credible.

I have myself been guilty of several of those when I started… I invite you to follow my recommendations to ensure our mailing lists remain pleasant to read and an effective discussion place.

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