DZone's MVB of the Month: Erik Dietrich

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DZone's MVB of the Month: Erik Dietrich

Every month we shine a spotlight on one of our DZone MVBs. For May, we're speaking with Erik Dietrich: programmer, writer, consultant, and all-around problem solver.

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This month we caught up with Erik Dietrich, whose content you will regularly find in both Agile and DevOps zones. Erik has a wealth of experience in software development and runs a consultancy while also producing books and video content. See how he balances it all in our interview.

DZone: Can you introduce yourself to our readers? 

Erik: My name is Erik Dietrich, and I do a lot of different things in and around technology, but I suppose I would primarily label myself a technologist or a problem solver. Of course, while that's how I like to think of myself, I realize it's not especially informative if you're looking to get a sense of what I do for a living or what my work looks like.

Professionally, I do a mix of work that involves application development, writing, content creation, and IT management consulting. My path to this eclectic mashup started off normally enough. I got a BS degree in computer science and then entered the workforce as a programmer, where I spent the better part of a decade on the standard, corporate developer career path, starting as a programmer, adding descriptors like "senior" to my title, and eventually becoming a tech lead, architect, manager, and even CIO for a company.

As I was doing this, I also got a master's degree in computer science at night, which got me into the habit of writing about software and doing research in my spare time. After graduating, I kept this practice going by starting a blog and beginning to moonlight. This gave rise to the less traditional part of my background, which was the opportunities that arose from having my own corner of the internet and a growing voice.

Eventually, I left the corporate path and the CIO role and went into business for myself full time to pursue a greater variety in work, such as writing for paid clients, teaching development practices to teams, and making videos for Pluralsight.com. Now I (happily) juggle these non-standard arrangements with more traditional consulting and contracting assignments. It keeps things interesting.

As for where you can find me, I am theoretically based out of the Chicago area, but I'm not actually there a lot these days. Just about everything I do is either onsite travel or remote, so I'm either at client sites or… wherever I want. My wife and I just spent the winter in Louisiana, for example, with me making some trips north to visit clients.

DZone: How do you balance your consultancy/management work with that unshakable urge to build things?

Erik: I have a semi-intentional, two-pronged approach to this. The first facet of it is to secure just enough app dev work to stay sharp. Making video tutorials, writing blog posts and books, consulting with IT management… all of these things are both fun and profitable, but they also require a sustained level of technical credibility. So as both a matter of personal interest and simple practicality, I have to do enough technical work to stay current.

The second part of approaching this is a strategy of delayed gratification. I'd like to be building more, but I can't just yet. But on the horizon, I have a goal of restructuring my life and finances such that, down the road, I can take on projects more because they interest me than because I need the money. So right now, I do profitable but less building-intensive projects so that I can save my pennies and pursue more product-oriented ventures later, with products that I build.

DZone: What interested you in the MVB program? 

Erik: I've been part of the MVB program for coming up on a year now. Last summer, I was familiar with DZone, but not with the MVB program, per se. Someone from DZone reached out and asked if I'd be interested to join after offering a brief explanation.

I more or less immediately said yes, and then went off and started reading up on what an MVB was, and was pleased with the choice. And yes, I wrote that in the correct order.  

Philosophically, I'm a big proponent of giving away the majority of your work for free as both brand-raising loss leader and as also just a generally good thing to do. So when just about anyone comes along and asks me, "hey, can I repost something you wrote" or "hey, can we syndicate your blog," my answer is "sure, just attribute it or include a link or something." I don't worry about the details here. I'm happy with anything that boosts my readership and exposes me to more people.

As for benefits, there was a definite uptick in my readership. DZone has a lot more readers than my blog, so it clearly gave me some exposure. But beyond that, and, as I've mentioned, I have writing clients for whom I either write posts or offer assistance with their blog, or both. Being selected as an MVB gave me a nice credibility boost as well since a lot of the people that consume this type of service are familiar with DZone and high profile bloggers.

It's been a great partnership for me, and it's always fun to see posts of mine go live on DZone.  And, it's been fun to see some of the posts I write on other sites up there as well.

DZone: How do you organize your writing?

Erik: I've actually just done a bit of an overhaul to this process. With all of my clients and my own blog, I find that I probably average about 5 posts per week of 1,000 words each. I'd imagine that sounds to most people like a lot of work, but I came to it gradually, and I'd never really adjusted my process.

As it was, I mostly just squeezed in writing when I could: plane rides, waiting somewhere, evenings, etc. And that worked fine when it was just my own blog or for my first few clients, but scale problems started to mount as I was slicing myself too thinly.

Now, the work is substantial enough that I take one work day per week and do nothing but write.  And that has made a HUGE difference in my productivity, both for writing and for consulting and app dev work.

Logistically, now, I lay out all of the posts that I have to write at the beginning of the week under the assumption that I can get 5 or so done on "post day." If I have more for a week, I can still sneak them in, but I try to stay in the flow of writing when I get going.

