Lex Fridman Podcast - #7 - Jeff Atwood: Stack Overflow and Coding Horror

The following is a conversation with Jeff Atwood.

He is the cofounder of Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange,

websites that are visited by millions of people

every single day.

Much like with Wikipedia, it is difficult to understate

the impact on global knowledge and productivity

that these networks of sites have created.

Jeff is also the author of the famed blog Coding Horror

and the founder of Discourse, an open source software

project that seeks to improve the quality of our online

community discussions.

This conversation is part of the MIT course

on artificial general intelligence

and the artificial intelligence podcast.

If you enjoy it, subscribe on YouTube, iTunes,

or your podcast provider of choice,

or simply connect with me on Twitter at Lex Friedman,

spelled F R I D.

And now, here’s my conversation with Jeff Atwood.

Having co created and managed for a few years

the world’s largest community of programmers in Stack Overflow

10 years ago, what do you think motivates most programmers?

Is it fame, fortune, glory, process of programming itself,

or is it the sense of belonging to a community?

It’s puzzles, really.

I think it’s this idea of working on puzzles

independently of other people and just solving a problem,

sort of like on your own almost.

Although, nobody really works alone in programming anymore.

But I will say there’s an aspect of hiding yourself away

and just beating on a problem until you solve it,

like brute force basically to me is

what a lot of programming is.

The computer’s so fast that you can

do things that would take forever for a human,

but you can just do them so many times and so often

that you get the answer.

You’re saying just the pure act of tinkering with the code

is the thing that drives most problems.

The struggle balance within the joy of overcoming,

the brute force process of pain and suffering

that eventually leads to something that actually works.

Well, data’s fun, too.

There’s this thing called the shuffling problem.

The naive shuffle that most programmers write

has a huge flaw, and there’s a lot of articles

online about this because it can be really bad

if you’re a casino and you have an unsophisticated programmer

writing your shuffle algorithm.

There’s surprising ways to get this wrong,

but the neat thing is the way to figure that out

is just to run your shuffle a bunch of times

and see how many orientations of cards you get.

You should get an equal distribution of all the cards.

And with the naive method of shuffling,

if you just look at the data, if you just brute force it

and say, OK, I don’t know what’s going to happen,

you just write a program that does it a billion times

and then see what the buckets look like of the data.

And the Monty Hall problem is another example of that,

where you have three doors and somebody gives you

information about another door.

So the correct answer is you should always

switch in the Monty Hall problem, which is not intuitive,

and it freaks people out all the time.

But you can solve it with data.

If you write a program that does the Monty Hall game

and then never switches, then always switches, just compare,

you would immediately see that you don’t have to be smart.

You don’t have to figure out the answer algorithmically.

You can just brute force it out with data and say, well,

I know the answer is this because I ran the program

a billion times, and these are the data buckets

that I got from it.

So empirically find it.

But what’s the joy of that?

So for you, for you personally, outside of family,

what motivates you in this process?

Well, to be honest, I don’t really

write a lot of code anymore.

What I do at Discourse is managery stuff,

which I always despised.

As a programmer, you think of managers

as people who don’t really do anything themselves.

But the weird thing about code is you

realize that language is code.

The ability to direct other people

lets you get more stuff done than you

could by yourself anyway.

You said language is code?

Language is code.

Meaning communication with other humans?

Yes, it is.

You can think of it as a systematic.

So what is it like to be, what makes,

before we get into programming, what makes a good manager?

What makes a good leader?

Well, I think a leader, it’s all about leading by example,

first of all, sort of doing and being the things

that you want to be.

Now, this can be kind of exhausting,

particularly when you have kids, because you

realize that your kids are watching you all the time,

even in ways that you’ve stopped seeing yourself.

The hardest person to see on the planet is really yourself.

It’s a lot easier to see other people

and make judgments about them.

But yourself, you’re super biased.

You don’t actually see yourself the way other people see you.

Often, you’re very, very hard on yourself in a way

that other people really aren’t going to be.

So that’s one of the insights is you’ve

got to be really diligent about thinking,

am I behaving in a way that represents

how I want other people to behave,

like leading through example?

There’s a lot of examples of leaders

that really mess this up, like they make decisions that

are like, wow, it’s a bad example for other people.

So I think leading by example is one.

The other one I believe is working really hard.

And I don’t mean working exhaustively,

but showing a real passion for the problem,

not necessarily your solution to the problem,

but the problem itself is just one that you really believe in.

Like with discourse, for example,

the problem that we’re looking at,

which is my current project, is how do you get people

in groups to communicate in a way that doesn’t break down

into the howling of wolves?

How do you deal with trolling?

Not like technical problems.

How do I get people to post paragraphs?

How do I get people to use bold?

How do I get people to use complete sentences,

although those are problems as well?

But how do I get people to get along with each other

and then solve whatever problem it is they set out to solve,

or reach some consensus on discussion,

or just not hurt each other even?

Maybe it’s a discussion that doesn’t really matter,

but are people yelling at each other?

And why?

Like that’s not the purpose of this kind of communication.

So I would say leadership is about setting an example,

doing the things that represent what you want to be,

and making sure that you’re actually doing those things.

And there’s a trick to that too,

because the things you don’t do

also say a lot about what you are.

Yeah, so let’s pause on that one.

So those two things are fascinating.

So how do you have as a leader that self awareness?

So you just said it’s really hard to be self aware.

So for you personally, or maybe for other leaders

you’ve seen or look up to,

how do you know both that the things you’re doing

are the wrong things to be doing,

the way you speak to others, the way you behave,

and the things you’re not doing?

How do you get that signal?

I think there’s two aspects to that.

One is like processing feedback that you’re getting, so.

How do you get feedback?

Well, right, so are you getting feedback, right?

So one way we do it, for example, with discourse,

we have three cofounders,

and we periodically talk about decisions

before we make them.

So it’s not like one person can make a mistake,

or like, wow, there can be misunderstandings, things like that.

So it’s part of like group consensus of leadership

is like it’s good to have,

I think systems where there’s one leader,

and that leader has the rule of absolute law

are just really dangerous in my experience.

For communities, for example,

like if you have a community that’s run by one person,

that one person makes all the decisions,

that person’s gonna have a bad day.

Something could happen to that person, something,

there’s a lot of variables.

So like first, when you think about leadership,

have multiple people doing leadership

and have them talk amongst each other.

So giving each other feedback about the decisions

that they’re making.

And then when you do get feedback,

I think there’s that little voice in your head, right?

Or your gut or wherever you wanna put it in your body.

I think that voice is really important.

Like I think most people who have any kind of moral compass

or like want to do,

most people want to do the right thing.

I do believe that.

I mean, there might be a handful of sociopaths

out there that don’t, but most people,

they want other people to think of them as a good person.

And why wouldn’t you, right?

Like, do you want people to despise you?

I mean, that’s just weird, right?

So you have that little voice

that sort of the angel and devil on your shoulder

sort of talking to you about like what you’re doing,

how you’re doing, how does it make you feel

to make these decisions, right?

And I think having some attunement to that voice

is important.

But you said that voice also for,

I think this is a programmer situation too,

where sometimes the devil on the shoulder

is a little too loud.

So you’re a little too self critical

for a lot of developers,

and especially when you have introverted personality.

How do you struggle with a self criticism

or the criticism of others?

So one of the things of leadership

is to do something that’s potentially unpopular

or where people doubt you

and you still go through with the decision.

So what’s that balance like?

I think you have to walk people

through your decision making, right?

Like you have to, this is where blogging

is really important and communication is so important.

Again, code language is just another kind of code.

It’s like, here is the program

by which I arrived at the conclusion

that I’m gonna reach, right?

It’s one thing to say like,

this is a decision, it’s final, deal with it, right?

That’s not usually satisfying to people.

But if you say, look,

we’ve been thinking about this problem for a while.

Here’s some stuff that’s happened.

Here’s what we think is right.

Here’s our goals.

Here’s what we wanna achieve.

And we’ve looked at these options

and we think this available options is the best option.

People will be like, oh, okay, right?

Maybe I don’t totally agree with you,

but I can kind of see where you’re coming from

and I see it’s not just arbitrary decision

delivered from a cloud of flames in the sky, right?

It’s like a human trying to reach

some kind of consensus about goals.

And their goals might be different than yours.

That’s completely legit, right?

But if you’re making that clear, it’s like,

oh, well, the reason we don’t agree

is because we have totally different goals, right?

Like, how could we agree?

It’s not that you’re a bad person.

It’s that we have radically different goals in mind

when we started looking at this problem.

And the other one you said is passion.

So, or hard work, sorry.

Well, those are tied together in my mind.

Let’s say hard work and passion.

Like for me, like I just really love

the problem discourse is setting out to solve

because in a way it’s like,

there’s a vision of the world

where it all devolves into Facebook

basically owning everything and every aspect

of human communication, right?

And this has always been kind of a scary world for me.

First, cause I don’t,

I think Facebook is really good at execution.

I got to compliment them.

They’re very competent in terms of what they’re doing,

but Facebook has not much of a moral compass

in terms of Facebook cares about Facebook, really.

They don’t really care about you and your problems.

What they care about is how big they can make Facebook,


Is that you talking about the company

or just the mechanism of how Facebook works?

Kind of both really, right?

Like, and the idea with discourse,

the reason I’m so passionate about it

is cause I believe every community

should have the right to own themselves, right?

Like they should have their own software that they can run

that belongs to them.

That’s their space where they can set the rules.

And if they don’t like it,

they can move to different hosting or,

you know, whatever they need to happen can happen.

But like this idea of a company town

where all human communication is implicitly owned

by WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook.

And it’s really disturbing too,

cause Facebook is really smart.

Like I said, they’re great at execution.

Buying in WhatsApp and buying Instagram

were incredibly smart decisions.

And they also do this thing, I don’t know if you know,

but they have this VPN software

that they give away for free on smartphones

and it indirectly feeds all the data

about the traffic back to Facebook.

