This is where you would normally expect our popular “Post Mortem” column: An interesting article that describes a project after it is complete and some interesting points about things that went well and things that didn’t. This month is different, however, because this is the 10-year anniversary edition of CODE Magazine! So while CODE Magazine isn’t a project that is “complete” and we certainly expect the magazine to continue on for a long time to come (both in print and online), let’s take a look back and recap what has transpired!
The First 10 Years
Usually, when people look back at a project that has been going for a decade or more, they come up with the stereotypical “where has the time gone” and “it just seemed like yesterday” statements. In many ways that is true for CODE Magazine as well. It sure does just seem like yesterday that I wrote my “5 Years of CODE” article. On the other hand, it also seems like an eternity. Looking forward, the world of technology often seems like not much new happens. When I look back just 5 or 10 years, I realize how much has changed and how primitive life seemed not all that long ago.
CODE was conceived by myself and my good friend Rick Strahl on a trip to Europe. I have a family background in publishing and I had dabbled in some small magazine efforts in Europe before, and we both were passionate speakers and authors. Aided by a few beers, we talked about why there isn’t a magazine we like to read ourselves. A magazine with beefy content written by developers who knew what it was like to be in the trenches every day. A magazine that focuses on the things one needed to build and the technologies one had to use (COM and Windows DNA at the time) rather than a specific language. Systems started to converge and connect at the time. COM could be used from most languages. And thus, the idea for CODE Magazine was born:
A magazine from developers, for developers, focusing on the most important technologies on the Microsoft platform, regardless of the language used!
When we conceived of the magazine (it was a while before the first issue was actually available), the world hadn’t heard of .NET yet. In fact, while Rick and I were advocating and pushing the Internet heavily, and Rick was one of the pioneers of Web development, a lot of people were still discovering the Web using agonizingly slow connections, often through America Online. Microsoft’s own competitive online service (MSN - the Microsoft Network) had just been abandoned in favor of an Internet-based approach as part of the company’s shift to recognizing the significance of the Internet. Amazon.com already existed but was losing money and most people had not heard of it yet. Mobile devices were used for one purpose: to make phone calls. You couldn’t connect to your source control system online. Heck, you were lucky to be able to connect on a LAN. The dot-com bubble had not even started yet.
We were using Windows 98 or NT4. Microsoft Bob had failed not too long ago. I dabbled in Windows CE, but frankly, it wasn’t very useful. Our monitors weren’t flat and having more than one was pure luxury. A lot of developers worked in 800x600 resolutions, or, if your eyesight was good, in 1024x768. A lot of developers still used MS DOS. There was no social networking and online resources in general were extremely limited. Most knowledge came from books, or, if you were a pro, you would go to a conference once a year where the whole community converged. And if you were really cool, you were on CompuServe. You used CompuServe mail. Microsoft Outlook was still fairly new.
There were no wireless networks. No e-mail on devices. Apple’s last significant achievement was the Apple 2. (And Steve Jobs had just returned to Apple.) Google had just incorporated but nobody had heard of it yet. IM was starting to gain importance, mainly through ICQ. IM services such as MSN Messenger didn’t exist yet. The GPS satellite navigation system existed but it was not really available for personal use, and no personal GPS or personal navigation systems had yet become available. Mapping was an expensive pipe dream for most uses.
On the development side, C++ and VB were the dominant tools in the Microsoft world. Visual FoxPro was still part of Visual Studio. Java was the new kid on the block and a lot of developers even within Microsoft envisioned a future where they’d do everything in Java. Delphi and PowerBuilder had a lot of significance, as did Microsoft Access as a “real development tool.” SQL Server was just getting adopted as a real alternative to file-based data storage mechanisms on a large scale. Multi-tiered development was considered a good thing, but mostly in theory. Most apps were built monolithically. The vast majority of developers had not yet adopted true object-oriented development (with languages such as VB not even supporting OOP concepts entirely at the time). XML was quite new and puzzled many. The concept of building an entire app with HTML as a front end eluded a very large group of developers. Nobody yet talked about dynamic, static, or functional languages. Remote calls were made through DCOM. XML Web services had not yet happened.
Ah, the good old days! Or not. Well, maybe in a nostalgic sort of way, but I sure can tell you I wouldn’t want to go back.
In any event, we conceived of CODE Magazine during this time. We would compete with VB Programmers Journal, Microsoft System Journal, and a whole list of Advisor publications dedicated to specific languages. And then, after quite some time of planning and soliciting authors, and trying to get advertisers to buy into our concept, we finally came out with our first issue in Spring 2000! What a moment! (And what a moment of confusion for all our readers in the southern hemisphere who were very confused by an issue labeled “Spring 2000” when it was fall there….)
You have to let this sink in a little: publishing a print magazine is an expensive undertaking and a logistical nightmare. Therefore, print magazines were only done by fairly large companies. And here we were, Rick and myself, with a handful of people at EPS/CODE, churning out this magazine with a fraction of the resources, yet at very high production value! A lot of other companies belittled us (none of which are around today, btw). It was amazing!
