by Leon Rosenshein


As I mentioned the other day, I say “It depends” a lot. Then I go on to describe why it depends in that particular case. Yesterday I ran into a very short Mastodon Toot that is the underlying reason it depends.


The more I thought about it, the more true it became. It’s just that simple. At least the reason “it depends” is that simple. Doing something about it is a whole different thing. To answer the question, you still need the context. That leads to lots of follow-on questions and conversations so you can get that missing context. Once the context is provided the answer changes from “It depends.” to at least “Here’s a good way to start.”, if not “Here’s what’s worked for me in the past and what I recommend you do.”

And it doesn’t just lead to my stock “It Depends” answer. It also leads to my favorite question. “What are you really trying to do?”. That comes from the exact same place. Because that question is really about getting at the missing context. When someone presents you with an XY problem they’re not providing you with the context of the problem they’re really trying to solve, just the context of the blocker they’ve most recently run up against.

There are lots of ways to avoid providing insufficient context. Rubber Ducking is a great place to start. If your rubber duck can understand the problem you’ve probably provided enough context. Another good place to start is Jon Skeet’s Stack Overflow Question Checklist. Even if you’re not asking on Stack Overflow, that was a great checklist 10 years ago and it’s a great checklist now. Especially that last one. After you’ve gone through the checklist, re-read the question and make sure you’ve addressed everything on the checklist.

Providing sufficient context (asking your question well) helps everyone. It’s more than just being a good neighbor, although it is that as well. It reduces the number of back-and-forth cycles required to get enough shared context. Being mindful of others time makes it easier for the answerer. Which makes them more likely to have a good answer to your question. Which makes it more likely that you get an appropriate answer to your question. Which is what you really want anyway.

So next time you have a question, make sure the response isn’t E_INSUFFICIENT_CONTEXT_PROVIDED