Modern community building

The Stack Exchange network is already up to 51 sites on diverse topics, from math to cooking to science fiction. Each site is a community on its own, and each community has its own needs and values. Pouring a big fat algorithm in equal measures on top of 51 different groups of people does not always work the way you might hope it would work. Maybe that’s why the super-algorithm companies (like Google) tend to suck when they try to build social applications.

Our goal as a company is to incubate each of these 51 communities—to get them to critical mass. Critical mass is that magic moment when the community has enough activity that it grows by itself.

Building communities on the Internet is a new kind of profession. There are an awful lot of technology companies, founded by programmers, who think they are building communities on the Internet, but they’re really just building software and wondering why the community doesn’t magically show up.

Stack Exchange is trying really hard not to suck at building communities. I would say we’re earning a solid B so far, but we’re working really hard at learning… doing little experiments and getting early results. And one thing we noticed is that the pure, algorithmic approach can’t possibly work for different communities: you need a political/social approach. That is, you need smart human beings to use smart human judgment and cultivate each community individually.

Or, to use a metaphor that has been on my mind, you can’t use a robot to train a puppy. Every puppy is different.

With 51 communities and a new one opening almost every week, our small team of four community managers are doing a great job but they just don’t have the bandwidth to help cultivate every site. So we depend on the most active, enthusiastic users to promote their own communities and help them flourish. But these users are usually domain experts, not community organization experts.

So what I plan to do is build a team of super-evangelists here at Stack Exchange to serve as backup. Sort of like Lady Gaga’s backup dancers, but probably without as many muscles, they are not onstage to lead; they’re there to fill up the stage with more hotness than one person can provide.

This job will be sort of like being a community organizer at a non-profit. It combines elements of marketing, PR, and sales, but it’s really something different. I don’t expect that there are a lot of people out there who already kn0w how to do this well, so I’m going to train them, personally. Not that I know how to do this, but we’ll learn together. Every workday is going to start with a huddle at 9am and a plan for the day’s activities and an intensive six hours of work. Every workday is going to end with an hour of learning… reading Kawasaki and Godin and Ries and Trout, talking with invited experts, meeting with members of the community about what worked and what didn’t worked. Everyone who joins the program (and survives for a year) will come out with an almost supernatural ability to take a dead, lifeless site on the internet and make it into the hottest bar in town. That’s a skill worth learning for the 21st century.

If you or someone you know is enthusiastic, energetic, super-outgoing (a social connector), a great communicator (capable of sending 50 personal emails in an afternoon), with some training in psychology, political science, economics, philosophy, or the humanities in general, and you’re looking for an alternative to a dead-end mailroom job at a PR agency, this is a rare opportunity… please apply.

Help us organize the next Stack Overflow conference

We’re working on a series of two-day Stack Overflow conferences for the fall:

“What’s this conference about? The idea for the original DevDays was to have high-bandwidth, intensive introductions to a wide variety of new technologies… the kinds of technologies that everybody wants to learn but doesn’t necessarily need to use on a project right now. Last time, it was things like iPhone development, Python, jQuery, Google AppEngine, etc. This year, we’re asking you. So far, there’s a lot of interest in DVCS, HTML5, and Node.js.”

 

Lunch

What do you do for lunch every day? Where do you eat it? With whom?

I’ve been on teams that eat together every day, and it’s awesome. I’ve been on teams that don’t, and lunch every day is, at best, lonely.

A lot of big tech companies have cafeterias, either free (Google) or cheap (Microsoft). At these companies, some teams actually make an effort to eat together every day. But a lot of teams don’t. If you wander around these places at lunchtime, you’ll see some large groups, a lot of pairs of people who have scheduled a “lunch meeting,” but you’ll also see a distressing number of loners eating by themselves. Maybe they’re reading a book or checking their email while they eat so they don’t look sad. Maybe they took their lunch back to their desk so they wouldn’t have to sit in the cafeteria by themselves. Maybe they genuinely don’t like people and they’re happy to eat alone. Or maybe they’re just telling you that.

