Jeff Atwood of Borg-StackOverflow Careers Assimilation

Jeff of Borg

I've found StackOverflow to be a fun and vibrant community as well as an almost daily touchstone for programming and tech problems. Because of my enjoyment of the site I've started listening to the StackOverflow podcast with Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky (my opinion of which is another post altogether).

I've found Jeff to be rather level-headed and analytical during discussions, Joel on the other hand is quite often a bit disruptive. I've found this to be quite a lot like their blogs, though I don't read them often. I also see these traits surface to varying degrees through Jeff and Joel's joint venture.

I feel that Jeff has been an exceedingly gracious proprietor of the StackOverflow community, balancing monetization of the site with respect for the well from which their success flows. That well being the thousands of users that spend their time providing content and moderation for the StackOverflow community.

Visiting the site recently -- not logged in -- doing some work from a family member's computer, I found that the StackOverflow site is totally different for the drive-by Googler; the advertisements are much more prominent and inline with the content. Jeff has had the presence of mind to squelch the advertising for their most loyal and content-providing users, this is brilliant and shows to me that the Golden Rule is in full effect at StackOverflow. And why wouldn't they do this? It is my understanding that their traffic is somewhere around an 80/20% anonymous/member mix; it's a small tradeoff in revenue to take care of their content stream to ensure it will continue to flow.

Unfortunately with their latest attempt to monetize StackOverflow it seems that Joel's traits (as PM of the venture) have surfaced more than Jeff should allow. Being the consummate businessman, with an office in New York and a home in The Hamptons, Joel wants to monetize on the traffic and content of StackOverflow with more than advertising. Who can blame him, StackOverflow receives millions of page views a month and is ranked in the top 1000 sites on the internet.

Where else would Joel think to go than his tried and true job listing service. This is comfortable ground for Joel, for years he has been providing employers visibility to a well defined demographic of potential employees for a somewhat standard industry rate of $350 per listing. He has been able to make a good living monetizing his blog traffic for years through advertisements and these job listings and extending this service to the even more laser focused programmer demographic of StackOverflow is a no-brainer.

Up to this point the site at jobs.stackoverflow.com has basically been a mirror of the joelonoftware listing, but in true StackOverflow spirit Jeff and Joel have just recently released a much more in-depth whack at the problem of finding and hiring good developers. I think their idea is genius; leveraging the StackOverflow content and infrastructure (tags, profiles, Q&A) to allow developers to effectively cash-in on the time spent on StackOverflow to woo potential employers, and for employers to get invaluable information about developers that could never be communicated on a simple résumé.

But one word with Unicode characters wasn't enough, so Jeff and Joel decided that developers should fill out a Curriculum Vitæ (CV) instead of a résumé. I find the distinction that they've made here to be refreshing and a great fit for the synergy of a developer's passion, past experience, and StackOverflow répertoire. Besides the time, filling out and publishing a public CV is a no cost proposition provided by the StackOverflow team.

Their plans for monetizing the careers site is two-fold. For the first revenue stream -- like the simple jobs listing -- there will be a subscription fee for employers to get access to search developer CVs to the tune of $500 per week up to $5000 per year. If you've ever tried to find and hire good developers using the standard method of newspaper/dice/monster, you know that this fee is worth every cent. A recruiting agency will charge you 10-25% of a placement's salary to send people your way, and more often than not they just use the wet noodle approach and throw developers at you until one sticks. For someone that makes $80K it will cost you $8-20,000 for that single placement.

"So wherein does your quibble lie?" you might ask. Well, it's in the second of the two revenue streams for the careers site, for the measly pittance of $99/year they've decided to throw out the baby with the bathwater. On the other side of the employer's looking glass, developers will need to pony up hard cash in order to "file" their CV to be searchable on the StackOverflow careers site. This is an affront to the content providers of their community and I can't believe that this token filing fee is worth the bad will that it could generate.

It is done under the guise of filtering out those "who knew that they had no reasonable chance of getting a job"[1]. I think Jeff even believes this, but it's really just an unfortunate scapegoat for making money at the expense of your content providers.

In their latest podcast Jeff was pretty adamant that the job seekers not be sortable by their StackOverflow reputation, he wants people with little or no reputation to have an equal visibility to those that do. This bodes even worse for their plan of charging job seekers to file their CV.

The kind of people that are passionate and give of their time to answer other's questions are exactly the kind of developers that I want to hire. And these are exactly the same people that are likely to view this filing fee in an unfavorable way. These are the kind of developers that program at home, are constantly learning new things, work on OSS projects, and are not 9-5 just-for-the-paycheck programmers. Their loyalty when treated well is often unmatched.

Then there's the other kind of developer; you know the guy I'm talking about, the smooth talker, usually the "Team Leader". The guy who drives his Audi to work and knows how to play the corporate game better than he knows how to cut-n-paste code from Google. Their loyalty is usually suspect and their main goal is to either climb the corporate ladder (hence team lead instead of in-the-trenches programmer) or jump ship at any time for a higher salary. StackOverflow is a godsend for these types of programmers as it's rife with snippets free for the taking.

If their goal was to vet potential job seekers, to provide more value to employers, then money is definitely not the way to do it. Even the "smart hiring managers"[1] will have a hard time filtering out these smooth talkers that are always on the market for the highest bidder. These are exactly the people these "smart hiring managers" don't want, it is expensive to bring people into a company just to have them bail 60 days later.

At my current company we really, really need some talented developers and there are 5 job seekers on careers in our area. The Salt Lake job market is such a small world that I'm sure I know a third of the people on the list and that's what scares me; I know a lot of smooth talking "Team Leaders". With the current criteria to entry I don't think I can justify finding out that's who they are for $500.

So in effect Jeff and Joel have ignored their best formula for vetting job seekers and instead have opened the doors for anyone who is willing to pay $99/year. If they were really hard up to make money through this channel they could easily provide free filing for anyone who has generated over X reputation on the site in the last rolling year. Similar to their banner advertising this serves the 80% of people who are willing to pay $99 and pays respect to the 20% truly exceptional developers to whom they owe the success of their site.

Jeff, please doff the cybernetic business suit!

  1. http://careers.stackoverflow.com/faq#pricing