Freelancing, and Founding an Online Magazine, with Vitaly Friedman

By M. David Green , Tim Evko

Vitaly Friedman on Versioning

In this episode of the Versioning Show, Tim and David are joined by Vitaly Friedman, founder and Editor-in-Chief of Smashing Magazine. Vitaly takes Tim and David by the hand as they circumnavigate the world of the early web, freelancing, founding an online magazine, amazing free wallpapers, classic failures, editorial guidelines, and the mysterious haunts of foreign writers.

Show Notes

Conversation Highlights

At some point I watched this show, which made a very profound influence on me actually, where there was a guy — a little child — with his grandfather … He said that, Every single day, me and my grandfather, we are traveling around the world, because it’s a circle.

Basically crossing the entire world in one day. And I thought, Well, maybe this is even possible. I mean, they had a very small village, so they couldn’t go anywhere, so the grandfather invented this story and he would actually invent little worlds around the village so they would walk through once in the North, once in the South, and so on, and they would change direction a little bit. They would kind of make a full circle around the world.

I believed that at some point, and I felt like I could change the world the same way.


Then at some point, right now — and this is like the happiest moment of my life I think — is the point when I gave up on perfection altogether. I think it’s even more important to not be perfect, and to embrace the quirky and unbalanced world that you create on your own. I think it makes you happier, and also makes you a little bit more focused, because you don’t have to reach this infinity or this perfection that doesn’t really exist in the first place.


Maybe I’m just and egoist — it’s all for me, it’s all about me — kind of leaving a trace behind, leaving a step behind, or leaving something meaningful behind. I find that’s really, really important. This also makes me happy, to be honest.


What we decided to do is literally move away from inspirational articles — because pretty much everyone was doing it anyway — towards something that would be more profound, which means that it would describe the process, for example, to describe the tooling, it would also describe the way people are organized when they work.


I like movies with bad endings, so I’m really looking forward to see how people — I mean, not like I’m looking forward to it but, it’s really interesting for me to see how people failed, and why, because I think that you can even learn more from that than actually from success stories that are all over the place.


We did lose traffic, obviously. This has cost us a lot of traffic, but honestly, maybe I’m too naïve about this, but I’ve never been in it for the money. I never wanted to cash out. We had opportunities, but I never felt like I have to do it. It’s like the same thing like people tell me I have to grow the company. I don’t feel like I have to grow the company. I feel very comfortable being small and enjoying my little life happiness/business/writing/something enterprise.


you have to find people around you who can actually just double check your article. Just send them over to you and get some feedback. Even if it’s just two people, or just one person. I mean, one person might be biased, but if it’s two people, and they actually give you some feedback that you can build upon, this will improve your article 100%. Not only guaranteed, but also definitely will improve it by 100%, will make it double as good as it was in the beginning.


I tend to go to Russian-speaking blogs as well, and they have so much good material, it’s incredible. The front-end developers, they are just crazy, it’s literally crazy in a good way. They know so much about everything, and they know every little trick and every little hack and everything is just extreme, it’s unbelievable.

Vitaly Friedman on the Versioning Show

Transcript

Tim:

Hey, what’s up, everybody? This is Tim Evko.

David:

And this is M. David Green.

Tim:

And you’re listening to episode number 11 of the Versioning Podcast.

David:

This is a place where we get together to discuss the industry of the web from development to design, with some of the people making it happen today and finding where it’s headed in the next version.

Tim:

So let’s go ahead and get this version started.


Today, we have with us Vitaly Friedman, Editor-in-Chief of Smashing Magazine. Thanks to you so much for joining us, Vitaly. How are you doing today?

Vitaly:

Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure, and I’m really excited to be here today. I’m doing wonderful! What about you guys?

David:

So far, so good. Vitaly, before we get started with the interview, we usually like to ask our guests a philosophical question. And since this is the Versioning Show, our philosophical question is: in your current career, what version are you, and why?

Vitaly:

OK, that’s a tough one. In my current career … well, I think this is probably my third version, if I should be honest. The reason why I’m saying third is because, when I was growing up, when I was a child, I had a very different perception of the world, and I wouldn’t say it as naïve or so — of course it was — but I really believed that I could just take one day and change everything in the world.

