Stack Overflow Says It’s Time for Tech Pros to Act Nice

When confronted with a particularly vexing programming problem, many developers will head over to Stack Overflow, where (if they’re lucky) they’ll find the solution in one of the site’s question-and-answer threads.

But while Stack Overflow is great at presenting programming knowledge, its culture apparently needs to change, according to the people who run it. In an April 26 blog posting, Jay Hanlon, the site’s EVP of Culture and Experience, suggested there are two overarching problems:

  • “Too many people experience Stack Overflow¹ as a hostile or elitist place, especially newer coders, women, people of color, and others in marginalized groups.

  • “Our employees and community have cared about this for a long time, but we’ve struggled to talk about it publicly or to sufficiently prioritize it in recent years. And results matter more than intentions.”

When Stack Overflow’s creators started the site, they made certain decisions about culture. For example, they discouraged users from saying “please” and “thank you,” believing that such terms are “noise” that crowd out valuable content. And while they encouraged users to point out mistakes in others’ code or reasoning, they didn’t provide any guidelines on how to do that in a respectful way.

“We failed to give our regular users decent tools to review content and easily find what they’re looking for,” Hanlon added. “We sent mixed messages over the years about whether we’re a site for ‘experts’ or for anyone who codes.”

Stack Overflow’s next steps are somewhat unclear. The site plans on engaging in “user research,” and may do things like updating its content for “inclusive language.” Community managers could be encouraged to more aggressively flag and delete “unkind” comments, and newer users could see a refined “ask page” that breaks down questions more thoroughly—the better to encourage specific, helpful answers from the community.

Whatever the outcome of this soul-searching, Stack Overflow will no doubt remain a valuable resource for developers and other tech pros for quite some time to come. Its current angst also highlights a continual issue for tech pros, especially ones just joining the industry: occasional outbursts of snark in response to honest technical questions. There’s nothing lost in being kind, and doing so can help you build your connections—and even start friendships!

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16 Responses to “Stack Overflow Says It’s Time for Tech Pros to Act Nice”

  1. What would it be like if . . you went to school and learned something about what you are asking? Did you bullshit your way into a job you did not learn much about? How much dope did you smoke? If you worked the problem 3 times and it failed – are you the failure? After that ask for help – tell a mentor you are probably stupid – we are not here to do your work – intellectuals discuss ideas – we are not the cheat sheet you used to pass a class – call that fucker Barry Sortero . . He knows everything . .

  2. Jd Daniel

    “hostile or elitist place, especially newer coders, women, people of color, and others in marginalized groups.”

    Oh you poor snowflakes… suck it up buttercup and stop asking vague or repeat questions. If they took the ten seconds to go through Meta or rtfm you’ll feel a lot less animosity..

    • Martin M Meiss

      I’ve used stack overflow dozens of times, and I’ve never been asked if I’m a woman or member of a minority group. Nor have I seen any reference to these matters. On what basis can I be discriminated against or treated differently?

      • Betsy Rosalen

        It’s not discrimination. Nobody said it was. It’s just creating an environment where those people don’t feel comfortable so just don’t participate. As a newbie (student, I didn’t bullshit my way into any job) I definitely don’t feel comfortable asking questions on Stack Overflow because I see some of the nasty responses and just don’t want to be talked to that way. The problem is that as a newbie, I don’t know what I don’t know, so sometimes I might think a question makes sense, but to someone with a lot of experience they think it’s a dumb question.

        As a woman, you can call me a “snowflake” if you want, but then you are just proving the point of the article… Of course this is a generalization, but most women don’t enjoy pissing contests like some men do, so when the environment seems filled with testosterone, I don’t feel comfortable participating and I will just lurk if needed to try to find the answers I need.

        The point is that a lot of the comments here are exactly the kind of nastiness that just isn’t necessary and doesn’t create a welcoming environment. It creates an environment where the only people who participate are all nasty and enjoy being nasty to each other. It really doesn’t take any more time or energy to be nice it just takes a tiny bit of caring.

  3. Clay Dowling

    And I see the comments here demonstrate the very problem outlined in the article.

    I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. I still use Stack Overflow all the time. So spare me the talk about not knowing how to do your job. A little empathy will go a lot further than snark.

  4. Nena Hari

    Gottta love Tech Borgs who can’t act like actual human beings and God forbid actually be constructive with their criticisms instead of rude. Constructive criticism given in a matter of fact straight forward, neutral way goes a long way.

  5. James Igoe

    Although I applaud Stack Overflow for trying to make a hospitable and inclusive environment, I don’t know if that is the solution or the source of the problem. I think the primary contributor is a US culture that is particularly individualistic and somewhat traditional, such that is is success-focused and competitive. Possibly because of US culture, and maybe even more so, tech culture seems to be a world of one-upmanship, and with a lack of women, prone to combativeness. Too often, tech culture looks to me like a bunch of male ‘chimpanzees’, alone, driven by selfishness and ego. The ‘soapbox’ of the internet does not help, with individuals vying for attention, just more of that ego and one-upmanship.

  6. Belair Eric

    I loved SO when it started and used it extensively. The elitist culture that I experienced while using it had caused me to use it very rarely over the just several years however. I would love for it to return to a place where anyone can go and not feel intimidated or looked down upon when they simply want help.

    • Betsy Rosalen

      There’s no reason for any snark and you shouldn’t have to put up with it for any reason either. It’s just plain rude. If you don’t want to give out free information, don’t, but don’t expect to be allowed to verbally abuse people because you are giving them something for free. Then it’s not free anymore.

  7. Companies need to compete to be successful. This improves the product or service offered. Some call it refinement………………………………………………..

  8. GoBiteMyBalls

    The INCOMPETENCY at Stack sites is rampant, it is evident none of them actually work in IT but are just bottle cap collecting poseurs plagiarizing real solutions from other sites or the actual fuck’un manual.

    The delicious irony, that ONLY NOW THEY’RE REALIZING THEIR SITE IS SHIT.