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Can you get in trouble using programming forums at work?

I'd like to know when it is an acceptable practice and how much is too much when it's going to using StackOverflow, or Programmers.SE, for example.

Developers and managers may have a different perspectives when it comes to that.

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I'm venting, but here's an example. My lead engineer noticed me using SO. I didn't know he wrote me up until I asked for a raise a few months later, and they tried to ruin my credibility over it, to keep me down a pay grade. –  DisEngaged Apr 11 '11 at 23:09
Does you lead engineer know what SO is? –  Dean Harding Apr 11 '11 at 23:11
Apart from anything else if your use of SO at work is a problem he should have told you at the time not just reported it to his manager/HR for you to find out months later. –  ChrisF Apr 11 '11 at 23:14
They found a way to not give me a raise, so I found a way not to do OT. –  DisEngaged Apr 12 '11 at 0:31
If my employer didn't let me browse SO, I'b be looking for a new employer. Reading programming forums/blogs/articles/Q&A is part of how programmers keep their skills up to date. If your employer expects you to do that only on your own time, then they obviously don't respect your time. An out-of-date programmer is no good to anybody. –  Craige Apr 12 '11 at 3:53

10 Answers 10

up vote 52 down vote accepted

No, I have never got in trouble at work for using programming forums to help with my programming issues. But then again I worked with professional people, not the people who were more intrested in keeping up some policy.

If the time comes where using a programmers forum is a problem at work, it would be time to move.

PS: here is another reason programming forums such as stackoveflow save tremendous amount of money to your employers.

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+1 - agreed. The company would have to have an excellent reason not to use SO. Maybe if they didnt get their work done because of SO, but I could hardly see that happening. –  P.Brian.Mackey Apr 11 '11 at 23:49
A programmer that knows how to use resources to find the answers to solve a problem is a better resource for a company than one who will spend five times as long to figure out a problem on his own. No one can be expected to know everything all the time. –  MaQleod Apr 12 '11 at 4:16
I had to sign an NDA once - I had them re-draft it to allow for "anonymized" code (no data or unreasonably specific variable names) to be used on SO specifically. –  willoller Apr 12 '11 at 5:18
Agreed 100%. A company that would "write up" someone for reading programming blogs and forums and other sites is run by total idiots (since they don't understand constant learning) and the developers are managed by spineless and/or clueless wimps (because they either don't know about the sites themselves or are too afraid to tell senior management it's okay for developers to read those sites). Definitely a big sign it's time to find a better job. –  Wayne M Apr 12 '11 at 13:10

I have never worked anywhere that controls what you do on your computer whatsoever. The rule is: get your work done in an efficient manner.

Beyond that, if you wanna go on SO or hell even if you want to cruise around facebook for a few minutes while you wait for an update or eat lunch. Nothing is a problem until your work is affected. We are all adults and we can keep ourselves accountable.

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Surfing programming forums and SO? must have. Using facebook and your daily news site? nice to have. –  Tim Büthe Apr 12 '11 at 7:21
+1. I work for a huge company (80,000+ employees) and there are no restrictions. You're expected to be responsible. –  rmx Apr 12 '11 at 13:42

In my org we have three different internet access levels. The basic level does not allow any external sites(You can google , but you cant click on any of the results). The next level allows you pretty much most of the sites you need but not all. If you need access to a site, we have to make a request, explaining why you need acces to the site, and get an approval from your head. The third level (unrestricted) is only available for people who need to do a lot of R&D and need to access the net a lot. MY managers have not objected to me using any forums but thats because we face a lot of issues that cannot be easily tackled internally.

As long as you do not violate confidentiality or let out secrets inadvertently, I see no reason to deny access to SO. If anyone objects, politely ask them if they can help you solve the problem. Escalate the matter to technical heads or whizards if you have any. Once you have shown that your problem canot be solved internally, point out that you have a good chance of getting an answer on SO.

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+1 for (pseudo) confrontational tactics :) –  theTuxRacer Apr 12 '11 at 4:42

At a previous intership position my supervisor didn't have any problem with me on sites like Stackoverflow. He was even fine with IRC where I got most of my help from.

To be fair though this is something you should ask beforehand for permission. While most employers are completely fine with it (at least from what I've heard), it doesn't hurt to ask.

