When Rebecca Dodd joined GitLab in 2016, the company blog was “kind of like a free-for-all.” With “everyone can contribute” as their mission and transparency as one of their values, employees have always felt empowered to write. That meant content was easy to find, but it also meant publishing at will: no calendar and no formal review process. It worked for a startup, but GitLab has grown a lot in the last few years, and Rebecca has been scaling the blog along with it by implementing processes for pitching, editing, optimizing, and redirecting content to other channels. As Managing Editor, she leads her editorial team in creating stories to help their audience and enabling other GitLab employees to do the same.
Between GitLab’s public handbook covering how your team works, and the GitLab.com project page, there’s a level of transparency that you don’t see from most publications, even company blogs. Are there advantages and disadvantages to that?
I imagine it’s probably more of a challenge for our corporate communications team, where they might have news under embargo. Occasionally that touches us on the blog, like if there’s an announcement that we would share in a blog post, there’s currently no way to stage it without it being public. That’s something that causes a lot of friction, but otherwise, it’s really nice to know that anything I tell you would be public anyway. I’m not worried about sharing something inadvertently that no one should know about, because it’s all there in the handbook.
It’s a very big shift in mindset for most people coming in as a marketer, because you’re used to working behind closed doors and also having everything be polished before anyone else sees it. Whereas [at GitLab] you can see all of the works in progress and there’s a software development-style attitude of just shipping it as soon as it’s ready, and you can go back and patch it later if something isn’t quite right. That’s quite liberating in some ways, but it’s very uncomfortable as a marketer. I’m still working on that.
Has the blog had any major rebranding since you started in 2016?
We’re working on a kind of redesign-refresh at the moment. The first iteration of that went out in January, so the homepage, as it stands, looks different to what it did when I first joined. There have been some incremental changes, but in true software development fashion, it’s what we call MVC, minimum viable change. So it’s just like, what’s the smallest thing you can do to move forward and tackle it in chunks?
We are still working on the overall refresh, which is moving towards more of an editorial site, where it’s not as heavily branded, and separating out things like news and announcements, so that it’s not sitting side by side with editorial content. Those are in the works, but a lot of what you see today has been the same since I’ve been at GitLab, as in the layout of a blog post and the interface.
What is your biggest operational or strategic challenge right now?
I believe most companies have the opposite problem to what we have: an abundance of content. GitLab is unusual in that the product spans 10 verticals so there are a lot of things we can talk about, and loads of new developments and different use cases people are excited to share. I don’t want posts that people worked hard on not getting attention because we are competing with ourselves. The ongoing challenge is prioritizing the content we know to do well with our audience, and figuring out whether things that fall outside of that might be better suited to a different format or on a different channel. We’re trying to shift towards an outside-in approach: always thinking about what our audience wants as opposed to what we want to tell them.
We are also unusual in that we use GitLab for all our work, including actually publishing to the blog. It’s a software development tool, so the processes and interface are not that intuitive for team members accustomed to working in a CMS. I expect we could move faster if we were using something more familiar, but it has been useful for learning about how the product works and how our audience works and thinks.
Other editors have said it can be a challenge to incentivize people to write on the side of their jobs, but it sounds like there’s always been a culture of transparency and sharing at GitLab.
Yeah, I think that’s the thing, it’s part of the culture. Even though there’s quite a high technical barrier to contributing (because, as I mentioned, we don’t use a CMS), our engineering organization is the biggest part of the company, and so for them that’s not a problem. They have always felt empowered to contribute to the blog, which is a great problem to have. There is so much going on at GitLab that as the editorial team we couldn’t possibly know about all the potentially great stories to share, so it’s really helpful to have other team members surface those. The challenge is just that we want eyeballs on those posts.
Last year, we introduced our Unfiltered blog, and we treat it like a peer-to-peer publishing platform. People can submit to it and just have one of their team members review it and then they can publish it. There are some gems on there. We do feature those on the main blog, if they’re getting a lot of pickup or are similar to other posts that have done really well in the past. That has been really helpful for providing a channel so that we’re not blocking people from publishing what they want to share, but it’s also not creating a bottleneck with my team.
Is the editorial calendar the main tool for handling the abundance of content? Do you just have to schedule everything and be aware of what’s more time sensitive, or are there any other additional things that you use?
Yeah, the calendar is the main thing, and since we’ve introduced not publishing all day, every day, we now have things planned further in advance, which is a good place to be. I think we’ve got posts pitched, being worked on, and scheduled through [the next couple of months].
I’ve also been working closely with our corporate communications team on straight forward announcements or updates. We introduced a process where they don’t just go straight to a blog post, but open a request for an announcement, and sometimes those things have ended up being a press release or a public issue on the GitLab project.
We also introduced pitching. Before, people would just write their posts and they would come to us and we would review them, regardless of whether it was the right subject matter. So now people pitch to us and my team triages those every week. Sometimes we might suggest a slightly different angle or that the post go on Unfiltered instead, or we might end up pitching the story to another outlet. It’s basically just trying to make sure that we’re sending things to the right channels, because sometimes the blog isn’t the right place for them.
Do you have a standard way of collaborating or giving feedback on a post?
Yeah, it depends on where the post originates from. Some people like to start drafting in a Google Doc and they might seek feedback at that point, and then we’ll just use the comment and suggested changes features there. If someone starts drafting on GitLab straight away, they create what we call a merge request. It’s not intuitive if you’ve not used it, but it’s basically the place where you request to make a change to the website, and so all of the work happens there.
GitLab has some really interesting features where you can suggest changes and you can have comment threads. You can leave a comment on a specific line of text and have a discussion on it. Those are actually pretty helpful, and I would miss them if we moved to a CMS one day.
There is a fair amount of back and forth depending on the nature of the story. And if someone has written a pitch, we might go back to them and say we love the idea, but they could consider taking a different angle instead, and they might go off and make changes that way.
Any final thoughts about editing or the industry?
I would just love to know if anyone else out there has the same kind of challenges and I would love to talk to them. If that’s you, hit me up! I think we’re all learning together and can learn from each other. I think there’s a lot of cool opportunities to just do better content, and I’m excited to see that the tide is turning that way.