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The Real Reason Why Stack Overflow Became A Raging Success!

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Boasting of 560mn pageviews, Stack Overflow is one of the 173 programming Q&A communities on Stack Exchange with 4mn users and 40mn answers! Stack Overflow is literally brimming with content for developers!

As a marketer, I am eternally curious about how the successful companies of today, gained ‘the edge’ when they started. Now that’s the treasure trove of learning - the period of struggle, mistakes, and discovery. Stack Overflow was one of the companies I googled… And it yielded some really interesting information!

It is worth mentioning that building and scaling an online community is a tricky business. The challenges are unique. The bigger a forum gets, the greater are the hurdles - controlling the quality of content being shared, keeping out spam, ensuring equal participation, sorting high-quality material from the chaff, and making sure that anarchy doesn’t rear its ugly head!

Naturally, the question arises… How did Stack Overflow gain traction in a business that’s characterised mainly by optimising user experience?

The consensus seemed to revolve around the popularity of the founders - Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood have both devoted a considerable amount of time to their craft. They’d used their reputation in the developers’ circles to spread the word about their new venture, and managed to strike gold! And honestly, that did sound like a plausible answer to my questions.

That was, of course, until I remembered having subscribed to get updates from Joel’s blog ‘Joel On Software’ about 5 years ago. I remembered a few emails that spoke extensively about Stack Overflow’s genesis. I revisited them… and found that the true reason for Stack Overflow’s success was hiding in plain sight!

Stack Overflow Saw The ‘Problem’ As An ‘Opportunity’…

Adage. Right. Hear me out…

Before Stack Overflow, Experts Exchange was the first go-to forum for programmers. Despite having faced bankruptcy in 2001, they managed to resurrect their business under new owners - albeit, with a few problems.

  • Users were charged to read the answers. Most of them would look for answers on Google, which would very often lead them to Experts Exchange. You may ask why? Experts Exchange did try a trick; it’d show the Googlebot the entire question and answers, but a regular visitor would just find scrambled answers, with instructions to pay to see the required results! Not a great experience, you’d say.

  • Second, answering a certain number of questions would entail a free membership - some of those who went on an answering spree weren’t exactly the best of their lot, thereby leading to a drop in the quality.

The iron was hot… Joel And Jeff simply chose to strike it!

It wasn’t just the fact that they were known faces in the programming world that led to Stack Overflow being what it is. Like all other programmers, they encountered a problem, but decided to do something about it!

In this case, developers wanted a free, quality resource where they could get the appropriate answers to their programming questions… and share their knowledge too!

Stack Overflow addressed these problems head on. Not only did they provide a free forum, but they also equipped it with a few additional trimmings.

  • They combined the Q&A site with job listings.

  • They provide incentives to answer questions - the more you answered, and the more your answers were upvoted, you gained reputation and consequently, certain moderation privileges.

  • They did not bunch the Java and C++ programmers together, and simply asked them to tag their questions a la Flickr.

  • To ensure that they were equally welcoming of newbies, as of seasoned programmers, they encouraged the philosophy of ‘doing your homework before posing a question’!

In simpler words, they hit the proverbial ‘sweet spot’ - the gap between what the developers wanted and what they were actually getting!

Stack Overflow, in plain simple words, took the bull by the horns, benefited from the opportunity… And left some valuable lessons for product managers and marketers!

  • Look for problems - the gap between expectations and available solutions. User needs evolve, and products must address the new problems arising from this evolution.

  • Is everybody else also facing the same problem? - (No, you don’t need to conduct a Total Addressable Market study!)


  • Focus on improving user experience - using gamification.

It’s no surprise that users wanted to replicate the model and build other Q&A forums… curiosity is not just limited to developers, right?

The Birth Of The Stack Exchange…

Stack Overflow’s popularity led to users wanting to create similar Q&A sites addressing other topics. That’s how Stack Exchange was born - a network of sites, including Stack Overflow, dedicated to versatile fields like Technology, Culture/Recreation, Life/Arts, Science, Professional and Business.

Is Stack Exchange Different From Stack Overflow?

Well… yes, and no. Stack Overflow is a part of Stack Exchange!

Stack Exchange comprises of sites built on the same lines as Stack Overflow. These sites address specific topics, in the same way that Stack Overflow helps developers!

Here’s what the Stack Exchange network looks like!

Stack Exchange continues to grow, with 3 to 4 new sites added to the network every month!

Want to contribute to this ever growing community? Fasten your seatbelts, and head to Area 51!

Expanding The Network At Area 51…

No, we aren’t talking about crashed UFOs or a secret base for testing new aviation technology!

Area 51 is where groups of experts come together to build Q&A sites that work just like Stack Overflow. You can either propose new sites, or simply contribute to the betterment of sites!

Once a site is proposed, it undergoes several phases of contemplation and testing

  • Interested parties propose and discuss sample questions to define what the site is — and is not — about.

  • Users are asked to commit to participate in the site to assure that the site will have enough participation.

  • The site is launched for a beta period to seed it with questions, develop the FAQ, appoint temporary moderators, and refine its design.

  • If a site reaches critical mass, it becomes a full member of the Stack Exchange Network.

For detailed answers to your questions, visit the Area 51 FAQ!

So, it’s got what it takes to be successful… AND it’s free!

But wait… how does Stack Overflow make money?

Makes Stack Overflow A Profitable Business…

Stack Overflow helps companies build their brands and hire technical talent using their business products - Talent (for employers), Engagement (for marketers) and Enterprise (for internal teams).

“These services help the participating developers find better jobs and also learn about companies in non-invasive ways!

Stack Overflow aims to provide value by matching developer skills to a company’s specific requirements, and improve the hiring process.

Another source of revenue is their Ads solution. This includes house ads (ads for the sites on the network) and community ads (voted on by the community).

Stack Overflow continues to grow, keeping in tune with its philosophy of ‘solving problems’.

Recently, it launched whole new platform ‘Stack Overflow for Teams’ enabling development teams of any size to look for answers, without disrupting their workflow!

An intuitive, searchable resource where answers are editable and crowdsourced, Teams promises to replace the internal wikis and documentation that are prone to becoming outdated, and messaging platforms that make it impossible to rediscover information.

Given the exponential expansion of its bandwidth, I find my curiosity being piqued yet again… what must Stack Overflow’s tech stack look like?

What Does It Take To Run Stack Overflow?

I mean, look at the traffic it gets every second… (Stack Overflow’s load balancer received 209,420,973 HTTP requests per month, back in 2016). It must need an incredible armoury of technologies to sustain that kind of activity!

Nick Craver, Software Developer and Systems Administrator, Stack Exchange, explains the architecture in detail.

It’s evident that Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange will continue to broaden their horizons, as they focus on solving problems and ensuring a smooth user experience. Much like how technology stacks strengthen the software, Stack Overflow promises to be the key to unlock new opportunities for developers and employers alike!

P.S. Every year, Stack Overflow conducts a survey to take the pulse of the programming ecosystem. The questions asked to the developer community range from their favourite technologies, to the kinds of jobs they are looking for!

You can find the results for this year, here!

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