Thursday, January 23, 2014

writing your own tech blog part 1: the first 10k hits are the toughest

a milestone and a retrospective

Today, my blog exceeded 10,000 views. I'll concede that some of them are spam/bots, but most aren't. So, in a flagrant self endorsement, I'm going to write a blog post about writing blog posts. It's like Inception but your dead wife isn't trying to kill you in your subconscious.

I'm pretty excited that I've been able to not just hit that milestone, but that I've been keeping with it and getting some comments and feedback. I had a lot of motivation and ideas when I started writing, and I've had some opportunities to figure out what works, what doesn't, and some goals that work well. I wanted to share these in an effort to help others who are thinking about writing a blog, or have one and are stuck or not feeling motivated.

things that work

Let's start off on a positive note: ways to succeed personally and publicly with this. Here's a list of observations and advice that I found worked well for me and was reflected in the comments I received and the page views I've attracted.

  • Try picking topics or problems that are somewhat mainstream, but also something people tend to get stuck on. For example, the post I wrote about Jersey 2.0 resource filters gets a decent amount of traffic, and it's the kind of thing that people often set and forget or run into issues getting started with. I found the documentation around this feature of Jersey to be lacking and had to do a fair amount of trial and error to get things working correctly, so I figured others had the same problem. I also use Jersey a lot, which brings me to my next point...
  • Pick things you're interested in. This probably sounds obvious, but I want to emphasize it. If you write about something you're genuinely interested in, it'll help with your motivation. It can also help broaden your horizons, because as you're writing you may start to think of new directions and features you want to explore. Sometimes it'll help you solve a problem, which leads me to...
  • If you solved a problem that seemed tricky to figure out, like it was something you'll forget and need again, or can help someone else in the same boat, just write about it. Seriously; make yourself a quick set of rough notes in a text editor and write about it later. I was surprised at how often I came back to one of my posts by doing this, and it's helped me professionally in that I've referred coworkers to my blog for guides on how to do certain things. You may be seeing a pattern here, because my next point is:
  • When you write a post, try to be as complete as possible with your examples and resources. Usually I try to do things with Maven and try to include a pom file which makes it easier to reproduce my work on your machine should you choose to mess with it. Try to avoid leaving out steps, or better yet, after you post something, start from a blank slate in an IDE and try running through your example; you may be surprised by what you realize you left others to figure out on their own.
  • Spend some time on self promotion and SEO. I typically tweet my blog posts, often times to coworkers to help get feedback since I'm lucky enough to work with some incredibly smart people. I also look at what people search on that leads them to my site, and what I search for when I'm researching for a post. Sometimes I will custom craft the URL for a post to try and get the most lift. As one example of having strong SEO, if you search for Jersey 2.0 filters, my post is the 4th result after a java.net article and two dzone articles. Against titans like that, I'll consider 4th place an achievement. (On an amusing note, my colleague Sanjay's post is 8th in the results. I'll be sure to tease him about this tomorrow, hehe)

setting goals

There are really two goals that I would advocate you take into consideration when writing a blog. I'm sure you'll have lots of goals, but there are two I think are particularly important.

  1. In the words of Interpol, pace is the trick. Set some modest, achievable goals for yourself, and don't try to go at your blog at some frenetic pace. You don't want to burn yourself out; you want to find that balance of productivity and desire that gives you a steady flow of work. For me, I set a goal of writing one post a month. Some months I don't write one, some I write two. By doing that though, I feel like I can achieve that goal and never end up dreading it. I don't feel like I'm setting an unreasonable goal, and I don't feel like I'm being lax on myself: it's enough to keep things moving.
  2. Once you get into a groove and get some solid material up, your blog can be a massively important extension of your resume. I've had multiple interviews since putting my URL in the header of my resume, and in several of them one or more technical interviewers told me "I took some time to look at your blog, and I really like the work you shared." It's a serious advantage to your cause, because you're demonstrating expertise in your field. I see 8+ page resumes all the time, and they're a nightmare to deal with. Often times they're crafted to get past filters, listing every technology and buzzword possible, but really they're just a massive obfuscation of what the candidate is good at. If you can stick with a blog and show what you're made of, that 1-2 page resume can focus on a smaller, stronger set of accomplishments, and your many useful, well written blog posts can do the rest of the talking. More than just a manifestation of skill, it demonstrates that you care about your craft, and are contributing something that can help others.

these ways lead to madness

There are ways to put yourself on the road to failure as well. Some of these are the counter case to my points above and may have already been inferred by you, but I think they're still worth discussing.

  • Don't overdo it. Like I said before, find a pace that works for you, but more importantly recognize what pace doesn't. For a while I tried to do two posts a month, and I started to feel burdened with it. Luckily I was able to realize this and have since backed down (as I said I shoot for one a month), but I think had I not realized this I may have put myself off.
  • Avoid overcomplicated material or examples. If you want to do something large, break it up into smaller manageable parts. I did this with my multipart guide on Maven archetypes, because writing all of that at once would have been repulsive. I broke up the subject into three logical portions that weren't so short that they added no value but also not so long that people gave up on them.
  • Don't skimp on research for your posts. If you're writing something and you think someone may have already solved it in a different way or you feel like you're missing something, dig deeper. I've had multiple experiences where I was pretty far into writing a post and felt something was off where that turned out to be true. Often times I spend 10-20 hours researching something before I write about it to try and understand as much as possible before I publish. Throwing some half-baked scribble up just to add a post could discredit you in the eyes of your audience.
  • Try not to ignore, disregard, or fight in comments. I'll concede that I'm guilty of this in one case: I replied but didn't follow through on uploading more of my code to help someone. You want people to contribute back to you; sometimes they may offer additional resources you didn't know about, other times they may be struggling with something you wrote and it could help you realize that you glossed over some important details. If people read your blog and just see a bunch of comments with no answer they could think that you don't care or have abandoned the blog. You could get the occasional troll as well. If you do, try to keep things civil as your blog is a reflection of you. People may argue or even be combative; try to do your best to remain objective. If there's no resolution to the argument, there's no shame in calling that out. Saying "I think we just have two different ways of approaching this" or "I understand your point, but I don't agree with it. I do appreciate you commenting though" is a perfectly professional thing to say and can wrap things up just fine.

next stop: 100k (hopefully)

I hope sharing these observations and opinions helps. I'm a big fan of knowledge sharing and seeing developers help and contribute to one another, and I think blogging is a fantastic way to accomplish that. I encourage anyone who takes their career as a developer seriously to give writing their own tech blog a shot; you may be surprised just how much you'll learn in the process.

2 comments:

  1. Nice post and you bring up some good points of motivation

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