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I was recently speaking with my manager, who stated that while my work is satisfactory, they've been noticing I'm spending a lot of time of Stack Exchange. I find Stack Exchange to be very informative and helpful in my work.

Particularly considering this Stack Exchange site has many users who spend a large portion of their time on here, how can I explain to my manager how useful Stack Exchange is for me?

  • 37
    How did they find out? If via traffic monitoring, ok. But otherwise, minimize your browser man! – contactmatt Nov 2 '16 at 18:15
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    What is your job role? Are you using SE sites like Stackoverflow to research solutions for work-related tasks? – Rocky Raccoon Nov 2 '16 at 20:56
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    Someone complains I spend too much time on se? I don't believe him... Let's go ask on se... Delicious irony :) – WernerCD Nov 3 '16 at 4:07
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    My previous employer also said the same thing to me. And now I work at Stack Overflow so the joke's on him. – Mark Henderson Nov 3 '16 at 14:40
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    If your performance is satisfactory, why do they care ? A really good developer can fix an issue in 15min, which would take another developer 1-2 months. If your managers don't get it, pick your path. Do you honestly believe you can exceed expectations and go further with this company ? If yes, reduce time spent on Stack Overflow. If you want to instead improve your own knowledge and move on, continue using Stack Overflow. From personal experience, there is long term value for you in answering questions, and interacting with other developers. – Neolisk Nov 3 '16 at 19:51

10 Answers 10

141

how can I prove its value?

You can't because it doesn't have any in that context. If you're using it to solve problems once in a while that's one thing, but if you're 'spending too much time' on it, then that is clear heads up from your boss to cease and desist.

Your boss isn't attempting to open a dialogue about pros and cons, he/she is warning you to spend less time on StackExchange.

  • 24
    This isn't 100% clear. The OP has not indicated whether the manager knows what stack exchange is. If they are doing traffic monitoring, for all they know its on the same level as online shopping. – WetlabStudent Nov 3 '16 at 2:27
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    Unless you're a software engineer. I go to Stack Overflow probably 50 times a day, and it's instrumental in my job...well, except for right now :) – Captain Hypertext Nov 3 '16 at 18:08
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    @CaptainHypertext - 50 times a day? I have lots of engineers that work for me and welcome the use of stack... but 50 times a day and I probably need a new engineer. So every 7 mins you have a new question to look up? – blankip Nov 4 '16 at 17:19
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    @CaptainHypertext Most folks find SE has diminishing returns after you advance onto harder problems (SE is geared towards rapid, short, and easy answers). For those starting out, or learning a new language/tech, it's valuable for sure. However, 50 times a day to do day-to-day coding hopefully is an exaggeration, otherwise you're not really much of a engineer- you're letting others do the "engineering" for you. Now, 50 times a day if you're browsing through the "Hot Network Questions" or something is understandable - I too, waste too much time there. – SnakeDoc Nov 4 '16 at 18:29
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    I'd vote up in principle, but OP only has 133 rep on SO and "is temporarily suspended to cool down." So it arguably seems a little weird. – Denis de Bernardy Nov 5 '16 at 20:19
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As joe-strazzere said in his comment here:

@Walle - your manager is hinting that you are spending too much time on non-work stuff. So far, the only response you have is that "it has many useful facts". If you can't do better than that, you would be well served by simply avoiding Stack Overflow and other StackExchange sites during work hours. Get your useful facts at home.

  • 2
    Please join us to discuss the issue in chat or a meta post if you like: chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/3060/the-water-cooler – user30031 Nov 2 '16 at 19:15
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    @phresnel: community-wiki is the right choice when you're posting someone else's comment without adding any of your own words or thoughts. – Peter Cordes Nov 3 '16 at 12:22
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    @PierreArlaud it's still poor form, though. Answers belong in answers not comments, but when you've added nothing of your own it's better to mark it community wiki. (This is my opinion as a user, not a moderator pronouncement.) – Monica Cellio Nov 3 '16 at 15:12
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    @MonicaCellio To be fair I hadn't even thought of that and I'm pretty sure most users have no idea how to make an answer a community wiki. But I believe you are absolutely right. – Pierre Arlaud Nov 3 '16 at 15:38
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    @PierreArlaud that's fair. Jeff, I apologize if my previous comment assumed too much SE knowledge and came off wrong. You can mark your answer "community wiki" if you like, which gives "credit" to the community (you won't earn further rep from it). There's a checkbox in the edit window (bottom right) for this. More info – Monica Cellio Nov 3 '16 at 16:05
58

Looking up answers to work problems is one thing, but answering questions, commenting, etc. are really just a form of socializing which your employer has the right to say "do it on your own time".

Sure, you're creating value in general, but if it's not directly related to your job, then it's not really justifiable.

