I find the quality of ideas that arises over a few beers to vary greatly. Admittedly, quite a few are truly horrible. But about 16 years ago, my good friend Rick Strahl and I had an idea that was helped along by a few cold ones, and if I may say so myself, it turned out splendidly. You’re holding that idea in your hands right now. That idea was CODE Magazine.
It was the summer of ’99. Lou Bega gave us Mambo No. 5 and Britney Spears sang Baby One More Time. We were all watching The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, and Austin Powers at the movies. And the world of software was changing faster than ever. The Internet had become a real thing and nobody thought the .com bubble would ever burst. We were using dialup and had just gotten over CompuServe. We used Windows 98, and we were looking forward to Windows 2000, and, in hindsight, not so much to Windows ME.
I find the quality of ideas that came up over a few beers to vary greatly.
At the time, I spent most of my days writing applications using languages such as Visual FoxPro, the occasional Visual Basic, and, when I had to, even a little bit of Visual C++. I was an object-guy with a little bit of database stuff mixed in, hence SQL Server was about as far as I ventured out. At that time, we also all considered ourselves quite proficient in building "World Wide Web Sites" since we had started that about five years earlier and had some big projects in our portfolios. But up until about that time, development of Windows or Web applications was still what we would today call "monolithic." We already knew about multi-tiered development, but a developer used one language primarily, and, in very fancy scenarios, perhaps a database server on the local area network.
Things were about to change!
We were eager to be part of that change. Both Rick and I had done contracting work for the Visual Studio team up in Redmond, and we liked the changes we knew were about to hit the Microsoft developer community: We were about to break out of our monolithic silos. Microsoft was about to introduce "Windows DNA" and "COM+" with its component technologies such as COM+ Security, COM+ Events, Queued Components, and much more. None of this was specific to a particular programming language or technology. Windows DNA was accessible from any environment that was capable of using COM.
Rick and I had also always enjoyed reading magazines. We were avid subscribers to magazines such as Visual Basic Programmers Journal, Microsoft Internet Developer, FoxPro Advisor, and many others. However, what frustrated us was that all those magazines were stuck in their old model, focusing on a single language or technology. Thus, with the aid of a few brewskis, the issue was met head-on: We decided we could do better than that! We could publish a magazine that was more in line with modern development methodologies, focusing on the broader picture and telling people how to drive key technologies using the language of their choice. The idea seemed solid, but one doesn’t just start publishing a magazine overnight.
In hindsight, the whole idea was clearly somewhat naïve. Publishing a magazine is a major undertaking and a process that is not for the faint-of-heart. Luckily, I had somewhat of a family background in publishing, so the overall process was clear to me. We also had access to some resources, including some good designers and a print-shop that was willing to work with us. So we dove in head first and started to line up some content. Luckily, our deep involvement in the developer community meant that we knew most of the "gurus" and managed to convince a lot of them to write for us. I’m happy to say that quite a few of those who were involved in the first issues are still writing for us today. It goes without saying that we couldn’t have done it without our contributors and supporters. First and foremost, the authors. There are too many to mention them all, but I would like to take this opportunity to thank them collectively! (And for a complete list, take a look at www.codemag.com/people). The same goes for our magazine staff. The editors and the distribution managers and the artists and production crew and so forth. You know who you are! Thank you!
All the hard work finally started to pay off when the spring of 2000 rolled around, and our very first issue came off the press. Not surprisingly, the main feature of the first issue was "Windows DNA 2000" with several articles focusing on that topic. Some of the content of the magazine was so bleeding-edge that we actually had to coordinate the release date with Microsoft in order not to violate one of the many NDAs we were bound by.
As you can imagine, we were sweating bullets. Would the community accept a magazine that didn’t focus on their language of choice, but dared to attempt to unify all Microsoft developers? Luckily, the answer turned out to be "Yes!" Developer feedback on the first issue was great and we were ecstatic.
