Let’s take a trip down the IT memory lane. Back to around 2007, when developing applications to run on your cell phone was a brand new idea. Back then I used to do some PHP development on my own, a combination of having a lot of spare time and knowing that being a sys admin in a small town was not exactly a stable profession. And as a beginner back then, I’d run into a lot of “how the heck do I do that?” type questions. So back then, here’s a typical attempt to find the answers I seeked.

  1. Wip out the old googlefu and craft a search string that would hopefully provide the answers I see
  2. Ignore the first result, which was usually experts exchange, because if I wanted to pay for support, I would have probably went with .Net (and curse myself for not acting on creating something like experts exchange when I thought of it back in 2001. Let that be a lesson kiddies, act on your fledging business ideas)
  3. Sort through the multitude of forum hits, attempting to piece together a relevant answer out of the multitude of posts
  4. Curse at finding out the answer was for an issue posted seven years ago
  5. Rinse and repeat, blood pressure rising optional

Needless to say, any unusual error message or attempt to do something past “Hello World” could consume some significant time. Especially if you were using a language that didn’t have decent API documentation (like PHP or to a lesser extent, Java does). I remember thinking back in the day there had to be a better way then this.

Thankfully, two guys thought the same thing.
Five years later, a few jobs, a few address changes, and a lot of code written later, my search for technical questions has been streamlined to this:
  1. Go to stackoverflow
  2. Search for your issue
  3. If not found, create a question. If found, try solution. If not, search again or create question
That’s essentially it. No mussing around with forums, no dealing with having to pay for answers, just stopping by SO and with the amount of folks on there (they’re close to a million users as of this writing), it’s a good chance you’ll have an answer within a day if not sooner. Heck if COBOL questions can get answers within 48 hours, almost anything will. Compare that to forum postings where you could be waiting for days….weeks….never? Also add in that unlike forums, there’s less noise to signal when sorting through answers. They’ve even taken this idea and expanded on it, having sites for Q&A for multiple non-technical endeavours like gaming, home improvement, economics, even history!

Plus the whole earning badges thing doesn’t hurt either.  Funny how simple motivators like that can make a difference sometimes ;)

While I might be a tad biased in my praise (I’m a mod on the history site), I’d still have the same opinion of this endeavour even if I wasn’t. As you can see, this site has really simplified my need for answers, and has for many many more developers and to a lesser extent, non-IT folks I know as well. Plus it helps to build a bit of a community, networking with people that share your interest and sharing our knowledge (remember when your parents said sharing was good? Here’s a great example). When your option beforehand was expertsexchange, who still has the same business model as before, it’s like pennies from heaven to have SO around.

So here’s to Jeff Atwood (whose is retiring from the company as I write this…twins will consume a lot of your time, and your sleep), Joel Spolsky (whose Joel on Software blog I’ve been a reader of for years), and the rest of the crew at the StackExchange, who StackOverflow is now a part of. From someone whose life you’ve made a bit easier in finding the answers I need, (and who would love to work for your company if you hired remote developers), you have my thanks.