How I Blog – Updated 2018

Over 8 years ago (wow that feels like a long time writing that) I was fairly new to blogging and wrote a post about “How I Blog”.  A coworker recently asked me about how I blogged so I quickly read through the old article and realized that much of the technology that I leverage has changed, but the process is fairly similar.  In light of that I’m writing an updated blog post to reflect the current technology and other changes since 8 years ago.

 

Tools

  • Open Live Writer – Windows Live Writer is no longer supported so I’ve switched over to the open source version which was released a few years ago.  Not everything is 100% the same but the UI and general authoring experience has remained.  I typically draft up posts in Open Live Writer, push the draft to WordPress, and then finalize on WordPress due to minor issues with formatting code and such.
  • Twitter – Live Writer had a nice plug-in called Twitter Notify that allowed you to link your Twitter account to Live Writer.  These days I have WordPress automatically tweet out new blog posts.  I use this (and RSS feed) as my primary method to notify others when I have new content posted.
  • OneDrive – OneDrive allows you to sync content across multiple computers and offers a couple GBs of free storage (specific number has gone up and down over the years).  I pay for an Office 365 Home subscription which includes 1TB of OneDrive storage so I shouldn’t run out of space anytime soon.  I really can’t say enough about how much time OneDrive saves me when it comes to blogging.  I use this to sync screenshots, Open Live Writer files (drafts and posts), and code snippets between my multiple devices.  As an added bonus I also get all these files backed up into the glorious “interwebs cloud” should I ever have an issue with my personal backups.
  • Paint.Net – Paint.Net is a free tool that gives you basic PhotoShop-like image editing.  I use this for cropping screenshots, pixelating images with sensitive information, and many other minor tasks.  I find the software very easy to use and it’s hard to beat free.  Please support the tool providers with a donation if you end up using and liking it.

Hosting/Online Services

  • WordPress – Originally I hosted with GeeksWithBlogs.net but after issues with the RSS feed I looked at a number of options including Orchard and WordPress.  Eventually I landed on hosted WordPress (self-hosting had its own issues).  You can read more about the transition process on this My Blog Has Moved post.  Overall I am much happier paying a small fee for WordPress to host my content, integrate my custom domain, and offer a number of native integrations.
  • WordPress Statistics – What good is blogging if you can’t track statistics like number of visitors or which of your posts are the most popular?  The “Personal” WordPress plan includes the pertinent statistics that I’m interested in and plenty of charts or filters to find the data.
  • RSS Feed – WordPress has native functionality to publish an RSS feed of posts.  This has removed the need to use FeedBurner or other 3rd party tools.  RSS feeds may not hold the same weight that they did years ago but personally that is how I consume a number of blogs and other services.  I welcome any input on alternatives for notifying “subscribers” that a new post is available or similar functionality.
  • GoDaddy – Since the beginning of my blog I have registered my briantjackett.com domain with GoDaddy.  There are numerous other options out there but I see no need to switch as things “just work.”

Tips for Starting Out

So, if you’ve read this far and you yourself don’t have a blog but are interested in starting one here are a few tips.

  • Know your content – What is it that you want to blog about?  Will your blog contains posts about cool robotics work that you are doing, video game reviews, or perhaps your super cute cat Mr. Mittens?  Decide on an area or related group of topics and focus on those.
  • Know your audience – Relating to the above, who are you writing your content for?  Are you writing posts for personal reference in the future (this is part of why I write), for internal company coworkers, or for the community at large.  This will shape what, how, and why you write.
  • Set goals – Define some goals for yourself about how often you plan to publish content, how many visitors/subscribers you are aiming for, or some other means of measuring how you are doing with your blogging.  As stated in my previous post I’ve set some blogging goals for myself and have done fairly well sticking to them. This not only helps motivate you to keep writing but also offers some level of consistency for your audience.  Nothing is worse than starting out great publishing 10 posts in one month and then going silent for a year, don’t be that person.
  • Write when it’s right – You like that play on words?  I bet you chuckled for brief second before shaking your head.  I have never been great at writing, literature, and all those book type things.  For me it’s very rare that I can sit down and just let my thoughts flow onto paper (or monitor/screen as it were.)  When I do get those moments of clarity I shut out distractions, turn on some music, and capitalize on the moment.  Don’t force your writing, but when a good idea comes to mind start to write it out or at least jot it down for future use.
  • Read other blogs – Seems obvious, but really go out there and start reading some blogs that interest you.  Perhaps they are written by coworkers, people you’ve met at user groups, or some super awesome person in your field of work that everyone talks about.  This can help you find your footing for style, content, and many other things.
  • Get feedback – This one is huge.  Find some trusted friends, coworkers, or even your family to read over your posts and give you feedback on what they like/dislike about your posts.  Just like giving a presentation to a practice audience, having others review and comment on your writing can be very helpful to making you a stronger writer.
  • Conclusion

