ServerFault.com – Like StackOverflow, but for IT

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I hate forums and newsgroups.  I can’t do a better job of explaining why than Tom LaRock did in his post Why I Dislike Newsgroups, including this bullet point list:

  1. It takes too long to get an answer, especially if you need an answer quickly.
  2. Sometimes, people are quite rude.
  3. Most times, the answers are flat out wrong.
  4. Many questions are not being asked in the right forums.
  5. Moderators spend far too much time moving questions between forums.
  6. End users get frustrated when their questions are moved.
  7. You do not know who you can trust.
  8. You can review threads later, but have no idea which answer was correct.

Amen.

The Solutions: StackOverflow.com and ServerFault.com

StackOverflow is for programmers, and ServerFault is for IT workers (sysadmins, Exchange guys, SharePoint folks, network people, rack monkeys, etc).  They both work the same way:

  • A user submits a question.
    • Other users can comment on the question, thereby encouraging the asker to clarify their question or improve it.
    • Users can tag the question with mutiple tags.  This replaces the old group-based forums where you had to move a question around between multiple groups trying to find the right user base to answer it.  A question might involve C#, SQLServer and SQLServer2008, for example, and tagging with all three gets the right audience involved.
    • Users can vote the question up or down.  Highly rated questions get more attention by floating to the top of the question list, and poor questions (like not enough information or inflammatory questions) sink down toward the bottom of the list.
  • A user submits an answer.
    • Other users can comment on the answer, and vote it up or down.  High-ranking answers move to the top of the answer list.
    • Users with high reputation counts can edit and improve the answer.
  • The questioner accepts an answer. This moves it to the very top of the answer list.
  • Other people search the web for similar questions, and end up at StackOverflow or ServerFault.  They see an elegantly arranged list of answers with the best answers at the top.

StackOverflow and ServerFault make it easy for users to get their questions answered and make it easy for answerers to find relevant questions to work on.  Even better, the reputation system rewards everybody’s work: every time a question, comment or answer is voted up or down, it helps record who’s doing good work and gives their work more credibility in the site.

Long-term, I think both of these sites will function like resumes for programmers and IT workers.  If someone wants to work for me, and they can point to a long history of answering questions on sites like this, with steadily increasing reputations and good answers, that’s better than a letter of reference.  It shows intelligence plus dedication to the community.

Getting Started with StackOverflow and ServerFault

StackOverflow has been open for a while, so to get started you just surf over to StackOverflow.com and register for an account with your OpenID.  OpenID is what the old Microsoft Passport system always aimed to be, a single login good for anywhere, except that you actually control your own OpenID.  You can run an OpenID on your own web site, like I do at BrentOzar.com, or you can use one from Google, AOL or Yahoo, among other providers.

ServerFault is brand spankin’ new, and it’s in a semi-private beta for the next week or so.  Go to ServerFault.com and give the secret password “alt.sysadmin.recovery” to register for an account with your OpenID.

And by the way, the race is on – the current high-scoring ServerFault user is Stefan Plattner, aka @SPlattne on Twitter, and he’s positively smoking both me and K. Brian Kelley, and even Jon Skeet for that matter.  If you’re going to compete, use TweetDeck and set up a search column for serverfault OR stackalert.  That term combination will catch alerts from the Twitter bots @ServerFault and @StackAlert, which tweet whenever there’s a new question.  Using a separate column, rather than actually following these accounts, will keep your friend stream clean.

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