Intro to Blogging: Engineer Edition

Blogging is supposed to be super easy, low effort, and high reward. compare the effort it takes to produce a video for YouTube. Maybe how long it takes to code an application. Or publish an academic article. All of those make information you have to say publicly available, but how much work is put into it to get the content processed and over the finish line?

For this reason, among many others, blogging is a form of self-promotion, of self-discovery, and of public navel-gazing (you didn’t think it’s all sunshine and roses, did you?) where thoughts and ideas can be freely shared or ignored. The web is the public forum.

The classic advice

Start writing

First and foremost, collect your thoughts in written form. Bullet lists, long form prose, mind maps that evolve over time. All of these are valid ways of iterating into a document one might publish online. Because this is a document.

Even if you don’t have a blog on a fancy website, is free. Many blog sites are free. Maybe follow in line with Derek Sivers’ advice and write plain text notes for now. Just get started.

It will never be perfect

Given a “blog” (originally from “web log”) is, by definition, an online medium, one can easily update a post after it has been made publicly available. This doesn’t mean put a stream of consciousness set of ramblings out there (or do, it might work well for you), but being okay with bullet points for key topics might be sufficient to put out there. It all depends on how formal you aim to be.

I, for one, tried to be too formal out of the gate and it led to sporadic bursts of posts here and there, only some of which survived into the blog seen today. I’m not a professional writer, nor do I am to have that level of polish. I do aim to be understood. If it is understandable, it is good enough. Publish. That’s my defining line.

You will be terrible at it, and that is okay

Every writer I have heard of, when asked, indicates how terrible of quality their written works were on the first draft, in their early career, or when they’re first organizing thoughts. That’s normal. Writing is a skill and, just like a muscle, it gets easier to do impressive things the more you practice in earnest.

Imposter syndrome is real

There is always a non-zero chance that you have something of value to contribute. Even if it’s regurgitated facts learned elsewhere, maybe it’s phrased in a way that makes sense to others struggling with the topic. Maybe it helps solidify the topic in your mind. Maybe it indicates where your mind was at a certain point in history.

Clients and employers looking at your background may see this and get a better idea about how you think, what you’re interested in, and assess talent. With the amount of bluster out there it is refreshing, speaking as someone who has conducted countless interviews over the years, to have a candidate that is demonstrably transparent. Even if what you say is factually incorrect, a blog is your own platform and you can update it. Or even erase it.

Contemporary advice

My audience is not your audience

How do I know that? Because my audience is most often… me.

I write because I have a terrible memory. But because I write it down I get practice. And with practice I get better at writing. For me. Others may not see improvement, but that is because I’m not optimizing for them. They are not me.

Don’t mistake me for not caring. If others find benefit in my writing, I get a special kind of giddy in my soul. The off-chance of that happening is one reason I make my ramblings available. I also don’t have comments for a very particular reason: my comments to myself are in the form of edits to the original post or follow up posts.

I don’t take myself seriously (anymore) and it is incredibly freeing.

Make it accessible

While web accessibility is a core value of mine, I mean to focus on accessibility to write. Don’t limit yourself to only writing when sitting at a desk, pondering the wonders of life in your amazingly abundant free time. I never have that kind of free time. If I do, I’d rather write code or read technical documents, or maybe even immerse myself in a good fantasy novel or video game. But that rarely happens without me falling asleep midway through.

My writing process looks like composition in Notion, from my phone, writing and revising the meat of the article when and where I have time. 20 minutes while rocking my eldest back to sleep, 5 minutes while waiting for my order to be finished at the coffee shop, whenever I’m available. I don’t leave it as the source of truth because I have strong feelings now, in my old age (heh) about having control over my own data. When my revisions get to a certain point I move it to a “queued” state where some automation periodically checks for any posts in that state, publishes the extracted markdown from them to my static site generator’s git repository, and updates the post in Notion to move the post to the next state.

I write anywhere and can push to public when I feel like it.

You have more to say than you realize

When I start enumerating my thoughts into words, I keep tripping over myself with “but first” and “prerequisite knowledge to understand that is…”

To avoid getting caught up in that loop, leave a loose end here and there. One need not explain the world when it is a note to oneself. It is helpful to lean into the online medium by linking to other content. Maybe someone else wrote something already. Maybe it’s more eloquent than you could write. Maybe it’s more polished or speaks to a different crowd than you intend. Or maybe you wrote it already. Link to it. If your audience already knows about consensus algorithms and how Raft differs from Zookeeper’s approach, they’ll skip the link as a given. If the audience is confused, and has the wherewithal to dig deeper, they’ll click through to the linked page. Lean on the world wide web being… a web.

Also, keep in mind that, when writing this article, it only started as about 5 bullet points in a list. Now I can’t shut up!

I never fully finish my thought

Again, it doesn’t need to be perfect. It also doesn’t need to be any certain length. Plenty of folks blog within a 500 character limit. It’s called micro-blogging, done by applications like Mastodon, Twitter, and the like.

A partial thought is still a thought worth having. Post it. Edit it later. Or don’t.

Own your content

Ever think that social media sites own way too much of what you present as your public image? That they can dictate if you’re allowed to speak in what is thought of as a public forum? Host it yourself.

Many free services are available to host a static site or small-time blog. I like to host mine on Netlify, though I have tinkered with GitHub pages, Vercel, and Amazon S3 before. Keep a copy of your posts locally and build it as HTML ahead of time. It is much harder to hack a system that doesn’t do anything dynamically.

Buy a domain for $10 a year. Point to a set of links under that domain name. Even if you change where it is hosted, others’ links will remain active and your blog will survive. Your information will be more difficult to censor.

Twitter, Facebook, etc. are allowed to monetize you (mostly) or delete everything about you without your consent. Why not take ownership? Check out the Indie Web movement for more on this topic.