Being user 137 on StackOverflow

It’s funny how SO has become such a big part of our lives as developers.

It’s doubly fascinating for me, because I was there at the birth. Back in 2007 I followed Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky’s blogs eagerly; Spolsky, of course, had been an influential tech blogger for many years and reached massive fame for three things; firstly, his company Fog Creek’s popular bug tracker Fogbugz, which many dev teams used routinely. Secondly, Fog Creek’s innovative approach to programmer happiness, like ensuring that every developer had their own office with a door that closes! And thirdly, for the Joel Test, still widely used as a quick objective metric of the quality of a developer team and their processes.

And Atwood? Atwood was always a delightful read; opinionated and funny, and self-deprecating in a way I wish more developers were. His Coding Horror logo, used by permission from Steve McConnell of Code Complete fame, reminds everyone that there is bad code everywhere and much of it is our own; but now we know and try to do better!

So when these two towering figures in the community joined forces and announced they were going to collaborate on a project, of course my ears pricked up. The best thing was, they were going to podcast their weekly project update meetings, since Joel lived in New York and Jeff in California.

Jeff was doing the hands-on work, and for the first few months of the podcast it was hilarious how his estimating (“Oh, 12 to 13 weeks I expect”) style grated with Joel. Of course it took way longer than Jeff thought, but the best bit was seeing the vision unfold; the StackOverflow we see today is not that much changed from how it was after the first six months of work, and we got to experience the decision making process first hand, understanding exactly what lay behind every design decision.

And of course, they were very, very funny to listen to.

When Jeff sent out the first invitations to the Beta, I immediately signed onto the waiting list. And a couple of days later, I got my invite. It felt really special, being one of this elite group of developers from all different disciplines – all collaborating on something to benefit every developer for ever.

So I’m user 137 on StackOverflow. They’re up to over five million now and rising. In the beginning we didn’t have the rules for good questions we have now; we discovered the later rules out of how people used the product and in particular, through Jeff’s excellent judgement about what was beneficial and what was not. We found out pretty early on that questions that solicited lists or subjective judgements were harmful and now such questions are rightly discouraged as low-brow attempts at rep-whoring.

But in the earliest days, I had one goal in mind: to get editing rights, so I could help to improve the questions I saw that needed it and help to curate and preserve this vital body of developer knowledge. And that meant I needed 3,000 reputation, and I did everything I could to earn it while still asking questions that I thought were useful to people.

It took me a while to get there but in a few months I had achieved a reasonable level of editing power and I was content. Real work took me all my time and as thousands of developers began to compete to post the best, quickest answers my useful participations quickly tailed off.

But over the years, those questions from the early days still continue to earn me reputation despite my relative inactivity on the platform. My rep is over 13,000 and it’s all from questions that would never be allowed now. But I’m kind of glad they’re there – they’re part of the social anthropology of the web, and even if they aren’t good questions, every week they’re upvoted by people who don’t know any better but still value them.

So it’s kind of tough now being user 137 – I feel a bit of a fraud because my rep comes from early experiments and earnest rep-whoring of the most well-meaning sort. But I’d never give it up.

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