Julia Evans

2020: Year in review

I write these every year, so here’s 2020! I’m not going to really go into the disaster that was 2020, I’m just going to talk about some things I worked on. So here are some things I did this year and a few reflections, as usual. I’m much more grateful than usual that my family and friends are generally healthy.


I published 4 zines:

This year definitely had an accidental “weird programming languages” theme (bash, CSS, and SQL) which I kind of love. I’m also really delighted I finally managed to publish that containers zine, because I’d wanted to write it for a long time and I’m really happy with how it turned out.

For two of these zines, I also made companion websites with examples:

Both of those sites are trying to get at a tension that I always feel with my zines which is – you can’t really learn about computers without trying things! So they both give you a way to quickly try things out and experiment.

I’m still honestly not sure how well these are working because I haven’t gotten a lot of feedback on them (positive or negative), but I still feel that this is important so I’m going to keep working on this.

a redesign of wizardzines.com

I redesigned https://wizardzines.com this year! As with any website redesign, I think this is like 50x more exciting to me than literally anyone else in the universe so I won’t say too much about it, but it has a fun animations, I think the information is a better organized, and I really love it.

You can see what it looked like before and after. Melody Starling did all the design and CSS work.

I basically wrote the CSS zine because we did this project and I was so amazed and delighted by what Melody could do with CSS that I had to write a zine about CSS.

I shipped some zines!

I wanted to print and ship some zines in 2020, and I did! I had kind of Grand Ambitions for this and in reality what happened was:

  1. I got 400 copies of “Help! I have a Manager!” printed in February
  2. there was a pandemic and I got distracted so I left them in a box in my house for 6 months
  3. I finally got around to announcing them in August and shipped the zines to people in September

I wanted the whole thing to feel special, so I designed & printed custom envelopes and got a local stamp maker to design a stamp to stamp the envelope seal with. Here’s what it looked like:

I got a lot of excited tweets from people receiving their zines, which was really nice.

The main problems I ran into were:

  • shipping is a lot of work, it took me maybe 2-3 days to get all 400 zines packaged and shipped
  • in order for me to charge a reasonable price ($16 USD/zine), I had to ship everything with letter mail, which mostly worked but some people didn’t get their zines or it took many weeks for the zines to arrive. And there was no tracking so it was hard/impossible for me to find out about problems.

I definitely want to ship more zines, but I think I might have to do it in a less fun and artisanal way. We’ll see!

learning experiment: questions

One of my experiments in helping pepole learn this year was a site called “questions!”, which you can try at https://questions.wizardzines.com/ (for example here are some questions about CORS.

The idea is that it asks you questions about a topic as a way for you to find out what you don’t know and learn something.

I spent a lot of time figuring out how to make this not feel like a quiz. The first version of this I built was called flashcards, and while people seemed to like those, I found that too many people were reacting to it with “I got 910!” as if the goal was to get as many questions right as possible.

To make it clearer that the point was to learn, we made the primary interaction on the site clicking on “I learned something!” (which triggers an animation and a lightbulb). So you don’t get rewarded for already knowing the thing, you get rewarded for learning something new.

I also published an open source version of the site, if you want to make your own: https://github.com/questions-template/questions-template.github.io. I’d be really interested to hear if anyone does.

Melody designed this site too.

I still feel a bit unsure about the future of this project, but I’m happy with where I got with it this year.

learning experiment: domain name saturday

With my friend Allison Kaptur, I ran an event called “Domain Name Saturday” at the Recurse Center where you write a DNS server in 1 day.

It turns out it’s impossible to write a DNS server in 1 day (literally nobody succeeded, but I think it might be possible in 2 days). But it was a really fun exercise and a lot of people made very significant progress. At the end we did a “bug presentations” event where people presented their favourite bug they ran into while writing their DNS server. I really liked this structure because it’s easy for everyone to participate no matter how far they got (everyone has bugs!), and people’s bugs were really interesting!

I think it’s a super fun exercise for learning about networking and parsing binary data and I’m excited to try to run it again someday.

we ran !!Con remotely!

!!Con West was the last thing I did before the pandemic, back on March 1 in the very last days of in-person conferences.

We ran !!Con NYC remotely this year (you can watch the recordings!). It was a delightful bright spot this year. I think it really worked well as a remote conference because !!Con (unlike a lot of conferences) really is largely about the talks and about the joy of watching a lot of delightful talks together.

I think we managed to reproduce the experience of sitting in a big room and clapping and being excited about a fun shared experience pretty well (through discord and a lot of clapping emojis). It was definitely much harder to actually talk to individual people.

We charged $64 for tickets (pay-what-you-can), which included a conference tshirt mailed to your house in the ticket price. So I wrote a Python script to mail a few hundred conferences tshirts / sweaters to people with Printful. It was fun but next time I’d probably just make a Shopify/Squarespace store and give everyone a code to order a free shirt though, it involved a little too much customer support caused by bugs in my script :)

running a business is going well!

Last year at this time, I said I was going to take until August 2020 and reevaluate how I felt about this whole “running a business” thing. When August came around I felt like I was generally having fun and the business is doing well. So “reevaluate how I felt” turned into “shrug and keep doing what I’m doing”.

Revenue is up 2.3x over last year, which is incredible and probably very related to the fact that I published twice as many zines.

I continue to enjoy being able to easily understand what value the work I’m doing brings to the world and having a lot of control over my time. I still miss having coworkers though :)

what went well

  • working with other people. I’m not going to list everyone here but I wrote a personal 2020 retro and a lot of my high points were like “I got to work with X person and it was SO GREAT and I couldn’t have done any of these things without them”
  • beta readers. I started asking beta readers to read my zines and tell me which parts are confusing and it was AMAZING. If you were one of these 50-ish people, thank you so much!
  • new tools. I started using Trello to track what needs to be done for my zines instead of literally no organizational system at all and it really helped a lot. I also started using focusmate to, well, focus, and that helped a lot too. I wrote probably 80% of the bash zine in Focusmate sessions and it was a lot faster and less stressful.
  • royalties. I got to pay out more royalties this year and that was really cool.
  • I kept learning about running a business and wrote my first blog post about what I’ve learned: A few things I’ve learned about email marketing. I don’t want to get too much into giving business advice, but I think I want to write a couple more posts about what I’ve learned next year.

some questions about 2021

I don’t think anyone can answer these except me, but here are a few work things that are on my mind:

  • For some reason I feel compelled to make more educational things that aren’t zines, like these little websites I talked about earlier that ask you questions or let you run SQL queries / try out CSS ideas. I have another project that I’ve started here that I’ll write about later.
  • I’m not sure what I’m going to do about printing/shipping, I really liked the artisanal way I did it this year, but it was a lot of work.
  • As always, I have very few ideas about what I’m going to write a zine about next. It’s always like this but it always feels hard to come up with ideas. I do have 1 idea for my next zine though which is a lot more than usual! Maybe it’ll work out!

here’s to 2021 being a better year

Stay safe everyone. Happy new year.

Day 24: a short talk about blogging myths, and a debugging tip Docker Compose: a nice way to set up a dev environment