How to start blogging

Dear new developer,

I was asked about how to start blogging during the Q&A portion of a talk I gave. I had offhandedly recommended blogging as a great way to make connections and to be both credible and findable (locatable?) when looking for a job.

I started to spout off an answer using WordPress, and the questioner said “what about medium?”. And I stopped short. The correct answer is was “whatever is easiest”. I realized that this needed a bit more explanation, hence this letter.

So, the first thing to realize is that almost no one will read it, especially at the beginning. Why would you write if no one will read it? Well, to clarify your thought, to provide a written record of what you’ve done, and because, if you keep at it, Google will find it. Google is great at the long tail, so if you write something that is of interest to anyone, eventually people will find it.

Some numbers. This blog had the following stats for the first six months:

  • Sep: 8 posts/5 visitors
  • Oct: 11 posts/20 visitors
  • Nov: 6/15
  • Dec: 9/219
  • Jan: 8/221
  • Feb: 9/223

For the first month, I wrote more posts than visitors! And for the first three months, I had 25 posts and only 40 visitors. If you aren’t ready and willing to commit for a fair bit of time, your blog will become one of those sad blogs that I occasionally run across with three great posts, then one post six months later with the title “I haven’t posted in a while…” and then nothing.

Now, if that’s what you want, that’s ok (everyone can blog for their own reasons) but if you are looking for credibility and locatability, well, that kind of blog accomplishes neither.

So, commit for six months. I do this by:

  • writing out 20-30 titles of blog posts I want to write. If I can’t come up with that many blog post titles, I am not passionate enough about the topic to stick with it. Better to find out before investing the effort.
  • Watch for interesting concepts and mailing myself whenever I have a possible blog post idea. Then I can search my email when I have time to write but no ideas. (You can do the same with a spreadsheet, doc, trello board or whatever. Just capture the inspiration when you can.)
  • Make some posts easy by doing excerpts or commentary (about half of the posts on this blog are excerpts or guest posts).
  • Settle on a consistent schedule. No need to announce it, though. (Some people do it daily, for which I have mad respect.)
  • Write blog posts ahead of time and schedule them out. When the muse is present, it can be easy to jam out a few posts. When the muse is absent, it is a relief to not need write, but still be able to deliver to previously mentioned consistent schedule.
  • Realize that some of the posts will be mediocre. It is embarrassing to put out poor content. Don’t do that, but some posts will be better than others. Volume is key, and the longer you do it, the better the posts will get.

As far as the actual writing tool, use whatever is comfortable and easy. That may be wordpress.com, may be medium, may be netlify + hugo. Whatever it is, don’t let the technology get in the way of the writing. Especially if you are a developer, it can be more fun to be in weeds tweaking your blog deployment pipeline (at least, that’s really fun for me) but that will distract you from the main goal, which is to create good content.

My final tip is to share on online communities. Don’t only share your own work, but definitely share it. Which community? Well, find out where your people are. There are a lot of communities out there, whether tech specific like Hacker News, general purpose and public like Twitter, or focused and private, like the HangOps Slack. (Sharing is how I was able to break through in December above.)

Doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you are engaged in the community and the topic of your blog is of interest to the community. These communities are well aware of the traffic they can bring and are often wary of newcomers. I have gotten a few scoldings when I posted things that I thought were interesting, but were not in line with the community. That’s OK, just accept the community judgement, acknowledge the mistake, and do better.

Blogging is a great way to amplify your voice, display your expertise and share your knowledge. Set yourself up for success when you start one.

Sincerely,

Dan

Benefits of blogging

Dear new developer,

I’ve written before about my belief in blogging as a way to sharpen your thoughts and give examples of your expertise. Here’s a post along the same lines. From the post:

People always try to find someone they can trust. You can go through a series of interviews and hope that they will figure out you are a great colleague, or you can write about your approaches and let a wider audience know that.
If you have a deep expertise in some technology, you can demonstrate it by writing deep and thoughtful blog posts.
If this technology is in demand, you will definitely get some opportunities coming your way!

And

Your views expressed publicly can be a good conversation starter.

This may come handy in any professional social context: interviews, meetups, conferences. It’s a different level on conversation when you get approached because someone likes your views.

The author then goes on to talk about specific, measurable ways that his blogging has helped his career.

The whole post, “Is blogging useful?”, is worth a read.

