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There's a guy I work with that gets mad a me for answering questions at work. I think giving back to the community is completely justified as part of my 20% time. I've also saved a lot of time by asking questions.

So, is answering questions at work justified? Or am I really just goofing off on company time?

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migrated from Aug 21 '09 at 16:36

This question came from our site for professional and enthusiast programmers.

I'm looking forward to Jon Skeet's answer to this. – Anthony Dec 16 '08 at 17:13
Sounds to me like you may not actually have 20% time... – NotMe Dec 16 '08 at 18:44
Perhaps I should have clarified. 20% time is sort of a common euphemism around my client that means non-billable work related to professional development. – Zachary Yates Dec 16 '08 at 20:25
The guy you who's complaining: is he counting his sulking time as professional development? – kajaco Dec 23 '08 at 15:03

29 Answers 29

Your manager would probably say you goof off on company time, but I say give as you get. If you, and thus your company, save time on questions asked on so, you should give the same amount of knowledge to others as you received.

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I agree. I think the net benefit of productivity gained from SO is positive, meaning I'm better with it than without. Thanks for the answer. – Zachary Yates Dec 16 '08 at 20:05

If he's a guy you work with, rather than under, he really needs to learn to mind his own business. People are much happier at work when they don't appoint themselves arbiters of productivity and fairness.

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It's with, not under. This was my first reaction as well, but I realized that before I responded negatively to him, I should evaluate my own motives. Thanks for the answer. – Zachary Yates Dec 16 '08 at 20:04
Careful - it's never a good idea to respond negatively to these sorts (or anyone, really). Check out his political connections before answering at all. If he's the boss's "pet", then become discrete. – Huntrods Dec 16 '08 at 22:17
Well, I'm not suggesting you should snap at him to mind his own business. You might try some Socratic method: "Why does that concern you?" Say he says you're getting paid for nothing. "Do you pay my salary?" And so forth. – Kyralessa Dec 17 '08 at 2:54

It's simple. SO is a peer-based development support resource. If all of our peers were only interested in asking questions, it wouldn't be much of a resource. Therefore in order to maintain this as a useful resource, you must give as well as take. USENET groups work in the same way...

The alternative is paid support, and given that MS charge £200 + VAT per support call, suddenly 20 mins a day spent on SO seems financially prudent.

In addition, you can't help but inadvertently learn new tricks, techniques & approaches... from a business perspective, it's a no-brainer.

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MS charge £230 per support ticket?! With a guaranteed fix at the end of it all? – Oli Dec 16 '08 at 16:50
A guaranteed fix? Perhaps. A call I made a few weeks ago resulted in a 'You must re-format your machine' fix. Thankfully I get free support through MSDN - I would not have been pleased to pay £235 for that solution! – CJM Dec 16 '08 at 17:06
20 minutes. Oh dear. I think I overrun on that. – JeeBee Dec 16 '08 at 17:12
I agree, thanks for the answer. – Zachary Yates Dec 16 '08 at 20:06

If you are getting your work done on time, then yes.
Otherwise, no.

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Nice. I would have put just 'nice' if there wasn't a 10 character minimum. – Zachary Yates Dec 16 '08 at 20:20

If you've gotta ask the question, you're likely goofing off and avoiding work and asking the SO community to help you justify that. However, it can be legitimately used. I save no end of time researching answers to problems on boards like this. So I see absolutely no harm in answering questions as I come across them.

As long as it doesn't impede my work and I'm meeting all my deadlines for the various projects I have on the table, my code is good quality and I'm not constantly goofing off, then great - it's a tool just like MSDN but interactive.

However, if you're being paid by the hour to complete your work (such as a contractor), then morally, should an employer be obliged to pay you to sit on StackOverflow all day long? Of course not - they're paying you to do a job to the best of your ability. When you choose to give back to the community is your own decision - but your employer probably won't be as understanding as you'd like them to be.

You do have a far greater potential to get sucked into not working by a whole forum of developers wanting to bounce ideas of others than if it's just a couple of coworkers though... I dunno, I think I'd say it's 6 of one and half a dozen of the other.

Toss a coin and there's your answer.