At some point I watched this show, which made a very profound influence on me actually, where there was a guy — a little child — with his grandfather, and they were walking, and it was happening in a little village. It was like, I don’t know, maybe there were two, three, four hundred people living there. And he was interviewed, and he said this little thing which literally stuck with me for a while. He said that, Every single day, me and my grandfather, we are traveling around the world, because it’s a circle.

Basically crossing the entire world in one day. And I thought, Well, maybe this is even possible. I mean, they had a very small village, so they couldn’t go anywhere, so the grandfather invented this story and he would actually invent little worlds around the village so they would walk through once in the North, once in the South, and so on, and they would change direction a little bit. They would kind of make a full circle around the world.

I believed that at some point, and I felt like I could change the world the same way. Then I grew up, and I started computer science. Then I became one of those people who really believe in science, and in exact things, and in precision, and I was very obsessed with perfection at this point. Everything was literally about perfection, the way my laboratory’s stored, the way my room is decorated, everything was supposed to be precise.

Then at some point, right now — and this is like the happiest moment of my life I think — is the point when I gave up on perfection altogether. I think it’s even more important to not be perfect, and to embrace the quirky and unbalanced world that you create on your own. I think it makes you happier, and also makes you a little bit more focused, because you don’t have to reach this infinity or this perfection that doesn’t really exist in the first place.

David:

I love that. It reminds me of the Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi — appreciating the imperfections.

Vitaly:

Right. Right. That’s pretty much it, yes I think so. Although, I wasn’t influenced by that, I think, maybe. I didn’t have many connections with Japanese philosophy back in the day.

David:

That’s interesting. Where did you grow up?

Vitaly:

I grew up in Minsk, Belarus, in Eastern Europe — which, up until 2000, is where I used to live. It’s not actually far away from where I am right now. Right now I’m in Lithuania, in Vilnius. As I was growing up, it was kind of a nice little story for me, because every single time, every single day, I experienced something new, and I had these really crazy ideas that I don’t even know why I pursued.

For example — and it was kind of clever, I think [chuckles] — I had this idea in my mind that there is no proper schedule in the world, so I would watch TV shows like Euronews and BBC and whatever, and I would record the timing when a specific program would be aired, and I would write it down, and then I would make a list of all the schedules — which I thought is perfect, and nobody has it in the world. I don’t even know why I would do that, but this is kind of tasks I invented for myself back in the day.

David [4:18]:

You were doing data science right from the start!

Vitaly:

I think so. Well, I was really small at this point. I have no idea why I did it. And, actually, it’s kind of nice, because my father, the physicist — sorry, that was growing up — didn’t have proper TV or so at home. It was like a few channels, but they were quite boring. He managed to put on a satellite dish which grabbed the signal, probably illegally, from a hotel nearby, and so we were able to watch all kinds of TV shows, and all kinds of channels like Italian ones and Polish ones.

I would watch them all the time, so I watched Knight Rider, and Friends, and everything in Polish, which is why I actually understand Polish now. I don’t speak Polish, but I understood it. This is kind of the world I was growing up with; it was crazy in a pretty cool way.

David:

That’s awesome. I have to tell you, you’re one of the few people we’ve had on the show who actually has a computer science degree.

Vitaly:

Yes, that’s correct.

David:

Yet you’re not working as an engineer per se, right?

Vitaly:

No, not really. Actually, I think that the computer science degree helped me to see the world a little bit differently. I really enjoyed mathematics, and I was actually better in mathematics than in computer science, which is why I took more courses in mathematics in the end — because it helped me build this kind of logical view of things. I think, or I believe, I’m pretty good at planning, I’m pretty good at seeing things through, kind of putting things together, creating these Lego blocks and assembling things. Not necessarily in terms of physics; I’m horrible at assembling little things in real life, but I’m pretty good in virtual life, I think.

Yeah, I think that computer science kind of helped me create this kind of understanding of the world; it helped me to be really precise in my work, which what editing is all about. Kind of being precise, concise, getting things to the point. Although I’m not using computer science per se everyday, it helped shape my view of things and also my work.

Tim:

So, Vitaly, after you got your computer science degree, how did you sort of start to descend into the path of starting Smashing Magazine? How did that whole thing happen?