At Google and Microsoft, the cafeterias can get so crowded that the loners really have to sit with other groups because there isn’t enough room to sit at a table by themselves. Occasionally, the group they sit down with makes an effort to include the loner in their conversation. More often, the loner is obligated to pretend to be utterly engrossed in playing Farmbook on their smartphone, so as to provide a pretext to avoid having to make social contact. Excuse me, I’d love to introduce myself to you, but it’s very important that I update my cabbage.

Where and with whom we eat lunch is a much bigger deal than most people care to admit. Obviously, psychologists will tell us, obviously it goes back to childhood, and especially school, particularly Junior High, where who you eat with is of monumental importance. Being in any clique, even if it’s just the nerds, is vastly preferable than eating alone. For loners and geeks, finding people to eat with in the cafeteria at school can be a huge source of stress.

The importance of eating together with your co-workers is not negotiable, to me. It’s too important to be left to chance. That’s why we eat together at long tables, not a bunch of little round tables. That’s why when new people start work at the company, they’re not allowed to sit off by themselves in a corner. When we have visitors, they eat together with everyone else.

Even though Stack Exchange and Fog Creek are completely separate companies, we take advantage of the fact that our offices are in the same building to eat together every day. I’m glad that we have a chance to do this, even though a lot of people tend to clique-up and sit with the same people day after day.

There’s a lot of stuff that’s accidental about Fog Creek and Stack Exchange, but lunch is not one of them. Ten years ago Michael and I set out with the rather ambitious goal of making a great place to work. Eating together is a critical part of what it means to be human and what it means to have a humane workplace, and that’s been a part of our values from day one.

The podcast is back!

Jeff Atwood and I have resumed our weekly podcast, formerly known as the Stack Overflow Podcast, now known as the Stack Exchange Podcast!

Here are some ways to find us:

Special thanks to Special Agent Alex Miller, who is, in his spare time, the new producer of the podcast. We’ll be making lots of technical improvements to the podcast over the next couple of months, so stay tuned… it’ll be really fun.

Careers 2.0 (by Stack Overflow)

One day, you’ll be telling your grandchildren about getting a programming job, version 1.0. You would send a “resume” to a “recruiter.” It included all kinds of silly information required by the esoteric resume ritual (foreign languages spoken, whether or not you play ultimate Frisbee, Microsoft-veteran status). This so-called “information” was utterly useless at determining whether you could program or not, but if you spelled everything right and used suitable fonts, you could come in for a day of interviews at which you would be asked to perform mundane programming tasks on a whiteboard.

Careers 2.0 is here!

Does your employer own your side projects?

There’s a surprising amount of misinformation out there about whether software companies own the work that a programmer does in their spare time.

From my answer to the question on answers.onstartups.com:

Being an employee of a high tech company whose product is intellectual means that you have decided that you want to sell your intellectual output.

Read the whole thing here:

If I’m working at a company, do they have intellectual property rights to the stuff I do in my spare time?

FogBugz/Kiln Demo

If you weren’t able to make it to the FogBugz/Kiln world tour, a video of my presentation is up now on YouTube.

(If you have a high bandwidth connection, try the “720p” option, which shows the screen more clearly.)

Stack Overflow 2010 recap

(reposted from the Stack Overflow blog)

2010 was an absolutely amazing year here at Stack Overflow. We grew from 7 million visitors to over 16 million, putting us in Quantcast’s top 400. We raised $6 million in venture capital, and we went from three full time employees to 27. We built a 7500 square foot office in New York, and we launched a ton of new features and sites, like Stack Exchange, a network of 33 Q&A sites on diverse topics from cooking to computer science. Stack Exchange grew 51% in December alone. Wow.

The expert Q&A model that Stack Overflow pioneered is really working. The statistic I’m proudest of is the percentage of questions that get a good answer, over 80% (and many of the new Stack Exchange sites have 100% answer rates!)

Traffic

The true measure of success for any Internet company is how often people come up to me in swank hotel lobbies and offer to buy me meals, let me use their corporate jet, etc. But since there is a great deal of disagreement as to how to measure that, we track a reasonable proxy called “eyeballs,” on the theory that if a site is useful, people will load it up in their browsers and eyeball it.

Traffic graph for Stack Overflow 2011

Traffic to Stack Overflow grew 131% in 2010, to 16.6 million global monthly uniques. *Uniques* are counted by cookies, so the number of human beings is less. We also measure the number of page views (top level pages loaded, which doesn’t count images and supporting files), which has similarly grown from 31.8 million per month to 72.8 million per month, i.e. 129% growth.

