Open Proposal: Companies – get your employees to answer questions on Stack Exchange

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 and I would welcome comments and questions.

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.  Either way I would welcome comments and questions on this.

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  • Brian Van Nieuwenhoven

    1. Yes.

    2. The challenge facing our industry is not a crisis of information but a crisis of leadership. Because our society is going through the same thing. 

    3. I agree there’s a net benefit for participation in a commons knowledge structure for capitalist organizations… but it’s an understatement to say that it’s an extremely hard sell. Companies want staff time to add to their bottom line and have a hard time justifying “bigger picture” investments. They’re often unreasonable about denying the training needs of their workers. (or just merely neglectful in an obtuse way, such as, “Hey, we offer tuition discounts for staff! Sure, we never let them out of the office in time for night classes, but we’ve got a business to run!”) It’s not my intention to use this as a reason to dismiss the proposal… rather, working out various approaches for a solution to this challenge would make for a great discussion. (On Stack Exchange) 

  • dodgy_coder

    The reasons you put forward have a lot of merit but I think to push one particular company’s network of websites would be seen as favoritism … in StackOverflow’s case, although its an awesome resource for .NET devs, there is probably other sites around that may be just as popular in their own tech niche (e.g. C, java, python, etc.). The only way ultimately people will post answers on sites like this is basically for their own reasons and not through some sort of dictatorial edict from management.

  • thedufer

    I’m having trouble following why you think StackOverflow is only for .NET (or even focuses on it).  I understand why you might have a problem with specifying SO instead of just generally tech Q&A sites (I’d argue SO is the best of them, but that’s another discussion).  While C# is the most popular tag, Java, JavaScript, and PHP aren’t far behind, and Python and C are also well-represented.

    Also, while an edict from management may not force people to answer questions, it would give people who do it anyway a specific time block during which to do it, and might open the eyes of people who haven’t tried it.

  • dodgy_coder

    Just my own biased opinion as a .NET dev myself ;-) … I’m not saying other tags are less popular, just that for .NET devs, the alternatives to SO are very thin on the ground … but for other languages this probably isn’t the case. Also I agree btw SO and SE in general is a great platform for Q&A.

    For the record I put together a (highly unscientific) blog post a few weeks back about this very question (i.e. “which languages are over or under represented on SO”) … which you might be interested in… (here …)

  • thedufer

    Interesting post.  I was mostly surprised by your reaction because I have never used .NET, but find uses for SO with every language I do use (Java, Python, C, JavaScript mostly).

  • Toby Osbourn

    I guess it is biased of me to just mention SE sites, but if we assume SE didn’t exist and all the current alternatives did – this post wouldn’t have got written.  I think SE is the first Q&A site to get it right.

    And I think if my proposal was just to spend an hour a week spending time on communities this would be too wishy washy.

  • Toby Osbourn

    Cool post, it was an interesting read.

  • Toby Osbourn

    I think if you work for the right companies it wouldn’t be that hard a sell, but unfortunately those right companies can bit a bit thin on the ground.

  • Matt Thommes

    Good idea. Do you mean just about random concepts the employee is working on? For example, as a programmer of certain software, would the employee answer general programming questions, or specific questions about their software (on SE)? I like the idea of employees expanding their programming knowledge by contributing to any community possible, and it may certainly help employers because it is keeping their employees sharp (that can only benefit the company). I would think most companies (even the most forward-thinking ones) would prefer their employees publish valuable/useful information under the company’s name (in their own forum/site, rather than on a random site) so as to generate some traffic from that, but I see the point regardless.

  • Toby Osbourn

    I think it would be anything in the problem space the employee is working on, so for example if they are a Ruby dev who makes e-commerce widgets, then maybe Ruby questions and e-commerce questions in other languages.
    I think it would be counter productive to try and narrow the subject matter they should focus on, or indeed push them to look at areas too far from their comfort zone, especially if it was only for an hour a week.

    I agree about companies wanting content, heck even I as an individual sometimes think I would rather write a blog post to answer a question rather than give my content away, but what I have seen many people do is tackle the specific question on SE and then go on to write about the general problem on their blog. I mean most people are on SE because Google failed them, so there is probably a gap in the market for a good article on the subject.

  • Rory Alsop

    I would heartily endorse this – I encourage my team, client teams and anyone in the information security industry to get involved. I am a moderator on myself – this is a volunteer role that lets me give something back to the community and industry I work in. The StackExchange structure does let my team carry out research, or learn, or provide guidance to others at any time of day or night, which suits the individuals down to the ground!

  • Toby Osbourn

    Have your team reported any feeling on it? Would be interesting to see.