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What Am I Doing with All This Content

by Michael Szul on tags: newsletter, videos, youtube, content, blogging
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Also, we're trying something new over at the Codepunk YouTube channel. Give a look at our first few Digital Shots, and tell us what you think.

Lastly, if you're a fan of cyberpunk, I'll be speaking at the Cyberpunk Culture Conference (virtually) this July, pulling material from the Max Headroom newsletter issue and Codepunk podcast episode. Virtual participation is literally the cost of a cup of coffee.

I've been writing Codepunk since February of 2015. It actually started under a different name, but then I scooped the "codepunk" term from Bill's bio on Twitter, and registered an *.io domain. Bill designed the logo and it's been some pretty smooth sailing ever since. There have been some lulls and spikes, but consistency is king for blogs—not just content itself.

In the early days, I wrote maybe two posts a month and thought that was great. Then in May of 2016, Bill and I launched the podcast—something we've been trying to do for a long time.

At some point in 2017, however, I got distracted. That's when I was up for Microsoft MVP Award. Joe Darko had called me to talk about my work and my contributions. At the time, I was starting to do more and more with chatbots, and Microsoft had an award category for their Bot Framework. I actually missed the cut for the Bot Framework award category. The program team said I needed "more reach" with my work. That was falsely motivating as I started to do more to acquire that "reach." A few months later, Joe called me back to tell me I was awarded in the Developer Technologies category. This was a major career accomplishment for me: To be recognized by one of the foremost technology companies in the industry.

But I took this award the wrong way. Once I received the award, I started to do everything I thought I needed to do to maintain the award. This meant more blog posts, way too many speaking engagements, overdoing the YouTube channel, a brand new newsletter, and content after content after content. I was starting to burn myself out. I skipped the MVP Summit that year.

The first thing to go were the speaking engagements. I still do speak, but only if a conference is local or if a conference really strikes me as something I want to participate in (such as the cyberpunk one mentioned in the opener). The first thing that turned me off about speaking engagements is the race for submissions. So many of my fellow colleagues and MVP recipients sit there and apply to every single conference. So many of them get rejected and subsequently dejected in the process. Some of them genuinely want to teach and engagement. Some of them want pseudo-celebrity status. Some of them are just trying to maintain status because they're consultants. I have been relatively lucky. I probably have a 50% acceptance rate for speaking engagements. I have colleagues that hover around 10%.

It's just a large scale hustle. People want to maintain their MVP status and the MVP Award over-values speaking engagements in my opinion, when, to be honest, at a multi-track regional conferences, you're only going to get 20-30 participants in the audience. It takes a lot of effort to craft proposals, apply for conferences, create Power Points and demonstrations, etc. for so few audience members. Codepunk gets about 112,000 unique visitors a year. Where should my efforts be spent?

The other thing that steers me away from tech conferences is the selection process. People are chosen for pseudo-celebrity status or various other non-technical criteria, and I've been a part of (or privy to) some selection processes that are decided by people with minimal experience or different motivating factors. I once saw a selection committee for an machine learning conference that consisted of a person with less than 5 years of experience in data science, a recruiter, a CEO of a company who had little machine learning experience himself, and the sponsors for the conference. That's not to detract or denigrate them in any way, but I've spent a lot of time talking to and consoling colleagues who have been depressed and doubting their own contributions because of all of the rejection emails. I have to explain to them that conferences are money generators and that's the first thing that selection committees consider. Selections aren't made on qualifications alone.

That brings up the side effect of conferences. Not only was so much effort being put into acquiring a speaking engagement, but trying to be a good citizen consoling friends just left a bad taste in my mouth.

I've been a part of a lot of great conferences, don't get me wrong, but nowadays, if I want to attend, I do so as a participant if the subject entices me. I rarely submit to conferences to speak, and honestly, I feel all the better for it.

The next realization I had came with the Codepunk podcast and the Bots and Beer newsletter. With the podcast, we were trying to tackle somewhat timely technology topics—mostly about programming. But the reality is that what Bill and I were good at (and why we wanted to start a podcast to begin with) was to replicate some of our old lunchtime sessions about culture, philosophy, and technology. As 2019 went on, the topics for the podcast shifted from purely programming and technology to what I've come to term "life in the new cyberia"—a more concise version of "programming, technology, and the digital lifestyle." This shift took out us out of the crowded tech podcast scene, and has allowed us to evolve in our own niche. And we continue to evolve: Adopting a seasons approach with significant research, and using the off-season to construct a solid backlog.

The newsletter, meanwhile, originally started as a way to get more "reach" for the MVP award, and was meant to be focused on chatbots. That topic wore thin pretty quickly, and I had to start adopting other technology to write about. It was a struggle to stay consistent—even as the newsletter evolved into a thematic narrative. At the turn of this year, I decided to redo aspects of the newsletter, focusing on a single narrative that was a collection of my thoughts at that time on a particular topic. This accomplished two things: It shifted the subject matter to closely align with the podcast content (our carved niche), and it created an outlet for how I think as opposed to the Codepunk blog, which is more what we do (Bill and I). I've been incredibly consistent this year, the newsletter has grown nicely, and there is a sense of accomplishment in writing about my own ideas instead of what Microsoft has ideas about.

There are two remaining aspects of this content quadrangle though: The Codepunk web site and the YouTube channel. If you glanced out at the YouTube channel at all, you see there are a ton of tutorial videos. This has gained me subscribers, comments, and "reach" in the MVP Award sense. But it doesn't distinguish me from the crowd. You also might see a few of our experimental "Digital Shots." These do. And it's been a passion project of mine for a while. I now have plans to re-engineer how I'm doing the YouTube videos to surround the passion projects that Bill and I care about instead of just "here's some programming tips."

With the blog, you'll see a parallel with the YouTube channel. You might have already seen this with topics on conversational software and DevOps. Although these cover topics related to programming and technology—and certainly the former relates to the Bot Framework—I'm approaching these topics from the perspective of how I think, how I analyze, and what I want to contribute.

One of the benefits of the Microsoft MVP Award is free Azure credits. I've spent the last several months moving my web sites and applications off of Azure, so I wasn't dependent on the MVP Award for my sustained projects. I've also been looking at my body of work and asking myself: If I lost the MVP Award tomorrow, does any of this matter? What value am I truly providing?

Why do people read Codepunk? What makes it different? More importantly: How can it make a difference on its own? I'm hoping to answer these questions over the next 6 months as Codepunk continues to reflect the personalities, work, interests, and experiments of mine and Bill's rather than simply an outlet for "reach" in order to be recognized.

Stay tuned.