My (original) writing for my own site is basically just whatever I feel like talking about that week.  For my clients, it's mainly prompts. They give me topics that they'd like to see covered and I take those prospective titles and turn them into abstracts and then posts. Sometimes, they flip it around and ask me for content ideas, based on reader personas and such, and I'll throw out a cascade of titles I'd happily write about, and they pick some. I'm fortunate in that I do well either with "write a post called, 'The Evils of Global State'" and with "write a post about whatever you want."

The subjects about which I write also vary widely. I do tend to go niche on topics like static code analysis, testability of code, and a few others, but I'm probably more of a generalist than a specialist. I suppose that's inevitable given the wide range of topics and clients that I have.

DZone: Tell us a little bit about your books. How do you find the time to publish them? 

Erik: The books I have out on Amazon right now are the result of a collaboration with a friend.  He built a startup with a business model of quickly and easily turning blog series/blogs into e-books. We got to talk about this and about my blog and traffic, and thought we could help each other out.

His concept was to take verbatim blog posts and turn them into books, but with mine, I enlisted the help of my wife, an editor, and we sunk some overhead effort into taking the material in those series of blog posts and turning them into actual books. This involved editing and then me doing a good bit of work introducing transitions where appropriate, and generally making them flow more like books than strings of disjointed blog posts.

This was an economical way (time and money-wise) to get something into E-Book stores. What we weren't prepared for was the runway of success. At first, the revenue from the E-Books was cute, as in, "hey, look at that, 3 months of royalty checks and we can order a pizza." But over the last few years, sales steadily increased—eventually to the point where we decided to make print versions available and it made economic sense. And, the orders just keep coming.

So up until this point, it hasn't taken a whole lot of extra time beyond what I already spent writing for my blog and doing content creation.  But, I do have a book in the works now that departs from this model. It's up on LeanPub, and I'm writing it from scratch with material that is separate from the blog (though every now and then I borrow from it for a post). This book looks like it will be several hundred pages, and I've got my fingers crossed that it will be the best so far in terms of sales.

DZone: And you've got a video series too, right?

Erik: Another medium that I've kind of stumbled into is video content. I had a reader question some time back that was about how I might model a chess game. I wrote a post about it with code snippets, and someone in the comments suggested video as a medium. So, I created a YouTube channel and tried that.

I had no idea what I was doing at first, but people started following the series and offering helpful suggestions on how to improve the videos. This actually turned into a multi-year odyssey with 56 videos and counting. It's me, using C# and practicing TDD to build a chess engine, and the idea is to show what I'm doing, warts and all, so people can see how an experienced TDD practitioner balances acceptance tests, unit tests, and design into some coherent whole.

I've started expanding the scope of my YouTube channel a bit as well, adding occasional how-to videos as well as a newer series that's just my work on an app dev assignment for a client.

DZone: What new projects are you working on this year?

Erik: Well, there's always all of my client work and then there's the ongoing content generation for the blog and related channels. But, I consider that to be something of a normal baseline. Above and beyond that I have two projects that I'm excited about and that are more entrepreneurial in nature.

The first is the aforementioned book that I'm writing, Developer Hegemony.  This is basically a book about how I think standard wage employment is surprisingly broken when it comes to software developers, and about how I think we can move toward a better model. The subtitle of the book is "The Future of Labor" and that really describes what the book builds toward.

The second thing that I've got in the works is in its infancy, but my partner and I are looking at building something that helps developers hang out their shingles and go into business for themselves. And this applies to someone who wants to take the freelance plunge, but it also applies to someone who is content with their job and maybe just wants to moonlight a little. The unifying factor is to help you in getting ready to be in business for yourself in some capacity. Given that I've done this, that I get asked for advice on these matters all the time, that I think developers should do it, and that I do management consulting, it seems a natural fit.

DZone: What blogs do you read frequently?

Erik: This is a tough one for me because of my busy life and consumption pattern. I've always had a TON of blogs in my feed reader, and, years back, I could rattle off some bloggers whose stuff I'd read whenever it came out:

  • Bob Martin

  • Jeff Atwood

  • Joel Spoelsky

  • Scott Hanselman

  • Eric Lippert

  • Martin Fowler

  • John Sonmez

Probably some I'm forgetting as well.

These days, though, it's different. I don't check in regularly. Rather, when I have time, I binge read back posts of bloggers that I like or I kind of cherry pick through my feeds, clearing out en masse.

Because I spend so much time generating content and I'm so time-strapped, I try to sample more shallowly, but from a greater breadth of sources. To help with this, I rely on social proof, so to speak, often tuning into posts by any given blogger when they go viral.

I don't find it ideal, and I miss the days when I consumed a lot more than I do these days. But, such is life, I suppose.

mvb, personalities

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