Sometimes I wonder where we would be without Stack Overflow. I also wonder how many truly remember the days before it existed. People see old, poorly designed software forums and think, “Ick!” Today, you’re not one of those people. Today, you’re one of the people who remember when there weren’t any software forums at all.
No Stack Overflow. No software forums. No Internet.
Microsoft Developer Network
Back in the day, some guys made a small business at University over the control of information. You’d seem ‘em around campus, strolling around the engineering buildings…
“Pssst. Hey my man! I got MSDN Library and Visual Studio 2000. Yours for only $5 dollars.” Boom - That’s your ticket to a superior IDE and faster homework completion, so you can’t say no.
CD ROMs. We carried the precursors to forums and Stack Overflow on physical disks - and we were happy for them too. How crazy is that?
Then we graduated.
If you were heavy into C++ and worked at an established company, you probably had access to an MSDN Subscription. Which means you could load code use “examples” into your Visual Studio IDE. And when I say, “examples” I mean that loosely.
The answers were typically academic. But it was more that it…
Over the years, as developers, we’ve come to develop a certain cultural ethos. An ethos built of principle of exploration and growth and progress. An ethos that self-directs those committed to the craft towards stronger and stronger skill development. I like to think about it as Technological Darwinism and the best of us have come to frequent places like Stack Overflow and others as a sort of modern day medieval tavern.
Only our drink is not of spirit or ale, but of knowledge. In the end, we’ve developed a hive mind as such. One of which the answers we seek seem like questions we would’ve asked ourselves. Because we have. Countless times across countless cubes and continents.
And when your time comes, it is as if the answers wait for you. At the rate of thousands upon thousands, developers ask the very questions they themselves would ask. The answers of which are forever memorialized and freely distributed for the next wave of developer synaptic activity.
That’s the fundamental difference between Stack Overflow and what came before it. With Stack Overflow, you felt like “you” had asked the question yourself. In all that came before it, it felt like “they” had no idea even what to ask.
And then there was Stack Overflow
Before Stack Overflow, documentation wasn’t born of real world scenarios and pain points. So there was never an answer to the question “you” had. Just some brisk points on what “some guy” thought was a cool exposition. Or some vague reference to some static documentarian to check “over there”.
Real world examples. Real world answers. Accessible and freely distributed. That changed everything. In fact, I fundamentally believe that changed our entire profession all together.
I mean, think about it.
What other profession lives and breathes its craft like developers do? Do accountants go home at night and think about Tax Law. Do lawyers gather every few months to speak and meetup at Code Camps and Conferences? Do health inspectors spend weekends trying to analyze the best refrigerator temperature? I doubt it…
It was our free dissemination of information and with it knowledge that bound us as a community, irrespective of individual ambition. And with it a zeitgeist was born, a developer zeitgeist.
And isn’t that what makes places like Stack Overflow and Code Project so addictive. It’s not that you’ve found the answers you seek, it’s that you’ve found yourself.
The CD ROMs and MSDNs and forums were never our voices. They weren’t from our breath of experience. They did not breathe life into our experience.
Stack Overflow is our voice. It brought meaning to our experience.