Making Stack Overflow More Welcoming

| by Shane Hastie Follow 25 Followers on Apr 30, 2018. Estimated reading time: 4 minutes |

Jay Hanlon, EVP of Culture and Experience for Stack Overflow, posted a blog entry titled Stack Overflow Isn't Very Welcoming. It's Time for That to Change. In the post he explains the problems Stack Overflow has which make it an unwelcoming amd intimidating place. He explains the commitment to addressing the issues, provides specific steps they are taking and invites readers to participate in a survey to give honest feedback on their own experiences.

Hanlon states that many people new to Stack Overflow experience it as an unwelcoming, intimidating place, where people are attacked for not knowing what they don't know, for poorly worded questions and for answering questions that "encourage low quality questioning".

He opens with what he calls the ugly truth:

  • Too many people experience Stack Overflow as a hostile or elitist place, especially newer coders, women, people of color, and others in marginalized groups.
  • Our employees and community have cared about this for a long time, but we've struggled to talk about it publicly or to sufficiently prioritize it in recent years. And results matter more than intentions.

He acknowledges that there is a genuine problem and that the problem has been underplayed in the past. Stack Overflow is taking the issue seriously now and is devoting time, money and people to addressing the problems, initiating user research to hear what the real issues are and revisiting the site norms. Some explicit changes he highlights include:

  • Let's shift from "don't be an asshole" to "be welcoming"
  • Let's do something about comments – no longer tolerating sarcasm and condescension
  • Let's make it easier for new users to succeed
  • Let's stop judging users for not knowing things (we're a Q&A site!)
  • Let's reject the false dichotomy between quality and kindness

He refers to the site's code of conduct and acknowledges that many people don't know that they have one – they want to change this and make the code of conduct visible and have the site's users actively enforce it.

He ends the post with a call to action:

We're looking for volunteers to share their experiences in chat with us and help us prioritize what to work on first. Whether you're an active user, or someone who isn't comfortable participating, if you'd like to help, please fill out this one-minute survey.

Stack Overflow is far from the only organisation looking to address problems in their culture, and with tech culture in general.

In November 2017 Reid Hoffman spoke about the need to change the culture in the tech industry, addressing the inequalities in the workforce, sexual harassment and discrimination. He spoke at the EmTech MIT 2017 conference and his talk can be found here .

Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd posted a Medium article titled Tech Culture Can Change in which she says that:

Fundamentally, the problem with systemic sexism is that it's not the individual people who are the problem. It's the culture.

She explains the experience of discrimination and sexism from a woman's perspective and her own experiences. She then says:

I want to see the change that most women in tech long for. At its core, the tech industry is idealistic and dreamy, imagining innovations that could change the world. Yet, when it comes to self-reflexivity, tech is just as regressive as many other male-dominated sectors. Still, I fully admit that I hold it to a higher standard in no small part because of the widespread commitment in tech to change the world for the better, however flawed that fantastical idealism is.

She points out four things that she wants from men in tech: Recognition. Repentance. Respect. Reparation.

Recognition. I want to see everyone — men and women — recognize how contributing to a culture of sexism takes us down an unhealthy path, not only making tech inhospitable for women but also undermining the quality of innovation and enabling the creation of tech that does societal harm.
Repentance. I want guys in tech — and especially those founders and funders who hold the keys to others' opportunity — to take a moment and think about those that they've hurt in their path to success and actively, intentionally, and voluntarily apologize and ask for forgiveness. I want them to reach out to someone they said something inappropriate to, someone whose life they made difficult, and say "I'm sorry."
Respect. I want to see a culture of respect actively nurtured and encouraged alongside a culture of competition. Respect requires acknowledging others' struggles, appreciating each others' strengths and weaknesses, and helping each other through hard times.
Reparation. Every guy out there who wants to see tech thrive owes it to the field to actively seek out and mentor, support, fund, open doors for, and otherwise empower women and people of color.

She ends with a strong call to action:

I strongly believe that changing the norms is the only path forward. So while I want to see people held accountable, I especially want to see the industry work towards encouraging and supporting behavior change. At the end of the day, we will not solve the systemic culture of sexism by trying to weed out bad people, but we can work towards rendering bad behavior permanently unacceptable.

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The ugly truth of Stack Overflow? by David Keaveny

I'm curious about the opening premise, namely "Too many people experience Stack Overflow as a hostile or elitist place, especially newer coders, women, people of color, and others in marginalized groups".

