The rise of Python, as seen through a decade of Stack Overflow

Practice makes perfect.
Practice makes perfect.
Image: Reuters/Gabrielle Lurie
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Imagine you are trying to solve a problem at work and you get stuck. What do you do? Maybe you ask a colleague for help or take a walk around the block to clear your mind. For ten years now, programmers have had a better option.

Stack Overflow, a question and answer site for programmers, is one of the most visited websites in the world. The website, which celebrated its tenth anniversary last month, is the 65th most popular site in the world according Amazon’s Alexa rankings. It’s more popular than the New York Times, Yelp, and Hulu. Over 16 million questions have been posted to the site, and those questions have received 25 million answers. (A question can receive multiple answers.) Stack Overflow says that these answers have received over 12 billion views on the free to use site.

Like Twitter and Reddit, Stack Overflow’s importance and influence as a resource outdoes its size as a company. In 2015, the last time it received investment, Stack Exchange, the company that runs Stack Overflow as part of a network of question and answer sites, was valued at about $460 million, according to private equity research firm PitchBook. The company makes money through advertisements and from fees business pay to post to the site’s job listings.

Its role as a resource for stumped programmers makes Stack Overflow one of the best ways to track programming trends. To post a question on Stack Overflow, a user must categorize the question. These categories help other programmers find the questions they might be able to help with. For example, if the person’s question involves the Java programming language, they’ll add the “Java” category to the question.

A look at the trajectories of the most popular programming languages on the site demonstrates the ascent of Python. As recently as 2012, questions related to Python, accounted for less than 4% of all questions. In 2018, over 10% of questions related to Python. It looks set to pass JavaScript—the scripting language that websites run—as the most queried about language in 2019.

Python’s popularity is rising because it is both relatively easy to learn and flexible. It can be used for web development, writing scripts to automate simple tasks, and perhaps most importantly for analyzing data.

Python is now the central tool for data science, an increasingly important part of computer science. As more companies focus on exploiting their data through machine learning and artificial intelligence, developers who are well versed in Python are in high demand.

The impact of data science is shown clearly through the rise in the number of Stack Overflow questions related to Python’s most popular data science tools. Questions related to tools that make complex math easier in Python (NumPy and Pandas), data visualization (Matplotlib), and machine learning (TensorFlow) have all increased substantially since 2012.