Every now and then, I get asked how I made this blog from a technical standpoint. In this post, I want to share how my content is generated and hosted, and then describe some commonly-used, alternative approaches that I decided not to take.

How it works

I write each post in a separate Markdown file. Markdown is nice because it’s super lightweight, supports most of the formatting I need (headers, bolding, bullets, etc.), and I’ve used it a lot for writing documentation at work, so I feel very comfortable with the syntax.

For example, here’s a sample of the Markdown for my recent post on quitting a new job:

---
layout: post
title:  "Quitting a new job"
date:   2021-01-01 18:40:00 -0700
categories: career
excerpt: |
    Two years ago, I did something ...
---

Two years ago, I did something that I'd never done in my career before-
I left a job (at [Nuro](https://nuro.ai)) only a few months after starting
it. In this post, I want to explain what happened and what I learned from
the experience.

## What happened

#### The job switch

Back in the spring of 2019, I decided to leave [Stripe](https://www.stripe.com),
where I'd been a software engineer for about a year and a half. The full
details are best left to a separate post, but at a high level I just wasn’t very
happy...

I then use Jekyll to convert these Markdown files into a collection of static HTML pages that can be rendered by web browsers. Jekyll is what’s known as a “static site generator”; in addition to supporting higher-level formats like Markdown that are easier to work with than HTML, these frameworks also automate setting the look-and-feel of each page and inserting common content like headers and footers that would be tedious to add manually.

Here’s what the quitting a new job Markdown looks like after conversion to HTML:

<!DOCTYPE html>
<html lang="en">
  <head>
    <title>Quitting a new job | Benjamin Yolken</title>
    ...
  </head>
  <body>
    <header class="site-header">
      <div class="trigger">
        <a class="page-link" href="/blog">Blog</a>
        <a class="page-link" href="/pubs">Publications</a>
        <a class="page-link" href="/about">About</a>
      </div>
    </header>
    ...
    <div class="post-content e-content" itemprop="articleBody">
    <p>Two years ago, I did something that I’d never done in my career before-
      I left a job (at <a href="https://nuro.ai">Nuro</a>) only a few months
      after starting it. In this post, I want to explain what happened and
      what I learned from the experience.
    </p>
    <h2 id="what-happened">What happened</h2>
    <h4 id="the-job-switch">The job switch</h4>
    <p>Back in the spring of 2019, I decided to leave
      <a href="https://www.stripe.com">Stripe</a>, where I’d been a software
      engineer for about a year and a half. The full details are best left to
      a separate post, but at a high level I just wasn’t very happy...

Finally, I push the generated HTML files, along with a stylesheet for the site, into the gh-pages branch of my GitHub repo. GitHub has a nice feature called GitHub Pages that will take the contents of an arbitrary branch (gh-pages by default) and serve them as static content behind a web server. It also supports custom domains, which allows for my pages to be available though yolken.net as opposed to a shared domain like github.com.

GitHub has solid documentation on the entire process, including the content generation steps, that you can read here. Everything is free if your repo is open-source and you abide by the GitHub Pages guidelines, all of which are pretty reasonable for most personal blogs.

Rejected alternatives

There are several other approaches to publishing a blog online that I decided not to go with. These weren’t ideal for me, but, depending on your specific requirements, may be reasonable choices for your content.

Use a third-party blogging service

The easiest way to get a blog online is to use a third-party, hosted blogging service. Back in the day, Blogger was all the rage. Now, it seems like Medium is the hot platform to use. There are tons of other choices here, including social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn, which have started supporting blog-like user content.

The main advantage of these services is that they’re super easy-to-use. You just type up your content in a pretty, web-based editor and click a button to publish. They also provide features like comments, searching, and subscriptions on top of your content without much effort.

The downside of these services is that you’re handing over your content to a third-party, who’s packaging it up with other people’s content, applying their own look-and-feel, and, in many cases, trying to monetize it. Even though you’re the author, and even though you maintain legal rights to your content in most cases, there’s a tendency for your work to become associated more with the hosting service than with you.

Personally, I’m fine with this when I’m sharing low-quality, short-form content like my vacation photos. However, for something as important and personal as my blog, I wanted to be in complete control and not share any ownership with a third-party.

If you’re just writing occasionally, though, or really, really don’t want to deal with any technical details, putting your content in a third-party service might be an acceptable choice.

Host in a cloud provider

GitHub Pages is very reliable and low-hassle but only handles static content and imposes some limitations on this content including its size and update frequency. It also abstracts away the lower-level serving details, which are sometimes useful to observe and adjust.

An alternative is to host your blog using a cloud provider like AWS. The details here vary a lot based on which provider you’re using and what you’re trying to do, but if you have static content only, you can use a storage service like S3 plus a content delivery network (CDN) like CloudFront to handle caching and HTTPS termination closer to end users.

I decided to not take this approach because my blog comfortably fits within the limits of GitHub Pages, and I also like that it’s totally free. This may change in the future, though, if I outgrow GitHub Pages or get bored and want to handle more of the lower-level serving details myself.

Run your own content management system (CMS)

Static sites like the one for this blog are fairly limited; among other examples, you can’t customize pages on a per-user basis, it’s hard to provide dynamic features like search, and, since all posts are static files, it can become tedious to manage a large amount of content.

An alternative is to run a service called a content management system (CMS), which stores the content in a database and dynamically generates pages in response to user requests. Because the content is stored in a structured format and because the server can customize the contents of each page, it’s much easier to incorporate Blogger or Medium-like features such as user logins, search, and online post editing.

There are a large number of fully-featured, open-source CMSes to choose from, including WordPress and Drupal. You can also write your own on top of a web application framework like Django.

Running these systems is a lot more complicated than throwing static HTML into GitHub Pages or S3. In addition to choosing a hosting provider and configuring all of the associated software, you also need to worry about things like monitoring (what if the site goes down?) and capacity planning (what if a post goes viral and gets tens of thousands of views?).

For me, the extra features of a CMS just weren’t worth the hassle. However, this may be a good choice if you want to create a site with more than just a static list of posts. The more popular CMSes like WordPress also have rich ecosystems of themes and plugins that you can use to create prettier, more complex online destinations.

Conclusion

This blog consists of static HTML served by GitHub Pages. Although it’s not the fanciest approach, I’ve found that it provides a high degree of personal control while having minimal maintenance overhead.