Words and writing
I used to write often. I previously wrote free software reviews, and I'd sometimes even post a few reviews each week.
I earned a modest amount of money, but this was back when I was still in secondary school (early high school for you US folk), and it was longer ago than I'd maybe care to determine a specific number of years. Google ads weren't the only source, and I switched to other linking advert services and even did some sponsored work. It was good. I learnt a lot, and I had a lot of practice at evaluating software and communicating my observations.
The old blog is now offline, and the domain expired, but the experience I gained from running it sticks with me. I reached several thousand RSS subscribers via Feedburner (If you don't know what either of those are, look them up). But I didn't write for the money or the fame. I did it because people asked what I was using at school all the time, and I had to repeat myself, but also, just because it was fun.
Writing isn't just good, but it can be fun, and most certainly it's a form of art. Sure, it's less visual, and can be less immediately stunning as a painting or a sculpture, however, while visual art forms often communicate a concept or a feeling, words can communicate specifics, and I'm personally not invested or any good at visual art... so words it is! There is of course video, but let's not delve into classification and ontology building today.
How did we get here?
Blogging saw huge growth in the 90s, and you could argue "micro-blogging" has taken over today. Twitter has enabled plenty, both good and bad, but there's still space for longer content. Medium looked to fill that gap, or at least rejuvenate it, and longer-form content in the form of tutorials is increasingly popular today.
This year (2021), I changed jobs, which is a big thing for me. I've spent most of my career writing code, and it's not uncommon for such people to jump around often. It's even sometimes expected, and if you've stayed longer than a few years at one place, people ask questions. I was at my last employer just a month shy of 7 years. It was a continual privilege to work with such a highly professional, small, and close team while working on a literally life-changing project and platform. As part of that work, I tried to play to my strengths, one of which I consider to be APIs.
Volunteering for API related work ended me up on a path to collaborate on building a further life-changing initiative: The Matchmaker Exchange API. Databases of rare and undiagnosed genetic conditions are often siloed in country-specific systems, meaning clinicians looking for evidence or even any sort of lead for super rare conditions have to know about and call other specific projects. This is something they would do as part of their duty of care to the patient to look for answers.
What we built was a federated discovery network across 7 databases. It had a real impact! (Justin's Odssey). I still find watching it pretty emotional. You'll see one of the people I got to collaborate with in the video too. (If you're interested to know more, check out this recording of a GA4GH plenary session talk).
While it was great to work on a platform that was part of the Matchmaker Exchange, we didn't get to hear about the impact of our work. We knew it had an impact, and we even ran workshops on how to use our system as part of the masters in genetics course at Cambridge University. It was clear the work was important. And the work was stretching, enabling me to learn. But I still felt untapped, unsatisfied. My interactions with the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health (GA4GH, a genomics and health standards organisation), was curbed and limited. I wasn't having the impact I wished I could have on a larger scale. The impact I felt I could deliver.
Collaborating on the Matchmaker Exchange API led me to find JSON Schema. I wanted something to define the single JSON structure we would use across the API. Sadly JSON Schema wasn't quite good enough at the time, and we ended up using written English and examples. It worked, but it made the road pretty bumpy. It's also hard to get people excited about changes to something they consider working, even if it could potentially improve things moving forward. People moved on, academic funding priorities changed, scientific papers were written.
Sure the system worked, but what if we had been faster? What if it was easier and less error-prone to add new nodes to the federated network? Further, what about other projects facing the same problem, who also needed something like JSON Schema, but better?
I felt that I could have some marginal impact on JSON Schema by updating the website a little, and here I am today leading the organisation's work and driving the direction.
Where am I now?
When three people individually reach out to you about a possible job without collusion, some would say the universe is trying to tell you something. I hadn't imagined that working on JSON Schema full time would be possible, let alone a company would be willing to pay me good money to do so. Postman is that company.
I should have given the project more credit, but my aversion to change and working for a charity on a project for good prevented me from seeing the opportunity for growth and impact.
I was moonlighting on JSON Schema, evenings and weekends, on the bus to and from work, trying to be as efficient with my limited time as possible. I started an Open Collective, a Slack server, took over the @jsonschema Twitter account... I slowly did more organising, reviewing work, presenting opinions and possible directions.
It's not uncommon that you see startup founders talk about marketing as being more important than you anticipate, and they aren't wrong. Storytelling is a form of marketing, and communicating well is important if you're going to tell a good story. While JSON Schema is ubiquitous in many ways, it also goes unseen, used unknowingly, such as for config auto-completion in VSCode. Utilised by masses, yet housing untapped potential.
JSON Schema needs marketing to have more impact. Storytelling is an important part of that work.
Since joining Postman 9 months ago (wow, really?), I've mostly worked on establishing organisational foundations, but I've also laid a lot of groundwork for storytelling and communications.
Use it or lose it
Like when working with your body, skills you don't use become less effective or require more effort. However, exercising those skills allows you to become better, and keep those skills in "good shape". The team or "squad" I'm part of at Postman is all about public-facing work, part of which is writing.
So, here's a tentative pledge, or a personal challenge I'm giving myself.
Write and publish at least one thing a week.
I say "thing" deliberately. It doesn't have to be long. It doesn't have to be refined. It doesn't have to be the best article I've written every time (that would be exhausting and likely impossible). But, it does have to be written and published.
For how long? Who knows. I've had a small handful of people compliment me on my communication style in the last few weeks, so I've been convinced I have something worth keeping in shape.
I'll likely mostly write about technology, focusing on APIs and JSON Schema, but it could be anything. Whatever sparks the fingers to dance over the keyboard, because this right here is about practice, sharing, communicating, and storytelling.
Did you find this article valuable?
Support Ben Hutton by becoming a sponsor. Any amount is appreciated!