    So there you have it, my current blogging tools, a little about my process, and some tips for starting out.  If you’d like to share anything about your own blogging experience or have some feedback of your own feel free to comment below.  Thanks to everyone who has been reading my blog over the past 8+ years now and giving me encouragement to keep writing.  I find it very fulfilling and hopefully you do as well.

     

    -Frog Out

How I Do A Personal Monthly Retrospective

In this post I’ll walk through the process that I’m currently using (going on 5 months in a row now) to do a personal retrospective.  Each month this shouldn’t take more than 10-20 minutes but the benefits have been tangible for me thus far.  I’ll describe the process next but provide some  additional context in the conclusion.

Guidelines

A few guidelines first.

  • Consistent day – Pick a set day of each month to do your retrospective (ex. 1st day of the month, 1st Saturday, 3rd Wed, whatever works best.)  For me the last Friday of the month is my day.
  • Remind yourself – Schedule a reminder, a recurring meeting invite, or some other way to track the day for your retrospective.  I use a recurring meeting scheduled in my work calendar.
  • Timing – Spend no more than 20 minutes on the retrospective.  This keeps things succinct and easy to  complete each month.

Monthly Retrospective Process

  1. What to record
    • What is going well?
    • What are blockers / is not going well?
    • What would you like to accomplish going forward? (To-Do)
    • Why are you here? (see section below, we’ll come back to this)
  2. Write simple phrases or sentences for anything relating to personal life, work, career, family, etc.  Nothing is off limits.

 

At the next month use the following process to review the previous month and then write for the new month.

  • Review last month’s “To-Dos” and mark if completed
  • If an item is in “what are blockers / not going well” for 2 months in a row but no improvement or action taken then make a To-Do for it
  • If an item is in “To-Do” for 2 months in a row but not worked on then drop it off as it is not a high enough priority for you
  • Review last month “what is / is not going well” and see if anything points to future goals or direction (Why are you here)

 

Why are you here?

The “Why are you here?” question takes a little bit of a different approach.  The goal here is to find long term direction in your life.  This could take many forms including “what motivates you the most?”, “what do you see yourself doing when you retire?”, or “if time and money were of no concern, what would you be doing?”  The way to start with this question is to ask yourself the question 5 times in row until you get to the same answer multiple times in a row.  This may not happen in the first few months or even years, but over time you should be able to sharpen your answers until you get closer to your true answer.

Example

(Month 1) Why are you here?

  1. I want to have a good job… why?
  2. I want to make good money… why?
  3. I want to provide for my family… why?
  4. I want to spend more time with the people that I love… why?
  5. I want to bring joy to others because it makes me feel fulfilled…

[Now that you’ve arrived at wanting to bring joy to others, start at that point and continue forward the next month]

(Month 2) Why are you here?

  1. I want to bring joy to other people because it makes me feel fulfilled… why?
  2. I’m good at making other people feel included and that is the best way that I can make other people happy… why?
  3. Someone once helped me to feel included and I realized that I had a natural ability to make others feel included and I feel compelled to help other people and pass along that gift… why?
  4. Someone once helped me to feel included and I realized that I had a natural ability to make others feel included and I feel compelled to help other people and pass along that gift… why?

 

Notice 2 things here.  1st is that we’ve repeated ourselves so we’re getting closer to a true answer.  2nd is that as you continue answering usually you start to add more details and clarity to your responses.  In this example we went from 7 words up to 34 words with much greater detail and intentionality.  These answers aren’t set in stone and you may find that things change over the months / years.  What once was important may be replaced by something else that takes on greater priority.  The important part is that you ask the question and be honest with your answers.

Conclusion

Earlier this year I was speaking with my mentor (if you don’t have at least 1 mentor I highly encourage you to find one as soon as possible, they don’t even have to work at the same company as you) trying to answer the question “Why am I here?”  The question was posed to me at a technical leadership training event that I had attended.  I didn’t have a very good answer for the near or long term in my life.  In order to find some direction I used the simple questions in the retrospective above (you may recognize some of these from an agile retrospective meeting).  The benefits from this process have been very real for me.  I’ve found things that I’ve not enjoyed doing in my life and stopped doing them or found ways to transition that work to others who do enjoy it.  Conversely I’ve also found things that I do enjoy in my life and worked to position myself to have more opportunities in those spaces.