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    I disagree. If you only look up answers but don't provide answers, the site ceases to exist. You justify this by pointing out this is a community where people get answers and provide answers: your employer can't only take but not give. You have a problem you can't solve, but can solve some else's: it's a trade. You solve theirs, they'll solve yours. – Konerak Nov 3 '16 at 7:35
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    @Konerak The site doesn't cease to exist if people read answers at work and write them at home, which is what the answer implicitly suggests. – David Richerby Nov 3 '16 at 10:27
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    @Konerak That's a decision for your manager, though. Just because a resource wouldn't be available without an investment doesn't mean that the benefits of the resource warrant the investment. If you can convince your manager that contributing to SE is to his net benefit, all the more power to you (and I have been able to do exactly that on multiple occasions). But saying "if people don't do it, the resource will disappear" is utterly worthless. In fact, even just saying that it helps you do your work better isn't quite enough - or do you think it would be fine if I just read books all workday? – Luaan Nov 3 '16 at 11:12
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    @jmoreno: I think what you describe is a legitimate use of SO during work time - but, admittedly, at least in my experience, only a smaller fraction of answers/comments match the description of "documenting an issue". Be careful with statements such as "making it easier to find and solve for the next guy is useful", as "the next guy" can easily be your direct competitor. – O. R. Mapper Nov 3 '16 at 17:27
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    @Falco Again, that's a decision for your manager. If you have a great manager, he will most likely give you all the resources you need to be effective. But that doesn't mean he'd want you to read about origami while you're getting up to speed on node.js (yes, even that can have tangible benefits, but again - up to your manager, not you). – Luaan Nov 4 '16 at 12:32
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If you are using Stack Exchange sites to find information that helps you complete work-related tasks, document the occasions when you solve a problem based on information that you get from an SE site.

For example, if you are responsible for tasks that are tracked with some kind of bug tracking, ticketing, or version control system, and you find yourself cobbling together a solution from a set of Stackoverflow or Superuser posts, record the URLs to those posts in the notes on the ticket. (You should be doing this anyway for completeness in tracking the issue). Then, you should be able to easily report a real number of instances in which SE has directly provided value to you and your company.

If you are building and expanding your own knowledge base, yet still able to apply the knowledge to work-related tasks, use the conversation as an opportunity to talk to your manager about continuing education. Be specific, and request training around topics and technologies that directly apply to your work and your firm. You may find a way to get additional training and have the company pay for it, in which case, your continuing education time would be sanctioned.

If, however, you find yourself researching subjects that simply interest you, or that you wish you were working with but aren't because of, e.g. company culture, you may want to ask yourself if you are growing in the right direction at your current job. In this case, be honest with yourself about how relevant your Stack Exchange research really is, and whether your manager's advisement might be a good reality check.

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    You should already be doing that anyway - the content on SE is under Creative Commons with attribution required. If you're using answers (or questions :P) from SE without attribution, you might be violating the license (IANAL) - your company lawyers might not be too happy about that. Not to mention that providing a reference to the original answer can help people maintaining your code in the future. – Luaan Nov 3 '16 at 11:18
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    @Luaan The license only applies to the specific expression of the idea, though. If I post a question on Stack Overflow asking how to solve a problem, and someone tells me it can be solved in this-way and someone else says it can be solved in that-way, and both provide example code to illustrate the technique, then only if I use exactly or nearly exactly what they posted am I bound by the license. If I take the idea, read up on it, and implement it on my own within the framework of what I am working within then neither I nor the company is bound by the license of the SO answer. – a CVn Nov 3 '16 at 21:18
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    @Luaan: If you copy (or adapt) a code snippet from an SE answer, then yes, it requires attribution. But if you are just using a technique you learned from an SE answer, then there’s certainly no requirement for attribution — though sometimes including a link in documentation can certainly still be good, as you say. – PLL Nov 4 '16 at 11:18
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    I like to attribute SO answers for anything subtle whether I used any code from them or not, just so I can remember what's going on. (Of course, that also applies to any other source, like oldnewthing or TAOCP or what-have-you.) – SamB Nov 5 '16 at 15:51
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  1. Don't log in. The value added at work for reading StackExchange sites far outweighs the value in answering questions.
  2. Only visit "hard" SEs that you need to get your job done. Workplace.SE, bless its heart, is not one of them.

You may learn a lot from reading programmers/sofware engineering, workplace, etc. and it may help you grow in your career. But if you are having friction with your boss I would strongly recommend taking perusal of these sites to your own hours. Writing it off as career development is not an argument that is going to make you look good if your boss feels the need to bring it up to you.

Take your job really seriously right now. Your manager gave you some pretty serious signal that you may be being unproductive. That was nice of them. Don't wait for them to escalate this into a performance improvement plan.

