How to Ask (and Not Ask) for Free Consulting

Strangers contact me on a regular basis, asking questions about testing. I don’t mind answering questions. In fact, until the day I get paid for answering questions, it will remain one of my favorite excuses for not working. But once in a while, someone will ask the wrong question in the wrong way. Watch how this guy (I’ll call him “Mr. W.”) asks for free consulting. These aren’t instant messages, mind you, but full emails:

Mr. W.:
It would be a great help if u can explain me how to perform testing of
a datawarehouse along with a test plan for same.

I could tell you, but would you understand the answer? Do you have any training or experience as a tester?

Mr. W.:
James, I am a mercury certified tester so I think I can understand.

You are a Mercury Certified tester? I don’t know what that is. Does that cover general testing skills, or just how to run Mercury tools?

Mr. W.:
Mercury is a brand name in testing providing various tools like winrunner, test director etc.Talking of general testing skills I am proficient in Module, integration ,system and UAT.

I know what Mercury is. I didn’t know Mercury certified testers.

If you are a skilled tester, then you know that a question like “Can you explain to me how to perform testing of a datawarehouse and also provide me with a test plan?” cannot be answered. It’s as if you asked me “What is the mathematical equation that solves the problem I am thinking of that has something to do with data warehousing?” Nobody can answer that.

I could tell you about issues related to testing data warehouses, but I have no confidence that you would understand what I’m talking about or be able to act reasonably on that information. I’m not going to hand you a “test plan” and anyone who tries to give you a test plan is irresponsible.

Man, I think you need to learn how to test. Then you won’t feel the need to ask silly questions. I don’t know what kind of test Mercury gave you to certify you but it could not have been very hard to pass.

Mr. W.:
I think ur waste of time, just show-off of greatness , and empty vessel who makes lots of noise, I regreat I contacted u, ur a waste.

What is Going on Here?

One thing going on is that someone with an inflated sense of entitlement is offended that I won’t be his personal homework slave. But, let me itemize the problems:

  • Mr. W did not respond in a lucid and straightforward way to my questions. (There is, for instance, no such thing as a Mercury Certified Software Tester.)
  • Mr. W seems to be more concerned about me wasting his time than him wasting mine.
  • Mr. W seems to expect multi-page hand-crafted answers to single-line emails.
  • Mr. W seems to expect specific answers to vague questions.
  • Mr. W writes so poorly that I don’t think it can be chalked up to merely English-as-a-second-language syndrome. No English class on Earth is going to teach writing “u” instead of “you”. The only people who can be excused for writing “u” are teenagers texting each other, or teenagers writing in a chat window while simultaneously fighting level 55 scorpids in World of Warcraft.
  • Mr. W approached me with an enormously inflated notion of his own skills. I don’t believe anyone who is actually proficient in any test technique or approach would ask such a broad question as he asked, except as a joke. For one thing, it’s a question that would require a very long answer. For another thing, if he’s as proficient a tester as he claims, he would already know that answer.
  • Mr. W’s insults lack wit and specificity. I bet he tells all the writers he pisses off that they “just show-off of greatness”. Why, I haven’t even tried to show him my greatness, yet. I’m intentionally not showing greatness. Or maybe he considers it an act of show-off greatness to spell reasonably well, and make use of conventional grammar.

How to Ask Questions

Don’t be like Mr. W. If you want free consulting from a writer in the field, here’s how to get it:

  • Do not present yourself as if you are so lazy you can’t even summon the ambition to spell words and complete sentences.
  • Do reasonable homework before you approach a stranger to ask for answers. Learn to use Google. Poke around the many websites available.
  • Find out the basics of what that stranger does and believes. For instance, I am well known to be skeptical of certification programs. Citing that you are certified would just put me on edge.
  • For most strangers you approach, you probably should first ask permission to ask a technical question. For me, I grant you permission. For me, here’s what you need to do: Introduce yourself, state your situation, state your problem in detail, state what you have already done to solve your problem, and ask a specific question. Also, it doesn’t hurt to say something about how you know that I’m probably busy and how you would understand if I don’t have a lot of time for out-of-the-blue questions.
  • Be ready for the stranger to ask you to do some work to solve your own problem first, or to suggest that you are not yet ready to receive an answer. A good response to this is to do some more work and come back. You may also ask for more details about the kind of work they think you need to do.
  • Never blast your question to many consultants at once. It will get you instantly blackballed.
  • It never hurts to offer a favor of some kind in return for help.
  • In my case, if I don’t reply to you, try me again. Keep trying until I reply. The reason I don’t reply is usually because I’m really busy that moment. But squeaky wheels eventually get a response. Pradeep Soundararajan once sent me 18 reminders over a three month period until I finally answered his question. He has since received a great deal of my time, at no charge, just because I feel that he respects and values my help.

