Stack Overflow CEO on how it became the world's most popular programming site

Prashanth Chandrasekar, Stack Overflow's leader, explains how a site that answers developer questions has become the top programmer site and how it's moving from just answering questions to helping educate developers.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
Stack Overflow

If you're a programmer, you already know about Stack Overflow. It's a developer site where questions about all languages and problems are asked and answered. Every programmer uses it and knows jokes about developers who cobble their programs together from Stack Overflow answers.  But, how did it rise to the top? In an interview, Prashanth Chandrasekar, Stack Overflow's CEO, answered this question and many more.

Also: What is Stack Overflow? A forum for all who code

SJVN: So, for my readers who don't know Stack Overflow, can you tell me about the site?

PC: Stack Overflow is so popular because it has about 50 million questions and answers on every possible technology topic. Everything from programming languages like Python to scripting languages like JavaScript to cloud technologies like AWS and so on. 

SJVN: Of course, there's nothing new about answering programming questions. In a way, Stack Overflow is a direct descendant of Usenet group FAQs such as those on comp.lang.c, which began in the 1980s. Since then, there have been other efforts to answer developer questions. But, you are so much more successful than anyone else. How did you do it?

PC:  It's all thanks to the brilliance of our founders, Joel Spolsky, and Jeff Atwood, who created fast, automatic social management tools in 2008. They also brought together a community, and that's where they were really brilliant. 

Also: How a team of developers at Microsoft are helping make Python faster

They enable people to lock in on a subject so that we can equally share the pain. As a former developer, I recognize the pain of writing code. It was extremely painful to wake up in the morning trying to debug your code when you had a close parenthesis missing, and all you had was a textbook in front of you, and that didn't really help. Everybody has been there. Stack Overflow made it easy for developers to help each other. I think this is really the secret sauce. It all came together by making it easy for the community to help each other. The company was a shepherd and established the ground rules, the recognition systems, and the badges. But foundationally, it's the community.

SJVN: That's a very open-source community thought.

PC: True. But, in contrast to other companies, where things are very subjective on forums, discussion boards, and social media sites, we are basically a very objective place. And the way we've done that is through gamification on the platform. That distinction is important because we always acknowledge the right answer, so when programmers need the right answer at the right time in their workflow, they know they can count on us. 

SJVN: So, in 2022, how popular "objectively" is Stack Overflow?

PC: We serve about 100 million monthly visitors worldwide, making us one of the most popular websites in the world. I think we are in the top 50 of all websites in the world by traffic. Over the past 14 years, the site's been accessed about 50 billion times. 

We're so popular because we have about 50 million questions and answers on every possible tech topic. It's all about empowering the world to develop technology through collective knowledge. Another reason we have so many visitors and members is that our public community platform is free and available to everybody worldwide.

SJVN: So, how does Stack Overflow make money since the service is free?

PC: As a function of being a very popular website, we have a thriving ad business. But, we also have a major product line.  That's Stack Overflow for Teams, a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)  business. This is a private version of Stack Overflow that companies use internally to share knowledge and collaborate. It doesn't handle just code questions. It also covers such issues as holidays and vacation policies. It keeps all your internal company information up-to-date, in one place. It's very popular. We have 15,000 customers. That covers everybody, from Microsoft with 100,000 users, to small businesses. While it's a new line, it's already become Stack Overflow's primary revenue driver.

SJVN: Why are people willing to pay for it when they can use the service for free? Is it business intellectual property (IP) issues? 

PC: Exactly. The private version of Stack Overflow is for IP issues. Companies like Microsoft, come to us and say, "hey, you know, we love your public platform and the power of your secret sauce and all of that, but a lot of what we want to share is very proprietary to our company; we'd rather not have this IP floating around."

SJVN: Lately, there's been a lot of talk about programmers being replaced by no-code, low-code, or AI-driven pair programming with GitHub Copilot. Personally, I don't buy it. If you go through all the trouble of describing something, so well, so perfectly to an AI, or a machine learning model that it can then program it, what you've really done with creating that description is writing a program. But, let's hear your take on it.