Vitaly:

That’s a good point, but I actually didn’t really transition any way. It kind of crushed on me. At the point when I was starting, I was also freelancing, because I was young and need the money. So I just started doing what I could.

Basically, back in Belarus back in late ’90s, I was playing a little bit with all kinds of old technologies like VML and Flash (no, it wasn’t Flash, it was Shockwave), and all kind of things like that. I just played with it. Then, when we moved to Germany in the year 2000 (my father brought the entire family with him), I kind of tried to find my way of earning money and also building up things, because I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t have any penny. I didn’t want to get any penny from my parents, so I wanted to do something on my own, and the only thing I knew how to do is how to build pretty crappy Shockwave websites.

So I decided to kind of jump into it while I was studying computer science. At the time, I also was freelancing. And there was a night university gig at the time, when I was supposed to maintain one of the websites, and I jumped into it, and this is kind of my opportunity where I learned all about HTML, and CSS, and so on and so forth. It was a really good timing, actually, too, because this was the point when CSS actually became the thing, when you could see all kind of articles appearing on A List Apart about sprites, and images, border radius techniques, and whatever — all kind of things like that.

David [7:43]:

The expanding shutter for wide buttons, et cetera?

Vitaly:

Yes. You know, it’s very surprising, because sometimes I actually get to meet these people who wrote these articles 10 to 15 years ago. It’s a long time ago. Sliding Doors, and all kind of things like that. And I think, wow, this is long time ago. This is when I jumped into web development.

Smashing Magazine became kind of a side product, more or less, because I was freelancing, and I was always looking for these techniques, and I remember vividly spending a lot of time at my mom’s kitchen table, at the time, to just understand the CSS box model — understand how all the things work. It took me quite a lot of time, actually. It wasn’t that easy; floating wasn’t easy. It really took me a while to understand why I can float left and right but top and bottom. I just couldn’t get it, it was so weird, it’s like something I couldn’t understand.

David:

You and the rest of the web.

Vitaly:

Yes, I think so. So I started collecting all these techniques that would make my life easier as a freelancer. In the end, it has become this big web-developer’s handbook, which was released at some point. It was on Slashdot and Dig and everything. Then, this was kind of my way of looking into these techniques, and then eventually a colleague of mine from Germany, he suggested to create a magazine in English because he was writing a German magazine at the time — a German-speaking magazine. I said, Well, why not? So, I was blogging at the time, so I just translated some of the articles that I wrote for him, for his magazine, into English, and this is how it all started — what in the end was just a collection of techniques that I could use for my work. I was selfish, and a bastard — you know how it is — thinking only about myself, that’s it … and wanted to share with the community, too.

David:

I think that that last bit is really the key point — wanting to share with the community. You weren’t the only person out there publishing information like that, but Smashing Magazine has developed an amazing reputation for delivering really in-depth, high-quality content. I’m curious how you made the transition from being one of the people out there publishing content about this, to being such a premier publication.

Vitaly:

That’s a very good point. I look back, and I realize it was actually September 2006, pretty much 10 years ago, when it all started. It all started with a quick and cheap blog posts, like 40 free amazing wallpapers, or 40 free, beautiful, yellow websites, and things like that. Which I just, at this point, was just inspirational, and we had all kinds of photography — black and white photography and everything.

So it was all about just publishing something that we believed was good, but was also quite quick to do. But at the same time, of course, the main priority and the main focus was development, web development, web design — so CSS, JavaScript, jQuery and everything related was kind of a big deal. However, what we noticed quite quickly is that, at some point, at least personally, I had a problem, because I couldn’t identify myself with the work that we were doing.

We saw of course that traffic is coming in if we publish things like 50 amazing wallpapers that will make you cry, stuff like that. We see that people actually come to the site, traffic increases, and we had advertising running, so obviously it helps. But I didn’t really feel that I could connect with this, and didn’t feel that I wanted my name to stand behind it. That was kind of a crucial point. At some point, having a proper editorial workflow, editorial guidelines, editorial work, where an article would stand for itself was really really important. Actually we were doing that at the time anyway; it was just a little bit different, because it was more about just collecting resources and presenting them.

