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Programming

Interviews: Ask Stack Overflow Co-Founder Jeff Atwood a Question 129

Jeff Atwood is an author, entrepreneur, and software developer. He runs the popular programming blog Coding Horror and is the co-founder of Stack Overflow and the Stack Exchange Network. In early 2012 he decided to leave Stack Exchange so he could spend more time with his family. A year later he announced his new company the Civilized Discourse Construction Kit, Inc. and the Discourse open-source discussion platform which aims to improve conversations on the internet. Jeff has agreed to give some of his time to answer any questions you may have. As usual, ask as many as you'd like, but please, one question per post.
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Interviews: Ask Stack Overflow Co-Founder Jeff Atwood a Question

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  • by greenwow ( 3635575 ) on Wednesday November 11, 2015 @03:07PM (#50910009)

    What is the root password for the majority of your systems?

    • I don't even know my password to stackexchange.

      But given that their policy requires a mixture of uppercase and lowercase in a ratio between 2:3 and 3:4, 7 digits, all different, that can't be found in the ascii representation of any of the aforementioned, two punctuation marks, one Cyrillic or Greek letter and some valid morse code it's hardly surprising.

    • by creimer ( 824291 )
      When Windows NT ruled the roost, the admin password was "hockey" at several Silicon Valley companies I worked at. I guess the administrators were San Jose Shark fans. If the admin password wasn't "hockey," it was almost always "password."
  • Magic wand (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 11, 2015 @03:20PM (#50910099)

    If you had a magic wand to make one change in technology right now, what would it be?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 11, 2015 @03:35PM (#50910191)

    comes directly from search engines, vs. people who log in to the web site directly?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Jeff,

    How does this Slashdot question thing actually work? Does some Slashdroid from Dice cold call you and ask you to do the Slashdot community the favor of answering our questions? Or, do you pay Dice for access to their community for your marketing purposes.

    Many people will take this question as an offense or a challenge, I mean no such disrespect. I think that many others here on Slashdot would like to know the truth behind these community ask Slashdot posts.

    As a follow up; if the answer is the latter, t

  • Moderators who cherrypick questions, rigged elections, insane groupthink. The whole organization is worse than WIkipedia and no where near as useful.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by gnupun ( 752725 )

      Also if some question is even slightly controversial or in any way subjective, it is locked down by a gang of annoying Nazi mods. Don't these guys have anything better to do?

      Almost any question about "is x better than y?" is closed. Threads should be closed only if there is some kind of abuse.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 11, 2015 @03:37PM (#50910205)

    Jeff, have you thought about how to use reputation mechanisms to improve the quality of published scientific results? I'm asking in the context of John P. A. Ioannidis's famous paper http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124.

    It seems to me one fix for this (horrible) problem might be an online reputation mechanism where scientists could rate the reproduciblility of published results.

    Thoughts?

    (thanks for inventing Stack Exchange - you've done the world a big favor)

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Reputation and reproducibility are two totally orthogonal things.

      Reputation is about what other people *think* the case is. Reproduciblility is about what *actually* is the case.

      While there are certainly cases where people can look at a result and say "yeah, that's bogus", there are also cases where people will look at a result and say "Yeah, that looks great!" but where the result is completely irreproducable. In fact, irreproducible results are probably more likely to be those results were everybody says

  • by maple_shaft ( 1046302 ) on Wednesday November 11, 2015 @03:39PM (#50910221)

    Hi Jeff, I am a long time Stack Exchange user and community moderator on Programmers.

    You seem to operate your startup space out of New York as opposed to the popular incubator location of the Silly Valley. Is this out of a conscious choice or rejection of the Silicon Valley VC culture? If so, what is your opinion of the potentially unethical recruiting strategies and inherent discrimination of these strategies as employed and evangelized to founders by organizations like Y Combinator? Do you have any opinions of Y Combinator?

  • How much civilized discourse do you think actually happens on /. ?
  • by slashdice ( 3722985 ) on Wednesday November 11, 2015 @03:41PM (#50910249)
    Is this the dumbest question you've ever been asked?
  • by jez9999 ( 618189 ) on Wednesday November 11, 2015 @03:50PM (#50910317) Homepage Journal

    In hindsight, would you have reduced the scope of on-topic questions for Stackoverflow to where it's at today when you started the site knowing what you do now, and do you think it would've made the site less popular?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Why did you feel it necessary to ban the entire population of the WTDWTF Discourse install from meta.d? After all, these are the people who, over a period of 18 months, have picked up more bugs and inconsistencies in your software than the whole of your team of paid developers and testers. The same people who are now looking to migrate off Discourse.