So they can see what’s actually getting popular

through the VPNs, right?

They have low level access to the network data

because users have let them have that.


So let’s take a small pause here.

First of all, discourse.

Can you talk about, can you lay out the land

of all the different ways you can have communities?

So there’s Stack Overflow that you’ve built.

There’s discourse.

So Stack Overflow is kind of like a Wiki,

Wikipedia you talk about.

And it’s a very specific scalpel, very focused.

So what is the purpose of discourse

and maybe contrast that with Facebook?

First of all, say, what is discourse?


Start from the beginning.

Well, let me start from the very beginning.

So Stack Overflow is a very structured

Wiki style Q and A for programmers, right?

And that was the problem we first worked on.

And when we started, we thought it was discussions

because we looked at like programming forums

and other things, but we quickly realized

we were doing Q and A, which is a very narrow subset

of human communication, right?

Sorry, so when you started Stack Overflow,

you thought you didn’t even know the Q and A.

Not really.

You didn’t know it would be Q and A.

Well, we didn’t know.

We had an idea of like, okay, these are things

that we see working online.

We had a goal, right?

Our goal was there was this site, Experts Exchange,

with a very unfortunate name.

Thank you for killing that site.

Yeah, I know, right?

Like a lot of people don’t remember it anymore,

which is great.

Like that’s the measure of success

when people don’t remember the thing

that you were trying to replace, then you’ve totally won.

So it was a place to get answers to programming questions,

but it wasn’t clear if it was like focused Q and A,

if it was a discussion.

There were plenty of programming forums.

So we weren’t really sure.

We were like, okay, we’ll take aspects of dig and Reddit,

like voting were very important.

Reordering answers based on votes.

Wiki style stuff of like being able to edit posts,

not just your posts, but other people’s posts

to make them better and keep them more up to date.

Ownership of blogging of like, okay, this is me.

I’m saying this in my voice, this is the stuff that I know.

And your reputation accrues to you

and it’s peer recognition.

So you asked earlier, like what motivates programmers?

I think peer recognition motivates them a lot.

That was one of the key insights of Stack Overflow

was like recognition from your peers is why things get done.

Not necessarily money, not necessarily your boss,

but like your peers saying, wow,

this person really knows their stuff, has a lot of value.

So the reputation system came from that.

So we were sort of Frankensteining a bunch of stuff together

in Stack Overflow, like stuff we had seen working

and we knew worked and that became Stack Overflow.

Over time, we realized it wasn’t really discussion.

It was very focused questions and answers.

There wasn’t a lot of room on the page

for let me talk about this tangential thing.

It was more like, okay, is it answering the question?

Is it clarifying the question?

Or could it be an alternative answer to the same question?

Because there’s usually more than one way to do it

in programming, there’s like say five to 10 ways.

And one of the patterns we got into early on

with Stack Overflow was there were questions

where there would be like hundreds of answers.

And we’re like, wow, how can there be a programming question

with 500, 200, 500 answers?

And we looked at those and we realized

those were not really questions in the traditional sense.

They were discussions.

It was stuff that we allowed early on

that we eventually decided wasn’t allowed such as

what’s your favorite programming food?

What’s the funniest programming cartoon you’ve seen?

And we had to sort of backfill a bunch of rules

about like, why isn’t this allowed?

Such as, is this a real problem you’re facing?

Like nobody goes to work and says, wow, I can’t work

cause I don’t know what the funniest programming cartoon is.

So sorry, can’t compile this code now, right?

It’s not a real problem you’re facing in your job.

So that was run rule.

And the second, like, what can you really learn from that?

It’s like what I call accidental learning

or Reddit style learning.

Where you’re just like, oh, I’ll just browse some things

and oh, wow, you know, did you know

tree frogs only live three years?

I mean, I just made that up.

I don’t know if that’s true.

But I didn’t really set out to learn that.

I don’t need to know that, right?

It’s accidental learning.

It was more intentional learning where you’re like,

okay, I have a problem.

And I want to learn about stuff

around this problem having, right?

And it could be theory, it could be compiler theory,

it could be other stuff, but I’m having a compiler problem.

Hence, I need to know the compiler theory,

that aspect of it that gets me to my answer, right?

So kind of a directed learning.

So we had to backfill all these rules

as we sort of figured out what the heck it was we were doing.

And the system came very strict over time.

And a lot of people still complain about that.

And I wrote my latest blog entry,

what does Stack Overflow want to be when it grows up?

Celebrating the 10 year anniversary, yeah.

Yeah, so 10 years.

And the system has trended towards strictness.

There’s a variety of reasons for this.

One is people don’t like to see other people

get reputation for stuff as they view as frivolous,

which I can actually understand.

Because if you saw a programmer got like 500 upvotes

for funniest programming cartoon

or funniest comment they had seen in code,

it’s like, well, why do they have that reputation?

Is it because they wrote the joke?

Probably not.

I mean, if they did, maybe, or the cartoon, right?

They’re getting a bunch of reputation

based on someone else’s work that’s not even programming.

It’s just a joke, right?

It’s related to programming.

So you begin to resent that.

You’re like, well, that’s not fair.

And it isn’t.

At some level, they’re correct.

I mean, I empathize.

Because it’s not correct to get reputation for that.

Versus here’s a really gnarly regular expression problem.

And here’s a really clever, insightful, detailed answer

laying out, oh, here’s why you’re

seeing the behavior that you’re seeing.

Here, let me teach you some things about how

to avoid that in the future.

That’s great.

That’s gold, right?

You want people to get reputation for that,

not so much for, wow, look at this funny thing I saw, right?


So there’s this very specific Q&A format.

And then take me through the journey towards discourse

and Facebook and Twitter.

So you started at the beginning that Stack Overflow

evolved to have a purpose.

So what is discourse, this passion

you have for creating community for discussion?

When was that born and how?

Well, part of it is based on the realization

that Stack Overflow is only good for very specific subjects

where it’s based on data, facts, and science,

where answers can be kind of verified to be true.

Another form of that is there’s the book of knowledge,

like the tome of knowledge that defines whatever it is.

You can refer to that book and it’ll give you the answer.

There has to be, it only works on subjects

where there’s like semi clear answers to things

that can be verified in some form.

Now again, there’s always more than one way to do it.

There’s complete flexibility and system around that.

But where it falls down is stuff like poker and LEGO.

Like we had, if you go to stackexchange.com,

we have an engine that tries to launch

different Q&A topics, right?

And people can propose Q&A topics, sample questions,

and if it gets enough support within the network,

we launched that Q&A site.

So some of the ones we launched were poker and LEGO

and they did horribly, right?

Because I mean, they might still be there lingering on

in some form, but it was an experiment.

This is like a test, right?

And some subjects work super well on the stack engine

and some don’t.

But the reason LEGO and poker don’t work

is because they’re so social, really.

It’s not about what’s the rule here in poker.

It’s like, well, what kind of cigars

do we like to smoke while playing poker?

Or what’s a cool set of cards to use when I’m playing poker?

Or what’s some strategies?

Say I have this hand come up with some strategies

I could use.

It’s more of a discussion around what’s happening with LEGO.

Same thing, here’s this cool LEGO set I found.

Look how awesome this is.

And I’m like, yeah, that’s freaking awesome, right?

It’s not a question, right?

There’s all these social components and discussions

that don’t fit at all.

We literally have to disallow those in Stack Overflow

because it’s not about being social.

It’s about problems that you’re facing in your work

that you need concrete answers for.

You have a real demonstrated problem that’s

blocking you in something.

Nobody’s blocked by, what should I

do when I have a straight flush?

It’s not a blocking problem in the world.

It’s just an opportunity to hang out and discuss.

So discourse was a way to address that and say, look,

discussion forum software was very, very bad.

And when I came out of Stack Overflow in early 2012,

it was still very, very bad.

I expected it improved in the four years since I last looked,

but it had not improved at all.

And I was like, well, that’s kind of terrible

because I love these communities of people talking about things

that they love.

They’re just communities of interest, right?

And there’s no good software for them.

Startups would come to me and say, hey, Jeff,

I want to have this startup.

Here’s my idea.

And the first thing I would say to them

is, well, first, why are you asking me?

I don’t really know your field necessarily.

Why aren’t you asking the community,

the people that are interested in this problem,

the people that are using your product,

why aren’t you talking to them?

And then they’d say, oh, great idea.

How do I do that?

And then that’s when I started playing sad trombone

because I realized all the software involving

talking to your users, customers, audience, patrons,

whatever it is, it was all really bad.

It was stuff that I would be embarrassed

to recommend to other people.

And yet, that’s where I felt they could get the biggest

and strongest, most effective input

for what they should be doing with their product, right?

It’s from their users, from their community, right?

That’s what we did on Stack Overflow.

So what we’re talking about with forums,

the, what is it, the dark matter of the internet,

it’s still, I don’t know if it’s still,

but for the longest time,

it has some of the most passionate

and fascinating discussions.

And what’s the usual structure?

There’s usually, it’s linear, so it’s sequential.

So you’re posting one after the other

and there’s pagination, so it’s every,

there’s 10 posts and then you go to the next page.

And that format still is used by,

like I’m, we’re doing a lot of research

with Tesla vehicles and there’s a Tesla Motors Club forum,

which is extremely.

We really wanted to run that actually.

They pinged us about it, I don’t think we got it,

but I really would have liked to gotten that one.

But they’ve started before even 2012, I believe.

I mean, they’ve been running for a long time.

It’s still an extremely rich source of information.

So what’s broken about that system

and how are you trying to fix it?

I think there’s a lot of power in connecting people

that love the same stuff around that specific topic.

Meaning Facebook’s idea of connection is

just any human that’s related to another human, right?

Like through friendship or any other reason.

Facebook’s idea of the world

is sort of the status update, right?

Like a friend of yours did something,

ate at a restaurant, right?

