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A well-run company is supposed to be led from the top with a good vision of what it can be. With the kind of decisions that have been made recently, I don't see that's the case.

  • New Colors update that introduced so many bugs and UX issues
  • AI Features that introduced so many problems of their own and added questionable value
  • Firing of valuable community members

I'm not even active on Stack Overflow and these are just some of the things I noticed that led me to form this conclusion.

There's so many things that can be done well to add further monetizable value to Stack Overflow. It just requires better execution. And a better vision.

I'm not going to say how to run SO in detail, that's not my job. But I will say this. Fundamentally a site that was built by the collective effort of community and only has value due to that effort, should prioritize its further development around that. Just because GenAI exists is no reason for GenAI to be the focal point. If anything GenAI should be used to create tools that empower the builders of this knowledge hub, not replace them.

Ultimately, the responsible party should be CEO. A good CEO is able to take responsibility for all decisions. I hate those companies that fire lower-level positions when something goes wrong. CEO should know what is going on in his company and be able to assess whether things being done are good or not. I think what's happened is after the founders exited, a corporate MBA took over but they don't have the depth of character or skill required to run a thing well. Stack Overflow might need its founders again to survive. But the chances of founders wanting to return may be nil.

So I think this CEO should lay himself off and give way for hopefully a better successor.

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  • 3
    "community members"? Do you mean Community Managers? Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 14:39
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    I start to believe I had some kind of prediction that time :-( Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 14:47
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    @RandomPerson In this case they were both. Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 15:00
  • @JourneymanGeek OP mentioned "With the kind of decisions that have been made recently". I'm not sure which non-staff member was fired recently. Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 15:06
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    @RandomPerson I'm not sure where they stated the community member wasn't also staff. Catija is and has been for longer than she was staff, a community member. Given community members cant be fired, it's fairly easy to assume that's what was meant. (combined with the fact that one incident is recent and the other is not.)
    – Kevin B
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 15:08
  • 4
    Both community managers who were downsized were active members of the community. So calling them community members isn't inaccurate Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 15:13
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    Regardless of my viewpoint here, calls for resignation of SE employees are off-topic on MSE, so I'm voting to close
    – cocomac
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 15:31
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    I’m voting to close this question because calls for SE staff resignation(s) are off-topic
    – cocomac
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 15:31
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    SE management often forgets that the community and their paying clients aren't two disjoint groups. It is us that, in the end of the day, will end up poking our managers for Teams or whatever product SE ends up selling... if, and only if, we're happy with the company. If the community here on the main sites is upset with SE, we'll be less inclined to suggest, agree, or help with the implementation of their tools on our workplaces. A tool like Teams only works because we like using Stack Exchange... or at least did in the past. Now not so much.
    – T. Sar
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 17:43
  • Now, if we don't like SE, we'll balk at the idea of using their products, which in turn will lead to managers asking if the investment is worthwhile, with the usage rates being on the low end. SE forgets that, and thinks that they can sell their products even if the community is unhappy with them. That's quite unfortunate for them.
    – T. Sar
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 17:46
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    If this question were edited to make it less personal (and I know you're talking about CEO-as-role and the responsibilities of leadership, but there is only one CEO), I think that would improve it. “There are problems!” wouldn't make a good answer, but it makes an adequate discussion question.
    – wizzwizz4
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 19:04
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    @cocomac This is not a direct call for the CEO's resignation; that is merely the ending comment, which forms somewhat of a conclusion. The post still stands on its own without that. It still remains a discussion about the way that the company is run. Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 20:09
  • Stack Overflow isn't the most profitable company and there are posted a lot of really low quality contributions on the platform every day. What else can one say? Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 21:34

6 Answers 6

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Stack Overflow was a spectacularly successful company for the founders, the investors and every employee with a significant share in the company. The company was sold for $1.8 billion to Prosus, that is a lot for such a relatively small company with generally modest revenue (as far as I understand the situation). Getting the company into a position to be sold for that amount and closing the acquisition are a significant achievement.

The company almost certainly isn't worth that much. As far as I understand Prosus adjusted the value of SO by roughly half a billion in their last financial statements. I don't understand the specifics here well enough and I'm happy to be corrected if I misread this. But it seems very plausible that the value of the company is now considered much lower than the $1.8 billion that were paid.

