It depends. It really, really does.

This is almost our catch phrase. In every class we teach Kimberly and I always say that the answer to every question about SQL Server *starts* with “It depends” – except one: “should auto-shrink be enabled?” :-)

Seriously though, there’s a bit of an unnecessary backlash against the phrase “it depends” and I’d like to clarify why we think it’s a totally valid way to start an answer.

I think the backlash stems from consultants and trainers using it as the answer to any question they don’t know the answer to and then not expounding any further. That’s a crappy way to answer a question as “it depends” on it’s own doesn’t really provide anything useful and I can totally understand people getting frustrated by that. I think that people would be much better answering “I don’t know” rather than trying to cover up lack of knowledge by simply saying “it depends” – there’s no shame in admitting you don’t know something – nobody knows everything about SQL Server.

I find the denigration of the phrase annoying though, as nearly all the answers really do start with “it depends”. I don’t want this to turn into one of those marketing-ish ‘hire-us’ blog posts, but one of the reasons Kimberly and I are so well-known for saying “it depends” is because we spend so much time in our classes explaining *why* it depends, *what* it depends on, and *when* it depends. Occasionally I can even say *who* made it depend too :-) We even have “It depends” emblazoned on the back of our SQLskills instructor t-shirts.

Almost as bad as saying “it depends” without the follow-on explanation is saying the answer is *always* such-and-such. That can be really damaging as nothing is black-and-white (except not using auto-shrink! :-) but teaching that it is can lead to propagation of misleading information out into the community.

My challenge to you: next time you hear someone say “it depends”, ask them to explain. You’ll get a really good feeling for their depth of knowledge and honesty if they can explain to your satisfaction, as otherwise “it depends” is really saying “I don’t know”.

And don’t be scared to say “I don’t know” – you’ll get way more respect than trying to BS an answer.

22 thoughts on “It depends. It really, really does.

  1. "It depends – the consultant’s universal answer"

    …as it should be.

    I’ve seen consultants use the "it depends" answer when asked for a recommendation. As a starter, that’s perfectly appropriate. But I’ve seen them fail to provide a recommendation at all because they didn’t want to take any risk of perhaps giving the wrong (or more wrong) recommendation.

    I think the worst mistake anyone could make is thinking that there are no "it depends" in the world. That sort of "there’s one right answer for every question" drives me crazy. If that were true, we wouldn’t need people to solve problems. We could just program our lives and sit back and eat ice cream all day.

  2. I agree 100%. Just saying "It Depends" as an answer is completely useless unless and until you go further and explain why "it depends". The explanation actually quells "Oh, he/she doesn’t know and hence the it-depends" answer that might be going through your audience’s mind. Never, never substitue "I Don’t Know" with "It Depends"!!

  3. In a forum discussion a while back one person stated that he’d fire any of his employees if they ever gave him an answer that started with ‘It Depends’, because giving such an answer meant they didn’t know what they were talking about.

    My sole reply to that was ‘Remind me never to work for you’

    I was working with a manager recently that wouldn’t accept any form of ‘I don’t know’, ‘It depends on …’ or ‘I need to investigate further’. She wanted the answer on the spot, no excuses. Very frustrating to work with.

  4. Awesome post and exactly my sentiments. I was actually just thinking about this the other day. If I am presenting and plan on saying "it depends", I make sure I can explain what it depends on. It’s a valid answer as long as it is explained.

  5. I was at the doctor’s office once and a kid walking out with a packet of pills asked the doc ‘so next time i get sick i just take one of these and i’ll be ok’, the doc said ‘it depends, your body is made of interrelated parts, one thing can affect another, so maybe you can try it but it may not fix it every time’..same thing for a server!! I deal with enough people who are now allergic to this phrase but that is bcoz they want simplistic one word answers and don’t understand the interralations between various parts. I try to put it in other ways if I can, or joke that the answer depends on me or you, sometimes that works!!

  6. It’s probably no surprise that it’s the same ex-client. I could write a book on the happenings there…

    It’s commonly said in martial arts that you don’t know a technique/move/form/kata until you can teach it successfully, and it’s very true.

  7. I know I’ll probably get several laughs, but since I don’t set up the servers, what is the answer to: should auto-shrink be enabled? Is it yes or no? And if you don’t mind, why?

  8. @Rob-LOL. I agree. Sometimes people will still make stuff up!

