This Week in Rails: the Backstory
I recently started a newsletter called This week in Rails (you may have heard about it) – a weekly digest of notable commits, issues, pull-requests and other interesting things happening around the Rails ecosystem. I’d like to share my motivations behind the newsletter and some of the things I’ve learned along the way.
My biggest goal of the newsletter is to share knowledge. Since I joined the Rails committer team last year, I had the opportunity to follow the development of Rails very closely. This helped me to gain a much better understanding of the tools I use at work and greatly enhanced my productivity. It also forced me to read a lot of code written by other people, which is a great way to learn and improve my craft as a programmer.
Despite the tremendous benefits, following a project as large as Rails could be quite overwhelming. On average, I receive about 40 email notifications from GitHub every day, most of them from new comments on issues and pull-requests. At times, it could also be quite difficult to understand the background of a commit or pull-request just by reading the code.
In my newsletter I attempt to unlock these learning opportunities for more people by filtering out most of the noise and presenting the tidbits in an easy-to-digest format. I also try to provide a little bit of background to help my readers understand the context of the code.
Highlighting & Encouraging Contributions
If you aren’t paying close attention, you often only hear about the shiniest new features on every major/minor release of Rails. However, open-source work is all about the non-shiny, seemingly unimportant changes. Every week there are countless individual contributors pouring hours upon hours of their personal time to quietly improve rails – one bug report, one bug fix, one documentation change, one small feature at a time. The stability you enjoy on Rails today is a battle fought and won by literally thousands of nameless heroes.
By highlighting these smaller patches in my newsletter, my goal is to demystify the process of contributing to Rails and hopefully encourage more contributions (to Rails and other open-source projects) over time.
I am also a big believer of eating your own dogfood. At Brewhouse, we are working on an in-house product called Goodbits (you can read more about it here). The Rails newsletter gave me the perfect opportunity to use the product the same way our customers would. This is a great way to learn about the need of our customers needs and experience the quirks in the product first-hand.
This effort has already paid off a few times by now. As an example, one of the early issues of my newsletter tipped off the wrong wires inside Gmail’s spam filter and never made it to my subscribers’ inbox. After a lot of trial-and-error, we determined that it was because I hotlinked my custom logo image from a public Dropbox folder. Following our findings, we implemented a more robust image hosting solution before we officially rolled out the custom logo feature for our customers.
The newsletter has been very well-received. In the span of a few weeks, over 450 readers subscribed to my newsletter. Except for the one issue that went into the spam folder, the newsletter had consistently logged an open rate of over 80% and over 40% click rate. (This is well above typical “marketing” emails.)
To be honest, this completely exceeded any expectations I had when I started this as a Friday afternoon project. While not very “sexy”, it turns out that email newsletters could be a very powerful medium to engage with your readers.
If you haven’t already, you should check out my newsletter and consider subscribing! Got some interesting niche content to share with your customers, coworkers or your community? Give Goodbits a spin and let us know what you think!