How to get your first tag badge on StackOverflow — and why it’s important.

Every developer uses StackOverflow in different ways. Some use it to figure out how to fix bugs in their code. Others enjoy being able to copy-and-paste that very confusing ternary operator with easily forgettable syntax. While others just ask for some help on how to approach complex problems.

But the more people I meet, the clearer it becomes that not all is well in the developer community. On the one hand, StackOverflow has taken the time to implement a reward system that can help driven developers stand out from the crowd. They can even get jobs based on their contributions to the community. But it seems like the vast majority of developers refuse to give back to the community. They don’t take the time to share their knowledge and perspective in order to help others.

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After a year of actively contributing in my spare time, I got my first tag badge for Javascript. It feels amazing to write this. So I decided that I should share my success story (if you can call it that) to explain what I’ve learned in this past year of contributing to the site.

Do your research

For most of us, our StackOverflow is built hastily while working on some assignment due the next morning. We’re just trying to get a quick solution for a bug we cannot understand at all.

This is how it started for me and many of the people I have met. But asking the right question the right way is very important. It should be one of the first things that you learn when you get on StackOverflow.

So, my advice is to research your problem, understand it and then explain it in simple terms. Use the minimum amount of code possible if you want your question to get quality answers and a non-negative score.

The help center is an invaluable resource to a beginner
The help center is an invaluable resource to a beginner

Understand your tools

Everything in life has a learning curve, and the tools we use for asking and answering questions are no different. In my experience, most downvotes come from poorly asked and formatted questions, as well as from answers that could have been comments.

Wrong answers are less downvoted and get a lot of comments or edits, which helps improve the answer itself. So, before you ask for help or try to provide it, make sure you understand the rules and tools of the site.

Learn as you go

Answering questions on StackOverflow is itself more of a learning experience than a teaching one. When I started answering Javascript questions, I was just a beginner. One year later, after earning a tag badge, I’m still really an intermediate Javascript developer.

I have learned this: if someone is asking for your help, you don’t necessarily have to be smarter or more experienced than they are. All you need to provide is a fresh pair of eyes and some extra time. Usually, when you try your hand at rewriting or fixing their code, you’re doing so with tricks they might not have used in the past or by searching for something they might not have considered.

Number of anwers submitted compared to their total score
Number of anwers submitted compared to their total score

Focus on quality and quantity

A good answer will probably get you an upvote, a great answer might get you a few more. But there are many occasions where a good answer will not get you anything, even though you were first or you wrote the best answer.

Sometimes the person asking will politely thank you in a comment and not use the upvote button, possibly disappearing forever. Writing great answers is only half the battle. Writing many good answers is the other half. Help as many people as you can. Write as many answers as you can. But never neglect writing quality answers in favor of answering more questions.

Motivate yourself

My final tip is less about the site itself and more about the way we approach things like this. Set aside some time and try to reach your goals.

StackOverflow has done an excellent job motivating people to help others, rewarding them when they do so. You only need to convince yourself that you should take some time to help now and then.

A tag badge is a pretty good form of motivation, because it focuses on one field of expertise and allows you to work towards a meaningful goal. So, grab a cup of coffee every once in a while and browse those questions. You will find something you can help with sooner or later.

My personal progress toward my first tag badge (Jul ’16 to Sep ‘17)
My personal progress toward my first tag badge (Jul ’16 to Sep ‘17)