Friday, November 21, 2014 launches, a nobel prize for Joel and Jeff and a silver nuke.

Sat 22 Nov 2014

This post announces the launch of Not Constructive (, a place to discuss software development and related topics.

Fred Brooks said that there is “no silver bullet” . What he meant is that in software development, there’s nothing that will give an order of magnitude increase in software developer productivity.  But when Fred Brooks said those famous words there was no such thing as Stack Overflow.

Stack Overflow is responsible for the greatest ever increase in programmer productivity.  I’ve got no science and no numbers to back that up but I can't think of anything that's had greater impact. What could be more powerful than aggregating the brainpower of all the worlds software developers into a carefully curated set of questions and answers and discussion on how to solve problems in software development.  Stuck?  Got a question?  Try asking all the software developers in the world.  It’s truly amazing just how powerful it is.  Stack Overflow isn’t a silver bullet - it’s a silver nuke. Software development hasn’t been the same since 2008 and Stack Overflow has delivered the order of magnitude productivity increase that would have been impossible pre-world wide web.

Stack Overflow has had a greater impact on software developer productivity than anything else, ever. I’m not being facetious when I suggest that the creators of Stack Overflow; Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood, deserve a Nobel Prize for Stack Overflow.  That’s how important Stack Overflow is. Given that there’s no such thing (yet) as a Nobel Prize for software, a Turing Award for Joel and Jeff would be well deserved.  These guys have fundamentally changed software development and are amongst the greatest of modern computing groundbreakers. I've exchanged emails with them both for a couple of reasons over the years and it feels like hearing back from Mick Jagger for a Stones fan.

But Stack Overflow isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. I've come to dread using it. Try asking a question on Stack Overflow.  Chances are within a matter of minutes (or seconds) it has been downvoted.  Huh?  What’s wrong?  I thought it was a reasonable question, well written.  Apparently not.  Within only a few more seconds other members of the Stack Overflow community will have turned up to vote you down further.  It seems your question sucks.  Your question isn’t a fit to Stack Overflow.  The community at Stack Overflow feels like a bunch of pedantic rules lawyers. The moderation seems heavy handed.  Downvoting feels like a significant part of the problem. A downvote is a criticism, and people don’t like being criticized.  Criticism breaks down human relationships, and given that downvoting is central to Stack Overflow then criticism of its user base is also central to Stack Overflow. Another glitch in Stack Overflow that doesn’t help is that when you get a message in your inbox, the icon is colored red. For that longest time I assumed that I had done something wrong, that maybe this red icon indicated I had been downvoted.  I’ve worked it out now but red is a color that indicates that you’ve done something wrong and Stack Overflow likes to make it clear that you’re getting it wrong. Stack Overflow has a very negative, judgmental feel to it.   I like the answers that I can get there but it’s no fun participating.

To be successful, Stack Overflow requires this level of pedantry from its community.  It is a question and answer site for answering programming questions, and the questions and answers need to be very clear and need to meet certain standards in order to be valuable.  If Stack Overflow was more open and free wheeling then probably it wouldn’t work.  It works because the community is so rigorous in enforcing correct question and answer structure.  But there are lots of valid questions in software development and computer science that don’t fit the tight criteria of Stack Overflow.  There needs to be somewhere to ask those questions and that is why Not Constructive exists.

The risk of course with Not Constructive is that it will attract only the angry disenfranchised refugees from Stack Overflow, and that the tone of Not Constructive will reflect that negativity.  I hope that doesn’t happen. I’d prefer that Not Constructive be a complement to Stack Overflow, not an angry place.  Some questions fit Stack Overflow well, some questions fit Not Constructive better.  Not Constructive has different goals to Stack Overflow and should be able to be a positive place where people can discuss and ask questions that don’t fit elsewhere.  Our community principles are here.

Ironically, Not Constructive uses Discourse, the open source discussion forum software also created by Jeff Atwood. Discourse is a superb piece of software and extremely well thought out and reliable, a pleasure to use.  It’s a pity it’s not written in Python which is the language I prefer to use, but there’s nothing comparable available in any other language so the pragmatic decision is to just use it. Discourse seems so complete and well written that for once I don’t anticipate I’ll need to dig into the code and futz with it to make basic stuff work, as needs to be done with just about every other open source system.

Not Constructive was first announced onHacker News in Jul 2013.  The exact number is lost now but we had around 14,000 people add their email address to the list of interested people.  An incredible response.  Hopefully we’ll get plenty of people joining in the discussions at Not Constructive. Why has it taken so long you ask?  That’s another blog post which I’ll write soon.

So for now, if you have any questions about software development, computer science, operating systems or deployment please post them at

And if you’re interested in being a moderator please let me know at the address below.

See you there!

Andrew Stuart


  1. you need to allow user to log with the lick of google/facebook/gihub account.

  2. I found a while back when it wasn't live. I think about it every once in a while. Today I was thinking someone should create the forum with Discourse, since it was designed to manage the kind of mess SO is trying to avoid by closing open ended questions. On a whim I checked the site to see if there was something up now, and lo and behold, you'd done exactly that! I'm not sure if/when/how I'll use it, but I signed up.