Contributing to StackOverflow: How Not to be Intimidated.

StackOverflow is an essential resource for programmers. Whether you run into a bizarre and scary error message or you’re blanking on something you should know, StackOverflow comes to the rescue. Its popularity with coders spurred many jokes and memes. (Programming to be Officially Renamed “Googling Stackoverflow,” a satirical headline reads).

While all of us are users of StackOverflow, contributing to this knowledge base can be very intimidating, especially to beginners or to non-traditional coders who many already feel like they don’t belong. The fact that an invisible barrier exists is a bummer because being an active contributor not only can help with your job search and raise your profile, but also make you a better programmer. Explaining technical concepts in an accessible way is difficult. It is also well-established that teaching something solidifies your knowledge of the subject. Answering StackOverflow questions is great practice.

All of the benefits of being an active member of StackOverflow were apparent to me for a while, but I registered an account only this week. Let me walk you through thoughts that hindered me. (Chances are, you’ve had them too!)

But I don’t have any original questions! I often thought “what question could I possibly ask that hasn’t been answered already?” When you’re just starting to learn the basics, all the answers seem to already be out there. However, you won’t always be working with technologies that have been around for years. As soon as you start learning a new framework (usually whatever hot new thing Google or Facebook are doing), your questions start to pile up and StackOverflow is not always there to help you out.

“I’m calling in sick today because Stack Overflow is down.”

I’ve only been coding for X amount of time, I’m not an expert! Who am I to tell people how to write their Javascript? I don’t even know algorithms! There are no questions I can possibly answer! And if I can, then they’ve already been answered by someone who invented the language, right? New frameworks come to the rescue here as well. When a new framework or technology comes out, everyone has the same amount of time to learn it. Which means you can become an expert in Angular 2 or Accelerate Mobile Pages or ES6 even if you have a year of experience in the field. That is at once a democratizing and daunting feature of our field. (It’s a feature not a bug, I’ve been told).

“Copying and Pasting from Stack Overflow” O’Reilly Media Book

So, where does one begin?

Make an account, just do it. The process is easy. Then, go ahead with the tutorial. The site provides a quick guide for the beginner. There is a game-ified aspect to the site, where you do things to get points and unlock certain privileges. If fake internet points motivate you — you’re in business!

Go for the easy wins. Scan the new questions for anything that takes little time to answer. If you’re learning a new framework or technology, search that tag and answer some easy questions that can be answered by looking at the official documentation.

Don’t skip a question just because there is already an answer. Your phrasing may provide the most clarity. You can still get points for your answer even if it’s not the top answer for the question.

Once you get the feel for how the site works, get some points, unlock some privileges you can take a crack at harder questions, dig into someone else’s code and figure out why it isn’t working. Next thing you know, you’re a veteran Stack Overflow contributor.

Hopefully this was enough of an encouragement for you to try it out. Don’t wait until you feel like you know everything in one area, because that day may never come. Realize that you have something of value to contribute right now.

Feel free to tweet me your first StackOverflow question or answer!