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Exploring Concepts and Teaching Using Focused Zines with Julia Evans

Episode Summary

Today Julia Evans talks to us about her zine empire, the advantages of monetizing over staying free, how keeping the topic focused can be a better entry-level lesson than a high-level overview, and how she decides a zine's subject.

Episode Notes

Julia Evans, is a zine author and software engineer at Stripe. She joins us to talk about teaching specifics as opposed to high-level overviews, using zines to show that things that sound hard aren't hard in practice, the longevity of Julia's zine empire, and the impact that monetizing her zines had on her audience and the way she approaches working on them.

Julia writes zines, short tutorials in comic form for software developers. She recently starting monetizing them, it had an impact on her audience but not as much as you would think. Monetizing even had the unforeseen side effect of her zines getting taken more seriously, a college professor even made then required reading in his class.

She tries to keep the zines focused, with the topics breaking down something very particular. High levels talks often have the problem of not imparting anything useful. The specificity respects people's time and also can give greater context than a high-level overview. It's also much easier to be motivated to start a twenty-page zine as opposed to a three-hundred-page book.

Julia has many ideas for her zine empire. She wants to continue to collaborate with other developers so she can deliver content that isn't entirely in her wheelhouse. She also wants to start getting into some non-programming concepts, statistics in particular at some point. The possibilities with the medium are pretty much endless.


"Exploring Concepts and Teaching Using Focused Zines with Julia Evans" Transcript


Julia Evans:

Joel Hooks

Episode Transcription

Joel Hooks: Hi, Julia.

Julia Evans: Hi, how are you?

Joel Hooks: I'm doing well. It's really great to talk to you, I'm a huge fan of your zines and just you're general education approach that you've taken on the internet, I think it's fantastic. I like reading the zines and you started charging for them this year, which I was really, really, really happy about, because I like to send money to people that are good at creating cool things on the internet. So thank you for charging me to get access to your zines, I appreciate that.

Julia Evans: Anytime.

Joel Hooks: Did that change how you approach anything when you started charging? We kind of live in everything is free, open source culture I feel like sometimes, and I was wondering, when you start charging how does that actually affect your delivery or the public perception of the thing that you're creating?

Julia Evans: So it changed a few things. I feel like people started taking them a little more seriously after I started charging for them. I don't really know if that's true. But, for example, one thing that happened is someone made one of my zines a required text in their college course, and I was like “really?”. Wow!

Joel Hooks: That's crazy though, that's cool.

Julia Evans: It was really cool. And it was alongside, quote, unquote, real books. I thought that was really cool. What else has happened that's been different? It's easier to spend money on them. I was always hiring illustrators, but it's easier to do that now. And I don't really worry about it, right? I'm not like, "Oh, this is so expensive" like, it's not a big deal. What else? I feel like I can spend more time on making them really good. And it's easier to just like, justify the time that I spend on them.

Joel Hooks: Regardless, it feels like it's a labor of love for you, it's something you enjoy doing. If you can charge for them and then invest, I suppose, back into them that's a pretty awesome opportunity as well.

Julia Evans: Yeah. Exactly. I'm definitely not out to, I don't know, become a millionaire.

Joel Hooks: Do you think there is someone that is a zine millionaire?

Julia Evans: Maybe, I'm not sure.

Joel Hooks: It seems like that might be a stretch. I don't know. We deliver videos, that's what egghead io does. And we really try to be aggressively free, I love giving people free stuff, but at the same time we also like eating. And in the US we have to worry about health care so we like to be able to provide that sorta stuff. Balancing the charging folks with the idea that we want to get the information out there has always been a challenge. Has that been something that's occurred since you started charging?

Julia Evans: It's something I worried about a lot. My current theory about this ... because I give away a lot of stuff for free, right? I mean, a, I post almost everything in my zines on Twitter in the first place. So if you want to read the whole thing you can just sort of scroll through my timeline and it's there [inaudible 00:03:12]. It's not that complicated. Also, I write on my blog all the time. But I think the thing that I sorta found, I don't know if this is true or not, but the way I felt was I'd write these zines and I'd put them on my website, and I kind of felt like people were not reading them, if that makes sense? I felt like their reach wasn't actually that big. And I don't have the sense that selling them has reduced my reach that much. I don't feel like it's ten times less people are reading them because I'm selling them. Does that make sense?

