Stack Documentation

Our portfolio company Stack Overflow (or Stack as I prefer to call them) has launched something new and interesting today.

It is called Stack Overflow Documentation.

This is what Stack co-founder and CEO Joel Spolsky told me about Documentation a few weeks ago:

The current state of developer documentation is pretty abysmal. It’s spread all over the place, in a million different formats. It’s never complete and rarely includes good example code. Even the best developer documentation is usually on a static website with no community or crowd sourcing features, so it stagnates.
After months of beta testing, we are launching a global, crowdsourced developer documentation section on Stack Overflow that covers everything from programming languages to APIs and frameworks. It will be completely community generated, with all the reputation stuff that made Stack Overflow successful (voting, reputation, tags, community moderation, etc).
When you poke around at the state of developer documentation on the web in 2016, it feels a lot like… developer Q&A before Stack Overflow. It’s fragmented, half of it is out of date, it’s very very uneven in quality, and when you find a bug there’s no way to fix it. We think that applying the mechanics of Stack Overflow Q&A to crowdsourced documentation will make as big a difference in developers’ lives as the original Stack Overflow.

The secret sauce behind Stack’s success is the fact that crowdsourcing information is way better than the top down approach when it is combined with a specific set of tools that make the crowdsourced data super high quality. The latter is what Joel calls the “reputation stuff” (voting, reputation, tags, community moderation, etc).

It makes all the sense in the world that Stack would focus their secret sauce at Developer Documentation in addition to Developer Q&A. So if you are working in Javascript and want to find some documentation or contribute some documentation, go here. If its Docker that’s giving you fits, go here. And for Android devs, this is for you. The entire Documentation section is here.

Developer Documentation is in Beta right now and though it is pretty good already, I expect it will get a lot more complete and a lot more thorough in the coming months. And if you are so inclined, please help make that so.


Comments (Archived):

  1. kidmercury

    fantastic. for all the developer education stuff talked about here, nothing compares to stack. hopeful and optimistic this ends the documentation nightmare that is generally the case with APIs

    1. JamesHRH

      Nice to see you Kid!

  2. awaldstein

    smart.developers are where networks and community intersect with more frequency and with better results.this layer builds on that.

  3. JimHirshfield

    Wattpad for devs?#thisforthat

    1. Kirsten Lambertsen

      The Missing Manual for everything.

  4. Twain Twain

    Hurray and well done, Stack team! This resource adds value and reduces the wrong types of time sink for devs.Looking forward to the Machine Learning and Big Data (eg matlibplot) documentation!

  5. James Ferguson @kWIQly

    Great concept. Thanks stack

  6. William Mougayar

    This makes a lot of sense for open source software, since no one really “owns” it typically. Collaborative authoring is an important trend.It seems to be different than GitHub and SourceForge; more like a Wikipedia of documentation, given the peer review process.

    1. creative group

      William Mougayar:Could anyone explain that to CISCO trolling patents to sue companies.How they continue to produce revenues from that is amazing.

