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In praise of Stack Overflow — 7th Apr 2016

In praise of Stack Overflow

Stack Overflow has been an invaluable resource for pretty much as long as I have been programming.

In a nutshell, it is a Q&A website for software developers that was founded in 2008. You post a programming question (e.g. How to reload a page using Javascript?) and other members of the community can answer it. Community members can edit, upvote and downvote questions and answers, after which (reputation) points are awarded to the various contributors, with the net result being — more often than not — incredibly useful, well-researched, authoritative answers.

Hardly a week goes by without me having to consult it multiple times about different problems that I happen to need to overcome that week. I tend to post a problem into Google and will usually find that a related Stack Overflow question is at, or near, the top of the results.

The coverage of problems and solutions is so extensive that in the 8 years or so that I have using it, I have rarely had to use any other site. And in all of those years, I have only ever had to ask one question myself (which, incidently, was seemingly so niche, that it didn’t actually get answered. I had probably found a bug in the underlying .NET framework or OS code)*.

Before long it became apparent that there were several community “elders”, mythical guru-types, with huge repuation scores that always seem to have the best answers on every question that you look at. One such user is Jon Skeet, a software developer at Google. He is the top-rated contributor on the site and was recently interviewed in a BBC article. According to the article, he contributes to Stack Overflow “when he can”. For the record, he has now answered about 33,000 questions on the site (that’s 11 answers a day, every day, for 8 years!), all whilst working in a prestigious job at Google, preaching at his local church and raising three children.

When asked why he does it, he said that he enjoys it, that he hopes that he is able to help others and that he also finds that he also learns a lot from it as well.

“Answering questions also helps you learn – both by exploring topics where you don’t initially know the answer, and by the effort taken to frame your existing knowledge in a way that’s understandable by others.”

There are many others like him in the Stack Overflow community. Some names and avatars that I have come to recognise over the years are Eric Lippert, Hans Passant, Martijn Peters and Konrad Rudolph. I’m sure I will never meet any of these guys, but I can assure you that they have helped me out of some almighty pickles over the years.

Stack Overflow was co-founded by two prominent developer-bloggers: Jeff Attwood (codinghorror.com) and Joel Spolsky (joelonsoftware.com). Incidentally, I’ve been scouring the coding horror archives recently to find that there is a wealth programming advice there also. Jeff, the coding horror blog author, maintains a recommended reading list of books which he regularly draws inspiration from in his posts. I am certain to plough my way through over the coming years.

Stack Overflow has become so successful that it has branched out, via the Stack Exchange network, into all sorts of different subjects: from Server Fault (for Server Administrators), to Mathematics, Beer, Philosophy, Photography, Chess and The Workplace (for professional advice).

As far as I’m concerned, as someone that holds strong Social Democratic and Communitarian views, the Stack Overflow project (and the extended Stack Exchange network), much like Wikipedia and Open Source projects represent the very best of human nature. Communities of people that provide their time, knowledge, experience and expertise, just for the pure joy of it, and in doing so enrich us all.

Long may it continue.

* The only question that I have ever needed to ask currently can’t be viewed by anyone other than myself because it went for so long without an answer. I was awarded with the tumbleweed achievement before the question was eventually closed by community moderators. I’ve included a screenshot below. If you do happen know the answer please, by all means, contact me and I will happily try to re-open it and answer it on your behalf (fully credited, of course) 🙂


(Oh, and for what it is worth, in order to take this image, I had to Google “firefox full page screenshot”. Of course, there was a Stack Overflow question near the top of the results)