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Would you consider it appropriate if you were asked for your Stack Exchange username in a software job interview (or as a pre-interview screening question)?

To me, it seems like a very reasonable request, and one that would be extremely informative -- I'm sure I could learn more about a candidate in five minutes by looking at the questions and answers they have posted on Stack Exchange than by a 30 minute interview. But would such a question be bad form? Is it "too personal"?

(Likewise for GitHub, or other public/online code sharing forums.)

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I think it says a lot about the company/manager/job if they did ask for it. –  JeffO Sep 18 '13 at 18:12
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In my case, if they have my resume they don't have to ask. –  Keith Thompson Sep 18 '13 at 18:46
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One aspect that I find a bit troubling is that an SO account might be connected to much more personal information if a user is also active on other SE sites. The content on the religious sites or for example Parenting might give the employer private information the user doesn't really want to share. And one should not forget that the employer could potentially search for everything a user has ever said in SE chat with the user id. –  Mad Scientist Sep 19 '13 at 9:54
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Well that sucks, I used SO to ask all my stupid questions so that I wouldn't look stupid to my employer. Backfire! –  hydroparadise Sep 19 '13 at 15:13
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11 Answers

up vote 95 down vote accepted

Absolutely OK.

At my workplace, we routinely ask for a candidate's Stack Overflow / Stack Exchange username. Contribution to the Stack Exchange community leaves a much clearer trail of where someone is at with their skills.

I know others who ask for GitHub accounts and refuse to accept candidates without a GitHub account*.

In our case, we won't remove a candidate for consideration if they don't have an account.

Ultimately, it's just one piece of the interviewing puzzle as you're trying to identify a match between the company's needs and the candidate's skills. It's not a make-or-break factor; it merely helps confirm impressions made during the interview.

* To be clear, I don't condone that approach, and I think it causes that team to miss out on otherwise well qualified candidates. I brought it up to point out having heard of more extreme stances and to show that just asking for a Stack Overflow account name is pretty mild in comparison.


Some additional qualifiers based upon comments:

  1. We don't look at Meta Stack Overflow and meta type posts. Meta is different, and we understand that. It's also really easy to miss the context behind those types of posts. IMO, they are closer to noise than signal when it comes to evaluating a candidate.

  2. Likewise, comments and review activity aren't considered. They lack context and they don't have a meaningful correlation to the candidate's ability to do the job.

  3. We have found a solid correlation between a candidate's performance in an interview and the level of Q&A that they engage in. Their Stack Overflow / Stack Exchange account becomes a supporting factoid, equivalent to a submitted code sample during the interview process.


Obligatory xkcd strip on interviews. Elaboration.

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Rejecting candidate because he doesn't have a github account seems harsh (read stupid). Github is not the only service one can use to publish source code, not counting that a person can have his own public version control server. –  MainMa Sep 18 '13 at 18:40
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@MainMa - agreed, and I hope I didn't imply that I condone that. Just relating it as something I know other interviewers to do. I'll edit my answer if you don't think I'm clear on that. –  GlenH7 Sep 18 '13 at 18:42
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Most people who have a Github account have code up there they did years ago. Judging a candidate based upon a rep you found via google would be unfair. –  Mathew Foscarini Sep 18 '13 at 18:55
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If someone had never heard of StackOverflow, that would mean that they probably have never used Google to look for a solution to a technical problem. –  Ken Liu Sep 19 '13 at 3:42
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@jwg - Just overall. Attention to detail; how they lay out their logic; how they frame problems; communication skills. Rep is just a proxy for how long and perhaps how well they've participated in the community. We're pretty Zen about skill level, and just want to match where we hire into against demonstrated skill level. To reiterate, we're looking to corroborate the other data points we've picked up through the interview process. Not having an SO account doesn't (and shouldn't!) get you kicked out of our screening process. –  GlenH7 Sep 19 '13 at 11:27
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Asking point-blank what their SO user name is probably not appropriate. It would sound very direct, and I would find such a question a little invasive. Asking what online resources they use when they are problem-solving is much more appropriate. And if they answer that they are a StackOverflow user, then I think you could ask them how interactive they are. If they mention that they are an active ask-er/answer-er, then asking them what their username is would be appropriate.

