Sunday, June 28, 2009

How Stack Overflow Makes Me Sad

Douglas Adams's novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe describes a torture device so heinous that the planet where it is located became known as the most evil place in the universe. The device is called the Total Perspective Vortex, and it works by giving the poor soul put into it a glimpse of the entirety of the universe while showing them exactly what the victim is in relation to it. It is reportedly a horrific, mind blasting experience. Recently, I've been thinking about the Total Perspective Vortex often.

Like many programmers I do tend to surf the net while waiting on compile cycles to complete. And since the compile cycles on the product I'm currently working on are... non-trivial, I get the chance several times in the typical day. As a rule, I try to keep myself generally looking at programming topics. It is work time, after all, so I might as well try to expose myself to things that will improve my job skills. This tendency has led me to peruse a site called Stack Overflow. The site sprang from a partnership between Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky, both prolific and well known bloggers within programming circles who's work I already read and enjoy. Naturally, when they announced they were teaming up to create a web site where programmers could ask and answer questions, I was intrigued. The idea was sound, the implementation worked well, and their respective audiences gave the site the critical mass it needed to generate a large base of questions and answers quickly. Mr. Atwood even added an XBox 360 inspired achievement system to introduce and encourage behaviors on the site. Stack Overflow to all appearances has been a huge success so far.

As a programmer it's hard not to get excited about a site that allows you to tap the collective knowledge of a large number of people to help you. And since I actually answered a question, I can also say that it's a pretty huge rush to be able to help a random stranger using only the power of your brain. But this is also where things begin to break down a bit. There are a whole bunch of questions posted (over two hundred thousand at the time of this writing). The questions cover all manner of programming languages, platforms, tools, applications, and domains. When I browse through them, I am reminded just how big the programming field is, and how little I really know. Apparently Stack Overflow, to me, acts as a job specific version of the Total Perspective Vortex.

The character in Adams's book who was put into the Vortex just happened to be in a small simulation created just for him, so he survived the event because the machine told him he was actually important. I can take similar consolation from the idea that Stack Overflow was created for programmers like me who know next to nothing of the infinite set of topics out there, and who struggle to be able to write cogently about what little we do know. It's another place to practice the art and to learn new things. And in the end, isn't that what life, the universe, and everything is all about anyway?

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