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-1 Disagree. Next they'll tell us we need to ask for permission to use the internet or use a book for reference material. That way you cant self improve, research good solutions or move forward in your career. This is where trashy help desk companies are headed. When software goes blue collar Ill change careers. Ive been there. –  P.Brian.Mackey Apr 11 '11 at 23:58
+1 and I agree with Brian, What doeas it mean to ask for permission to use a reference resource? This is not pre school, in a professional environment reference materials are a must to use and not just optional. –  Arjang Apr 12 '11 at 0:09
@P.Brian @Arjang While I fully agree that you shouldn't have to ask, does it kill you to spend 2 minutes one day doing it? No. Would doing it saved FXquincy from this problem? Most likely. –  TheLQ Apr 12 '11 at 0:15
I won't -1, but I can't +1. Doing so would be supporting the idea of a gate between me and the acquisition of knowledge. –  Steve Evers Apr 12 '11 at 1:45
@perdian agreed, and another reason why : It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission. –  T. Webster Jul 21 '11 at 18:42

Never had trouble at my current employer, but I remember once causing controversy because I had a book on my desk. It was all very political as I was a consultant working on a client site and the customer seemed to think me using a book meant I didn't know what I was doing. I explained that it was a very advanced reference book for experts (it was Stroutstrup I think) and they seemed to let the matter drop.

For anyone working in a consulting type role it's a point worth bearing in mind, you have to be politically aware of using forums, books and other resources in front of people who probably don't really understand what you do and why you need reference material. Suffice it to say I am much happier working in an environment where learning and taking part in communities is fully supported.

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I mentioned SO and found out my company has a paid subscription to expert-exchange. What a waste. They are well aware of the quality of answers I've received. Recently, we've been slow, so it's not an issue.

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It is definitely an acceptable practice. As a matter of fact I would always encourage colleagues and co-workers to watch certain forums. Not just use them when a problem arises and you quickly need an answer but as a routine part of the job!

I've often found that just by looking on new postings you can always learn aspects of tools you're already using, new ways how to accomplish things and new featured that you wouldn't have discovered otherwise. In addition you often get a sense of what people are interested in, what their motivations are and how things are done outside your office.

So all these arguments lead to the conclusion that it is time very well spent. Anyone not accepting this, or even forcing me to discontinue watching certain forums (or blogs and other sources of information) completely disqualifies himself.

And yes, I agree with another poster on this site: If that ever happens and your boss tells you not to look into forums any more it's time to move on and find another job.

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I've never had an employer who had a problem with my reading SO or other programming related sights on the job. I've even explicitly told my boss that sometimes I go out to SO, SE, proggit, etc. when I'm not specifically looking for an answer to something, but just as a break.

The way I see it, we all need mental breaks when programming, and browsing programming or other technology related sights is a good way to get a bit of a mental break without getting too far outside of the programming mindset. Additionally, although you might not find something immediately applicable to what you are working on, you never know when you are going to run across a piece of information that could turn out to be extremely valuable down the road.

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Among peers, it was never a problem for me. In fact, many developers on the team used Stackoverflow or programming forums to research issues. Gasp, even Experts-Exchange!

However, I'm not sure about management, and I'm not sure I could ever know what they thought of using these "exterior" resources to accomplish work and be productive. I think the management where I was at always wanted to keep control of the knowledge that gets passed around. I wouldn't be surprised if they thought it was a big time waster to be a part of these online communities.

Agreeing with Arjang, if management is really frowning upon the kind of social knowledge sharing that goes on, then it would be time to consider moving on to a better office/work culture.

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must-resist-urge-to-edit-into-expert-sexchange –  user281377 Apr 12 '11 at 13:47
Alright-y, I edited it, to help emphasize things. I know it's within SO's community as a joke, hopefully no one will take offense to it. –  spong Apr 12 '11 at 14:37

I've never been written up per se, but I have worked at a company full of idiots that frowned on it because they didn't distinguish between surfing/problem solving, and because they thought it meant I didn't know what I was doing.

So answering your question literally, I would say it is possible to get in trouble for using programming forums at work. HOWEVER, I think everyone would agree that it means that you work for idiots. If you have a good employer, you will not get in trouble for using the Internet as a resource.

My second caveat is you should obviously be careful about sharing info about your company on the web. If you ask questions, you should obviously not give a lot of specifics about your employer because they might find it understandably upsetting.

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