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September’s Loop Blog post was just published: Summer Bridge to Tech for Kids. In this post, we go over the Summer Bridge program that we got to be a part of! The purpose of the program is to expose tens of thousands of New York City teens with paid summer work experience in the tech space. In the workplace challenge that we designed for the students, we asked them to explore how we could make Stack Overflow more engaging for students:

As one of Summer Bridge’s partners, Stack Overflow designed a workplace challenge to give students a taste of what it’s like to work in the tech industry and to give us a chance to learn more about how students engaged with our developer community.

The challenge we presented to the Summer Bridge interns was straightforward: how do we make Stack Overflow a place where students can participate and get more engaged on the platform? While many student coders are familiar with our developer community - especially those looking for help with their computer science homework - few of them come to Stack Overflow to become active contributors on the site. Most of them would land on Stack Overflow looking for an answer to their programming questions and leave - if they knew who we were at all. We challenged the students to form groups, learn more about our community, and present their ideas to a panel of employees on our Community Teams.

Feedback is very important to us because it allows us to gain new insights about the user experience from a fresh perspective. Their thoughts and feedback on educating new users and better supporting students, the next generation of developers and technologists, was thoughtful and helpful. We’ve heard requests for better onsite guidance from all users, new and veteran, and their participation provided more insight for us as we explore ways to support all users on Stack Overflow.”

We’re interested in hearing your thoughts about what we learned, along with any questions you may have below.

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This scares me.

The challenge we presented to the Summer Bridge interns was straightforward: how do we make Stack Overflow a place where students can participate and get more engaged on the platform?

Not because I hate students; far from it. I tutor folks in software development and network security on the side, and have been doing so since I joined Stack Overflow.

The next sentence should've brought comfort to my gut reaction in that we're going to have another Eternal September scenario on our hands, but...it didn't?

While many student coders are familiar with our developer community—especially those looking for help with their computer science homework—few of them come to Stack Overflow to become active contributors on the site. Most of them would land on Stack Overflow looking for an answer to their programming questions and leave—if they knew who we were at all.

The scope and goal of this effort to engage students appears to be centered around user retention.

Not any of the below:

  • Better guidance on how to write questions
  • Reasons why their questions are closed
  • Reasons why their homework dumps often don't get appreciated
  • A heart-to-heart to ask students what their expectations are of a community like Stack Overflow when it comes to their engagement

I'm going to level with you - at the end of the day, it doesn't matter what skill level you're at when you come to or engage on Stack Overflow, so long as you're willing to contribute in a positive and meaningful way.

This effort doesn't display to me, the not-so-average Stack Overflow user/passerby, that this message is being conveyed. What is being conveyed is a plea to students to get them to hang out here without really setting up some of the expectations that we have of students.

If we tell students what we're expecting up front, and they respond with what they're looking for up front, we could find a middle ground in which parts of Stack Overflow could work well for their use case.

There was a golden opportunity to do that, and it wasn't seized on.

That's what scares me.

I'd say that there are some things that could be said to get me to come off of the ceiling, but I don't think there are. We've been down this road ever since the site's existed and I hate to feel like we've just ignored that history once again (and I really do believe we have). If you want to convince me that you're not, then your actions need to really align with that. I don't see that they have.