Whereas discussion forums were traditionally

around the interest graph.

Like I love electric cars,

specifically I love Tesla, right?

Like I love the way they approach the problem.

I love the style of the founder.

I just love the design ethic.

And there’s a lot to like about Tesla.

I don’t know if you saw the oatmeal,

he did a whole love comic to Tesla.

And it was actually kind of cool

because I learned some stuff.

He was talking about how great Tesla cars were specifically,

like how they were built differently.

And he went into a lot of great detail

that was really interesting.

And to me, that oatmeal post, if you read it,

is the genesis of pretty much all interest communities.

I just really love this stuff.

So like for me, for example, there’s yo yos, right?

Like I’m into the yo yo communities.

And these interest communities

are just really fascinating to me.

And I feel more connected to the yo yo communities

than I do to friends that I don’t see that often, right?

Like to me, the powerful thing is the interest graph.

And Facebook kind of dabbles in the interest graph.

I mean, they have groups,

you can sign up for groups and stuff,

but it’s really about the relationship graph.

Like this is my coworker, this is my relative,

this is my friend, but not so much about the interest.

So I think that’s the linchpin

of which forums and communities are built on

that I personally love.

Like I said, leadership is about passion, right?

And being passionate about stuff

is a really valid way to look at the world.

And I think it’s a way a lot of stuff in the world

gets done.

Like I once had someone describe me as,

he’s like, Jeff, you’re a guy who,

you just get super passionate about a few things at a time,

and you just go super deep in those things.

And I was like, oh, that’s kind of right.

That’s kind of what I do.

I get into something and just be super into that

for a couple of years or whatever,

and just learn all I can about it,

and go super deep in it.

And that’s how I enjoy experiencing the world, right?

Like not being shallow on a bunch of things,

but being really deep on a few things

that I’m interested in.

So forums kind of unlock that, right?

And you don’t want a world

where everything belongs to Facebook, at least I don’t.

I want a world where communities can kind of own themselves,

set their own norms, set their own rules,

control the experience.

Because community is also about ownership, right?

Like if you’re meeting at the Barnes and Noble every Thursday

and Barnes and Noble says, get out of here,

you guys don’t buy enough books.

Well, you know, you’re kind of hosed, right?

Barnes and Noble owns you, right?

Like you can’t.

But if you have your own meeting space,

you know, your own clubhouse,

you can set your own rules,

decide what you want to talk about there,

and just really generate a lot better information

than you could like hanging out at Barnes and Noble

every Thursday at 3 p.m., right?

So that’s kind of the vision of Discourse,

is a place where it’s fully open source.

You can take the software, you can install it anywhere,

and, you know, you and a group of people

can go deep on whatever it is that you’re into.

And this works for startups, right?

Startups are a group of people

who go super deep on a specific problem, right?

And they want to talk to the community.

It’s like, well, install Discourse, right?

That’s what we do at Discourse.

That’s what I did at Stack Overflow.

I spent a lot of time on Meta Stack Overflow,

which is our internal, well, public community feedback site,

and just experiencing what the users were experiencing,

right, because they’re the ones

doing all the work in the system.

And they had a lot of interesting feedback.

And there’s that 90, 10 rule of, like,

90% of the feedback you get is not really actionable

for a variety of reasons.

It might be bad feedback, it might be crazy feedback,

it might be feedback you just can’t act on right now.

But there’s 10% of it that’s like gold.

It’s like literally gold and diamonds,

where it’s like feedback of really good improvements

to your core product that are not super hard to get to

and actually make a lot of sense.

And my favorite is about 5% of those stuff

I didn’t even see coming.

It’s like, oh my God, I never even thought of that.

But that’s a brilliant idea, right?

And I can point to so many features of Stack Overflow

that we derive from Meta Stack Overflow feedback

and Meta discourse, right?

Same exact principle of discourse, you know?

We’re getting ideas from the community.

I was like, oh my God, I never thought of that,

but that’s fantastic, right?

Like, I love that relationship with the community.

From having built these communities,

what have you learned about?

What’s the process of getting a critical mass of members

in a community?

Is it luck, skill, timing, persistence?

What is, is it the tools, like discourse,

that empower that community?

What’s the key aspect of starting for one guy or gal

and then building it to two and then 10

and a hundred and a thousand and so on?

I think when you’re starting with an N of one,

I mean, I think it’s persistence

and also you have to be interesting.

Like somebody I really admire once said something

that I always liked about blogging.

He’s like, here’s how you blog.

You have to have something interesting to say

and have an interesting way of saying it, right?

And then do that for like 10 years.

So that’s the genesis,

is like you have to have sort of something interesting

to say that’s not exactly what everybody else is saying

and an interesting way of saying it,

which is another way of saying,

kind of entertaining way of saying it.

And then as far as growing it, it’s like ritual.

You know, like you have to, like say you’re starting a blog,

you have to say, look, I’m gonna blog every week,

three times a week,

and you have to stick to that schedule, right?

Because until you do that for like several years,

you’re never gonna get anywhere.

Like it just takes years to get to where you need to get to.

And part of that is having the discipline

to stick with the schedule.

And it helps, again, if it’s something you’re passionate

about, this won’t feel like work.

You’re like, I love this.

I could talk about this all day, every day, right?

You just have to do it in a way

that’s interesting to other people.

And then as you’re growing the community,

that pattern of participation within the community

of like generating these artifacts

and inviting other people to help you

like collaborate on these artifacts,

like even in the case of blogging,

like I felt in the early days of my blog,

which I started in 2004,

which is really the genesis of Stack Overflow.

If you look at all my blog, it leads up to Stack Overflow,

which was, I have all this energy in my blog,

but I don’t, like 40,000 people were subscribing to me.

And I was like, I wanna do something.

And then I met Joel and said, hey, Joel,

I wanna do something,

take this ball of energy from my blog and do something.

And all the people reading my blog saw that.

It’s like, oh, cool.

You’re involving us.

You’re saying, look, you’re part of this community.

Let’s build this thing together.

Like they pick the name.

Like we voted on the name for Stack Overflow on my blog.

Like we came up, and naming is super hard.

First of all, the hardest problem in computer science

is coming up with a good name for stuff, right?

But you can go back to my blog.

There’s the poll where we voted

and Stack Overflow became the name of the site.

And all the early beta users of Stack Overflow

were audience of my blog plus Joel’s blog, right?

So we started from, like, if you look at the genesis,

okay, I was just a programmer who said,

hey, I love programming,

but I have no outlet to talk about it.

So I’m just gonna blog about it,

because I don’t have enough people to work

to talk to about it.

Because at the time I worked a place where,

you know, programming wasn’t the core output

of the company, it was a pharmaceutical company.

And I just love this stuff, you know, to an absurd degree.

So I was like, I’ll just blog about it.

And then I’ll find an audience

and eventually found an audience,

eventually found Joel,

and eventually built Stack Overflow

from that one core of activity, right?

But it was that repetition of feeding back in feedback

from my blog comments, feedback from Joel,

feedback from the early Stack Overflow community.

When people see that you’re doing that,

they will follow along with you, right?

They’ll say, cool, you’re here in good faith.

You’re actually, you know, not listening to everything

because that’s impossible, that’s impossible.

But you’re actually, you know,

waiting our feedback and what you’re doing.

And why wouldn’t I?

Because who does all the work on Stack Overflow?

Me, Joel?

No, it’s the other programmers

that are doing all the work.

So you gotta have some respect for that.

And then, you know, discipline around,

look, you know, we’re trying to do a very specific thing

here on Stack Overflow.

We’re not trying to solve all the world’s problems.

We’re trying to solve this very specific Q and A problem

in a very specific way.

Not cause we’re jerks about it,

but because these strict set of rules

help us get really good results, right?

And programmers, that’s an easy sell for the most part

because programmers are used to dealing

with ridiculous systems of rules like constantly.

That’s basically their job.

So they’re very, oh yeah, super strict system of rules

that lets me get what I want.

That’s programming, right?

That’s what Stack Overflow is, so.

So you’re making it sound easy,

but in 2004, let’s go back there.

In 2004, you started the blog, Coding Horror.

Was it called that at the very beginning?

It was.

One of the smart things I did,

it’s from a book by Steve McConnell, Code Complete,

which is one of my favorite programming books,

still probably my number one programming book

for anyone to read.

So one of the smart things I did back then,

I don’t always do smart things when I start stuff.

I contacted Steve and said, hey, I really like this.

It was a sidebar illustration

indicating danger in code, right?

Coding Horror was like, watch out.

And I love that illustration because it spoke to me.

Because I saw that illustration go, oh my God, that’s me.

Like I’m always my own worst enemy.

Like that’s the key insight in programming is

every time you write something,

think how am I gonna screw myself?

Because you will, constantly, right?

So that icon was like, oh yeah,

I need to constantly hold that mirror up and look,

and say, look, you’re very fallible.

You’re gonna screw this up.

Like how can you build this in such a way

that you’re not gonna screw it up later?

Like how can you get that discipline around

making sure at every step I’m thinking through

all the things that I could do wrong

or that other people could do wrong?

Because that is actually how you get to be

a better programmer a lot of times, right?

So that sidebar illustration, I loved it so much.

And I wrote Steve before I started my blog and said,

hey, can I have permission to use this

because I just really like this illustration?

And Steve was kind enough to give me permission to do that

and just continues to give me permission, so yeah.

Really, that’s awesome.

But in 2004, you started this blog.

You know, you look at Stephen King, his book on writing,

or Stephen Pressfield, War of Art book.

I mean, it seems like writers suffer.

I mean, it’s a hard process of writing, right?

There’s gonna be suffering.

I mean, I won’t kid you.

Well, the work is suffering, right?

Like doing the work, like even when you’re every week,

you’re like, okay, that blog post wasn’t very good

or people didn’t like it or people said disparaging things

about it.

You have to like have the attitude like, you know,

no matter what happens, I wanna do this for me, right?

