Working in the Open When No One Is Looking
It's been more than a year since I started working in the open. Here's an update.
Is no one really looking?
What do I mean when I say "no one is looking"? Isn't working in the open the opposite of that, "everyone is looking"?
Well, the thing is that I have no tracking on the site. I have no idea if there is one person reading this post or a hundred. It feels like nobody is looking. But someone surely must. Right?
There are some metrics I can look at to see how popular my content is. I can look at the server load to have an idea if a lot of people is visiting my site. But I am using the smallest DigitalOcean droplet, and I use it to host multiple sites. I can also look at social media interactions, and I don't usually get any reactions to my publications.
So yeah, it really feels like nobody is looking.
But the truth is that I don't mind. I don't do tracking because it's against my values, but I could use a privacy-respecting analytics provider. I prefer not knowing because I can focus on what I care about the most. With analytics, the numbers game could become a distraction.
What is it for?
So then, what is it that I care about?
I care about writing eloquent code. I care about having clarity of thought in my blog posts. I care about designing elegant software. I care about making usable interfaces. I care about creating enjoyable experiences.
In short, I care about my craft.
When it comes to judging quality, there is always a tension between my opinion and that of others. Quality is subjective. In my craft, my opinion is paramount. Which is not to say that I don't care about external opinions, my palate is certainly influenced by others. But my opinion is the ultimate measure of satisfaction.
In the last couple of years, my side-projects have consisted of scratching my own itch. I used to strive in making products for others, and fail because only crickets showed up. I still strive to make products usable by an audience broader than myself, but it is no longer my definition of success.
This change in strategy started when I realized that being successful at making products for others takes a lot more than working on the product. I also started thinking about a different way to build applications, using an architecture I called Autonomous Data. Which created a lot of itches to scratch. Shortly afterward, I learned about the Solid protocol and decided to embrace it because it is strongly aligned with my vision. I believe this the best way to build applications, and I want to see more of them. So I embarked on a journey to rebuild my online experience with tools that work in accordance with my values.
Now, what I do is valuable in and of itself.
On building an audience
When I wrote the first post about working in the open I mentioned the importance of building an audience. I still think it's important, but given my recent experience and change of mindset it has become secondary.
Having an audience would give greater meaning and impact to my work. I also think feedback is very important and it helps me improve. However, building an audience doesn't come for free.
One of the significant aspects to build an audience is being constant. And I'm very irregular with the content I put out. The most regular outlet I have is my journal, and sometimes I don't update it for weeks. It's also very unstructured and I don't think anyone but the more hard-core followers would be interested. But that gives me the freedom to work at my own pace, unrushed and undirected. A luxury I don't have in other parts of my life.
Another important aspect is creating value. This is something I've been thinking about for a long time, and I still struggle to define it. I'd say the gist of it is that people are interested in what you do and it's useful to them. In my case, what I do is too niche and I switch topics frequently. Maybe at some point my apps will be good enough for people outside of the Solid community to use, but I don't think that'll happen anytime soon. And it's not like I am 100% focused in Solid either, I dabble in other things.
To build an audience it's also important to make your work visible. Right now, the only way to keep up with my work is to subscribe to one of two RSS feeds: my blog feed or my journal feed. I could create a newsletter or be more active in Social Media, but I'm not willing to dedicate the time to do it right. I'd much rather spend the time practicing my craft.
Is it possible to build an audience without any of this? Could these be a bunch of excuses to avoid realizing that my work sucks? Sure, it could be. Maybe you know someone who built an audience just by virtue of working in the open. But I don't think that is going to happen to me anytime soon. And that's ok.
It's worth mentioning that the work I'm talking about here is my personal projects. At the moment, I am working 4 days a week at Moodle and doing side-projects the rest of the time. My work at Moodle covers a lot of the advantages I mentioned about having an audience. It certainly has greater impact and meaning, and I interact with team mates and members of the community. That allows me to focus in my craft on the side.
The reason to work in the open
If you've read thus far, you may be wondering why do I even bother working in the open. I certainly could do everything I've mentioned in private. I do it for a couple of reasons.
First, openness is one of my core values. I wish there was more open-source software and more people working in the open. So I'm doing my part in making the world I'd like to live in. And that isn't limited to code, documenting the journey and sharing lessons learned is part of that. I want people to benefit from my experience as I have from others.
Documenting the journey forces me to take the time to reflect on what I do. And that is valuable by itself. It's easy to get lost in the trenches, and I still do it often. But it's important to look from above on a regular basis, and working in the open is nudges me into that direction. It also helps me see it from an external point of view.
Another reason is personal branding and building a body of work. I've had this website for 6 years, and I've been writing software for 9 years. However, I didn't have anything to show until I started working openly. For some people, programming is just a job, and that's ok. For me, it is a mix between job, hobby and vocation. I strongly believe in Small Tech and the Indie Web. Individuals should have a place of their own, instead of being just an account on Github, Twitter, or any Big Tech platform. Working in the open is making my corner of the Internet more interesting.
Open Productivity continued
On that note, I think there is something missing from my current set up. As I mentioned before, there isn't many people who react to my content when it's published. However, what I have seen is some people reacting to content I published months ago.
This made me realize there is a use-case I am neglecting: catering for people who don't follow my work but want to know more about it. Currently, the way I am communicating what I do is through updates in my journal, but that isn't useful unless someone is really interested and wants to dig deep. And the only content for first time visitors is the introduction in the home page.
For that reason, I added a new section at noeldemartin.com/projects. In this page, I'll keep a list of the projects I'm working on and their current status. I hope this will be useful to passersby who are visiting my site.
Another reason why I don't use analytics is because I figured a better way to learn about my audience would be to talk with people. But I never asked for feedback... until now!
If you've been following my work, I'd really like to hear about you. Maybe I already know you, or maybe I don't. Or maybe no one is really looking!