I think it's acceptable for an interviewer to ask, but if a candidate refuses then it shouldn't be a deal-breaker.

Some people work with specialized, proprietary tools that don't have any questions on StackOverflow (I just checked). Some people don't have time to spend answering other people's general questions. I know some developers who don't ask or answer on SO mostly because of language barriers.

There are great developers out there who just don't participate much in the StackExchange ecosystem.

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This is why I think it's not appropriate to ask. You're right: it shouldn't be a deal-breaker if a candidate refuses to answer, but ultimately, can you really say it won't be? Psychology says that this is quite unlikely: even if it's not a true behavior, information like that will still influence your decision to at least some degree. To be fair to the people who don't have accounts here, the only winning move is not to play: don't ask the question in the first place. –  The Spooniest Sep 18 '13 at 20:06
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Agree on the time point. My SO profile is mostly questions I've asked. In the areas I could answer best simple questions belong to the fastest typists (not me) or require more effort than I want to spend in my free time. My main contribution to the community is in the review queue. Because reviews are only shown to a few users I can give back to the community there in only a few minutes time and without having to push my typing to 80 or 100 words a minute just to avoid getting sniped by someone else. –  Dan Neely Sep 18 '13 at 20:40
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Exactly, if you're hiring bog-standard C# and Java guys, then ask away about StackExchange/StackOverflow userids. I am a Delphi guy among other things, and the Delphi section on StackOverflow is very active, but probably 90% of the "luminary" level Delphi guys are NOT on StackOverflow. I would accept "something you built I've heard of, or can download" instead of a StackOverflow rep, at a drop of a hat. REAL Code over fake internet points, any day. –  Warren P Sep 18 '13 at 21:14
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@WarrenP: "something you built I've heard of, or can download" makes it hard for people who develop software that's used in-house and never is shipped beyond the primary business users sitting in the same building. A lot of the software out there that's built never really gets "shipped" to external users. –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Sep 18 '13 at 21:29
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If I have to evaluate someone who can't prove to me that they've built anything significant, I will probably give them a try anyways, but it's not a good sign. Most of my 25 years of working history has been in-house closed-source stuff you've never heard of. But I still contribute code and fixes to shared libraries, and so on, that are used in my language sub-community. I find most of the stellar people in my field have. –  Warren P Sep 19 '13 at 0:24
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It sounds like this opinion is not particularly popular, but I don't think it is okay to ask for this information.

Stack Exchange is a place of learning; you shouldn't have to worry about being judged for asking "dumb questions" later down the line. I know I come to Stack Exchange to broaden my knowledge, not just of programming, but in all sorts of subjects. As long as I've put in some effort to solve questions on my own, I shouldn't have to feel self-conscious for asking a question that most experts on the subject would be expected to know the answer to.

Moreover, this would exacerbate the issue of users keeping multiple accounts, one for asking questions, and one for providing answers. I've already seen this a number of times on SE. I think users do it because they appear more knowledgeable with less questions asked.