Also: Low-code and no-code are making developers' jobs better in two ways

PC: Over the years, there have many, many tools, trying to democratize software development. That's a very positive thing. I actually love the fact that programming is becoming easier to do with these onramps. 

I was speaking at Salesforce recently, and they've got people in sales organizations writing workflows, and that's low code. You've got all these folks who are not software engineers that are creating their own automations and applications.

However, there is this trade-off.  If you're making software easier to build, you're sacrificing things like customizability and a deeper understanding of how this code actually works. Back in the day, you might remember Microsoft FrontPage [an early HTML web page editor] as an example of that. You were limited to certain basic things, but you could get web work done. So similarly, these tools will work for general use cases. But, if they do that, without learning the fundamental principles of code, they will inevitably have some sort of a limit. For example, having to fix something that broke, I think they're going to be really dumbfounded.

Still, I think it's important, and I'm a believer. It's a great way to get people engaged, excited, and started. But you got to know what you're building. Access to sites like Stack Overflow help, but with more people learning as they're building, it's essential to make learning resources accessible at every stage of their journey. 

SJVN: It's not just the SalesForces of the world, is it? For example, any bank today not doing significant programming or development work is in trouble. It's really pretty much true of almost any business you can name now. As Marc Andreessen said, "Software is eating the world." But some businesses are still very conservative. They still look for degrees, and they still look for certifications. Is Stack Overflow considering any kind of certification? Particularly, as you just mentioned, since it's so easy now for people to step in and start programming. But then there's that big step from "Yes, I got it to work," but now "I have to maintain it for users using it in ways I never dreamed of."

PC:  "It's very much part of our vision for our company. We see Stack Overflow going from collective knowledge to collective learning. Having all the information is fine and dandy, but are you learning? Now, that we're part of Prosus's edtech division, we're very much looking forward to offering educational opportunities. Just as today, we can get knowledge to developers at the right place and time, we think we can deliver learning at just the right place and time. We believe we can make a huge impact with education and by potentially getting into the certification game. 

Also: Why do 81% of tech employers still require job candidates to have college degrees?

SJVN: Some of the open-source nonprofits are moving into education as well. The Linux Foundation, in particular, has been moving here with the LF Training and Certification programs. Are you exploring that? 

PC: This is very much part of our vision. We have a capability called collectives on Stack Overflow. These enable companies and open-source organizations to build sub-communities. I can't go any deeper into our plans since it's very early days.

SJVN: Interesting! I look forward to hearing more. How do you feel about the state of Stack Overflow today? And, where else may Stack Overflow be going?

PC: We're in a very blessed situation. We see trends before other people see trends, and so we had the ability to really make a big impact. We're extending our services to better cover what people care about. 

We're also in the business of creating great developer experiences, both in terms of the third-party platforms as well as in the context of our website and services. For example, our capabilities can be integrated right within the workflow. It's integrated with GitHub; it's integrated with JIRA; and it's integrated with Slack, and Microsoft Teams

SJVN: Finally, what's hot now on Stack Overflow? What topics are jumping out in the community?

Also: Stack Overflow CTO: From bootstrapped to scaling one of the web's biggest properties

PC: Cloud technical questions have increased substantially, rising probably about 50% year over year over the past 10 years. That's number one. That includes much more, interest in native AWS, Microsoft Azure, and  Google Cloud. Related to this is an increase in interest in containerization and cloud-native services. They've increased by 70%. Docker and Kubernetes, in particular, are not very far from that. 

Blockchain, whether or not you believe in crypto, is hot. Finally, questions around machine learning are up significantly. Open-source compiler languages and frameworks and Python jump out. 

Security is being built into users' workflow. That's an increased concern, for sure. And I think it's happening in the context of DevSecOps

SJVN: Thank you for your time.

PC: Absolutely. Thanks again so much for your thoughtful questions. We'll keep you posted on any announcements that you'll be making on some of the topics.

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