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Blogs and Magazines Redux

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

There has been another flurry of postings lately regarding how technical publications should adapt to the blog frenzy. Specifically, Jason Mauss and Tejas Patel had some thought provoking posts.

I have a stack of technical magazines sitting beside my desk right now that I have not gotten to because I’d rather be reading blogs. I’m also a fan of constructive criticism, so I’m trying to go scan through the pile to see what I would do to make these magazines more appealing to me by listing what I do like.

First, Game Developer. The one highlight of every issue is the Postmortem, which will be written by someone inside a gaming company who just released new software. The postmortems will always list the top 5 things that went right and the top 5 things that went wrong, making it much more interesting than the fluffy case study that tells you how great your life can be if you were just using tool XYZ. There is a level of candidness here that generally never makes it into other print articles, but certainly makes it into blogs. There is also a level of human interest, as you can read about conflicts between different stakeholders and how they were resolved. How did they approach bug fixes? How close to the wire did the project go? What features did they have to drop and how did they prioritize them? How did the build process work? Even though it’s the game industry, it’s still software development and the issues are real and I learn from them.

Embedded Systems Programming. Every month Jack G. Ganssle has a column at the end of the issue. Jack has been around the block and is interesting because he tells stories when he writes. Sometimes the column is technical, sometimes not, but it is always down to earth and never pulls punches. This month it looks like he will tell developers how to explain to their managers the ROI on an investment in new tools – something we all need to do at some point.

Dr. Dobb’s Journal. I like Dr. Dobb’s because it contains such a diverse range of content. The April cover looks interesting because it covers everything from data mining, to developing USB device drivers, to adventures in palindromes – which sounds interesting. Also, Michael Swaine writes intellectually stimulating prose every month. This is comparable to the blog world, which contains lots of diversity and often gives you something to chew on with the brain for a bit.

Software Development magazine is generally interesting. It’s different because it is touching on topics like management, design, process, interviews, and other touchy feely subjects not covered in other technical publications. These topics are admittedly difficult to cover without sounding like theory from a college text book – so I wish they could do some more down to earth practical advice, perhaps some interviews and case studies from teams who are doing aspect oriented programming or extreme programming and let us know what went right and wrong.

So after a bit of review, I’d say there are three things technical publications could do to increase their appeal (to me, at least).

First: be real. Tell stories. There is more to creating software than cookie cutter solutions. These stories come out in blogs and they are interesting. Interview developers - tell us what it is like to work at Oracle, or any company from a startup to an industry leader.

Second: Stop trying to stir up controversy on topics like “C# versus VB”. In newsgroups we call this trolling. Also, the editorials on well trodden subjects like offshoring are completely uninteresting unless you have something original to say.

Finally: Look for more diversity in the topics and make some thought provoking topics. Some publications just seem to repeat themselves every three months with slight variation. Performance tips for ADO.NET, Using XML Web Services, yawn, yawn, yawn. Don’t cater to the lowest common denominator and give us something to think about when we are done reading. I want to know what books I could read that do not have .NET in the title that can help me professionally.

So now, it's late, and I still wont get to these magazines.