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ENGINEERING

5min read

Building your contribution in Stack Overflow

In the first blog post from mini series about Stack Overflow (SO) and Stack Exchange sites in overall we have introduced general information about SO structure and main functions that are behind its popularity. Now it’s time to find out how to become a valued contributor to the SO community.

Before you set up your account on SO take this tour. I did it myself and I was astonished how useful it is, even for experienced users.

tour

Setting up an account

To be an active user on SO first you have to sign up and then configure your account. If you want to start as a viewer, your activity is limited to browsing questions and answers. However, you have to bear in mind other users can consider this unfair - you benefit from the contribution of others without giving anything in return. You can either sign up using FB or Google + account or do it entirely via SO. Whichever option you choose, it’s recommended to finish off the process. What do I mean by this? You should decide how you want to be remembered on SO. You can go for either avatar or username recognition. Avoid using a random username like user0123456789 – it doesn’t seem to be a trustworthy account. You can additionally fill in the ‘About me’ section and link it to e.g. StackOverflow Careers profile.

Browsing

The next step is to find your particular area of interests: the tags’ database is vast! For example I follow groovy, gradle, spock and xcodebuild tags on a daily basis. From time to time I also check on docker, HTTP and REST categories. Why is it so important? Because SO is heavily used 24h per day and even if you try, it’s not possible to answer or monitor all of the questions being asked. You can also notice that the majority of users are focused on a particular group of tags or even a tag. Here you can find top groovy users, who are at the same time present among top dogs in grails as well as gradle. Avinash Raj is a great example of a user who has gained his fame in the regex category (a single tag focus). Within less than a year he has gathered an impressive amount of points and earned the legendary badge.

Before you get started it’s a good idea to observe the traffic and activity of other users in a particular category. In the meantime you can keep editing questions and answers to improve their quality. Although remember, at the beginning your edits are not approved automatically - other, more experienced users have to verify them. By editing questions you not only gain a better understanding of the site’s structure and functions, but you also actively contribute to the SO community. What’s more, you earn points - for every approved edit you can get 2 points (to be entitled you need to have less than 1000 pts of reputation).

Asking questions

This is what SO was created for. It may seem to be trivial but it’s definitely not. Before you start asking questions I recommend to look over an official SO guidebook. Keep in mind that same questions are not welcome on SO. Avoid asking for recommendations, whether it’s a book, tool, tutorial or any other off-site resource. Such questions are automatically downvoted by other users and closed very quickly. Here is a good example. Therefore remember to stick to the rules otherwise your question may be downvoted, closed and eventually you may be even banned!

Whenever you’re about to post a question follow the golden rule – Imagine You’re Trying To Answer the Question. It should always be clearly defined, so whoever is coming to it fresh can understand it. Yet don’t forget about such trivial things as punctuation, formatting (the question itself as well as code attached to it) and capital letters. SSCCE are welcome on SO, especially when they’re ready to run - have a look at the example by user nap011 - it was a pleasure to answer this question.

Other users may upvote or downvote your question. If the question is considered off-topic, they may vote to close it.

Finally, if your question was answered, remember to verify the content and give the user appropriate feedback:

  • either accept the answer or,
  • upvote it or,
  • downvote it (with an appropriate explanation) or,
  • leave a comment.

For some users scoring points is the most important part of being an active user. Therefore you should always remember to assign points to the right answer, even if it’s not your question. In case the given answer didn’t meet your expectations you should explain why.

Answering questions

Just like there are certain rules behind crafting questions, there are for providing the answers. They should be as comprehensive as possible and exemplified. Go to SO Help Center to see what’s the pattern. Don’t practice link-only answers as these are considered poor and are discouraged on SO. Why? It shows that someone doesn’t put enough effort in answering the question yet link without a quote can be impossible to find eventually.

If it happens that your provided answer hasn’t been approved for a while, it’s ok to ask for confirmation. Other users should value the time you put in. Furthermore, an accepted answer indicates that the offered solution has worked and can be a useful source of information.

If your main goal is to score points, then the best way to achieve it is to be the first in providing a correct answer. Remember though: there are many users who follow particular categories and you are not the only one who knows the answer. Another tip is to add an answer quickly and then keep improving by editing.

Last but not least remember that SO is a place where (even it’s a virtual world) people meet. They are here with the intention of helping each other solve (sometimes very difficult) problems and share their precious knowledge. Therefore be polite and patient and use your empathy to understand other users actions before making a move.

Stay with us!

So you already know how Stack Overflow works what are its perks and how to become a valued contributor. In next blog post Maciej will cover the point system and will talk more about badges and privileges.

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MaciejSenior Software Engineer

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