Stop reading HN, start reading HN newsletter

You have to admit that, even though most of the news point and can be found elsewhere, Hacker News (HN from now on) is a pretty amazing place. It has a thriving and highly-educated community of hackers reading, writing and posting every day. Heck, there’s even a book with the best comment of one of them, edw519.

However, if you get distracted easily, you end up downloading 33GB of academic papers and maybe reading some of them. Or you get caught in a HTML5 version of Mario and there goes your day.

Many people took the wrong approach to that, and created HN for your workspace, which may get you out of troubles with your boss or with your wife, not solving the real problem.

One HN reader, duck, once said

there are times when I can’t get on for a week or when I know if I open HN I will end up on there for an hour or more.

Well, it turns out that duck is a real hacker, and he puts his money where is mouth is. He’s name is Kale Davis and he builds web apps and created the weekly Hacker Newsletter, as his website says. Yeah, you read it right, he made what he needed, and made it available for everyone.

Not only that, but Kale has also agreed to reveal what lies behind the scene of the newsletter.

Giovanni Kale, thanks for your time. When you told HN you were going to build a newsletter, you said it would contain the top items on Hacker News, an editorial side, the best “Ask HN” posts, job threads, and a look back at some past articles that would still be useful. I’d say that so far it is really working out great.

But with all the weekly posts, how do you handpick the best? Do you ever feel you let something out?

Kale Thanks Giovanni for asking me to do an interview! Yeah, it has gone very well. I didn’t imagine that one year later I would have 4000+ subscribers, so I’m very happy with how it has gone. As far as picking posts for each issue, I scrape HN every 30 minutes and then use a custom Ruby/Sinatra web app to build out the newsletter. I use a lot of regex statements and look at other metrics like votes, number of comments, and who commented on it. I also use what I up-voted during the week as a gauge too.

I definitely miss some every week, there is just too many to include. I struggle with keeping the links down to a manageable amount for each section too, so sometimes I might include one and then have to remove it before I publish the newsletter. I often tweet or use Google Plus to share links that I missed or didn’t make the final cut.

G. So you really are an hacker! In your about page you wrote that you come from the world of Microsoft. What do you mean by that? And how do you became a “hacker” who enjoy Ruby hacking the most?

K. Haha, yeah, one of these days I’ll actually finish that about page. When I say that, I don’t mean that I have worked for Microsoft, but rather for the last 13 years I’ve been doing nothing but either operations or development work with Microsoft products, mainly within the corporate IT space. Not the most exciting jobs, but nevertheless they have been good and I’ve learned a lot.

I got into Ruby right around when Ruby on Rails came out, I think late 2005. I’ve always been into scripting languages like Perl and PHP to create simple sites for myself or friends, and actually used Perl a lot within the Windows environment to do sysadm tasks. Basically, if a task was repeatable, I would write a Perl script to do it. The moment I saw Ruby in action though I knew it was a huge leap from what I had been doing, so I jumped on it and been using it ever since and rewrote everything I still used that was in Perl. Currently, I do some freelance work on the side using it and at some point I would like to get into a position doing Ruby or Rails programming full-time.

G. Ok, back to the newsletter then. Using again your words:

I want to do some original content as well and have some different ideas that I am working on, but one will be highlighting projects that HN members have release (both small and large).

Right now you highlight HN members' project in the Code section in the newsletter. What other ideas you had at the time? Should we expect something new in the near future?

K. From the beginning I wanted to make HNL more than just a newsletter and wanted it to have that community feel just like HN has. I’ve done some interviews in past and things like getting everyone to share what they are reading. In an upcoming issue look for my next idea which involves a spin on the great The Setup blog and I have a few founder interviews lined up too.

G. What kind of feedback do you receive in general for these ideas and the newsletter? What’s the funniest email you got? Did someone ever offered you a job because you run the thing?

K. I get a lot of great feedback. With every issue I get anywhere from a couple to a dozen replies back with feedback. Most of the time it is just subscribers thanking me, but other times it is someone offering feedback on how to make the newsletter better or other ideas. The funniest one I have received was from a passionate guy that couldn’t understand why I didn’t link to one of patio11’s great articles. He was quite animated and sad that I had missed it! The funniest part was I couldn’t believe I missed it either (turned out to be a bug in my scraper). Regarding jobs, I have been offered a job (which I turned down), but even better than that is I have made lots of great contacts.

G. We all know that great feedback is essential to keep things going, because money ain’t everything. However I guess that money is what you need to keep the newsletter going. That is probably the reason that made you insert sponsors in the newsletter. Nowadays more and more businesses are using this form of advertisement, unobtrusive and respectful for the reader. How do you pick your sponsor and is this model of revenue, as opposed to wild CPM ads, working out for you?

Kale Since I started Hacker Newsletter as a side project, making money was never really something I thought about. However, as the list grew, my costs went up and so did the time commitment. Around the same time people started asking about sponsoring the newsletter, so I knew I could start doing some advertising and in the end I think it is a win win for both myself and the subscribers. I’m glad I waited until about a year into it though just so I didn’t let that distract from the original goal and I think letting it happen organically made the transition really easy. I do handpick them and recently hooked up with LaunchBit to help with the process. It is working out great!

G. I recently made the switch from Emacs to Macvim, because of the better Cocoa compatibility and because I was a bit tired of the Escape Meta Alt Control Shift madness. I miss some features, but I appreciate many things. I heard you use Vim as well. Can you tell us why the newsletter would have not be possible were you using Emacs?

Kale Haha, I do use Vim and glad to hear you made the switch. It would probably be pretty funny watching me try to use Emacs, but since I use my custom app to build out each issue, I hardly ever have to open up a text editor in the creation process so it wouldn’t be too big of a deal now. However, I’m constantly working on my code and adding new features, so I guess that would come to a stop until I picked up Emacs. :)

Thank you Kale!