A Million Lessons

A Million Lessons
A Million Lessons
Buy on Leanpub

Introduction

When Peter Armstrong and Scott Patten founded Leanpub in 2010, they had a clear purpose: to create the best way to write and publish in-progress ebooks.

By “the best”, they didn’t just intend to develop the best toolchain and workflow for authors and publishers. They also intended to actually help authors make money from their writing. Even if you were just a few chapters in, even if your target audience were limited to only a thousand or so other experts in your field, Leanpub was supposed to help you actually get paid for all the work you do, writing and marketing your book.

Recently, Leanpub passed the point where it has helped authors earn more than $1,000,000. This is an important milestone for any bootstrapped startup: for us, it is a proof of concept, validating the Lean Publishing philosophy.

It’s also a big moment for us in another, very special sense. We’ve only reached this milestone because of the feedback we’ve received from our “early adopter” authors. Leanpub was built on the principles of Customer Development and The Lean Startup: Leanpub authors are not just users, they are also contributors to the development of Leanpub.

So, this book is both a commemoration of an important milestone for a startup, and a tribute to our hard-working (and very smart) authors. It consists of transcriptions from the Lean Publishing Podcast and selected responses to a recent Leanpub author survey. We hope you enjoy reading about our authors’ careers, their interests, and their experiences as pioneers at the frontier of 21st-century publishing.

Peter Armstrong, Scott Patten and Len Epp December 19, 2013

The Leanpub Podcast Interviews

The following are transcriptions of author interviews from the Leanpub Podcast Interviews series. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or you can read the transcriptions on the Leanpub Blog.

Roy Osherove

Roy Osherove is the author of the Leanpub book Notes to a Software Team Leader and of The Art Of Unit Testing. Roy has been in leadership roles for most of his professional life, acting as team lead, CTO and architect in many places. He’s had many failures to learn from but also some great successes, that he likes to share by doing training courses and mentoring. You can read his blog at 5whys.com.

Roy was a very interesting person to talk with. However, this is the first interview Peter had ever conducted as the interviewer, so it’s occasionally painful to listen to at times! The transcript below is a bit cleaned up.

This interview was recorded on March 20, 2012.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://blog.leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Peter Armstrong: So I’m here with Roy Osherove, who is an instructor and blogger and author. Roy blogs and teachers workshops about Agile development and software team leadership. His most recent book is Notes to a Software Team Leader which has been written and published on Leanpub. We’re going to talk today about his book, his experiences as an author, about Lean Publishing, and what led Roy to try Leanpub - and also as a programming note, this is the first podcast I’ve ever done as the interviewer, so I’m sure I’ll talk too quickly and make tons of mistakes, so forgive me!

Okay, so, Roy, thank you for being on the first ever Lean Publishing podcast.

Osherove: Thank you, I’m honored to be the first.

A: So, before we get into discussing your book and Lean Publishing, I’d like to find out a bit more about your background. On your blog it shows you teach workshops, and you’re a blogger and an author. So how did this all happen?

O: Well, I’ve been in the software development business for about 12, maybe 14 years. I live in Israel, and I’ve always been a software developer in my heart. About maybe ten years ago I started to blog about .NET, and things actually rolled from there. I got a bunch of readership, and I got to write my first book at some point, which was about unit testing, it’s called The Art of Unit Testing, and that led to speaking engagements and training and whatnot. And team leadership has always been a passion of mine; it’s something that I’ve failed to do so many times that I’ve learnd a lot about it, and so I’m doing the same thing that I did with my previous book, which is just sharing a lot of my mistakes.

A: Excellent… Yeah, I found myself as I was reviewing the book for this podcast, and I found myself just reading the whole thing, and didn’t prepare as much as I planned, because it struck a chord with me in my own experiences going from a developer to trying to lead teams. So, what led you to write Notes to a Software Team Leader? Was it, coming out of your training, or more out of your experience leading teams, or, how did that get started?

O: Well the book, I view this book as more of a bridging book, much like the first one was. Notes to a Software Team Leader for me is a book that bridges people with no management experience or leadership experience with the most important basic material they should be introduced with. But very much from a down-to-earth point of view: no-nonsense, real advice, not necessarily in, let’s say, industrial terms, as least upper-case letters as possible if you will -

A: Yeah, jargon. There’s no jargon, it felt like reading a conversation, I really enjoyed that.

O: Thank you. And the point is, there was a series of books called 99 Things Every X Should Know, like a developer, an architect, and it’s edited by Kevlin Henney, and I got to meet Kevlin at a bunch of conferences, and I said ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a 99 things every team leader needs to know’? Unfortunately, the company that publishes his books didn’t really like the idea for this book, and I didn’t want to steal the naming convention, so it’s basically Kevlin’s idea to call it Notes to a Software Team Leader, and he’s getting full credit for this name, because I think it really matches. So the second part of the book is actually community-driven, and it’s filled with notes and advice from team leaders and consultants and team leader wannabes and project managers, about what would make a good team leader to them.

A: Right, I noticed that. I assume you’re evolving this as you publish it, like it’s currently around 30-40 pages on Leanpub right now, and what’s you’re plan for the book overall? Like, keep going with more notes from other people, or expand it yourself, or, what’s your plan forward, or are you just evolving as you go?

O: The plan is to have two parts to the book. The first part is the one that I’m writing, which is based on the blog at 5whys.com, and that’s my notion of my biggest discoveries in the world of team leadership, which is about the idea of elastic leadership and the idea of team leadership stages, where the team needs different things at different stages in its life. When I finish the first part, which is probably going to be about four or five chapters, or something more than that, I’m working on chapter three right now, I’m going to add probably no more than a hundred notes, and hopefully the book will be basically finished. And then I’m going to print it and then sell it. Because I’m teaching this stuff, and I’m really missing a book that encompasses the things that I’m teaching, a companion book for my courses.

A: That makes sense. I really like the three phases, the Chaos phase, the Learning phase, and the Self-Organizing phases for the team, and also the different leadership styles where you talk about command and control, coach and facilitator. It think they’re really valuable to think like that, because I find myself either falling into command and control or facilitator a lot, like defaulting to facilitator and then moving to command and control. It’s nice when you have words for describing what you’re doing, like design patterns kind of. To me it felt like when I read Design Patterns and it’s like ok, yeah there’s just some names for things I’m doing, like named ‘Facilitator’, ok, this is to recognize what you’re doing. I think it makes you more self aware as to what you’re doing as a leader; I really found it valuable.

O: One of the biggest points about the idea of elastic leadership in the book is something that I’ve been missing a lot. It’s basically a framework for deciding what type of leader should you be, based on the current situation with the team. So it’s more of a framework to say, What is the current situation of the team? Are we in chaos, are we in learning mode, are we in self-organizing mode, and then to change accordingly. That’s something that seems to be missing in terms of guidance for a lot of team leaders. Especially for me, it was missing, and I wish I would have thought about that when I just started out. But today, when I see team leaders make a lot of mistakes, once I have that framework in my head, it’s very easy to say OK, so I can see what the problem is, there’s a mismatch between the leadership type and the actual phase the team is in, and that’s a problem, if we just match one to the other things would be better. And it also gives you a framework for deciding what type of advice do you accept. Have you ever seen those questions on LinkedIn, like, ‘I’m a scrum master and my team, I have a person in my team who’s always negative, what should I do?’ Then that person gets like 100 different responses, things what they should do, and of course each and every one of them seems to make sense, but a lot of them collide with each other, a lot of them are the opposite of each other, and so it’s kind of a framework to say, OK, it depends, what is the phase the team is in, because based on that, you either have time to work with that person and challenge them, or you don’t. How do you challenge them? If the team is supposed to be self-organizing, are they really? And so your actions as a team leader will be different. So it’s a framework to decide what to do based on the current sitation.

A: Right. For people, say for example who might be better at facilitating than coaching, is there, do you try to look and follow the situation as much as possible, or do you take into account, well I might be like average or poor at coaching right now, but I’m excellent at facilitating, I’ll try to facilitate my way out of this, or should you try to really just improve your own abilities as a team leader, and then try to be really situational? Does that take into account the difference, what the team leader’s capable of? Like if you’re trying to coach teams using agile coaching, are you only making matters worse, or…?

O: That’s a good question.

A: I’m really good at facilitating, and I’m terrible at coaching. And I’m good at command and control, I enjoy it but I try to use it very sparingly, because it think it’s destructive if you use it a lot. The one question I had, maybe related to this, is: Lots of this, in the elastic leadership chapter, seemed to talk to team leaders inside larger organizations. Do you see the same sort of dynamic applying to smaller startups, or do you think that things are just so chaotic at startups that it may make more sense to apply this knowledge in larger organizations first? Who’s your ideal target reader? Is it a person in a 100 person company, a 1000 person company, a five person company?

O: Having worked with a startup mentality, and having moved to Ruby in the past couple of years, has taught me that I don’t think that this elastic leadership stuff makes a lot of sense if you are in startup mode and the whole idea is just to get feedback and see if you’re on the right track. I think that it’s more, it’s going to make more sense if you’re in an enterprise-related team…

A: Where you know the product you’re building and it’s about delivering, or you’re doing the traditional agile approaches?

O: I really come from the Microsoft world, and from the Microsoft world it’s a lot of enterprise stuff, and there’s a lot of people problems, because it’s usually not a startup space, and in that regard, you have a lot of time to work at your skills and improve your team. In startups, usually you would have a month or two to just develop something, and get feedback, and I don’t think it’s the right place for the team leader to develop the people in their team over a month or two…

A: …when they only have a couple months of runway. That makes sense.

O: If you’re past the startup stage, where you know you’ve already built something of value, and now you have a long stretch ahead of you, of mulptiple years that you know you’re going to be working, now is the time to start building a real team and growing them etc. But in the inital seed stages, I don’t see it happening too much right now.

A: That makes sense. So in terms of the mechanics of your book specfically, what led you to use the Lean Publishing approach of self-publishing while your book is in progress?

O: Well, initially I was talking with Manning about doing this book with Manning, and they really wanted to, and then I was talking with Pearson Books about doing the book with them, and I actually signed a contract. But then the whole SOPA thing came on, and one of the things that I saw was that the Pearson folks were actually in support of SOPA, so I contacted them and said I cannot work with someone who supports the SOPA Act.

A: Wow, excellent. We’re very anti-SOPA as you may know.

O: Yeah, so, and the more I looked at the publishing world, the more I see that it feels like a big scam. Because you know I’ve published a book that is mildly successful, it has sold many thousands of copies, I mean definitely more than ten I think, probably double that, I’m not sure, and yet the royalties are just horrible. It’s definitely no way to make money. It’s a good way to make yourself known, in terms of marketing, but for someone who believes in the idea of agility and incremental work, the process of writing a book is basically the opposite! It’s the most extreme version of Waterfall that can ever be imagined. You’re expected to write the whole table of contents up front, and then to kind of estimate how long it’s going to take, and then try to lead by that, and of course everybody knows that’s never going to work, but somehow you’re expected to write the book and two years later you’re supposed to finish it as if your mind is two years backwards.

A: Yeah, and if you have a good idea part way along, and you try to change your table of contents, then that’s like a new proposal.

O: Almost. It’s not really that big a deal if everyone’s already in it with you, and then you can go ahead and say look, it’s going to take six months more etc. So my first book actually took three years to publish, because I just had a kid born - so I started my book with no kids, and I finished it with two kids.