The activity, engagement and traffic on Stack Overflow and the network have been in decline for years. The company didn't find any way to counteract this. And recent developments like generative AI seem to have hastened that decline. The company did shut down their jobs portal a while ago, which was a significant source of revenue back then. They are trying to expand revenue on SO with Collectives, which does not appear to be very successful.

The most significant part of the valuation of the company was likely the SaaS product Teams. Which in an ideal world for the company would have been a way to scale revenue much higher than anything you could do on the public site alone. Using the large community and the established brand with developers the idea was to scale this enormously. In a presentation by Prosus you can see that they expected to scale valuation for SO by 4x-6x.

Given the recent layoffs and the statements by the company I strongly suspect this didn't develop as they planned. I don't think Teams is selling well, and those predictions are very far off.

I think the company is badly run in quite some areas, the most important one probably is the lack of focus the company shows. The decision making around some products just seems weird and misguided, Collectives is a weird mishmash of competing ideas with a terrible name. The most important asset of the company, the public sites, were neglected for a long time even though the slow decline in activity was known. There was no coherent strategy to fix that issue, and certainly not the necessary resources allocated to it. I won't even start on PR, SE has had several entirely unforced communication disasters that caused a lot of harm to community relations and wasted a lot of resources for the company.

Many of these problems predate the current CEO, so I don't think you can blame this on a single person. The current CEO did manage to sell the company, which is what he was hired for. Whether he is still the right person for the job is something only the board or the parent company can decide.

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  • I ran some math on my side, taking SO's claims about their numbers on Teams, and to me it appears that the product can't pay for itself on its own. That impressive 100k+ users on Microsoft, for example, wouldn't be near enough to cover the 500-something employees that stack had at the time, without even going into operational costs.
    – T. Sar
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 11:47
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    Sure, revenue might be up up up, but profit margins, especially with teams and stuff, seem to be quite down on the floor with the new company size and stuff. From outside, it appears that focusing so hard on teams was a grave mistake.
    – T. Sar
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 11:49
32

The issues with Monica wasn't with the current CEO. It’s not a matter of the people; it’s a matter of the goals.

And well SE has had systemic issues for years.

We don't know if a future CEO would be any better.

What we need, really is for the company to understand, and find a path that helps meet our goals, and more reasonable goals than hypergrowth for them.

I don't think that calling for any specific staff member is productive. It very much is a failure in meeting the company's goals, in terms of paid products having knock on effects on us, and I suspect that even a different CEO might have the same troubles.

On the other hand, we have literally no agency over the direction of the company. This isn't the first set of layoffs, precipitated by their inability to meet their own goals. While I don't believe in the company's current direction, the best we can do is watch out for our own communities, and the people we lost, and where there's the opportunity try to point whoever is listening in the right direction.

The community is what matters to us - and we can try to mitigate some of the damage by taking care of our communities. I don't trust the company to be a good steward at this point, but at the end of the day, we've survived some pretty bad stuff and when we have had enlightened leadership, we did pretty good.

At the end of the day though, the CEO's answerable to the owners of the company, not us, and frankly we're a lot more reasonable and patient. If anyone decides if he stays or goes, it’s them, and frankly our sites are likely to survive the AI obsession the current management has, even if I'm not convinced the losses are over.

I'm furious at the actions taken, but this isn't a fight worth fighting - it’s a rare individual whose absence or presence can fundamentally change things. And frankly I'm not seeing that right now. I've been in this very place before - full of fury, and calling for heads and... keeping yours screwed tight is the best you can do.

I'm not sure what the 'best' we can do in the big picture is frankly. This isn't where I figured the community would be, certainly not the layoffs and losing strong voices from the community. But if there's going to be more failure, we shouldn't be anywhere near the 'excuse' for it.

