Every month, 20 million people come to Stack Overflow for answers. The company, founded in 2008 by Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood, is basically a plunger for programmers of all levels. Anyone who has crashed while writing code has poked their weary (and frustrated) eyes at this question and answer website. And anyone who has found what they were looking for, has been able to verify that the human mania of stumbling on the same stone becomes transversal when we talk about programming.
But Stack Overflow is more than that. Prashanth Chandrasekar, CEO of the company since October 2019, describes it as a cake. At the base is its growing community of users -200,000 new ones every month-, who exchange questions and answers openly. On top of this, services designed for developers are stacked: a job search engine, advertising space and Stack Overflow for Teams, its collaborative work tool inspired by the open information exchange community, but designed for the private use of companies. “We are in a unique position because we have this robust community that speaks every day and uses our services quickly,” he said in an interview with EL PAÍS during the Collision From Home technology event, held last week.
Stack Overflow is the largest open question and answer platform in this area. Does this make it difficult to open the company to new opportunities?
No. In fact, Stack Overflow for Teams came out very organically. The community asked for it. Our gap is in making sure that people know about our services. But it is not a question of one thing or the other. If we did not have that community of users we would not have the talent service. Without that community, we wouldn’t have the advertising business or the team product. There is no prioritization, we are 100% focused on our community.
On other platforms with large active user bases, moderation and control of abusive behaviors is becoming an increasingly complex problem. Does this happen in Stack Overflow?
It is very important for us to welcome very diverse groups. It doesn’t matter that they are men, women, where they come from, what their level of experience is … We want to include everyone.
What we have done is define the rules of our moderators to ensure that negative comments and any level of toxicity are removed. And we are very proactive about it. We have also done more through code. Four months ago we launched what we call the rugged robot, which uses artificial intelligence to scan all of our pages for unfriendly feedback. He points them out for our moderators to remove. And last week we launched the thanksgiving feature. For the first time, instead of clicking like, you can just say “thank you.” It is something that the community wanted to do. Ultimately, we make sure to anticipate the problem based on software and human tools.
Does it simplify things that the contents are generally focused on programming problems?
We are lucky that it is very objective. The answer is correct or wrong. There are no opinions, like in a forum. Just facts. And with the facts it is more difficult for things to get out of control.
You are pioneers of teleworking. Have you noticed any changes with the pandemic?
In some dimensions, for sure. We are very lucky because we adopted teleworking years ago. 80% of our product engineers and 40-60% of our marketing team were remote before the pandemic. Much of our culture, our behavior and how we include people has remained the same. For example, before the pandemic, if a single person from a meeting was not in the office, what we did was go to our respective jobs and do the meeting by Zoom. In this way we ensure that everyone feels included and that they are not a tiny screen in the room.
I think the biggest leap is that everyone is working in the privacy of their homes, with their families around them and without the ability to separate work from everything else. In some ways, it has brought us closer together. Now I know that Khalid (communication manager) ran six miles today at lunchtime. He knows what I ate last week. It is a different level of conversation.
In Spain, there is a historical aversion to this format. The general idea is that people work less from home. What is your experience in this regard?
The world is going to change. I guarantee you. There are two ways to approach things when you lead large groups of people. One is the traditional one, from top to bottom, with a lot of inspection, micro management and surveillance. And in the office there is this artificial pressure to do things. But the world is moving towards a leadership philosophy based on trust. And this means that it doesn’t matter how you do it while you do your job.
It is not possible to micromanage, you have to give a clear objective to your people and trust that they will achieve it. You can’t get people to go to the office just by having them there; you have to trust that they will do their job. He is much more attached than ever to empathetic leadership.
How is that trust cultivated?
We are very specific in the ways we help our employees. And all that settles over time. We can trust that they will do the same because we are giving them the ability to adjust to this.
It’s not that people don’t have to be accountable. We are all very focused on results. It is about giving them enough space to do what they have to do.