A: Wow.

O: Yeah, now this book, I just had a kid born nine months ago, so that’s interesting too. But my biggest problem was that the feedback mechanism, the feedback cycle of actually publishing the book and reviewing, and the copy-editing, all that stuff, is just so slow and so horrible and so Waterfallish, and so bureaucratic, it just doesn’t make sense, it’s something I would try to avoid at any cost. And so what happened, was that I was looking at other publishers and I was looking at the Pragmatic publishing company, and I’m actually still thinking about working with them, because their royalties are pretty good, they’re doing the 50/50 royalty stuff…

A: After costs, right.

O: After costs. It’s still not amazing, but you can tell they’re trying to do the right thing there. They’re developers, they’re working with developers, and they have some amazing books, I’ve always wanted to be a part of that.

A: I think that I have bought about ten Pragmatic books. Same with Manning though, one of the first Manning books I read was Java Swing, way back in the day. I wrote a Manning book myself, right. But I know what you mean.

O: It’s horrible.

A: The funny thing, I understand your experience totally, because I did two Manning books, and the first one I self-published it while it was in progress…

O: They were happy with that?

A: Before I had any contract with anyone, I was writing Flexible Rails, and I was self-publishing it, and what I was doing is I put the PDF on Lulu, and people could buy it. And in the thank-you note, I said Hey, this book is being updated, here’s a secret URL, and it was like flexiblerails.com/rumplestiltskin, and so it was my joke, right, don’t tell anyone this thing because this is the book you paid for is at this URL. And so I wrote the book in public, and iterated, and I after I finished the first draft, then I was getting contacted by various publishers, and did the deal with Manning, and my experience there was really positive, because I had the first draft finished, and then it was like, OK, take the thing and polish it and make a book out of it. And also my negotiating position was really good because I had a finished book and I was making lots of money, and so I could drive a hard bargain on the ebook royalties.

O: And that’s kind of where I’m driving to right now, because I really liked the Manning experience, the people are really nice…

A: Yeah.

O: They’re just stuck in a world of lots of bureaucracy. They’re trying to do the right thing.

A: Yeah, they add the most value near the end of the book. Like typesetting, copy-editing, all that stuff happens at the end.

O: Marketing too.

A: Yeah marketing, and the channels, I don’t know anything about selling print books in channels, right. But I found that if you do something with a community, like if you write in-progress and get your ideas out there early, for me what happened is the the community sort of functioned like my development editor…

O: Exactly.

A: …and then when I was done the book I put it through the sausage factory and then I made a real book out of it, like a real physical book, etc, but the process of actually creating the first full version, I really enjoyed that, self-publishing it, and it seems like you’re doing the same thing.

O: Yeah, I don’t want to hide the book as I’m writing it, and for me, the Leanpub process really fits, because I’m an extrovert in many ways, and if there’s one thing that I hate it’s to delay gratification, so I want to be able to fix a typo or add a missing bio to one the writers, and then click Preview, and then click Publish, and within three minutes everyone has the latest version.

A: Yeah, exactly, if it’s a technical book and you have a bug in it, you want to be able to push it out to readers the same day as you find it. Your book obviously it’s a technical book, but there’s no code in it, it’s a management book, but if you’re, if you want to just change something, you want to be able to push out releases to your readers, on your schedule, not putting people in between you and your readers.

O: Yeah, and it’s kind of like cooking, because you get to decide on the cover, so I went to 99designs.com, and I created a nice cover for it. So it’s like you’re a child, you’re in charge of everything, in terms of content, and you get to see it live. You know one of the nicest features that I like the most about the Leanpub stuff, is that I could tell that people would actually buy the book before I actually started publishing it, and that was a nice thing, that’s kind of the Lean idea, is to say, is this the right thing? Will people actually pay for this? And so I get to see whether people will actually pay for the book, and when it’s out, even though it has two chapters and couple of notes, people are actually buying it, I had already almost 80 readers so far. That’s, well it’s not the most amazing success, but it tells me that there is a pocket of loyal readership that’s just beginning, and to me it’s almost like a blog being written live, that’s going to turn into a beautiful book.

A: Exactly. I’ve obviously, since obviously I’m the co-founder of Leanpub, I can poke around and look at things, and I mean I noticed that you’ve had people paying from the minimum to like over $10, I mean your minimum price is $2.99 and your suggested price is $9.99, and you’ve had people pay more than the suggested price.

O: Yeah like 15 bucks.

A: I’ve seen the spread has been very impressive, actually. Lots of people have been paying over the minimum, which is fantastic. When we were initially building the variable pricing feature… Back in the day Leanpub only had fixed price, and we had the idea, we should do variable price as well, and kind of like based on the success of things like Kickstarter, seeing how people want to engage, feel like they’re participating in creating something, but yeah, this is, seeing the data from books like yours has made us realize that this is so good, that we should get rid of the idea of fixed price altogether, like it does not make any sense to charge a fixed price for a book.

O: I have to say, I’m pretty impressed. I think that you guys, I feel like I’m part of the beginning of a revolution in publishing. And I think a lot of people are going to start doing this in the next few years. We’re like just the earliest adopters. But, as the books become more and more published and printed, to have a nice graphic, like it says, ‘Published with Leanpub’, or ‘Incrementally Published’, I would call it ‘Lean-early’, as in the word lean…

[laughter]

O: Hey, I want dibs on that now!

A: Ha! I have a weakness for naming things too, whenever I have a good name I register the .com, it’s like my domain habit.

O: Exactly. I have six domains…

A: I think I probably have a problem an order of magnitude worse than you!

O: Wow. ADD? One thing that I like is that there is a Bestsellers, and my book is in the Bestsellers. But one thing I realised is that the Bestsellers is not sorted by the amount of readers.

A: It’s by revenue.

O: Oh… OK.

A So, the reason we did that, and that will show how early-stage we are, based on that you know your revenue. The short head of our revenue is really good, and then it falls off. But the reason we sorted it by revenue is that we had a couple books that had a free promotion that got a lot of press about a year ago, and say that had about a thousand copies that were just free, and so we wanted to give…. Well it’s a couple of things. We should on the Bestsellers page sort by, we should let a user of the website say show me top… it’s not like Apple where you say, top free or top paid, what you really want to see is, show me by grossing, which is what we do now, or show me, um number of copies, which would just count free and paid equally, but we should find some way to weight, they should be some sort of weighting… Where if someone chooses to pay more than $20 for a book, it should be worth more than free.

O: I’m sure the listeners are about to choke both of us right now!

A: Ha! Yeah, go ahead!

O: So, anyway, I really like the process, because it allows me to think freely and to change the book at my own whim, and geeks like me need that control, so it’s pretty cool.

A: Have you done much experimenting with your price? Did you do like $2.99, $9.99 right away, and did you change it around, or?

O: I just said $2.99 just to see what happens and that’s it.

A: Cool.

O: It would be nice to have like A/B testing, but you know what, the fact that people are buying it tells me everything I need to know, so basically I’m OK. I’m fine with how things are going. So far I’m happy with the design…. I think the whole idea of Lean Publishing, of incremental publishing and being able to see it as you write it, I don’t think that exists anywhere else.

A: Yeah, when we designed Leanpub, we based off my experiences, what I had to do though was a kludge - I had to use a service that was meant for selling finished print books, which was Lulu, right, but they also sold PDFs. So I put a PDF on Lulu, and then I wanted to do it in-progress, so I put a secret URL in my thank you note, and I also set up a Google Group, so if you bought the book you could join the Google Group. And then I’d put updates on the Google Group, but the whole thing relied on, like, distributing updates - I had to post a file somwhere and email the Google Group, it was a big hassle. And I did it, and it hundreds of people of people read the book, and it did well for me, but basically Leanpub was created to be the website I wish existed when I wrote Flexible Rails. And the funny thing is that the idea for the name ‘Leanpub’ came from, our first customer was Eric Ries, and he came to talk in Vancouver about Lean Startups, and we were talking with him afterwards, we were drinking with him, and talking about what would he like in a publishing website, and says, “Well, what I’d really like to be able to do, is make a book out of my blog, because all the good content’s right there.” And we were like well, we can do that! And so, that’s when we realized that the idea of self-published in-progress books really dovetailed nicely with blogging and bloggers, and so we could look at blogs being a good optional starting point for in-progress books. And so that’s how the whole thing sort of happened and why it’s called Leanpub, is like Lean Publishing, which is self-publishing an in-progress book.

So, I think that you’re basically our ideal author. Obviously you have techinical skills, in terms of you’ve written, you’re a coder, and you’ve written a technical book and now you’re writing a business-type book, and so, basically, your feedback is really valuable to us. So, like, is there anything right now that you wish that Leanpub did, and it doesn’t?

O: Well… I know you guys were mentioning the idea of generating a PDF with things like Lulu, etc., which to me would be a very good idea. I want to be able to just, when I’m finished, to just ship it off, print it and just have it on Amazon and the Kindle and all that stuff, not even worry about it, just being able to get a link and tweet that and be done with it within ten minutes.

A: Yeah, what we’re going to do there I think is, so, currently you can just the PDF on Lulu, like yourself. For example Eric Ries’s Startup Lessons Learned is on Lulu right now, and I think I remember, last time I looked, a few months ago, it was like in the top 1000 Lulu books. But the thing is the PDF, right now the thing with Leanpub is that if you put it on Lulu as a PDF, that’s made for screen, and so we’re going to develop a feature where we make like print-optimized PDFs where we take the cover page off, so you can make your own cover page.

O: Yeah, that’s what I meant, exactly. There isn’t much that I miss, except maybe just being able to sort by readers, and, now I know it’s by grossing, that at least I know what it means, to be somewhere in the middle. Yeah, it just means that we’re somewhere in the beginning, because I definitely think it’s just the beginning. I know Johanna Rothman is working on a book, and I think in the next couple of years, other people will start realizing that there’s benefits to not working through a publisher at the beginning at least.

A: Yeah, I think publishers add value; the most value they add is at the end. And in the beginning part of the book, if you want to write in public, there’s lots of benefits.

So far in terms of reader feedback, like I know in Leanpub we have the opportunity for you to to say ‘email readers’, and send something from a form - have you found that useful, or have you found readers contacting you by email or Twitter, or has there been much feedback at all?

O: There’s been very little feedback from the readers. In fact now that I think about it, one of the things that I miss is that I can’t see the names of the people who bought my book.

A: Yeah. Oh man, this has been an internal debate on this. So at some point we were going to show everything, name and email of purchasers, but we didn’t want to do email because that would be bad.

O: Yeah, but the names at the very least. Because I can see, I have a course on TDDD on udemy.com, and so there when someone subscribes, I can their name, so I can know they’re part of my course, and I can contact them directly…

A: So we can maybe have some checkbox or something on our form, like we can have it by default say ‘share name’, then check box ‘opt out’, then be anonymous, or something…

O: I don’t know, I think the person who purchases my book, I think they kind of assume that I see all the information because I’m the author of the book, and they purchase it and they actually pay me in some way.

A: Yeah…

O: So I don’t see any kind of problem, at least giving their first and last name, I think it’s actually expected.