It’s not about you, it’s about me.

I mean, in the end, it is about everyone

because this is how good work gets out into the world.

But you have to be pretty strict about saying like,

you know, I’m selfish in the sense

that I have to do this for me.

You know, you mentioned Stephen King,

like his book on writing.

But like one of the things I do, for example,

when writing is like, I read it out loud.

One of the best pieces of advice for writing anything

is read it out loud, like multiple times

and make it sound like you’re talking

because that is the goal of good writing.

It should sound like you said it

with slightly better phrasing

because you have more time to think about what you’re saying

but like, it should sound natural when you say it.

And I think that’s probably the single best

writing advice I can give anyone.

Just read it over and over out loud,

make sure it sounds like something you would normally say

and it sounds good.

And what’s your process of writing?

See, there’s usually a pretty good idea

behind the blog post.

So ideas, right.

So I think you gotta have the concept

that there’s so many interesting things in the world.

Like, I mean, my God, the world is amazing, right?

Like you can never write about everything that’s going on

because it’s so incredible.

But if you can’t come up with like,

let’s say one interesting thing per day to talk about,

then you’re not trying hard enough

because the world is full of just super interesting stuff.

And one great way to like mine stuff

is go back to old books

cause they bring up old stuff that’s still super relevant.

And I did that a lot

cause I was like reading classic programming books

and a lot of the early blog posts were like,

oh, I was reading this programming book

and they brought this really cool concept

and I wanna talk about it some more.

And you get the, I mean,

you’re not claiming credit for the idea

but it gives you something interesting to talk about

that’s kind of evergreen, right?

Like you don’t have to go, what should I talk about?

So we’ll just go dig up some old classic programming books

and find something that, oh, wow, that’s interesting.

Or how does that apply today?

Or what about X and Y or compare these two concepts.

So pull a couple of sentences from that book

and then sort of play off of it,

almost agree or disagree.

So in 2007, you wrote that you were offered

a significant amount of money to sell the blog.

You chose not to.

What were all the elements you were thinking about?

Cause I’d like to take you back.

It seems like there’s a lot of nonlinear decisions

you made through life.

So what was that decision like?

Right, so one of the things I love

is the Choose Your Own Adventure books,

which I loved as a kid

and I feel like they’re early programmer books

cause they’re all about if then statements, right?

If this, then this.

And they’re also very, very unforgiving.

Like there’s all these sites that map

the classic Choose Your Own Adventure books

and how many outcomes are bad, a lot of bad outcomes.

So part of the game is like, oh, I got a bad outcome.

Go back one step, go back one further step.

It’s like, how did I get here, right?

Like it’s a sequence of decisions.

And this is true of life, right?

Like every decision is a sequence, right?

Individually, any individual decision

is not necessarily right or wrong,

but they lead you down a path, right?

So I do think there’s some truth to that.

So this particular decision,

the blog had gotten fairly popular.

There’s a lot of RSS readers that I had discovered.

And this guy contacted me out of the blue

from this like bug tracking company.

He’s like, oh, I really wanna buy your blog

for like, I think it was around,

it was $100,000, it might have been like 80,000,

but it was a lot, right?

Like, and that’s, you know, at the time,

like I would have a year’s worth of salary all at once.

So I didn’t really think about like, well, you know,

and I remember talking to people at the time,

I was like, wow, that’s a lot of money.

But then I’m like, I really like my blog, right?

Like, do I wanna sell my blog?

Cause it wouldn’t really belong to me anymore at that point.

And one of the guidelines that I like to,

I don’t like to give advice to people a lot,

but one of the pieces of advice I do give,

cause I do think it’s really true and it’s generally helpful

is whenever you’re looking at a set of decisions,

like, oh gosh, should I do A, B or C,

you gotta pick the thing that’s a little scarier

in that list because not, you know,

not like jump off a cliff scary,

but the thing that makes you nervous.

Cause if you pick the safe choice,

it’s usually, you’re not really pushing.

You’re not pushing yourself.

You’re not choosing the thing that’s gonna help you grow.

So for me, the scarier choice was to say no.

I was like, well, no, let’s just see where this is going.


Because then I own it.

I mean, it belongs to me.

It’s my thing.

And I can just take it

and tell some other logical conclusion, right?

Because imagine how different the world would have been

had I said yes and sold the blog.

It’s like, there probably wouldn’t be Stack Overflow.

You know, a lot of other stuff would have changed.

So for that particular decision,

I think it was that same rule.

Like what scares me a little bit more.

Do the thing that scares you.


So speaking of which, startups.

I think there’s a specific, some more general questions

that a lot of people would be interested in.

You’ve started Stack Overflow.

You started this course.

So what’s the, it was one, two, three guys,

whatever it is in the beginning.

What was that process like?

Do you start talking about it?

Do you start programming?

Do you start, like, where’s the birth

and the catalyst that actually.

Well, I can talk about it in the context

of both Stack Overflow and Discourse.

So I think the key thing initially is there is a problem.

Something, there’s some state of the world

that’s unsatisfactory to the point that, like,

you’re upset about it, right?

Like, in that case, it was experts exchange.

I mean, Joel’s original idea,

because I approached Joel as like,

look, Joel, I have all this energy behind my blog.

I want to do something.

I want to build something.

But I don’t know what it is,

because I’m honestly not a good idea person.

I’m really not.

I’m like the execution guy.

I’m really good at execution,

but I’m not good at, like, blue skying ideas.

Not my forte.

Which is another reason why I like the community feedback,

because they blue sky all day long for you, right?

So when I can just go in and cherry pick

a blue sky idea from community,

even if I have to spend three hours reading

to get one good idea, it’s worth it, man.

But anyway, so the idea from Joel was,

hey, experts exchange, it’s got great data,

but the experience is hideous, right?

It’s trying to trick you.

It feels like used car salesman.

It’s just bad.

So I was like, oh, that’s awesome.

It feeds into community.

It feeds into, like, you know,

we can make creative comments.

So I think the core is to have a really good idea

that you feel very strongly about in the beginning,

that, like, there’s a wrong in the world,

an injustice that we will write

through the process of building this thing.

For Discourse, it was like, look,

there’s no good software for communities

to just hang out and, like, do stuff, right?

Like, whether it’s problem solving, startup, whatever.

Forums are such a great building block of online community,

and they’re hideous.

They were so bad, right?

It was embarrassing.

Like, I literally was embarrassed

to be associated with this software, right?

I was like, we have to have software that you can be proud of.

It’s like, this is competitive with Reddit.

This is competitive with Twitter.

This is competitive with Facebook, right?

I would be proud to have the software on my site.

So that was the genesis of Discourse,

was feeling very strongly about there needs to be

a good solution for communities.

So that’s step one.

Genesis of an idea you feel super strongly about, right?

And then people galvanize around the idea.

Like, Joel was already super excited about the idea.

I was excited about the idea.

So with the forum software, I was posting on Twitter.

I had researched, as part of my research,

I start researching the problem, right?

And I found a game called Forum Wars,

which was a parody of forum.

It’s still very, very funny, of forum behavior,

circa, I would say, 2003.

It’s aged some, right?

Like, the behavior’s a little different in there of Twitter.

But it was awesome.

It was very funny.

And it was like a game.

It was like an RPG.

And it had a forum attached to it.

So it was like a game about forums with a forum attached.

I was like, this is awesome, right?

This is so cool.

And the founder of that company, or that project,

it wasn’t really a company, contacted me,

this guy Robin Ward from Toronto.

He said, hey, I saw you’ve been talking about forums.

And I really love that problem space.

He was like, I’d still love to build really good forum

software, because I don’t think anything out there’s any good.

And I was like, awesome.

At that point, I was like, we’re starting a company.

Because I couldn’t have whooshed for a better person

to walk through the door and say, I’m excited about this,


Same thing with Joel, right?

I mean, Joel is a legend in the industry, right?

So when he walked through and said,

I’m excited about this problem, I was like, me too, man.

We can do this, right?

So that, to me, is the most important step.

It’s like, having an idea you’re super excited about,

and another person, a cofounder, right?

Because again, you get that dual leadership, right?

Am I making a bad decision?

Sometimes it’s nice to have checks of like,

is this a good idea?

I don’t know, right?

So those are the crucial seeds.

But then starting to build stuff,

whether it’s you programming or somebody else’s.

There is prototyping.

So there’s tons of research.

There’s tons of research, like, what’s out there that failed?

Because a lot of people look at the successes.

Oh, look at how successful X is.

Everybody looks at the successes.

Those are boring.

Show me the failures, because that is what’s interesting.

That’s where people were experimenting.

That’s where people were pushing.

And they failed, but they probably

failed for reasons that weren’t directly

about the quality of their idea, right?

So look at all the failures.

Don’t just look what everybody looks at, which is like, oh,

gosh, look at all these successful people.

Look at the failures.

Look at the things that didn’t work.

Research the entire field.

And so that’s the research that I was doing

that led me to Robin, right?

Was that.

And then when we, for example, when we did Stack Overflow,

we’re like, okay, well, I really like elements

of voting and dig and read it.

I like the Wikipedia, everything’s up to date.

Nothing is like an old tombstone

that has horrible out of date information.

We know that works.

Wikipedia is an amazing resource.

Blogging, the idea of ownership is so powerful, right?

Like, oh, I, Joe wrote this,

and look how good Joe’s answer is, right?

All these concepts were rolling together.

Researching all the things that were out there

that were working and why they were working

and trying to fold them into, again,

that Frankenstein’s monster of what Stack Overflow is.

And by the way, that wasn’t a free decision

because there’s still a ton of tension

in the Stack Overflow system.

There’s reasons people complain about Stack Overflow

because it’s so strict, right?

Why is it so strict?

Why are you guys always closing my questions?

It’s because there’s so much tension

that we built into the system

around trying to get good, good results out of the system.

And it’s not a free.

That stuff doesn’t come for free, right?