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    Regarding the first line. The Monica mess started under the previous CEO, but was completed under the present CEO. I for one feel it was handled very badly. IMO the current CEO is partially responsible for the way Monica was treated. Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 13:30
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    @S.L.Barthisoncodidact.com if anything, the new CEO could change any agreement done, and chose not to do that. Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 13:32
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    I think by "firing of valuable community members", OP was referring to Catija and the recent round of layoffs, not Monica.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 13:33
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    I'm not convinced Joel was really at the wheel at that time either. And it would have taken a distinct amount of moral courage - when frankly the main goal of the time was to Shepard the company to an IPO. I'd rather focus on the current issues and the future ones coming up personally. Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 13:33
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    I was honestly surprised with the hiring of Sara Chipps at the time - a person whose one of the companies they founded got embroiled into a rather sad racism situation. I'm not sure about the level of involvement they had on the issues on Girl Develop It, but it should have at least made one pause and ponder if that was a proper hire for a community management position.
    – T. Sar
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 11:53
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I've been following the development of StackOverflow from when it was just an idea being discussed in the Joel on Software podcast, through the private beta (Beta Badge holder), through to the present day and while I don't consider myself to be an active user of the site - and certainly not a member of the community! - the amount of time does result in having opinionsTM.

During the private beta and early days of StackOverflow it was quite clear that everyone was still learning how to run the site, and that it needed to be different from how Fog Creek Software was run. This is quite understandable and I really don't hold any of the missteps against anyone - honestly I suspect I would do a lot worse if I had to deal with explosive growth.

However, I do think one of the biggest mistakes made is that StackOverflow was attempting to follow a traditional tech startup progression of VC funding (i.e., Union Square Ventures), followed by the exit with Prosus. While I'm certainly not going to begrudge the founders (and hopefully a lot of the early employees) their luck with that exit. I am going to question if it was in the sprit of what was being discussed in the conceptual days of the podcast. Simply put, if the intent was to build the Wikipedia of software development Q&A, it seems like it would make more sense to run StackOverflow as a non-profit (or maybe a B Corp) as opposed to a traditional for profit enterprise.

Thus, I tend to attribute a lot of the issues with the management of StackOverflow to trying to turn a profit with an unsustainable model - even as far back as the podcast I seem to recall discussion that the site wouldn't actually make money! Given that the site was founded with the explicit intent of avoiding the Experts Exchange model there's limited ways to increase revenue on the site, at the end of the day, Prosus never should have paid $1.8 billion for the site.

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    I've often thought that SE should implement a paid-for answers model, where you can put a few pennies or pounds into escrow in return for getting an answer for your question. SE could take a cut from every paid-for answer that gets handed out. Like the bounty system, but with real dollars instead of fake internet points.
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 20:49
  • Joel always said he intended to make it rich, "complete with a heliport on the roof for quick access to the Hamptons".
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 20:54
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    @Richard we already have an issue with bad and inappropriate answers and that's with only fake internet points as rewards. Bountied questions are regularly plagued by even worse answers that are just there to make a grab for a slightly more substantial chunk of fake internet points. Exchanging that for money is going to ensure that the problems go even worse.
    – VLAZ
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 6:41
  • @ChrisW Replit made that "paid bounty system" part ot their backbone and it is honestly quite amazing if you're looking for oddjobs. There is way more money for Stack on a system like that than there is on, say, Teams or OverflowAi.
    – T. Sar
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 12:07
  • @VLAZ I see your criticism, and it's valid, but I've honestly had the same thought as Richard several times. Especially as a sort of "add-on" to Teams, where companies could load a sort of "bounty account" to crowd-source answers to more esoteric problems. There's got to be a way to do it "right", without blowing up the whole system. Don't you think?
    – BryKKan
    Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 15:10
  • @BryKKan No, certainly not.
    – Kevin B
    Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 15:12
  • @KevinB I'm guessing this idea has come up more than once before then...?
    – BryKKan
    Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 15:22
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    A few times, but the biggest problem with such a solution is suddenly SO has to take on the responsibility to manage this money, which requires more personnel, so they need to take a bigger cut, charge people more, and on top of that they'd need to attract devs willing to answer for $$ that can actually provide value to these users rather than just dumping gpt answers, now it has to be curated by the company because there's money involved, it's a much more complicated solution than it might appear on the surface... and that doesn't even get into taxes/legal...
    – Kevin B
    Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 15:25
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While I share your frustration over bad decisions being made, that's not our place to actually ask for the CEO to step down, or to give him or other management any directions.

There was a recent big scale strike asking the company to change certain things and go in certain way, that's the best we can, as community, ask for and achieve. But that's not directed at any specific staff, just for the company in general.

