Leading Developers

Leading developers is a short book about engineering management I self-published on 21 February 2023.

In the process of writing and publishing it, I took notes. I knew I would want to reflect on the experience as soon as I was done with it. So here I am.

Writing the book #

First of all, a confession. I published the book in February 2023 but I wrote it on a speed run in the spring of 2017 and parked it till late summer of 2022.

I’m not sure how long it took to write a first draft as I have almost no memories left of the actual “writing experience” and can’t speak to that.

I remember how I approached the structure of the book though. Instead of coming out with some meaningful organisation, I dumped on paper everything I knew about leading developers and let the structure of the chapters emerge from the content. This approach made sense to me because I was deeply familiar with the subject and had already lots of writing I could use as starting point.

Nowadays I’m also convinced I speed-ran the writing because I wanted to free myself of my own leadership ideas. OK, time for another confession. I don’t enjoy leading teams anymore. To be fair, I think I never did. I just didn’t know it yet.

Writing the book helped me realise that yes, I loved the teams I built, I loved the way they worked together, what the people achieved, their professional growth. But no, I didn’t like my job. To tell you the truth, I kind of hated it.

Until I sat down to write the book, it wasn’t clear to me that there was a difference between the outcomes of my job and the job as a daily routine. By the time this difference clicked in my head, I had also finished a first draft of the book.

Realising I didn’t really want to lead teams anymore is one of the main reasons why I parked the book for years. I only picked up the book again because, and I really can’t make this up, I want to write more books ๐Ÿ™ƒ

My dumb brain works like this: “Yo! You can’t do that unless you ship the one you already wrote 4 years ago. Remember that book?”

I don’t think that’s a good reason to go through the process I went through (which I’ll cover in detail throughout the rest of the article) but I’m glad I couldn’t get myself to start another book before shipping this one because:

  • I learned a lot about what it takes to go from the first draft to the finished book. I cover that in the next paragraph.
  • I built a little of infrastructure for self-publishing which I’m sure it’ll come handy in the near future (yes, I’m already writing another book already). More about this in publishing the book.

Reviewing the book #

As a writer, the review phase was by far the most valuable experience in the whole process. I write a lot and also love writing about writing (yes, I know but On writing is a good article ๐Ÿ™ƒ) so I went into this phase a little too confident I knew how to do this.

Compared to how I review articles, there were two complications.

First of all, five years had passed since I first wrote the book. Do I still agree with 2017 Luca? Legit question, half a decade is a significant amount of time. The answer is that I overestimated the problem. The time distance ended up helping me update the content: I had no memory of writing any of it so there was no emotional attachment. I just changed whatever I needed to.

The experience gave me a whole new perspective on what Stephen King does when he writes a book (read his “on writing”, it’s roughly 2mil times better than mine). He always takes a break of a few weeks after he’d done with the first draft of a new book. I understand this now.

The other complication is that my book is much longer than my average article. My usual workflow didn’t work at this scale which, in retrospect, looks funny. Let me explain.

The first two times I went over the whole book, I reviewed one or two chapters a day in the order they’re published. In both review sessions, I was too tired by the time I got to the last two chapters. I had depleted my willpower to rethink sentences, trim words out, simplify, or delete. By the end of these two sessions, I was totally unsatisfied with the result.

So I tried to review chapters out of order. Or better put, I prioritized the chapters I was the most unhappy with. I did two more out of order sessions and I was much happier with the result. I was doing the hard work first so by the end of these days long sessions I was only checking commas.

What’s funny to me is that I was reviewing a whole book from start to finish like it was an article. No process works as well at two different order of magnitudes. I should have known better, I’ve said this myself hundreds of times.

Publishing the book #

Before I dive into which tools I chose and why, I should mention why I decided to self-publish.

Well, no one wanted it ๐Ÿ˜€

I sent the book to four different publishing companies. Here’s what happened:

  • I got one “real” rejection: someone actually explained me why the book didn’t work for them. Fair.
  • Two automated rejections. Meh.
  • One publishing company didn’t answer (of course, my favourite of the four did this!). Also meh.

This was the most likely outcome of course and I knew that before pitching them my book. I did so anyway because “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”. and I knew the effort I had to put into pitching the book wouldn’t go lost. I’ll expand on this in marketing the book.

Once the rejections came in, I started looking into self-publishing with these rough requirements:

  • I wanted HTML, ePUB, and PDF versions. I assumed I needed both ePUB and PDF formats because it’s what most publishing companies sell (at least in tech). I added the HTML version because I wanted the book to be freely available.
  • I did not want to deal with LaTeX. My uni thesis scarred me for life. It may have been graph theory but I’d rather blame LaTeX.

With this in mind, I started to search for possible solutions and quickly discovered that, when it comes to self-publishing, it’s a bazaar out there. There’s way too much marketing material and way too little concrete information. In my research I came across:

  • Too many “lead generation” articles about self-publishing. Infuriatingly useless.
  • Leanpub. A platform I’m very fond of as I was a very early tester. I think it’s a great choice but I couldn’t convince myself that a subscription model would work for me.
  • Ulysses.app. A beautiful macOS application. It has a polished UI and the default PDF/ePUB output is nice. I was tempted I didn’t want to put my customization efforts into a proprietary solution.