  7. sigmaalgebra

    Yup.IMHO the biggest bottleneck now for the future of computing is documentation.1.0 Importance of DocumentationOr, When code is written, only the programmer and God understand it. Six months later, only God. Ergo, if want to understand the code in six months, need documentation. If want the code to be a significant asset of the company, then need the documentation.1.1 An Example — My StartupE.g., for the code of my startup, say, just the code to run in real time (there is some more to run occasionally in batch), there are 80,000 lines of typing. But there are only 20,000 programming language statements. Sure, some statements take more than one line, but, still, there are ballpark 50,000 lines without code. Sure, in the 50,000 are blank lines to make reading easier.Still we’re looking at some tens of thousands of lines of just plain comments totally ignored by the compiler and processor.And there is quite a lot of documentation outside the code itself. And there is the TeX documentation for the core math.So, ‘ats a lot’s uh documentation. And I’m writing more.Why? Guess who gets to debug and/or modify the code? Right, and I doubt that God will be helping me.Really, the most important reader of the code is not the compiler or the processor but me.And, the code itself, even with mnemonic identifier names, by itself means next to nothing to me. As usual, the meaning has to be in sentences, etc. in a natural language, e.g., English.So, that’s what the documentation is — writing in English to explain the code, that is, provide the meaning I will need to understand the code.1.2 An Example — Microsoft’s .NETThe code of my startup is nearly all written on Microsoft’s .NET Framework which is mostly just a large collection of object-oriented software classes, i.e., is a class library.Okay. But to get the basic information I needed to write my code using .NET, I found, downloaded, read, abstracted, and indexed 5000+ Web pages of documentation, mostly from Microsoft’s MSDN Web site.In addition I used about a cubic foot of books.The time, money, and effort for that background was by a wide margin the worst obstacle for my startup.In strong contrast, the work unique to my startup was all fast, fun, and easy.Lesson: Documentation is a huge bottleneck for developers and the future of computing.2.0 Challenge of DocumentationDocumentation requires writing. Sure, commonly in middle school, high school, and college, there are classes in English that teach sonnets of Shakespeare but also some lessons on writing, especially creative writing.Otherwise there is relatively little education for writing. Moreover, mostly what computing needs is technical writing for which education is less common.The basic lessons of technical writing are fairly well known and well illustrated in, say, college texts in physics, calculus, linear algebra, and some topics in engineering. A grand example is the math of Bourbaki. Some individual writers provide examples of high excellence.Lesson: Overall, good technical writing is so difficult to do that it is main cause of the worst bottleneck for the future of computing.3.0 Finding StuffYup, a software developer who needs some information needs to find it. Likely the most common way is a keyword/phrase search on Google and/or Bing.In my experience, when looking for new material at Microsoft’s MSDN for a question about .NET, the first stop is usually Google or Bing with the search limited to Microsoft’s MSDN site.Lesson: Finding documentation is a significant problem in search, and the problem is general enough that the best solutions are just the best general purpose search tools.3.1 MeaningWhat a developer is looking for is not just the keywords/phrases they type into Google/Bing. Indeed, for just keywords, a dictionary has all of those.Instead, the developer is looking for the content with the meaning they need.Well, keyword/phrase search is not very good when looking for meaning.So there is a challenge here.Lesson: No doubt the challenge for finding content with desired meaning for information in computing is fairly general, general enough that about the best solution is the same as the best solution in general.

  8. onowahoo

    This is great and Stack Overflow is the best company to do this. Many people, such as myself, already use previously answered questions on Stack Overflow as a major resource. This will structure related topics into groups.

  9. Jess Bachman

    This is the perfect product for SO. They have always been the go to place for Q&A but all that wealth of info just felt so… scattered, even on SO. I’m really looking forward to what they can achieve here.

  10. Frank W. Miller

    Speaking as a total geek now and I’m sure I’m not alone. Overflow and Spolsky in general are the shit. This is a great idea and I hope it yields that “one unified set of documentation” that is the gold reference for whatever. All that said, how can this company possibly make money?

    1. Susan Rubinsky

      I was wondering that too.

    2. fredwilson

      They make a lot of money. Mostly recruitment services but some advertising too

    3. willcole

      As Fred said, it’s mostly recruiting services. We have a job board, a candidate database, brand advertising and more. The recruiting business is very developer centric. No spammy recruiters, lots of moderation on the types of messages they’re allowed to send etc… Products described here: http://business.stackoverfl

      1. LE

        it’s mostly recruiting services. We have a job board, a candidate database, brand advertising and more. The recruiting business is very developer centric.What (if anything) protects your revenue stream which is so heavy into developers? What if that becomes out of vogue as a result of economic changes in startupland?

        1. Maroonblazer

          Developers are in high demand even outside of ‘startupland’.

          1. LE

            Of course because there are so many developers opting for startup land (reason for GE commercials making fun of people who work for startups). There are more people becoming developers every day that wouldn’t have done that (age adjusted) 10 or 20 years ago. And in fact things like stack would ironically add to the capable supply of developers. That won’t last forever and as supply increase wages will fall and it could possibly change the economics of hiring. And if startup investment changes that will have a large impact as well on employment opportunities. Hard to predict the future but it would make sense for any company that is so dependent and narrowly focused to work on other revenue streams.

          2. Maroonblazer

            Given how nascent the field of software development is, and the applications that can/will put it to use, I’ll go out on a limb and predict that it will be at least a few decades (if not more) before supply exceeds demand. That gives SO plenty of runway to diversify their revenue stream.

