A Market for Developer Knowledge

Part II of a four part series on developer efficiency and knowledge sharing. You may read parts I, III and IV once you have finished.

Tell me if this has happened to you. As you are coding, you get stuck. Maybe it is a bit of logic or a bug that crops up. After several minutes trying a few things, you type a rushed question into Google and immediately get some relevant results. After reviewing a few, you find one that solves the problem.

Nine times out of ten, those results are going to be from Stack Overflow. For the past decade, it has been the go to destination for programmers, but you probably already know that already.

What you may not know however is why Stack Overflow works. The word community is often mentioned. If we analyze it though, there are consumers and contributors to knowledge and an exchange of value between the two. In other words, it’s a market of sellers and buyers of content.

A lesson in market failure
Not all markets succeed. Consider the case of Experts Exchange. Before Stack Overflow, this was the site that came up in Google search results. It used a system of credits where you “paid” for knowledge. Developers hated it which led Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood to start Stack Overflow, which quickly became the de facto site for programming knowledge.

What did Experts Exchange get wrong that Stack Overflow got right? They created friction in the exchange of knowledge at the very moment the “buyer” was most in need. Instead of getting the answer, users hit a paywall without any certainty that what they were buying was worth buying.

What was missing was trust. As soon as any aspect of the market becomes suspect, the entire market collapses, like the US mortgage meltdown of 2007 that triggered a global economic crisis. People stopped trusting the value of the product (in this case inflated house values), buyers left the market, and the sellers got crushed stuck with underwater assets and punishing mortgage payments leaving entire communities decimated.

What makes a market
All markets share the same components. There are buyers, sellers, product, price and the mechanism for exchange. All of these ingredients need to be in balance for the market to function as this article from McKinsey states:

Product — For developers, this is obvious. The type of specific, verifiable, and objective answers to complex programming question is invaluable in the time saved, the reduction in errors, and the higher quality solutions revealed. This is why Stack Overflow has such a high bar for contributing content. The “product” needs to be something worth seeking.

Price — What does price mean in the context of a knowledge market? Time saved can be a proxy for price. For the “seller”, it is about enhanced reputation and recognition for quality submissions. For the “buyer” , they find searching the knowledge base is going to yield higher quality results and time saved.

Exchange — This is the platform that enables this exchange of knowledge. It goes without saying that the user experience needs to minimize as much as possible any friction in submitting, engaging with, and searching content. Beyond that however, it should enable the standardization of content for indexing purposes and appropriately track usage and credit for submissions.

Credit — How do you reward “sellers” on a free site? It is through reputation points and badges. Feel free to insert a joke about fake Internet points, but it works. The point system incentivizes content contributors to participate through recognition and greater privileges on the site. This creates a competitive dynamic that spurs on further content creation in a way that is additive to the experience of engaging in the market and ensures ongoing supply of high-quality content.

Standards — Most knowledge systems are more free-form in nature. Think of discussion forums, chat, or wikis. This makes it challenging to evaluate what you are “buying” and takes more cognitive load to determine what content is useful. The Q&A format however lends itself to structure and categorization by being more “atomic” in nature. More importantly, it’s easier to highlight the correct answer, allowing “buyers” to quickly determine the value and relevancy of the content.

Facilitators — In big, centralized knowledge programs, there is often a large full-time staff employed to maintain the system and foster the “community”. This creates extensive added cost and bureaucracy. An efficient market would not require such administrative overhead. An open and transparent market with clear rules enables market participants to manage the market themselves, authorizing active participants and content creators with privileges to ensure market norms are adhered to.

Creating a living market
What does a dead market look like? Look at existing knowledge platforms, which are rarely used, have stale content, and are discredited as a valuable resource. No one is hanging out there.

In contrast a living market is one that is growing and active and valuable. There is a “liquidity” in the market of questions and answers. There is organic growth in market participants and content. Users are engaged and use the market as the de facto source for institutional knowledge.

The challenge is how to launch a live market, one that is setup for long-term viability? Most companies throw a technology tool at the problem and hope it works out. However, our perspective is that any successful program requires a “kickstart” process that focuses on fostering a culture of participation and enables a community to take shape. Only then can an enabling technology be successfully implemented to support the knowledge market.

Of course, ensuring that the market has useful content is key. We tackle this in the next part of this series.

What do you think of a market based knowledge approach? How successful are your current tools in managing knowledge in your organization?

Do I Work with an Orangutan?


It’s not a workplace commentary, but rather an interesting puzzler…

We help IT leaders in enterprises solve the cultural challenges involved in digital transformation and move towards a community based culture that delivers innovation and customer value faster. Learn more about our work here.

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