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I agree, the company should come up with their own judging criteria. If the users are requested to provide their SE username, then the interviewers should provide the candidate with their SE username –  hanzolo Sep 18 '13 at 20:55
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Agree. I have declined to provide my userid before. My feeling is that it would be detrimental to my work and a disservice to my current employer if I have to think about my online presence for future job applications everytime I use SE/SO. –  jwg Sep 18 '13 at 22:57
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While I can appreciate how a candidate might be self-conscious about a potential employer seeing their history of questions, as the interviewer I don't really care about their "dumb questions" (I have asked plenty myself). I'd be a little more concerned about their dumb answers. But mostly I'd just like to see how their development has evolved. (But of course, there's no way the candidate can know my motivations, so your concern is valid.) –  kmote Sep 18 '13 at 23:32
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Yes, in the perfect world, I would imagine the interviewer carefully studying my progression and looking at the clarity with which I am able to explain my answers. In the real world, however, I would be worried about them seeing a question that "they thought I should have known the answer to", and then skipping over me. –  MikeS Sep 19 '13 at 0:17
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@emory This is a pain for the user. It is difficult to do properly as you never know when you might spout brilliance as part of a pragmatic 'work' query. It makes SE and the rep system less useful. It invalidates the benefit to employers as they are no longer seeing your real working headspace but the rep you built up cynically in your spare time. Finally it provides an incentive to aggressively answer easy questions about things like how to delete a remote branch in Git, rather than write detailed answers to obscure technical question that only you know about. –  jwg Sep 19 '13 at 7:51
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I think it is mildly inappropriate to ask a candidate for information they did not volunteer (with a few obvious exceptions, like criminal background, etc.) It is also at least potentially dangerous, since in many places there are laws forbidding employment discrimination that limit what questions you can ask. If participation on a particular site turns out to correlate with race, age, gender or other category for which discrimination is forbidden then you are potentially opening yourself up to a lawsuit. You may even actually be factually committing such discrimination (almost certainly unintentionally).

According to this quick Google search result social media searches run the risk of an employer discovering information it is otherwise illegal to ask about, potentially exposing itself to a discrimination suit. In some places it is not legal to ask about disability or pregnancy. Since SO and SE are professional sites, it is more reasonable to claim that discrimination was not the purpose of the question, but...

I personally would ask something like "do you participate in any professional websites that you would like us to know about, but didn't quite make it onto your resume?" And I would not regard it as a negative for those who had no such participation, other than that other candidates they are competing with might help themselves with their answer.

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Interviewing is all about asking candidates for information they did not volunteer. "I don't really know anything about JavaScript, but put it on my resume so I could get callbacks" is an unlikely admission, but something you'd want to know when the job requires it. Personally, I often ask candidates about any tech or programming-related websites, blogs, and communities they like to read or participate in. I get to find out how the candidate keeps up to date and learns, and I also get recommendations for myself. I also ask about preferred tools, editors, IDEs, ... for the same reason. –  Zach Lipton Sep 18 '13 at 22:52
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You've got the legal/illegal grounds for discrimination part reversed, I think. When two variables correlate, and one of them is a valid predictor of job performance, then you are allowed to ask about that. Obvious example: MIT enrollment is not gender-neutral, yet you are allowed to ask whether someone graduated from MIT - it's relevant to tech jobs. Similarly, SE/SO participation is a valid indication of your ability to communicate technical matters and keep up with developing technology, and therefore valid even if it would correlate with one of those categories (I bet it does: gender) –  MSalters Sep 19 '13 at 7:15
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@psr I appreciate your dissenting view, and your point about potential discrimination issues is worth noting. (It has prompted me to submit this question to my HR department prior to my next interview.) But, personally, I agree with the other commenters here: if I'm not allowed to ask about anything the candidate didn't volunteer, I might as well pick a resume at random. –  kmote Sep 19 '13 at 14:55
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Would you consider it appropriate if you were asked for your Stack Exchange username in a SW job interview (or as a pre-interview screening question)?

Some good candidates will not have a StackExchange account. So if you can only offer onsite interviews to 5 people and expect 100 applicants, this might be a good strategy to simply provide a better way to distinguish initial candidates.

But do keep in mind you cannot eliminate candidates who do not have a StackOverflow account unless you are willing to take the risk of people who otherwise would be excellent candidates not having accounts.

If you want to use this as part of the interview process, I would strongly recommend it as one option of many - github and StackExchange are both potential (not comprehensive).

Just make sure this isn't presented as mandatory.


I would volunteer MY profile it if possible in an interview as an interviewee. It can naturally come up in regards to questions about "do you code for fun?" or "what do you do to learn outside work?" or any question like that.

It does help to find these, though.


Also, keep in mind a StackExchange account can show two different stories*:

  • Ability to ask meaningful questions
  • Ability to provide meaningful answers

Both can be good or bad, depending on your profile and ratio of questions/answers.

*it also might show you spend way, way, WAY too much time on here...