I did want to kind of push into more in-depth material, which would actually stay relevant over the course of time. I wanted actually, deliberately, to move away from these wallpapers, towards becoming a professional respected magazine, because at the time I didn’t feel like it was respected at all. People were coming from all over the world to download wallpapers and icons and looking for inspiration, maybe, but I didn’t feel that Smashing Magazine was standing for a respected publication. It was more like a blog, list blog, maybe, and I didn’t feel comfortable with it.

So we changed, basically almost over night. We decided to move the direction away from the lists to serious content, and we established all kinds of things, like an editorial panel, an experts panel, which would actually review articles before they get published. So of course, costs increased as well, and traffic dropped significantly. That’s important, because we lost a lot of traffic because of this transition, but what I feel is important, we gained a lot of trust and we also gained a lot of good traffic from people who are designers and developers who trust us, and who just want to invest into buying our products, or supporting us in any way possible, because they know that there are people who really care about the work that they’re doing. This is kind of really important for me, because I feel that the work I’m doing today really matters because there are people out there who find it useful.

Which is why, just today, actually, I finished this crazy article which took me almost four to five months to prepare, which is pretty much like I think nine or ten thousand words. It took a lot of research, and a lot of interviews, and everything. But I did want to write it, because I think that people will appreciate it. People will like it, will find it useful, they will find it valuable — and maybe even, at some point, it will be one of those articles that become kind of important for people, that they will look back to and think, Oh, yeah, that article.

Maybe I’m just and egoist — it’s all for me, it’s all about me — kind of leaving a trace behind, leaving a step behind, or leaving something meaningful behind. I find that’s really, really important. This also makes me happy, to be honest.

Tim [13:35]:

My question is, when you made this transition from your lists-style content or resources for other developers to really in-depth, intense and passionate articles, how did you go about choosing the content that you would publish for this — almost at that point in time — new version of your site?

Vitaly:

That’s a very interesting point. What we decided to do is literally move away from inspirational articles — because pretty much everyone was doing it anyway — towards something that would be more profound, which means that it would describe the process, for example, to describe the tooling, it would also describe the way people are organized when they work.

So, for example, we started looking a bit more into case studies. For example, somebody might have built a project, might have built a website, so what exactly was the process behind? What did people building or designing it learn along the way? What were the mistakes they were running into all the time?

I think that actually, what I tried to focus on a lot over these last five/six years is not necessarily those big success stories, which you can hear in BuzzFeed and Fast Company and so on, or TechCrunch. Everybody likes success stories, because they are manifestations or manifests of people succeeding because of hard work. It’s like a movie. Everybody likes a good movie with a good ending. But I like movies with bad endings, so I’m really looking forward to see how people — I mean, not like I’m looking forward to it but, it’s really interesting for me to see how people failed, and why, because I think that you can even learn more from that than actually from success stories that are all over the place.

Maybe these people actually have recovered from their failures and succeeded then later, because every success has a couple of failures along the way, which is why we kind of started looking to things that went wrong in projects. What are the pain points the designers and developers and maybe project managers or whoever was involved had along the way? What did they start with, and what did they finish with in the end? Maybe the finish line was not as they expected at all.

We started looking to this particular aspect of articles in more depth. More specifically, so you build something, you’re not writer, that’s okay, we don’t expect you to have excellent writing skills, because we have editors and proof readers and everybody who can help you. What we want to know is what you learned as you were building or designing this thing, because I think that many people can actually learn something from that too.

David [16:00]:

When you were developing Smashing Magazine and you went through this transition, did you yourself view that as failure, or did you see that as something else?

Vitaly:

To be honest, I never felt like it’s a failure. I mean, I did some mistakes along the way, when we had a few kind of strange articles, so to say, which I really stood behind — which I felt right, which should be published — and the feedback was just horrible from all parts of the community. This is my mistake, probably, that I kind of trusted myself too much at this point, and pushed the envelope seal — although there were people around me telling me not to do it.

But I don’t feel that we made some crucial mistakes. We love experimentation, we love kind of trying things out. So we do things when we feel like it should be done. And then, if it’s wrong, then we will just correct ourselves. We will never, for example, delete something, delete an article or delete a tweet or delete a message or stuff like that, or say thing that we didn’t mean it that way although we actually meant it. I think you can always recover by being honest and transparent about what your true motivation is, because people will respect that; they will appreciate that you are being straight with them.