Joel Hooks: Yeah, I think your blog post said the downloads for a freezing was 5000 versus 3000 people that have actually paid you for a different zine. The numbers aren't so far apart that it's like "now nobody's looking at it anymore."

Julia Evans: Yeah, and also I would assume that people sort of pay more attention to things that aren't free. Maybe the total amount of information transmitted is higher, right?

Joel Hooks: Straight up, I've been reading your zines for a while and the free ones I would click through the pdf and scroll through it quickly, and I've actually, since I've bought them, I've printed out every single one that you've charged for. I have the print out and it sits around my house versus being a digital artifact stuffed on my hard drive somewhere.

Julia Evans: [inaudible 00:04:24] happy, because I want people to print them. That's the whole point.

Joel Hooks: Yeah, to me the physical artifact, I have vinyl records, and I like books and actual physical things, so having the artifact to me is really cool. Sit down, look at it, and feel it and read it and do that sorta thing.

Julia Evans: Yeah the first zine I made I actually refused to make a version that you could read online. I was like "I'm going to put this in a format which is impossible to read online and you have to print it."
[inaudible 00:04:56] I backed away from, eventually. But I still kind of stand by it. That's how they're supposed to be. They have a [inaudible 00:05:07] of four pages for a reason. It's because you can print them.

Joel Hooks: Yeah, there's a zine tradition, this isn't something new that you've invented. It's kind of a long running ... there's an origin story to the zine.
Getting back to it, I just jumped right in. We started talking about charging people money for zines, but your zines are kind of around specific topic areas and for somebody that's not familiar with Julia Evans's zines and what you create, how would you describe the zines that you create?

Julia Evans: Most of them are around systems topics, specifically I would say around things that as a normal developer, you might not ever learn. So, the first zine I wrote was about strace, and the reason I wrote about strace ... strace is this tool for tracing system calls ... that I learned about sort of after I'd been programming for 10 years. And I was kind of angry when I learned about it, in a way, because I was like "This is a really useful tool, why did nobody tell me?"
Right? Anytime in the last 10 years you could have told me that this tool existed. And I didn't know about it. And that's the reason that I started writing these zines, is I wanted to get the information out there. These are useful tools and these are things that people need to know about. And especially in systems, things like operating systems, there's I think this culture of having information verbally passed down, it's like you have the ancient graveyard [inaudible 00:06:36] who teaches you the stuff, right?

Joel Hooks: [inaudible 00:06:39]

Julia Evans: Exactly, but these are computers. There's no reason that it needs to be an oral tradition. So I wanted to be able to write it down.

Joel Hooks: And you don't have an "Understanding the Linux operating system" zine, that's not something you do. You tend to focus on very specific, something that you can consume in a sitting instead of a month of reading a thick book.

Julia Evans: Yeah, so I really don't like high level overviews. There's this thing about lightening talks. So lightening talks are the best kind of talk. They're 10 minutes, and there's two ways to give a lightening talk, the right way and the wrong way. The wrong way is you're sort of like "oh I'm going to talk about this topic" I don't know, quantum computing or something, and you give a really high level overview, that's from 30 000 feet in the air. And I think this is really the wrong way to approach subjects. I really like to say "Okay, let's zoom in to one small interesting, useful thing about this topic, and let's start there" and I feel like that often gives people a much better view, and a much better understanding of the topic than sort of starting really zoomed out. Does that make sense?

Joel Hooks: It makes total sense. Egghead, our videos, we've always called them "bite sized." We kind of try to get away from that.
What we do is we make these videos that are two to four minutes long versus if you go on YouTube you can find people just drawing on forever about something, and repeating themselves, and having to explain everything in the world. And we're like "People are smart" what if we just talk about the exact concept that they're here to learn about and stop wasting their time. Which is why I don't like video. I don't even like watching video to learn, I like reading, because I can do it so much faster and can skip and do whatever I need to do.

Julia Evans: Yeah, exactly. And the zines are sort of the same thing. Instead of having these 300 page books where you're like "What, when am I going to find the time to read this 300 page book."
Even if it's great, right? It's just not going to happen. So I'm like "What do people need to know? What are the most important things?" Having something that's only 20 pages really forces you to focus on what's actually important and interesting.

Joel Hooks: It's not like the point of a zine is to get a master's degree in systems, it's more like "Well here's some vocabulary and the barrier to entry, and now you can go forth and learn more."

Julia Evans: Yeah, exactly. It's more about, I feel like, showing people that this thing exists, and getting an idea of what it might be for. I feel like it's a little bit more about exposure than about teaching someone everything.

