How Long is a Piece of String

When I started out at Cisco in 1990 it was a part of the culture that a request for help or question that was too vague or poorly specified would be answered with “How long is a piece of string?”

How Long Is a Piece of StringHow Long Is a Piece of String?

Q: How long is a piece of string?
A: It depends.

A more polite, and more directly useful, response is “What is the problem you are trying to solve?”

But “How long is a piece of string” has a Zen koan like quality that can be more useful in some instances.  A similar answer is “Mu“, meaning “unask the question” where questioner is clearly on the wrong track and needs to back up a few steps and reconsider their approach to the root problem.

If you are asking for help

  • Outline very briefly who you are.
  • Be clear on the problem you are trying to solve.
  • Outline what you have done to date to attempt to solve it.
  • Explain the context of your situation, any constraints, outcomes to be avoided, or other relevant background information.
  • What specific alternatives you are trying to choose from or have ruled out.
  • Include any other directly relevant information.

“The past is rich in lessons from which we would greatly profit except that the present is always so full of Special Circumstances.”
Mignon McLaughlin

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Photo Credit: Ben Ward “Old Strings

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