5 Things I Learned from 5 Years of Stack Overflow

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I have a deep appreciation for Stack Overflow. Stack Overflow helped me start my career at SendGrid. In mid 2011, I applied for the role of Developer Evangelist. After a phone screen or two, I took a look at SO and found a SendGrid-related question. I learned enough about SendGrid to answer the question. Over the next few weeks, I answered three more SendGrid questions. I got the job and I’ve been helping keep the SendGrid tag on Stack Overflow clean since then.

This year we reached a milestone. In early August we passed 1,000 total questions tagged SendGrid. In the course of helping to keep up with the questions, I have learned a few things and seen some patterns emerge.

5 Takeaways

1. Visibility helps drive action. Our Stack Overflow participation increased when we added notifications to our chat rooms. You can find RSS feeds on Stack Overflow for any combination of tags. We use Zapier to post to HipChat when a new item appears in the RSS feed for SendGrid questions.

2. You can’t “manage” a community on Stack Overflow. There’s no easy way to broadcast messages to participants on a given tag. Participants range from people who ask a question and disappear to heroes who answer questions. It’s less like tending a garden and more like planting trees along a road.

3. Look for patterns in questions. There are two types of questions that I encounter most often. First are questions that arise because documentation is not clear or doesn’t exist. This shows gaps in knowledge and coverage to address. Next are questions that arise because information exists but is not understood or accessible. These are more indicative of UX or workflow problems. Pay attention to these signals and look for patterns in questions. They can provide good insight into product gaps. Related tags show which technologies people are using with your product most often.

4. Asking people to take part on Stack Overflow doesn’t work. As great as a platform as SO is, there are barriers to entry. It’s not always friendly towards beginners. There are lots of rules and social pressures. If there’s a relevant answer on SO, linking a customer to it can be helpful. But don’t ask a customer (especially a frustrated one) to post a question of their own.

5. Be patient. It’s a thankless job, most of the time. I’ve posted about 100 answers to SendGrid questions and have had around 40 of them accepted. About the same amount have 0 upvotes. People don’t accept correct answers and there’s no mechanism to force accepted answers. It’s a tough crowd. As with Customer Service, many people will be antagonistic even when you’re helping them. They’re frustrated and sometimes use Stack Overflow as a last resort. Be as patient and kind as you can, and remember that others may benefit from a question asked by an ungrateful person. Even though I’ve answered only 152 questions, SO says I’ve reached 136,000 people.

There’s a lot of value in keeping tabs on Stack Overflow if you have a developer-focused product. But don’t worry too much about having an active strategy around it. Make it visible, encourage participation, and invest a little time in it when you can. Review metadata such as most viewed questions and related tags a couple times a year. Use any interesting things you find to help validate your product roadmap. Much the of value will emerge in the long term.


Brandon West
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As Director of Developer Relations for SendGrid, Brandon's focus is on empowering developers to build things, gathering feedback for new features and improvements, and fostering a cooperative developer community for anything that needs email integration.
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