I’ve talked about a low-effort way to document your projects by taking plenty of pictures, and about ways that your PCBs could be documenting themselves. Today, let’s talk about a quick and easy way that you could help other hackers as you go through your own hacking adventures — leaving breadcrumbs.
In short, breadcrumbs are little pieces of crucial information that you had to spend time to figure out. They are solutions to problems that another hacker just like you could stumble upon in the future, something that you perhaps wish you didn’t have to figure out on your own, and certainly something that others won’t need to spend time figuring out.
Breadcrumbs are about saving time, for you and others. It helps if you think of your solved problems in terms of time spent. If you figure out a small problem and then publish your solution, you might be saving half an hour, a full hour, or a good few hours of time another hacker that’s could even be less experienced in debugging than you. In fact, your breadcrumb might even make a difference between someone completing a project and abandoning it!
However, there’s also the trade-off of taking time to document something. If you can’t publish your solution in a few minutes’ time, it might become much harder to persuade your brain to publish the next time you have something notable. Here’s a guideline: if you’ve just figured out a cool terminal command that helps you solve a certain kind of problem, you should have a quick way to publish that command within a minute. The good news is, the internet has a hundred different places you could easily share your findings, depending on the kind of problem you’ve solved!
Self-Publishing For Hackers
It’s exceptionally important that you minimize the time it takes to get something published. Don’t think that you need to start a whole fancy blog right now to publish that one note, it’s enough to create a wordpress.com account, or a new GitHub repository. GitHub specifically has the Gist platform that’s good for short notes, but you can also create a repository called ‘notes’ that contains a bunch of Markdown files with descriptive filenames. In fact, having a GitHub repository with markdown files is quite close to having a decent blog, with way less setup effort to boot. Check out this repository for a great example!
You don’t need a comment section plugin, you don’t need analytics, or fancy plugins, you don’t even need your own hosting, you only need a space for text and a bit of searchability. All you actually need is a place to post things quickly. You wouldn’t want to make your breadcrumbs hard to leave of all things, they should take as little time as possible. Having your favorite text editor open and at the ready certainly helps, so you can be 5 – 10 seconds away from copy-pasting your notes into a publishable document. A GitHub repo fits that bill, so does a WordPress blog, or even a Hackaday.io stack page.
When you’re choosing the text to put in your post it’s worth considering a bit of search engine optimization (SEO), which in our case boils down to, “what could another hacker be searching while trying to solve this problem?” So, weave in all the specific and general keywords and strings that you yourself have looked up in the search engine, get the specific error message name in there if you still have it, and, if your blog supports tags, add any tags that feel like they apply well. You’ll want to make it so that others can find this post when they need your help specifically!
Don’t expect comments or likes, or any feedback outside of a view counter. My WordPress stats page doesn’t show many views on my breadcrumbs, half of them are in 50 – 100 lifetime view range, and 40% are in the 100 – 1000 view range. However, even if 99% of these views are bots, that’s still a decent amount of people solving a similar problem overall. If you manage to help someone save one or two hours of debugging work, that’s a big win.
Having your own blog with breadcrumbs can certainly help you build up your own reputation, and it also has quite a bit of sentimental value. For instance, I feel good when I scroll through my old breadcrumbs blog nowadays; it has solution after solution, with each post likely having helped someone else along the way, and each post brings me back to some project I was working on. Maybe I was just hacking on something interesting in my free time, or maybe I was helping a friend, but either way it’s a nice reminder of the “oh, I was solving this problem once!” kind.
Still, with your own blog, there are disadvantages. For instance, unlike forum pages, you no longer have the SEO advantage of other people having clicked the search result before. What if you want to maximize the chance that the answer is found? What if you don’t have a blog yet and you just can’t get through the perfectionism barrier?
Get To The Source
We all know the tale — you find a forum thread where someone has the exact some problem as you, and the last message is “I solved it myself”, no solution in sight. It is frustrating to see, and if you’re looking for a bit of comfort, leaving breadcrumbs helps you move the world into the opposite direction.
Among thousands of dead platforms, you will absolutely see StackOverflow willing to help you with no strings attached, Reddit with its community recently torn apart, Blogger about to lose its entire picture collection, and the few forums left up and running. Still, all of these platforms have their spots in search engines, even if the first pages have been surrendered to AI-generated spam. Sometimes, accounts and threads will get deleted, hotlinked pictures will disappear, old posts might get locked, a plague on forums and Reddit alike if you just want to leave a breadcrumb. However, you’ll find yourself on their pages, still, and others will too.
As you were solving your problem, you have likely googled it in a few different ways. You might have a few kinds of browser tabs: GitHub issues, StackOverflow pages, forum threads, others’ blog posts, maybe even a public discussion that you yourself have started in the meantime. All of these are great places to post an answer — as long as it’s a page you have found through a search engine, the same search engine is more likely to lead people to the one crucial piece of information that you’ve found.
Websites like StackOverflow also recognize the concept of breadcrumbs. You can ask a question there, but you can also ask your own question and then answer it, and you can even ask a question specifically for the purpose of giving your own answer under it! Remember, StackOverflow has an electronics section! You’ve probably already stumbled upon it, but if you haven’t, here it is.
StackOverflow and Reddit do share a problem: they have minimum requirements for their posts, and you might not necessarily meet them. If your problem happens to fall under some sort of tragedy of commons guideline, or your question is perceived as too similar to someone despite vital nuance, it might get closed and downranked. Having said all that, my few StackOverflow answers have certainly helped others over time. I’ve once solved a small problem back in 2018, posted it as an answer, and to this day I still get upvote notifications for the solution I posted. Can’t deny, that alone warms my heart!
Publish Or Perish
It might not matter where you leave breadcrumbs as much as it matters that you do leave them somewhere. Most of all, it should be easy for you to leave them. Searchability helps, and if you can optimize for that, do so. Perhaps don’t leave your breadcrumbs on X (formerly Twitter), or any place you don’t often see in search results. Unless it’s your blog, in which case, you’ll surely soon make it to Google!
Even a tiny breadcrumb can point a fellow hacker in the right direction – and don’t you wish that you yourself had one handy before you embarked on a three-hour debugging journey?