I will give time to four kinds of people: hard-working self-possessed people, warm and charming people, people who teach me something important, and people who pay me money so I can support my family. If you aren’t the fourth kind, and you want something from me, try to be one of the first three.

8 thoughts on “How to Ask (and Not Ask) for Free Consulting

  1. James — Just unbelievable. This is exactly the kind of stuff that keeps me, and most other people I know and respect, from participating and contributing on the large public forums anymore as well. It is an absolute insult to be approached in this fashion.

    And while I am at it, even though I do still think certifications have some value, as long as everyone really understands what they are, I am, as a card carrying Mercury Certified Consultant and Mercury Certified Instructor, (and your right, there is no Mercury Certified Tester) I am personally insulted and offended at his mis-use and attempted mis-characterization of what that is and what it means.

    You have always been more than willing to provide the benefit of your time, opinions, and vast experience in any situation I have ever asked for such, and the same can be said of almost everyone I know that has ever spoken with you. You are a true gentleman in this regard, and well regarded for it. The only negative thing I know that anyone could say, and you freely admit, is that the price to be paid is that it must be a two way process. You challenge, you poke, you prod, you ask lots of questions, all to provoke deeper thought on everyones part. Some people may feel threatened by that…but when the entire artifice of the other participants discourse crumbles instantly under the weight of the most gentle of questions…well, you can deduce what type of intelectual integrity was there to begin with.

    This is why all of our jobs will not be going overseas.


    [James’ Reply: Thanks David. I like to associate with a variety of colleagues, including those who have a perhaps gentler style than mine, so that someone looking for help can get it from at least someone in my community, even if they don’t want to deal with me.]

  2. The best reminder I sent you during those 3 month wait for a reply is:

    “The more you wait for something , the sweeter it gets”

    Its getting sweeter and sweeter , Thanks for making it sweet !

    _ _ _

    Now by blogging it, you made it sweetest !

  3. W:

    It would be a great help if u can explain me how to perform testing of a datawarehouse along with a test plan for same.


    Hi, W.

    I’m not sure what you are asking me here, so I don’t know how to reply. The free material I provide, you can find on my web site.

    If you’d like to talk about the issues around testing data warehouses – and I believe there are some unique ones – that’s an interesting topic. I’d be glad to (or not – ed) participate in some kind of round-table or unconference discussion about that. I’ve recently been involved with two conferences organized this way, and it was delightful (, ).

    If you are asking for my help with a data warehouse testing effort where you work, that’s great. Let’s arrange to talk in real-time about getting you some consulting. This is what I do for a living, after all. When are you free in the next couple days, so we can schedule a chat?


    – J

  4. The stupid…it burns….

    This is up there with “Can you explain to me how to write a Windows app and include a spec for same?”

  5. I am very glad that James do have this public site. It has helped me alot and I have been honoured by receiving helpful answers to my questions from James.

    Now and then we all bump in to persons that we feel either offended by or that enoy us. I can’t say I’m suprised that James published the e-mail conversation along with an amusing commenting of it. I can just say that Mr. W in fact should be honoured having provoked (by mistake) James to post this comment. I would probably just have ignored Mr. W, but I’m glad you didn’t James!

    By the way I wonder which category of persons I fall into…


  6. Stuart, in particular, it reminds me of the “How to Ask Questions the Smart Way” essay that Eric Raymond co-wrote with some dodgy sysadmin character in California, whose name eludes me at the moment but whom I see in the mirror occasionally. *grin*

    Rick Moen

  7. I just imagined the scene:

    I could tell you, but would you understand the answer? Do you have any training or experience as a tester?

    Mr. W.:
    Well, i’m certified by ISTQB, so….NO i don’t

    ( and then James starts to laugh and trye to help Mr. W)

    Just kidding, trying to bring some laugh over here.

    (and sorry about my english, i’m brazilian)

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