A: Yeah, it’s an interesting question, we’ll have to think about it, because it’s like, you make assumptions, we try to make reasonable assumptions, and you’ll always find someone who’s indignant about the fact that your assumption was just on the other side of what they thought. But you can’t let that deter your from building a good product. And so we have to figure out what the right balance is, without making, like… Our purchase form is really dead-simple, you know with the sliders and stuff, and the reason we don’t want to do make it more complicated… but I do know what you’re saying, yeah it would be nice to see names, I’m going to make a note about that. I’m going to make a Pivotal story for that.

O: Now that I’m thinking about it, another feature that’s missing to me is the analytics.

A: Yeah, if you go to the Edit Info page, you can put a Google Analytics code…

O: Yeah, but I’m using getclicky.com, so I need to be able to put JavaScript on the page.

A: Oh…

O: Yeah, it’s a much more powerful feature. Not everyone uses Google Analytics; getclicky is actually better, just so you know.

A: So our danger is that we don’t want to turn into MySpace, where everyone made their pages totally different, we’re a bit afraid of letting… Well, JavaScript for analytics, that makes sense, as long as we can do it in a way that didn’t open us up to being abused, or…

O: I think you should experiment. Do it for a month…

A: We should try something…

O: A new experiment…

A: Yeah, we should consider that for sure.

O: Because using Google Analytics is kind of a bitch, you know. The interface is so complex and everything. Getclicky, I seriously advise everyone to go getclicky.com and just use that. It’s so much better, so much more usable than Google Analytics, and it’s free for the basic five sites, so it’s pretty cool.

A: Have you ever… So what we do right now is we use Google Analytics and KISSmetrics. We were considering trying to figure our if there’s a way to expose KISSmetrics data to authors, automatically…

O: What kind of data?

A: Funnel. Funnel analysis. What kind of data do you want? I assume you’re doing funnel analysis basically, right?

O: Well I just want to see how many people go in, so when I tweet about it, I want to see that it actually has an effect on the wave, on the analytics wave, if you know what I mean.

A: Yeah, so Twitter is weird, like Twitter traffic often shows up as “direct”, because lots of people use different Twitter clients. And so if you at least knew the volume, then you’d be able to tell, well I did a big Twitter thing here and then VOOMP! Now I have like 100 more people…

O: Now that I think about it, one of the coolest things that I saw, I want to be able to at least like embed a YouTube video on the page, where I explain and I talk about the book, or there’s a video of me doing a talk or a lecture about the book or something like that, I think that will draw a lot of people into it. It’s like a landing page, so it is a book landing page after all, and there is a really powerful feature.

A: Yeah, actually that’s a really good suggestion. If you don’t mind talking about this for a few minutes, like our desing goal for the book landing page is to be good enough so that people don’t want to set up custom WordPress blogs just to point at their Leanpub books. And we had an author who did this, because, our landing page used to be terrible, and so Manuel actually created a WordPress blog just to be basically–no actually, it was a different person–but people have created WordPress blogs just to point at their Leanpub pages. And so we want to be flexible in terms of like have things like video and analytics and whatnot…

O: Basically you hvae to be able to give me some like JavaScript embedding stuff and YouTube embedding stuff, because that’s how people customize the hell out of these pages, and so they feel they have control, they don’t need to create their own.

A: Right. So, in terms of the layout that we have now, we did a bunch of work on the page…

O: The current layout is almost perfect, in Explorer it looks pretty good, but in Chrome there are like no margins to the right and left, otherwise I kinda like it. It’s clean and simple, but I want to be able to add some more information to it, you know, in a structured way.

A: And would you want that to be just like… OK, I can see that, and things like a YouTube video, I can see that living really nicely above the table of contents…

O: And like a big Twitter icon that leads right to my Twitter account, and a YouTube, where it’s right on the top of the page, where I explain about the book or whatever. Or a background image I can set, whatever.

A: I think you’re going a tiny bit farther than we’ll go, but I get the idea, and I think we’re going to start making this customizable, not like this week or anything, but I think going forward, and when we do I’ll ping you and see what you’re feedback is.

O: You know what? Before all that, I don’t mind if you keep the site as it is, just give me the ability to have parts in the book instead of just chapters…

A: Ha! Yes, you’re the second person who’s asked for this recently, we’ll do that, for sure, that makes sense.

O: Because my book is in two parts. Right now I have a chapter for the notes, instead of a part with multiple chapters.

A: So here’s the thing. We need to keep the h1 being a chapter, I think, because, for the listeners who don’t know what we’re talking about, in Leanpub you have a Book.txt file that lists file names, and then you have like h1 are chapters, h2 are sections etc. If we went and made parts be h1 then we’d break all the Leanpub books and we don’t want to do that, so I think what we’d end up doing is parts, I think the current thinking is, either some special syntax…

O: Yeah, just a special syntax, like multiple lines or something that says part one, or whatever. It’s just one hierarchy level up…

A: So do you need to be able to name the parts? Or is numbered, just part one, part two…

O: Yeah, you should be able to name the parts.

A: Ok, that makes sense.

O: And each part should have like a possible exposition, like a paragraph.

A: Yeah, OK, so then it’s basically just a special syntax for delimiting…

O: Yeah.

A: … a heading, and then you just write text in there that looks like normal text.

O: I’m pretty sure you’re going to have to cut this podcast in half, and say like the first half is a podcast and the second half is just us talking…

A: Ha! Well I like this because Leanpub is a startup and we’re a Lean startup and… part of this podcast is about Lean Publishing and the Lean Publishing ideas, because I’m going to be taking some of this and adapting some of it for my own book about Lean Publishing. And the other part is, I want to stick the podcast on Leanpub, and say hey, this is a podcast with a Leanpub author who’s enjoying using Leanpub, and etc., But, I think, frankly, we’re doing customer development, and we’re trying to build the best site for people who are basically you. And, so, this is very much what Leanpub is, I think, is this type of process. It’s usually been with emails, instead of on a podcast, but for me, this is what Leanpub is, and if you want to be like an author, who uses Leanpub, then yeah.

O: You know Peter, while we’re all being honest and recorded and stuff, here’s another request.

A: Alright.

O: So, I don’t get, and you’re not the only guys doing this, but I don’t get why do payments always have to be every three months. Why don’t I get paid every month?

A: They should be monthly. You know why they’re every three months? You know why? It’s because I’m the guy who does it and I’m lazy! It’s literally, like I’m literally going into PayPal…

O: “Never ascribe to malice that which can be attributed…”

A: It’s not malice, it’s not even incompetence, it’s sloth! And it’s actually lack of automation. What it’s going to be at some point, obviously we’re going to use PayPal’s MassPay to pay everyone automatically. I’m thinking about changing the terms of service so that if it’s over a certain amount it gets paid monthly. What I don’t want to do is every month have to pay for books that are like experiments, and they have like one sale…

O: Yeah, but if it’s over 50 bucks or something…

A: …like if it’s some material amount of money. Like, we don’t have this all sitting in some big bank account earning interest for Leanpub. We’ve had that request from one other person as well, and the better you do, the more of a request it is, and so yeah. I think we’ll change the terms to be, over a certain amount, monthly, otherwise quarterly. And then, the other aspect is, ironically I went to go code, the way that the code works to mark things as paid is written really inefficiently, because when I first coded it we didn’t have as many successful authors as now, so now I have to rewrite the code that actually marks things paid.

O: Hey, congratulations!

A: Yes, I’m happy about that, it’s first-world problems, right?

O: Champagne problems!

A: Exactly. Yeah, we’ll change it to monthly. What’s reasonable to you? Like $100, $200?

O: I would say everything over 50 bucks is payable.

A: Sure, that’s fine. So, here we go, I’m not going to cut this podcast, I’m just going to put it up there as-is I think. I like this.

O: Raw. Make it bleed.

A: This was really good, Roy. So, do you have any… I think I’ve pretty much covered everything I wanted to cover. So you’re fine with this being a podcast and also with me excerpting or quoting it entirely in my Lean Publishing book, or just snipping certain parts out, and whatnot, right?

O: As long as I get to review the stuff you wrote about me in the book, yeah.

A: Sure, of course.

O: Yeah, cool.

A: Also I’ll probably ask you to contribute something about yourself, that’ll be easiest. Well thanks a lot, thanks for being the first Lean Publishing Podcast guest!

O: It is an honour.

A: Thank you…

O: Thank you Peter. Great work so far guys.

A: And thanks for being a Leanpub author!

Yves Hanoulle

Yves Hanoulle is the author of many Leanpub books, including Who Is Agile.

The Agile community knows Yves Hanoulle from his many contributions, such as the public Agile conferences Google calendar, his Agile Thursday Quiz, the coach retreats and conferences he’s paired to organize, daily coaching questions via @Retroflections, and the Agile Games Google group, just to name a few. He originated PairCoaching, an idea which has been adopted by many agile trainers and coaches. He’s constantly learning, and passing on what he learns as a coach and trainer to organizations large and small.

A self-identified change artist and first follower, one of Yves’ unique qualities is that he gives free lifetime support on anything he does: every client, everything he writes and presents, every workshop he leads.

In 2011, Yves started his popular WhoIs series, a weekly interview with an Agile practitioner. Some WhoIs interviewees are famous thought leaders, some are less familiar to the global Agile community, but readers of WhoIs learn something new and interesting about each one.

Yves believes in maintaining a sustainable pace both professionally and personally. You can learn more about Yves at http://www.hanoulle.be/yves-hanoulle/, and find him on social media as YvesHanoulle.

This interview was recorded on March 21, 2012.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://blog.leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Peter Armstrong: As a preamble, I’m here with Yves Hanoulle who is a prolific contributor to the Agile community, and the originator of Pair Coaching. In 2011, Yves started his popular ‘Who Is’ series, a weekly interview with an Agile practitioner. Yves has recently turned this into a Leanpub book entitled Who Is Agile?, which is written in English, and is being translated into German, Spanish, French, Russian and Catalan. We’re going to talk today about Yves’s experiences as a writer using the Lean Publishing approach on Leanpub, and we’ll also talk about ways we can improve Leanpub at the end of the podcast, since Leanpub is a Lean startup and we’re doing the customer development process.

So Yves, thanks for being on the podcast!

Hanoulle: Thanks for having me.

A: First of all, I want to ask you, how did you find out about Leanpub, and what made you want to try it?

H: So I found out about the book from Laurent Bossavit, I can’t come up with the name, it’s an English word and I’m not sure how it’s pronounced, so I will not even try it. But he wrote an interesting book about ideas that are generally accepted but are actually wrong, or there is no scientific evidence for that. And he did that on Leanpub. Now, I was immediately attracted to the idea because I, about a year ago or two years ago, I had an idea to write a book with lots of people about Agile games, that completely didn’t work out, for multiple reasons, but one of the things I was trying to do there was writing it at the same time creating a community, and next to that doing all the technical stuff for writing the book – which was impossible to do all of that together. And when I found Leanpub that was exactly what I needed. That was something, a company doing all the technical parts, for doing such a book, which I believe is the right way to publish a book, in the sense that you publish it, and you find errors, so you change something and you write a new one. I’ve been bugging and asking Agile authors for at least three or four years about, why don’t they write their books in an agile way, and lots of large Agile writers told me it’s not possible, and you guys are proving it is. So thank you.

A: Well, thank you! You’ve basically summarized why we’re making Leanpub…

So, continuing along that train of thought - do you think that, when you started the Who Is Agile? book - actually, let’s talk about the previous book you tried. So, before you used Leanpub, with the other book, you were going to try to build a system, try to create a community around the book as you wrote it. With Leanpub, one of the things we’ve been thinking about, is should we try to do more to try to facilitate community, or, whether what we’re doing is enough, and authors get the community parts they need with their blog and Twitter.

