I had the pleasure to work with Brian Jones, renowned free software technical writer, last year when I was working on TUX Magazine. We met again by accident recently and, while talking with him, I asked “What about an interview?" Well, here it is!
TM: Hello Brian. Many of our readers already know your name and have read your articles or book. Can you briefly introduce yourself?
BJ: I’m a system/network/database administrator who also writes a good bit of code in Perl, PHP, and Python, for various things in and out of the office. On the side, I keep busy by writing and editing about technology. I’ve written and edited for O’Reilly, Linux.com, php|architect, Linux Magazine, the former TUX magazine, and now Python Magazine.
TM: What was the path that eventually led to you writing for Linux.com?
BJ: I had launched Linuxlaboratory.org in ’99 or 2000 as a place to keep my own documentation while I was still an IT consultant. Occasionally, I’d submit notes I thought might be helpful to others to Linux.com, but they’d always wind up in the “NewsVac" section as simple links to my notes.
It took me until about 2001 to get annoyed that there was nothing on Linux.com to attract or address systems administrators; so I wrote them an email, and Robin ‘Roblimo’ Miller wrote back and said “wanna write a weekly sysadmin column?". I wrote “SysAdmin to SysAdmin" every week for about a year, and became a contributing editor over that same period.
TM: In a previous conversation with me, you told me the story of how you ended up becoming the editor of php|architect... I found it quite amazing. Are you happy to share it with our readers?
BJ: Sure. In 2002, Marco Tabini & Associates launched php|architect Magazine. I was an early subscriber, but was displeased at the quality of the writing and editing when I got the first issue. I wrote to complain, and Marco wrote back and said “Give us a break - we’re an Italian and an Iranian, living in Canada, trying to edit articles written by people from all over the globe, for an English-speaking audience. Come help us out!". So I was editor as of issue 2, and editor in chief starting with issue 3. I continued on for a little over a year, by which time php|architect had grown enough to support announcing a PHP Cruise, we were starting to talk about getting the magazine on news stands around that time, books were being considered, etc. The PHP community was very appreciative of the effort as well. The feedback was extremely gratifying.
TM: Then, the natural progression to your own project: a magazine about Python. Was it your idea?
BJ: Well, Marco and I had talked about doing a second magazine long ago, but we never could decide what focus that magazine would have. Topics like Python came up, but so did Ruby, and Perl, and some other off the wall stuff like a magazine for new desktop Linux users ;-) [Note: Brian and I worked together on the now defunct TUX Magazine, published by SSC]
It so happened that, since that time, I wound up getting into writing a good bit of Python, so if I was going to do a magazine, that was the most natural direction for me to head in. It also seemed like a resource that was severely lacking, and at the same time greatly desired by the Python community.
TM: Was it hard to get your proposal to Marco, and get it approved?
BJ: Actually, no. Marco and I became good friends through those early days of running php|architect, and from that experience Marco knew I could handle budgets and deadlines, and that I enjoyed community-building and interacting with authors, and he knew that authors tended to like working with me, because I am one myself. So I pm’d him on IRC, and since we already think a lot alike and know where we’re likely to differ, we were able to figure out how things would work in probably about 2 hours on IRC.
TM: How did you come to write “Linux Server Hacks, Volume Two", published by O’Reilly?
BJ: An editor at O’Reilly stumbled upon my SysAdmin to SysAdmin articles on Linux.com, and from that linked back to Linuxlaboratory.org, where I republish everything I’ve written that I’m able to retain rights to republish. He was hoping I could write half of the book in about 6 weeks. I locked myself in a closet for 6 weeks, and wrote half the book. Only later did I realize that book editors always start out with impossible deadline proposals because authors never meet them! I turned the last bit of copy in to my editor the day before my wedding.
TM: And all this - your column for Linux.com, the PHP magazine, the book, this new project - while working full time as a sysadmin! So, what is your secret?
BJ: Right—and the book was done the day before my wedding, and Python Magazine was launched just a few weeks after my first child (my daughter Molly) was born! I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.
I don’t know that there is a secret to doing all of this stuff. I mean, I really feel like lots of people can do what I do. In fact, I give a talk that tries to address all of the excuses technical people give for not writing and getting involved in getting information out there.
I might be a little more driven than some people, though, because, having never finished college (yet), I feel like I really sort of owe all of this work to two large groups of people who helped me build my career: the first are people who write code and make it freely available, because that made it easy for me to get my hands dirty with the technology without stealing software, and without spending thousands of dollars on it. The second group are people who wrote all of those books and magazine articles that I devoured and ultimately built my skill set on.
It turns out that I’m a much better writer and editor than I am a coder. Since that’s what I’m best at, that’s where I tend to focus my energy to try and help out. If I ever become a fantastic coder, maybe I’ll shift to doing more of that instead.
In addition, I’m also acutely aware that there are others like me who are looking to learn everything they can, and I want to help those people too. If I can broker a relationship on a large scale between the people who want the knowledge and the people who have it, that would be just amazing, and that’s what motivates me. php|architect worked well in that regard, and I hope Python Magazine will work out that way as well.
TM: So, Python magazine right now is taking most of your time. How is it going?
BJ: Extraordinarily well, actually. We’ve gotten tremendous feedback from the community, our authors are top notch, we’re getting lots of fantastic article proposals, and subscriptions are coming in a little faster than we had anticipated. On top of being pretty exciting, it’s also a huge relief. These new ventures always feel like you’re throwing the biggest party on Earth, and I definitely worried that nobody would show up. Thankfully, it hasn’t turned out that way.
What really takes most of my time right now is getting articles in the door: working with authors to develop articles and even article ideas and proposals; getting contracts out to authors so we can pay them; and also just getting the word out to people who might like to write. I look over my list of article proposals every day, and find that there are huge Python projects that nobody has proposed an article about. I guess they feel like someone must already be covering it. I went into the IRC channels for some very large projects, like Twisted and Django, among others, and said, literally, “I have yet to receive even a single article proposal about this project, so if anyone is willing, shoot me an email!"
Working with the authors is actually my favorite part of producing the magazine, so if something is going to take all of my time, I’m happy it’s that and not paper-pushing or business-related stuff on the back end of the operation.
TM: Thank you Brian. I will make sure I’ll check out your blog whenever I have a spare moment!