I have a proposal that I would like to make to all tech companies or companies with a technical team within them. That is to suggest that employees are required to spend one hour a week on Stack Exchange websites (related to their job role) helping people out with their questions.  The main ones I have listed below, but there are more.

Anyone who has read my previous post on Stack Exchange or has seen one of my tweets on the subject will know I am a big fan of what the network is doing and I that I think there is real value in using the resources they allow. A very brief re-cap of why I think they are useful probably wouldn't go amiss though;

  • You find answers to your questions fast.
  • No wading through rubbish (very high signal to noise ratio in the content)
  • People compete to give you the most correct and complete answer.
  • You can feedback to the community very easily, with little barrier to entry.
  • You can learn a hell of a lot by answering questions and even asking the right questions.
  • They have a site dedicated to Lego! (this isn't a real point)

OK, so that is why I as a developer think the Stack Exchange network is useful, but why do I think that companies should actively encourage their employees to spend time on the sites?

There are several reasons;

  • It will keep your employees sharp - working in the same environment with the same people doing the same tasks can lead to a technical person becoming a bit dull and a bit soft, answering other peoples questions will force them to do a little more thinking outside of their normal problem space.
  • It will break up your employees working week - most technical types I know would thank their bosses for an opportunity to do this and stretch their brain.
  • It will teach your employees new skills - apart from the obvious benefit of learning things by answering, being able to ask and answer questions clearly and concisely is a skill that can be carried forward when dealing with internal issues and when speaking to clients.
  • It will be helping the community - and in return the community will help them (and by extension your company).
  • It lets your employees see what other peoples pain points are - perhaps there is a gap in the market for a tool to solve a particular need? Or perhaps there is a new or different way to use currently existing technologies and skillsets, dealing with other people's problems can help you see these things.
  • You are investing in your employee - this is not only training related directly to the core reason you hired them, but it is also a form of free networking for the employee and by extension, your company.

I think I can pre-empt a few concerns and questions that may arise from reading this proposal, I will attempt to address them here.

Why should we help other people with their problems?
Firstly, because it is the right thing to do but also don't think of it as helping a specific person, think of it as building your employees knowledge base and skill set whilst helping the industy as a whole.

It would be nice, but we don't have time.
If your technical team can't spare an hour a week for training, then you need to either hire more staff or work out some way of reducing the workload on them, I would argue that any person should be able to find one hour a week to dedicate to training and learning.

How can we track that they aren't wasting their time.
If you can't trust your employees enough to think that they would waste this time surfing the web or not doing the tasks assigned to them, you have bigger issues to deal with, far beyond the scope of this article.

Could the employee not get poached by another company if he answers questions so well?
If your employee is good enough that other companies want them, then of course that is a worry - but honestly I would be more worried if you have a staff of people that nobody wanted to poach.

Thank you for reading my short proposal, if you are a developer or some other genre of technical person please consider forwarding this on to others and your management.  If you are in management I would urge you to consider this document and start talking to your staff about this.