At the same time, we realized that a lot of work was still left to be done. The first issue was a logistical nightmare and a juggling act. While no magazine is ever done on a shoe-string budget, we were really just "a bunch of guys" with a small consulting firm that had to stomach the expense of it all. It would be an understatement to say that our budget didn’t quite compare to the budgets being thrown at the magazines our competitors were putting out. And not too surprisingly, they all laughed at us. They all predicted the speedy demise of our publication. Besides, they made some good points: Although our content was pretty good, we didn’t really have a staff of copy editors that made sure articles read as well as you would expect them today.
But once we managed to get through our first few issues, we were able to put the whole operation on more solid legs with professional copy editing and design. Rick and I went from being the Editors to being the Publishers. We first made David Stevenson, one of our employees in the consulting business, our new Editor-in-Chief. A few issues later, even that arrangement had reached upper capacity and we expanded one more time, bringing on my long-time friend Rod Paddock as the new Editor-in-Chief. It’s an arrangement we have continued ever since then, and I believe a big part of the reason for the magazine running so smoothly.
All of a sudden, competitors weren’t laughing anymore.
The idea of creating a magazine that served the entire Microsoft Developer Community worked out exceptionally well when Microsoft announced .NET just a few issues into our existence. All of a sudden, it was clear that the time of monolithic systems had come to an end. It simply wasn’t practical anymore to focus solely on Visual Basic or Access or whatever else our competitors focused on. Instead, it was the .NET technologies that were the interesting part. It didn’t matter whether you were a Visual Basic or a "Cool" guy ("Cool" was the codename of the language that become C#). What mattered was that you were building XML Web Services and ASP.NET sites and Windows Forms applications. And CODE Magazine was the only magazine in town that could serve that need well. All of a sudden, competitors weren’t laughing so much anymore.
A big milestone for us was our first issue that could be purchased on newsstands. This wasn’t an easy feat at the time, since selling magazines on newsstands was (and still is) a cut-throat business. But not quite two years after our first issue came out, the March/April 2002 issue was available on newsstands and in bookstores nationwide. I remember going to Barnes & Noble myself and purchasing a copy of my own magazine (and I now admit we re-arranged the shelves while we were there so CODE Magazine was in the front row). I still have that copy with the receipt framed on my wall.
But it wasn’t all puppies and rainbows. The Dotcom Bubble had burst and it was clear that the "New Economy" started to look pretty old. Lots of companies in our industry were struggling. Advertisement budgets were being cut, and it became much harder for a small magazine to operate. Magazines had also started to go digital only, which seemed like a good idea at the time (although I would now consider it the kiss of death for any publication). This wasn’t specific to the software industry either. Magazines in all kinds of industries were folding weekly. Newsstand space got cut. It sent the entire publishing industry into limbo and it took the industry well over a decade until things started to clear up a bit, and the role of both digital publishing and print publishing became clearer.
The next few years were tumultuous. Many of our original competitors had disappeared at that point. Others were sold and just a shadow of their former selves. We were also struggling with the limited advertisement budgets many companies had, but luckily, we had put some good infrastructure in place and we were able to produce our magazine much leaner than other people. Plus, it always remained a pet project we nurtured along. Being the publisher of a software magazine is not a way to get rich quick. ("How do you make a small fortune publishing a software magazine?" The answer is "You have to start out with a big one"). But unlike all our competitors, we always found ways to make it all work out.
We also never considered stopping the print publication. Of course, we are doing a lot with digital content as well. Long-time readers are surely aware of our online content or our Kindle version and so forth. We even wrote our own digital content platform called "Xiine" a while ago, and we have become consultants to other publishers. So clearly, digital content is exceptionally important these days. But never once did we consider discontinuing the print version of the magazine. And the feedback we get from our readers makes it clear that this is still appreciated. There’s a place for digital content, and there’s a place for a printed magazine that you can hold in you hands. It’s not an either/or choice, and we couldn’t be happier with this approach.