Based on the number of people who do come up to us in hotel lobbies, we’re pretty sure that ALL the programmers in the world use Stack Overflow. (Source: completely made up. But seriously, when was the last time you met a programmer who didn’t use “El Stack”?) In order to keep growing and making the Internet more awesome, we have to expand into new subject areas, like Molecular Biology and Harley Davidson Belt Buckles. That’s what Stack Exchange is all about. Stack Exchange growth is insane. In six short months, we’ve gone from zero to 1.5 million monthly visitors, growing 51% in December.

2011 Traffic stats for Stack Exchange network - unique visitors

Scene from Office SpaceIf, as planned, we continue growing at 51% a month, we will be bigger than Facebook in 15 months. We’re ALREADY bigger than ocn.ne.jp (No, I’ve never heard of that either. But we’re bigger). Jeff and I are already planning who will play us in the Aaron Sorkin movie. (Tyler Labine and Zac Efron, obviously.)

Now, obviously, all this TRAFFIC isn’t worth a thing if people aren’t getting answers to their questions. That’s why our favorite thing to measure is “percent of questions answered.” And not just any answer will do, either: to count a question as “answered”, either the original poster has to accept the answer, or a third party has to upvote the answer. This is where Stack Overflow really shines compared to other Q&A sites: we actually get questions answered. Three of our sites actually have 100% answer rates!

Chart of percent of questions answered for each site

New Sites

Last summer, we relaunched Stack Exchange as a democratically-driven network of sites on topics chosen by our users. Some of these sites are directly related to programming (for example, Game Development), but some are quite far afield, from English Language toCooking.

Screenshots of some new Stack Exchange sites

We call it the Stack Exchange network, and at StackExchange.com you’ll find a directory of all of them, along with some hot questions, statistics, leaderboards, and other tools so that you can follow the sites and tags that you’re interested in.

We learned a long time ago that the only way to get questions answered promptly is to have a critical mass of knowledgeable users, so we have an onerous process called Area 51 where sites are proposed, discussed, and voted on. If a proposed site doesn’t have critical mass, we just won’t create it. Even if it does get created, it has to maintain a certain level of traffic and quality or we’ll close it down.

So far, 13 sites have gone all the way through the Area 51 process and launched. Dozens more are already in beta. Hundreds more are in active discussion and will launch when they reach a critical mass of interested participants.

The development team has been knocking out new features at a constant pace. They built an amazing web-based chat system, and we’ve added literally hundreds of new features and improvements to the core Stack Overflow engine which we roll out continuously.

The Company

At the beginning of the year, Stack Overflow LLC was just three developers working from home. In the spring, we raised $6 million in venture capital from Union Square Ventures and a long list of celebrity angel investors, which allowed us to expand rapidly. We hired a team of great people, including several of the high-reputation users that you know from Stack Overflow.

the Stack Overflow team - portraits

We now have community managers, a sales team, two full time system administrators, and Very Important Administrative Overhead like myself, but most importantly, we have a great team of developers, in New York and around the world, building the next generation of cool features, like the important “wheel of blame” feature, which we can run at any time to calculate precisely who is responsible for anything that went wrong. (Contrary to popular belief, it’s not always Jason Punyon.)

To make room for all these people, or, at least, those who live in New York, we rented a 7500 square foot, class A, super-elite batcave in New York and then fixed it up to be nice, with cool furniture including Aeron chairs and height-adjustable desks, and lots of glass to bring views and daylight deep into the batcave. And of course, we have private offices with a half dozen gigantic 453-inch monitors for each developer. And there’s an amazingly cool Star Trek couch. Does your company have a Star Trek Couch? *I didn’t think so.* We also have Rovio, a little robot that our remote developers can use to visit the office “virtually.” (There. I said “virtually.” Are you happy now?)

Floorplan of Stack Overflow office

Overall 2010 has been a real breakout year for Stack Overflow, which is now the largest programmer website in the world (source: me) and the best, fastest-growing Q&A website in the world (source: also me). We’ve got an incredible team firing on all cylinders, so we’re really looking forward to 2011.