It’s not like we, we all have perfect answers

and nobody will have to get their feelings heard

or nobody will have to get downvoted.

It doesn’t work that way, right?

So this is an interesting point and a small tangent.

You write about anxiety.

So I’ve posted a lot of questions

and written answers on Stack Overflow.

On the question side, you usually go to

something very specific to something I’m working on.

And this is something you talk about

that really the goal of Stack Overflow isn’t about,

is to write a question that’s not about you,

it’s about the question that will help

the community in the future.

Right, but that’s a tough sell, right?

Because people are like, well,

I don’t really care about the community.

What I care about is my problem.

And that’s fair, right?

It’s sort of that, again, that tension,

that balancing act of we wanna help you,

but we also wanna help everybody that comes behind you.

The long line of people are gonna come up and say,

oh, I kinda have that problem too, right?

And if nobody’s ever gonna come up and say,

I have this problem too,

then that question shouldn’t exist on Stack Overflow

because the question is too specific.

And even that’s tension, right?

How do you judge that?

How do you know that nobody’s ever gonna have

this particular question again?

So there’s a lot of tension in the system.

Do you think that anxiety of asking the question,

the anxiety of answering,

that tension is inherent to programmers,

is inherent to this kind of process?

Or can it be improved?

Can it be happy land

where that tension is not quite so harsh?

I don’t think Stack Overflow

can totally change the way it works.

One thing they are working on finally

is the ask page had not changed since 2011.

I’m still kind of bitter about this

because I feel like you have a Q&A system

and what are the core pages in a Q&A system?

Well, first of all, the question,

all the answers and also the ask page,

particularly when you’re a new user

or someone trying to ask a question,

that’s the point at which you need the most help.

And we just didn’t adapt with the times.

But the good news is they’re working on this,

from what I understand,

and it’s gonna be a more wizard based format.

And you could envision a world

where as part of this wizard based program,

when you’re asking questions,

okay, come up with a good title,

what are good words to put in the title?

One word that’s not good to put in the title

is problem, for example.

I have a problem.

Oh, you have a problem.

Okay, a problem, that’s great.

You need specifics.

So it’s trying to help you make a good question title,

for example, that step will be broken out, all that stuff.

But one of those steps in that wizard of asking

could say, hey, I’m a little nervous.

I’ve never done this before.

Can you put me in a queue for special mentoring?

You could opt in to a special mentor.

I think that would be fantastic.

I don’t have any objection to that at all

in terms of being an opt in system.

Because there are people that are like,

I just wanna help them.

I wanna help a person no matter what.

I wanna go above and beyond.

I wanna spend hours with this person.

It depends what their goals are.

It’s a great idea.

Who am I to judge?

So that’s fine.

It’s not precluded from happening.

But there’s a certain big city ethos

that we started with.

Like, look, we’re in New York City.

You don’t come to New York City

and expect them to be, oh, welcome to the city, Joe.

How’s it going?

Come on in.

Let me show you around.

That’s not how New York City works.

Again, New York City has a reputation for being rude,

which I actually don’t think it is,

having been there fairly recently.

It’s not rude.

It’s just like going about their business.

Like, look, I have things to do.

I’m busy.

I’m a busy professional, as are you.

And since you’re a busy professional,

certainly when you ask a question,

you’re gonna ask the best possible question.

Because you’re a busy professional

and you would not accept anything less

than a very well written question

with a lot of detail about why you’re doing it,

what you’re doing, what you researched,

what you found,

because you’re a professional like me.

And this rubs people sometimes the wrong way.

And I don’t think it’s wrong to say,

look, I don’t want that experience.

I want just a more chill place for beginners.

And I still think Stack Overflow

is not, was never designed for beginners, right?

There’s this misconception that,

even Joel says sometimes,

oh yeah, Stack Overflow for beginners.

And I think if you’re a prodigy, it can be.


But for the most part, not.

But that’s not really representative, right?

Like, I think as a beginner,

you want a totally different set of tools.

You want like live screen sharing, live chat.

You want access to resources.

You want a playground,

like a playground you can experiment in

and like test and all this stuff

that we just don’t give people

because that was never really the audience

that we were designing Stack Overflow for.

That doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

And I think it would be awesome

if there was a site like that on the internet,

or if Stack Overflow said,

hey, you know, we’re gonna start doing this.

That’s fine too.

You know, I’m not there.

I’m not making those decisions.

But I do think the pressure,

the tension that you described is there for people to be,

look, I’m a little nervous

because I know I gotta do my best work, right?

The other one is something you talk about,

which is also really interesting to me,

is duplicate questions or it’s a really difficult problem

that you highlight.

It’s super hard.

Like you could take one little topic

and you could probably write 10, 20, 30 ways

of asking about that topic

and there will be all different.

I don’t know if there should be one page

that answers all of it.

Is there a way that Stack Overflow can help disambiguate,

like separate these duplicate questions

or connect them together?

Or is it a totally hopeless, difficult, impossible task?

I think it’s a very, very hard computer science problem.

And partly because people are very good

at using completely different words.

It always amazed me on Stack Overflow.

You’d have two questions that were functionally identical

and one question had like zero words in common

with the other question.

Like, oh my God, from a computer science perspective,

how do you even begin to solve that?

And it happens all the time.

People are super good at this, right?

Accidentally at asking the same thing

in like 10, 20 different ways.

And the other complexity is we want some

of those duplicates to exist

because if there’s five versions with different words,

have those five versions point

to the one centralized answer, right?

It’s like, okay, this is a duplicate, no worries.

Here’s the answer that you wanted over here

on the prime example that we want to have,

rather than having 10 copies of the question and the answer.

Because if you have 10 copies of the question and answer,

this also devalues the reputation system,

which programmers hate, as I previously mentioned.

You’re getting reputation for an answer

that somebody else already gave.

It’s like, well, it’s an answer,

but somebody else already gave that answer.

So why are you getting reputation for the same answer

as the other guy who gave it four years ago?

People get offended by that, right?

So the reputation system itself adds tension to the system

in that the people who have a lot of reputation

become very incentivized to enforce the reputation system.

And for the most part, that’s good.

I know it sounds weird, but for most parts,

like look, strict systems, I think to use Stack Overflow,

you have to have the idea that, OK, strict systems ultimately

work better.

And I do think in programming, you’re

familiar with loose typing versus strict typing, right?

The idea that you can declare a variable,

not declare a variable, rather, just start using a variable.

And OK, I see it’s implicitly an integer.

Bam, awesome.

Duck equals 5.

Well, duck is now an integer of 5, right?

And you’re like, cool, awesome, simpler, right?

Why would I want to worry about typing?

And for a long time, in the Ruby community,

they’re like, yeah, this is awesome.

You just do a bunch of unit testing,

which is testing your program’s validity after the fact

to catch any bugs that strict typing of variables

would have caught.

And now you have this thing called

TypeScript for Microsoft from the guy who

built C Sharp Anders, who’s one of the greatest

minds in software development, right,

like in terms of language design.

And says, no, no, no, we want to bolt on a strict type

system to JavaScript because it makes things better.

And now everybody’s like, oh my god, we deployed TypeScript

and found 50 latent bugs that we didn’t know about, right?

Like, this is super common.

So I think there is a truth in programming

that strictness, it’s not the goal.

We’re not saying be super strict because strictness is correct.

No, it’s no, no.

Strictness produces better results.

That’s what I’m saying, right?

So strict typing of variables, I would

say you almost universally have consensus now

is basically correct.

Should be that way in every language, right?

Duck equals five should generate an error

because no, you didn’t declare.

You didn’t tell me that duck was an integer, right?

That’s a bug, right?

Or maybe you mistyped.

You typed deck instead of duck, right?

You never know.

This happens all the time, right?

So with that in mind, I will say that the strictness

of the system is correct.

Now, that doesn’t mean cruel.

That doesn’t mean mean.

That doesn’t mean angry.

It just means strict, OK?

So I think where there’s misunderstanding

is people get cranky, right?

Like, another question you asked is like, why are programmers

kind of mean sometimes?

Well, who do programmers work with all day long?

So I have a theory that if you’re at a job

and you work with assholes all day long,

what do you eventually become?

An asshole.

And what is the computer except the world’s biggest asshole?

Because the computer has no time for your bullshit.

The computer, the minute you make a mistake,

everything is crashing down, right?

One semicolon has crashed space missions, right?

So that’s normal.

So you begin to internalize that.

You begin to think, oh, my coworker, the computer,

is super strict and kind of a jerk about everything.

So that’s kind of how I’m going to be.

Because I work with this computer,

and I have to exceed to its terms on everything.

So therefore, you start to absorb that.

You start to think, oh, well, being really strict arbitrarily

is really good.

An error of error code 56249 is a completely good error message

because that’s what the computer gave me, right?

So you kind of forget to be a person at some level.

And you know how they say great detectives internalize

criminals and kind of are criminals themselves,

like this trope of the master detective

is good because he can think like the criminal.

Well, I do think that’s true of programmers.

Really good programmers think like the computer

because that’s their job.

But if you internalize it too much, you become the computer.

You kind of become a jerk to everybody

because that’s what you’ve internalized.

You’re almost not a jerk, but you have no patience

for a lack of strictness, as you said.

It’s not out of a sense of meanness.

It’s accidental.

But I do believe it’s an occupational hazard

of being a programmer is you start

to behave like the computer.

You’re very unforgiving.

You’re very terse.

You’re very, oh, wrong, incorrect, move on.

It’s like, well, can you help me?

What could I do to fix?

No, wrong, next question.

Like, that’s normal for the computer.

Just fail, next.

I don’t know if you remember in Saturday Night Live,

in the 90s, they had this character who was an IT guy.

The move guy.


Was that Jimmy Fallon?


Who played him?

OK, yeah, I remember.



He had no patience for it.

Might have been Mad TV, actually.

Wasn’t it Mad TV?

Might have been.

But anyway, that’s always been the perception.