As you can imagine, there have been lots of little anecdotes behind the scenes around the making of the magazine. Many of them have to do with our cover designs. We’ve always wanted to break away from the boring covers most tech magazines sport. This was both a joy and a curse. In many cases, we tremendously enjoyed the process that leads to cover ideas, and it allowed us to establish our own identity. But it also didn’t take us long to discover why most other magazines didn’t go to that length. It’s simply quite difficult to come up with good artistic ideas for very abstract concept. By the time the fifth database-centered issue comes around, you’re long out of ideas of what a "cool database" could look like on a cover. So clearly, some covers are better than others. But I enjoy, in my own personal way, that we haven’t taken the cheap route out and instead stuck with our ideas of producing unique cover art.
The first cover design that really sticks out in my mind is the Sept/Oct 2002 cover. We wanted to produce a cover that was really "in your face" and just stood out as something that was truly odd. We were now a newsstand publication and we wanted to get people’s attention! Our idea was to have a hand on the cover, and for the hand to be creepy and weird by having an extra finger. After all, a hand is very familiar to everyone, and it should immediately seem odd to see a six-fingered hand, right? Not so, apparently! Most people never noticed that there was an extra finger. Instead, people complained about what was on the fingers (programming language names) and what was missing. A lot of people threatened to "show us the Visual Basic finger." Which was odd, since there is no middle-finger on a six-fingered hand. Oh well. It is still one of the CODE Magazine cult-classic covers to this day.
The next cover I remember vividly was the March/April 2004 issue. The theme of the issue revolved around "creating Web sites and content faster." We came up with the idea of putting a race car on the cover, and since a lot of us are Formula One fans, it wasn’t a leap to make that car an F1 car. But which team was it going to be? Personally, I was never a Michael Schumacher fan. Quite the contrary, actually. It was clear to me that it was going to be anything but a Ferrari. So we had a cover designed that showed some other team. But there was a conspiracy behind the scenes and one of the designers, who happened to be Italian, replaced the cover with Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari after the last proof and just before we went to print. I was in for quite a surprise and they had gotten me good!
One of my most clear cover-design memories revolved around the March/April issue of 2005. This was during the time when the Lord of the Rings was very popular. We therefore wanted to do some kind of fantasy-themed cover. But for some reason, none of our artists came through with anything good, and the night before we had to go to print, we ended up with no cover at all! Well, you can’t go to print with a white page for a cover, so I had no choice but to set out and fix the situation myself. I’m not an artist, and I don’t pretend to be one. Nevertheless, I sat down and I used some 3D modeling tools to create a fantasy-themed warrior princess with a big sword and One Ring to Rule Them All (representing .NET, I suppose). It wasn’t a great cover, but it probably wasn’t the worst we ever had either. However, some readers took exception. They were offended by the "partial nudity on the cover" and some threatened to cancel their subscription. One reader in particular had apparently gotten into trouble with his wife for reading such "smut." Oh boy! That was the last time we ever did anything remotely like this. It may be a rule in the publishing industry that cleavages on covers sell magazines, but apparently not ours.
One reader had gotten into trouble with his wife for reading such "smut".
Perhaps one of the cooler covers we’ve ever had was the Sept/Oct 2007 issue, which shows Master Chief from Halo. We did this because we had several articles on XNA game development since XNA had enabled .NET developers to enter the realm of game and 3D development. It was also just before the Halo 3 release, which was a huge event. So we felt that there was enough overlap there to justify putting Master Chief front and center. What made this cover really cool, and what almost nobody knows, is that Bungie actually designed this cover for us and it’s exclusive artwork that wasn’t publicly used anywhere else, except on Microsoft’s campus in Redmond. I happened to be there just after our magazine came out, and they’d made posters of various sizes showing our cover, with our logo and all. One of them was several stories tall hanging from a building. It was completely unexpected. It was a very cool moment.
In the spring of 2009, we started a re-branding effort for the magazine. We changed the logo and gave the publication a facelift. We had done that in smaller increments periodically before and after, but the March/April issue of 2009 was probably the single biggest change we have ever made to our branding. We’re still using the identical logo to this day and have no intention of changing it. We’ve since then gone through several phases with somewhat distinct art-styles on the cover. Around 2011 we went with very artistic illustrations that were hand-drawn. This produced some of my favorite covers.
