October 17, 2001 spout

Be Your Own Teddy Bear

Wednesday, 10/17/01

According to legend, the TA office next to the Stanford computer science lab is guarded by a teddy bear. Before a student is allowed to consume valuable time asking a question of the TA, they must first explain it to the teddy bear. Apparently the bear is able to answer 80% of the questions that students ask, saving time for the TAs to play Unreal Tournament.

I often feel like I act as the teddy bear for the COM community. I get several email messages a day from folks that consider the mailings lists (resources set up to answer just these kinds of questions) to be too slow, so they ask me directly. If I don’t know the answer off of the top of my head, I often respond with the following phrase:

    Can you send me a tiny, tiny project that reproduces the problem? –Chris”

This, of course, implies that I will actually build and debug the project. And 20% of the time, I do. The other 80% of the time, by the time folks have reduced the problem enough to demonstrate it for me, they’ve already solved it, saving me the time (thank goodness).

Knowing that this is the case, I recommend that you become your own teddy bear. A whiteboard is handy for explaining the problem to yourself and Microsoft development tools are now so handy that you can typically whip out a small reproduction project very quickly. These very activities will often solve the problem, but even if they don’t, you’ve got a concise description of the problem and a small repro case to send to your friends or to post to the list.