Nicholas D. Haynes

18 September 2016

In the last few years, I've heard from a bunch of different people that starting to blog can be a good idea. In that same period of time, I've come up with a lot of reasons for not blogging. I mean, I'm not famous; why would anyone care what I have to say? Does the internet really need another corner with practically no traffic? It seems vain to assume that what I have to say is more interesting than any of the other countless number of blogs out there.

But after a few years of grad school and about 6 months working in industry, I'm starting to change my mind. Sure, there's plenty of useless crap out in the blogosphere. But on the flip side, Google constantly returns concise blog posts in under-read corners of the internet that help me solve some obscure technical problem I've been struggling with. In the mean time, I think that I've solved one or two of those technical problems that someone else might one day also struggle with. So consider this blog a contribution to the internet's take-a-penny-leave-a-penny jar.

Let's be honest, though, I'm not only writing this blog out of the goodness of my heart. The process of casual-yet-informational writing has a ton of benefits for the writer. Even if the stuff you write about is so obscure that you never get a single reader, I think that you should still be blogging about your passions. Here's why.

Teaching is the best way of learning.

In a lot of cases, if you can explain a moderately complex topic in a sub-thousand word blog post, you really understand it. This isn't to say that every idea under the sun can (or should) be distilled down to a few punchy paragraphs – that's definitely not the case, and there is absolutely a need for textbooks and long form journalism – but delivering digestible writing on a complex or technical topic often is more about what you don't include than what you include.

That's because the hard part of teaching isn't knowing the material you're presenting, it's knowing enough about the material you aren't presenting, and why you're not presenting it. The process of filling in the "known unknowns" often uncovers a ton of "unknown unknowns" that, by definition, you didn't know were there. So just by the process of preparing to communicate a topic to a general audience, you've broadened your knowledge.

Writing for other people is really important.

When I graduated from college with a philosophy major, I was a pretty good (and fast) writer. But then grad school happened. I wrote and published a couple academic papers in grad school, but I definitely don't spend nearly as much time writing these days as I did back then. The result is that writing is a lot slower and a lot more painful for me these days, whether it's an abstract for a conference presentation or just an email to a friend.

Writing is a skill, and like any skill, it gets rusty when you don't use it. I've been able to skate by as a slow writer for the last couple years because I have so few hard restrictions on my time as a grad student. This won't be the case forever, though, and keeping my writing chops in good shape will make my transition out of grad school quite a bit easier.

It's too easy to give up on side projects.

My typically side project workflow looks something like this:

  1. I come up with a project idea and get really excited about it
  2. I quickly hack together a prototype
  3. The prototype has bugs, grr. Ok, start working through those. I'm still enjoying the project, but a little less so now.
  4. Life happens. Have to shelve the project for a few weeks.
  5. ??????
  6. Come back a little later, prospect of fixing bugs and writing documentation doesn't seem very appealing because -
  7. Look! Shiny new project!

Part of the plan for this blog is to commit to writing a post about every side project I take on. This will be the (somewhat artificial) pressure I put on myself to get my projects into the minimally-good-enough shape that I'm comfortable with them being public.

Personal brand is not irrelevant.

I'm not writing a blog to get famous, but hey, exposure is a nice side effect if it happens. At a minimum, it's nice to have a place to refer people when they ask about projects you've worked on. In the job search process, being able to demonstrate that you can code and communicate effectively can be a big bonus for a lot of hiring managers. Plus, if this blog generates some interest or feedback on something I'm working on, well shucks, that would be fantastic.

So, bottom line: if you're not blogging, you should be. The internet is a big place, but even the possibility that a stranger will read your stuff is enough of a motivation to have a really positive impact on your work.