Bungie designed an exclusive Halo cover for us, a poster of which hung from a Microsoft building several stories tall.
Is all this brouhaha around the covers really necessary? No, of course not. But the magazine is as much a labor of love as a business for us, and this is how we have some fun. Of course the core content is what makes the magazine what it is, and I’m happy to say that the content is of a more consistent quality than the cover art, which had some dips at times. But who says business can’t be fun?
Expect CODE Magazine to be around for a long time to come!
Of course, our content has changed over the years. We grew with .NET and we grew beyond it. Our goal has always been to deliver the content that a modern business application developer needs, whether that was Microsoft-exclusive in the days of Windows DNA and the early days of .NET, or whether that included completely different environments and languages, such as today’s Apple iOS, Android, and Web Development flavors. I am happy to say that our relationship with industry partners has been excellent. Not surprisingly, Microsoft’s technologies in particular have shaped this magazine considerably and we have enjoyed a good rapport with them throughout the years. As with all partnerships, there have been some rougher times than others. The pre-Windows 8 timeframe stands out to me as one of some trepidation and uncertainty. This is also when we started publishing a lot more non-Microsoft articles. But things have changed now, it seems. Microsoft is cool and hip again and is putting out some awesome technologies. And best of all, Microsoft is much more open to all the other things going on in the industry. So once again, our content focus ended up working out very well.
I can’t imagine a more exciting time for a software developer.
So where are we heading next? We certainly have no intention of stopping or slowing down. The entire magazine industry has settled down somewhat. Magazines aren’t closing down on a weekly basis anymore. The software industry has also finished a re-alignment process with most of the key players having found their new places. I’m personally quite excited about the future. As I write this, Windows 10 is on the horizon, with cool new technologies such as HoloLens. Cloud platforms are maturing and quite exciting. Mobile is here to stay. So is the Web. So is the desktop. Wearables are on the rise. So is the Internet of Things. The list goes on and on. I can’t imagine a more exciting time to be involved as a software developer and as the owner of a consulting business, and even more so, as a publisher. Expect CODE Magazine to be around for a long time to come!
CODE Magazine Timeline
Spring of 2000: The first issue of CODE Magazine comes off the press. Britney Spears sings Baby One More Time. It was probably not related to our magazine.
The world looks rosy in general and for CODE Magazine specifically. The dotcom boom was still in full swing, and we were happily cruising along in a pre-9/11 world.
The world had changed. The gravy train had de-railed. All of a sudden, topics such as Security were in high demand.
It had become clear that .NET was a hit and here to stay. People started to think about mobile devices, but it would still be a while before they really took off.
Facebook launched and Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunctioned at the Super Bowl, and we were busily brewing up some content related to Visual Studio 2005.
Five years of CODE Magazine! In other news: Hurricane Rita hits Houston (our home base) and our entire infrastructure is down for three weeks.
With .NET 3 and Windows Vista on the horizon, it was time to take a look at emerging technologies like WCF and more.
The year the iPhone comes out revolutionizes the mobile device world. Apple had already enjoyed increased success, but the iPhone launches the company into the stratosphere.
While the Housing Bubble sends the economy tumbling for the second time during CODE’s existence, we successfully adopt a more Agile approach.
Will Open Source bring free love and happiness to the Microsoft developer community? Perhaps not in 2009, but who knows?
Wow! Has it been 10 years already? Time flies when you have all this great technology to play with! In other news, Vuvuzelas are blown at the World Cup in South Africa.
A cover with moving elements? How did we do it? We’re not telling, even though a lot of people asked. But we’re happy to talk about lots of programming secrets.
Windows 8 is now in the hands of lots of users. Windows Phone, sadly, isn’t. A tough year for Microsoft, but nevertheless an interesting one for software developers.
Open Source in the Microsoft world is now not a mythical unicorn anymore. In 2014, it’s as real as it gets, and everybody knew it all along. We should have picked up on that earlier…
It has been 15 years and we’re still kicking! It’s been an honor to serve this industry for a decade and a half. A big "Thank You" goes to all our Readers!