          3. LE

            I say 5 to 10 years. Especially with the stream of kids today that are younger and getting a taste of coding. It’s the new “law school degree” path to success. Also I don’t consider the point we are at nascent.So nobody knows for sure but I would bet otherwise. The reason is that the money is good and there is no constraint on supply. In other words no professional school degree (like medicine) or other way of restricting inputs. Also can be done remotely (many professions can’t so there is that governor in place). Additionally the publicity which makes people think that they can strike it rich. All of that (to me) means that there will be more people sooner rather than later going into the field which will drive down wages and opportunities.Compare to the early 80’s late 70’s (or prior) when it was way way harder to get started. Mostly because there were no online learning tools so you typically needed a degree. And hardware to play around was limited.Other comment from SO employee seems to indicate they are thinking about this.

          4. Anne Libby

            Your comment reminds me that I need to read Nathan Ensminger’s *The Computer Boys Take Over* http://thecomputerboys.comI am fascinated by the mythological history that has arisen around the job of being a programmer. In the 80s and 90s, for middle class, college educated people who went into the white collar workforce, it wasn’t “hard to get started.” There were very few colleges that offered comp sci degrees. Companies hired people into training programs and taught them to program.Early in my career (late 80s) I turned down an opportunity to join a bank training program for programmers; my sister-in-law joined that program in the early 90s. My sister, an English major, was hired into such a program in an insurance company.My dad started as a programmer in the 1950s, starting at Univac, later at a financial company. He was not some kind of unicorn, he had hundreds of colleagues. They weren’t cowboys/girls; they wore suits and white shirts. (I remember visiting the office some Saturday mornings.) Some of his training early came from IBM, which provided it to programmers at companies that bought their boxes…

          5. LE

            it wasn’t “hard to get started.” There were very few colleges that offered comp sci degrees. Companies hired people into training programs and taught them to program.This confuses me. You say that it wasn’t hard to get started but you then say “there were few colleges offering degrees” and “companies hired people into training programs”. (That, to me, means it was hard to get started.)Just dug this up about Univac (1986):

          6. Anne Libby

            Right, for generations one didn’t need a CS degree to be hired into a training program. (Because they didn’t exist.)So people who had access to enter the white collar workforce — English majors, math majors, behavioral science majors — could get hired into a training program. And then, be trained.(edited to add) If you do some back of the envelope math: take the Fortune 500 companies, assume a percentage of the employees were in “IT,” multiply that by 30-40 years, and it’s easy to see that millions of programmers were developed in this way.IMO the development of the “bootcamp” model for training programmers is an acknowledgement that a CS degree is not actually required to be a competent programmer. Plus, that companies no longer want to train people in-house.

        2. willcole

          Good question, and yeah we’re aware of that. Recruiting services are our bread and butter, but people could slow down hiring because of some macro event or whatever reason. We have other revenue streams that are not insignificant and growing – Standard advertising on SO, Stack Overflow Enterprise, and Developer Insights.SO Enterprise is particularly interesting. On premises private Stack Overflow instances for companies to manage information that isn’t necessarily appropriate on the public site, or discussing proprietary code.

    4. bsoist

      I heard Joel say something in a podcast once about how SO had the attention of every programmer in the world. The implication being that recruitment and advertising rates demand a premium.

  11. Kirsten Lambertsen

    Been watching this come together on Stack. So cool.Someone should write a book about Stack. It’s such an amazing accomplishment and a model for the new era of work, education, information and open source. They’re going to go down as one of the greatest contributions to civilization in history. I mean it.

    1. creative group

      Kirsten Lambertsen:”They’re going to go down as one of the greatest contributions to civilization in history. I mean it.”We almost took you seriously.Contributions to CivilizationRevolutionFederalist PapersPeace-keeping Religious tolerationThe development of suffrageWelcoming of newcomers Diffusion of wellbeing

      1. Kirsten Lambertsen

        I stand by my statement. They’ve created one of the largest information repositories, ever, accessible to anyone who can get on the internet. The information is free. They’ve touched countless lives in a meaningful, positive way.There are nearly 5 million [edit: corrected from ‘4 billion’] answers on SO (there might be more now – that’s 2015 numbers). And it’s only getting bigger.I call that a great contribution to civilization that is tangible. While I’m all for “welcoming of newcomers,” it’s not in the same category, really. Your only comparable example is the Federalist Papers.

        1. Pekka

          4 Billion answers seems a bit off.

          1. Pekka

            The 4 billion there is visits, no?

          2. Kirsten Lambertsen

            Oh dammit. You’re right! Thank you 🙂

          3. Kirsten Lambertsen

            Laughing at myself hard now, because yeah, 4 billion seems excessive.I look up Wikipedia’s numbers for comparison. ~5 million articles in English.