And best of all: readers loved it! They complimented our choice of articles and the amount of space we dedicated to them. Our involvement in the community and things like the MVP programs (to this day, EPS/CODE has more MVP awards than any other company on the planet) and our close relationship with Microsoft allowed us to solicit the best authors around. We couldn’t pay writers as much for articles per page as our competitors, but we gave them an outlet to write the article they really wanted to write, so many authors loved writing for us. And before we knew it, this crazy little endeavor of ours had turned into a real business! Now what?!?
We just kept moving forward. Like bumblebees that only fly because they don’t understand they aerodynamically shouldn’t be able to, we came out with issue after issue since we simply didn’t know it was insane. We moved from a quarterly to a bi-monthly schedule. We added CODE Focus issues as special issues on an irregular basis. We grew our Web presence. We added e-mail newsletters. We sponsored events and user groups.
And much of this we still do to this day. Our articles are still highly rated, and we have always stuck to giving authors enough space to write in-depth about a topic, without artificially stretching the article either. We have a great list of authors. We love supporting the community. And we will continue doing this going forward.
Things That Went Well
In true “Post Mortem” fashion, let’s take a look at what did and didn’t work, starting with the positives.
Content clearly went well. The idea of looking at the MS platform as a whole, rather than in a language-specific way, worked out great. Today, it would be hard to imagine a C#-only publication (for instance). But at the time we launched we were the first to go that route. Following up this idea with allowing authors to write beefy articles not only allowed us to produce great content but also to solicit the best authors. Personally, I also produced a lot of content for the magazine, and I think I can say from personal experience that being a developer first and foremost (with all the work I do for our consulting and custom software business), and an author second, I can produce much better content than if it were the other way around.
I would also list our business model as something that went well. As a company that produces a magazine that isn’t our primary business, we run differently than other publishing companies. EPS/CODE has always also been a consulting, training, and mentoring company, and that is how we make our money. So we don’t have to squeeze the magazine market like others. And when things turned south and many magazines found themselves without advertisers and their page count dwindled, and ultimately, many of them went out of business, CODE moved forward with the same page count and the same great content. Today, none of our “competitors” from the early days exist the same way they did back then. Even publications such as MSDN Magazine have changed ownership. Most simply don’t exist anymore.
We take pride that we try hard to work well with other magazines. We produce the magazine because we love this stuff! That doesn’t mean we have to hate other people who also create magazines. Quite the contrary. And as a result, we enjoyed great relationships with the folks at MSDN Magazine, asp.net Pro, and many others. (All of which I also wrote for.) Many of the key people at these publications I still consider good friends today, regardless of whether they are still in the magazine business or not.
CODE’s success is also based on bringing on people that did a great job! Rod Paddock has been the editor of the magazine for a long time, and we simply couldn’t have done it without him. Erik Ruthruff has lead the editing efforts for a long time now, and he (and his editing team) have been an exceptionally reliable and dedicated group of people to work with. Our production and distribution team in Houston around Tammy Ferguson, Cleo Gaither and Ellen Whitney, work wonders on a regular basis. Our layout team around Friedl Raffeiner (which remains in Europe to this day) has always been able to make the impossible happen. And did I mention we have a great group of authors?
CODE also has a great history of using the right technology for the job. We started out with a distributed production team that was literally distributed all around the world. In the days when the Internet was still young, we already used it to coordinate all our production efforts. We also used technologies such as WPF early to create a better online reading experience through our Xiine product (www.Xiine.com). We were among the first (not just in tech publishing, but publishing in general) to embrace eReaders and in particular, the Kindle. We have a very sophisticated back-end system that drives our publishing efforts. We have long embraced social networks like Facebook (www.Facebook.com/CodeMagazine) and Twitter (www.Twitter.com/CodeMagazine). We have so much of a technical advantage over other publishers, in fact, that we have lectured at publishing conferences and have helped large publishing companies.
Last but not least, there is you, the reader! I am at a loss to describe what it means to me to go to conferences or other events and meet readers that love the magazine. We often get people that send in pictures from user group meetings where people hold up magazines. I get e-mail from people who read a certain article that helped them implement something they couldn’t build otherwise. Hearing from readers means a lot to me. You truly are the motor that keeps this endeavor going!
When it comes to challenges I have to go back to the business model. While it has worked out well in some ways (and is why we are functional in an environment that killed many other publishers), it has also been exceptionally hard. Most magazines that launch also crash within a few issues, or so the conventional wisdom goes. But I was surprised how hard things were even beyond the initial hardships. It is unbelievable how hard it is to get people to pay 20 or 30 bucks a year for high-quality content. And of course the advertising business has all but gone away.
Also, the sheer effort involved in putting out this product at times is insane. We always pull it off, but there is a reason why large publishers have a lot more people than we do. I can only thank our entire staff for the great work they are doing!
I also have to list our Web site as one of the challenges. With everything going on in print and the effort involved, it has been hard to get our new Web site to the level we want it to be. But we are working on it, and some of it is already available (all built in ASP.NET MVC!). Check out our progress at www.codemag.com!
Full speed ahead of course! We will continue to put out great content in print as well as online and for various e-Reader formats. And we hope that you will continue reading the magazine and help spread the word! Join us online and at Facebook. Tell your friends! And let me know what you think about it all. You know how much I enjoy hearing from all of you!
Publisher, CODE Magazine
President & CSA, EPS Software Corp.
Microsoft RD and MVP