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Talking bout my Generator

Daniel Bolívar
I write code for the internet. People call that a software engineer. You decide. I like HTML and CSS as much as I like Javascript.
Originally published at dabolivar.com ・6 min read

The year is 2020, the world feels like it's on fire (both literally in some places and figuratively in most others) and you decide to use your massive amount of indoor time to revamp that good ol' personal website you built last year. So, what do you do?

The options

If you're anything like me, your personal website is a blog created by a Static Site Generator (SSG from now on) and it has gone through some identity crises. In my case, each of these moments has been marked by my decision to switch the technology powering the site. Here's how that went:

  • Hello world version used Hugo because it was between Jekyll and Hugo, and I already had had bad experiences with Jekyll. Seemed like a pretty solid choice at the time.
  • Last year, I switched to Gatbsy, buying into the hype and their promises of a blazing fast website. Also, it was React under the hood, and I had been working with React for a while at that point. Again, seemed like the clear winning idea.
  • The current version uses Eleventy and the decision this time was more community induced. I follow Zach on twitter and had been reading more and more about Eleventy, and it seemed intuitive and all about the basics of the web, so I went with it.

The experiences

Each SSG provides focuses on different things. They also have different underlying technologies, so they'll naturally feel really different to use. Here's my personal experience with each of them:

Hugo

My relationship with Hugo was pretty shallow, I must say. I don't write Go, so I found a theme online for a blog that seemed to fit my needs and went with it. I think the only customization I did was change the navigation items and create a category. It did its job, but having to learn a whole new programming language just to go deeper into customizing stuff was too big a price to pay for me, at that point in time, so I decided to switch to:

Gatsby

Ah, Gatsby. The day I started, I decided to go the simplest way I could think: find a blog theme I liked, install it and dump all my old content into the new system. After adding the theme, the build started failing. 30 minutes later, 5 different github issues and some of my own tinkering, I found out that one of the dependencies that the theme used needed to be updated to be compatible with the changes on another. Just another day in the JS office. Also, it didn't build with the node version I used by default (12 I think) and I needed to downgrade to v10 to build the site. As stubborn as I am, I'm also very lazy and when out of the box things don't work, well, out of the godforsaken box, I can't help but generate animosity towards the thing. It also happened with Create React App when I tried to use it on the one day they had published a breaking bug. Maybe I'm lucky like that.

Back go Gatsby. After all the issues had been ironed out, copying the content over and changing the frontmatter to fit the theme's structure was a bit easier. And then I decided to add pagination. Looking back at that commit, it seems rather straightforward, but boy oh boy how I suffered with it. It's partly my fault, for assuming tinkering with a premade theme would be easy. But the combination of the createPages function and having to learn more Graphql turned what should've been a fun experience, into a grueling slog. And by the end of it, I was so put off that I stopped doing stuff on my page. Forever. Until last week.

Now, it's clear that Gatsby wasn't for me. It's probably more powerful than I needed it to be, but it's also true that there is a lot of complexity for very small output. I mean, I only wanted some HTML pages generated out of markdown, and pagination on the post list. For that I was using

  • GraphQl
  • JSX
  • 18 different Gatsby plugins

And at the end of it, I had a website. Sure, it worked well, but it still wasn't getting me 100's on Lighthouse's performance report. The reason being that you still ship a javascript bundle whenever you use Gatsby, regardless of how static you make your website. The main reason for this, is to have the SPA like routing experience, where it seems like the browser never reloads. Don't get me wrong, that's nice and all, but what does it matter when I'm reloading for a simple HTML document?

Eleventy

Here's Eleventy's one promise:

Eleventy is a simpler static site generator.

The word simpler is important. You'll notice the distinct lack of buzzwords like blazing fast or modern. No, it's just a static site generator. And it's a simple one. And that, my dear reader, it is.

I went a different way with Eleventy. Because of how much I had already heard about it, I was beyond curious to dig in. I skimmed through the docs to get an idea of the concepts. And then, fate showed its hand: there was a huge twitter thread on how bad Gatsby (the company) was at treating their employees. A couple weeks before, Andy Bell had just released his course on Eleventy, Learn Eleventy From Scratch and ran a very timely sale to help people get off the Gatsby train. The path forward was pretty clear for me: buy and go through the course and swap out Gatsby for Eleventy when I was done. And so I did.

Doing stuff with Eleventy is a joyful experience. Most topics in Eleventy work as you expect them to. Collections, Layouts, Markdown, and Frontmatter are pretty straightforward, but there are a couple of things one needs to learn in order to elevate Eleventy to its full potential:

  • A templating engine supported (I used Nunjucks).
  • How the aptly named Data Cascade works.
  • And pagination. Probably.

Once the pieces fall into place, Eleventy starts to shine. It really is simple in the best way possible. In the same time, it took me to add pagination to my Gatsby version, I managed to:

  • Figure out how to have a 404 page.
  • Create a conditional link on the homepage inviting people to see all the posts when there are more than the displayed posts (5 in my case) in the collection.
  • Create a custom pagination like structure to have next & previous posts on an individual post.
  • Add a super simple Service Worker to cache pages for offline use, using an eleventy plugin.

I attribute a big chunk of my success with Eleventy to Andy's amazing course (seriously, go buy it, it's great). But there is no mistaking the fact that the people behind Eleventy have done a marvelous job at creating a great developer experience.

Oh, and best of all, even though there's some Javascript powering some of the feature I built, other than the Service Worker register, the website contains no Javascript. Sure, it reloads with every click, but it takes a second on a Moto4G with a regular 3G connection to load. Who needs an SPA routing mechanism at that point?

Wrapping up

I love Eleventy. It's rekindled my love of the web, HTML and CSS. Sure, I'm not learning the newest, greatest, most hype-worthy technology like I would if I invested in Gatsby... but maybe that's a good thing.

P.S: The only one negative thing about Eleventy is that using Typescript instead of plain JS isn't really straightforward. It's possible but needs some tinkering and the current methods make the experience a lot clunkier. Not a deal-breaker by any means, but it would be pretty awesome to have that out of the box.

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