How to earn a million reputation on Stack Overflow: be of service to others

And he keeps learning with every answer.

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In order to encourage people to contribute to this great knowledge building experiment, Stack Overflow built a point system—reputation—into its early design. Now, over a decade later, five contributors have cracked the million-reputation mark on Stack Overflow.

When VonC found out he had passed this storied mark, did he celebrate? Was it meaningful?

“I think it was meaningful to me mum,” he quipped, slipping a faux-British accent on top of his natural French one. “It was absolutely a non-event for me.”

The rest of us, however, are pretty impressed by his score. So how did one of the newest millionaires stack up this impressive total? His explanation is a humble one: he wanted to learn more about technologies and be of service to people who might not have the same access as he does.

We spoke with VonC about the early days on Stack Overflow, what drives him to answer several questions every single day, and what we can all do to better serve the one hundred million visitors who come to Stack Overflow each month.

The last of the Stack Overflow Beta users

When VonC first got into computer programming, he would search for answers to his coding questions on BBS forums. By the time he found Stack Overflow, he’d been in the software industry for over ten years. That was back during the Beta period—in fact, VonC might be one of the last folks to get a Beta badge, posting his first question on September 14, 2008, two days before the Beta period ended and the Beta badges were handed out.

Like a lot of new users, VonC had trouble with his first answer. He put together a question and tried to provide as much context as possible, but it was promptly downvoted without him knowing why. His initial reputation started at -1 and remained that way for years until we refactored how reputation was managed in our database. Then his initial reputation was set back to 1, just like everyone else.

Stack Overflow was vastly different in those early days. This was the time before comments; you could only post answers to questions, not provide feedback or request more information. “I remember vividly that the culture of the site was very much in flux and in definition then,” said VonC.

Early participants could garner a lot of upvotes through open-ended questions, things like “What’s the best freeware log file visualization tool?” (Ed note: Viewing this link requires 10k reputation as it has been deleted) Today, these questions would be closed, but back then, open questions with debatable, subjective answers were all the rage. VonC even earned his first gold badge (and second) for answers to one of these questions (Ed. note: Also deleted, so earn that rep to view them). But once the community decided on what was too subjective for Stack Overflow, the definition of a good question solidified.

Still, VonC’s path to a million reputation is paved with very few questions: slightly more than twenty (some have been deleted since). Instead, he was learning about new software and gaining mastery by answering questions. “I was using Stack Overflow to introduce myself to new technical topics, mainly Git and the Go language, plus Docker and Kubernetes,” he said.

At the time, he was managing terabytes of data on a very large version control system in IBM Rational ClearCase, software initially released in 1984. He came across questions about Git and Mercurial, version control systems that were distributed, which ClearCase is not. The first Git question he came across was about cloning the full repository locally to enable access to the full history without querying a server. “I was actually laughing at that notion because it was completely strange to me to clone the full history,” said VonC. “But actually, it is how we are working nowadays.”

To learn more about Git, he dove into answering questions. For the first few, he didn’t even install Git; instead, he compared the documentation to the question and wrote answers based on his understanding of the docs. When that answer got accepted, it told him that there might be something to this Git: it’s intuitive enough for him to answer questions accurately without using the software and works as the documentation would have you expect.

VonC took the same approach when evaluating Scala. He’d check out the new Scala questions, compare them to the available documentation, and write answers. After a little more than 200 answers, he decided that Scala wasn’t for him: “I understood it well enough to realize that it was not a good match for me and my skills.”

Motivated to serve

For the first few years, VonC used Stack Overflow to learn new technologies. He couldn’t get the hang of properly asking questions, but he still wanted to learn more about the tools and languages he used. It required a mindset shift—answering questions as a way to learn—but he found it very effective. For folks looking to use his method, he recommends trying to get the Necromancer badge by creating excellent answers on old questions. This includes answers to older questions where there are new solutions due to features being added to software.

Over time, though, another motivation emerged: to help the community. VonC answers several questions every day. After years of this, it’s no surprise that he can’t think of a favorite question. Instead, his favorites are those that may not have a high view count, but have helped someone who doesn’t have the same access to technical expertise where they live.

“Before Stack Overflow, I was looking for expertise in order to help me in my career,” said VonC. “What Stack Overflow provides you is the ability and the opportunity to interact and access the knowledge of so many specialists. My mindset has shifted where not knowing something is no longer a fear for me. Not knowing is my basic state, but for questions from students around the world, I will go deep in on a topic and I will find out for them.”

That spirit of service comes from his background as an IT support specialist. In his work calls, he tries to establish a rapport: who are you, what’s not working, what do I know that might help? On Stack Overflow, his instinct is to provide the same help to people struggling to ask good questions. Where many may just vote to close and delete, VonC tries to jump into a chat with them.

Now that he’s built up some expertise in Git and other topics, he freely admits that his activity on Stack Overflow helps his career. He’s a contractor, so the company in charge of finding him work can offer him as an expert and point to his activity on the site as proof. “One of my motivations to answer questions every day on Stack Overflow was to have a complement to my resume to showcase,” he said. “‘One million reputation’ isn’t completely meaningful because they don't know exactly what that means. But I say I've answered tens of thousands of questions around version control systems, and they understand.”

Privileges for millionaires

As someone who has been around Stack Overflow since it left Beta, VonC seemed like a good person to ask about the changes he’d make to the site if he were suddenly elevated to benevolent dictator for life. No surprise—his suggestion was about the experience of asking questions.

His first answer was promptly downvoted without comment, and that experience has stuck with him. In his own practice, instead of immediately downvoting and voting to close, VonC invites the question asker to a chat to try to clarify their question. But users below 20 reputation can’t use the chat function, so he can’t give them feedback. These are the users most likely to be scared off by harsh initial experiences. “Users with one million—sorry, [puts finger to lip à la Austin Powers] one million reputation—should be able to invite any users to chat,” he suggests. Of course, one million rep might be a bit too high of a bar, but the suggestion stands.

VonC concedes that the speed of closing subpar questions has made the site very healthy in terms of content quality. “Any content that is not exactly like the community wants is very quickly removed—not just closed, but completely removed,” he said. “In that aspect, it’s healthy. In terms of dialogue, that’s where it is a bit dodgy because of issues between the new users and long-time users.”

We’ve definitely heard these comments before, so we created the Staging Ground, where new users can learn how to best ask questions.

Come for the expertise, stay for the community

VonC has been around the site so long that he’s starting to recognize other members by their answers. He notes one user who operates in the Git and version control space with him who will drop a thoroughly researched answer days after the question was asked, complete with footnotes. “Sometimes the footnotes have footnotes, that’s the kind of depth that this user brings to their answers. It’s clearly not somebody who will be the fastest gun in the west.” It’s the kind of answer that makes Stack Overflow Q&A pages valuable to thousands of knowledge-seekers years after the initial asker has solved their problem.

But VonC has never seen his own participation as a way to show off. Obviously, he’s leaving a record of his knowledge for all to see, but he remains motivated by the urge to help others. VonC hopes to be of even greater service to the community in the future. The reputation points and credibility are nice, but he hopes to be able to give greater rewards to high performers, especially those in working with technological deficits.

In the end, VonC’s million-rep total shows that one of the best ways to thrive is to be of service to your community. And as the platform for that community, we're always trying to learn and grow from our members so we can fulfill our vision of being the most valuable destination for the world's current and next generation of technologists.

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