  • who, what and why (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    If you could ask anyone anything, who would you ask, what would you ask them, and why?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 11, 2015 @03:53PM (#50910335)

    I don't mean to minimize StackOverflow's contribution to the online knowledge base, because it's a great tool when used properly. I'm a systems guy and Server Fault is often more useful than vendor support for looking up strange error messages and possible troubleshooting routes. But, there are a lot of low skill programmers and sysadmins out there who lean on these tools way too much. How do you feel about these properties contributing to the crappy cargo cult programming and sysadmin work we see in our field?

  • by WaffleMonster ( 969671 ) on Wednesday November 11, 2015 @03:58PM (#50910395)

    From time to time I search stackoverflow for easy answers and I would say about 20% of the time the question has been closed even though it is the reason I went to stackoverflow in the first place. In most of these instances a useful answer was also provided before closure. So my question to you is simply what gives.

    The most common reason for closure I run into is that the people closing it don't have any domain clue what is being asked and appear to assume if they don't understand nobody else does either.

    Another common reason for closure is the "duplicate" question meme in which nuance is overlooked and questions are marked as duplicates because the people doing the marking failed to understand or appreciate the difference. This is very annoying.

    Less common but equally annoying issues are closure due to chatter about domain specific algorithms not being "programming questions" or even more amusing someone posting a question that is more specifically addressed by one of a hundred different stack exchanges even though it is still on topic.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 11, 2015 @04:45PM (#50910749)

      Or, closed as "not constructive" when the question is exactly the one I had and one of the answers contain the correct solution.

    • Many closed questions have what I'd call "false nuance" --- the person did not boil the question down to what is actually breaking. Their questions are scattered -- something like "I'm doing X and Y using Z library, and it doesn't work". The experts reading them can identify the problem as nothing to do with X, only a tiny bit of Y, and not in anything related to Z. They know what should have been asked, and that it's an obvious duplicate had the problem been reduced.

      I don't think anyone would argue that th

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      In other words, it's got the same problem as Wikipedia: people trolling by rule lawyering.

    • by T.E.D. ( 34228 )

      Another common reason for closure is the "duplicate" question meme in which nuance is overlooked and questions are marked as duplicates because the people doing the marking failed to understand or appreciate the difference. This is very annoying.

      My most aggrevating run-in with this was the day I got an unexplained set of downvotes on a years-old answer, along with a comment (thank you commenter!) expressing confusion as to how it addresses the question. Comparing the two, he was right; my (fairly highly-rated) answer made no sense at all. After a very confusing 30 minutes, I finally figured out that the following had happened in the intervening years:

      1. Months later, the question had been closed as an "exact duplicate" of another question that was o
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Jeff,

    I see a lot of users on the Discourse meta forums that appear to be suspended for no particular reason. Many of them seem to have contributed a lot to discourse (if their Senior Tester badges are to be believed). What happened to them?

    • He was unable to discern between how some users behaved on his forum and how the same users behaved on another forum.

      Thus the mass ban of all people from this other forum, even when they were completely innocent. The reasoning behind that move is The Daily WTF for us :)

      • Re:Discourse meta (Score:5, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 11, 2015 @07:21PM (#50911739)

        Actually, please allow me to post the full story here since I suppose most slashdot users don't know about it.

        Once upon a time there was a website called The Daily WTF [thedailywtf.com], it was pretty popular. And they needed to replace their old forum with a newer one, so the owner of the website chose Discourse, because apparently he was friends with Jeff Atwood.

        Now, the users in that forum tend to troll each other a lot, and they love to find bugs in crappy software (it's the whole reason for the website). They found a severe XSS vulnerability within 24 hours, and a boatload of bugs shortly after (did you know Discourse has no QA testing?). People weren't happy with the "infiniscroll", the general website slowness, the inconsistent DiscoMardownBBcdeHTML syntax, etc. They started to complain.

        The Discourse team came to the forum to answer questions and monitor the "meta/bugs" category (which was collecting several bugs per day). They had some frictions with the community since Jeff Atwood's idea of "civilized discussion" is clearly different than TDWTF's (plus some members in particular love to post inflamatory comments). This went on for some time, then they left.