H: I’ve not been really thinking about that. Let me answer the first part about, what did I do with the book on the Agile Games. I think a lot of things were confusing at the time. There was not really a real goal, or we didn’t have a common vision there, which is always something that is needed to create something together. So that was part of the big problem that we had. So, that’s one big reason why it didn’t work. There were other as well, but that’s a really big thing. Who Is Agile? started totally different, in the sense that I had already these blog posts on my website which were - actually the questions I created in five or six minutes - when I had the idea I put that together in just a few minutes, I had some set of questions that I liked, and that apparently a lot of people liked. So I blogged about it, and very quickly I got a very emotional response from people who really loved it, so by republishing every week something new, I had very quickly some people who were very in favour of what I’d done there. So there was almost instantly a kind of community around it. And that helped of course for if I wanted to publish something, to go for and have a community. But then in the beginning when I started with the book, it was just me writing, or converting the blog into book posts. But for people that know me in the community, know that almost everything I do I try to turn into a community, whether I want it or not it just happens. So, at one point people were, I’m not, English is not my first language, so I make a lot of mistakes in English and I, actually my first language as well…

A: You speak your second or third language better than many people speak their second or third languages, or some people even speak their first!

H: …but speaking is probably rather ok, but writing I’m rather terrible, so a lot of people started sending me, or a few people started sending me updates saying, well, there’s something wrong there, and there’s something wrong there, and I just, in a real Agile way, I just gave them full permission on Dropbox and others, so they could fix the errors that I was making. And so, very quickly I had two, three people that were helping me out, with the layout, something about pictures, I had a question about pictures being the right size, and I had questions about someone that also had a Leanpub book and he helped me out, and somebody else came up with the idea of maps or something like that, and then I realized that, when I was in France last year, when I lived in France, that most people in French, in France, they actually like to read in French and not in English, so, I started chatting with someone that I know has been translating a lot of English books just for pleasure on his blog, or at least creating kind of Cliff Notes from these books, and he was interested in that idea, and from that I started asking other people if they wanted to translate. So that comes back to, do we need more community support - well, what we do see is I can add all the Twitter accounts for all the contributors to the book, to the editors and stuff like that, which is really nice. What probably would be nice as an extra feature, is if we could see who is tweeting about the book and some other stuff. I’m not sure if it’s interesting for the community, but I know as authors, already a few people have asked this on the mailing list and already you guys have responded to that, is the fact that we could see how many people download something in PDF or in Kindle.

A: Yeah, we have to do the analytics better in terms of formats.

H: Exactly. But I know that you guys are working on that, so that’s and idea that you have. One thing that I know that Amazon is doing lately which I like is that there is an option in Amazon, I’m not sure how it works, but there is an option that if, in a Kindle, I tweet something to a tag that’s called ‘author’, automatically it’s emailed, or somehow the author gets a notification about that. So that could be a nice thing to create community, or a link for readers to do…

A: One thing we were thinking of doing was having hashtags for every book, and putting that into the PDFs. I’ve seen one book, a book on customer development acutally had done, not a Leanpub book, a different book, had done it really well, where they had in the book, built in, ‘Hey, Tweet This’, and it had a hashtag. If every book had a hashtag, that would be an easy way for it to materialize on Twitter. But yeah, I think that would help a lot.

So, in terms of Who Is Agile?, so what are your goals for the Who Is Agile? book? I know you’ve been making a lot of progress on it. Do you think you’re mostly done, or half way? What’s your vision for it?

H: Actually, my vision when I started, I’m almost there, in the sense that I, this week I will publish 50 people or contributors, 51 or something like that, but my vision has shifted of course - we’re Agile! Some person created a map of where people are living in this book, and what I saw there is something I knew more less, but didn’t know how bad it was, is that most authors were actually from Europe and US. And so I thought, ok, this is mostly what it is. But when I saw the map I really realized how little other countries we had. So what I’ve been doing the last weeks is I’ve been inviting a lot of people that were actually already in my backlog, but I’ve been pushing them up front in my backlog, so that they would actually reply now, and so that I could have answers for well maybe not all countries in the world, but for a lot more countries than we have right now. Which would mean that instead of publishing the first book with just 52 - so I came up with the idea of 52 because that’s one year of publishing, so that was my idea. And then I have already about 200 people in my backlog, but then I said, ok I’ll just create a second book, with the next and the next. But still I don’t like to have a book with mainly people just from Europe and from the US. So, I’ve been publishing a lot of people from different countries. It means basically I’m kind of ignoring the people I already have, for example from Belgium, the country I’m living in, I’m still missing two or three important people from the Belgian Agile community, but I’m ignoring them for this book because I think we have already two or three Belgian people so I think that’s more than enough. So I really tried to have more people from different communities, because one of my goals for the book was to get to know people that I didn’t know. So it’s not a book that is a ‘Who’s Who’ of who are the people I regularly work with, or something like that. It’s really a way to get to know much more different people, and that’s in that sense it has been a terrific year, because lots of people that I know from names but have never worked with or who I didn’t even have email addresses for, that are now in the book.

A: That makes sense. Actually I have a question about that. So in terms of the book, traditionally, lots of what we’ve found on Leanpub is the notion of when a book is done or not is a hard thing to figure out. For example, when you have a physical book you can’t make it beyond say 600, 700 pages without it being really annoying to read, because it’s too heavy. But we’ve had Leanpub books that go over 1000 pages. It’s an interseting question about how long should a book be. So if you have a topic such as this, should you make one large book, or yearly books? I’m curious to hear your thoughts on that, like what you think the right thing to do is.

H: So, yeah, like I said my original idea was I would cap it off at 52, which was an arbitrary number, but I can explain it.

A: Yeah, once a week.

H: Yeah, but now it’s harder. I think I now have about 80 people I now want to have in the book, but then today I received another answer from someone, and he proposes someone that is in yet another country, and I’m tempted, like oh, maybe 81! So that makes it a lot harder. I have already right now about 200 printed A4 pages. I have no idea what that would be in small Kindle pages, but a lot.

A: Right. Yeah pages don’t make any sense on Kindle.

H: Yeah, well numbers, or points, or whatever they call it. But still it’s a lot. So I know that I only have 50, and with 80 we’ll probably end up with 300 or 400 A4 pages, which is a rather heavy book. So that’s really, I have been doubting do I really want that, but for me, it was important to have a lot of diverse people in it, so I will stick to that. But after that I definitely want to stop, so that is why I think 80 will be the maximum. And just create a second book.

A: Actually, just for a random suggestion: One thing we found for example, we have Eric Ries’s Startup Lessons Learned on Leanpub, and what he did, he had his whole blog there, but what he did is he subsetted out, like a year of his blog, and then another year, to make print books, so that you wouldn’t have to print the whole thing. And so, at one point on Leanpub, we were sellling three versions of his book: we were selling the entire thing, which was called All Seasons, and then we were selling Season One, and then Season Two, and so, the idea of, a book is a kind of like a collection of content, and you can slice and dice it in a few different ways, and have those all being offered. Because like with the ebook, it’s weird, if you think about it, let’s say you have 90 people in your book, or 80 or whatever, and say that the comfortable amount to have in your hand when you’re reading a printed book is like 40 or 50, then from a print perspective it’s interesting to consider making two books, but then the ebook is almost nicer to have there be one, for searchability, and also just for completeness, in terms of people not understanding which one are they in. So it’s an interesting question.

H: Well, as long as it’s sold on Leanpub, it’s easy to keep it in just one book, but one of the ideas is to also publish it on Amazon because I know that if I look at the books I’m buying for my Kindle, and this is something I blogged about earlier on, where do I buy books on my Kindle? I buy books on my Kindle when I’m somewhere on the road, on a train, on a plane, or in an airport or somewhere, where I don’t have access to a computer. And so I go online using my Kindle, and I directly buy a book. That’s only possible with Amazon, unfortunately, or with Apple as well if you’re on an iPad, but that’s just not possible for Leanpub to sell Leanpub books there. So unfortunately I need to cap it off at some point. And another thing of course is that for all the contributors, in there, and I think also the people who helped with the book, it would be nice to have a physical version of the book, and for that you have to cap it off as well at some point. So there will be a point where I will say “This book is done, we’ll finish it up and make sure that we’ll remove all the problems that we currently haven’t solved yet”, and then just go for a second book.

A: That makes sense. Let’s talk about pricing for a minute…

H: I wanted to add one thing. Because I was curious you didn’t mention, you guys actually have an extra service that does grouping of books, right? Next to Leanpub, you have another service or website?

A: Yeah, this was… We made a thing called LeanBundle. It was one of those, we have one of those things inside our company where if someone has an idea, and they’re willing to say ‘This is doable in 24 hours’, well, we’re not in our 20s, well, some of us are, but some of us are in our 30s and we’re married with kids, and, 24 hours doesn’t mean one day anymore, but if you can build a minimum viable product in 24 hours, obviously supporting it means that is a lot longer, but it’s worth considering doing something as an experiment. So, LeanBundle is an experiment that we’ve created, primarily as, we actually, during customer development, one of our authors, he wanted to sell a bundle of his book with another book about nodejs, and the other book wasn’t a Leanpub book, and so for us it was like, well, Leanpub has to sell Leanpub books because readers expect all three formats, and so we can’t just sell some arbitrary PDF that someone has. And so we thought, the idea of selling bundles is interesting, so that’s why we created LeanBundle. We’re not really empahsizing it right now, because it’s sort of an experiment, and some people find it and use it, but at this point it’s an experimental product.

H: But it’s good that you mention it, that it’s not limited to Leanpub books, because I thought it was.

[Editor’s note: LeanBundle has since become a feature of Leanpub.]

A: Exactly. It’s actually arbitrary digital content. I could sell coupons for a sushi restaurant on Leanbundle. It’s like, if Leanpub went and made Groupon, what would we do? Right? And that was sort of our Leanbundle idea. But we’ve just, we’re just a bootstrapped startup, and we only have a certain amount of time during the day, and there are things for example like fixing Dropbox syncing issues, and other things that we have to do. Leanpub is the thing that we’re betting on, and that we really like, and we think that LeanBundle is an interesting thing, but it’s more interesting for things around questions like business models, and experimenting with selling just arbitrary digital goods, but that’s a space that has everything from like Gumroad where you just sell an arbitrary link…. We don’t really offer anything unique there. I mean except for the idea of creating a bundle with other people that you don’t necessarily, where you like wouldn’t give them your credit card number, and that’s the interesting idea of it. If you and I wanted to make a bundle of our books, we could do that, and LeanBundle would split the money and all that, and so we’d be - it’s sort of a combination of Groupon plus… It’s an experiment. If we had infinite time and money, I’d like to see what we could do with that, but for now it’s just a little experiment on the side.

H: What I wanted to say is I really like that, because it offers the possibility to, say, for example, we translate books, or the Who Is Agile? will be translated in a few languages, there’s actually more people that people are signing up so they’re not busy yet, so we’ve not made any publicity, but I would want to have an offer to say, well you can actually buy the French and the English book together. And things like that. So it’s nice to have a way to deal with that kind of stuff. So it shows in multiple ways that you’re Agile in some ways, you stick with Leanpub, that we sell the three versions, which I really like, every book, I saw multiple questions on the mailing list, people saying ‘Oh I want only to sell PDF or only Kindle’, and you’ve been, really, kind of hard but fair, saying then sorry you have to go somewhere else, because that’s not what we’re doing. Which is a good focus, but at the same time you found a way around that. Well, if you want to sell with something else, that’s how you can deal with it, so I like that.