          4. Pekka

            It would be a bit much. To be fair, though, Stack Exchange’s *totals* are much higher than they show on that page – SO alone has 12m questions, 19m answers

      2. Paul Robert Cary

        Religious toleration is an interesting concept and should take its place alongside religious tolerance.I agree 100% with @MsPseudolus:disqus – Stack Overflow is a modern day printing press, it’s phenomenal.Sadly that one didn’t make your list.

    2. bsoist


  12. Susan Rubinsky

    Wow. This is fantastic! Love Stack Overflow.

  13. Pete Griffiths

    Thank God somebody isn’t going to tackle this problem. Dash is better than nothing but sample code is critical and Dash’s snippets isn’t enough.

  14. creative group

    What is the goal of the LIFO? What adoption is being sought? How will this assist the end-user?Is this effort standardizing the Stack data structure and Push and Pop?KISS!

    1. Lawrence Brass

      Your code has a compilation error:line 1: “Contributors” reserved word or person ID is expected.compilation aborted.:-)

      1. creative group

        Lawrence Brass:Well played. If we were playing checkers. We are all in on chess.Push!

  15. Adam Becker

    This is absolutely incredible. Thanks for sharing!

  16. Gideon Arom

    The documentation nightmare is definitely something that needs to be fixed. I wonder how it will be different from Githubs wiki feature.

  17. creative group

    Contributors:Indigo Agricultural lead by led by president and CEO David Perry, a serial entrepreneur who previously co-founded and led Anacor Pharmaceuticals (acquired earlier this year by Pfizer for $5.2 billion). Is shortening crop times to 2.5 years from around ten. A company to watch. Interesting history out of Boston.Source: Dan Primark Term Sheet.DISCLOSURE: NONE TO REPORT

  18. Lawrence Brass

    In the good ole’days you would press F1 with the cursor over the subject of the query to get access to the related documentation. That was if you took the time and space to install the documentation from the CDs. The worst case was to have to insert a CD in the reader. Even worst case was when the CDs were lost under the debris. I miss the speed of the best case.After accepting everything online is good (is it?) and that you will never need documentation inside a tunnel or a remote location, I made myself an expert Googler to move on. Nowadays, more often that not, the coding related queries return *excellent quality stack overflow posts* at the top. They do have all the pieces needed to make Stack Overflow Doumentation a success.I would love to have, as some IDEs do for Google, a right click contextual menu entry to ‘search in stackoverflow docs’.Stack RTFM!

  19. sigmaalgebra

    Good documentation in computing, for systems, code, algorithms, etc., is crucially important, when done with high quality, which is very important, is fiendishly difficult and expensive to create and to keep up to date, and is currently the worst bottleneck for the future of computing.Bluntly the information technology industry is tripping over writing the English language more than writing code. One reason is, the computer culture is comparatively poor at the required technical writing — math, physics, and nearly all of engineering are better.Stack has been quite useful but cannot hope alone to cover more than a small fraction of what exists now, is needed, and will exist in the future.

  20. creative group

    Contributors:RNC Convention Speaker Peter Thiel message He is a proud gay Republican. The RNC response is in our platform- We support bathroom laws (non-transgender), Our big tent applies to non gays, non minorities, wealth worshipping and culture politics.

  21. Jim Christie

    I’m a little late to this conversation but I must add my 2 cents. SO is nothing short of a breakthrough in the design of effective, concise learning on the web. You need only look back at any number of old school *forums* to see how revolutionary SO is. Yes the up-voting, bottom-up approach is effective at weeding out poor answers to OPs, but what I feel is more game-changing is the clarity and strict enforcement of good communication practices -and no less important- the reflection of those practices in the design and hierarchy of information in its presentation. Considering the amount of time that can be wasted in looking for answers on the web, I can’t help but marvel at the small, and what might have been considered at the time, trivial design improvements that add up to a real huge idea. Add to that, the transformation of subject matter and professional culture, that from a historical perspective, was woefully unsatisfying into one of practical, helpful, on-topic, and respectful exchanges is nothing short of a miracle. SO is as much a boot camp for engineers to improve communication skills as it is a valuable resource for practical development. It’s almost expected that SO would wade into the murky vagaries of documentation. There’s no other team I would trust to do it plainly, concisely and completely. I love these guys.