We talk with the author of Technical Blogging about why and how technical people shpould blog.
I’ve been blogging since before we knew what to call it. I found early on that the act of putting down brief thoughts about the technical news of the day—or week—gave me the discipline to keep on top of developments and to constantly be digging below the surface of what I was reading. Although it looked like publishing, it worked like research.
In recent years, though, my habit of blogging has been more honored in the breach than in the observance. I was microblogging and publishing my observations in so many forms that I had lost connection with why I blogged to begin with. Still, I knew how useful maintaining a blog has always been to me, and I wanted to get back to regular blogging. So when I heard that blogging guru Antonio Cangiano was writing a book on technical blogging, I knew I wanted to read it.
As it turned out, I got a chance to read it many times, when I became the editor of Technical Blogging.
All of which is by way of warning you that I am not an unbiased observer of this book. And also by way of introducing Antonio Cangiano, Software Developer and Technical Evangelist at IBM for the Toronto Software Lab, author, and all-around nice guy. –Mike
ms: Hi Antonio. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me about technical blogging.
ac: My pleasure, Mike.
ms: Let’s start with the title. Why Technical Blogging? How is that different from just blogging?
ac: It’s true that much of what a blogger does is the same regardless of the subject matter they write about. But there are some special considerations to take into account when the blog is run by a professional for the purpose of sharing his or her knowledge and skills with a technical audience. That blogger’s experience will be different from the experience of a person who runs a personal blog about their cute pet with the purpose of sharing pet photos with their friends and family.
I called this book “Technical Blogging” and not just “Blogging” for two reasons.
First, because it addresses the challenges and needs of a blogger trying to write for a technical audience. How do you embed code and mathematical formulas? What kind of headlines work online in the technical world? How do you promote your content within a stereotypically anti-marketing crowd? How do you leverage your blog to advance your career, business, or open source projects?
Second, the title signals that my intended readers are programmers, startup founders, and other technically-minded people who don’t need a “for dummies” introduction to blogging. I don’t skip any steps in my roadmap to successful blogging, but I don’t assume that the reader is computer illiterate either.
ms: Can you give us a specific example of that?
ac: Sure. A generic book about blogging might spend a chapter teaching you what a domain name is and why you need one. What I do is to focus on the thought process involved with finding and obtaining a great domain name, its impact on SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and branding, when to use a subdomain if you’re blogging to promote a product or startup, and so on.
Most of my examples are also drawn from the programming world, because I wanted technical readers to feel at home and to be better able to apply the advice to their own blog.
Blogging is blogging, but what I tried to create was a laser-focused, to-the-point handbook crafted specifically for techies. You can use it to make your pet famous on the web, but that’s just a side effect. (Laughs.)
ms: PragPub readers are clearly part of your target audience. But could you expand a little on why software developers need to blog? What will it do for them?
ac: Blogging can act as a conversation starter or a megaphone. This makes blogging a powerful tool for individual developers who are interested in connecting with the larger development community, as well as an excellent (and ethical) tool for self-promotion. Blogging can turn careers—and even lives—around. I can attest to the effects it’s had on my own life. I got my job at IBM thanks to blogging, and I earn a few thousand dollars extra each month thanks to my blogs. Blogging has allowed me to build—and then leverage—my online influence to launch projects like AnyNewBooks.com, which now has tens of thousands of users.
But it’s not just about money. If you do it right, technical blogging lets you tap into a large audience of like-minded professionals, and once you have that kind of audience, there are very few limits to what you can do with it.
ms: For example?
ac: As a developer you can advance your career by establishing yourself in the collective mind as an expert on the subject you’re blogging about. I constantly receive job offers from great companies who discovered me online thanks to my programming blog. If you’re consulting, it’s a prime tool to find new clients and command higher rates. If you write books about programming, you can promote them through your blog. If you run a startup, blogging can help you market your product and succeed in popularizing it.