A: Yeah, we believe in the Lean Startup and Agile ideas, very deeply. It’s a really interesting question. Because there’s two types of books in the world: there’s finished books, and there’s in-progress books. And there’s all kinds of ways to sell finished books. And lots of people are in a situation where I have this Word document, it’s done, make this a book please. And there are services like BookBaby and other competitors and they charge like 50 or 60 bucks and they provide services like that and I’m sure they probably do a fine job. And so we’re like well, you know what, we don’t really add anything unique there. And converting a book, if you want to take a Word document and make a PDF, going through Markdown is probably not the most inuitive thing in the world to do. Now if you want to iterate on a book, then all of a sudden we add value, and then… So we try to focus on the things we’re good at and then ignore everything else. Because we don’t have time focus on things we’re not good at.

H: Right, exactly, and that’s typical Lean Startup mentality, which I think you guys are indeed very good at. I’ve been throwing lots of ideas at you, and at everybody at Leanpub I think, and I can see that if it’s an idea that has some merit and can be quickly solved and will help a lot of things, you will quickly do it, but if it’s an idea that you think might be interesting, but it’s not really in your core values, or not on your roadmap right now, you might say “Well nice, but we’re not going to do that.” Which is what you need to do, you need to focus, you need to prioritize, and I think you guys are really good at that. So thank you.

A: The danger, the weird thing, is there’s this scary middle area. I’m curious to know how you deal with this: we have the ideas where we know are outside of our core, what Leanpub is, and we just say no to those, and we have ideas which are, like, this is on fire, it’s hurting an author, fix this today, and then everything in between, there’s lots of good ideas that go into our backlog, and the problem is, we use Pivotal Tracker, and it’s fine, it works well for us, but our backlog is just growing and growing, and just trying to prioritize our backlog, like…

H: It’s a full-time job.

A: It’s hard. It’s really hard. Especially when you only have a few people and you’re bootsrapped, so it’s, we have to be pretty ruthless, but even still there’s lots of things that are in our backlog. For example, when we were talking about, earlier in our conversation right now, when you were saying you’d like to be able to sell the multiple language versions together, and we were talking about Leanbundle, I mean, to me, if there are a bunch of Leanpub books that want to be sold together, that are translations, of the same thing, that should be something that’s, it’s one of those, I just felt a little tug, it’s like, there’s a little feature hiding there - should we support buying all the translations of a book? Or should we support arbitrary bundles, like, for example, when you suggested you’d like to be able to buy books with your royalties, I think that’s a fanstastic idea and I want to do that, and the nice thing about that one is that there’s a business justification which is easy, which is that we don’t have to take a PayPal cut twice, right? So that’ll get done. The question about LeanBundle, if you have a LeanBundle, if you have three Leanpub books that are all being sold together and are by the same person, you shouldn’t have to use LeanBundle for that.

H: I have a few answers because you asked multiple questions there. So, you asked, how do you deal with that? I will reply to that afterwards. But the first thing, you said, right now about well, LeanBundle, and should we make it easier? One of the things I have already answered at the Leanpub mailing list, which is a great support by the way, but one of the things I have answered is, if there is a way that I, as an author, can do it myself, then I don’t think it’s your top priority, because you do have things that I’m still not able to do myself, and that is really good. Of course, you should at some point do some of these things, like having ways for people to buy them together, that might be interesting, for the translations, but it’s not, for me, it’s not a top priority. I haven’t also started doing this, well we haven’t started selling translations, so it’s not on my plate yet, but it might be for some other people. But again, thanks to LeanBundle, we can deal with that.

A: …or just coupon codes. You could just have coupon codes on Leanpub too.

H: Yeah, so there is ways to deal with that, and that’s fine. But there are options that are not possible. Like with Lean startups, you have to focus on some stuff. You asked, how do you deal with that? Well, I have a very nice example. I had a request for, so, I’m really busy with way too many projects, like a lot of people, and this one is one that’s taking a lot of my time, but I had a really interesting question from another Leanpub author, who asked me to write a particular part in his book, which I’m really interested in because it’s something I’ve been talking about for years, and actually wrote a few articles about that, about core protocols, but I really don’t see how I can start writing it right now because I’m so busy with the Who Is Agile? book, but then I just realized that I just reviewed a book of a friend of mine about the core protocols and the last year, and my idea was to orginally write that text and ask her to review, but I just sent her an email today and asked hey, Vicki, would you be interested to write most part of it, and then we can begin to work together on it, but you write the main part, and she said yes. So basically I delegate all the things where, that are in the middle. This is partially how I create communities, in a sense that I ask a lot for help to people, and, for example, you know that I am working also on a Lean startup that is working on showing statistics for book sales, and so, yeah, I think this is where, I know that you guys really want to make much nicer statistics for all the book sales and all listings, but we have a service where we think we can actually at least in the first time we can kind of work together, until the moment where you have time to work more on statistics, and we could show some of that stuff, and so you could delegate, and this is just an example, but I’m sure that some of the other stuff could be delegated, like LeanBundle, it’s kind of delegated in a way that you said, well, people can do that in 24 hours, in a FedEx day, they can just do something like that, well, it was kind of delegated to such a moment. So for me, there’s multiple ways of that delegation. The book I have, I think we have now 14 people working one way or another on the book, that’s just crazy, that’s just me asking for help, and other people that are really glad that they can help out.

A: Yeah it’s fantastic. Is the Dropbox experience working well? I know that in the past few days we’ve been having trouble with publishing, but, other than that, in terms of collaboration, does the Dropbox approach work well for you, or do you need more…?

H: I’m a really big fan of Dropbox. I’ve been using it for about half a year for multiple things. So my Dropbox account is really full, I’m at very high levels, because I’m doing trainings with other Agile coaches around the world, so that’s one way that we deal with large slideshows and other stuff. So I’m using that a lot. With now 14 people editing, we have lost already some content, and, but we can find it back so that’s not a problem, because thanks to Dropbox you can find the history back. But the problem there is that then you have some kind of merging problems. But then of course Git or SVN would be something because then you have tools that are there for merging, which is not possible with Dropbox, which is a shame because it’s text. So it technically, it could be merged.

A: I understand.

H: But, ok, we are dealing with that making sure that we communicate a little more. I’m not sure how it will work with the translations. We had a spreadsheet that, where people are saying, I’m working on that file, so I think with translations it’s probably less of a problem. On the other side, the new files I’m adding to the book, I receive them, I add a little introduction about the person, and I add a lot of links to it, and at the same time, other people are reviewing the text and removing spelling mistakes and other mistakes. And that’s why we had some hiccups. But we kind of, I think, we didn’t lose anything in the last two weeks, I think it’s because we streamlined our communication better. So we worked around it, and I think it works for us. Where Git or something would be more interesting, is that we can fork translations, because now, one thing that makes it harder is that if I start with the new translation, we have to copy the files over, and at that level, we kind of lose if people are still changing it. That’s not a problem right now because like I said we have 50 people who are in the English book and they all need to be translated, and by the time we are it 50 we will probably already have added 10 or 20 more, so we’ll probably finish the English books before they’re halfway into the translations. So I don’t think we’ll have lots of problems there. But there might be a risk that when we change something in some of the earlier files that it’s hard to see for the translators. Moreover, the part where I see most of the problems is, we have a file that’s called ‘Library’, so we have I think about 200, no I’m not sure, I don’t know, 100 or 200 books in it, that are sorted alphabetically, so every time that I add a new contributor’s answers, I add all the books that he’s talking about in his files in his answers, and I add them alphabetically in the library. So if the people that are doing the translations have already translated part of the library, that is a problem.

A: You know I think there might be… I have an idea that might work. So, as an aside, we actually used to use Git, and GitHub, before we switched to Dropbox. Back in the day Leanpub was a thing where you could use GitHub or Git or you could use, in the website, WordPress, like editing your book in the browser, and the conclusion we came to was that Git was too elitist, and the website one was just terrible because you shouldn’t write a book in a web browser, and Git put us out of the reach of almost everyone. But we really liked Git and we use it internally, and whenever you hit Publish now, we - we had to reset this when we did our recent refactoring, but now whenever you click Publish, or Preview, we make a new Git commit of everything. But the interesting thing is we ignore Git repositories, like .git directories, and so what that means is you can use Git yourself with a Leanpub book and it will have no effect on our use of Git with a Leanpub book. And so what you could do, is you could have one Git repository for your book, and all the translations, as forks, and you could use GitHub to share as well. And then the convention would be that you just check it out in multiple places, each into a different Dropbox folder, for the translation, and the translation would be on the branch, but that’s just the equivalent of you having - I mean it’s a bit ironic, that you’d have for example, like all the translations, let’s say there’s five translations on your computer, then you’d have six copies of the same repository on your computer, well whatever, they’re all just on different branches, but you’d still… I think there’s a workflow you could use where you could have all the benefits of Git. Because, our goal at Leanpub, with Git at a high level, is, we think Git is the best way by far for distributive version control, and we should not ever get in the way of authors using Git and GitHub. Without requiring authors to use Git and GitHub. And so I think you could actually set it up the way you want, with all the branches, with branches for all the translations, all with one repository, and have Git for diffing and merging and whatnot. And I think it would work just fine. I think it would take some work, obviously to pull it all back together. What you’d want to do basically is have everyone pause, and then have one person, presumably you, do all the grunt work, but I think it is possible. And if it’s not possible, for some reason, let me know, because if something Leanpub does stops you from doing that, let me know, because it shouldn’t be the case. Because for us, my goal is for Leanpub to be useable by people like us who can use Git just fine, or by people like my Dad who, you know, I had to show him Dropbox for the first time, let alone Git, right.

H: The advantage of Dropbox is exactly that, that we have some people helping out, that are actually not used to Git, and so that would definitely be a lot harder. I actually worked with a few authors that even have problems with Dropbox, because I shared Dropbox with all the contributors, so everyone who wrote for it, like these 40 people right now in the Dropbox, because some of them did accept, others didn’t, but some of these people and then I’m talking more about some of the Agile coaches who never wrote software themselves, already had problems with Dropbox, so I agree there that going to GitHub…

A: Yeah, it’s hard. If everyone used Git, life would be fantastic. I mean, when my father was working on an autobiography, I’m like yeah, well, it’s like, and I was trying to explain what distributed version control was, and I was explaning well, if you wrote something six months ago, and then deleted it, how can you compare these things on Microsoft Word, the idea that this is something that you should be easily able to do, and get really angry if you can’t do it, is like, ok, yeah, once you get that idea, then it’s OK, now you understand…

…back to Leanpub. So one thing I found really interesting about Who Is Agile? is the pricing that you did. Because your spread of, your minimum price is 99 cents, and your suggested price is $29.99, and that’s probably like the largest spread other than free and a big price, that I think I’ve seen. What have you found with that, what’s led to that thinking, I’m just curious, because I think you might have something here.

