Lessons from Stackoverflow: missing education should not stop you from being a good developer

To put this blog into perspective: I've the weakest of all possible computer science degrees you can imagine. It's formally a degree in computer science but half of my curriculum was in communication engineering which is an interesting field (if you want to build a digital hearing aid for your grandma) but does not really help with software development.

I do appreciate the work of Jeff Atwood at Stackoverflow. It's a great site. It is a viable programming resource. Judging based on his results he is a good developer.

Ironically you can build a good product without been a topnotch computer scientist. This is really encouraging for me.

I'd been reading Jeff Atwood's blog for more than two years because it was funny, entertaining, presented a down-to-earth view of IT and provided insights of a different community (.net and Windows) from my Java community. But around the time he started Stackoverflow I quit reading his blog. I cannot say exactly why, but I lost its appeal a bit. I liked to read more computer science related stuff (mostly from the functional programming world). Roughly one year later I'm back again. I really like Stackoverflow.

But time and again listening to the Stackoverflow podcasts makes me wondering how's that possible. How could he write Stackoverlow? In the latest Stackoverflow podcast #79 Joel Spolsky tried to explain that you can parse only regular languages with regexps parser. (Actually, most implementations allow more than that. For example back referencing is more powerful than regular expressions.) This explanation goes on and on. This was like a déjà vu when he tried to explain Jeff and Scott Hanselman Hindley-Milner type inference algorithm used by the Haskell compiler. (He tried to explain that you can deduce the return type of a method from the parameters and the functions called. Let's say he did not get too far.)

Jeff explains why it's great to have his first open-source project. How many bugs he fixed and that he is now at the point where the hairy problems start. Few people seem to be able to help fixing the problems in the C# port of the PHP and Perl implementations. Joel explains again and again that you need a lexer and parser generator to parse Markdown and every student with a parser course can tell you that this is right tool for this kind of problem. That a transformation from an AST is a piece of cake. I never had a parser course so don't expect a scientific explanation here, but I was at least able to parse a subset of SQL with Parser Combinators. The moment Jeff started to explain his open source project. That the parsing is done with regular expressions I though: "Hell, why didn't he use a lexer/parser for that."

But you can learn something from Jeff Atwood's example: Your meager education should not stop you from being a good developer. We can't all have ivy league education. (They wouldn't be ivy league if everyone would get a degree. The system does only work because it discriminates between students.) Let's get over it.  Put your enthusiasm in your work and learn the bits and pieces you have to learn to get the jobs done. Try to constantly improve your theoretical knowledge, your tool knowledge, quality of your code and your communication skills. Maintain your critical thinking to spot ways you can improve. You can't known everything but you should known what you don't known:

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.

The known unknowns will slow you down, but only the unknown unknowns can hurt you. These are the places where you put to much effort into a problem that is already solved like parsing. But a star maverick developer can only develop so much. There will be times when a Duct Tape Developer is needed and the pure theory boys won't get the job done. This is the one thing you can learn from the Stackoverflow story: It's the motivation, stupid.

By the way, if you have doubts about your abilities, this is probably a good sign.


  1. Nice post. Trainability is main thing

  2. I always sad that:


  3. I would agree, but I have to say that I'm getting increasingly frustrated with the hordes of programmers that lack basic theoretical knowledge.

    Which is kind of ironic, since I'm a self-taught highschool drop-out...

  4. You can check another side of the story in http://ctasada.blogspot.com/2009/09/stackoverflow-and-lazy-developers.html