Running DSTIL’s Blog
First of all, thanks for reading! We put a lot of work into the DSTIL blog, producing more than 41 posts over the past 80 or so weeks. That’s more than one post per fortnight, with topics ranging from smart home technologies, to configuring cloud systems, to the virtues of functional programming. This effort was achieved by contributions from 18 different DSTIL staff members, and many more in the review process. We think that the posts are consistently high quality and we have only improved since we began. But despite the apparent success of the blog, there have been some struggles along the way, in the form of chasing deadlines, communicating expectations, and calibrating reviews. Starting and maintaining the blog for an organisation is no small feat. For the benefit of individuals intending to start a blog within their own organisation, or for anyone who wants a behind-the-scenes look at how posts are produced for this one, we’re taking this opportunity to describe what worked, and what didn’t, in the DSTIL blog.
Getting the Process Down
Writing post content is only a small part of actually running a blog. There’s also content review, to catch textual and factual errors, and editorial review, to refine style and tone and verify the suitability of the material for publication. Then there’s the blog post documents themselves, which need to be tracked from ideation to publication. We tackled this with a mix of processes and tooling. On the process side, we decided that each completed draft should be reviewed by two DSTIL staff – ideally, one novice and one expert in the topic of the post to increase the chance that the post appropriately serves both audiences – and established an editorial team to perform final review and select the authors of future posts. On the tooling side, we selected Trello, Google Docs and GitHub for post tracking, collaborative review and post management, respectively. In Trello, each blog post is captured using a card that contains the key details of the post. This card moves from list to list as the post progresses to publication. On Google Docs, the post’s author and reviewers work together to improve the post and cover any gaps. When the draft is complete it is included in a PR to the blog repository. When the PR is merged, the task of formatting the post for publication begins. We thought we’d covered all the gaps and committed to a one-post-per-week schedule, selecting Wednesday, 12pm (AEST) for the publication time.
Chasing the Schedule
There was one gap, though: we had no process for scheduling the work that goes into writing and reviewing posts. When we started, ad hoc scheduling where we tapped people on the shoulder and asked them to fit writing or reviewing amongst their other tasks worked. But ad hoc processes rarely work for long, and soon we were chasing the schedule every week, rushing to get the next blog post ready for publication. Scheduling became difficult due to lack of insight into the contributors’ project tasks and what priority those tasks had compared to post writing and review. This prevented contributors from making consistent progress, which also introduced administrative delays in following up writing and reviewing tasks. But worst of all, the sense that contributors’ efforts on the blog were valued was at risk. Rushing writers introduced anxiety to the process (or more anxiety for those that didn’t enjoy writing) and necessitated more compromises. The perception that we were working for the sake of the publication schedule began to take hold as we requested writing and reviewing at increasingly short notice. Despite all this we managed to maintain the quality of our posts, but our process wasn’t supportive of the posts’ contributors.
Sharing Blog Ownership
We could have partially addressed this problem by simply being more principled in our scheduling, but that by itself didn’t add much value to the process. So we’ve instead chosen to have a repeating cycle of weekly meetings we’re calling blog writing meetups. We select a group of five staff whose collective task is to produce the blog’s next five posts. The purpose of the meetups is to shape the content of each post over five weeks as follows:
- In the first meeting, the group brainstorms ideas for blog posts and discusses potential topics. Each group member takes ownership of a post and writes up details such as its overall message, key points, and intended audience.
- In the second meeting, each member of the group brings in broad notes about the structure of the post. The notes should identify any unknowns about the post and its content that must be closed before the next meetup. The group collectively discusses the notes and provide suggestions to the respective authors.
- In the third meeting, each member of the group brings detailed notes that provide a strong indication of the structure, tone and length of the blog post. Again, the group collectively discusses the notes and suggestions are made.
- In the fourth meeting, each member of the group brings a completed draft of their post. The drafts are skimmed over by the group and the overall quality of the posts is discussed. Then two members of the group are selected to review each post.
- In the fifth and final meeting, the group reconvenes to discuss the review process and any issues that remain open after review. At this stage the posts should be close to ready for publication, and the group can congratulate each other and reflect on the process.
And that’s it! The regular meetings, intended to run once per week, provide scheduling consistency and everyone is aware of when their posts need to be ready by. The variability of post writing is also partially mitigated by decomposing the task into iterative steps. Running meetups, rather than individual meetings, is also very useful: no reviewer comes to their assigned post cold, lots of different perspectives can help shape the post, and the staff involved gain a shared sense of ownership over the blog – at least until the meetup cycle completes and the next group starts.
Running an organisational blog is just as much about the process as it is the writing. Make sure you have the mechanical details of the process – document tracking and management – down. But more importantly, make sure you have the organisational processes down so that your staff have some sense of ownership over the blogging process and feel that their contributions to the blog are valued. Empower your talented staff to capture and share their knowledge!
Header image courtesy of Štefan Štefančík.