Hey Dude, You Don’t Have To Be Mean To Be Helpful

Yesterday, I did something I don’t usually do: I asked a question on StackOverflow. I usually try to avoid asking questions on StackOverflow because the StackOverflow community is intimidating to me as a beginner. I don’t want to ask a “stupid” question so publicly. On the flip side, I use StackOverflow all the time to find answers, so I’m a HUGE fan of it.

Yesterday, however, I ran into a question I didn’t even know how to Google, and it was bothering me enough to actually take the risk of asking. Unfortunately, the response I got confirmed my insecurities with asking questions on the site.

This is what the only responder to my question wrote:

The cause is SublimeLinter plug-in and its PEP-8 filter


Your code does not conform PEP-8 style guide:


Learn to write Python code properly according to the style guide – PEP-8 filter highlights only bad code and in your case the whole file is badly written.

Ok, so the first part of the answer is super helpful. I learned A TON about how to use spacing properly, how to read the feedback from my Sublime SublimeLinter plugin, and how to follow the Python coding conventions. So I’m really grateful for the answer.

However, the second part of that answer, that how dare I didn’t read the Python style guide is just absolutely not necessary. Instead, the responder could have been more helpful and told me more about what the PEP-8 style guide actually is. I would love to learn more!

StackOverflow is great for the world and helps so many people every day. Imagine how many more people it could help if asking questions was greeted with warm and caring answers from people who are genuinely excited to help others (instead of just making themselves look smart).

As a result of this question, I got my StackOverflow up-voting privileges, which I’m super excited about. I will not be up-voting this guys correct answer.

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  • Hi Natasha,

    It was my answer. Sorry if I the answer was too sparse and left duly atmosphere. I would like to have put some more effort for it, but when writing the answer it was already past midnight and I was half asleep. The answer was something I could came up with a minute. I hoped the links would add some more in-depth information for self-studying in the case the author of the answer were not in the condition to write long, helpful, answer.

    • Hi Miohtama,

      I just wanted to reiterate that the first part of your answer was great. I looked at the links you included and learned A TON, and am now writing better code as a result, so thank you. I’ve only been learning Python for the past 2 weeks, so didn’t really know it was so strict on the styling.

      • miohtama

        Python indeed gives you great freedom with your code formatting. However this inevitably leads to a mess when you need to co-operate with different people and source code from different sources. Thus, PEP-8 was born to address this issue so that all code would look similar and people would feel familiar with any Python codebase. Unlike with Java coding conventions, PEP-8 came long after the creation of Python, so there exist a lot of code doing things differently… but I recommend for all new code to follow PEP-8 (like Django itself does)

      • Thanks for the background on Python. I love learning about the context behind the language.

  • At least you’re brave enough to ask a question there! I’ve learned so much from Stack Overflow, but I can’t bring myself to ask questions; the crowd over there is downright hateful to beginners.

    There absolutely needs to be a welcoming place to ask questions about programming. I wonder if we’ll see that begin to form sometime soon, especially now that there’s a big movement to bring women and girls into programming. A little bit more nurturing in the programming community could bring about some amazing things.

    • Hi Marie,

      Yeah, asking a question on StackOverflow is my absolutely last resort. I’ve found the meetups for women, like Women Who Code, a lot more welcoming.

      I’ll add a StackOverflow for beginners as one of the ideas I’d like to build! Could be a really good project for learning Django!

      Happy Learning!

  • miohtama

    If you wish to find a forum with nice atmosphere I suggest a small IRC channel (not one of those crowded once, like #python on freenode.net). When you actually know the people you are dealing wit and build some sort of relationships with them, at least by few sentences, the normal social behavior kicks in and you will get more hand-holding guidance. There are upsides and downsides of massive forums like stackoverflow.com: it is more probable to get the answer, but they are often less hand-holding once as there is less incentive to get more in-depth involved with the question as you probably never come across the same person again.

  • Timothy

    I would also recommend asking a question on reddit.com/r/learnpython …. they are very friendly over there.

  • Mark

    Part of a woman’s job is to police the language and raise hell whenever it is not sufficiently gentle and soothing. Those anonymous strangers on the internet can be so intimidating!

    • Chris K

      Responses like this are part of the reason why we have a lack of women participating in coding.

  • ” Instead, the responder could have been more helpful and told me more about what the PEP-8 style guide actually is.”


  • RobertMeta

    I guess we can disagree with what “mean” is. As you yourself pointed out, his response was super helpful to you — and he isn’t even paid to do it, just a friendly internet volunteer, helping you with your problem and linking you to more resources. As for what you called “mean” … lets deconstruct that a bit…

    “Learn to write Python code properly according to the style guide” — not mean, a short and to the point recommendation, abrasive at worst.

    “PEP-8 filter highlights only bad code” — obviously as PEP-8 is a style guide, he means ‘badly styled code’, he could have made it more clear, but I think the context is obvious.

    “and in your case the whole file is badly written.” — this is important, it explains why there is markup on every line, and again PEP-8 is a style guide, so he is saying your entire file is badly formatted by PEP-8 standards. Again, nothing hurtful in there.

    I can see how the words “bad code” might be an emotional trigger, but in context, it makes perfect sense and since you didn’t show any real code, just some boilerplate Poll/Choose — I can’t even fathom what there was to be defensive about, or hurt by… it seems rather helpful… I would think rather than calling him out you might thank him for taking the time.