In the nearly 4 years that I’ve participated on Server Fault, it’s been a community that I’ve been proud to be a part of, and I’ve been able to build my own skill set a lot and help people out at the same time by answering questions. Everyone who’s helped to build this community should be proud of what it’s been able to do. We really have one of the best places on the internet to find answers to real problems that sysadmins face every day, instead of just inscrutable documentation or forum threads filled with crappy cargo cult solutions.
For most of us, the profession of system administration is fundamentally changing: instead of duct-taped together automation scripts, we have a huge ecosystem of configuration management tools; instead of applications running on one server in one data center, we have applications running in distributed data centers or hosted in the “cloud”; instead of just needing to be an expert in an operating system, we need to be able to solve problems with a myriad of OSes, applications, databases, and protocols.
All of these new problems need new solutions, and require sysadmins to reach outside of our comfort zones in lots of new ways. Instead of being able to kick the network issues to the network person, our systems need to be aware of the network, have the network configured in the right way, and even manage the network as software defined networking starts to catch on. Instead of getting an application out of the box that just needs a next-next-done install, we need to be able to understand how best to architect a solution for our specific environment using several different software solutions, and how to integrate those pieces of software.
We need to be able to learn and evolve extremely quickly to keep pace with technology and the state of the craft. Staying up to speed is incredibly difficult in this profession, and getting in the door is getting harder all the time. For me, Server Fault is a great resource for maintaining my own knowledge and improving it - accidentally referring back to a problem I solved years ago because it comes up in a Google search, or having coworkers ask me to help clarify an answer of mine they found while trying to figure out a problem (this happened at my last job), tells me that we’re really helping to advance the field of system administration as a whole.
But, I’m worried that we’ve gotten off track lately. There’s been a drop in participation through contributions - post rate, answers per question, and relatively active users (5+ posts per week) have all been trending downward for a while.
Since June of this year we’ve seen a major jump in traffic - nearly 100% - due to changes to Google’s page ranking, with an accompanying jump in participation through community moderation (mainly close votes and down votes):
...but, crucially, not an increased volume of questions over the same time frame; they’ve essentially stayed flat:
There are a lot of valid arguments on why this is happening, but I think we can all agree that this is not a great direction to be going in.
Server Fault still gets a ton of bad questions, which need to be closed - and there are now fewer regular contributors among whom the load of “taking out the trash” is now spread. As a result, instead of participating through posting and voting on useful questions and answers, many of our most active users, the core of our community, are spending their time on the site looking for questions to downvote and close out of frustration.
We don’t want our best contributors feeling like the most important contribution they can make is to find stuff to get rid of - and more importantly, we want to avoid deterring people from joining the community and participating by being over-protective of what we want the site to look like. Narrow interpretation of the scope with rigid enforcement hasn’t slowed the volume of poor quality questions, but it has given Server Fault a rather hostile and insular reputation and a tendency to give a poor first impression.
I wouldn’t be comfortable telling a sysadmin I just met, especially a beginner or intermediate level one, that they should go try participating on Server Fault without warnings and caveats, and I suspect I’m not alone on that. We need those intermediate level people to be comfortable with dipping a toe into contributing, getting involved, to take the load of answering easy questions off of the veteran users who are tired of the simple stuff. This needs to be a place that’s welcoming of all system administrators, regardless of skill level, in order to accomplish that. Some of our veteran users will reduce or stop their participation, which is expected in any community; we need to have new contributors coming in to keep the community alive.
More eyeballs from Google should be a good thing for Server Fault; it means that this resource we’ve all created is reaching and helping more people, and it means more people who might take an interest in the site (and have expertise that would be useful to have around!) are getting exposed to it. Instead, the we’ve taken a harder line than ever to fight the perceived flood of low quality questions.
Server Fault should be a community that is welcoming of the easy questions. More importantly, it should welcome the kind of people who will be interested in answering those questions, who can can grow their own expertise while at the same time preventing our core contributors from having to deal with every easy question. It should be a community that changes and evolves alongside the practice of system administration, not one that gets stuck on a specific, rigid definition of what a sysadmin does or doesn’t do. It can’t survive and thrive and continue to be a great resource to so many people if we make it a community where only experts are able to ask a good question - after all, our experts are good at answering their own questions too, and rarely need to ask one of the community. Becoming more insular, more selective, more “expert”, is not an option that will lead to a sustainable future for Server Fault.
We should be encouraging questions on subjects like Docker and continuous integration, about trouble with configuration or troubleshooting on specific blank-as-a-service platforms, and about how to architect a server infrastructure for the NoSQL flavor of the month. Instead of trying to reject these questions and the people who ask them, we should push them in the right direction for how to be better at what they’re doing and how to solve their problem in the right way. Getting that knowledge out there, in front of the eyeballs from Google, is how we can really make a difference.
A few months after I started at Stack Exchange, the community team asked me to look at what I would do to try pushing Server Fault in the right direction. What I’ve arrived at is to remove the “professional” criteria from the scope of the site - it’s getting used too aggressively in closing questions, as well as interpreted to limit the set of topics that are accepted here.
Now, before anyone panics..
What I’m about to propose isn’t intended to lower Server Fault’s quality bar, or open the door to everything that belongs on Super User being on-topic here.
I’m asking for questions to be considered on their merits, taking away the close criteria of “infer whether this person has the right job title” because that can’t be what we’re focusing on when we decide if a question fits.
We still want to make it clear that if it’s for someone’s home network, it goes on Super User. And if it’s a weak question that can’t be understood or has no detail, I expect the close-hammer to fall just as fast as before. However, someone having problems with setting up hobby project on a VPS even if they aren’t a sysadmin by day, or a developer trying to work out how to deploy their application successfully to a robust server stack instead of their development machine, are the kind of questions that I want to be in scope for the site now.
This isn’t going to directly address the volume of low quality questions that we’re currently dealing with. What I’m hoping for is a change to the community’s approach to some of those questions: spending time editing the salvageable ones, giving users a push in the right direction instead of closing their question as quickly as possible in an attempt to avoid “broken windows”, or downvoting the question because they think the answer is too obvious.
Removing the requirement to be a professional means telling these users “your question isn’t appropriate as it stands, improve it by...” instead of telling them “you don’t belong here because you aren’t what I consider to be a professional sysadmin.” Over time, my hope is that we attract more intermediate-level contributors that we’re scaring away now who can handle the easy questions so the veterans won’t need to.
Question quality, and making sure contributors aren’t spending their time sifting through questions they aren’t interested in, is something that’s been getting a lot of attention on the Stack Overflow side of things, which can benefit Server Fault as well. Some of those efforts are applied here automatically, like rolling rate limits - we’re also going to test out how well some of the specific optimizations on SO work on SF, like the recommended tab, and see if we can tune them to work well here.
I want for Server Fault to be the great resource to so many people that we all know it can be, and the great community that I’ve known over the last 4 years, and continue to evolve as a resource for everyone in this profession - and I believe that it can do that as a place for everyone working on the kinds of problems that we are, whether they call themselves sysadmins, SREs, devops, or anything else.
My hope is that everyone in the community will join me in giving this a shot.