For a year and a half I’ve been helping solve problems, write samples and clarifying questions to make them easier to answer. It’s not my day job and it doesn’t even pay peanuts. It pays me in something even less tangible … internet points!
As you might have guessed the “job” is as one of the millions of contributors to StackOverflow (you can find me there as offbeatmammal as usual) and the “internet points” are a combination of reputation points bestowed (and taken away) by the community and badges awarded by the site.
The question that I keep asking myself though is “why?” Given that for most of my career I’ve worked writing code, solving problems and helping others write code… why would I choose to spend my free time on a site like StackOverflow?
I can’t explain why others do – and looking at their profiles and their reputation, they spend a serious amount of time there. For me it comes down to two things.
The first is probably the most obvious. It encourages me to keep active, to keep learning and to stay current. While my usual fodder is HTML5 and Video related questions I started out on Classic ASP. I also touch on more general Android and AWS as well as AppEngine and Chrome extensions. The great thing is for a lot of these I have to write samples and clarify my own thinking before I answer so it forces me to think and improve.
The second is harder to explain. It is the lure of the kudos you get for having the right answer, receiving an up-vote or a tick for a helpful comment. It is the feeling of achievement you get from earning a badge (my personal favorites are my gold “Unsung Hero” and silver “Necromancer” – even the names are emotive). Slaving hard to answer a complicated question and never hearing back from the questioner is frustrating, but not enough to drive me away. It just encourages me to be more friendly in my answer in the hope of engaging them. The pain of getting a down-vote is out of all proportion to it’s real world value, but again it makes you a harsh critic of your own responses before you hit “post”.
Of course there is another benefit – your StackOverflow profile is a mini, living CV. It shows others how you approach problem solving, and how you interact with strangers. It shows how well you research a question before you ask it, or you you approach solving something with often very little context. It also lets you demonstrate interests or skills that lie outside your day job. Like a GitHub profile it can give that extra little clue about you to back up a traditional CV.
While I joked that I will work for internet points, back in meatspace it can help connect you to more tangible currency!