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I'm not sure if this is the right Stack Exchange site to be asking this question, but I can't find anything better. Furthermore, this topic might be considered too subjective, but I hope not.

So, this is something that's been bugging me the last few days. I'm a computer science student, and I recently started doing web site development for a medical research start-up. When I'm working on projects/writing code, I feel like I do pretty well. Not that this really counts as a measure of programming ability, but I've aced every one of programming classes. I follow best practices, I do my research, I try to answer as many of questions on my own as I can, and usually I can figure it out. I write code on my own, I read code on my own, I learn on my own.

But when I log into Stack Overflow, I can't help but feeling that there's something that I'm not doing right. The sheer volume of questions that I don't even understand, let alone know how to answer, leaves me feeling like a lost child. I understand that I've just started, but I can't help but be intimidated. When I do see a question that I could answer, I don't even have the ability to comment to ask for more information - the only thing I can do is post an answer, which I try to avoid doing unless I'm 100% sure about it. Not to focus on Rep, but it's slightly frustrating to not have enough of it.

So, my overly-subjective question is: what advice can you give me to improve my programming skills and knowledge, and in doing so, hopefully improve my contributions to the Stack Exchange sites?

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The sheer volume of questions that I don't even understand, let alone know how to answer, leaves me feeling like a lost child. Don't worry about it, concentrate on the tags you are more familiar with and in time you'll feel more confident in exploring unfamiliar tags or more advanced questions. We all get the same feeling once in a while, and I personally get it every time I visit CSTheory. ;) –  Yannis Jun 19 '12 at 16:22
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Also, follow the other answers to the questions you don't understand, and see if you can learn something from those answers. There is an amazing amount of things other answers will teach you this way. –  Martijn Pieters Jun 19 '12 at 16:23
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Stack Overflow is a humbling place; I consider myself a pretty decent programmer, but I'd be surprised if I had enough domain knowledge to answer even 5% of the questions asked there. Programming is a huge field; nobody knows all of it. –  Robert Harvey Jun 19 '12 at 16:47
    
I will echo the above; I learn so much browsing answers on the tags I even know best. –  Andrew's a Unitato Jun 19 '12 at 19:03

2 Answers 2

But when I log into Stack Overflow, I can't help but feeling that there's something that I'm not doing right. The sheer volume of questions that I don't even understand, let alone know how to answer.

As Yannis mentions you should concentrate on the tags that you are more familiar with. The SO interface can help with this. See the faq

How do I search for questions with specific tags?

Stack Overflow tag filtering

What do "favorite tags" and "ignored tags" do?

When I do see a question that I could answer, I don't even have the ability to comment to ask for more information - the only thing I can do is post an answer, which I try to avoid doing unless I'm 100% sure about it

You only need to get to 50 to be able to comment. How does "Reputation" work? Explains the various ways to get this. I'm sure you could find a way that may be lower pressure. For example suggesting edits that are approved get +2.

Also while its not ideal you can always answer a question that you are 85% sure of instead of 100% . Worst case scenario you'll have to edit or delete your answer.

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Even the areas that I do feel pretty comfortable with can be pretty humbling. C++ is a good example -- I feel like I've got a pretty good grasp of the language, but looking at some of those questions really makes me re-consider that opinion. –  mikeTheLiar Jun 19 '12 at 17:04

It might help if you added Programmers Stack Exchange in your daily routine. Programmers main focus is conceptual questions on software development, and to put it simply our (good) answers tend be thorough(ish) explanations on why and how a solution works, instead of the Stack Overflow norm of providing a solution that works. I think that for a beginner it's a bit more important to understand the concepts first, and care for a coding solution later, and Programmers may prove a bit more useful to you than Stack Overflow (for now).

However, there is a catch, we don't really cater to beginners the way Stack Overflow does, and although you'll enjoy reading through our questions and answers, you might find it a tad difficult to ask a question. That's perfectly fine, I haven't managed to post a good question on Programmers, albeit being a moderator ;)

As for Stack Overflow:

  • You have 21 rep currently, which means you can talk in chat. Getting a quick clarification on a question from the platform's specific chat room may be all you need in understanding the question.
  • You'll soon get 50 rep, which will allow you to comment everywhere. A quite helpful privilege to have, when you get there, don't be afraid to ask askers and answerers for clarifications.
  • Everyone of us is a beginner in something, there's a ton of question and answers I have absolutely no idea what they are about. Not even the slightest clue.
  • Don't just read. If there's an answer on a language you're somewhat familiar with that you don't completely understand, fire up your IDE and hack away. Seeing the code actually work is far more valuable than reading about it, and even just typing it will help (a tiny bit).
  • Don't waste your time worrying. Don't get stuck in a puzzling question or answer, if you don't get it staring at the screen won't help much. Move on to the next one, and then to the next one. There's a mega-bazillion questions for you to explore...
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