The software community that Josh Heyer built

You probably don’t know Josh Heyer. In fact, I can count on less than one hand the number of times I’ve said his name: Josh Heyer, and yet he is responsible for how you and I learn. You may know him as Shog9, but mostly only if you frequent Stack Overflow.

Until yesterday, Josh Heyer, aka Shog9 (Shog for familiarity purposes) was a community manager for Stack Overflow. This seems like a simple title and his unceremonious dismissal a trifle; but it’s so much more than that. Josh did so much more than that. Josh is the reason you and I use Stack Overflow. Josh is the reason Stack Overflow became and flourished as a community. Josh is the reason Stack Overflow became a model of how to manage an online community.

If anything, I am understating his accomplishments, but for those of you who didn’t frequent Meta Stack Overflow (later Meta Stack Exchange), a site where the decisions about Stack Overflow (and later Stack Exchange) were made, let me go into a little more detail about why and how Josh is the one responsible for Stack Overflow’s success.

In the early days of Stack Overflow, it was a one man community management show: Jeff Atwood (coddinghorror.com, founder of Stack Overflow, founder of Discourse) spent his days trying to be product manager, community manager, and CTO of a fledgling startup called Stack Overflow. He had borrowed what ‘worked’ from other sites such as Metafilter, but he was missing a key ingredient to what makes an online community flourish: glue that holds it together. That glue can be in the form of shared values or a common purpose, but without someone to constantly and consistently reinforce that purpose, the community falls apart. Jeff needed a leader, he needed someone who would tirelessly listen and help shape and mold the community towards a common purpose.

And so he hired. First Robert Cartaino (the first “Community Coordinator” for Stack Overflow), and later as a community manager, Shog9, aka Josh Heyer. Hiring Josh was a no-brainer. He had been a part of the community since the beginning, and had molded his thoughts and his words for maximum effect. In fact, checking the date and seeing that he was hired in 2011, three years after Stack Overflow started, is a bit surreal to me — historically he was there from the beginning.

I could link you to any one of Josh’s 3162 answers given over the past 10 years. I could talk to his patience, kindness, diplomatic skills, or his ability to show you what the other person is thinking with empathy. I could spend hours regaling you with the times he shaped community opinion. Instead, for the sake of keeping you engaged, I’ll share only two such occasions:

During a recent community crisis, where the community had been attempting to figure out how to welcome newcomers without being overrun with people who didn’t care to make the community better, Josh gave an answer about water:

Maybe it’s the drought here in Colorado, but… I’ve been thinking a lot about water lately. In our society, water is simultaneously essential and a menace, a problem to be dealt with and a treasure to be chased after.

Water doesn’t care what you want. No amount of pleading or nicely-worded signs are going to convince water to wet your parched plants when it wants to tear out a gully and carry away your precious topsoil. You can dam it, drain it, redirect it, slow it… But sooner or later, water always finds its level.

One of my earliest memories involved standing out on a freezing hillside helping my father lay out contour strips. Once plowed, the water would catch in the furrows and be absorbed, providing for the young seedlings and slowing the torrent that had previously cut deep ditches into the land. It took years and a lot of work to fully implement, but it worked: the entire farm was altered to accommodate what water wanted to do… Because the alternative was letting water destroy it. And water doesn’t care.

Josh Heyer, aka Shog9, on Community Building

I invite you to read the entire answer he gave. It is a masterclass in describing the problems facing the modern internet community, a masterclass in diplomacy and trust building.

It doesn’t do justice to Josh’s career at Stack Overflow to call it just a career, or a job. It was a calling, a vocation. He spent over a dozen hours, every day, for ten years, to meet with members of the community in chat, or to answer questions on meta, or to help guide Stack Overflow-the-company’s goal to make this thing profitable. This was Josh’s personal mission, a mission he exemplified in everything he did. You see, Stack Overflow would ‘work’ without community — and in fact Jeff resisted the idea of it becoming a thing people were too invested in, but it was precisely that investment by Josh and the investment that Josh encouraged out of others that made it work.

Josh Heyer made stone soup.

The second Shog9 story I’ll tell goes a bit further into the past, when Stack Overflow went through its second iteration of the “eternal september” that plagues online communities. Josh posted a question explaining what an answer was on Stack Overflow.

In the span of a few paragraphs, Josh’s explanation was able to focus thousands of thousands of people into a coherent and easy to follow explanation that could be used over and over again.

That’s Josh’s super power: distilling a complex issue down to its core, relating it to each listener, and doing so with empathy and grace.

I could stop there, but Josh’s influence doesn’t stop there. Josh spent thousands of hours helping moderators learn to moderate. He taught us and mentored us. He acted as a sounding board. He helped us grow. I’ve recounted his impact on me personally here. What’s not surprising to me at all is there are dozens (if not hundreds) of other people who could say the same thing about Josh. His leadership and wisdom affected everyone who interacted on Meta, even if they didn’t interact with him.

There are well-founded objections that Stack Overflow isn’t welcoming to new programmers. There is no one that did more to try to bridge that divide than Josh. He taught without ego, he showed a model example through his actions, he helped lift others up always.

In Seth Godin’s parlance, Josh Heyer is the linchpin of Stack Overflow’s developer community. He is why it all works.

I am saddened that Josh was not given the due he deserved from Stack Overflow’s leadership during his unscheduled departure. He deserves so much more from Stack Overflow, and so much more from all of us, but this is all I know how to give.

If you are looking for a leader, someone who can build trust between you and your community, someone who can build your team and be an example for leadership and kindness, you want Josh. He’s a developer by trade, but a natural leader and community builder by his actions. He will make a fine addition to your team.

This is Josh’s Act I, and from where I’m sitting, the best is yet to come.

2 thoughts on “The software community that Josh Heyer built”

  1. Thanks for this (beautifully) written piece of emotions. It’s because of people like *you* (Shog, Georges and other smart, open-minded, hard-working, hard-sharing and **nice** persons) that many enjoyed SO inc. Thanks again for sharing 🙂

  2. I don’t know Josh and can’t use twitter any more for MH reasons, so this is the only way I have to get a message to him. Please, could you relay it.

    I couldn’t help but think, the entire way through this whole piece: “Metafilter are hiring, one of their long term moderators is leaving.”.

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