You start to behave like the computer.

It’s like, oh, you’re wrong, out of the way, you know?

You’ve written so many blog posts about programming,

about programs, programming, programmers.

What do you think makes a good, let’s start with,

what makes a good solo programmer?

Well, I don’t think you should be a solo programmer.

I think to be a good solo programmer,

it’s kind of like what I talked about, well, not on Mike,

but one of the things John Carmack, one of the best

points he makes in the book Masters of Doom, which

is a fantastic book, and anybody listening to this

who hasn’t read it, please read it.

It’s such a great book, is that at the time,

they were working on stuff like Wolfenstein and Doom.

They didn’t have the resources that we have today.

They didn’t have Stack Overflow.

They didn’t have Wikipedia.

They didn’t have discourse forums.

They didn’t have places to go to get people to help them.

They had to work on their own.

And that’s why it took a genius like Carmack

to do this stuff, because you had

to be a genius to invent from first principles.

A lot of the stuff he was like, the hacks he was coming up

with were genius, genius level stuff.

But you don’t need to be a genius anymore,

and that means not working by yourself.

You have to be good at researching stuff online.

You have to be good at asking questions, really good

questions that are really well researched, which implies,

oh, I went out and researched for three hours

before I wrote these questions.

That’s what you should be doing, because that’s

what’s going to make you good.

To me, this is the big difference

between programming in the 80s versus programming today,

is you kind of had to be by yourself back then.

Where would you go for answers?

I remember in the early days when

I was learning Visual Basic for Windows,

I would call the Microsoft Helpline on the phone

when I had programming.

Because I was like, I don’t know what to do.

So I would go and call, and they had these huge phone banks.

And I’m like, can you imagine how alien that is now?

Who would do that?

That’s crazy.

So there was just nowhere else to go when you got stuck.

I had the books that came with it.

I read those, studied those religiously.

I just saw a post from Steve Sanofsky

that said the C++ version 7 came with 10,000 pages

of written material.

Because where else were you going to figure that stuff out?

Go to the library?

I mean, you didn’t have Wikipedia.

You didn’t have Reddit.

You didn’t have anywhere to go to answer these questions.

So you’ve talked about, through the years,

basically not having an ego and not

thinking that you’re the best programmer in the world.

So always kind of just looking to improve,

to become a better programmer than you were yesterday.

So how have you changed as a programmer

and as a thinker, designer around programming

over the past, what is it, 15 years, really,

of being a public figure?

I would say the big insight that I had is, eventually,

as a programmer, you have to stop writing code

to be effective, which is kind of disturbing.

Because you really love it.

But you realize being effective at programming,

at programming in the general sense,

doesn’t mean writing code.

And a lot of times, you can be much more successful by not

writing code and writing code in terms of just solving

the problems you have, essentially hiring people

that are really good and setting them free

and giving them basic direction on strategy and stuff.

Because a lot of the problems you encounter

aren’t necessarily solved through really gnarly code.

They’re solved by conceptual solutions, which can then

be turned into code.

But are you even solving the right problem?

So I would say, for me, the main insight I have

is, to succeed as a programmer, you eventually

kind of stop writing code.

That’s going to sound discouraging, probably,

to people hearing.

But I don’t mean it that way.

What I mean is that you’re coding

at a higher level language.

Eventually, like, OK, so we’re coding in assembly language.

That’s the beginning, right?

You’re hardcoded to the architecture.

Then you have stuff like C, where it’s like, wow,

we can abstract across the architecture.

We can write code.

I can then compile that code for ARM

or whatever x86 or whatever else is out there.

And then even higher level than that,

you’re looking at Python, Ruby, interpreted languages.

And then, to me, as a programmer,

I’m like, OK, I want to go even higher.

I want to go higher than that.

How do I abstract higher than the language?

It’s like, well, you abstract in spoken language

and written language, right?

You’re sort of inspiring people to get things done,

giving them guidance, like, what if we did this?

What if we did this?

You’re writing in the highest level language

that there is, which is, for me, English,

whatever your spoken language is.

So it’s all about being effective, right?

And I think Patrick McKenzie, patio11 on Hacker News

and works at Stripe, has a great post about this,

of how calling yourself a programmer

is a career limiting move at some level

once you get far enough from your career.

And I really believe that.

And again, I apologize.

This is sound discouraging.

I don’t mean it to be, but he’s so right.

Because all the stuff that goes on around the code,

like the people, that’s another thing,

if you look at my early blog entries, is about, wow,

programming is about people more than it’s

about code, which doesn’t really make sense.

But it’s about, can these people even get along together?

Can they understand each other?

Can you even explain to me what it is you’re working on?

Are you solving the right problem?

PeopleWare, another classic programming book,

which, again, up there with Code Complete,

please read PeopleWare.

It’s that software is people.

People are the software, first and foremost.

So a lot of the skills that I was working on early

in the blog were about figuring out the people

parts of programming, which were the harder parts.

The hard part of programming, once you

get a certain skill level in programming,

you can pretty much solve any reasonable problem that’s

put in front of you.

You’re not writing algorithms from scratch.

That just doesn’t happen.

So any sort of reasonable problem put in front of you,

you’re going to be able to solve.

But what you can’t solve is, our manager is a total jerk.

You cannot solve that with code.

That is not a code solvable problem.

And yet, that will cripple you way more than, oh, we

had to use this stupid framework I don’t like,

or Sam keeps writing bad code that I hate,

or Dave is off there in the wilderness writing

God knows what.

These are not your problems.

Your problem is your manager or a co worker

is so toxic to everybody else in your team

that nobody can get anything done,

because everybody’s so stressed out and freaked out.

These are the problems that you have to attack.


And so as you go to these higher level abstractions,

as you’ve developed as a programmer

to higher and higher level abstractions

and go into natural language, you’re

also the guy who preached building it, diving in

and doing it, and learn by doing.


Do you worry that as you get to higher and higher level

abstractions, you lose track of the lower level of just


Do you worry about that, even not maybe now,

but 10 years from now, 20 years from now?

Well, no.

I mean, there is always that paranoia around, oh, gosh,

I don’t feel it’s valuable since I’m not writing code.

But for me, when we started the discourse project,

it was Ruby, which I didn’t really know Ruby.

I mean, as you pointed out, and this

is another valuable observation in Stack Overflow,

you can be super proficient in, for example, C Sharp,

which I was working in.

That’s what we built Stack Overflow in and still

is written in.

And then switch to Ruby, and you’re a newbie again.

But you have the framework.

I know what a for loop is.

I know what recursion is.

I know what a stack trace is.

I have all the fundamental concepts to be a programmer.

I just don’t know Ruby.

So I’m still on a higher level.

I’m not like a beginner beginner, like you’re saying.

I’m just like, I need to apply my programming concepts I already

know to Ruby.

Well, so there’s a question that’s really interesting.

So looking at Ruby, how do you go about learning enough

that your intuition can be applied, carried over?

That’s what I was trying to get to.

It’s like what I realized, particularly when I started

with just me and Robin, I realized if I bother Robin,

I am now costing us productivity.

Every time I go to Robin, rather than building our first alpha

version of discourse, he’s now answering my stupid questions

about Ruby.

Is that a good use of his time?

Is that a good use of my time?

And the answer to both of those was resoundingly no.

We were getting to an alpha, and it was pretty much just,

OK, we’ll hire more programmers.

We eventually hired Neil, and then eventually Sam,

who came in as a cofounder.

Actually, it was Sam first, then Neil later.

But the answer to the problem is just

hire other competent programmers.

Now I shall pull myself up by my bootstraps

and learn Ruby.

But at some point, writing code becomes a liability to you

in terms of getting things done.

There’s so many other things that

go on in the project, like building the prototype.

You mentioned, well, how do you, if you’re not writing code,

how does everybody keep focus on what are we building?

Well, first, basic mockups and research.

What do we even want to build?

There’s a little bit of that that goes on.

But then very quickly, you get to the prototype stage.

Like, build a prototype.

Let’s iterate on the prototype really, really rapidly.

And that’s what we do with discourse.

And that’s what we demoed to get our seed funding

for discourse was the alpha version of discourse

that we had running and ready to go.

And it was very, it was bad.

I mean, it was, I’ll just tell you it was bad.

We have screenshots of it.

I’m just embarrassed to look at it now.

But it was the prototype.

We were figuring out what’s working, what’s not working.

Because there’s such a broad gap between the way

you think things will work in your mind or even on paper

and the way they work once you sit and live in the software,

like actually spend time living and breathing in software,

so different.

So my philosophy is get to a prototype.

And then what you’re really optimizing

for is speed of iteration, like how you can turn the crank.

How quickly can we iterate?

That’s the absolutely critical metric

of any software project.

And I had a tweet recently that people liked.

And I totally, this is so fundamental to what I do,

is like if you want to measure the core competency of any

software tech company, it’s the speed at which somebody

can say, hey, we really need this word in the product.

Change this word, right?

Because it will be more clear to the user.

Like, instead of respond, it’s reply or something.

But there’s some, from the conception of that idea

to how quickly that single word can be changed in your software

and rolled out to users, that is your life cycle.

That’s your health, your heartbeat.

If your heartbeat is like super slow, you’re basically dead.

No, seriously.

Like, if it takes two weeks or even a month

to get that single word changed, everybody’s like, oh my god,

this is a great idea.

That word is so much clearer.

I’m talking about like a super, like everybody’s

on board for this change.

It’s not like, let’s just change a word because we’re bored.

It’s like, this is an awesome change.

And then it takes months to roll out.

It’s like, well, you’re dead.

You can’t iterate.

You can’t, how are you going to do anything, right?

So anyway, about the heartbeat, it’s

like, get the prototype and then iterate on it.

That’s what I view as the central tenet of modern software


That’s fascinating that you put it that way.

So I work and I build autonomous vehicles.

