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My favorite things

Reflecting on a tough year yields an editor’s lovefest.

I love Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues.” I love swimming in a cold lake after a hot sauna. I love a Corey Koskie diving stab at third, followed by a Doug Mientkiewicz split-stretch for the putout. I love Memphis-style ribs. I love Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” I love driving down lonely country roads. I love “Bull Durham,” especially the part when Crash names all the things he loves.

Of course, I don’t have the space and you don’t have the patience for me to name all the things I love. Consider the above a representative sample, and add one thing: I love this job. This occurred to me as I prepared for this review/preview issue, and sat pondering all the seemingly insurmountable challenges I have faced in the last year. As I mentioned in this column last December, the tough economy for tech publishing has felled many publications (e.g., The Industry Standard). As I wrote that column, I never thought this year would be a mirror image (e.g., Upside). Couple that with a long list of editor exits from surviving publications, and one might wonder why I’ve stuck it out. The only reason I have persevered is because I love this job. It’s also why I don’t see myself leaving for a long time.

I love this job because it forces me to keep on top of an ever-changing industry. When I started almost six years ago, I was taught that we don’t have to worry about timeliness. “The cream of the technology crop will rise to the top in time,” was what former editor Steve Deyo told me. The reality is, we do need to be timely. I can think of five stories from the past year that we covered just at the right time, much to the satisfaction of our editors and readers alike (Wi-Fi Internet in April, digital photography and Foveon in May, CRM and grid computing in June, collaboration for distance learning in August, and optical Internet in September). Nothing in this job pleases me more than hitting a topic just at the right time and nailing the story in the process.

I love this job because it empowers me to serve a community of readers. While we are not quite Slashdot, we do have a very loyal community of readers. It is this community that keeps me focused. I’m not just creating content for some demographic profile, but rather for folks I’ve had the pleasure to meet on the street and at trade shows. I see their struggles in the lines on their faces. These lines drive home the importance of helping them with their computing problems by providing accurate and timely information. It also gives me great joy to hear from a congressman who relays how one of my columns played an integral role in advocating for our readers in Washington (e.g., national do-not-call lists, .xxx domains).

I love this job because it gives me an opportunity to hone my craft–making technical subjects interesting and understandable for non-technical readers. I work in an office with 40 other editors from various magazines. Many of them work on lifestyle publications. Most of these editors look at me like I suffer from some horrible disease when I tell them that I enjoy technical writing and editing. “Oh, you poor thing,” their faces seem to say. At first it was unsettling to know that there’s something very wrong with me. Now I relish the role of quirky geek. And I know I would be bored stiff if I had to edit 100 restaurant reviews a year. My realization that this is where I belong enables me to take risks. I’m free to try new ways to make technical topics interesting to the masses; and our readers will tell me what works and what doesn’t. It’s like a big public lab. What could be cooler than a lab?

I love this job because it allows me to be a part of a great team. With the addition of Elizabeth Millard and the persistence of Dan Heilman and Kurt Guthmueller, we have far and away the best staff I have ever worked with. For the first time, I feel like I can just relax and do my job and know that everyone else will do theirs. We help each other out and bounce ideas off each other in a light-hearted atmosphere. This environment makes me want to go into work every morning.

I love this job because it enables me to try out the latest tech toys. I’ve always been a gadget guy. I love taking things apart and seeing how they tick. I may not be the best at putting stuff back together, but I always seem to make it work again, even without that tiny part I lost. And I have a knack for programming watches, VCRs, and other stuff. People think I have the messiest office in the building and, you know, they’re right. But most of the junk in my office is not junk at all; it’s a pile of products waiting for me to put them through their paces. My office is like a lab with a big glass wall. People walk by and say, “Hey, look at the geek with that huge honkin’ flat monitor” while I’m thinking, “Don’t you wish you could play with all this stuff?”

I love this job because there’s a comfortable rhythm to it. Every day of the week has a purpose; every week of the month has its own deadlines; every month of the year has a shipping date; and we move it on down the line. I get up in the morning, look at my watch, and know exactly what needs to be done that day. Every month, we look at what we’ve done, find places to make improvements, and implement the improvements in the next month’s product. Since there’s always room for improvement, it’s a never-ending process, with tangible ways to demonstrate progress. We’ve improved in dozens of ways this past year, dozens more the year before, and hundreds of ways since I started. Having measurable progress gives me the confidence to continue improving.

I love this job because it gives me the space to cultivate other interests and achieve a work/life balance. Partly because of the job’s rhythm, I can leave it on my desk when I board the bus for the park-and-ride. Even if I don’t finish all my allotted tasks in a given day, I know I can catch up the next. While I do find myself thinking about the job outside the office, such is the life of a writer. Writing is thinking with words; that’s the beauty of it. But most of the time when I’m away from work, I’m free to hang out with my wife and son and not be bothered by a pager or cell phone. I can just enjoy their company and play Bob Vila in our old house. In short, this job allows me to cherish those I love the most, and to pursue all the things I love. What’s not to love?

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