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    Also, the manager may know your SO account and simply observe all your contributions, times including. Do not login. – eee Nov 3 '16 at 10:52
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    "This work-unrelated LOGO answer got me 500 points that I spent on a work-related COBOL question bounty to get help from a guru" :-) – nic Nov 4 '16 at 8:55
  • What about upvotes? – SamB Nov 5 '16 at 15:53
  • @SamB you won't be able to do that if you're not logged in. – user42272 Nov 5 '16 at 17:37
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You can't assume that the benefits are self-explanatory. You need to do as
@JoeStrazzere suggested in the comments and detail the specific things you have learned that are useful for your specific job. In particular, detail what work-related problems that you found solutions for on Stack Overflow. If you can show that you spent less time solving problems by looking for them on Stack Overflow, then that would be a good thing as well.

You also need to prove that you are not be behind in your work. No manager is going to support someone spending a lot of time on the Internet at any site, if the work is behind without specific proof that the time was spent researching the specific issue(s) that was(were) making your work delayed. Further, if your coworkers are solving their problems without spending hours on Stack Overflow, then it is best to bite the bullet and spend time here only when researching a specific issue.

If you are learning new things that are not immediately useful, then I would suggest you do that in your off hours.

12

You start using this gem:

try
{
     //Do Something
}
catch (Exception ex)
{
     if (DesignMode)
     {
           Process.Start("http://www.stackoverflow.com/search/q=" +
                         System.Web.HttpUtility.UrlEncode(ex.Message));
     }
}

Seriously, though, if your manager can't see the value of StackOverflow, you need a new manager. There's no good answer other than that.

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    I think the problem with this answer is that it doesn't consider other possibilities such as the OP spending time in work-unrelated subjects on SO, or on other SE sites. (no downvotes from me though.) – akaltar Nov 3 '16 at 1:05
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    Something should not be commented out. i.e. DoSomething(); – Brandin Nov 3 '16 at 13:53
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    It may be telling the OP asked about StackExchange, not StackOverflow. – user42272 Nov 3 '16 at 14:42
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    Manager may also be commenting on actual SE use and not mere visitation of site to learn technical answers. – user42272 Nov 3 '16 at 14:43
  • ^this. Expect the spaces before the code. – Luca Steeb Nov 3 '16 at 20:38
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I think your problem is not so much about proving the value of stack exchange, but about justifying your productivity to your manager.

There are two scenarios to consider here:

  1. You are under-performing (i.e. you are not meeting deadlines or whatever output you are producing is of poor quality) then maybe you do need to look at how much time you are spending on these sites, at the very least to give your manager the impression that you are making an effort. If you are regularly checking these sites for updates to questions/answers, you may find that these regular interrupts are actually reducing your overall productivity.

  2. You are meeting your deadlines and otherwise producing quality output. In this case maybe you should discuss this further with your manager. You don't want them to have the perception that you are slacking off, and it may help to explain to them that the information you glean from these sites actually increases your productivity as you are not always re-inventing the wheel.

In either case, it is important for you that your manager does not perceive that you are goofing off on work time. If nothing is forthcoming from these discussions, it may be politic to limit your usage to break periods.

5

So there are two possibilities here - either your boss is over managing and just want to show you that it's he who is in charge here and you should obey or - or - he is not satisfied with the quality of your work.

There's no other option in first case than to leave - never waste your time working for non-professionals. But to be honest with you the very fact you had asked this question and the way you asked the question hints that you assume that your boss is a reasonable person who can be convinced in something if he was wrong. That said, we don't investigate the first possibility here.

In second scenario there's only one way to convince your superiors that you are doing it right - concentrate on your work. Words like "we are more or less satisfied, it's just that you spent too much time surfing Stackexchange" could be a sign that they are actually not satisfied and politely indicating this. Because actually good boss not that much care what and when you are surfing in case the work is done.

Here's the strategy I suggest to stick to:

  • Sort tasks you are going to work on today by how easy you can solve them without Internet, relying on your own knowledge, do the easiest ones first.
  • Don't surf Stacks, don't read interesting questions and answers even if they are related to you work in that sense that they are making you a better professional overall. Don't answer, don't comment. Just google an answer to your particular question and, as soon as you've found it, paste it to a text file or (even better) your corporate wiki.
  • Make a habit to first look for solutions in that local storage I've mentioned earlier. You'll be surprised how many routine repeating stuff can be saved and easily find in a simple text file without any googling at all.

I encourage you to start with these steps and trust me, you'll see how your work relationships will get better.

0

Depending on your situation and the relationship you have with your boss, you might be able to document specific instances where you asked a question, got an answer, and therefor saved valuable company time.

Couple that with specific instances of you answering a question that required you to become better at your job. This shows the long-term value of allowing you to spend a measured amount of time on SO/SE.

The second paragraph is probably the more tricky one to convince the PHB of. They may or may not care / believe that the site helps your continuing education.

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