    @Karen-I try to give the options and often a recommendation IF I know enough about their environment to do so. Sometimes it’s difficult as a consultant because of limited knowledge of a workload, etc. But, you’re totally right that a lot of people just use it to get out of it. And, there’s a lot of "gray area" as most things in life are not just black/white!!

    @Amit-Absolutely! A poor substitute for sure.

    @Gail-You need to tell some of these customers to… er, I’ll have to tell you in private. This blog can be read by [younger] future DBAs! ;-)

    @Ryan-And, it will make you a significantly better presenter as well. I remember hearing a quote that I love. If you really want to learn something inside and out – learn it so that you can teach it.

    @Mala-Great analogy! (and, I love the you or me part… I might use that!! )

    @Jason-Ha… maybe we should say "brace yourselves"

    Great comments!!


  9. Thanks for the insightful post. I love hearing "it depends" from some people, because the followup discussion is awesome. But from other folks, this statement is frustrating. I’ve heard presenters say it and dodge the question, and in discussions after class, I found that they didn’t know the answers or the subject very well. But in other cases, I’ve heard "it depends" and when asked, found a great wealth of knowledge to balance.

  10. I also had a supervisor (I could never describe him as "my superior") who hated the "it depends" answer (and the details behind it), he wanted a rule of thumb instead. He would refuse to listen to what the answer dependeded on. Or to give further details about his question, so that you could given him the simple answer.

    And if you did happen to know enough about his particular problem / question to give a quick, simple answer, sooner or later, he’s apply it in an inappropriate situation / case. Then he’s come and tell you that you were wrong, and that you don’t know as much as you think you did. To say the guy’s insecure is a huge understatement.

  11. Another great semi-non-technical post Paul.

    "explaining *why* it depends, *what* it depends on, and *when* it depends": I take great pride in being able to provide those talking points with a client on the topics I do know and also in saying "I don’t know" when that answer is appropriate.

  12. Actually I love "It Depends" because it means an interesting discussion is coming–especially from both you and Kimberly and am so looking for to more "It Depends" in a few weeks at the Immersion!. As for the "I don’t know…" I agree and you shouldn’t be afraid to say it. However, I do like to qualify it with "I don’t know but I can find out or help find someone who can…"

  13. Another DBA in the team I work in has got so fed up with managers always asking him for a Yes/No answer. So he has put a note on his desk which states that the answer to everything is No if its Mon-Wed and Yes if its Thurs-Fri.

    This was the easiest way to explain to senior management why the answer is not always a simple Yes/No. It always depends on what the problem is and various factors which will dictate the solution. One size defintely does not fit all.

    Great post Paul.

  14. Great Non-Technical blog post which helps technically!
    "There’s no shame in admitting you don’t know something – nobody knows everything about SQL Server." – Super Like this statement Paul!!

  15. Another excellent post and some great comments. I especially love that you have "It depends" on the back of your SQLskills instructor t-shirts. That’s awesome! My coworkers have learned to expect "it depends" answers for many of their questions, but I still get those "so what’s the quick answer?" looks sometimes.

    I agree with never shrinking databases, but everyone who knows me knows I have one more never: cursors. If you can’t make it set-based, at least try a while loop. I’ve provided several examples where just switching from a cursor to a while loop improved performance by 20% or more.

  16. I’ve only ever said "it depends" where I mean it, and can qualify what I mean by that – never to cover up what I don’t know. If I don’t know, I always say so. As a consultant, speaker, etc., people have to have a sense of trust and you’re not just selling them some bill of goods. Often times "it depends" and the options that come along with it sparks interesting and vital discussions so you can put the right solution in place.

  17. Between the post and the comments, it seems this rule of thumb emerges:

    When asking a question, be wary of responses that are too pat. However, if the answer is "it depends", either be willing to leave the issue as unresolved, or make the time to dig deeper. Don’t be bamboozled into a FUD position.

    On the back of that, when the question is being asked of you, try to educate the questioner to the above, and be willing to be judged in those terms.

    (But I agree, Gail, the "educate" bit probably won’t work for that ex-client ;-)

  18. Good post.

    Most answers to SQL Server and, even other technical issues, do depend on that particular environment.

    I never have a problem saying "I don’t know" because there is so little I really KNOW about SQL Server. There are so many things I thought were right in the past that I’ve learned are not the best way to do something that I always feel that adding "in my experience" or "based on what I’ve read/learned" is appropriate.

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