Story of StackOverflow.com
Before 2004: Stackoverflow and many other related domains were owned by German company Mozquito Technologies during the late 90s. The owned domains included overflow.de, stackoverflow.com, mozquito.com, mozquito.org and many more.
Mozquito mainly focused on building an engine/wrapper over the newly found XHTML. They aimed to build a suite (if we can call it that) to avoid all plugins by leveraging Java Runtime Environment and new craze XHTML. It tried to sell the ease in building HTML forms with toggle buttons, images that abstracted out complex scripts for its clients.
During 2004 to 2008, the domain was for sale. You could have bought it in $1288 in 2004. It was June of 2008 when the webpage flaunted a cartoon by ScienceCartoonPlus.com with the caption “Wondering what stackoverflow.com will be? Find out, and listen to our podcast, at blog.stackoverflow.com”
On the backend, from January 2008, Fog Creek co-founder, blogger and programmer Joel Spolsky and another programmer & blogger (@CodingHorror) Jeff Atwood had been planning to build something that can serve as a better Q&A forum than existing counterparts like Yahoo Answers!, Expert Exchange, Mahalo Answers and AskVille.
Some of the major problems with these counterparts were ads, sign-up prompts asking for money, bad design/search on the site. Theoretically, a Search engine like Google, Yahoo could have solved the problem but they didn’t have a feedback loop (from other devs) and hence the answers that come up might even be the wrong answers or old answers that don’t work anymore. Moreover, the problems programmers face are pretty rare, and most likely wouldn’t have as many in-links (see PageRank).
Spring 2008: the duo posted their first podcast for http://blog.stackoverflow.com. In the podcast, Atwood and Spolsky announced that they were planning to start a web venture where programmers can get help from one other; touching upon the issue that blog comments scaled up to twenty-ish commenters but when it got to 250 comments signal-to-noise ratio suffers.
There were a lot of interesting topics discussed in the podcast, you can read the transcript here. But the podcast ended with the announcement that their venture was going to be called Stack Overflow. (Jeff had hosted a poll on CodingHorror, and the name was chosen by user voting).
April 2008: the duo hosted a logo design contest on 99designs.com for their website. The “criteria” mentioned by Jeff was pretty hard to satisfy, it looked something like this.
Jeff Atwood (that’s me) of codinghorror.com and Joel Spolsky of joelonsoftware.com are founding a new programming community at stackoverflow.com — but…
What’s your vision?
The word “stackoverflow” with a logo of some kind. I’d like something that has meaning to programmers and non-programmers alike. Clean, simple, memorable.…
The duo had announced the winner would be getting whopping $²⁹. Out of 250+ submissions, Peter Borlarc (pb_design) won the first prize for the above-mentioned design. The runners up got the free licence of TimeSnapper by Leon Bambrick, a software that keeps a journal of your system through automated screenshots.
July 2008: The about page looks something like…
We don’t run Stack Overflow. You do. Stack Overflow is collaboratively built and maintained by your fellow programmers. Once the system learns to trust you, you’ll be able to edit anything, much like Wikipedia. With your help, we can build good answers to every imaginable programming question together. No matter what programming language you use, or what operating system you call home — better programming is our goal.
Stack Overflow is as frictionless and painless to use as we could make it. We believe finding the right answer to your programming questions should be as easy as falling into the pit of success. And maybe even a little fun along the way.
So What? Who cares? Isn’t this just like a dozen other websites?
What’s so special about this? Well, nothing, really. It’s a programming Q&A website. The only unusual thing we do is synthesize aspects of Wikis, Blogs, Forums, and Digg/Reddit in a way that is somewhat original. Or at least we think so.
The page had a footer saying “Using this website may cause irreversible damage to the kidneys and liver” and it redirected it to a then trendy funny Youtube video.
The public beta had feedbacks and bugs being reported at https://stackoverflow.uservoice.com/, eventually, the functionality moved to meta.stackexchange.org.
August 2008: Officially Stackoverflow goes into Private Beta. The public beta launch gets delayed as the last week of August brings few outages that require restarting the server every few hours due to deadlocks in Log4net.
September 2008: Stackoverflow goes to Public Beta. Articles on SharepointUsecases and other sites on technology/languages started bringing small referral traffic as well. Other than some minor backlash (Jeff’s words) about it would end up making programmers dumb (somebody actually created a dedicated blog), the reaction was pretty positive (e.g. GirlDeveloper’s post). Jeff was also very open about the tech-stack of StackOverflow.
October 2008: The complete text search of SQL server has made the website lesser responsive, the notifications feature that keeps checking if there are more answers also doesn’t make it any better. Another server is added.
November 2008: Spolsky writes an article Inc explaining what they’re trying to achieve with StackOverflow.
January 2009: Stackoverflow moves out of Public Beta reaching approximately 40000 users during Public Beta.
March 2009: CodingHorror, JoelOnSoftware, social media websites like Twitter along with tech forums and articles on sites like Inc.com, ITConversations served as tools to get traffic, but search engines helped the organic growth the most. A simple UI, answers accepted/validated by dev community, ease of search, autocomplete search for questions, no ads were major selling points that made the website reach 3M unique visitors (with 85+% from search engines), 50K users with 100K+ Questions with ~90+% of them answered; all with just 2 servers and 4 people! I think you know the story after that.
I‘d really recommend going through the older posts of https://stackoverflow.blog/ if you’re someone that loves a good software evolution story with an insight into features, scale, technology choices as well as the bugs/outages.
References in no particular order:
// This article or story is based on information publicly available, please feel free to correct if any of the details mentioned are incorrect.
P.S. If you have any interesting stories about Software (interesting bug, outage, anecdote or just evolution of software or its architecture) and want to share under this publication, please do not hesitate to reach out! :)