If you try out this process I’d love to hear how it works for you, even a follow up after you’ve been through it a few months.  Good luck and keep searching until you find your Why.

 

-Frog Out

Retrospective for 2016

2016 was a busy year for me, especially from a personal perspective.  Looking back here are some of the things that went on during 2016 as well as things I’m looking forward to in 2017.

 

Retrospective

2016 was filled with many events both personal and work related.  The biggest event of all was the birth of our son Samuel.  I am very grateful that my employer Microsoft changed their already generous infant care leave policy from 1 month of paid time off to now 3 months.  That is almost unheard of in any industry or organization.  During that time off (two separate chunks) I got to spend lots of quality time with my family taking outings to the zoo, making meals together (my most cherished memory), reading books, and many other bonding activities.  After seeing how quickly Clara is growing up I know this time for both our kids is going to go fast so I’m extremely thankful to have had this extra time with them.

Aside from my paternity leave I also got back to speaking at conferences including SharePoint Saturday Twin Cities, Dog Food Conference, SharePoint Saturday Detroit, and SPTechCon Austin as well as a new local user group Central Ohio Azure User Group.  Many of the topics I covered in these presentations go outside SharePoint into Azure, PowerApps, and Microsoft Flow.  I’m a fan of the numerous possibilities for integrating all of these products / services together to provide solutions for my customers (and myself on some side projects.)  Now that PowerApps and Microsoft Flow are generally available (GA) I’m looking forward to diving into those two in more depth in 2017.

One other major project throughout 2016 was moving my blog to a new hosting provider.  As it turns out I ended up moving twice, first from GeeksWithBlogs.net to self-hosted WordPress on Azure and then again from self-hosted WordPress to the official hosted WordPress.  It was quite a learning experience exporting data, cleaning up the exports, configuring themes, and all of the other work to get WordPress to a point I was satisfied with.  As I am not familiar enough with the hosting of WordPress and was getting many 500 errors after I “tweaked” the databases I thought it best to migrate to the official hosted platform.  So far it has been working well but I am still in the process of cleaning up a few items (mostly CSS or styling) that didn’t migrate 100%.  If you find any issues please contact me or leave a comment.

One a separate note, last year I started using Trello for tracking weekly progress on personal productivity items.  After a few months trying that out I read a few articles that turned me off of that practice.  Eventually it ended up that I was searching for things to put on my weekly lists and the process became just that: a process.  I still keep track of yearly accomplishments for annual review at work.

Sharing Interests

Similar to years past I read a number of books and listened to a number of podcasts.  You can read about 2015 book and podcast recommendations here.  Here are some additional ones from 2016.

Books

I read quite a few Star Wars books at the end of 2016.  I’ve always been a fan of Star Wars but I saw our local library had a number of books in the Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens series.  I decided to read one and got hooked.  I find it very interesting to explore the “new” expanded universe for Star Wars especially backstory on characters, motivations for various factions, and more.

Games

I haven’t had a real gaming PC in quite a few years but this past year I have gotten into PC gaming a little bit again.  One of the highlights was an indie game called Stardew Valley.  For anyone familiar with farming RPGs (yes it is a niche but one that I was heavily into years ago) like Harvest Moon or Rune Factory this is a love letter to that style of game.  I’ve already invested a few dozens hours into this game and have not even finished year 2.  I like the way farming, mining, fishing, foraging, social interactions, and more are all interconnected yet you are free to go at your own leisurely pace.

 

Conclusion

2016 was a great year, especially welcoming our son Samuel into our family.  I’m thankful for the extra time off work to spend with my family and looking forward to 2017.  As always if you have any recommendations on books, podcasts, tech, or other interesting things feel free to share.

 

-Frog Out

My Blog Has Moved

Four months ago I wrote a post about Changes Planned for My Blog.  My initial research into migrating my blog ended up needing much more manual effort migrating content and extra time fine tuning the destination platform.  Additionally the birth of our second child has changed my priorities on time and side projects recently.  Without further delay I’m happy to announce that I am migrated off of my prior GeeksWithBlogs (SubText) platform and now on to WordPress.