There is no particular requirement for your Stack Overflow identity to relate in any way to your race/gender/sexual orientation, so unless you start publishing photos or linking to LinkedIn profiles or Twitter feeds that specifically identify you along those lines, there's no particular reason why anyone else would be able to target you based on that.

I would agree that people who ask "newbie" questions, which 99.9% of the time will have been asked and answered many times before, do face hostility, but given the minority group representations within the development community as a whole, surely that means that it is most likely to be white male heterosexuals copping the most hostility, because more of them fall into that "newbie" category. Don't go projecting sexism/racism/homophobia when there are far bigger systemic problems.

Re: The ugly truth of Stack Overflow? by Daniel Bryant

There's no denying there are systemic issues at play here David, but this requires a systemic approach to fix -- and this includes tackling sexism/racism/homophobia and more.

There are lots of subtle ways to infer details about a Stack Overflow user without much effort e.g. their username and style of writing, and unfortunately this can trigger (unconscious) bias.

I'm also not sure about your logic about white males copping the most hostility -- this cohort is strongly represented within IT as a whole, and is therefore more likely to understand the 'norms' of the group. Newcomers to any group, especially those not exposed to the environment before, are bound to make more (what are seen as) mistakes.

We definitely do need to be careful about projecting issues inappropriately, but I think this piece (and the associated sources) make a good case for tackling the issues from many perspective.

Re: The ugly truth of Stack Overflow? by No please

Understanding the norms of a group when approaching them or trying to communicate with them is common sense etiquette, Daniel, not a show of hostility.

I agree with David that it´s usually new people who get the hostility because they don't know or understand how to search for previous answers, how to include needed info, etc.

The way these things are explained or told CAN be improved, but this is a problem that exists since the dawn of forums and the RTFM answer.

About the rest, you are starting by assuming the bias exists and is happening, and then are going backwards to imagine how someone could infer details about a user.

How about showing this bias exists first? Otherwise it's shoddy research.

Your point about white males doesn't add up, they are strongly represented within IT but that doesn't mean every white male understands the norms of the group. The first point, however, should allow us to infer that the majority of newbies will also be white males and could get the brunt of hostility.

How about we stop assuming gender or race or whatever have anything to do with anything and at least try to find some data before tackling "issues"?

Re: The ugly truth of Stack Overflow? by William Smith

"How about showing this bias exists first? Otherwise it's shoddy research."

I know, I know, don't feed the trolls. But honestly "No, please" go away and clog up some other website.

Your position is that Stackoverflow can't interpret it's own customer data and is mistaken to believe that some people experience it as a hostile place, while as you, with no such access to their data beyond what they have shared publicly which, going out on a limb here, you've not read, can.

God help us.

The really terrible thing is that this problem has got so much worse in the time they've worked in IT (about 30 years now). It used to be that you got to work on computers if you were interested and showed aptitude and no-one cared (or even noticed) your age, race, gender, sexual preference etc.

Now you are out of luck if you aren't a young privileged white male. and, thanks to the magic of agile, large numbers of people on the autism spectrum are also excluded. There is so much data to support the basic premise, that arguing about it is a waste of time and I'm not going to do it. Clearly you have a fixed mindset and nothing I (or anyone else) says will change it.

This matters because there are too many jobs not enough people to do them. It also matters because it produces broken products - diverse teams produce better products overall.

So rather than arguing with the basic premise which we all know is true why don't we instead start trying to look at ways we can fix it.

BTW I applaud InfoQ for taking a stance on this on the website and at their conferences. It is a hard balance to get right, but I think you tread the line very well.

Re: The ugly truth of Stack Overflow? by Charles Humble

Hi "No, Please." Thanks for your comment. Would you be nice enough to edit your profile and put in your real name? Although we haven't published any restriction from using aliases, the intent for InfoQ discussions is to maintain a level of professionalism, in which using real names is an important factor.

Re: The ugly truth of Stack Overflow? by Charles Humble

BTW I applaud InfoQ for taking a stance on this on the website and at their conferences. It is a hard balance to get right, but I think you tread the line very well.

Thank you! To that end can I request that we all try and keep the tone on this thread civil.

thanks to the magic of agile, large numbers of people on the autism spectrum are also excluded. 

I worry about this as well, and actually this is a topic we've talked about in the wider context of diversity on InfoQ a certain amount - Sallyann Freudenberg in particular has done quite a bit of work on this along with people like Katherine Kirk.

Charles Humble

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