But aside from all these potentially money-making benefits, there are also many overlooked nonmonetary benefits, like making friends, networking with the top guns in your field, improving your communication skills (which in turn also make you a better programmer), and enjoying the act of teaching others.
ms: I know I’ve always found blogging to be a great opportunity to learn.
ac: It is. As you share your technical knowledge with others, you quickly discover the shortcomings of your own understanding of a given subject and you’re forced to research certain topics more, which in turn leads to a greater sense of clarity and understanding of that subject. You also learn from your commenters and other bloggers that you interact with, especially since some will correct you and others will contribute additional information on top of what you said. I recently wrote a blog post that goes a bit more in depth on such benefits.
ms: The rise of social media and microblogging tools has led some people to proclaim that blogging is dead. Clearly you don’t agree.
ac: Absolutely not. Every month millions of new blogs are created. Blogging has simply become a more mature medium over the past few years. These days it’s easier to try your hand at blogging, and it is more widely adopted. Blogging may grab fewer headlines than it used to, but that’s just because it no longer has that novelty factor. It’s become a well-established medium unto itself. It’s still arguably the best option for publishing long-form content on the internet and reaching a wide audience.
ms: But aren’t there alternative ways to reach people these days that compete with blogging? Microblogging is, if nothing else, a hot buzzword. And I’ve heard people say, if you want to know about my work, it’s all there on Github.
ac: Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of microblogging certainly have their place. However social media platforms are generally complementary to blogging, and not a replacement for it. Can you really write a tutorial on your favorite technology at the rate of only 140 characters at a time? I’d rather publish well thought out content on a blog, and then use Twitter, Facebook, and others to promote my articles and let my followers and online network of contacts know about it.
I think Github is fantastic, but it would be naive to think that it’s all you need to promote your work effectively. Developers tend to be allergic to marketing, so the idea of letting code speak for itself is very appealing. In the real world, though, promotion is an important part of being a successful, well-known developer.
The ideal scenario is to have great Github code out there, and use your blog to point more people toward your Github profile, to let them notice your work. That way, Github complements blogging, but, again, does not replace it. Of course I’m not talking about people who host their blogs on Github.
ms: Although you don’t deal exclusively with WordPress in the book, it does have a strong WordPress focus. Why is that?
ac: WordPress has established itself as a mainstream standard when it comes to blogging. It’s not the only solution available by any means, but it allows you to quickly set up a customized blog that looks and feels like it’s your own. There are a lot of plugins that let WordPress do all sorts of things you may want or need to accomplish, and likewise there are countless WordPress themes (free and otherwise) to choose from.
It’s not perfect. You can object to WordPress’s PHP underbelly, for one thing. But if you are serious about blogging and don’t want to spend all your time writing custom code for your blog engine, using a widely adopted solution has its advantages.
The ecosystem around WordPress is also huge, so it’s quite easy to find designers who are familiar with it. And there are hosting companies that specialize in hosting WordPress for you. As a developer, you may not need this option, but it’s definitely nice to have the choice.
In the book I do provide guidance for users of other systems, such as Blogger, and I mention more esoteric choices like Jekyll and Octopress throughout the book as well. However, knowing that I’d be directing a large audience step-by-step, I opted to go deep with what is, without a doubt, the default (and perhaps best) choice for most technical bloggers.
ms: Let’s get to some examples. Can we talk about a few technical blogs that you think really do it right? I happen to like your own programming blog, Zen and the Art of Programming, but besides that?
ms: Sounds like a good variety of types of blogs. So, taking them in the order you named them, what do you like about Ilya’s blog?
ac: Ilya’s blog is the perfect example of what an individual developer’s blog can be. Ilya doesn’t publish for the sake of publishing, and doesn’t indulge in gossip. Each article on his blog is a more or less in-depth tour of some cool new technology. By reading his blog his visitors can always learn about something new and interesting, and above all how to apply these new concepts to their own projects.