So, I don’t think that this is mistake. We did lose traffic, obviously. This has cost us a lot of traffic, but honestly, maybe I’m too naïve about this, but I’ve never been in it for the money. I never wanted to cash out. We had opportunities, but I never felt like I have to do it. It’s like the same thing like people tell me I have to grow the company. I don’t feel like I have to grow the company. I feel very comfortable being small and enjoying my little life happiness/business/writing/something enterprise. We have at this point 11 people in the team, and many editors around the world, of course, who are working part time, mostly, and they’re just amazing. That’s OK; that makes me happy.

David:

I think there are a lot of us out here who are hoping that you don’t decide to sell out, because keeping it the way that it is is very useful for everybody who’s reading the magazine.

Vitaly:

Yes. But of course, you could say there are many things we could do, but actually for me what was really important — always has been important — is to stay independent. I never want to be one of the — OK, maybe it will sound a bit harsh — but one of the people behind a big fancy brand that owns a thousand magazines out there. I would never want that. It’s kind of really cool, I think, it’s really nice still even ten years later now, to be able to know that if I feel like it I can just write down something in WordPress (that we’re using still, 10 years later), and hit the publish button, and it will be published. I don’t have to ask anybody, I don’t have to ask for permission. That’s amazing. I feel like even just knowing that I could do that (although I probably wouldn’t do that, because we have editors, and we have all kinds of editorial reviews and so on), but knowing that I could do that gives me a huge boost in motivation.

David:

I can imagine, and you say you’re still using WordPress as your back end. I was going to ask you some more about how Smashing Magazine runs technically.

Vitaly:

Yeah. It’s actually not a very complicated setup. We are running WordPress, we use nginx, we do use MaxCDN, we are hosted on Media Temple (Media Temple has been very supportive for us I must admit at this point). Yeah, still, everything is quite simple, we’re running PHP, LAMP, EasyStack, so nothing too revolutionary at this point, I’m afraid.

Tim:

You mentioned that you employ this philosophy of non-precision, but at the same time, Smashing Magazine I feel is a very precise technical, high-standard publication. So how do you seem to balance those two sort of philosophies and behaviors? Then my second part would be, do you have any advice for web developers who are looking to produce that same level of precision and technical excellence that we see from Smashing Magazine?

Vitaly [19:46]:

All right. That’s a very interesting question. I think at this point it’s important that an article that gets published on the site is right. It cannot have any mistakes in terms of code, because we cannot afford propagating bad practices. This is just not acceptable.

The same way we cannot afford having anything that might be biased. So we don’t have product placement. We do have sponsored content, but it’s marked as such. The articles that are published, if they’re coming from us, coming from our authors, they cannot be biased, which is why we do not accept authors who are working on a specific product and want to write about that product. This is just not going to work.

We also have editorial guidelines and a publishing policy which really clearly state the things that we do and the things that we don’t do. Obviously not every author reads them, but for us they’re really guiding. They help us decide whether we choose a certain direction in terms of an article or not. It helps us decide whether we accept a certain article or certain author or not as well. This is kind of really the thing. I don’t think it’s perfect. I don’t think that it kind of drives us towards perfection, towards these perfect articles that you can’t even touch, where it’s all just marvelous and shiny and everything. I think what we tend to do in order to avoid perfect then is to kind of try to bring in the personal note. So people just write about their experiences, and they can’t be perfect, and they can’t be imperfect either: they’re just their own experiences.

When they write about them, some things maybe — as it is in normal, in regular life — sometimes you’re supposed to, you know, logically you would do this because it makes sense, but maybe you will not do this because you have business requirements, or something comes in, and stuff like that. So it’s like a story. And stories don’t have to be perfect. The same way, I feel like maybe sometimes our authors are trying way too hard to write this perfect paragraph or write this perfect sentence, and I encourage them to actually make mistakes. I encourage them to put a wrong comma in a place, or just don’t think about it too much, just write down the things that really bother you that you think are important. We will take care of the commas, and if we missed the comma, that’s OK too; that’s not a big deal. I mean, nobody is going to die if we have a wrong semicolon in the wrong place.

David:

I think a lot of us who might be out here looking at Smashing Magazine from the outside, we see this beautiful, perfected thing that gets published, and it’s intimidating, and I can understand why an author would want to really polish, get every detail, before submitting something to you.