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+1 for "If you want to use this as part of the interview process, I would recommend it as one option of many - github and StackExchange are both popular but not exclusive." Participation on any legitimate developer site/mailing list/etc can provide useful information. –  Dan Neely Sep 18 '13 at 20:33
    
I can think of much worse places for potential employees to be spending their time online. But as you say, it really depends on what they are doing on StackExchange. –  Michael Lai Sep 19 '13 at 4:06
    
if I see something with "oh but it's not required information" I get suspicious already. Most likely it's only "not required" if rejecting anyone who doesn't provide it leaves them without suitable candidates... –  jwenting Sep 19 '13 at 9:39
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Yes, but I think it would be most worthwhile as a pre-screening question. Realistically, you aren't going to be able to act on the information during the interview in a meaningful way if that's the first time you're asking about it. It'd be like waiting until they were in the office to ask for code samples. The other benefit of being a pre-screening question is that if they do decide they don't want to share it for whatever reason, they can make that decision without being on the hotseat.

In general, I think its a great/acceptable resource. If they do have one, it would make for excellent talking points during the interview itself, especially if you can find an answer they gave with a code sample, or if they've answered a few questions related to what they would be working on. This has the added advantage of being a specific topic they've clearly put some time into before, and developed a written answer to. (If that answer isn't well formed or flat out wrong, that's likewise a very useful indicator).

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I think it's reasonable for an employer to ask for it, but I don't think its reasonable for that to be a make-or-break qualifier.

Joel mentions that a high rep equates to getting high paying jobs but by his own logic, unless you're under employed you may not have time to flex your mental skills and get a large amount of rep. So the man who waxes poetic about Stack Exchange (and rightfully so) admits that it's really an indicator of both high employability and under employment.

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And yet the user with the most points has a job, and generally only answers questions while commuting to work or at lunch. –  Brendan Long Sep 19 '13 at 2:15
    
What about it being an indicator that you spend a lot of time on the site instead of your job? –  JeffO Sep 19 '13 at 18:29
    
@JeffO I think that was the argument Joel was trying to make. If you spend a ton of time on stack overflow instead of your job, you may be underemployed. –  Ampt Sep 19 '13 at 19:00
    
@BrendanLong I think Jon Skeet is the exception in this case, not the rule. –  Ampt Sep 19 '13 at 19:01
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@Ampt My point is that you may be making an unfounded assumption about "people with a lot of reputation" not having jobs. –  Brendan Long Sep 19 '13 at 19:34
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I do this all the time.

IMHO asking for online reputation sources is like asking for your resume, with one important difference: faking a good online reputation is way harder than faking a good resume.

Stack Exchange is a good place to find out about the candidate's communication skills.

There’s nothing I respect more than a great programmer. But if you can manage to become a great programmer and a great communicator, there’s almost nothing you can’t accomplish. - Jeff Atwood

GitHub is where most high profile projects are hosted (at least for the technology stack we use), and if the candidate contributed to some of these projects it says a lot about the quality of his work (good projects will not accept pull requests lacking documentation and/or unit tests).

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There may be cultural differences between Europe and the USA on this, but here's my perspective on this...

When you are applying for a job, as a candidate you are wanting to present yourself, your experience and your ability to do the job in question. You are actively shaping how you are presented to make it a simple choice for the employer to say yes, this is our new employee.

Employers are trying to identify who out of their candidates are capable of doing the work, have the ability to settle into the companies' culture and to hopefully avoid recruiting an employee that's causes more problems than they solve.

So, when I'm recruiting, I do not, and will not ask a candidate for their Stack Exchange identity, or their Facebook username, Twitter account or Google ID. I would consider all these as private personal activities, and would respect the candidates' reasonable expectation that these were not work-related issues, unless by their conduct they made them so.

If on an application, a CV mentioned their Stack Exchange identity, I would ignore it, other than noting that they use Stack Exchange, mildly positive for a graduate, kind of expected for anyone with commercial experience.

My interview process is about giving the opportunity for a candidate to demonstrate that they can do the work we are recruiting for. If they can demonstrate that, and look like a reasonable social mix then they will probably be offered the job.