Some of you may be asking “but Brian you said you were looking at migrating to Orchard, what happened to that?”.  As part of my migration attempt I had to convert from SubText to WordPress and then WordPress export out to a format that Orchard could understand.  Getting all content exported (including pictures, comments, blog post metadata, etc.) was very tricky and I had to manually update some of the export / import files for it to work properly.  In the end it was taking too much time to convert everything twice.  Everything looked good enough on WordPress and the developer / plug-in support on WordPress is strong.  I do plan to blog out the tools and processes I used in the migration in case anyone else is interested in seeing how that worked.

That being said, yes I’m aware that some content is not displaying 100% the same way that it did on my prior hosting blog.  You may notice that code snippets from years ago aren’t spaced properly or embedded images aren’t showing.  The latter is actually an issue with OneDrive that I had submitted a ticket on and am getting answers on.  If you notice something is not displaying properly or other issues please leave a comment or contact me.  I’ll be fine tuning my blog over time and any and all suggestions are welcome.  Thanks and I look forward to getting back into a more regular blogging schedule the remainder of this year.

   Side note: I am doing some URL rewrite / redirection on my new blog to clean up the URLs from my old blog.  This includes striping out the “bjackett/archive” portion of the URL as it is a remnant from my old host.  If you are accessing any content on the original URL “https://briantjackett.com/…” you will be redirected to the intended URL of “https://briantjackett.com/…” instead.

-Frog Out

Changes Planned for Blog

   A big thank you goes out to all of your who have at one point or another read my blog.  It has come to my attention over the course of the past few months that a few things I took for granted on my blog are no longer functioning as expected.  These include:

  • No longer receiving email notifications when comments are submitted
  • RSS feed is duplicating items multiple times after posting new content
  • Categories disappear in the navigation
  • Split search engine SEO between custom domain URL and blog hosting default URL

 

   This is not a negative against my current blog hosting provider.  They have done a great job since I started blogging back in 2009.  However it is time for me to find a new platform and update various parts of my blog.  I’m currently looking at Orchard CMS as the primary option for a new platform. I first heard about Orchard CMS from a fellow SharePoint technologist Andrew Connell who migrated his blog from Subtext to Orchard as well (see his posts on the matter here).  I am still testing out various tools and migration strategy but hoping this won’t take more than a month or two of planning and execution.  It will not be a quick and easy migration but it will be worth the time and effort.

   In the meantime you will probably notice my go quiet on blogging.  I’ve also disabled RSS feed syndication due to the duplication issue mentioned above.  I hope you’ll enjoy the re-launch when things are migrated.

 

      -Frog Out

Retrospective for 2015

In past years I set goals at the beginning of the year and then recapped my progress on them the following year (see my retrospectives from 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013).  Unfortunately I posted my goals for 2014 but then never followed up (as I came to realize last week).  As such I felt that this might be a good time to switch things up.  Personally I found that my goals were either repeating themselves or becoming too formulaic.  Instead I’ll be focusing more on writing about my past year’s accomplishments and share out a few things I’m interested in.

 

Retrospective

2015 was a big year.  It was the first full year with our daughter Clara and first full year living in our new house.  We also completed a number of home projects including a new patio (previous one starting to sink in places) and remodeled our master bath.  Glad to have both of those behind us but already finding new things that need to be fixed  / replaced for 2016.  The joys of home ownership.

On the technology side I’ve been digging into Azure Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and given a number of internal and external presentations on this topic.  Additionally I’ve been following along the progression of PowerApps (read my Start Learning About PowerApps post here).  SharePoint 2016 will be releasing in 2016 and I’ve been lucky to have access to early bits to put them through their paces.  This is all part of my process to continue learning new things and also partially my natural desire to tinker with cool technology.  Walt Disney put it best when he said “[w]hen you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.”

walt-disney-curious-quote

 

One side interest of mine has always been personal productivity and ways to track it.  Many systems exist such as Getting Things Done (which I’ve read David Allen’s book Getting Things Done a few years ago), Kanban, and more.  Recently I’ve taken up using Trello as my personal (non-work) task tracking system.  I like the concept of being able to create columns / lists for my daily tasks.  I have a backlog and 2-4 days (columns) of lists.  I move cards from my backlog to my daily column once they are completed.  I can quickly and easily archive a daily list to keep things tidy but also see prior days for a quick retrospective.  My target is to complete at least 2 tasks each day.  It is a work in progress but so far after 2+ weeks it is working better than any prior system I’ve tried.  See below for an example of my recent tasks.

