Apr 04 2011

Is this really Uncle Bob?

In the last few months I’ve become involved in the series of Q & A sites that come under the Stack Exchange banner, primarily the sites known as Stackoverflow and Programmers.SE.

Stackoverflow is a site centred around code oriented problems, and since its launch in 2008 has proven to be a wonderful resource for amateur, student, and professional programmers alike. This is one of the more mature Stack Exchange sites and it shows in the quality of its users. The user base covers a vast array of programming languages, contains published technical authors, and leading developers for some of the worlds biggest companies. Not the least of these users is a man called Jon Skeet, author of C# in Depth and current top user by reputation score (all questions and answers are voted on by other users, thus giving “reputation”). I single Jon out here for his consistently high quality answers, and what that means to the community of users. The existence of such users (and there are several others) on the site creates a slow burning feedback loop where better answers better educate the rest of the user base, thus improving others’ ability to answer questions, be they in their work or on the site. It also improves the standing of the site in the meta-conscience of the programming community by having high profile, high quality users. Bear this in mind for later in the post.

Programmers.SE is a sister site to Stackoverflow which is meant to cover the craft of programming, everything else that is specific to being a programmer that isn’t actually code. This site only launched in December 2010, so less than 6 months old as I write this post. It’s a slightly unusual site for the Stack Exchange network because the area it is meant to cover naturally leads to very subjective questions, normally a no-no for Stack Exchange sites. However, realising there was a need for this type of site, but also a need to keep a rein on the questions becoming too subjective, the 6 guidelines were born. These took some time to come to fruition and indeed the community is still working to learn about itself and educate new users accordingly, still growing… it is only a baby after all.

The point about high profile, high quality users is what prompted this post, and the addition of one in particular to the Programmers.SE site. On a question entitled “Can a function be too small” an answer appeared with a user name “Uncle Bob”. It’s an unassuming name, and might possibly have slipped by if it wasn’t for the type of question, but to many programmers “Uncle Bob” is Robert C Martin, author of Clean Code. Now this book has influenced an untold number of programmers, and for the better. I’ve read it once and it changed how I viewed my code, and I plan to read it again to ingrain more of its practices in my head.

Robert Martin is exactly the kind of user Programmers.SE needs, a high profile, high quality user. I don’t want to take anything away from the other users of that site, many have provided fantastic answers to incredibly interesting questions, and are the reason the site made it out of beta and has continued to grow since. However attracting someone like Robert Martin to the site adds to the prestige of Programmers.SE. Here is a site where you can possibly be getting advice off of some of the leading lights in our industry. That is the kind of site developers like to be part of, we don’t like poor quality, we hate wading through the mounds of chaff produced by so many on the internet on our way to getting the information we need.

Now, before I get too carried away, Robert Martin has only posted once to the site to my knowledge and is as yet an unregistered user. However just  that brief visitation filled me with confidence for the future of one of my favourite sites. I hope he visits again, and I hope many more like him do to. These sites live and breathe because of their users, so come one, come all, bring your good questions, or your great answers, or just your burning desire to be better than you are at what you do.