Joel Hooks: Yeah. We got a lot of people that want to follow along and code along to the videos, and it's like, put down your keyboard and stop and just watch the thing and absorb what we're talking about and then go forth and do the thing.

Julia Evans: Yeah.

Joel Hooks: I heard you mention, and I think it's interesting and also holds true when you read the zines, is you basically completely avoid metaphors in any of your writing, which I think is interesting to me in the fact that this industry is so full of bad metaphors. [inaudible 00:10:03]

Julia Evans: Yeah, I think I don't understand metaphors most of the time when people use them. They'll be like "Oh, this is like this," so for example, sometimes people will say, "Oh a container's like a virtual machine," which is not, I mean, it's sort of like a virtual machine. But it's not a virtual machine and I think it can be very confusing. Because when someone says, "X is like Y" you're like "Well in what way? What do you mean?" And so I try to explain most things directly and be like "A container is ..." Maybe I shouldn't explain what a container is. But maybe try to say "it's a group of processes on your computer." Which is a very different statement from "A container is a virtual machine."

Joel Hooks: Yeah. It definitely is. And then you'll explain it, you'll diagram it too. [inaudible 00:10:56] You'll have the diagram and the stuff interacting with each other and the anthropomorphism is one of my favorites when I [inaudible 00:11:04] explaining things to you.

Julia Evans: And often I try to come up with these true statements that are short. For example a pipe is like two file descriptors, right? Which is true and very not obvious. I find it really satisfying to come up with sentences that are sort of very short and accurate and useful.

Joel Hooks: Like the concise truth of the thing?

Julia Evans: Yeah, exactly. It's not like "A pipe is like a pipe in your house." It is actually a lot like that, right? That's not what it is, it is two file descriptors, right?

Joel Hooks: So most of your zines are systems tools and kind of almost Linux command line focused. "Help I have a manager" really stood out to me, one, because it's awesome, it's a really good read and helped me as a manager and a person that has been managed in the past, I read that and I was like "Wow, okay, well here's how I should be having one on one's and I should be having them more often." I thought it was really helpful and interesting, and I'm wondering do you plan on branching out and doing more of the people skills zines and exploring those more as you proceed?

Julia Evans: I find the question of what to write about pretty hard ... so the reason I wrote "Help I have a manager" is really that in the past, like when I started working with managers, I did not know what I was doing. And I think of all of my zines, and maybe, probably most of my work, as just a letter to my past self, right? Because nobody told me how to work with my manager, and I was so confused for so long. And it caused a lot of problems, right?
I kind of think of that zine as sort of the same in some way, as the strace zine, because nobody told me what to do.

Joel Hooks: Yeah, nobody put you in school for your one on one's with your manager. That's not something they even discuss.

Julia Evans: Yeah, I feel like they don't tell you what ... well what I want to sort of demonstrate there is what a positive and healthy relationship with your manager could look like, right? It's not about how to deal with a bad manager, but in the last couple of years I've been working with a manager who I work really well together with, and I'm like "Oh, this is how it can work."
This is what is looks like when it works well, and that's what I wanted to explain.

Joel Hooks: Yeah there's some actually [inaudible 00:13:35]. Yeah there's some really interesting management culture going on over there that I've been paying attention to on the sideline. And it's cool to see it kind of manifest itself in your zine. Because the bad manager was just a sad face, I think, in your ...

Julia Evans: Yeah, it was like, that sucks but that's not what ... [inaudible 00:13:59]

Joel Hooks: So I have your wizard programmer skills, I think it was the recompiler that sent it out ... I'm pretty sure [inaudible 00:14:06] that it was a poster, because I have the poster and we hung it on the wall in our house.

Julia Evans: Amazing.

Joel Hooks: Yeah, just cause it's awesome. And I was wondering, you talk about wizard programming skills, and then in some of your writing I was reading about creating cartoons and creating zines, you talk about your research techniques, and I was wondering what the overlap is between being a wizard programmer and being a maker of cool, helpful comics, and if that was something that kind of overlaps and do those skills collide at all?

Julia Evans: Interesting. This wizard thing is really interesting right, because I don't really know ... I say that a lot ... it's like why do I say that? What is being a wizard about?

Joel Hooks: I think it's the perception of magic, not that you're conjuring magic, and every time I've read you or watched you, you go into it. It's like you instantly go into how to do the work, right? [inaudible 00:15:04] we are going to do actual work now.