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I can't even remember the last time I've missed a deadline. I am a contractor, I also don't bill for project downtime. So, it's not so much a moral issue, it's more of a paradigm comparison between me and the colleague. I'm really trying to evaluate my own point of view to see if it's off base. – Zachary Yates Dec 16 '08 at 20:13
@Zach: Find things he does "wrong" and feel free to point them out to him when they annoy you :oP My personal view is that so long as give and take is approximately equal then that's fair. Evaluate how much time you would've wasted figuring it out yourself and don't spend more than that on SO ;) – BenAlabaster Dec 16 '08 at 20:19
@balabaster: Excellent point. I think that's going to be my measure of comparison from now on. – Zachary Yates Dec 17 '08 at 18:04

Next time ask him how he dares to look for answers on stackoverflow in company time ;)

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That's true. Its sort of a slippery slope. Thanks for the answer. – Zachary Yates Dec 16 '08 at 20:07

Even if it's a one-way street (just giving), it could be beneficial for your personal development and thus, beneficial for your company. Teaching is a good way to learn more.

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Very true. I can think of several bad architecture decisions I have avoided by helping others find the right answer on SO. Thanks for the answer. – Zachary Yates Dec 16 '08 at 20:18

If you ask question and get work done via SO, sure. Why not?

Otherwise, if it's all give and no take (very charitable of you, thanks) your company might not be happy having you provide the world technical support on their dime.

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It's abusable like anything else, but I know I'm learning as much as I'm helping here so I don't see why it should be a problem for any reasonably forward looking company, no more than spending time on google.

If you aren't abusing it...

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I've actually learned several things that saved me later by answering questions, it's sort of a qualitative benefit. Definitely hard to quantify. – Zachary Yates Dec 16 '08 at 20:14

Is posting on SO hindering your work? If so, then you should really cut back or stop. If not, tell your coworker to mind his own business.

I'm all for being productive, but I dislike the idea that while at work my time is 100% dedicated to working for my employer. As long as I'm getting my work done and on time, I think I have a right to slack off every once in a while.

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Very to the point. I agree, I can't remember the last time I missed a deadline. In fact, most companies have HR policies related to professional development, and that's what I consider it to fall under. – Zachary Yates Dec 16 '08 at 20:19

Yes .

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Perfect...! (ellipsis added to satisfy 10 character minimum) – Zachary Yates Dec 16 '08 at 20:21
Ellipsis wasn't needed due to the explanation of why the ellipsis was needed ... – Peter Ajtai Sep 1 '10 at 23:40
But without the ellipsis, the explanation of said ellipsis would also be unnecessary. – SomeShinyObject May 29 '13 at 14:15

I work in the technical support area for The MathWorks, answering questions about MATLAB is my job.

I am also always looking for ways to make our user community better, so answering questions here is very much part of my job. I just wish there were more MATLAB questions.

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yup, Matlab questions few and far between. Me thinks I need to start asking more questions ;) – Azim Jan 13 '09 at 6:55

Stack Overflow has become part of my work nowadays. It is definitely not wasting time and not unethical on our part to spend some working time to help the community.

I have had some wonderful people @SO helping me out. This is the sequence that has become more common for me in solving a problem:

  1. Break my head for sometime
  2. Post the question in SO
  3. Go for a coffee and come back to find the answer !
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By answering questions and making comments, I get feedback from other people as well as the chance to prototype my thoughts in prose form before using them at work. I only answer questions that ex ante appear useful to me in some way to answer.

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I do. when others spend 15 minutes at the watercooler on a coffee break or smoke break I tend to take a stack overflow break. I justify them as networking/info sharing/info receiving activities. my use of my break time certainly is more productive than discussing the relative merits of the recent nhl/nfl/nba/nascar/reality tv event from the weekend.

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Since it appears that you work with this guy versus under this guy, I agree with everyone else in that he should mind his business. Not to try to bring in some lame media tie-in, but I couldn't help of think of this scenario from [the American version] of The Office (sounds like your co-worker is Dwight):

From Business Ethics...

At the seminar, Dwight claimed that he never takes personal time during work, so Jim uses a stopwatch to count even the smallest distractions that befall Dwight, such as yawning, sneezing and using the restroom. As a result, Dwight never stops working, restraining himself from speaking when Jim spreads misinformation about his favorite show, Battlestar Galactica, urinating in a soda bottle, rather than using the bathroom, and somehow managing to sneeze with his eyes open. Dwight finally stops caring about Jim's antagonism when he comes back into the office, having sneaked away. Dwight does admit that he is not as ethical as he claimed, and Jim appears happy to hear this and stops using the stopwatch.

I dunno, I found it funny and somewhat relevant =).

