If you want to grow old in the magazine and Web editing business, you can’t do it alone. Every editor needs a ringer—a trusted author who can step in and make things good even when they’ve gone really, really bad. Peter Vogel was that guy for me over at Visual Studio Magazine (and continues to be for current Visual Studio Magazine Editor in Chief Keith Ward), and Andrew Brust has saved my skin numerous times both at Visual Studio Magazine and, before that, at Redmond Developer News.
Nowadays, I’ve come to rely on James McCaffrey as my resident ringer at MSDN Magazine. McCaffrey writes the monthly Test Run column, often exploring some of the most technically challenging and fascinating concepts in each issue of the magazine. He also serves as a technical consultant, collaborating with editors to review article proposals.
Like some other longtime contributors to MSDN Magazine, McCaffrey got his start here “by accident.” He had been exploring how to code for the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) using the then-new C# programming language. His manager at the time read an article that McCaffrey had written based on his experience, and suggested that he submit it to MSDN Magazine.
“By sheer coincidence, MSDN Magazine was preparing a special issue on security and my article was accepted for publication,” McCaffrey recalls. “The editors and production people helped me a lot and from that experience I was able to continue contributing to the magazine.”
Indeed he has. Over the years, McCaffrey has proposed, written and reviewed innumerable article concepts. And, no surprise, he has some pointed thoughts on what makes an idea worthy of publication. McCaffrey says he looks for three things in an article pitch: new information, useful or interesting content, and a focus on code.
“I check to make sure the topic presents new, unpublished information. I also consider the scale of the proposed topic—some techniques are really interesting and new, but are better suited for a simple blog posting than an MSDN Magazine article,” McCaffrey says, adding that he prefers articles “focus on actual development—architecture, design and coding—rather than a tutorial on a tool or a simple code-wrapper library.”
As for his own work, McCaffrey says he looks for a “certain geek wow factor” when deciding what to explore in his column. That said, he works to ensure the topics include coding techniques and algorithms that can be used in normal software development situations. The April 2012 Test Run column, “Bacterial Foraging Optimization,” is a case in point. It describes a fascinating algorithm that’s based on the behavior of E. coli bacteria.
“I find such algorithms really interesting and also often surprisingly useful. I think that as software development grows more sophisticated—especially with regard to the increased usage of cloud computing, big data and mobile devices—the AI topics in Test Run will move from interesting to essential,” he says.
The thing is, Test Run wasn’t always about bacterial super-algorithms and artificial intelligence. The column got its start when Microsoft released the Microsoft .NET Framework. The managed code framework created opportunities for software testing that simply did not exist with C++ and classic Visual Basic.
“Test Run was able to explore and explain techniques such as HTTP request-response testing, Windows Forms UI testing and so on,” McCaffrey says. “By .NET 3.5 these techniques were established and quite well-known. Test Run gradually shifted to a new set of largely unexplored topics that generally fall into the category of artificial intelligence.”
In a sense, McCaffrey has adapted in much the way the bacterial algorithms in his Test Run columns might. And along the way he’s provided some valuable lessons for aspiring authors and overworked editors alike.
Michael Desmond is the Editor-in-Chief of MSDN Magazine.
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