I sometimes answer a few questions on Stack Overflow — mostly on R programming [r, rstats, r-language]. Even more than other tags you get some really clueless posters. I think this is because the topic attracts people who either have little programming experience, arrived via Google and don’t know how to ask a question. Or it attracts experienced programmers who try to write R like C and get very angry that R is not like C.

Over time I’ve come to the realisation that most of these people are decent intelligent people and should be respected. So I avoid snark. Essentially as my job — in bioinformatics — branches out into new areas (Python, Julia, Github, Travis-CI, Spark, ribosome footprinting) I’ve realised that I don’t ever RTFM myself.

Actually I think people who are good at their job seldom do RTFM — not fully. I have to constantly use new software tools and new analysis methods and don’t have time to R[All]TF[Manuals]. But I have a base aptitude in command line bullshittery and an expectation that most software tools, languages, or frameworks follow certain conventions that I’ve come across before. So I skim — I STFM, then have a go, often succeed and get home in time for tea.

I actually think this is the secret of learning complex subjects. You obviously have to put in the effort. But at some point you become more efficient and able to STFM — and impute the gaps from experience.

So rather than presume Stack Overflow posters asking daft questions are daft — I try to think of them as smart people in a hurry.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Stephen Henderson’s story.