I decided I wasn’t comfortable enough with any of the alternatives which is how I ended up with a custom pandoc toolchain.

Pandoc #

At first sight, pandoc seemed too good to be true. I got decent ePUB and PDF formats in no more than 15 minutes. Going from decent to good took much longer than that. Let’s have a look at this journey.

In case you have never heard of pandoc, here’s how the official docs describe it:

If you need to convert files from one markup format into another, pandoc is your swiss-army knife.

You can do things like this:

pandoc -o book.epub *-*.md

and this:

pandoc -o book.pdf *-*.md

and just like that you get decent ePUB and PDF documents! It’s impressive. I think you could output multi-page HTML documents too but I didn’t dive into this because mdBook’s default output was great. More about this later.

Pandoc has an impressive out of the box experience but, understandably, the defaults didn’t do enough. Here’s what I needed:

  • HTML, ePUB, PDF formats.
  • Internal links work in all formats.
  • The documents have a working table of contents.
  • I have page numbers in the PDF format.
  • I want to style font, line height, page size, and so on.

After some research I realized that, apart from internal links, I could do everything else with CSS. So let’s talk about that first.

Here’s how the “styling pipeline” I ended up with looks like:

  • A PostCSS pre-processor step. Nothing too fancy but I wanted to use variables. I processed my CSS styles with PostCSS and passed the processed file to pandoc. Easy.
  • WeasyPrint as a PDF engine. It supports modern CSS features so I could get things like “alternating-sides page numbers” with 2 lines of code. Really cool!

Once this pipeline was in place, I could focus on internal links. By default, internal links don’t work in PDF or ePUB documents because they point to physical name of input documents:

  • What I have: [when to split teams](5-teams.md#when-to-split-teams)
  • What I need: [when to split teams](teams#when-to-split-teams)

That’s where filters come in. But before we can dive into that, let’s have a quick look at how pandoc works.

In short, pandoc is a data pipeline that looks like this:

pandoc data pipeline

A simple idea. For the sake of this conversation, let’s consider the markdown to ePUB example again:

pandoc -o book.epub *-*.md

When you run this command, pandoc uses its markdown reader to read and convert the input documents into a “pandoc AST (abstract syntax tree)”. Then it passes the AST to the ePUB writer which converts it into an ePUB document. It’s an elegant solution to the “convert all all the things” problem. If you want to understand in more details what pandoc is doing, you can check out the AST yourself:

$ echo "# Hello\n[World](http://example.com)" | pandoc -t native
[ Header 1 ( "hello" , [] , [] ) [ Str "Hello" ]
, Para
    [ Link
        ( "" , [] , [] )
        [ Str "World" ]
        ( "http://example.com" , "" )

That’s how the AST looks like.

Now we can talk about filters. They act on the AST. In the words of the official docs:

Pandoc provides an interface for users to write programs (known as filters) which act on pandocโ€™s AST.

Another simple idea: you can write little programs (in Lua) that hook into the AST and let you manipulate its nodes before the writing stage. Here’s how I fixed links:

function Link(el)
  if string.match(el.target, "^%d") then
    title = string.find(el.target, "#.*")
    if (title ~= nil) then
      el.target = string.sub(el.target, title)
      el.target = "#" .. string.sub(el.target, 3, -4)
  return el

Since the function is called like the AST node it acts upon, this will work with no additional code (the beauty and the curse of “convention over configuration”). The code takes each “internal link” and rewrites it so that ePUB and PDF formats understand them. Then I passed the filter to pandoc:

pandoc --lua-filter links.lua *_*.md -o book.pdf

and I was good to go!

I have not made the pipeline code public yet but reach out to me if you’re interested and I will do so.

Why mdBook #

In the words of the official docs, mdBook is:

a command line tool to create books with Markdown.

I decided to use it for the free version of the book because I love its default output. It’s very readable and has a nice navigation. I think I was also a little tired of the work I had done to get ePUB and PDF formats to an acceptable quality level.

The only customization I had to do here is about the file structure. My one chapter per markdown file approach didn’t produce a navigable structure (I’m not complaining, I understand the mdBook approach). So I wrote a small Ruby script to convert the structure of the input files. You can check out the HTML version at https://book.leadthe.dev.

Marketing the book #

Writing a bit of copy on https://leadthe.dev to convince readers to buy something I wrote proved to be quite the psychological challenge.

The context is obvious to me now: I wrote a book about a job I don’t really look forward to having again. That’s awkward.

So what I ended up doing is reading all the engineering management books I could get my hands on. My goal was to find valid excuses to keep the book parked. Things like “the books out there cover everything, they’re so good! No need for one more!”

I couldn’t really prove that. In fact, reading these books ultimately convinced me to self-publish mine because I think I covered a gap in the market with my build your own leadership framework approach and my CTOs at early-stage startup audience. More importantly, I learned a lot on the way, and now have a better understanding of what it takes to make a book. I wish I had it done it sooner :)