Monday, December 14, 2015

A Study of Stack Overflow Careers

Lei Xu et al. (PDF, via Tyler Cowen):

Many online platforms such as Yahoo! Answers and GitHub rely on users to voluntarily provide content. What motivates users to contribute content for free however is not well understood. In this paper, we use a revealed preference approach to show that career concerns play an important role in user contributions to Stack Overflow, the largest online Q&A community. We investigate how activities that can enhance a user’s reputation vary before and after the user finds a new job. We contrast this with activities that do not help in enhancing a user’s reputation. After finding a new job, users contribute 25% less in reputation-generating activity on Stack Overflow. By contrast, they reduce their non-reputation-generating activity by only 8% after finding a new job. These findings suggest that users contribute to Stack Overflow in part because they perceive this as a way to improve future employment prospects. We provide direct evidence against alternative explanations such as integer constraints, skills mismatch, and dynamic selection effects. The results also suggest that, beyond altruism, career concerns play an important role in explaining voluntary contributions on Stack Overflow.

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Interesting. I don't think that's necessarily evil or anything, but it is a shame, if true. You should, I think, feel some sort of civic responsibility to give back to the site whose collective knowledge is very likely making you more successful in your job than you could have possibly been ten years ago. I mean, honestly, how many Jon Skeet answers have taught me something insanely arcane about .NET that I would have never stumbled into without the site?

At the same time, I can think of a few reasons why this might happen that aren't as idealistically disappointing as feeling the site boils down to a giant portfolio for most people. When you take a new job, you obviously likely move away from a codebase, maybe even an entire stack, that you're familiar with, which moves you from a position of knowledge mastery back to one of a beginner. And that doesn't necessarily translate into asking more questions. Usually, esp. in a new stack, your questions are pretty common, almost API-lookup ones.

I like to think I can get up to speed on most serious codebases in 2-3 months, and that's probably true-ish, but even then you've got those rare outliers in enterprise solutions (it was QueryOver in my last major new codebase) that you might not get to for a year or more, even when stack use is relatively consistent.

Interesting catch & article; thanks. I need to go read the "real" study...

In addition to the point Ruffin mentions (that people move from master to beginner when switching jobs, and thus are less likely to answer questions in their current area of interest), maybe people simply have less time to answer questions on Stack Overflow when they start a new job, have to get to know a ton of new people, have to go through training and meetings and all of the onboarding stuff, and have to get up and running in a new code base.

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