Charles Petzold on His 25 Years with MSDN Magazine

In the current January issue of MSDN Magazine, I wrote about MSDN Magazine columnist Charles Petzold and his 25-year affiliation with our publication (A Quarter Century and Counting). It's amazing to think how far the magazine has come since the autumn of 1986, and how much the industry (and Microsoft!) has changed around it. Petzold offered plenty of insight about the early days of MSDN Magazine, as well as some cogent thoughts about where we might be headed. Here is a transcript of our conversation.

Michael Desmond: Charles, you wrote an article for the first issue of Microsoft Systems Journal in October 1986, and MSJ later became MSDN Magazine, which means that you’ve been writing for this magazine for 25 years. Congratulations!

Charles Petzold: Congratulations yourself on the 25 year anniversary.

Desmond: How’d you get started at MSJ?

Petzold: Connections! In 1985-86 I was writing a lot for PC Magazine, and spending a lot of time at the magazine offices, which was about a 20-minute walk from my apartment in New York City. PC Magazine’s editor was Bill Machrone, one of the great publishing geniuses of all time, and he had put together a great staff and a nice group of writers.

At the time, PC Magazine was published by Ziff-Davis, and one of the, I think, Executive VPs at Ziff-Davis was Jonathan Lazarus -- another publishing genius who had pioneered the controlled-circulation free weekly, PC Week, which was essential at the time for understanding what was going on in the computer industry.

Jon was a major fan of the Apple Macintosh, and consequently had great hopes for Microsoft Windows. I had been playing around with Windows programming since Windows was in beta, and then after Windows 1.0 was released in November 1985. It was mostly silly stuff I was doing, but I was having fun, and that’s how I was introduced to Jon -- as somebody doing silly stuff with Windows.

So I think sometime in 1986 Jon Lazarus left Ziff-Davis to publish a magazine contracted by Microsoft through his consulting firm, which was rather whimsically named H. Roark & Associates. Originally the magazine was supposed to be exclusively about Windows programming, but they chickened out because there was no indication that Windows would be successful. They took a safer route that it would be about programming for all Microsoft operating systems. And because Microsoft was always rather enamored of IBM, and IBM published IBM Systems Journal, they called it Microsoft Systems Journal.

Jon began recruiting writers for MSJ that he knew from various places, including me.

Desmond: What were the early days like?

Petzold: I’m not sure how much of the MSJ early days it would be proper to disclose publicly! Jon’s consulting firm -- such as it was -- had an office on, I think, 3rd Avenue around 42nd Street. It was a tiny office, and he shared it with an agent who I think specialized in clients who wanted to become newscasters and television personalities, so the office was filled with stacks of videotapes. Jon had hired the talented Michael Longacre to design and lay out the magazine, and for at least a couple years, MSJ was created entirely in PageMaker on Macintoshes, and late-80s Macs at that.

For several years, MSJ was the only magazine that ran articles about Windows programming. Certainly PC Magazine wasn’t ready to go in that direction, which is one reason why I was able to write for both magazines at the same time. There was virtually no overlap. It was through my connection with MSJ that I was recruited by Microsoft Press to write the book that became the first edition of Programming Windows in 1988.

Desmond: You’ve lived through the reigns of several editors. Anyone in particular stand out?

Petzold: At one point, Jon asked me if I’d like to be Technical Editor of MSJ, but I would have made a terrible editor. I don’t even like talking to people on the telephone, let along asking people to do work for me. One of the great things about writing is that you do it by yourself. So I’ve been happy being a writer. I’ve never had ambitions to do anything else.

Eventually Tony Rizzo was brought on as Technical Editor and later Eric Maffei took over the editorship, and both these guys are really sharp, and really good at their jobs, and made much better editors than I would have.

But what I remember most about those early years was the socializing among the editors and writers. We were all friends as well as coworkers. MSJ maintained a social connection with PC Magazine, partially from that early connection with Jon and Ziff-Davis, and perhaps because these were the only two computer magazines published in New York City. That social connection continued for years: PC Magazine people and MSJ people would frequently hang out together at industry events such as Comdex, and get together for parties and dinners in New York City. And sometimes editors would hop from one of the magazines to the other. Tony Rizzo went from MSJ to PC Magazine, and Sharon Terdeman, who works for MSDN Magazine now, I originally knew when she was at PC Magazine.

I always thought of the socializing aspect of magazines to be extremely important, because as we were socializing, we also seemed to develop a lot of ideas and a lot of connections. I guess by the mid-90s, that social aspect of MSJ and PC Magazine had pretty much disintegrated. Or maybe these dinners are still happening and they just stopped inviting me!

Desmond: Did you ever think you’d be writing for the magazine 25 years later?

Petzold: I wouldn’t have believed that the magazine would survive for 25 years. Most magazines don’t last nearly that long. Even so, MSJ went through a name change and ownership changes during that time, so the passage hasn’t exactly been smooth.

Desmond: What about the changes in the industry itself?

Petzold: Gosh, in 1986 there were still people arguing that the personal computer didn’t need graphics! Twenty-five rows of 80 characters of text were just fine for those folks. The graphical user interface was the first big revolution in the PC industry, and I’m proud to have been an early supporter of Windows and later the multimedia enhancements, which brought sound and music and movies to the PC.

The second big revolution over the past 25 years was, of course, the Internet and World Wide Web, and I didn’t see that coming at all! Of course, a lot of us didn’t see it coming, but it brought a profound change to computing from both the user and developer perspectives.

We’re in the middle of a third revolution right now, and that’s the ascendance of computers whose form factor is basically a flat screen that you can hold in your hands. Because we only have two hands, we have two different sizes of these devices. One is small enough for one hand, and the other is comfortable for two hands.

I think that for many users, a phone or a tablet will be their primary computer. For those of us who need an actual keyboard and large screen to write or to code or to do spreadsheets, we’ll probably still need a desktop machine, but I think that multi-touch is going to revolutionize the desktop as much as it’s revolutionized portable computing.

Throughout these revolutions, MSDN Magazine has been in the forefront, but always from a practical coding perspective rather than an abstract theoretical one. The magazine continues to be the primary place for developers to learn about these new technologies, at least as they affect the Microsoft-centric development world.

Desmond: There are a lot of aspiring writers out there. Any advice for people hoping to launch a sustained career as a writer?

Petzold: Do you really want to end on such a depressing topic?

Look, I love writing. I love the challenge, and I love the learning process that comes as a result of organizing your knowledge and thoughts well enough to put it all down in a series of consecutive coherent paragraphs. And on the up side, there have never been more writing opportunities than now. Many online magazines accept contributions, anybody can create a blog, and self-publishing a book has never been easier.

But the tricky part is generating some income from this writing, and that’s often desirable. As we know from basic economics, when you have a lot of people generating product, the worth of this product decreases. Book sales have plummeted over the past couple decades, and the developer market has fragmented so much that it’s difficult to even conceive of a book topic that has more than a few thousand potential readers. Even MSDN Magazine no longer pays its writers what it did in the past.

I’ve been through the ups and downs. I quit my nine-to-five office job in 1985 to pursue a full-time freelance writing career, and for almost 20 years I was able to support myself entirely with book royalties and magazine articles. But now I can’t. Over the past several years I’ve had to supplement my income with consulting, which is fun at times, of course, but I’d rather be writing.

I guess the most important advice is this: Go for it. Write, write, write. It’s a great way to learn, and a great way to share. But don’t give up your day job just yet.

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