Stack Overflow is designed for practicing programmers

Another point of confusion that comes up a fair bit is who the intended audience for Stack Overflow actually is. That one is straightforward, and it’s been the same from day one:

Q&A for professional and enthusiast programmers. By that we mean

People who either already have a job as a programmer, or could potentially be hired as a programmer today if they wanted to be.

Yes, in case you’re wondering, part of this was an overt business decision. To make money you must have an audience of people already on a programmer’s salary, or in the job hunt to be a programmer. The entire Stack Overflow network may be Creative Commons licensed, but it was never a non-profit play. It was planned as a sustainable business from the outset, and that’s why we launched Stack Overflow Careers only one year after Stack Overflow itself … to be honest far sooner than we should have, in retrospect. Careers has since been smartly subsumed into Stack Overflow proper at stackoverflow.com/jobs for a more integrated and most assuredly way-better-than-2009 experience.

The choice of audience wasn’t meant to be an exclusionary decision in any way, but Stack Overflow was definitely designed as a fairly strict system of peer review, which is great (IMNSHO, obviously) for already practicing professionals, but pretty much everything you would not want as a student or beginner. This is why I cringe so hard I practically turn myself inside out when people on Twitter mention that they have pointed their students at Stack Overflow. What you’d want for a beginner or a student in the field of programming is almost the exact opposite of what Stack Overflow does at every turn:

  • one on one mentoring
  • real time collaborative screen sharing
  • live chat
  • theory and background courses
  • starter tasks and exercises
  • playgrounds to experiment in

These are all very fine and good things, but Stack Overflow does NONE of them, by design.

Can you use Stack Overflow to learn how to program from first principles? Well, technically you can do anything with any software. You could try to have actual conversations on Reddit, if you’re a masochist. But the answer is yes. You could learn how to program on Stack Overflow, in theory, if you are a prodigy who is comfortable with the light competitive aspects (reputation, closing, downvoting) and also perfectly willing to define all your contributions to the site in terms of utility to others, not just yourself as a student attempting to learn things. But I suuuuuuper would not recommend it. There are far better websites and systems out there for learning to be a programmer. Could Stack Overflow build beginner and student friendly systems like this? I don’t know, and it’s certainly not my call to make. 🤔

And that’s it. We can now resume our normal non-abyss gazing. Or whatever it is that passes for normal in these times.

I hope all of this doesn’t come across as negative. Overall I’d say the state of the Stack is strong. But does it even matter what I think? As it was in 2008, so it is in 2018.

Stack Overflow is you.

This is the scary part, the great leap of faith that Stack Overflow is predicated on: trusting your fellow programmers. The programmers who choose to participate in Stack Overflow are the “secret sauce” that makes it work. You are the reason I continue to believe in developer community as the greatest source of learning and growth. You are the reason I continue to get so many positive emails and testimonials about Stack Overflow. I can’t take credit for that. But you can.

I learned the collective power of my fellow programmers long ago writing on Coding Horror. The community is far, far smarter than I will ever be. All I can ask — all any of us can ask — is to help each other along the path.

And if your fellow programmers decide to recognize you for that, then I say you’ve well and truly earned it.

The strength of Stack Overflow begins, and ends, with the community of programmers that power the site. What should Stack Overflow be when it grows up? Whatever we make it, together.

p.s. Happy 10th anniversary Stack Overflow!

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