Julia Evans: I feel like sometimes when you see other people do things that seem really hard, or really complicated, you're like "Oh no" it kind of seems like magic may be happening. And then it's like, well what is the work that you actually have to do to get there, to do things that perhaps seem hard.

Joel Hooks: So what prompted the question was the discussion of research and asking good questions and doing these kind of things. They seem like, as a programmer it's important and if I wanted to explain concepts, whether in comics or other mediums, these same kind of life skills or just tools would [inaudible 00:15:49].

Julia Evans: Right, I think that's right. The thing that makes me good at my job is my ability to identify what's hard about something a lot of the time. Maybe I'll be working on a project that's really hard and it's like "What's the fundamental reason that this project is hard?" And how can we make it maybe, less hard? And then that's also true in teaching. I spend a lot of time thinking about what is at the middle of this in any situation.

Joel Hooks: Yeah, because there is stuff that is now easy to you that was once difficult, and then there's the world of things that are still difficult or even seemingly impossible to understand, and how do we move a piece of the top down to the [inaudible 00:16:40].

Julia Evans: And many things that seem difficult are actually easy, and so figuring out which things those are is really useful.

Joel Hooks: Yeah and then I guess understanding why the perception of difficulty exists at all.

Julia Evans: Yeah, right. And then also many things that seems difficult are actually difficult. That's also true. Not all things that seem difficult are actually easy. But in computers, and especially in systems, there's a lot of jargon and so that makes things seem difficult but it's not difficult.

Joel Hooks: Yeah, if you're a new programmer, and you're just getting into it, the sheer wall of vocabulary that you have to climb to start to even begin to understand is a huge portion of the battle.

Julia Evans: Yeah, exactly.

Joel Hooks: As a wizard programmer, meaning somebody that researches, identifies problems, asks good questions, does that sort of thing, that approach to your own development career is kind of where the nuggets come to produce your comics and zines.

Julia Evans: Yeah, exactly. The only reason I have anything to say is because of the work that I do, right?

Joel Hooks: Yeah because you're condensing it into a 12 page thing, but the sheer volume of research and thought and understanding that goes into making something like that is pretty obvious, anyway, to me.

Julia Evans: Yeah, it takes a lot of time. It's interesting. I wrote this comic about grip and it was kind of fun to write. Because I was like what is every graphic command line argument I've ever used. And I was like "Well I've been using Grip for 15 years at this point, I guess." And I looked at it and I was like "I only use six of these," maybe 10, and those can fit in half a page. And I was like "Oh wow, there's not a lot to know about this."

Joel Hooks: Yeah I've stared at Grip, people talk about it a lot and I'm like "Oh, this is useful," and literally I was like "Oh, this is just too complex I can't [inaudible 00:18:38]" and then I look at how you're using it and you keep talking about "Well, I use these two things, and it's super useful, and you don't have to understand the entire manpage to make this useful."

Julia Evans: Yeah, exactly.

Joel Hooks: Because I've been using Photoshop since I was 15, so 30 ... a long time, I've been using Photoshop for a long time, almost 30 years. And I still just basically use the same five tools. [inaudible 00:19:03] tons in there and I'm just like I do these five things, and that's all I ever need to use Photoshop for.

Julia Evans: Yeah, and that's the information I want to get across to people. The people who actually know how to use all of this stuff, usually only do like five things. And just like, what are the five things?

Joel Hooks: Yeah, because that's easy to learn. And that's what you're saying. The whole thing is hard. Understanding the whole thing and memorizing the entire tool is hard, but the two useful things you can get out of this, it's like the 99 percentile of what you would use it for. That's the easy part. That's not hard. You can do this.

Julia Evans: Yeah, and the hard thing that you're imagining is something that literally no person has ever done. I mean maybe someone has memorized the grab man page.

Joel Hooks: Oh somebody has.

Julia Evans: There would be no point.

Joel Hooks: No, they are an interesting individual whomever that may be, on some level I'm sure.
So another thing that's cool and it seems like it is more since you started, you said you've worked with illustrators, but "Oh Shit Git!" is actually a collaborating with another developer to produce a zine. Is that something new and something you plan on expanding on and exploring more?

Julia Evans: Yeah, it's definitely new, I'd never done it before. It was really fun. I think I would like to do it again. I have this idea that maybe I want to do something about Postgres. Because I don't know almost anything about Postgres and it seems really useful. Maybe I could get someone to teach me and write a zine about it. But it's pretty far out because I have a lot of ideas.