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I do appreciate the reference to The Office. Although the coworker isn't really a Dwight, thinking of him in that way just made my day. Thanks for the answer. – Zachary Yates Dec 17 '08 at 20:06

I have no problems with my developers using SO during work. In my opinion, it is a tool, just like any other. I actually wish that they would use it more, because it is not just a place to ask questions, but a really good place to learn outside of your area of comfort.

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Great response. Thats a simple, pragmatic approach. – Zachary Yates Dec 23 '08 at 15:41

Spending any time doing non-work related things on company time(and company dollars) can be considered abuse. The issue is defining "non-work related".

If you frequently search for and find answers in the community, then I would consider you to be actively supporting a valuable company resource.

20% may be a bit overkill.

If I told my boss that he was spending 30k a year to support stackoverflow, he might be a bit annoyed.

Just be smart about it. If community work does not interfere with deadlines and bottom lines, then I would say it is justifiable.

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I am a contractor. I don't tend to bill for downtime. I don't think abuse is an issue. I really am trying to figure out if answering the few questions I have on SO is beneficial to the client, and I think it has been. The difference between me and the coworker is a matter of viewpoint, I believe. – Zachary Yates Dec 16 '08 at 20:23
30k is 20% for you? Nicely done :) – warren Jan 27 '10 at 13:53

It takes a community to build a good program.

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Answering questions is part of the cost of using StackOverflow. i'd tell him, "Tough."

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Well, getting help from the development community has got me through many challenges in the past. I feel it's only fair that I return the favor. Everything in moderation though. As long as you are getting the work done and keeping your deadlines I don't see why it would matter what you do with your time.

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Just tell your buddy Jon Skeet does it, too. And he works at Google. Oops, I mean, Google works for him.

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I normally test any code examples I give, and that cements my knowledge or shows me where I've gone wrong.

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Good point- writing the samples out is different from having a general knowledge of how the concept works, and SO forces you to do that somewhat. – Zachary Yates Dec 23 '08 at 15:41

I justify my time spent as SO as a valuable investment for my employer. First of all, the site already contains a wealth of solutions. Second of all, whenever I can't find an answer, I can always ask my question here. Third of all, when I'm answering questions, I'm also exercising my brain cells to think about possible solutions to some problem. Thus, three valuable reasons to spend time here.

However, the amount of time at SO should be work-related. There's no value to me as an employee if I spend all my time here. So I restrict myself to just the quiet work moments. (During breaks or when I have to wait for some other process to finish.)

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I've learned more and more quickly by participating in SO over the past year or so than I learned in probably the previous 2 years combined. FWIW, I'm more of an answerer than an asker. I learn a lot of things when I answer questions -- both by solving problems and by questioning my assumptions -- even when I know the answer to the question. Often times I will answer a question and the act of answering the question will force me to learn enough to make the quality of the answer worth upvoting. The knowledge that I'm gaining is often going directly into improving the quality of my work and of the processes I use.

That said, I try to not let SO interfere with getting my work done (right now, for instance, I'm waiting for an upgrade to complete on my main dev box). So far I'm still getting very positive feedback from my boss with regard to both my work and timeliness. I have no lack of projects that he wants me to work on either.

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It makes me think about systems/development related things, and this is good for me and will make me better at my job.

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I'm surprised nobody has mentioned this... The answer

Answering questions is part of the cost of using StackOverflow. i'd tell him, "Tough."

Came close, but I think it's more than that. By answering questions you are building rep points which have two significant benefits:

  1. Your own questions have a higher likelyhood of being taken seriously/getting noticed, and thus being answered quickly. In my experience there are a lot of one-time users with poor questions, and I have found that as my reputation grew, my questions started receiving more attention.
  2. By gaining rep points you gain the ability to offer bounties, which can be an invaluable way to get a difficult question answered. So by spending time to answer others' questions you're "saving up" for the time you have a difficult problem at work which a bounty might help solve

So yes, I'd say, as long as you're allowed to spend time working on your own projects/taking breaks (your "20% time") and as long as you're meeting your deadlines, answering questions is a very good use of time.

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I think giving back to the community is completely justified as part of my 20% time.

Unless you are working for google you have no 20% time.

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Perhaps I should have clarified. 20% time is sort of a common euphemism around my client that means non-billable work related to professional development. It's actually far more common than you think, its just not called 20% time. – Zachary Yates Dec 16 '08 at 20:17
I don't work for Google and people have 20% here. – Tom Dec 17 '08 at 16:01

I feel you should not spend more than half an hour for this.

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