And when you look at what, maybe compare Tesla

to most other automakers, the heart beat for Tesla

is literally days now in terms of they can over the air

deploy software updates to all their vehicles, which

is markedly different than every other automaker, which takes

years to update a piece of software.

And that’s reflected in everything

that’s the final product.

That’s reflected in really how slowly they

adapt to the times.

And to be clear, I’m not saying being a hummingbird

is the goal either.

It’s like, you don’t want a heartbeat that’s like so fast.

It’s like you’re just freaking out.

But it is a measure of health.

You should have a healthy heartbeat.

It’s up to people listening to decide what that means.

But it has to be healthy.

It has to be reasonable.

Because otherwise, you’re just going

to be frustrated because that’s how you build software.

You make mistakes.

You roll it out.

You live with it.

You see what it feels like and say, oh, God,

that was a terrible idea.

Oh, my gosh, this could be even better if we did Y, right?

You turn the crank.

And then the more you do that, the faster

you get ahead of your competitors ultimately.

It’s rate of change, right?

Delta V, right?

How fast are you moving?

Well, within a year, you’re going to be miles away

by the time they catch up with you, right?

That’s the way it works.

And plus, as a software developer and user,

I love software that’s constantly changing.

Because I don’t understand people who get super pissed off

when like, oh, they changed the software on me.

How dare they?

I’m like, yes, change the software.

Change it all the time, man.

That’s what makes this stuff great

is that it can be changed so rapidly

and become something that is greater than it is now.

Now, granted, there are some changes that suck.

I admit.

I’ve seen it many times.

But in general, that’s what makes software cool, right?

It’s that it is so malleable.

Fighting that is weird to me.

Because it’s like, well, you’re fighting

the essence of the thing that you’re building.

That doesn’t make sense.

You want to really embrace that.

Not to be a hummingbird, but embrace it

to a healthy cycle of your heartbeat, right?

So you talk about that people really don’t change.

It’s true.

That’s why probably a lot of the stuff you write about in your blog

probably will remain true.

Well, there’s a flip side of the coin.

People don’t change.

Like, investing and understanding people

is like learning Unix in 1970.

Because nothing has changed, right?

All those things you’ve learned about people

will still be valid 34 years from now.

Whereas if you learn the latest JavaScript framework,

that’s going to be good for like two years, right?


But if you look at the future of programming,

so there’s a people component, but there’s also

the technology itself.

What do you see as the future of programming?

Will it change significantly, or as far as you can tell,

people are ultimately programming,

and so it’s not something that you foresee changing

in any fundamental way?

Well, you’ve got to go look back on sort

of the basics of programming.

And one of things that always shocked me

is like source control.

Like, I didn’t learn anything about source control.

Granted, I graduated from college in 1992.

But I remember hearing from people as late as like 1998,

1999, like even maybe today, they’re

not learning source control.

And to me, it’s like, well, how can you not

learn source control?

That is so fundamental to working with other programmers,

working in a way that you don’t lose your work.

Just basic software, the literal bedrock of software

development is source control.

Now, you compare it today, like GitHub, right?

Like Microsoft bought GitHub, which

I think was an incredibly smart acquisition move

on their part.

Now they have anybody who wants reasonable source control

to go sign up on GitHub.

It’s all set up for you, right?

There’s tons of walkthroughs, tons of tutorials.

So from the concept of like, has programming

advanced from, say, 1999, it’s like, well, hell, we have GitHub.

I mean, my god, yes, right?

Like, it’s massively advanced over what it was.

Now, as to whether programming is significantly different,

I’m going to say no.

But I think the baseline of what we view as fundamentals

will continue to go up and actually get better,

like source control.

That’s one of the fundamentals that has gotten hundreds

of orders of magnitude better than it was 10, 20 years ago.

So those are the fundamentals.

Let me introduce two things that maybe you can comment on.

So one is mobile phones.

So that could fundamentally transform what programming is,

or maybe not.

Maybe you can comment on that.

And the other one is artificial intelligence,

which promises to, in some ways, to do

some of the programming for you is one way to think about it.

So it’s really what a programmer is,

is using the intelligence that’s inside your skull

to do something useful.

The hope with artificial intelligence

is that it does some of the useful parts for you

where you don’t have to think about it.

So do you see smartphones, the fact that everybody has one,

and they’re getting more and more powerful as potentially

changing programming?

And do you see AI as potentially changing programming?

OK, so that’s good.

So smartphones have definitely changed.

I mean, since, I guess, 2010 is when they really

started getting super popular.

I mean, in the last eight years, the world

has literally changed, right?

Everybody carries a computer around, and that’s normal.

I mean, that is such a huge change in society.

I think we’re still dealing with a lot

of the positive and negative ramifications of that, right?

Everybody’s connected all the time.

Everybody’s on the computer all the time.

That was my dream world as a geek, right?

But it’s like, be careful what you ask for, right?

Like, wow, now everybody has a computer.

It’s not quite the utopia that we thought it would be, right?

Computers can be used for a lot of stuff that’s not necessarily


So to me, that’s the central focus of the smartphone,

is just that it puts a computer in front of everyone.

Granted, a small, touch screen, smallish,

touch screen computer.

But as for programming, I don’t know.

I don’t think that I’ve kind of, over time,

come to subscribe to the Unix view of the world

when it comes to programming.

You want to teach these basic command line things,

and that is just what programming

is going to be for, I think, a long, long time.

I don’t think there’s any magical visual programming

that’s going to happen.

I don’t know.

I’ve, over time, have become a believer in that Unix

philosophy of just, you know, they kind of had

to write with Unix.

That’s going to be the way it is for a long, long time.

And we’ll continue to, like I said, raise the baseline.

The tools will get better.

It’ll get simpler.

But it’s still fundamentally going

to be command line tools, fancy IDEs.

That’s kind of it for the foreseeable future.

I’m not seeing any visual programming stuff

on the horizon.

Because you kind of think, like, what

do you do on a smartphone that will be directly

analogous to programming?

Like, I’m trying to think, right?

And there’s really not much.

So not necessarily analogous to programming,

but the kind of things that, the kind of programs

you would need to write might need to be very different.


And the kind of languages.

I mean, but I probably also subscribe to the same,

just because everything in this world

might be written in JavaScript.

Oh, yeah.

That’s already happening.

I mean, discourse is a bet.

Discourse itself, JavaScript, is another bet

on that side of the table.

And I still try and believe in that.

So I would say smartphones have mostly a cultural shift more

than a programming shift.

Now, your other question was about artificial intelligence

and sort of devices predicting what you’re going to do.

And I do think there’s some strength to that.

I think artificial intelligence is kind of overselling it

in terms of what it’s doing.

It’s more like, people are predictable, right?

People do the same things.

Let me give you an example.

One check we put in a discourse that’s

been a lot of big commercial websites is,

say you log in from New York City now.

And then an hour later, you log in from San Francisco.

It’s like, well, hmm, that’s interesting.

How did you get from New York to San Francisco in one hour?

So at that point, you’re like, OK, this

is a suspicious login at that point.

So we would alert you.

It’s like, OK.

But that’s not AI, right?

That’s just a heuristic of like, how did you, in one hour,

get 2,000 miles, right?

That doesn’t.

I mean, you’re grand.

Maybe you’re on a VPN.

There’s other ways to happen.

That’s just a basic prediction based on the idea

that people pretty much don’t move around that much.

They may travel occasionally.

But nobody, unless you’re a traveling salesman that’s

literally traveling the world every day,

there’s so much repetition and predictability

in terms of things you’re going to do.

And I think good software anticipates your needs.

For example, Google, I think it’s

called Google Now or whatever that Google thing is

that predicts your commute and predicts,

based on your phone location, where are you every day?

Well, that’s probably where you work, that kind of stuff.

I do think computers can get a lot better at that.

I hesitate to call it full blown AI.

It’s just computers getting better at like, first of all,

they have a ton of data because everybody has a smartphone.

Now, all of a sudden, we have all this data

that we didn’t have before about location,

about communication, and feeding that into some basic heuristics

and maybe some fancy algorithms that turn it

into predictions of anticipating your needs,

like a friend would, right?

Like, oh, hey, I see your home.

Would you like some dinner, right?

Like, let’s go get some food, because that’s usually

what we do at this time of day, right?

In the context of actually the act of programming,

do you see IDEs improving and making

the life of programming as better?

I do think that is possible, because there’s

a lot of repetition in programming, right?

Oh, you know, Clippy would be the bad example of, oh, I see.

It looks like you’re writing a for loop.

But there are patterns in code, right?

And actually, libraries are kind of like that, right?

Rather than go code up your own HTTP request library,

it’s like, well, you’d use one of the existing ones

that we have.

That’s already a troubleshot, right?

It’s not AI, per se.

It’s just building better LEGO bricks, bigger LEGO bricks,

that have more functionality in them,

so people don’t have to worry about the low level

stuff as much anymore.

Like, WordPress, for example, to me,

is like a tool for somebody who isn’t a programmer

to do something.

I mean, you can turn WordPress into anything.

It’s kind of crazy, actually, through plugins, right?

And that’s not programming, per se.

It’s just LEGO bricks stacking WordPress elements, right?

And a little bit of configuration glue.

So I would say, maybe in a broader sense, what I’m seeing,

like, there’ll be more gluing and less actual programming.

And that’s a good thing, right?

Because most of the stuff you need

is kind of out there already.

You said 1970s, Unix.

Do you see PHP and these kind of old remnants

of the early birth of programming

remaining with us for a long time?

Like you said, Unix in itself.

Do you see, ultimately, this stuff just being there

out of momentum?

I kind of do.

I mean, I was a big believer in Windows early on.

And I was a big, you know, I was like,

Unix, what a waste of time.

But over time, I’ve completely flipped on that,

where I was like, okay, the Unix guys were right.

And pretty much Microsoft and Windows were kind of wrong,

at least on the server side.

Now, on the desktop, right, you need a GUI,

you need all that stuff.