I could see the Stack Exchange account being used like references, in that job is offered, subject to satisfactory references, but I'm still far from convinced that this is fair, and not undue intrusion into their non-work life.

If as part of an interview process I was asked if I use and contribute on Stack Exchange, the answer would be yes, but if asked for my user name, I would say 'I'll have to get back to you on that'. The reason why is this: I have never been employed to contribute to Stack Exchange, and until that changes, it's completely part of my private, personal life.


Now, consider what the effect would be on Stack Exchange if your profile became part of the interview process.

People would soon learn that you would have to have a pretty exceptional profile for it to be a significant factor in you being invited for interview, and that it's never going to make up for a bad interview. In short, its only effect will be to prevent you from getting a job.

So, just like you take great care about what goes in your CV, you would do the same on Stack Exchange. No comments, only very carefully thought-out answers, and if you were not 100% sure, you wouldn't post. Would you leave up a down voted answer? Or badly received questions? Of course not.

Stack Exchange will be the worse for it.

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"I have never been employed to contribute to Stack-Exchange, and until that changes, it's completely part of my private, personal life." You make a strong point (and this is exactly the issue that I was wrestling with in my question). So does that mean that you would consider the following interview question overly intrusive: "Do you consider your SO/SE-Prog profile to be fairly representative of your professional expertise and communication skills?" –  kmote Sep 19 '13 at 21:33
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I would consider that question to reflect quite poorly on the interviewers professionalism. Faced with it, my answer would be 'that my profile would give you a good idea of my character at a developers group meeting where I'm there in a personal capacity. Sometimes I'm serious, sometimes less so, sometimes I'm right, and sometimes I'm wrong, but above all I'm happy to join in and discuss the issues' –  Ptolemy Sep 19 '13 at 21:48
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I'm a strong believer that the best interview technique is to provide an environment where candidates can demonstrate their skills that are relevant to the job being offered, and to recruit based on this. Generally I have found companies that employ people based on other criteria less professionally satisfying to work in, and your stack exchange profile falls in this category. –  Ptolemy Sep 19 '13 at 21:53
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I will typically search for a candidate's information on Stack Overflow before I conduct the interview. It is public information after all, and then usually during an interview I will ask them what kinds of resources they use to learn something new, or solve a problem that they're having trouble with. If the person mentions Stack Overflow, bonus points to them, but it's not necessarily a deal breaker.

Most of my questions are open-ended and revolve around problem-solving and approaches to requirements, and they are never a question that could be answered by reading online documentation, so I'm looking for people who are always learning and exploring.

As for GitHub, I do also ask if they participate in any open-source projects, and if they mention GitHub, I consider that a bonus as well.

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I've never been asked about Stack Overflow at a job interview. As I've used this handle for more than a decade, and some of the politically oriented posts with this handle can be seen as ranging from trotskyist to ayn randist. My politics are none of their business (other than running for elected office, and maybe not even then), and I would not tell them this handle. I'm also winding down use of this nickname and ramping up usage of a different one.

I'm sure I could learn more about a candidate in 5 minutes by looking at the questions and answers they have posted on SE than by a 30 minute interview.

Yes, you could. I've been in the workforce for a long time, and I've had some bad experiences. Someone interviewing me and checking my posting history might wonder if I'd be posting about them too.

and refuse to accept candidates without a GitHub account

My current employer prohibits contributing to open source projects as they are terrified of having GPL code infecting their codebase.

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You raise a good point - MSO and Meta posts are "off the table" for consideration IMO. Likewise with comments. While they give an idea of personality, they don't take into account the circumstances at that point in time. At my place, we'd be pretty Zen about it since we've all had those days. But the quality behind your main Q&A is an indicator of your logic and how you tackle problems. –  GlenH7 Sep 19 '13 at 0:24
    
No matter how talented I will not hire a jerk or a primadonna. I was seduced by leftist ideology too when I was young, can't believe how naive I was. Fortunately I found "Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot", this book saved my life. –  Paulo Scardine Sep 19 '13 at 17:51
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