H: Ok, I really believe in having people set their own price. So I started out with actually zero and $29.99, but I think it was Johanna Rothman who said to me, Yves you’re crazy, you should not sell anything that you spent so much time in it just for zero. They should at least give some money. And so I wasn’t really convinced yet, but I said, when people that smart like Johanna tell me that I’m wrong, I’m listening, so even if I didn’t grab the idea, I said let’s just change it to $0.99. My idea with the proposed price was that, I had the idea that proposed price would be the maximum that people would pay, and that’s exactly what happened. Of course, it’s a little biased because it’s that high, but I said, let’s see what happens, and I get prices a little bit all over the place. I had in the beginning when it was zero, a lot of people zero, but of course I also had all these authors that also contributed, and at least some of them bought it, and I, they spent probably more time on it than I did, or at least some of them spent a lot of time in creating these answers, and so I thought they could download it for free, and so that was happy for me, or fine for me. But I thought also that it’s, I had no idea how much to money sell this on, so I let people set their own price, and that was interesting to see what people would actually pay for it, and in that sense I have an idea of multiple people paying multiple things, and I am convinced that if I would have sold, set it to eight Euros, for example, I would probably have more sales, but less money. And now I let people decide and there are people who are actually paying $0.99, I think there are about 25 percent pays the proposed price, so that’s interesting to see that. For me, it was a kind of play, let’s see what people will do with it. I never intend to get rich off this book, because I know there’s not many people that can live off these books. So my idea was just, if I can make some money out of it, it’s nice, if I can, yeah.

A: Yeah, that makes sense. It’s interesting, we’ve found with some books that have a smaller spread, like say three dollars and eight dollars, or four dollars and ten dollars, we’ve seen some people actually pay more than the suggested price, and we’ve also seen people round up. For example, if it’s a ten dollar book and that makes the author earn $8.50, with the royalty, we’ve seen people grab the royalty slider and drag that up to ten dollars, and so people will buy the book for $11.60 or something. And with free, I think you’re right, that obviously, free is slightly easier to buy than not free, because you have to use PayPal for not free, and since we’re in Canada, using alternate payment, like we’d love to use Stripe, or Google Checkout or Amazon Checkout, but these are more of a pain for non-American startups, than American startups. But, we’ve found that when you enable free, you get a lot more purchases, but then a lot of them are just free. And I’m not sure what the answer is. I’m not sure whether - I think free is an interesting thing for some books that are mass market, but that once you have a minimum price, then the spread you get goes a lot more towards the suggested, than with free.

Anyways, this has been really interesting, for me anyway, I’m not sure for listeners! A couple of last questions: What surprised you the most about using Leanpub so far, about your experience with it?

H: What I’m really happy about is the way you guys support things. So I’m happy-surprised. I was kind of expecting it, but it’s really nice to see that you guys are really doing it the right way.

A: Thanks.

H: So that’s a happy surprise. I like to work with smart people, so that, you seem to have all of that, and you seem, which is most important for me, to have the real Agile mindset, for the focusing, so I like that. The negative surprise is what you just said, PayPal, I don’t like PayPal at all, I think I’ve said it before. I understand your problem with payments, that’s exactly at this moment what we’re trying to solve with the PragAuthor as well, we will go for an official sales with lots of channels, but that’s not easy. So we’re right there in the middle with doing all that kind of stuff, so I understand the problems that you have with that. I personally don’t want to go with PayPal for my own startup, because I heard so many companies having trouble that PayPal decides, Well we’ll block all your money, and so that’s not a road I want to go to. But that’s just a choice, right. But I’ve seen people not want to go pay for the book, and that was actually another reason to put it zero in the beginning, which I already forgot, which is that way anybody can pay, they can just download the book and find another way, so that’s possible as well, if it’s at zero, otherwise it’s not.

A: Yeah, we’ve had thousands of people buy books, and get free books, and we’ve probably had about five or ten, sort of indignant, I’m not going to use PayPal because they’re bad, types of feedback, which means there’s probably about five or ten times that amount that think that way. But’s it’s probably a small percentage, it’s like one percent, two percent, but we’d do it in a second if it was as easy as using Stripe. Probably the day after Stripe is available in Canada, we’ll probably be trying to integrate it, but it’s a hard, annoying problem, and we have so many other problems, that we just have to prioritize.

H: Right, and I think it’s correct, because maybe by the time the other problems are solved, maybe other services are available in Canada and then it’s not a problem, so, although I don’t like that it’s only PayPal, I do understand that this is your priority.

A: Yeah, we want to make Leanpub as good as possible for authors, I mean right now you can’t even put parts in a book, which is something I’m going to be coding next!

…Anyway, thanks, this has been really nice Yves. Thanks for talking with me. I’m going to post this this week on Leanpub and also look at adapting this into the Lean Publishing book I’m writing, and if I do that I’ll ping you beforehand and show you what the section looks like, and see if you’re fine with that, or if you have any feedback or comments.

H: Cool. Thank you very much.

A: Thank you very much, and thank you for being a Leanpub author!

Johanna Rothman

Johanna Rothman is the author of three Leanpub books, including Manage Your Job Search.

Johanna Rothman works with managers and leaders to identify problems and seize opportunities around how they manage their product development. She focuses on removing management and technical staff impediments.

In addition to her management consulting, Johanna was the Agile 2009 conference chair.

This interview was recorded on March 22, 2012.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://blog.leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Peter Armstrong: I’m here with Johanna Rothman, a management consultant who works with managers and leaders to identify problems and seize opportunities on how they manage their product development. In addition to her consulting, Johanna is also a blogger and the author of multiple books, including the 2008 Jolt Productivity Award-winning book, Manage It!: Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management. Johanna is also producing a few Leanpub books right now. None of them are published yet, but I’ve scanned the previews of the two of them which have previews, and they look fantastic. She’s let me know it’s OK to talk about them. We’re going to talk today about her writing, her experiences so far using Leanpub, and also ways we can improve Leanpub for her. Leanpub is a Lean startup after all, and so we’re doing this podcast series as part of our customer development process. So, thanks Johanna for being on the third-ever Lean Publishing podcast!

Rothman: Well thank you so much Peter, I’m so excited to be here!

A: So, first off, so you’ve been blogging for about a decade and you have a few different blogs, so tell me about them.

R: So, Managing Product Development is really my main blog, because that’s my passion: project management program management, people management, risk management. That’s really the key: how do you actually get stuff done in the organization? But Hiring Technical People is really the predecessor, and that’s why my very first book was all about hiring, because if you don’t hire the right people, you can’t get anything done. So, my very first book was Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies and Nerds: The Secrets and Science of Hiring Technical People. And it came out in paper in 2004. And I was having tremendous trouble getting my publisher to come out with it in anything resembling electronic form. It came out in PDF less than a year ago, and I could not get the publisher to come out with it for any electronic reader, aside from PDF.

A: Hmmm.

R: Yeah. So that’s why, that’s the book I’m working on now, for Leanpub, in Leanpub, that’s the one I’m making the most progress on. And I’m actuall doing a bunch of revisions. I’m not just doing a straight translation, if you can call it a translation from print to electronic form. I’m cleaning up the language, I’m streamlining it, I’m trying to make it, I guess I would say more electronic-friendly. So, this is why I just love Leanpub, because I get to work in Markdown, I get to actually see my book as I’m writing it, this is one of the things I love. You didn’t even pay me to say this, right?

A: No! I’m just sitting here smiling.

R: I get to see it as I’m doing it! And this is one of the things, I just love it. And you know I had a question about, how do I do sidebars, I sent an email this morning, you responded a couple of hours later, and this is one of the things I realy love. I get to see my product as I’m developing it. I don’t have to wait three months, I don’t have to wait two weeks, I get an answer the same day as I actually ask the question. Now I may not like the answer, I still think you should put boxes around my sidebars…

A: And we actually might! The answer was, ‘Scott’s on holiday this week, please don’t make me do it!’

R: Yeah, I’m gonna nudge you until you put boxes around the sidebars. But, that, even if you don’t, I still have something that works.

A: The funny thing, the thing I’m actually working on next on my queue is actually parts, which is the other thing that you and someone else both asked for within about one week, and I was like “Yeah, we need parts.” Ironically, we’d actually thought about adding parts, and then we thought, no, minimum viable product, we shouldn’t do it, and also we didn’t want to, we thought originally about making h1 be part and h2 be chapter, but we thought that for everyone who didn’t have parts, that all their HTML with h1s would have parts, so then we’d have to convert h1 to h2, and so we went down the path of no, we shouldn’t have parts. But then we realized some people need parts, at least some people do, and so we need to add that in as some kind of special syntax instead of h1 obviously, h1 has to be chapter.

R: Yeah, and if you just said to us, “a part has to be this, and a sidebar has to be that”, and then when you sent me an email that I could do a tip is this and a warning is that, I thought Oh, how cute! So I get to, right, so I actually really like the fact that you guys monitor the list and you respond right away, even if I don’t like the answer, I have an answer. So I get to see the book as I develop it, I get to work in TextMate, which I really like, I get to work in Markdown, which I really like. I mean, Word is fine if you’re going to do an article. Word is a terrible thing if you’re going to write a book, because you can’t move stuff around, you can’t organize your stuff, you can’t organize your thoughts, you can’t organize the pieces. Word is the wrong program, the wrong application, for writing a book.

A: Oh, totally.

R: I’ve written a few, so, at least for me, I know what I need to do to write a book. So, Word is not the right application for me. So it’s really great. You know, it’s funny, a lot of people come to me and say “So Johanna, you’ve written four or five books, you have a bunch of books in the hopper, what should I do to write a book?” And I always say to them, it doesn’t matter, you can use Scrivener, you can use TextMate, and I always say to them, use Leanpub, do not use Word. And it doesn’t matter what I say to them, they all say “But I know Word, and I like Word!” And I say, “Fine, don’t use it, go to Leanpub, you can start there, you can use Markdown, you know HTML, you’ve been blogging, don’t be afraid of it, there’s a whole community out there, they’ll help you, I’ll help you, there’s even a Markdown syntax page on the web, and I can look at your stuff, and you know people are there to help you”. And they all so, “Oh, but it’s not Word!” And I say, “So what are you afraid of?”

A: Yeah.

R: And they all kind of, it’s like they’re looking at me, and on email, and they’re all saying “Wow, I’ve been a developer for 15 years but I’m afraid of a little Markdown syntax”, and I think to them, you know, you were the one who insulted me, and said “You’re just a management consultant - and you work in Markdown?” And I wanna say ‘expletive deleted’ to you too, buddy! I just don’t understand this. So, I think that Markdown is very easy, it’s almost like working in text, except that it gives you just enough organization to say “Ah! Here’s a heading”, or “Ah! Here’s a little bit of structure.” So, for me, it’s perfect.

A: Yeah, for us, the funny thing is, for us, we used to support HTML and Markdown, because we thought, well, everybody knows HTML, but then people tried to do all kinds of fancy formatting divs and whatnot and we’re like, you know, what we’re really trying to say with HTML, is we’re going to support only the HTML that you need for a book, which happens to be exactly the HTML Markdown makes.

R: Yeah.

A: So we just need to be opinionated about this, and say Markdown is the best way to write a book, every other way is terrible. I’ve written a couple of books, my first time, my first book I tried using Open Office, and after about 200 or 300 pages in size it started crashing all the time. Then I had to use Word, when I made a Manning book out of it, and I had to make a separate file for every chapter, and I just hated life so much, like, when I tried to add index entries, it would crash every sort of fourth index entry, it was just terrible. It’s like when you think about, this is 2012, and like there’s no good way in the world to write a book? We’ve had computers for 50 years, we’ve had like the printing press for 500, and every way to write a book in the world is horrible? Like, so that’s why our attempt at Markdown plus listing text files we think is actually probably one of the best ways, because all of the existing ways suck. And so it’s a low bar.