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    To me, the second quote said "mission accomplished" - that's EXACTLY how SO is useful to folks starting out, whether they be students or old pros learning a new tool. It'd be interesting though to see more structured guidance for folks who are learning how to research their problems. See also: meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/335386/… – Shog9 Sep 30 '20 at 20:05
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    That may have been the mission a while ago @Shog9, but to be blunt I don't know what the mission is anymore. No one's bothered to tell us what they're trying to do; they're just doing stuff. All I can do is tell them that some of the stuff they want to doesn't make sense, but if they ain't listening, then I don't really feel like pointing it out anymore. – Makoto Sep 30 '20 at 20:16
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    Eh, I have a lotta thoughts on that, but for now they're in Discord. For here, I'd say: you can tell a glass bottle that its mission is to be a hammer, but it knows better. – Shog9 Sep 30 '20 at 20:20
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    While your answer really resonates with me, I also read some other things in the blogpost. "proposed a number of solutions: creating introductory content for students just learning to code, encouraging more peer-to-peer relationships on the site with a mentoring program, and making the site design more transparent about how to properly engage with the community." While these are all solutions we heard before, I hope SE gets to work on those more seriously this time, as they come from the "Target Audience" itself this time... – Luuklag Sep 30 '20 at 20:22
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    @Luuklag: Since Stack Overflow decided not to, in its infinite wisdom, share any of that feedback that they received with us as part of this blog post, then I refuse to hold any level of faith that they'll be executing on that. – Makoto Sep 30 '20 at 20:36
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    @Makoto I wouldn't read too far into this. It was nice hearing from kids what they would change as well as to give them the opportunity to share their thoughts with us from an outsider's perspective. Should we decide to make a major effort to recruit more students, we would approach it from a number of different ways. We used this as a chance to hear about first impressions from people we don't hear from often. Many of them weren't coding students, and this was mid COVID on a shorter timeline, a deeper dive into their user experience didn't make sense given the context. – Sara Chipps Oct 1 '20 at 1:04
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    So @SaraChipps, what was the chief objective of engaging students and asking them how to make Stack Overflow a place where they could participate and engage more? I'm genuinely not trying to read tea leaves or anything else; I'm only taking what I've been shown and reacting to that, and my gut reaction is "user retention". If there's another objective, or my gut reaction is incorrect, I would prefer it spelled out in the blog post as opposed to Meta comments, since the former is easier to reference. – Makoto Oct 1 '20 at 16:23
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    That makes sense, and thanks for the thought regarding the blog post and that not being spelled out. The overarching goal here was to provide mentorship and opportunity for students and to listen to their opinions and research as anecdotal feedback. – Sara Chipps Oct 1 '20 at 17:26
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    I suggest that your mindset is set at rejection at any proposal, idea, comment, or good-willed intention by staff and company employees. Being scared because a bunch of teenagers had participated and/or were shown how the Stack Overflow site worked, is "melodrama". – Mari-Lou A Oct 29 '20 at 8:02
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    It's that type of attitude that perpetuates SO poor online reputation. Try being less pessimistic, and frustrated that the company is not doing what you think needs to be done. You don't work for Stack Exchange, you don't have the overall picture. What on earth is wrong with getting teenagers and maybe future developers engaged with a site that will (should?) help them in their chosen careers. Overall, it's a good initiative. – Mari-Lou A Oct 29 '20 at 8:09
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    @Mari-LouA: While I honestly don't trust that you want to have an actual conversation about this, and this is just a thinly veiled attack, I'll bite anyway. I'm not rejecting the idea of engaging with a group. I'm not rejecting the notion of outreach. It's quite nice that staff decided to engage with a group of users that do use the site on a regular basis. What I emphatically reject is that their message and their scope/intent of outreach seems to be wildly out of touch with what Stack Overflow users have been talking about for eight years now. – Makoto Oct 29 '20 at 16:13
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    @Mari-LouA: The biggest fear is that Stack Overflow is going to turn into a site/service in which everyone gets to ask a question, and all of the stuff about quality that we've been trying to tell people about and trying to share gets to be thrown out the window for the sake of - wait for it - more users. I'm not opposed to more users in the slightest, but I'm going to reject any kind of philosophy that turns my volunteer role into a tutoring or mentoring role without being able to set my own rate per hour so that I can bill for my time. – Makoto Oct 29 '20 at 16:16
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    @Mari-LouA: And yes, it is a fear. These days it's not the case that I lose as much sleep about it since the company is going to do what it wants to do anyway. But, unlike using a roll of toilet paper, a site like Stack Overflow is a child that's starting to hit puberty and has a lot of confusion about what it really wants to be when it hits adulthood and full maturity. Given the right guidance and support system the site can stand on its own two feet. Given the wrong guidance and it'll turn into the thing that it was originally brought in this world to defeat: forums. – Makoto Oct 29 '20 at 16:20
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The blog seems like an ultra-high level overview of the program so....

  • what's the takeaways for us crusty old timers?
  • what specifically might improve our new user onboarding, and how do we get new users to get the cultural elements of the sites?
  • what might be some ideas for converting folks who're here for finding a quick answers from flyover users to folks with roots in the community?
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    I think a good takeaway that we didn't share on the blog was, "kids have very different ideas/experiences that we are used to". Many of their ideas were things we hear often "Make the design more attractive/inviting", "Let people have discussions, not just ask/answer questions" but others were surprising, "motivate people to answer with cash", "maybe partner with celebrities to promote your website because most people have never heard of it", "let people cash in their points for swag". – Sara Chipps Oct 1 '20 at 1:09
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    I think that this exercise helped confirm to us that new users really don't know what they are getting into when they get started. We've long talked about improving onboarding so people can better understand the rules of the sites and how to engage meaningfully, my biggest takeaway was a confirmation that this process could use improving. – Sara Chipps Oct 1 '20 at 1:11
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    For your last question, I think that's a much longer answer than this comment box will let me leave. Based on what I've seen and heard since I've joined and even in the past 10 years as a participant I think that there is a lot of product work that we can do to improve the experience of both new users and experiences ones to ensure symbiotic interactions over clunky and/or difficult ones. – Sara Chipps Oct 1 '20 at 1:14
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    I really appreciate you interacting @SaraChipps, especially since your previous experiences with the community where far from ideal! I really look forward to how you and your team are going to make onboarding a better experience. I don't think there were any fundamental changes since I joined SO a couple of years ago during my studies. Back then it was a steep learning curve. I was lucky that the tag I had my questions in was rather small and mostly willing to help. I can't imagine how that would be in a mainstream tag like Java, where your post just gets closed quickly without any comments... – Luuklag Oct 1 '20 at 11:53
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    @SaraChipps continued. Once you master that steep curve it is easy sailing, but I think a lot of users fall down while attempting to scale the proverbial mountain. I think that is also part why people perceive us as unwelcoming, while they just don't understand our norms and values and are put off by that. So yeah in conclusion, I really love to see some way to improve that onboarding. Perhaps some general introduction text upon writing one's first post. – Luuklag Oct 1 '20 at 11:59
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    @Luuklag thank you. I think you're right, and your experience was not uncommon. It's something that we discuss often, in fact, just this morning in our MBR (monthly business review) it was a big topic (onboarding and the learning curve). – Sara Chipps Oct 1 '20 at 17:27
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    @SaraChipps "Cash in points for swag" is akin to a thing some people point out you used to have. RE Celebrity endorsements: Is there any celebrity more significant than Google? Any programming question I've had in the last decade has had a first-page Stack Exchange hit (though sometimes irrelevant) on $favorite_search_engine. – Michael Oct 8 '20 at 16:18
  • "motivate people to answer with cash" was of course the idea of the hyphenated site. – OrangeDog Nov 1 '20 at 14:29
  • Well SE did have contests with tangible rewards in the past. While not cash cash ... Close enough – Journeyman Geek Nov 1 '20 at 14:31

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