Goodbye Software Joel

It is with some shock and a tinge of sadness that I announce that Microsoft is buying Stack Overflow*. I know many of you asked whether Stack Overflow would ever be picked up by Microsoft, especially after they purchased GitHub. But it is April Fool’s Day and so…

Hopefully you did not believe that we were bought for $31 billion. That was a joke. That being said, a well known developer once commented that Stack Overflow has saved developers around the globe at least $30 billion.

Okay, if you have recovered from your heart attack, let me share a real story, this one about our founder.

Arguably one of the most important voices in the software development world has been Joel Spolsky. When I was with Stack Overflow, I always knew that was true, but I never actually felt it until I brought Joel out to Hong Kong for the RISE conference last year. Unlike many of the other talks and keynotes though, both his sessions were jammed packed and developers mobbed around him when we walked the floor to exit the conference.

The next day at breakfast Joel quipped, “Now do you believe I’m a big deal?”

Joel dropping knowledge at RISE HK.

Rather than arrogance, it was Joel being his humorous self. If you have read his blog Joel on Software or listened to the Stack Overflow podcast, you will recognize what I mean. Joel has perfected the somewhat offbeat, quirky, self-deprecating, humble brag sense of humor.

Which is why it’s bittersweet to see the news that Joel is stepping down as CEO of Stack Overflow. He will still be Chairman of the Board, but they are now passing the mantle of Joel’s vision to someone else. So if you want to be CEO of a rapidly growing tech company, here’s your chance, just send your resume to their recruitment team.**

As Joel shared in his announcement, he has been on an incredible journey over the past twenty years. First building Fog Creek Software, then launching Stack Overflow with Jeff Atwood, and then kicking off a side project called Trello. With the success came the recognition that maybe other leaders needed to step in to further his work. That’s why Anil Dash was brought on as CEO of Glitch (formerly Fog Creek) and Michael Pryor leads Trello, which is now part of Atlassian.

Joel has now reached the same point with Stack Overflow. What started as a quirky idea without a business model led to a company that is $70 million in revenue, employs 300 people globally, and has offices in NYC and London. They are at an inflection point in their history and Joel felt it was best to hand over the reigns to someone ready and able to carry Stack Overflow forward to the next stage of growth.

What does the future hold if Joel is not leading the ship? Not being the CEO, I could not say definitively, but my belief based upon my years at Stack Overflow is that their future will follow two distinct, tightly intertwined goals.

The first is serving the global community of developers. They have done this over the past ten years by having an amazing resource for developers to solve problems and learn. They extended that to helping developers in their work world by enabling sharing of internal knowledge through they Teams product. But in terms of how Stack Overflow can enable developers to truly grow in their skills, there are many more opportunities to help developers to learn and advance in their professional careers.

This is especially important as more and more developers come into the workforce without the skills to be productive day one. Something that Joel said on an AMA mirrors many of the conversations I have with IT leaders:

But today there is such an extreme shortage of developers that people really need to take a step back and ask things like, “how do I make a successful team out of the raw material I’m given?” Or, “How can I recruit people that don’t seem particularly smart or get things done but who I can mold into that”. I have come to feel that companies, especially larger ones, need to take on a lot more of the training responsibility of programmers instead of just complaining that nobody shows up already as a programming god(dess) on day 1.

Finding day one ready developers is like finding unicorns. Especially as technology cycles shorten and the level of complexity in systems and architectures grows more daunting to understand. That is the disconnect that exists today in hiring and the expectations in what developers are capable of at the start. Companies will need to take on more of the ownership for the technical development of their own staff.

The second key goal for the future of Stack Overflow is helping companies navigate the changing state of software development and find success in their digital transformation. I have shared before the dismal statistics when it comes to success of these initiatives.

There are many reasons for why, and frankly it is a bigger challenge than Stack Overflow can tackle. Where they can help though is in helping teams and companies communicate and collaborate more effectively. This means enabling culture shift, breaking internal silos, and building institutional knowledge that enables companies to become more agile and faster from a software delivery perspective.

Software talent and digital transformation may seem like two separate threads. They are actually tightly intertwined when you consider that the future is built on software. The companies that thrive in the next decade are the ones that invest in upskilling their talent to build the software of the future and that have a sharing culture built on a community that enables developers to do their best work. Without the talent and the mechanisms for sharing knowledge, organizations are not going to be equipped to create the software that enables success in their transformation programs.

There will be changes at Stack Overflow with Joel leaving. What I hope never changes is the spirit of Stack Overflow, a site for all developers where they freely help each other to learn and solve problems. Hopefully they can deliver on that vision with better focus under their new leadership, continue the work to make Stack more welcoming to newbies, and expand what they offer in the service of developers and developer teams worldwide.

Let me then end this edition of the DEV.BIZ.OPS. newsletter with a tribute to Joel and some inspiration by the song greats Elton John and Bernie Taupin:

Goodbye Software Joel
From the coder on the 27th floor
Who sees you as something more than technical
More than just our founder Joel Spolsky.

What Joel has meant, if anything, for you and your career as a developer? Who are other tech leaders you admire or wish to emulate?

*DISCLAIMER: The whole Microsoft buying Stack Overflow is an April Fool’s joke and in no way is this an actual thing, in case you truly thought this was really happening and are challenged with reading comprehension 🤣

**UPDATE: The new CEO was announced October 2019 and Prashanth Chandrasekar was chosen to lead Stack Overflow.

How do you know a component from XML?

LOL, someone built a neural network to create fake Stack Overflow questions…

We help IT leaders in enterprises solve the cultural challenges involved in digital transformation and move towards a community based culture that delivers innovation and customer value faster. Learn more about our work here.



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