Jeff Madsen: Laravel newsletter, books and dev-life in Japan [INTERVIEW]

Let’s continue our new tradition of interviewing interesting people – today I have Jeff Madsen who is really active on Twitter and on his Laravel newsletter, which we will talk about in a minute. He’s also written a couple of books and has a lot of tips – both on coding and on freelancing. And on life in general. Let’s talk to Jeff!

1. For those people who don’t know you, how would you describe what you do in a few sentences?

I do remote contract work on web applications, with Laravel my framework of choice. I also write about coding via my blog, newsletter and now the occasional eBook. Oh, and I rice farm on my in-law’s land.

2. You’re famous these days for your Laravel newsletter, at least that’s how I found you. How’s it going with it? Audience growing? Do you enjoy it as a hobby or is that a part of your professional branding strategy?

“Famous” might be overstating, but thanks! I love it – coming up on one year without ever missing a week, with slow but steady growth. One thing I’m particularly proud of is the fact that I get very few unsubscribes – it isn’t easy to find subjects that can continue to make a growing audience think, “That was worth the 5 minute read”, but it seems to be going well.

Lately the content is shifting a little bit from obscure function parameters you never knew existed to reminders of under-utilized methods or explanations of what’s going on “under the hood”. I learn a lot by looking all these up and figuring out how to articulate them in a short lesson.

I *did* actually start it as a branding thing, in a way. As a freelancer, you have many other hats to wear and it is important to find ways to be efficient with your time. I used to spend a lot of time on Stackoverflow and other forums, but I found them to be very time consuming and a bit unsatisfying in that they expected you to individualize every answer you wrote.

I wanted a way to continue to give back to the community through teaching, but at the same time gain a bit of name recognition. I still do blog posts from time to time, but those take many hours to put together. Even the newsletter takes more than people probably realize, but I’ve found some efficient ways of doing it that I’m happy with. With the newsletter I think I’ve hit a sweet spot of learning, sharing and getting my name out there.

3. You’ve also written a book on Laravel Collections, available for free. Why writing a book, why for free? And you have a second one coming about Authentication? So you’re happy with the impact and the numbers behind the first book?

Laravel Collections is funny; it grew rather organically out of a small problem I kept having that turned into one of my more popular blog posts. When I saw how well that went, I thought I’d expand on it a bit and also try out publishing something on Leanpub. I never really thought to charge for it because I felt it was too much of a walkthrough of someone else’s work (aka, Taylor Otwell’s) and didn’t add enough value of its own to put a price tag on. I guess you could say it was as much for the learning experience and fun as anything else.

I actually have a couple small projects before I get back to the Authentication book; a small work on freelancing I hope to publish very shortly and a Laravel productivity tool still very much in the early stages. I have lots of notes and a few chapters written for Authentication book but that will be later this fall.

4. What do you enjoy more – coding or writing about it? Why?

Tough call! My life has combined a lot of teaching, coding and teaching coding. I think you can’t really – at least at my level – write about coding without constantly getting more experience on real code bases, to make sure you aren’t talking out your backside. I certainly love getting into the zone as much as anyone.

Writing scratches a different itch for me that I find I need just as much to be happy. Almost everything I’ve ever written has been for free; it’s only recently that I’ve started exploring the idea of putting part of my work day toward books or other paying projects “from the pen”. I think if I could split my time evenly between them, I would love it.

5. From your Twitter profile I see you’re based in Japan. Were you born there or moved to Japan at some point? How’s life there for a web-developer, and why Japan?

I’ve lived here about for about 13 years. My wife is Japanese and before our second child was born we decided to be closer to her family.

For the most part, web developer jobs in traditional Japanese companies are not very desirable (the main reason I created my own company and contract), although I understand that things are getting better in start ups and foreign-owned companies. Salaries are very low, hours terribly long and you are not really looked at as someone who will eventually move up into a leadership position. I realize that may sound like a lot of Western companies, but really it is not – it is not a very pleasant position when compared to Western counterparts.

6. It seems that you’re a fan of Laravel. Why do you think this framework is growing so strongly in recent years? What is the secret? Can you compare it to other frameworks/technologies?

I spoke at the PhpKansai Conference a couple of years ago, where I described Laravel as the framework that, “lets you get your work done and go home at the end of the day”. The thing I like most about Laravel is that it’s quite obvious that Taylor both uses it himself and, more importantly, when he bumps into a common problem where he says to himself, “God, I’m sick of running into this”, he stops and writes a solution. Things like `firstOrCreate()` are what I mean – the stuff developers are tired of having to write out the same solution for over and over, when they should be baked into the framework.

For most of the type of client work I do, Laravel is just fine and delivers a dependable product that let’s me focus my time on good design instead of re-writing boilerplate.

7. Finally, your Linkedin profile says that you’re a freelance web-developer. Any tips for successful freelancing career? How do you find clients, and are you happy being a freelancer?

Dear Reader – I swear I didn’t put him up to this question!
(Note from the interviewer: I had no idea Jeff was writing a book on the subject!)

As a matter of fact, I’m putting out a little book very shortly filled with just that thing. I think one of the reasons many people struggle with freelancing – and it still hits me from time to time – is they forget they are a business now, not an IT dev in some corporation who just wants to finish and go home.

Think of yourself as being in the service industry and find out what pain points your client is having, not just in regards to the project itself that you’re working on, but in actually managing the creation of that project – then see what you can do to help them.

“Why don’t I figure this all out for you and present the 3 best options with how long each will take” is music to any project managers’ ears, but typically a missed opportunity for most freelancers.

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Thanks a lot to Jeff for sharing his insights and tips. If you want to follow up with him online, here are some useful links:

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