Sincerely,

Dan

Learn to use Google, and use it well

Dear new developer,

Searching is is important to writing and understanding software. Less so for giving you a base of knowledge. For that, I’d seek out books, video classes or side projects, depending on how you learn. Googling well is tough if you don’t know what terms to use. (I’ll use google as a synonym for a generic search. I’ll address issues of other search engines below.) Once you have a firm base of knowledge and understand software jargon, you can stand on the shoulders of giants.

Tips for searching:

  • Google the exact error message (almost). When you get an error message like nginx_1 | 2019/01/06 20:42:22 [crit] 11#11: *1 connect() to unix:/var/run/php5-fpm.sock failed (13: Permission denied), don’t just cut and paste it into the search box. Look at the error message, and see what is unique to your situation. For the error message above, text like the nginx instance name, nginx_1, and the date and time, 2019/01/06 20:42:22, are unique to my installation. Searching on them won’t be useful. But the message text starting with connect() looks like it will be far more common and will likely yield good results.
  • Read the results, whether forum post or documentation, carefully. I’ve been bitten by this more times than I care to remember. But it’s very easy, when you find a stack overflow, forum or other result that seems to apply, to just cut and paste the top answer as quickly as possible and get back to what you were doing before you started searching. This is the quick path, but the better choice is to read the entire page and make sure that they are addressing the same issue that you are trying to address. You also want to pick the best solution (which may not be the first one, especially if the page is old). Sometimes newer libraries or releases have different paths forward, and so you should try to map the software you are working in to the one that the page refers to. The other reason to scan the entire page is that it will give you a sense of the different solutions. The underlying goal of doing the search is to incorporate the knowledge into your understanding so that you won’t have to do this Google search in the future (you may have to search in your project or commit log, but that’s quicker than redoing a google search, especially months from now). Trying to understand all the solutions and what they are doing is a way to be a just in time learner. Mindlessly copying the solution isn’t.
  • Add links to what you find in your commits and your comments. Do this especially if the solution is complicated or esoteric. You should of course write a commit message that explains your intent, but adding in the link can give additional context.
  • Think about the terms you use in the query. This is where foundational knowledge comes in. For example, if you know that active record is an object relational mapping tool, or that ruby is a dynamic language where every class can change another (which is called “monkey patching”) then you can know how to google for things related to these concepts. If you want to change a specific active recrod behavior, you might google “how to monkypatch active record” which will get you far more focused results than “how do change the rails database system”. This ca be iterative. Pay attention to the terms used in posts you find, and use them in new queries.
  • Consider using an alternate search platform. I use duckduckgo.com as my default search engine. Frankly, it’s not as good as Google, but it gives answers I need in about 75% of the searches, and I can easily run the same search on Google if I need it. I am supporting an alternative search ecosystem that will be better for the internet in the long run.

A last point is important enough that I’m going to break it out. Google, and search engines in general, work well because there’s content out there produced by people. You can take part in producing that content, either by adding to stackoverflow (which can be as simple as just voting an answer up or down–after you’ve tried the solution out), writing a blog post or responding to that forum post. If you encounter an issue no one has ever seen before, write it up, like I did here. This participation in the wider internet is crucial for the continuing useful functioning of the internet. So, participate in some way and give back.

 

Using Google to solve problems lets you leverage the hive mind for your development work. Don’t just use it. Use it well.

Sincerely,

Dan

Start a blog

Dear new developer,

A blog is free (except in terms of time), forces you to think, provides an example of your ability to discuss concepts, and helps others.

What’s not to like?

The hardest part about blogging is just doing it, day in and day out. Now, I am no Fred Wilson, who has blogged every day for 15 years, but I have blogged since 2003. I’ve written at least once every month of those 15 years (except one).

I can tell you that blogging won’t give you a job, but it can occasionally lead to contracts. That it won’t make you a superstar, but can give you credibility. That it won’t make you an excellent writer, but that it will polish your ability to convey thoughts in text.

What should you write about? Write about the latest problem you faced at work the technology that interests you or a comment on a link that you found. It doesn’t really matter as long as you can write about it and can commit.

Because it is the commitment that matters. The benefits of blogging don’t accrue on the first or second post, but on the twenty first or twenty second.

I can’t speak highly enough of blogging. I tell everyone I meet to start a blog. I’m suggesting you do too.

Sincerely,

Dan