In exchange for his effort, Ilya managed to significantly raise his profile within the development community. It’s not a stretch to imagine that his startup acquisition by Google was at the least facilitated by his popular blog appearing on their radar.
ms: I don’t think you mentioned that as one of the reasons to blog: to be acquired by Google. OK, next? Peter Cooper’s RubyInside?
ac: RubyInside is a news site about a specific niche. Peter Cooper managed to create a must-read resource for anyone who’s interested in Ruby or Rails programming.
ms: A blog as the go-to news site for some niche is a big challenge, though.
ac: Absolutely. This type of blog is demanding and requires a constant stream of new content, but news site blogs can be extremely useful to readers, and as a result can bring a great deal of influence to their authors within the niche they’re covering.
ms: And has for Peter, I’m sure. How about KISSMetrics?
ac: KISSMetrics’s blog is a startup blog. I like what they are doing because they don’t limit the blog to the promotion of their own products. Few people would be interested if they went that route. Instead, they aim to attract the right audience with a blog that’s ridiculously useful to anyone who’s interested in online marketing and web analytics.
Yes, you’ll find the occasional reference to their products, but above all, they too have created a must-read resource. Only this one is not aimed at developers interested in improving their craft and knowledge of a specific technology, but rather at businesses and startup founders interested in marketing their products online. And it does a great job of serving the interests of that audience.
ms: Your fourth example is familiar, I’m sure, to many of our readers.
ac: 37signals created an empire in no small part thanks to their blogging efforts. They are an extreme example of what a startup can accomplish by blogging. The team at 37signals uses their blog to talk about design, usability, business and other topics that are of interest to developers and other startups. Most of their posts are interesting and thought-provoking.
ms: They are that.
ac: Unlike the other blogs I’ve mentioned, they spice things up by not shying away from controversial and confrontational approaches.
ms: OK, you’ve described four very different technical blogs, all successful. So what’s the common thread? You like all these blogs, and you’re not alone. Is there one thing that makes them all so good?
ac: There is a common pattern. All four of these blogs clearly know who their audience is and consistently provide that audience with the type of content they crave. They tend to focus on a given subject or area, and cover it really well with fresh content. Then they reap the benefits of their efforts.
ms: Indeed. You know, in part what you are talking about is producing great and focused content. But you’re also talking about knowing your audience. And that brings up the subject of marketing. We have to talk about marketing. I understand the visceral negative reaction that word can evoke, especially among technical people. But it’s something that every professional needs to understand, right?
ac: Right. Most people have a natural aversion towards marketing. We immediately associate it with obtrusive advertisement or annoying phone calls from someone trying to separate us from our hard-earned money. But the truth is that marketing is much more than that and can be performed in a non-obnoxious manner. Marketing is a service to the producer/provider and to the consumer.
Marketing can be defined as a process that facilitates the discovery of a given product that satisfies a particular need—taking “product” in the most general sense. It’s not just advertising. It begins with the name you choose to give your product and continues on up all the way to the type of customer care you offer your users.
And developers need to do marketing. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to make an open source project succeed, or a startup, or simply to see yourself succeed. You need marketing skills. You may have written some really interesting software, but nobody will learn about it unless you actively market it in some capacity.
ms: Or even if people are hearing about your software, you may not be reaching the people who most need it.
ac: Right. Marketing isn’t about broadcasting your message to the world. It’s about getting your message to those who want or need it. And blogging enables you to engage in non-obnoxious, informative, and useful marketing. You are not phoning anyone, and you are not displaying advertisements to those who don’t wish to see them. Instead, you are creating and sharing ideas, knowledge, and content that others may find and consider useful. And in the process, you get to expose your project or profile to the audience you worked hard to attract.
ms: Well, there’s a lot more that we could talk about, but I think I’m just going to thank you now and recommend that people take a look at your excellent book.
ac: Thanks, Mike!