Vitaly:

The thing is, the truth is that I actually just published an article like a month ago about the process that poor authors have to run through (Behind The Scenes: What It Takes To Publish A Smashing Article), and they are intimidated at times, and sometimes they are literally crushed. I’m getting email sometimes from people who are not crying, but they are disappointed — literally disappointed — because they invest so much time and they feel like we’re putting them through hell. And I’m proud of it, to be honest. OK, it’s not like I’m liking it, but it’s my job to publish good articles, so I really feel that it’s my obligation in a way to push the author to the edge. It doesn’t mean that I have to pull them over the edge, but I have to push them to the edge to question everything, and sometimes I feel like I’m playing devil’s advocate all the time.

Like, I know that I would agree with that statement that the author just wrote, I fully agree with that, and I’m pretty sure that most developers out there would. But I have to question its validity. Why is it like that? Do you have any data? Does it come from your experience? Can you prove that? Maybe this is totally wrong. I’m always trying to kind of push a little bit harder, and at some point I push maybe too hard. But that’s OK. I’m not here to be liked. What really was important for us, and probably crucial for Smashing Magazine to evolve towards a publication — well-respected publication — was to introduce the experts panel.

The experts panel for us is kind of a panel of 110 people (maybe 120 at this point) from our industry — all people who have been around for a while, from very different areas, be it front end, be it back end, be it search engine optimization, be it Photoshop, or visual design, pattern libraries libraries, whatever. All kinds of different areas.

What we do is, before that article gets published, we always run it through this panel. So we need two reviews at least, and these people who are submitting feedback, they have to also rate an article. And an article gets published if it gets a certain average rating. It has to be about 3.6 or 3.7 (I think we increased the threshold at this point).

So, why is it helpful for developers out there? Well, because I feel, well obviously it helped at first because we tried to publish good articles. But I mean, for people out there, I think that my advice would be to say, you have to find people around you who can actually just double check your article. Just send them over to you and get some feedback. Even if it’s just two people, or just one person. I mean, one person might be biased, but if it’s two people, and they actually give you some feedback that you can build upon, this will improve your article 100%. Not only guaranteed, but also definitely will improve it by 100%, will make it double as good as it was in the beginning.

If you could get some feedback, just from people in the industry. I think that many people out there are really nice people in our industry. We are privileged to be working with these kinds of people. If you can just send the article to a person you admire, and they spend 20 minutes reading it, and maybe giving you a few notes of what are the things that are wrong or right, that will give you a direction to go to. As a result, you will end up with a better article, I’m sure. We do encourage everybody to write, so every time I find a weird, interesting, crazy, strange project, I do send an email, or we do send emails to authors kind of encouraging them to write.

Also, because I speak Russian as well, because of my background, I tend to go to Russian-speaking blogs as well, and they have so much good material, it’s incredible. The front-end developers, they are just crazy, it’s literally crazy in a good way. They know so much about everything, and they know every little trick and every little hack and everything is just extreme, it’s unbelievable. I kind of try to encourage them to write more as well, and as a result we do have some really interesting and unique articles published in Smashing as well, because there are some closed areas.

Very much like — this is what I experienced — the Chinese area; the Chinese front-end community is quite closed. There are many people writing about the front end in China, but it will be written in Mandarin in Chinese, so we don’t see that at all. Same happens in Russian-speaking communities: often you will find really brilliant articles written in Russian, but not translated through English, so they kind of stay stuck in this community. I feel that it happens to some degree in France as well, but I don’t speak French so I can’t really … I don’t speak Chinese either, but that’s a different story.

[Background chuckling]

I just happen to have a few people in China who tell me about these articles. And I still feel like we have this language barrier, which is a bit of a shame, but this is where unique perspectives come from. So I’m always trying to find these people working on these weird unusual projects and pull them in somehow to write. So anybody can write an article for Smashing, and everybody is invited to write an article as well. It will take some time, and it will be hard work, but if you are willing to accept it and invest your time in it, we will get to good results.

David [27:18]:

Fantastic. So, how can our listeners find you online?

Vitaly:

That’s not very difficult, I think. Not many people know that, but most tweets that are coming from our Smashing Mag account are from me, and I’m trying my best actually to make sure that this account is not seen as a corporate account, but as a personal account. You can just tweet me; I’m replying all the time, that’s not that hard.