R: Yeah! And it’s so funny because, the reason I came to you guys, is because The Pragmatic Bookshelf rejected my book Agile Program Management, that’s the working title, I don’t know what the actual title is going to be, and I had looked into Docbook, but if you’re not a programmer, DocBook has a really high bar to get into.

A: Yeah, and you don’t want to write in XML. Because even if you can handle XML, I can handle XML just fine, Scott, my co-founder, he had actually written book in DocBook, but I said to him, I said look, I can write XML just fine, but I can’t think like a writer when I’m writing XML, I think like someone writing an XML document.

R: Yeah, yeah. And so, I was trying to figure out, what’s my environment, how am I going to get an environment so I actually have a shot of putting a book together, because I don’t want to spend all of my time working on an environment, I want to spend my time writing, and that’s really the key. So with Leanpub, I get to spend all of my time writing. I spend a little bit of time saying, Do I want an ordered list, or an unordered list? Well, if that’s all the time I spend with formatting, that’s great! That’s about the right amount of time. I want to think, “Is this a new chapter, or a continuation of this chapter?” That’s the right amount of time, because that means I’m thinking about the logical parts of my book. Is this a new idea, or a continuation of the same idea? And that’s, I fully expect to re-architect my book several times. That’s the way I write. I start writing, and I think, “Oh, this is a really good idea”, and then I think, “Oh, wait a minute, that belongs in this chapter”, or, “Oh, this is getting boring, I need a story! I’d better put a story in fast, because it’s been a while since I had a story.” Because I’m a writer like anyone else. I write and write and write and write, and then I step back and say, When was the last time I had a story? Hmm, must be time I had a story. Must be time for an example. And, because, you know, when we’re writing, we fall into the same traps that every other writer falls into, at least many writers fall into. I forget to put in stories, I find some passive voice and use it a lot. We all do this, because we’re writers, and so the key is, how do you get the feedback, how do you discover this? And when you have an opportunity to see the book unfold, to see the book get created, passive voice, when you have an opportunity to create the book as you write it, then you can get the feedback. So, for the Get Your Next Job Fast, or Take Control of Your Job Search, or Find Your Next Job Using Agile and Lean, whatever I’m going to call that book, I have no idea what I’m going to call that book! I’ve already sent that out to trusted reviewers, and I’m integrating the feedback, so that’s already been through one round of review, and thank goodness it has, because it really needed review. And so as soon as I’m done integrating the feedback, I can send it our for another round of review, and then I can probably take it out of the sort of stealth mode it’s in, and get it out for what I would call limited release, and see what people are willing to pay for it.

A: So the limiited, that’s going to be when you actually publish it on Leanpub?

R: Right, published on Leanpub, but probably not widely. Not released to Amazon, not released to all the other places, and then as I get more feedback and see what people are willing to pay for it, then I can continue integrating feedback, and when I think it’s really done - because I actually think that book probably needs another round or two of feedback after that - then I can say, because I’m not even sure what the real title is, although I probably have to have a real title before I get money for it, right? But, maybe not?

A: The process of getting feedback on Leanpub - so this is one of the, this is really interesting for me because, one thing we want to do with Leanpub is have the whole process of getting feeedback be something that Leanpub really helps with, you know, have Leanpub be a way of publishing that book while it’s in what you consider to be alpha or beta, like, is to have that process, like the process that you have with reviewers, but be something that ideally for us people just click the Publish button. You know, most books, like, a lot earlier than yours. For example, your Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers book, that’s over 400 pages.

R: Oh, God, yeah!

A: And it’s actually really good! And I’m, like, it needs cleanup, there are a couple of little things that need cleanup, like a bug in a table or whatever, but it’s something that could be published on Leanpub today and people would love it! And it’s, the question for us is, so you’re coming from a workflow where you’re used to having a limited set of readers give you feedback first before it’s, sort of, for wider consumption. So my question is, what can Leanpub do to make this process more attractive, and make the process of review easier for you? Is there anything we need to do in that regard to make it, like, make you want to click the Publish button sooner, or make the notion of publishing earlier in the process more attractive? Or is that process just fine for you and you just want to go about it that way?

R: Well, the Hiring book is the one that was originally published in print, so that’s why it’s already pretty darn good.

A: Yeah.

R: And, I’m still not, I haven’t finished even creating all the templates and tables, right, so, until all that’s done, although I’ve been making a lot of, I have a lot of traction on that, I’m actually not going to give you a date, I’m not going to give you a date.

A: And you don’t have to, we’re not your publisher, we’re just a tool.

R: Yeah. But I’m really hoping that in a very short while I’m going to be ready to release that one. And I feel, you know part of it is, I feel as though I have, if I have feedback from my initial reviewers, I feel as if I have an obligation to finish integrating that feedback, before I let the book out for the next round of reviewers, if that makes any sense.

A: Oh yeah, yeah I get it. That makes sense.

R: Because if I have said to them, I really wanted the feedback because I didn’t feel as if it was ready for more people, and I ask my trusted reviewers for feedback, then I really want to integrate that feedback before I put it out to the world.

A: Yeah, that makes sense.

R: Because, yeah, you know I’m a pretty good writer. When I make mistakes, boy, they are doozies! You know, I don’t just go for a small mistake, I go for really big ones, that offend the entire universe. You know I go for broke. So if I really go for broke, I really want to make sure that I haven’t gotten everything wrong. So, I want to cover my tush that much. I’m quite willing to say, “Here’s what I stand for, Here’s my opinion, Here are the facts, Here are my references”

A: Right.

R: But I don’t want to, if I have big mistakes, I want to fix those, so people don’t flip the Bozo Bit on me. So that’s why I want to make sure I’ve integrated my initial reviewers for the Get Your Next Job book, whatever that’s going to be called, and I want to make sure that whatever I have for the Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers book, that already exists in print, and if people want to also buy the electronic book, I feel it’s really important that they also have the templates in electronic form, and right now I don’t have those all done. Right, so, that means that they would feel cheated, and I don’t want them to feel cheated.

A: OK, that makes sense. Is there anything we could do to make your private review process better, or are you happy sending private PDF drafts to people, or is there anything that Leanpub could enable that private process, and improve it somehow?

R: I haven’t thought about it that much. So maybe being able to send it to people’s Kindles, or something, but I think that that’s something that I would have to think about some more. I could always ask people, would you make me a trusted sender to your Kindle, and then, or maybe make Leanpub a trusted sender to your Kindle.

A: Yeah, so when you were talking about that, I was thinking, should we do something with Dropbox possibly, like create Dropbox review folders, that people could use…. I’m just trying to think of ways that we could help this. Dropbox seems to work really well for us lots of the time, except for sometimes when we have minor hiccups, but… OK, cool.

R: Dropbox is great. The nice thing about Dropbox is, remember one of my very first questions to you, which was, How do we back everything up? I’m one of those, and I’m going to say this word even though it’s going to get recorded for all time: I’m one of those anal backup people.

A: Me too.

R: Right, so, the fact that you said, Dropbox keeps a backup of everything, and then, I think you also said that you backup everything?

A: Yeah.

R: So, that means, and I think that you said that you use, what backup?

A: We use Git, so here’s how this works now. So, we used to do something kind of badly, and we fixed it now, with one consequence. What we used to do, when you published or previewed, we would do a whole bunch of Git commits, one for every file you changed, which is absolutely terrible. And we did this because, frankly, the way that we were doing things in that regard was bad, and so instead what we do now is, when you publish or preview, and this is as of about a week ago, when you publish or preview, we make one Git commit for this preview or publish. And so then that way, what we want to be able to do later on, is let an author be able to look at a history of their book, at a history of every publish and preview version ever made, so if you had some sentence you wrote really nicely nine months ago and you don’t like your sentence now, you can just drag a slider back nine months and see ok, here it is, kind of like how GitHub works with looking at a repository.

So, whenever you preview or publish, you’re making a Git commit, one Git commit for the whole book, based on this preview or published version. And so, and besides that we also back up our repositories, we’re on Amazon and we have Amazon’s backup service, etc, so we have backups and we have version control, and Dropbox has backups. So even if we’re incompetent idiots, Dropbox is backing you up; and if Dropbox is incompetent, we’re backing you up; and so Dropbox would have to fail, and we’d have to fail, and Amazon would have to fail, and you know, so there’s, at some point along the line, you should have your files somewwhere, right.

R: Right.

A: …and so even if you’re computer or laptop - now that said, Terms Of Service-wise we’re not responsible, yadda yadda yadda, but we’re backing you up. But the point is, just for the record, since this is being recorded, when we made the change to do the Git stuff properly, a few weeks ago, we had the problem of what do we do with all this garbage version history that doesn’t make any sense, from the past, where we had like hundreds of Git commits for every… and so we just nuked that, because, it would mean that all existing Leanpub books had a whole bunch of garbage, and then good content. And since this isn’t a feature, it wasn’t an official feature yet, and in terms of the history, we didn’t want to show you for example your book, and then there’s this stuff that made sense and then a whole bunch of stuff that didn’t make sense. And so we just start everything with like a first new commit as of about a week ago. And so every time you preview or publish you’re making one commit. And so as far as your book is concerned, the beginning of time is about a week ago, that’s your first version, even though there was earlier stuff. That’s what we do.

So we like backups too. I mean, I grew up with computers in the 1980s and so I’m used to saving like every sentence or two, right…

R: Yeah, I’m not going to tell you when I grew up with computers. But let’s just say, it’s really important to me to back up, because it’s just not worth not having the backup.

A: No, totally.

R: It’s just not worth it. Because the cost of not having the backup is too high. So, it’s really, you know when you guys said that to me, I thought, “Ah! I can work with these people.” And so that was really important to me. So the fact that I can see my book as I generate it, and I can get the feedback really fast. Feedback to me, as I preview, in Markdown, feedback to me as I see my book, because I look at it in PDF as I generate it, and feedback to me from my readers, and the backup, you know… You’re not perfect, but you’re darn close.

A: Well thank you. Hey, you said you use TextMate - have you ever used the HTML preview feature in TextMate?

R: I use the Markdown bundle, so I haven’t used the HTML feature in TextMate.

A: So does the Markdown bundle, is that the type of thing that shows you what your HTML looks like, as you write Markdown?

R: It shows me what the Markdown looks like. So I can see, so when I put in images, so for example, I have a bunch of tables, so in the Hiring book I have tables that I converted into images, and so in order to see that the image looks right, I actually have, I created, instead of trying to use tables in the text, my tables are too big, so I created images of the tables in OmniGraffle, and then made JPEGs.

A: OK.

R: And so I put the JPEGs in the text, and previewed them in the Markdown. So I used the Markdown bundle. For people who are confused, who are listening to this, this is actually really easy, and so you create an image, I use OmniGraffle because I’m on a Mac, and I exported to a JPEG, and then if it’s too wide, you just say 75% or 60%, or 50%, because you can’t make it bigger than the width of the page. And Peter and Scott say it can be four inches or five inches or three inches or whatever it is, I can never keep that in my head, so I use the preview in TextMate to actually look at it, and so if it goes over the right margin, I know it’s too big!

A: Nice.

