Drew McLellan on 24ways

By Drew McLellan

We’d like to bring your attention to a very special website called 24ways built by Drew Mclellan.

Anna: What is 24ways and why did you set it up?

Drew: 24ways is a website publishing 24 web design and development articles each December. The idea is supposed to be that it’s a bit like an advent calendar, but instead of a picture and a chocolate behind each door, we have a handy tip or technique that you can use to help improve the way you work.

I’d seen a site for the Perl Advent Calendar, which had been running for years, publishing articles about the Perl programming language. I thought that was fun, and wondered if there might be some way to do something similar based around Web Standards. The only snag was that this was November 2005 – late November, in fact, so if I was going to get something ready by 1st December, I would have to move fast.

At the time there were a lot of Web 2.0 companies and sites springing up, and many of them had numbers in their names. 37signals, 43folders and so on. To play on this a little bit, I picked the domain name 24ways.org, with more full title of “24 ways to impress your friends”. Seems a bit weird now, thinking about it, but I wanted the articles to be something that would enable readers to go away knowing they’ve learned something cool that could later impress their friends (or more likely colleagues) with.

I quickly threw together a design and a site based on Textpattern and set about asking everyone I knew in the industry if they’d be prepared to contribute. Lots of them did, and we were off! That first year I wrote four articles myself, but the other 20 were contributed by friends and colleagues. It was very intense, but a lot of fun.

We’re now in our 5th year, and will have published 120 articles by this Christmas. That’s a lot of content!

Anna: How do you fit 24ways around your other work?

Drew: 24ways doesn’t generate any money (in fact, it costs a little to run, which is covered by edgeofmyseat.com) so I fit it around work. The effort falls into two halves – there’s the prep during November getting it all lined up and then the donkey work of publishing articles once we’re into December.

Since 2007 I’ve had Brian Suda helping me with the co-ordination and planning. It’s really just a big admin job – planning topics and possible authors, sending emails, juggling the schedule. We run everything using Google Docs, which allows us to collaborate on the same files whilst being in different countries.

During December it’s a constant game of trying to stay far enough ahead of the schedule that we don’t crash. We always try and get as many articles in as possible before December, but as all authors are volunteers fitting writing around their work schedule, we can’t be too demanding, and most articles come in later than we’d ideally like. We start out with our perfect vision for all 24 days, beautifully flowing between themes, but we’re then constantly reworking based on what articles we have in our possession. We try to keep it at a point where we’re not forced to publish the only article we’ve got, but we usually get close with days where we only have one completed article in the buffer.

All this happens on and off during the day, at the same time I’m also dealing with regular client work, but when you run your own company the distinction between work time and spare time doesn’t always exist!

Anna: Do you give people a specific topic to write about, or do they come up with one themselves?

Drew: I always encourage authors to write about what they currently find interesting. The idea being that if the author is excited about a subject, then the audience will be too. So the topics usually come from the authors.

We have a general idea of the sort of things we’d like to cover during the series, and we’ll usually target specific people to invite to write based on that. For example, this year we’re covering a few different aspects of HTML5, and so we researched and invited authors who have been doing a lot of work around HTML5. We then work with them to come up with an interesting idea in that area.

Anna: Which articles that people have written for your site do you think young people starting out would find the most useful?

Drew: The great thing is that we’ve got a lot of reasonably bite-sized articles on a very wide range of topics. So it depends where your interest lies.

We’ve got articles on design techniques and inspiration, on writing markup, advanced CSS and all sorts of interesting JavaScript and Ajax techniques. There’s stuff about website performance, using APIs and running sites in the cloud. For young people starting out, particularly if they’re starting out by freelancing and doing bits of work around education, we’ve got a few business-related articles that are great.

Anna: What other interesting projects are you working on at the moment?

Drew: This summer we launched a small content management system aimed at people building smaller sites. It’s called Perch and is perfect for sites where the client needs to be able to update the content, but you don’t want to go mad implementing a really complex CMS.

Other than that, we’ve got lots of client projects on the go – we build a lot of content managed sites, we’ve just launched an ecommerce store for one client, and we’ve been hired to build a web app for another startup. So it’s all go – we’re lucky that even in the current economic climate we’re busier than ever.