Joel Hooks: I know the feeling, Julia. It was interesting to me to, you're doing this collaboration, you're releasing them, they're, I would assume, profitable, and provide a wage. But at the same time I also get the feeling you don't plan on going full time with the zine business. You like being a systems engineer and doing what you do. Do you want to keep expanding this or are you happy with the pace of it and seeing how it evolves and not making any sort of big plans for the future in terms of your zine empire.

Julia Evans: Right now the zine ... I have a lot of ideas about the zine empire which makes it hard. Because I'm sort of like "Well, programming books are sort of bad" right? They're much too long. And so maybe the world does need a zine empire. But at the same time a lot of what I write about is, like we talked about, from the work, right? So maybe I spend 15 years learning about command line tools and then I write a zine about command line tools. But you can't spend 10 years learning about something every time you write another zine. I worry a lot. It's like "How many more zines can I write or would it be interesting to write?" I've written 11, if I write 11 more will I feel bored by it after that? I don't know.

Joel Hooks: That's a really good question. I feel like the subject, the topic spectrum, is relatively infinite. In terms of our human lifespan you can probably zine forever and not run out of topics. You haven't even brushed against JavaScript.

Julia Evans: I really want to do statistics, that's the thing. That's kinda like further out, but anyway.

Joel Hooks: Yeah I mean I would love that. You have a math background, and I have a two year unaccredited associates degree from an arts school, that's how I got my start. And my regret is that I didn't listen to my junior high math teacher and apply myself. So those would be fascinating and then you're machine learning stuff, and there's so much that I would like to see personally in zines, that would be potential topics.

Julia Evans: Yeah. There's a lot to say. I think like with anything that one does that's successful, is the question of just, "How do you make sure it stays interesting to you?" I don't know.

Joel Hooks: Yeah and I don't think I've ever worked a job longer than five years. And that's even a long stretch. And at some point it's just like, you're doing the thing and if you turned zines into a full time job, how fast does it fade away to just being work? And just being a job, just the pressures of any gig, I guess.

Julia Evans: It's currently pretty fun to do on the side.

Joel Hooks: Yeah and it's great. I really like Stripe as a company, we're big fans and customers and that seems like a great place to work just from the folk that I know there. Patrick McKenzie and Will Larson was actually one of my first programming friends ever.

Julia Evans: Oh wow! He helped me so much, I can't even explain.

Joel Hooks: He's actually literally the first person I followed on Twitter and we were friends and just did projects when I was just learning how to program. And it's funny just to track both of our career growths and see ... [inaudible 00:24:24] it's awesome.

Julia Evans: Yeah. He taught me how to make organizational change. Which was, anyway, it's a huge deal.

Joel Hooks: And [inaudible 00:24:37] its amazing. His blog posts and his advocacy, and his take on management, and just his thoughtful nature in that space is really a breath of fresh air.
So you make zines and amazing comics, you are on Twitter. Where can people find you and where can they get information about you?

Julia Evans: I'm on Twitter, I have a blog. My Twitter is @b0rk and my website is ... I don't know ... if you Google "Julia Evans" you find it.

Joel Hooks: Yeah Julia Evans zines. And that's b0rk with a zero right?

Julia Evans: Yeah, I have this zines page which is really just a sub page on my website. It's not ... a super fancy, flashy thing.

Joel Hooks: It's more than adequate. Whenever I want to go buy one of your zines it works pretty good for me.

Julia Evans: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I'm a big fan of the MVP.

Joel Hooks: Your dedication to your blog is really fantastic, Julia. I never read a lot of your posts but I went through and I was going through and it's super interesting. And I really appreciate the way you share and write and just your tone. I really like it. And I love so much what you're doing on the internet, and I hope more people get inspired to follow in your footsteps and think about these things at a different level. Just the idea that we can teach and share our knowledge is so important, and thank you so much for being a participant in that and making the internet a better place for us all.

Julia Evans: I've learned so much by doing it. It's not entirely 100% selfless. If I write about stuff on the internet, I'll be like "Hey, here's what I learned" and then I often get back so much more information than what I put out.
People will be like "Did you know this extremely important thing that you didn't mention?" And I'll be like "No, I didn't know that, thank you."

Joel Hooks: Well, thank you so much, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.

Julia Evans: Thank you, this was great.

Joel Hooks: Cheers.