If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably a programmer and you probably use Stack Overflow daily. It launched back in 2008 and I’ve been using it, sometimes without knowing it for these past few years. This year, I decided to consciously contribute back to Stack Overflow and also try to rack up 1000 reputation points, aka rep. As of this writing, I’m up to 2,106 rep and very happy about my experience contributing. So… why should you participate on Stack Overflow and what tips can I offer on how to do that?
Save the programmer, save the world (or Why you should participate)
Stack Overflow (SO) shows up frequently in Google searches. Google any Android exception or iOS error message and you’ll get at least one SO hit, if not several. It is the programming world’s equivalent to Wikipedia, being somewhat of a canonical resource for programming questions and answers.
Programmers seem to turn to SO first nowadays, even before asking other programmers or consulting documentation. Why is that? Well my theory is that we don’t want to interrupt other people and documentation can be hard to parse. On the other hand, a lot of times you can find either working code or good pseudo-code in an SO answer. If you think this is just my opinion, consider that SO has 15,000,000+ software developers visiting every month.
SO is also a great case study in gamification. Most programmers I know are avid game players (both board and video), so incentivizing us to contribute by rewarding us with points is a natural fit with our brains. SO has tuned this game mechanic over the years to encourage good questions, great answers and discourage spam, which is the natural enemy of any online community. I confess that some nights I would stay up later than I would so I could try to answer just one more question, which might lead to a few more rep.
Those are the obvious reasons, but there are deeper, more meaningful ones to contribute to Stack Overflow:
SO is good for your resume. Before I interview a potential programmer to join my team, I always check their SO profile, not just to see how much rep, which is a rough measure of how much they participate and how valued their contributions are, but to see how well they communicate. Programmers don’t just write code, but they also have to discuss potential problems, solutions, relay their progress, etc. Reading someone’s set of SO answers is a proxy for that. In past years, I would have said that I would go to read their technical blog, but those are sadly in decline due to a combination of SO, Twitter, Google+, App.net, etc.
You will learn as a consequence of answering questions. Even if you already know it, having to communicate an answer clearly to someone else will ingrain that knowledge into your brain further. Sometimes it is good to find a question that has interested you before that you can do a bit of research into and you’ll satisfy your curiosity while answering someone’s question.
“I play the Stack Exchange game happily alongside everyone else, collecting reputation and badges and rank and upvotes, and I am proud to do so, because I believe it ultimately helps me become more knowledgeable and a better communicator while also improving the very fabric of the web for everyone. I hope you feel the same way.”
– Jeff Atwood in The Gamification
Best of all, you will be helping people. We exist in a larger community of programmers and I think it is a good policy to help others when you can. Whether you subscribe to The Golden Rule, you should consider that if you use open source, if you rely on the answers in Stack Overflow, that it took someone willing to help to write those things that you use when you write your own apps.
Now the hard part… (or Tips on participating)
When you first register with Stack Overflow, you’ll start out with 1 rep. Which means that the only thing you can really do is ask a question or answer one. You can suggest edits too. I would suggest starting out by asking a good question, including what you have tried and any relevant code. That’s probably the easiest way to get started and you’ll get 5 points every time someone votes your question up. Voting a question up means that it is well worded and usually meaningful to the voter.
If you ask a question, make sure to check back and accept the best answer that you get. You will reward the answerer and you’ll get an additional 2 points yourself. Note that your accept rate is tracked and if you ask too many questions without accepting, people may stop answering your questions, since that is a sign that you’re not being a good member of the community.
Another way to participate is to share your knowledge by answering questions. That’s what I have been doing, since I’ve learned a thing or two over my 18 year programming career. (I feel old now.) In any case, I think everyone has some expertise to share and that’s how we all learn as a community: I share what I know, you share what you know, we both get better.
Make sure you answer questions thoroughly. Don’t just do a quick link to a blog post. Code is probably the best. If you do include code, make sure it compiles and works correctly. Include screenshots if it is relevant, for example if someone is asking how to change the background of an action bar, show a screenshot with a multi-colored action bar. Learn the right markup, which is in Markdown or use the toolbar to format your answer to properly insert hyperlinks, quote the question, quote documentation, etc.
Once you get up to 15 rep, which shouldn’t take too long, then start to vote up questions and answers. This will help others figure out which answer is better than the others if there are multiple answers to a question. It also helps figure out which questions are popular.
Fill out your profile and include an avatar. I greatly prefer answering people’s questions that have a face to them, not just some randomly generated artwork. Include your qualifications and this might also help people judge whether you are credible or not, especially when you are first starting out.
Be persistent. Ultimately, you’re dealing with other people who have their own schedules. Just because you ask a question, it doesn’t mean that people are going to answer it right away. If you really want it answered and haven’t had any takers yet, then share the link to it on App.Net or Google+ or Twitter. Conversely, just because you answer a question, it does not mean that the system will automatically recognize your contribution and award you 15 points. The person asking the question has to do that and they may have some follow-up comments. Sometimes you just have to wait. Sometimes you will never get rewarded and that’s alright – you still have contributed to the community. And who knows – weeks, months or years later, someone might come across your question because they have it themselves or appreciate the answer that you gave and upvote you, sending a few more rep your way.