Also the same story on Facebook: our Facebook group is also the same story. Obviously it’s the Smashing Mag account, but it’s kind of my personal account in a way. It’s like in organized conferences: sometimes I feel like I’m inviting people to my private second birthday party to hang out with cool people.

David:

That’s awesome. I love the way that you’ve put that all together. I really appreciate you taking the time to come talk with us today.

Vitaly:

It’s been my pleasure. Thank you so much! I hope I didn’t speak too much.

Tim:

Not at all; this has been delightful.

Vitaly:

Excellent, thank you so much for having me.


Tim:

Wow, I feel like we could have a book of just questions and answers from Vitaly. He has just a wealth of information, and so much to share.

David:

I love the perspective he brings to this. It’s like he’s designed a life for himself around trying to share knowledge and information. And in the process, he’s tapped in to such a rich vein of valuable content, it’s amazing.

Tim:

Yeah. It was very interesting, because I would almost expect his personality to be very precise and on point because of the way that Smashing Magazine feels from a reader’s perspective. Vitaly seems a lot more curious and just ready to have fun with the whole process. It’s very cool to see that someone with that outlook can successfully put forward such incredibly well-structured and well-thought-out content.

David:

The depth of the content that goes there is always the thing that amazes me, because you can go to a Smashing Magazine article and you know that you could be there for hours exploring the sub links, exploring all of the details. So much comes out of each one of those pieces. I can just imagine: he said it can take months for a single one to come together, and it absolutely shows in the product.

Tim:

I didn’t mention this, but I’ve written three articles for Smashing Magazine, two of which had been published. One was rejected, and I spent quite a bit of time working on the rejected one. It was for accessibility, and I wanted to just write about introduction stuff — like if you are working on a site or an application, here’s the stuff that you do. The editor was very nice and offered suggestions; I worked on a second draft, and he came back and said, Sorry, this just isn’t cutting it, and we’re going to have to call it quits here. It sucked, it really did, it wasn’t a fun experience, but like Vitaly said, keeping that standard very high and at the same time allowing people to have fun with it, I’m happier now that the experience happened, because I know that the thing that I’m going to end up reading on Smashing Magazine is going to be really, really good.

It’s a very intense process, and anyone who has written for Smashing Magazine certainly knows, it’s incredibly rewarding once it’s published, because you see this beautifully chiseled sort of publication that … I don’t usually get the grammar and spelling perfectly when I send it to the editor, but what comes out is just this beautifully molded sculpture from the lump of clay that I usually send to them. It’s always exciting to see.

David:

One of the things that caught my attention was the fact that Vitaly comes from Russia, and he’s working in multiple languages, and he’s researching content from all around the world. And I know, I’ve gone to websites in different countries, and I’ve used the automatic Google translation so that I could read things in Japanese or Chinese or Russian or Korean or whatever was out there. But I’ve noticed that the interfaces, the development, the way people are approaching things, there is a difference, and it’s because a lot of these things don’t get communicated across different language barriers. It’s interesting that he’s chosen to take that on as a challenge — to try to bring in writers who come from different back grounds with different languages and translate those pieces and bring them in for an English-speaking audience with Smashing Magazine.

Tim:

Yeah. I was very curious about that. From my own experience, being that I only speak one language, every sort of advice and anything that I look for is in English typically from an American or UK writer, and that’s pretty much where I get all of my information. I usually naïvely don’t think about how there are entire other continents wherein people with just an insane amount of experience and different challenges for different devices are writing about the same things and have a new perspective that’s just not even in my mental space. I’m very curious to hear more about that, and just learn more about what people are doing all over the world.

David [32:37]:

What I wanted to learn more about — and we didn’t get a chance to ask him for more details about this — was that set of editorial guidelines that he must follow, because he was talking about how it may not be something that every author reads, but it becomes the guiding light that stands behind all of their work. Their editors obviously work from it, and it brings me back to my own work with agile, and the importance of a team having a strong definition of done. This seems like it establishes what is it that distinguishes an article for this particular publication from all of those other articles out there. It’s something that we as readers, and you as a writer, you can see the difference, but it’s nice to know that it’s written down somewhere, that it’s tangible. And I’m going to go and I’m going to read those authors guidelines, because I’m curious now.

