Creating Your Professional Programmer Blog

June 2, 2011

Chapter 10 – Written Communication

Blogs are flexible enough to defy categorization. Most blogs function as single author, one-time edit, open ended public systems. Readers can’t edit a blog, but they can add content in the form of comments. Blogs are a good place to give the people outside of your team a view of what you are doing. Design documents, systems documentation, and other reference materials will get lost here because blogs are organized chronologically rather than by subject. Store reference documents on a system that gives you more control over the organizational structure, like a wiki.

A planet is a specialized type of blog that focuses on a specific project community and has a small group of editors. Planet blogs normally have a small group of editors. Mozilla uses planet blogs for many of their project communities.
These tips were strongly influenced by Chris Brogan

Blogs As Team Communication

The Mozilla Labs Ubiquity team relies heavily on blogs for team communication. Many new UI concepts and features start as blog posts. The team debates new features in the blog post’s comments. Each team member currently maintains their own blog. They are working on creating a planet blog for the entire Ubiquity team so there will be one place for all of the team discussions.

When a team member suggests a new feature it normally starts with a picture of the feature and a couple of paragraphs describing why it is important. These descriptions often focus on a general type of user interaction rather than a specific product feature. For example, a recent post showed a working example of a new style of popup menu with discussions of why it is more intuitive and easier to use.

Blogs help the team communicate about features, but they also help the team educate potential team members about user experience design. Teaching about the process of design is a major focus of the Ubiquity team.

Aza Raskin the head of user experience at Mozilla Labs communicates many of his design ideas by posting videos to his blog that show specific features or ideas. Aza’s videos are impressive software demonstrations. He frames the discussion, shows how the features works, and talks about why it is important. He typically does all of this in under five minutes.

So… should you start a blog? This is a tricky issue but in the end it comes down to one simple question: do you have something you want to say that you can’t say as well in any of the other formats, and do you want to say it publicly? A blog can be a good format for reporting your status. You can keep a running narrative of what you are working on and the problems you are solving. This is a good idea for keeping your team in the loop and a useful tool during performance reviews.

Micro-Blogs

Micro-blogs are a specialized type of blog which encourage very short updates (normally less than 140 characters). Twitter is the most well known micro-blog, but many programs support features like micro-blogging. Choosing to micro-blog is a question of preference. Many professionals keep short notes on the tasks they are performing throughout the day. These include simple announcements of technologies they are trying, problems they are solving, and places where they are getting stuck.

The key to using micro-blogs well is understanding what they are and what they aren’t. When one of your coworkers wants to find out what you did that day a micro-blog can be very helpful. Simple messages like finally fixed bug number 1138 or just started looking into a new unit testing solution do a good job of telling people what you are focused on. The good part about micro-blogs is that they are archived and non-disruptive. People can catch up at the end of the day without interrupting their work.

Micro-blogs are not a good place to share “must read” information. The short messages in micro-blogs can become overwhelming and people could easily miss something. If you post regulary then each message will probably be onto the next page in less than a day.

Making Your Blog Successful

A professional blog is a good way to let other people see what you are doing and what you are thinking, and showing people how you work is very important for remote engineers. A professional blog is also a lot of work. Should you start a professional blog? If you have the interest, the time, and enough to talk about, then it probably can’t hurt. If you do start blogging you should adhere to the following guidelines.

Keep it clear and concise. More content is not always better. Shorten your blog posts and remove any content that isn’t helping the post.

Lead with your main point. Every blog post should have a clear thesis in the first paragraph.

Stick with your areas of expertise. Don’t spend time ruminating on random topics. This is your professional blog; you should write about your profession. Stick to areas where you can show off your real expertise.

Focus on the facts. Your blog is not the place to mull over the big questions of the universe. These posts will rarely come out well. It is a lot easier to write well about specific facts.

Keep it professional. Your blog will live on the Internet forever. Other people will link to it and search engines will cache it. When you post something to your blog remember that a future employer might read it. All of the general guidelines for written communication apply.

Don’t reveal privileged information. This is important for every public system in this chapter, but it is especially easy to accidentally reveal information in your blog. When you write about what you are working on, you must be careful not to disclose information about upcoming products or internal policies that are not public knowledge.

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