Retired from the Help Desk

At the end of November I started to interact on the AskUbuntu Q&A site to help people solve problems they were having with my preferred distribution of Linux. Over the course of 112 days I answered 461 questions, earning 6,339 points and 42 badges. Looking at the monthly rankings, I took the number one spot for December 2020, January 2021 and February 2021. Clearly there were people who found my answers useful. Yesterday night, however, I pulled the trigger to delete my profile and forfeit everything that I had invested the time and energy into.

AskUbuntu Profile Summary

The first question people would naturally ask is "why?", likely expecting to hear about some sort of interpersonal drama or some other common reason for walking away from a community. Given that AskUbuntu is a Linux-focused community, and many Linux communities are not particularly known for having their arms wide open1, this might be the immediate assumption. However, aside from a couple of notes dropped in comments, there was almost zero interaction between me and the long-standing members who have been answering questions for years. The problem that I faced was this: I'm not patient enough to do Help Desk work.

Some of the question that people have asked over the last 100 days on the site have been genuinely interesting and have received some incredibly enlightening answers. I've learned far more about the Grub boot loader this year than at any point in the past. I've seen the correct method of asking someone for more details to answer a question. And I've even taken some of the criticism of my answers to heart to ensure that solutions are provided with supporting links to the documentation whenever possible. Despite my short tenure as AskUbuntu, I feel as though my technical writing has become a little more complete as a result, which will hopefully be reflected in all future documentation that I write. So, while there were a great number of positives, there was a recurring negative that had me questioning why I wanted to invest a few minutes of free time every day on something that wasn't of my own creation: the contemptuous self-defeater.

Self-defeaters are people who create their own problems. We all do this from time to time, but it becomes a bit much when the person who is seeking help derides solutions, refuses to provide information, then hurls insults. For the final two weeks on the Q&A site, this was pretty much everyone who had a question I could offer support on. The Help Desk — and just about any support job — is often a thankless task. For every dozen hostile people there will be one who thanks you2. Again, this is to be expected. However, looking at the number of hours that have been invested in providing the 461 questions and seeing how 318 of them had responses like "Didn't work" without any details3, or "Oh, I'm using Mint BTW, LOL", or never received any follow-up, I have to ask if my time wouldn't be better used blogging … or working on 10C … or maybe doing client work again.

Well, last night, I decided to start doing client work again when not working on 10C or blogging. However, just like everyone else on the planet, I'm still very much constrained for time. By keeping the profile on AskUbuntu, I would always be tempted to go back and answer a few questions here and there, sinking time into a potential solution that has a very high probability of receiving radio silence back from the person who asked the question. By deleting the profile and forfeiting everything that has been earned over the past four months, I can leave the site aside and invest my limited time into things that may prove more beneficial in the long run. This year I need to upgrade some of my server equipment and buy some software licenses for newer versions of tools that I use regularly. These things cost money, which means my focus should be on earning revenue. AskUbuntu, while an interesting place to learn more about the OS that I have relied on for over a decade, will not contribute anything towards these objectives.

Maybe when I will be a little less impatient after retiring. Until then, my time on the Help Desk will need to remain limited.

  1. This is usually a misconception that is played up in the tech press. Many Linux-focused communities are genuinely great with people who will bend over backwards to help strangers solve problems. The various "dramas" that get reported on often contain too many superlatives, which misrepresents the people, the communities, and the disagreements within or between them.

  2. The ratio that I've seen on AskUbuntu is closer to 4:1, which is pretty darn decent for a Q&A site

  3. I understand that not every solution I offer is perfect. But, if something doesn't work, at the very least provide an error message, or part of a log, or something that is actionable. Two words is not any way to drive out a solution from a stranger on the Internet.