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    This is one of the examples of where our cultures differ. I certainly think I get to have a say in who gets to be in charge of a resource so important as Stack Overflow, especially when I have contributed to its value. I may just be a volunteer, but that still makes me a part of this machinery, and that entitles me to have a voice in the matter of who runs the machinery. If I never was to even be allowed such an opinion, I wish that I was not misled in the first place, to think that I get to have a say in what I dedicate a part of my life to, and to what is an important part of our world. Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 18:16
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    It is not fair that an investor, one who put money in the company, gets to be in a place to have such an opinion, while me, who dedicated time, effort, care and love into it, gets none. Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 18:20
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    But I guess: the one who has the money, wins the prize. With money, comes power. The world is a cruel place. Life is unfair. mhm, that'll be enough random quotes. Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 18:27
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    @AndreasmovedtoCodidact well I'll bring Twitter again as example. Even with terrible owners who make their lives hell, the employees can't really ask him to step down. I mean they can, sure, and they can strike, but nobody really expects he would listen to them. Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 8:12
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    That example makes zero difference to me. One can’t defend the morally wrong by saying it’s acceptable because the laws are bad. Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 8:31
  • @ShadowWizardIsSadAndAngry You're right, of course. But the point is, why not? At the end of the day: money has value because we say it does; property has an owner because we say it does. I'm not saying we should abolish either – mind you. Nor that any individual can ignore these current realities without consequences. However, it's worth remembering that all law, authority, and any rights to control resources derive from us. We can decide to expect more, and collectively we can demand it. What we "have a say in", and how, is ultimately up to us as well. If it isn't right, we can change it.
    – BryKKan
    Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 15:15
  • @BryKKan i mean, we literally can't, in terms of SO. The only chip we hold is walking away... which has proven to not actually change anything. People have been "walking away" for 10 years.
    – Kevin B
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 19:30
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I agree with many of your observations and arguments. However, it should be noted that in recent months/years many tech companies are struggling with becoming or staying profitable, it is not just bad management or bad vision for which a CEO can be blamed that explains the problems of the company. Also it is a good idea in general to keep developing your product and trying out new things. Not all of those will work but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try them.

Also, for Stack Overflow specifically, it has been argued many times that with millions of questions already being asked there is not much left to ask, so the quality of questions will go down, experienced people will leave, and there is a growing tension between curation and perceived hostility. The original founders would also have experienced this if they were still around, and would probably not be able to solve it either.

In fact, when you look at Meta posts by the site founder and former CEO Jeff Atwood (see https://meta.stackexchange.com/users/1/jeff-atwood?tab=answers&sort=votes&page=139, yes, that is user #1) there are six pages of negatively scored posts with many of those showing that he didn't listen to the community, even in cases where it seems rather clear that the community members have the better argument.

In general I agree with the answer by Shadow that it is not our place to ask for the resignation of the CEO, of course what we can do is to ask for the CEO to take the opinions and visions of the community into consideration more than currently seems to be the case.

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    I would say on the whole though - Atwood very much was human, and fallible, but also worked VERY closely with the community. There's no shame in unpopular decisions - but sometimes you need to be willing to own and understand the impact of these decisions. Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 13:45
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    Atwood kind of agrees: "...some of the leadership, has kind of lost touch with the community." Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 14:52
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    The CEO was brought in for a 10x in revenue (e.g., an IPO ("We can still go public as a company if we want to, or we can continue to stay private if we want to.")) by VCs wanting large networks of highly engaged users. Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 14:59
  • con't - Health problems might have been a factor as well. Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 15:47
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    It is absolutely the blame of the current CEO's of the Tech industry. Execs in the industry became far too greedy on the last few years, with a bunch of suits chasing the next Big Thing and investing a bunch of money in dead-end solutions just for them to flop hard afterwards. Suits aren't happy anymore with a bunch of money - they want ALL the money, and this is causing them to invest in things they do not understand, just to flop badly a little after.
    – T. Sar
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 12:10
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Joel said (see here) that he sold it with a plan to make money by selling Teams.

So the (financial) value was in the software, the hosting infrastructure, maybe the know-how (engineering, operations, and community-management) -- I don't know how they valued i.e. priced the company (I imagine it was based on a profit forecast but I'm not a businessperson) -- but he said they'd found or proven that they could sell Teams, and sold the company to get the next level of investment, which they (i.e. the new owners, presumably) would use to scale up the company's selling-Teams.

The public site (i.e. what we see) was meant to remain pro bono i.e. not-for-profit, presumably good advertising, and maybe a good test-bed of willing users.

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