“You should write a blog, you know”
Darren Steele uttered those words to me whilst out on a Christmas party back in December 2010 and on 28th March 2011 the first post to Styling Android was published. On the eve of the fifth anniversary of that first post it seemed a good time to reflect on those five years and tell a little of the story behind Styling Android.
My initial reaction to Darren’s suggestion was “I wouldn’t know where to start writing a blog”, yet the seed was planted and slowly germinated over my Christmas break. I approached my manager, Martin Smith , who was not only extremely receptive and supportive of the idea but was kind enough to allow me to write those early blog posts on company time!
So I set about exploring the technical side of running a blog – I was no stranger to Linux sysadmin and was confident enough to install an Apache webserver running a WordPress instance backed by a MySql database on my home server. I wanted to self-host because I had tried third party mail hosting solutions and always had problems because I couldn’t configure things as I wanted so still run my own mail server. I therefore wanted full control of my WordPress instance and self-hosting seemed the best option. In those early days it was hosted on a Linux box in my home office and all of the traffic was coming through my home broadband connection.
My early posts were a little erratic in terms of regularity until I read a tip that one of the keys to building traffic to a blog was to post new content regularly. So I opted to aim to publish one post per week in order to achieve that, and soon settled upon Friday at 10am (UK time) to publish each week. The reasons for deciding upon that specific time have long since faded from my memory, but it has remained thus ever since.
Deciding upon a regular posting regime provided me with the structure I needed to actually motivate myself in to trying to look for subjects to write about and get the posts written. With the exception of an unexpected six week break (more on that later), I have not missed a weekly posting since then – even for public holidays and even when I’m away on my holidays or at conferences (although very occasionally I have moved the time or day slightly).
One of my great fears when I first started blogging was of running out of ideas to write about. While there have been occasions where I’ve come close to announcing “there won’t be a post this week” I’ve always managed to find something to write about – sometimes posts have been completed very close to publication time! At other times my creative cup runneth over and I have posts written and ready for publication many weeks in advance. In fact, I began writing this post in January 2016 but am finishing it less than 15 minutes before publication – which shows just how erratic things can be.
One of the early high points came in September 2011 when I published a post on ViewPager and got tweeted by the official @AndroidDev twitter account. Sadly my poor server couldn’t cope with the load and the MySql instance expired in the heat! While I got a huge spike in traffic the spike was less than it could have been so I decided that was the time to migrate to a dedicated server that wasn’t sat behind my home broadband. That was the first of a few server migrations which have occurred since. Over time the hardware / dedicated host machine has changed a few times, and I’m getting pretty adept at migrating things (hopefully the migrations are unnoticeable these days), and there are a few other changes as well such as the change from Apache web server to nginx (which also means HTTP2 support), all content served over https, etc. This all happens on top of the actual writing but such is the cost of self-hosting!
Another early high point happened slightly later in 2011 when I was approached by Lucio Maciel to speak at AndroidConf in Rio De Janeiro in November 2011. I actually received the email from Lucio when I was on a family outing with my father and two nieces (Jourdan and Brogan) at a UK theme park. It was a somewhat surreal moment to be queueing for a roller coaster and receive an email inviting me to speak at a conference in Brasil. But that proved to be the start of my conference speaking.
I am incredibly fortunate that I have been invited to speak at a number of developer conferences and attended dev events around the world since then. Sadly I’m only able to go to a relatively small number of those that I get invited to. However I have met a huge number of amazing and inspiring people (far too numerous to list them all). One person that I first met at Droidcon Spain in 2012 was Wiebe Elsinga . We have since become very good friends and it is one of the things that keeps me motivated to continue writing the blog that many friendships simply would not have happened without it.
It’s not all been highs, though. One of the low points was when I felt I had to suspend posting for six weeks. At the time I was working for a small, independent software company who were acquired by a large US multinational company (I won’t name them because there’s no need, but it’s a global brand, although not one that’s usually associated with Android). As part of the acquisition all of the employees were required to sign new contracts. The contract gave the new company the right to claim ownership of anything I produced irrespective of whether it was produced on company time or my own time. There followed a few weeks of negotiation where I attempted to get some exclusion built in to the contract which would protect my ownership of any and all Styling Android content produced whilst bound by that contract, and while those negotiations were ongoing I felt that I had no option but to suspend posting until something was resolved in order to remove any possible claims over the ownership of any content published during that time. I will stress that the company in question at no time claimed any such ownership of my content and most likely never would have – it was simply that the contract gave it the right to claim ownership. I felt uncomfortable with that and reluctantly made the decision to suspend my posting. The negotiations reached a point where it was obvious that there was no solution which satisfied both parties, and I had little option but to resign, move to a new job, and then I could resume posting.
At the same time as this Droidcon London was approaching and I was scheduled to speak. For exactly the same reasons (ownership of my presentation materials) this was thrown in to doubt by the ongoing contract negotiations. I was in regular contact with Shivam Gadhia (who was my liaison on the Droidcon London organising committee) and I know that my problems caused Shiv some problems of his own – it was touch and go whether I would actually be able to speak that year (Sorry Shiv!). As it turned out, I managed to send my resignation at 10pm on the deadline day – two hours later and I wouldn’t have been able to speak at Droidcon that year. Talk about cutting it fine!
I couldn’t possibly look back on the first five years of Styling Android without acknowledging the contribution of Sebastiano Poggi . Regular readers will know that over the years I have become extremely adept at including typos in my posts. When I’m organised enough to send posts over to Seb for proof-reading his keen eye and deep understanding of Android improve my posts enormously. When you read one of my posts which contain lots of errors and typos then it is probably a safe assumption that I did not send it to Seb for proof-reading before publication and I can only apologise that I wasn’t better organised. Seb, I’m incredibly grateful for all of your help & support – thanks dude!
To finish I shall offer an apology to anyone (who has read this far) expecting the usual technical post although I hope that this has provided an interesting distraction nonetheless. I won’t write another one like this for at least 60 months, I promise!
Here’s to the next five years.
© 2016,Mark Allison. All rights reserved.