        But the forum was still slow and crashed every other day, and people still wanted to report bugs, so they went to meta.discourse.org, the official forum and bug tracker (Bugzilla, Jira? nope, Discourse). But as I said, Jeff has his own ideas of civilized discourse, which include things like silently deleting your posts for no clear reason, so people were still unhappy. Some TDWTF forum members decided to troll him a bit, doing things like everyone using the same avatar, but nothing particularly bad (IMO). This again went on for some time.

        Then disaster happened: the admin of TDWTF forums went to meta.discourse to report that two buttons were in different order in the mobile and desktop views, but he made the mistake of illustrating the desktop view with a mobile screenshot (browser set to desktop mode). Jeff replied "not a bug, desktop view on mobile is not supported". The first admin replied that this had nothing to do with the bug, you can easily reproduce it in a desktop browser. ...and in response, Jeff banned every member of TDWTF, with the only messages "sorry, you are no longer welcome here", and another Discourse developer self-banned from TDWTF with the message "Time for you to migrate off Discourse".

  • by Scottingham ( 2036128 ) on Wednesday November 11, 2015 @04:04PM (#50910441)

    As SO ages, some of the offered solutions are no longer valid.

    Are there currently plans to automate some way of validating old answers automatically?

    This problem seems to be a larger problem with forums in general. Do you have any musings regarding aging forums?

    • by vux984 ( 928602 )

      This is actually a pretty annoying issue. One of my biggest complaints with windows 10 is actually how much Q&A and troubleshooting tips etc exist for the pre-releases. Lots of it (most even) doesn't apply to the final release at all due it be related to experiments in the pre-releases that didn't make it final or simply bugs that were quashed in later builds and final. But it pollutes every search for any windows 10 issue.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Stack Overflow is a great resource. However, it's license is problematic. Several posts on the license discussion makes it hard to use the code in your project.

    The simple solution would be to make everything public domain.

    Have you considering changing the license to make it public domain?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 11, 2015 @04:53PM (#50910805)

    In reading your work for years and seeing your various contributions, it seems like you are fascinated with filtering out the most useful information. In many of your blog posts the insight is not yours but rather a conglomeration of chosen useful quotes and sources. I very much appreciate this. My question for you is how do you handle critical feedback vs trolls when dealing with communities. For example, the down button is often a disagree button rather than a negative point. How do you deal with mixed opinions?

    To use a real life personal example, TEF noted how he felt you were suggesting that people shouldn't play around to learn. (Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csyL9EC0S0c ) Yet, the way he said it was clearly inflammatory. How do you separate the legitimate concern and critical feedback from the troll who doesn't want to listen to your response?

  • by saccade.com ( 771661 ) on Wednesday November 11, 2015 @05:00PM (#50910873) Homepage Journal
    Why did you leave StackExchange? Real reason?
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Not long ago I was reading a recent discussion on reddit's woes [soylentnews.org] and the hiring of a new CEO. It made me think how we have seen communities come and go for many years.

    Clay Shirky [shirky.com] wrote about his experience in 1978: "Communitree was founded on the principles of open access and free dialogue... And then, as time sets in, difficulties emerge. In this case, one of the difficulties was occasioned by the fact that one of the institutions that got hold of some modems was a high school. ... the boys weren't terribly

  • What has been your involvement in SO/SE/discourse.org at a programming level? (Kudos anyway. The results are certainly impressive).
  • You left Stack Exchange to spend more time with your family yet a year later you launched another company. Was the time spent with your family not all that great compared to developing a new business idea? I can see a lot of hard nosed entrepreneurs suffering from boredom when not out on the edge. However, you only get what you give; at work _and_ at home.
  • by T.E.D. ( 34228 ) on Wednesday November 11, 2015 @06:19PM (#50911421)

    I think its probably inarguable that the biggest innovation StackOverflow brought to the web was the centrality of reputation and user moderation to its design. Sure, our own /. had done something similar years before, and it was hardly the first either, but no website I know of had before taken it to its logical conclusion in quite the way SO does. This effectively "crowdsourced" a lot of traditional website administrative activities, which turned out to be an incredibly powerful idea. Practically all the functionality of SO is built around the concept.

    So when I saw you were tackling online message boards, I expected the same kind of thing. But browsing around a typical Discourse thread [codinghorror.com], I'm not seeing that at all. Sure, users can "heart" posts, but all that does is bump a small counter next to the heart. There is no way to tell at a glance which posts users found the best and/or worst. Higher rated posts don't sort to the top, or get bigger or anything. As a result, I don't even see that feature used much. Certainly its nothing like SO, where post voting is the central activity. It also seems like moderation on Discourse is designed to be done by administrators, not users. I don't see any facility for users getting moderation privs as they gain reputation. Compared to SO, Discourse seems kind of, well, like a big step backwards in interactivity.