And you have the two philosophies,

like Apple built on Unix, effectively, Darwin.

And on the desktop, it’s a slightly different story.

But on the server side, where you’re gonna be programming.

Now, it’s a question of where the programming’s gonna be.

There’s gonna be a lot more like client side programming,

because technically, discourse is client side programming.

The way you get discourse,

we deliver a big ball of JavaScript,

which is then executed locally.

So we’re really using a lot more local computing power.

We’ll still retrieve the data, obviously,

we have to display the posts on the screen and so forth.

But in terms of like sorting and a lot of the basic stuff,

we’re using the host processor.

But to the extent that a lot of programming

is still gonna be server side, I would say, yeah,

the Unix philosophy definitely won.

And there’ll be different veneers over Unix,

but it’s still, if you peel away one or two layers,

it’s gonna be Unixy for a long, I think Unix won.

I mean, so definitively.

It’s interesting to hear you say that,

because you’ve done so much excellent work

on the Microsoft side in terms of backend development.


So what’s the future hold for Jeff Atwood?

I mean, the discourse, continuing the discourse

in trying to improve conversation on the web?

Well, discourse is what I’ve viewed as a,

and originally I called it a five year project,

then really quickly revised that to a 10 year project.

So we started in early 2013,

that’s when we launched the first version.

So we’re still five years in.

This is the part where it starts getting good.

Like we have a good product now.

Discourse, there’s any project you build in software,

it takes three years to build what you want it

to build anyway.

Like V1 is gonna be terrible, which it was.

But you ship it anyway,

because that’s how you get better at stuff.

It’s about turning the crank.

It’s not about V1 being perfect,

because that’s ridiculous.

It’s about V1, then let’s get really good at V1.1,

1.2, 1.3, like how fast can we iterate?

And I think we’re iterating like crazy on discourse,

to the point that like, it’s a really good product now.

We have serious momentum.

And my original vision was,

I wanna be the WordPress of discussion.

Meaning someone came to you and said,

I wanna start a blog.

Although the very question is kind of archaic now.

It’s like, who actually blogs anymore?

But I wanted the answer to that to be,

it would be WordPress normally,

because that’s the obvious choice

for blogging most of the time.

But if someone said, hey, I need a group of people

to get together and do something,

the answer should be discourse, right?

That should be the default answer for people.

Because it’s open source, it’s free,

doesn’t cost you anything.

You control it, you can run it.

Your minimum server cost for discourse

is five bucks a month at this point.

They actually got the VPS prices down.

It used to be $10 a month for one gigabyte of RAM,

which we have a kind of heavy stack.

Like there’s a lot of stuff in discourse.

You need Postgres, you need Redis, you need Ruby,

and Rails, you need a sidekick for scheduling.

It’s not a trivial amount of stuff

because we were architected for like,

look, we’re building for the next 10 years.

I don’t care about shared PHP hosting.

That’s not my model.

My idea is like, hey, eventually,

this is gonna be very cheap for everybody

and I wanna build it right.

Using again, higher, bigger building block levels, right?

That have more requirements.

And there’s a WordPress model of WordPress.org,


Is there a central hosting for discourse or no?

There is.

We’re not strictly segmenting into the open source

versus the commercial side.

We have a hosting business.

That’s how discourse makes money

is we host discourse instances

and we have really close relationship with our customers

of the symbiosis of them giving us feedback on the product.

We definitely wait feedback from customers

a lot heavier than feedback from somebody

who just wanders by and gives feedback.

But that’s where we make all our money.

But we don’t have a strict division.

We encourage people to use discourse.

Like the whole point is that it’s free, right?

Anybody can set it up.

I don’t wanna be the only person that hosts discourse.

That’s absolutely not the goal.

But it is a primary way for us to build a business

and it’s actually kind of a great business.

I mean, the business is going really, really well

in terms of hosting.

So I used to work at Google Research.

It’s a company that’s basically funded on advertisements.

So it’s Facebook.

Let me ask if you can comment on it.

I think advertisement is best.

So you’d be extremely critical on what ads are

but at its best, it’s actually serving you.

In a sense, it’s giving you, it’s connecting you

to what you would want to explore.

So it’s like related posts or related content.

It’s the same, that’s the best of advertisement.

So discourse is connecting people based on their interests.

It seems like a place where advertisement at its best

could actually serve the users.

Is that something that you’re considering thinking about

as a way to bring, to financially support the platform?

That’s interesting because I actually have

a contrarian view of advertising,

which I kind of agree with you.

I recently installed AdBlocker reluctantly

because I don’t like to do that.

But the performance of the ads, man,

they’re so heavy now and it’s just crazy.

So it’s almost like a performance argument

more than like, I actually am pro ads

and I have a contrarian viewpoint.

I agree with you.

If you do ads right, it’s serving you stuff

you would be interested in anyway.

I don’t mind that, that actually is kind of a good thing.

So plus I think it’s rational to wanna support

the people that are doing this work

through seeing their ads.

But that said, I run AdBlock now,

which I didn’t wanna do, but I was convinced

by all these articles, like 30, 40 megabytes of stuff

just to serve you ads.

Yeah, it feels like ads now are like the experts exchange

of whenever you start a stock overflow.

It’s a little bit, it’s overwhelming.

Oh, there’s so many companies in ad tech

that it’s embarrassing.

Like you can do that, have you seen those logo charts

of like just the whole page?

It’s like you can’t even see them, they’re so small.

There’s so many companies in the space.

But since you brought it up, I do wanna point out

that very, very few discourse sites actually run

using an ad supported model.

It’s not effective.

Like it’s too diluted, it’s too weird,

it doesn’t pay well, and like users hate it.

So it’s a combination of like users hate it,

it doesn’t actually work that well in practice.

Like in theory, yes, I agree with you.

If you had clean, fast ads that were exactly

the stuff you would be interested in, awesome.

We’re so far from that though, right?

Like, and Google does an okay job.

They do retargeting and stuff like that,

but in the real world, discourse sites

rarely can make ads work.

It just doesn’t work for so many reasons.

But you know what does work is subscriptions,

Patreon, affiliate codes for like Amazon,

of like just, oh, here’s a cool yo yo, click,

and then you click and go to Amazon,

they get a small percentage of that,

which is fair, I think.

I mean, because you saw the yo yo on that site

and you clicked through and you bought it, right?

That’s fair for them to get 5% of that

or 2% of that, whatever it is.

Those things definitely work.

In fact, a site that I used to participate on a lot,

I helped the owner.

One of the things, I got them to switch to discourse.

I basically paid them to switch to discourse

because I was like, look, you guys got to switch.

I can’t come here anymore on this terrible software.

But I was like, look, and on top of that,

like you’re serving people ads that they hate.

Like you should just go full on Patreon

because he had a little bit of Patreon.

Go full on Patreon, do the Amazon affiliates thing

for any Amazon links that get posted and just do that

and just triple down on that stuff.

And that’s worked really well for them

and this creator in particular.

So that stuff works, but traditional ads,

I mean, definitely not working, at least on discourse.

So last question.

You’ve created the code keyboard.

I’ve programmed most of my adult life on a Kinesis keyboard.

I have one upstairs now.

Can you describe what a mechanical keyboard is

and why is it something that makes you happy?

Well, you know, this is another fetish item, really.

Like, it’s not required.

You can do programming on any kind of keyboard,

even like an onscreen keyboard.

Oh, god, that’s terrifying.

But you could.

I mean, if you look back at the early days of computing,

there were chiclet keyboards, which are awful.

But what’s a chiclet keyboard?

Oh, god.

OK, well, it’s just like thin rubber membranes.

Oh, the rubber ones, oh, no.

Super bad, right?

So it’s a fetish item.

All that really says is, look, I care really about keyboards

because the keyboard is the primary method of communication

with the computer.

So it’s just like having a nice mic for this podcast.

You want a nice keyboard, right?

Because it has a very tactile feel.

I can tell exactly when I press the key.

I get that little click.

So, oh, and it feels good.

And it’s also kind of a fetish item.

It’s like, wow, I care enough about programming

that I care about the tool, the primary tool,

that I use to communicate with the computer,

make sure it’s as good as it feels good to use for me.

And I can be very productive with it.

So to be honest, it’s a little bit of a fetish item,

but a good one.

It indicates that you’re serious.

It indicates you’re interested.

It indicates that you care about the fundamentals.

Because you know what makes you a good programmer?

Being able to type really fast, right?

This is true, right?

So a core skill is just being able to type fast enough

to get your ideas out of your head into the code base.

So just practicing your typing can make you

a better programmer.

It is also something that makes you,

well, makes you enjoy typing, correct?

The actual act, something about the process.

Like I play piano.

It’s tactile.

There’s a tactile feel that ultimately feeds the passion,

makes you happy.


No, totally.

That’s it.

I mean, and it’s funny because artisanal keyboards have


Like Massdrop has gone ballistic with this stuff.

There’s probably like 500 keyboard projects

on Massdrop alone.

And there’s some other guy I follow on Twitter.

I used to write for the site The Tech Report way

back in the day.

And he’s like, every week he’s just

posting what I call keyboard porn of just cool keyboards.

Like, oh my god, those look really cool, right?

It’s like, how many keyboards does this guy have, right?

It’s kind of like me with yo yos.

How many yo yos do you have?

How many do you need?

Well, technically one, but I like a lot.

I don’t know why.

So same thing with keyboards.

So yeah, they’re awesome.

Like, I highly recommend anybody that

doesn’t have a mechanical to research it, look into it,

and see what you like.

And it’s ultimately a fetish item.

But I think these sort of items, these religious artifacts

that we have, are part of what make us human.

Like, that part’s important, right?

It’s kind of what makes life worth living.


It’s not necessary in the strictest sense,

but ain’t nothing necessary if you think about it, right?

Like, so yeah, why not?

So sure.

Jeff, thank you so much for talking today.

Yeah, you’re welcome.

Thanks for having me.

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