Tim:

Yeah. I almost get the feeling that, as much of a rich architecture and, I’m going to say, store front that you see for Smashing Magazine, I feel like there’s just as much on the inside that you don’t see — in terms of culture between editors, and the guidelines that they follow, and what they talk about amongst themselves, and how the panel sort of judges the articles. I always sort of get this feeling from looking at Smashing Magazine that there’s just this rich, vibrant exterior. But what you don’t see, I think, is just as interesting and just as deep, and I’m very curious to see how that team approaches an article from start to finish. Yeah, definitely what those guidelines are and how they sort of rank these articles. Because whatever they’re doing clearly works, and is continuously producing just amazing content.

David:

I know Smashing Magazine is a place I go to if I want to read something that’s long and in depth and that’s really going to answer all of the questions. I mean there are other places like, I don’t know, maybe SitePoint that I might go to if I want to get a tutorial that’s going to explain to me a specific technology, that’s going to go into detail about these things. And also we have courseware and such. It’s interesting to see how there’s really a place online for all of these different ways of publishing information, and how people gravitate to one or gravitate to another, depending on what they’re looking for.

Tim:

Yeah. I’m trying to think about how I do it, because I do pull from so many different sources. For example, a lot of times if I want to read super long formal, I either go to A List Apart or Smashing Magazine, and A list Apart is usually more on the philosophical side, occasionally getting into specific technical details, whereas Smashing Magazine is long form and mostly technical. In my case, I’m reading the coding specific articles. Then I’ll go to SitePoint, for example, if I’m working on a specific library and I need to know how to do this one thing — or in my case, I sometimes write a lot about philosophical subjects on SitePoint, under the Web channel. And then, sometimes I’ll go to the Pony Foo blog, wherein there’s just sort of everything: there’s philosophical, there’s long form, there’s short form, there’s strange techniques and takes on writing different libraries and codes that I’ve never thought of before. Then of course, there’s CSS-Tricks, wherein all of the different how-to-do-this-on-the-front-end and making-this-cool-thing-little-trick-in-CSS — because that’s the name of the site.

But yeah, there are so many resources out there, and each one of (of the big five to six that I look at) seems to offer their own unique perspective on all sorts of different tasks and philosophies. That really is interesting how in the space there’s not just this one sort of corporate this is how you do this thing and this is where you look for information.

David [36:22]:

As long as publishers like Vitaly are willing to hold on to their independence and not sell out to one aggregator that’s going to create a single unified thing, I think that that’s a benefit to everybody, because that way we get the advantage of being able to see all of these different perspectives.

It’s really interesting that he was talking about how it started with these resource links — like 45 wallpapers, et cetera — and how that’s how he built up all of that traffic. And then he pivoted, and went to the next version, where it becomes this rich content source for long-form articles, but he lost traffic and gained credibility in the process.

Tim:

Yeah, it’s almost like a catalog that offers coupons suddenly publishing articles on real, in-depth journalistic stories or something like that. Like, my coupons are gone, I’m not going to look at this anymore — but then you get this whole audience that is like, Wow, this is amazing and really helpful content that I enjoy, so let me stick around for this.

David:

I’m glad that you invited Vitaly on the show, and I didn’t realize that you’d worked with him before. But fantastic guest, and I’m sure that our listeners are going to learn a lot from having had the opportunity to hear what he has to say.

Tim:

Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. For those of our listeners who haven’t been, do check out the Smashing Conf, which happens all over the world, really. They do it in a whole bunch of places. One that I most recently went to was the one that was in New York City. It was incredible; there were a ton of really high profile guests, and just amazing talks. I learned a ton. I would’ve stayed there for a whole week, but it was only three days. Do check that out if you get the chance.

David:

Cool. All right.

Tim:

Well, thank you so much for listening, everybody. We always enjoy getting to talk technology with all of you.

David:

We would also like to thank SitePoint.com, and our producers, Adam Roberts and Ophelie Lechat. Please feel free to send us your comments on Twitter — @versioningshow — and give us a rating on iTunes, and let us know how we’re doing.

Tim:

We’ll see you next time, and we hope you enjoyed this version.

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