How Shopify’s corporate engineering blog is written
A conversation with Shopify Senior Managing Editor Anita Clarke reveals:
- The promotional efforts involved in doubling the Shopify engineering blog’s growth for three years in a row
- The education and incentives that motivate busy software engineers to write
- How an Engineering Communications team operates and plans content strategy to get over 10,000 people reading each month
Disclaimer: I have examined the Shopify Engineering blog’s posts and corresponded with senior managing editor Anita Clarke to understand its inner workings. I have previously worked with Shopify as the deputy editor at Shopify Plus, and my editorial studio helped launch the Product @ Shopify blog.
On December 1, 2020, Shopify wrote that it would be doubling its engineering team by hiring 2,021 engineers in 2021. It’s fortunate that Shopify started and maintained its engineering blog for years before the pandemic hit. The company took on a “digital by default” stance, opening itself up to the global job market. The company was in a great position to hire even more aggressively than it did before.
Over 24,000 different people visited the blog in January 2021. The blog served up 30,000 pageviews. I interviewed senior managing editor Anita Clarke about how Shopify’s Engineering Communications team runs its engineering blog:
The People and Processes that Support the Blog
While some team members started the first instance of Shopify’s engineering blog in 2011, Anita Clarke joined the company as a writer in 2016. For most of her time at Shopify, Clarke was the only full-time team member running the Shopify Engineering blog. In the early days, the most important part of Clarke’s job was to get software engineers to write. “Developers don’t usually think about sharing their stories and the benefits it brings. I’d keep my eye out for things that I found interesting and let those developers know that they had something valuable to share with the community,” she says.
At the time of our interview, the Engineering Communications team expanded to include a team lead, a senior writer, and a coordinator. Engineering Communications is a part of the office of the CTO. The team works closely with the data science and engineering operations teams to promote content across channels. It also works closely with the talent acquisition and employer brand teams to support their campaigns. It works independently of, but collaborates with, other communications teams at Shopify (like the Shopify UX blog).
Shopify’s engineering blog measures its success through storytelling, not recruiting incentives. Its mission is to enable everyone at Shopify to share their technical stories and participate in the community. There are three types of metrics:
- Pageviews and session
- Time on page
- Contributor satisfaction
The final metric is less conventional, but important: “We want to know how engaged they are, what areas need optimizing in our workflows, and their overall satisfaction. Ensuring a great experience for our writers is crucial.”
Clarke and the Engineering Communications team still actively promote the benefits of writing to engineers. “We want our developers to be writers and education is a big part of the team’s job,” she says. Clarke’s documentation of how writing can impact each engineer’s career highlights four main points. Writing a blog post:
- Builds the engineer’s influence and demonstrates subject matter expertise
- Expands the engineer’s professional network
- Improves the engineer’s communication skills
- Attracts the right talent to an engineering leader’s team
When Clarke worked as the only member in Engineering Communications, she published one blog post per week. With nearly 200 blog posts published at the time of this piece, and the pace doubling to two articles per week with the team’s expansion, some of Shopify’s engineers have already experienced these benefits to writing. The virtuous cycle of blogging has started.
The outreach and editorial efforts of Clarke and Engineering Communications set the foundation for the blog to, relatively quickly, develop into a wide-reaching publication. “Since 2018, the blog’s growth has more than doubled on a yearly basis,” she says.
Shopify Engineering’s Writing Process
Engineering Communications publishes two posts per week at the blog, which is, naturally, built on Shopify. Clarke breaks down the production workflow of each blog post into four stages:
- Story research and acquisition
- Publishing and promotion
Story research and acquisition
60% of blog posts start when an engineer approaches the Engineering Communications team with an idea, an outline, or even an initial draft. The other 40% involves the Engineering Communications team coming up with post ideas and pitching engineers, based on Shopify’s technology stack and the goals of the engineering team.
Engineering Communications has an initial conversation with the engineer. Then, these drafts move into the production workflow, and engineers start writing—occasionally with Engineering Communications helping the writer create an outline for the post.
Most engineers write their own posts. For some, they’ll work closely with the Engineering Communications senior writer to create content from the start. “We’re lucky to work with amazing developers who want to share their stories, but they also have a lot of technical work to get through in a day. Prioritizing content is an obvious challenge that we work through and support,” says Clarke.
Clarke and Engineering Communications edit each initial draft—for structure, SEO keywords, and insights from legal they’ve picked up along the way—then send the draft off to the engineer’s team lead for review. After that approval, it goes to the legal team for a formal review. From there, Engineering Communications prepares the post for publication and circulates a proof for a final review from each of the parties.
Clarke selects and edits blog posts to engage with readers, using a few heuristics:
- The nerdier, the better. If it goes into details—data visualizations, maps, code snippets, etc.—it’s probably going to resonate. (Exhibits 1, and 2.)
- Shopify’s stance on a topic. For example, VP Engineering Farhan Thawar’s stance on Shopify using React Native really resonated at Hacker News.
- How Shopify does something. This is particularly interesting because of Shopify’s relatively large scale. (Exhibit 1, and 2.)
From there, each post gets promoted by the Engineering Communications team.
Publishing and promotion
Shopify engineer communications share new posts at its social media channels (e.g., Shopify’s engineering Twitter account). The Engineering Communications team also work with Shopify’s employer brand team to share posts to their engineering LinkedIn groups.
Engineering Communications also releases a monthly newsletter, and hosts a monthly virtual Q&A event called ShipIt!. Clarke says, “We use blog posts as part of our production strategy for the event. The posts give attendees a better foundation heading into the event, fosters an informed Q&A, and creates some really great content to share with audiences.”
Engineers are also encouraged to share their stories with their social networks, newsletters, or websites like Hacker News (one of the most significant sources of traffic to the site) or Reddit. Clarke provides engineers with a document on how to promote their work, as well as a checklist of recommended sites.
10 Keys to Starting a Blog
Under Clarke’s editorial guidance, the blog now reaches more than 120,000 people each year. When I asked Clarke how she’d advise someone starting a blog for their company, she provided 10 points:
- Network, network, network. Get to know the engineering team personally.
- Learn about your company’s tech stack and what you’re building.
- Get buy-in from Engineering leadership. Our CTO is a major champion and stakeholder.
- Share your plans with engineering leadership, get their feedback.
- Cover your ass with Legal reviews.
- Be strategic in what you can accomplish as a single person. Set goals that reflect reality.
- Don’t lower the quality bar. Help writers to improve their stories.
- Keep metrics simple. Make sure the metrics are easily understood and important to stakeholders.
- Quality over quantity.
- Create a content strategy including a mission statement and objectives.
All of this is essential to the long-term compounding effects of Engineering Communications and the Shopify engineering blog. Done with a focus on quality and timelessness, content can continue to get more valuable. “Focusing on storytelling is the long game,” Clarke says. “By continuing to share insights into our work and our teams, developers can envisage what engineering at Shopify means and the problem-solving opportunities that exist before they even apply.”
Thanks for reading! I’m Herbert, the editorial director at Wonder Shuttle. We’re an editorial studio that works with clients such as Shopify, Wattpad, and Twilio to turn employee experiences into more hires, at lower costs. Check out our publication Revision, where we talk to other people who start and run blogs for teams and companies.