TrelloBoard

 

Sharing Interests

 

 

Books

Over the past 6+ years I’ve started getting back into reading pretty heavily.  At first it started with audiobooks during the 30-45 min commute to various customers when I was a consultant with Sogeti.  I listened to some excellent audiobooks including The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Asimov Robot series, and more.  I chose to get my audiobooks from the local library which while it had a number of excellent choices was still limited.

When I joined Microsoft I was traveling at least 2-5 times a month, usually driving or flying anywhere from 1-7 hours.  At this point my reading started shifting more towards physical books.  There is something about holding a physical book in your hands that resonates with me.  Perhaps it harkens back to my grade school days and summers reading.  Either way there are a number of used books stores and libraries that provide plenty of options.

A few of the recommendations from the last year or two:

 

Podcasts

During a summer vacation in 2009 (I distinctly remember the occasion) my oldest brother turned me on to a podcast called Stuff You Should Know.  I had started listening to audiobooks not too long before this so I was getting used to audio content but wasn’t fully ingrained in it as a medium.  Things changed after I started listening to this podcast.  Josh and Chuck (after a brief stint with a different starting duo) mix a blend of information, entertainment, inside jokes, and levity to a huge variety of topics (they have amassed over 700 episodes).  My wife also enjoys listening to them during car trips.

Over time I added other podcasts to during long drives, workouts, or relaxing at home.  Some podcasts haven’t kept my interest and I’ve stopped listening but these current shows are a mix of entertainment and technology information.

 

Conclusion

Hopefully by reading this retrospective and sharing of interests you are inspired to reflect on your own past year.  I find it invigorating and recharging looking back at the past year’s progress while looking forward to what can be accomplished the next year.  If you have any recommendations on books, podcasts, or other technology feel free to share.  Thanks for reading.

 

Note: Amazon links are referral links on my blog and go towards paying for hosting, domain registration, and writing this blog which is done on my own time.

 

-Frog Out

Goals for 2014

   This is getting published a little bit late (month and a half into 2014 already) but I still wanted to get this posted.  Once again I’m setting some goals for myself for the year and posting them here publicly.  You can read my past years goals (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013) and retrospectives (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013) as well.  So with that let’s dive in.

 

Professional

  • Blogging – I’m coming up on 5 years of blogging in a few months.  Hard to believe it has been that long but as long as I have things to share I’ll continue blogging.  It is great when I meet people in person that have been helped by tips, scripts, or other content I have blogged about.  This year I know will be busy with a number of work projects but I plan to post at least one post of substance each month.
  • Publish a productivity tool – When I started blogging back in 2009 the second blog post I ever posted was about how to enumerate SharePoint permissions from SharePoint 2007 with PowerShell.  Last year in 2013 I posted an update for enumerating SharePoint 2010 or 2013 permissions with PowerShell.  I would like to take the updated script and turn it into a tool that works for SharePoint Online as well since I see this as a gap area in tools / reports currently available for SharePoint Online.

 

Personal

  • Continue taking annual vacations – This may seem like an odd goal, but taking some time off and disconnecting from work for a few days away from home is good at least once or twice a year.  I also try to disconnect from technology while I’m away so minimal or no email, TV, video games, computers, etc.  The next two goals help with sticking to that.
  • Running – In 2013 my wife (then fiancé) and I ran our first 5K.  You can read the backstory on why that was such a big deal for me.  This year I plan to run a quarter marathon (6.55 miles) and at least one other race (length undetermined).  I’m already signed up to run a quarter marathon in May and I”d like to do one other race, perhaps something like Warrior Dash.
  • Read books – As I mentioned in my 2013 retrospective I’ve really gotten into reading (physical, not just digital) books lately.  I plan to read at least 3-4 books, many which I got as Christmas presents last year (see below).  I’m really loving science fiction books (especially Isaac Asimov) lately and looking forward to finishing up the Foundation series.

WP_20131228_002

  • Buy a house – My wife and I are looking to move into something a little larger so we have room to expand our family in the coming years.  We’re also preparing our condo for selling it by completing some home projects.  Will be fun to break out some power tools.

 

Conclusion

   As I said with last year’s goals I like publicly posting my goals to hold myself more accountable but also to help inspire others to also create / post their own goals.  If you decide to post your own goals feel free to send me a link as I would love to read.  Here’s to a good 2014 year!

 

      -Frog Out