Using Stack Overflow in Your Job Search

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How much can a recruiter learn about you from a question-and-answer session? A fair amount, it turns out, which is why a number of them turn to Stack Overflow when they’re searching for candidates for tech roles.

Some recruiters believe that reading through profiles gives them an opportunity to get a sense of a candidate’s technical expertise, how they approach technical challenges, and their skill at communicating with others.

Most agree that the site can be helpful in creating a full and balanced profile of those they’re trying to match with an open role. Stack Overflow’s strength, they add, lies not in its ability to search for candidates (most agree its tools are too limited for that) but in the help it can give in deciding whether you have the skills and personality to fit with the demands of particular job.

“I use it as another tool to vet candidates,” said Willis Johnson, vice president of technical recruiting for the Robert Half Technology office in Albuquerque, N.M. “I can see how they interact, what questions they ask, look at the bits of code they post, see how their logic works.”

Even a user’s questions can give him a sense of the person’s work habits. Johnson is wary of users who post a simple question without any indication that they’ve invested time in working the problem through on their own. Those people, Johnson believes, “are trying to get other people to do the work for them.”

Aaron Ho, a recruiter at San Francisco-based Riviera Partners, said one of the first things he looks at is the “reputation” score, which indicates a user’s activity level and how many answers they’ve provided that others find helpful. Examining their “Top Tags” and “Top Posts” gives him an idea of where the user has the most expertise: “The assumption is that if they’re taking the time to answer specific types of questions, and other people are upvoting them, then they are probably pretty good at it.”

Recruiters Are Watching

For job seekers, it’s important to be aware that, like it or not, you’re being watched. “What you put up there can be seen by anyone,” noted Johnson, who advises that you “be aware as you post.” Make sure that you’re adding value to the community by answering questions, not just asking them: “That says that you’re a team player, a collaborator who’s interested in more than just what’s in it for them.”

Scott Schefferstein, senior technical recruiter in the New Orleans office of the consulting firm Resolvit, thinks it’s worth spell-checking your posts and thinking about your tone as you write. “You could possibly be vetted on what you do,” he said. “Be aware recruiters are looking. It could come down to whether they like the way you engage with the community. Or, your profile might show that you match a role’s need for subject matter expertise. Either way, it can have an impact on their view of you.”

None of this necessarily means you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you’re not a Stack Overflow regular. Though he “absolutely” uses it to vet candidates, “you have to take it with a grain of salt,” Ho said. “Just because an engineer doesn’t have a fully built out Stack Overflow profile, doesn’t have a high reputation score, or hasn’t answered many questions, it doesn’t mean he’s a bad engineer.”

Likewise, he continued, just because someone answers a lot of questions doesn’t automatically mean he or she is good at programming. “You have to take a look at the content of the answers and how well they were received by the community.”

What You’re Telling Them

Stack Overflow’s Q&A format makes it more of a hit-or-miss resource than GitHub when it comes to providing access to a user’s work samples. Some engineers simply don’t warm up to the site’s approach, said Schefferstein. Consequently, they neglect their profiles. “Some of the best developers I know, you wouldn’t be impressed by their Stack Overflow profiles at all,” he said.

Even though Schefferstein doesn’t use Stack Overflow regularly, he agrees that “you can get a lot out of reading their answers.” When users go into depth in their posts, “that tells me something. Someone who’s glib tells me something else. Read a few of their posts and you can get a sense of them.”

“GitHub and Stack Overflow are like Twitter and Facebook,” Johnson said. “Many try both, but then tend to stick to one or the other. Typically, they’re two very different types of users.”

Stack Overflow differs from GitHub in that it hosts more interaction between users. Right off the bat, that tells Johnson that Stack Overflow aficionados are less introverted, and helps him get a sense of how they’d work on a team and how they approach other people. “You can learn a lot about temperament and logic,” he said.

One thing’s for sure: If you’re not using Stack Overflow, you’d better be using GitHub. Or vice versa. A true programmer will be on one or the other, said Johnson: “If not, it’s a red flag.”

Image Credit: amasterphotographer/Shutterstock.com

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