What Makes Geeks Tick? A Study of Stack Overflow Careers

Lei XU, Tingting Nian, and Luis Cabral


Many online platforms rely on users to voluntarily provide content. What motivates users to contribute content for free however is not well understood. In this paper, we use a revealed preference approach to show that career concerns play an important role in user contributions to Stack Overflow, the largest online Q&A community. We investigate how activities that can enhance a user’s reputation vary before and after the user finds a new job. We contrast this with activities that do not improve a user’s reputation. After finding a new job, users contribute 23.7% less in reputation-generating activity. By contrast, they reduce their non-reputation-generating activity by only 7.4% after finding a new job. These findings suggest that users contribute to Stack Overflow in part because they perceive this as a way to improve future employment prospects. We provide direct evidence against alternative explanations such as integer constraints, skills mismatch, and dynamic selection effects.

JEL codes

  • H41: Public Goods
  • D82: Asymmetric and Private Information • Mechanism Design
  • D83: Search • Learning • Information and Knowledge • Communication • Belief
  • J24: Human Capital • Skills • Occupational Choice • Labor Productivity
  • J22: Time Allocation and Labor Supply
  • M51: Firm Employment Decisions • Promotions
  • L86: Information and Internet Services • Computer Software


Lei XU, Tingting Nian, and Luis Cabral, What Makes Geeks Tick? A Study of Stack Overflow Careers, Management Science, 2019, forthcoming.

Published in

Management Science, 2019, forthcoming