Friday, June 5, 2009

OTN Forums versus Stack Overflow

A quick intermezzo between the MV error related posts:

For almost three years now, I am answering questions on a regular basis at the OTN Discussion Forums, mainly at the SQL and PL/SQL Forum. By reading answers and giving answers, you are not only helping others, but you'll also find you are learning at greater speed than before. Most of the regulars like the forums very much of course, despite the sometimes annoying forum software, and especially upgrades of this software.

A couple of weeks ago, I started answering some Oracle related questions on Stack Overflow. And I'm impressed. Very impressed. The guys from Fog Creek Software (you may know the company because of the famous Joel On Software blog, written by its CEO Joel Spolsky) really know what technical forum software should look like. Every little thing that has annoyed me about the OTN forum software, has been addressed by Stack Overflow. A couple of examples:

Duplicate threads
OTN has different forums for each technology. But at times the poster of a question is not entirely sure what the best place for his question is. So he posts the same question in different forums. Visitors of only one forum may end up answering questions that have already been answered in the other forum. Stack Overflow works with tags. A single question can have several tags. People who answer questions, search for questions with specific tags. A simple but great answer for the duplicate thread problem.

Posting code
OTN somehow has problems posting code correctly. The unequal sign <> disappears. An outer join sign (+) transforms to some small graphical icon. And most important: newbies cannot easily find how to post code, leading to many unreadable questions. Stack Overflow has a single button to transform your code in, well, code. Without strange transformations.

Point system
OTN has a point system where the poster of the question can reward answers by marking them as Correct or Helpful. But it's not mandatory to do so. And sometimes plain wrong answers get marked as correct, degrading the quality of the post for future google searchers. It also gives an unsatisfying feeling when some very time consuming or great answers do not get rewarded, while some simple one liners do get the full 10 points. And it bothers me to watch regulars go as far as begging for a point reward; this surely cannot be your life's goal. Stack Overflow works with reputation. The more reputation you have, the more privileges you receive. Everyone can up vote (+10) or down vote (-2) an answer or comment, after they have achieved some reputation themselves. A very convenient way to let the poster of the question know which answer is regarded highly by their peers. Your reputation will be damaged if you post rubbish and/or DKB-style commercial "Here are my notes" answers. And future searches will find much clearer and more valuable answers.

And there are several other topics as well at which Stack Overflow outperforms OTN. When using the site, you feel it has been given good thought, as you can also see in this video where Joel Spolsky explains the concepts.

However, there is one thing at which OTN still excels: the knowledge of the people and therefore the quality of the answers. And ultimately, that is what counts. Most regulars at OTN give great answers and a few are not. For Oracle related questions at Stack Overflow, it's the other way around now. It's still rather good, but not excellent. So, for the best learning experience, I still recommend OTN. But I wish that the best of both worlds can be combined somewhere in the future.

PS: if you want a good laugh, then you should read this hilarious Stack Overflow thread about the user with the most reputation.


  1. Rob

    Agree totally to your point about the knowledge of the people posting on OTN forums.

    Otherwise, few issues i find with Stackover flow style are:

    * No categorization of threads. Things are mixed like anything. Tags are ok but still categorization does help!

    * It becomes so difficult to track the thread you posted to.

    *Interface is not as clean as any forums site.

    OTN forums, if run smoothly rock :)

  2. Hey Rob, that's right, the last software forum upgrade (almost one year ago !) was more a downgrade.
    Of course, previous system was not perfect, but point system is "pointless"...
    Without saying that all the counter have been reset to 0.
    Of course, previous code formatting system was not perfect, but the new one just cut everything down.
    I wrote two articles about the forums...
    I know a lot of people went away or just boycott it, a lot of new users came in, and the discussion feeling changed a lot. Sometimes it is so annoying to see people jumping on "simple" question which are not so simple and should required more questions to understand, but they are not because it is not the fastest way to get points...
    Well, bad feeling about these forums, but still good people there. For how long ?

  3. Using the new StackExchange model for new StackOverflow like sites, I have requested an Oracle Database specific version of StackOverflow. If you would like you can vote for my request at