The 75% answer


Posted by Louis Brandy on 11 May 2009

People often ask what I refer to as non-questions. What programming language should I learn? That's not a real question. You need to probe further to figure out what they are really asking. Is it your first language? Do you want to get a job? Do you want to bend your brain?

There are many canonical examples of non-questions, but they occur even more frequently in niche areas. What web framework should I use? If you are completely ignorant of web frameworks, there's simply no way you can choose the best one for your needs. And there's absolutely no way anyone else can tell you what the best one is going to be. The beauty of the situation is that the best anyone can do is get you 75% of the way there. That's it. You can spend twenty minutes doing research and get a 75% answer, or you can spend three weeks doing research, and maybe get 85%. Go with 75%.

Since these questions, by their nature, demonstrate a fundamental level of ignorance that cannot be easily cured (by either the asker, or the answerer) then we simply need to strive for 75% answers. If you know enough about a particular topic to know why a 75% answer isn't good enough for you, you probably know enough to ask better questions. If you know literally nothing, find one of the many 75% answers, and just go for it.

The 75% answer to all newbie questions

Operating System? Linux distro? Ubuntu.

*Gnome or KDE? *Gnome.

Text editor? Emacs.

Web framework? Ruby on Rails.

Web server? Apache.

Prototype or jQuery? jQuery.

What programming language should I learn? C.

I already know C. Python

Anything else? Lisp

What hourly rate should I charge? $75 per hour.

Someone help me pick a good font! Georgia or Verdana. And never put black (#000) on white (#FFF)

Paper or plastic? Plastic! And don't give me any dirty looks either, hippy!

Effect or affect? Use the following words, only: effect (noun), affect (verb), effective, affected, affecting (you'll be right more than 75%).

If you are struggling with any of these questions, and have no overriding reason to disagree with my answer, go with it. Stop doing research, stop reading the internet, and stop asking non-questions in various forums. Find a 75% answer, and jump into it. I promise everything will work out. Even if you find it doesn't suit your needs, it'll teach you enough to figure out which alternative will. And 75% of the time, these will work out just fine.


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