    I'm sure I'm missing something here. What is it? Or did you really decide SO's centering of its design around users and their opinion on posts was a mistake, or perhaps just not a good fit for a more generalized discussion board?

    • by jdavidb ( 449077 )

      Also Discourse breaks the web browser model in many tablety ways that drive me nuts. My keys are hijacked. New stuff loads if I get to the wrong place on the page.

      And Discourse users are always disrespectful to me if I post a question that has another thread on it, even if the other thread is two years old and I can't find it. And then if I do reply on that thread, they are disrespectful to me for necro-ing an old thread. There's just something in the culture there that justifies this, and so I shy away

  • by Sadsfae ( 242195 ) on Wednesday November 11, 2015 @06:20PM (#50911435) Homepage

    I don't see many large, high profile sites running an entire Microsoft Windows stack nowadays (IIS/SQL Server, etc) but Stack Exchange [nickcraver.com] is one of them.

    What were the reasons behind choosing a full Microsoft stack versus any of the Open Source alternatives which seem much more prevalent, especially in start-ups and smaller businesses for web presence?

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I don't see many large, high profile sites running an entire Microsoft Windows stack nowadays (IIS/SQL Server, etc) but Stack Exchange [nickcraver.com] is one of them.

      What were the reasons behind choosing a full Microsoft stack versus any of the Open Source alternatives which seem much more prevalent, especially in start-ups and smaller businesses for web presence?

      Atwood was a MS-stack developer back when SE started up, IIRC. He probably went with what he was comfortable with.

  • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) <mojo@worl d 3 . net> on Wednesday November 11, 2015 @07:22PM (#50911743) Homepage

    It seems like the internet is mostly a terrible place to have debates. Many forums quickly become echo chambers for people who want to be as offensive as possible just to prove that they can exercise their free speech rights. Other times debates are derailed by cheap tactics like being deliberately offensive to derail the arguments and bog everyone down in accusations that they are "SJWs". Ad-hominems and obvious logical fallacies seem to be the norm.

    How do you plan to avoid this happening? So far no-one seems to have found a way.

  • Mr Atwood, how can we improve the quality of debates on Slashdot? We don't have access to the source code so suggestions that users can implement would be best, but I'm sure the staff are reading too.

    Lately it has become apparent that certain topics are impossible to debate on Slashdot, e.g. women in tech. They rapidly devolve into an echo chamber of rage and outright trolling, and dissenting voices are mod-bombed into oblivion even though the meta-moderation system is supposed to prevent that. There are ru

  • How is it that you've managed to make Stack Overflow the top 10 search results for common programming questions despite your own supposed efforts at deduping and the fact that Google usually groups similar pages from the same site itself?

  • How do you feel about the fact that while important questions go unanswered people are harvesting points simply by taking the word "thanks" off the end of posts? Does it worry you at all that the kind of people most attracted to your site are not interested in actually answering questions?

  • Why do even accepted answers live below the comments of people who have misread the question and are claiming it's a duplicate, or worse just making fun of the question?

  • When I google a problem, I often encounter the crapexchange sites in the first few hits. OF these maybe on a good hit there is a 40% chance of getting a good answer. 30% of the time I get a wrong answer, about half are those are so oviously wrong the person must be under the influence of some pretty strong hallucinogens. 30% are shutdown because some Nazirator is pissed that he can't answer the question in 5 minutes. If he can't get the karma no one can!

    Imagine the following scenario, a person posts a que

    • Sorry the link should read is here [richter.name].

      Didn't know a leading space ina URL would cause an error!

    • It seems that your only intention is criticising SO/SE without properly understanding the situation and that's why you wrote two contradicting arguments:
      - "30% are shutdown because some Nazirator...".
      - "...encourage mediocracy" + "scam to promote the clueless"

      By applying your example of sticking a screwdriver into an electric socket, a certainly clueless attitude which shouldn't be promoted, you would complain about the nazirator who is censoring such an attitude (or about the unfair downvotes or similar).
  • A question on the history of Stack Exchange. What was the original idea that drove you to make StackExchange and how has it evolved or added since?
  • Every time I see "this question is closed as "not constructive", I'd like to give StackOverflow a taste of their own medicine. For example, StackOverflow exec's would be having an board meeting over the phone, and all of a sudden the phone clicks off and a pre-recorded voice says, "This meeting has been closed as primarily opinion-based and not constructive".

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