R: So I look at it in the preview mode, and when it goes over the right margin, I say, “Well, 100% is too big, let me see what 75% looks like.” And so, I export it again, saying 75% percent. And so if it looks good in 75%, chances are good that when I preview the PDF in Leanpub it will be correct.

A: Hmm.

R: So, that’s what I’m doing.

A: So for the people who are listening, Leanpub does try to automatically resize things. And we have documentation about how wide an image should be based on what type of book it is, and how wide the book is, and we have other documentaiton about that, but it helps when you make your images a nice size, so that they’re large enough or they’re small enough. Because typically, the program that you use probably does a better job than we do, so then yeah, that makes sense.

OK, so, one question then, around community. So when you launch your books, do you want, like, currently, Leanpub, we sort of think our role is to be a store and let authors to produce new versions whenever they want and have people get them, let a community grow, but don’t provide many explicit community tools. I mean, we have Disqus comments, but we don’t do much more than that. So do you see your blogs and Twitter as filling the role adequately for you around what you want for community-type tools, or do you want, do you see there being something missing that you’d like Leanpub to do in that regard?

R: Well, the fact that you have the ability for people to sign up to be notified about my book is great. But I have a mailing list, and I have a blog, and I have people who subscribe to my blog. So I’ve been really working on building my own platform for a long time.

A: Perfect.

R: And I have a Twitter following, so, I’ve been really working on trying to build my own following for a very long time.

A: Right, so you’re covered then, you don’t need us to do much for you?

R: Well, you know, if I understood marketing, I would love that. Anything else you could do for me is great. But I don’t think it’s, in some sense you’re helping me publish my book, but any publisher is not going to really help me do my marketing.

A: Oh, yeah, they’re just going to tell you, go on Twitter, get loads of Twitter followers. Go sign up for Amazon and write something there.

R: Yeah, I think that any publisher is not going to really help you do the marketing. In fact, both publishers I’ve had, have always said, We will help you publish your book, we will help you do the marketing, but you have got to do your own marketing yourself. That’s what’s going to sell books. So anything you can do to help, great. But, I think that any author who thinks that a publisher is going to do the marketing, is… I think naive is the best word I can use.

A: Yeah, that’s been my experience too. My take on it is, for a publisher, unless you’ve got like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, you really can’t afford to do marketing, because the amount of money you’d have to spend, versus the amount of money a book makes in terms of gross revenue, you can’t really do anything. And for publishers, if you do have Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, then fine, you can go and spend, you can do stuff where you can spend x and you know you’ll get back whatever, but, yeah, for any book that’s like a technical book or a business book, unless it’s a #1 bestseller type thing, you’re basically on your own. And we say that too, you know when people on the list ask, How are you going to help with marketing? We’re like, “We’re not! And no one else is either!”

R: Right, it’s just not going to happen. And so if you’re an author, or a would-be author, the best thing I can suggest to you is, start blogging about your book now, in fact blog your book!

A: Yeah.

R: Because the best thing you can do is attract an audience, and even if you blog every single thing in your book, that’s not what a book is, you can’t just take all of the blog entries and put them together and make a book. You have to weave it together.

A: Yeah, there’s curation, editing. It’s funny, because when Leanpub started with our blog import feature, we had Venture Hacks and Eric Ries’s Startup Lessons Learned, they were imported and produced that way, and so our affectionate term for those is Blog Barfs, right, because there’s literally no curation or editing at all, it’s just like they, the blog just slurped into a PDF. And those have actually done well, because, you know, Eric and Nivi are just so widely known that they’ve done OK, but we’re, that’s not sort of our core business. We think that blogs are starting points for books, but that you need to go ahead and get rid of everything that doesn’t make sense, you know rearrange, curate, edit, and produce a book out of it. And that’s what you’re doing, and so that’s fantastic.

R: Yeah, and at some point I’ll turn my Create an Adaptable Life blog into a book, but, it’s part memoir, and part, here’s how you adapt to change, but it’s nowhere near ready for a book, and I don’t know what the book would be, and I mean, it’s just, it’s way too raw right now, and so I haven’t even created a place for it, because I don’t know what it is yet.

A: Right, that’s great.

R: But in the meantime I’m blogging and building an audience, and when I figure out what that is, then I can figure out what to import, and it won’t be the whole blog. It will be pieces. And when I understand what the pieces are, then I can figure out what it is.

A: It’s funny, what we’ve found is, some people have asked us, Hey, can I have a category to import with a blog, say, and we’re going to add that, we don’t have that now, so our current approach is to say, look, import the whole thing, and look at it, and then you realize, oh, there’s actually two or three books here, and then process that some people have done is just taken the imported Markdown and then just made two or three books and pasted everything in each one, and then selectively deleted. Or else have one book that is the full blog, and then start moving files out, into other folders, and the book sort of emerges, like you have 100 files there, and it’s like oh, 20 of these are memoir-y, and 30 are sort of how-to type stuff.

R: Right

A: So, this has been fantastic for me. While I’m in customer development mode, are there any other missing features you wish Leanpub had? Other than Parts?

R: Well, at some point, I think it would be nice, this is really on the edge of, it would nice if - but, it would be nice if, maybe, and this is something all your authors have to get together and provide, people who edit and people who do cover design. So, and maybe this is something that we collaborate on and provide to you. Because, I have, I am working with… Because I know I need an editor. I am a good writer, but that does not mean I don’t need an editor. And so, how do I find an editor who is good for this kind of a book? And how do I find an editor who is good for that kind of a book? And how do I find someone who helps me with the cover design?

A: Right.

R: Because I need, you know, different covers need different kinds of designs. So, I’m not worried about it this second, but I’m hoping to need a cover design soon. So, I think that that’s, and maybe that’s something that we as the community help provide.

A: Yeah, I’m thinking that we need to create some sort of marketplace, down the road, some sort of marketplace for people who want to provide services to Leanpub authors, like technical editing, or covers.

R: Yeah.

A: And this is something that, we don’t necessarily want to monetize that, we just want to help facilitate. Or maybe that is part of our business model, who knows. But yeah I know, I see what you mean. For us, our hope is that by enabling authors to publish in-progress, like earlier than they normally would, that the community of readers around their book, can kind of provide the function of a development editor, like where you’ll get feedback around a programming book, like I don’t understand this explanation, or how does your code work. But, and so some of the development editor functions, we see happening as, we see sort of functioning as readers providing some of that, if you publish earlier. Now, that said, there’s lots of other editor functions, like copy editor type things, or technical editor, and you know that type of stuff, that we see that there needs to be something else, and we’re just not sure what it is.

R: Yeah.

A: So, this is excellent, thank you very much Johanna! Thanks very much for being on the podcast, and I’m going to post this sometime in the next few days, I have to learn how to add introductions and all that.

R: Well thank you Peter, this is fun.

A: And thank you for being a Leanpub author!

Reginald Braithwaite

Reg “Raganwald” Braithwaite is the author of four Leanpub books: How to Do What You Love & Earn What You’re Worth as a Programmer, Kestrels, Quirky Birds, and Hopeless Egocentricity, What I’ve Learned From Failure and Steal Raganwald’s Book!

When he’s not shipping Ruby, Javascript and Java applications scaling out to millions of users, Reg “Raganwald” Braithwaite has authored libraries for Javascript and Ruby programming such as Katy, JQuery Combinators, YouAreDaChef, andand, and others.

He also writes about various subjects and sometimes dives into the code. He is known for his popular programming blog.

Follow @raganwald for updates.

This interview was recorded on April 5, 2012.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://blog.leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Peter Armstrong: I’m here with Reginald Braithwaite, who is a software developer and well-known blogger. He’s also the author of four Leanpub books, all of which have been created since November 2011. We’re going to talk today about Reg’s blogging, his books, his experiences as a writer and about his experiences using the lean publishing approach on Leanpub. We’re also going to talk about ways we can improve Leanpub for him at the end of this podcast, since Leanpub is a lean startup and we’re doing the customer development process of listening to our customers. So, thanks Reg for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast.

Braithwaite: My pleasure indeed.

A: So, a few days ago, you wrote a fictional resignation letter which made the front page of reddit and Hacker News – and its clarification also made Hacker News. So, tell me about that.

B: Well, I wrote a parable, some people call it satire, I just thought it was a parable. And I didn’t actually write, you know, put huge disclaimers, “This is Fictional” and so on, I just relied upon the kinds of people who read the kinds of things I write to sort it out. And, yes, the vast majority of people who read it were perfectly aware that it was a parable, or satirical, but a small number didn’t – and my observation is that when people believe something, their personal, emotional investment in that belief is proportional to the amount of, to the size of the leap of faith they have to make to believe it. So if I tell you that, you know, Lisp is a profoundly enlightening programming language that will forever change the way you write software (I’m borrowing something from Eric Scott Raymond there), but I don’t actually provide you with any evidence, but you try Lisp and you feel that way, you can become very emotionally invested in this idea even though you don’t actually have much evidence for it. And this is something I have observed in a lot of fields not just technology. And I did get a bit of a backlash from people who complained that it was fictional. They even used the word “fake” which… I didn’t debate with anyone on the internet, but I think to say something is fake implies an intent to deceive….

A: Right.

B: …as opposed to saying something, the word I prefer is fictional. But I understand how people feel, because there were people who made an emotional investment. They weren’t actually presented with a lot of evidence that it was a true person who had truly resigned. If anything, the opposite: I’d left a number of clues that, you know, in retrospect for most people were quite obvious that it was fictional. But when people make that emotional sort of investment in believing something without a lot of evidence they can get upset when that belief is overturned. I’m sure listeners to this podcast can extrapolate that to a lot of other areas of their lives.

A: Yes. Actually, this leads me into the next idea. Your blog posts often end up on the front page of Hacker News, and there’s quite often a lively discussion of them there and on other community sites as well. How has this feedback loop impacted your writing? Like, I know that for example, they’re not always going to be misinterpreted so much, but you get a lot of feedback right away as you write quite often, it looks like.

B: Yes. First I want to say “it looks like” and I think this, if I may be so bold, I’m not an expert on Lean-anything – my midriff certainly backs that up! – but my observation is that people have asked me: “So, you know, how come all your posts are on the top of HackerNews?” And there’s a remarkably flawed assumption in that question, which is that all my posts are on the front page of Hacker News. That’s not true. Very few of my posts, in proportion, are on the front page of Hacker News–it’s just that I write a lot of posts.

A: Right.

B: I’m prolific. And as a result, say only 1 in 10 makes it to the front page of HackerNews. Well if I write 10 a week, I’d be on the front page of Hacker News every week. I mean I’m just making numbers up; I haven’t actually studied it, but the underlying principle – and I’ve in fact written one of my blog posts, called “Write” of all things, speaks to that very subject. I believe, and I think this is relevant for people who are interested in lean publishing, I believe that one of the things about the way we currently aggregate news, opinions, referrals and so on, whether it be through Facebook, Hacker News, Twitter, reddit and other mechanisms for sharing attention, sharing eyeballs, this bottom-up idea, this idea of crowd-sourcing attention – which is different than the way broadcasting works, where a few people decide what you want to see, a few people decide what movies to watch this weekend, a few people decide what’s printed in the newspaper. When you have this aggregation thing, you sort of ratchet up the “everyone gets their 15 seconds of fame” concept.

A: Right.

B: And because of that, I believe that–and I don’t think this is something that, I mean some people, you know, game it, it’s part of their business - search engine optimization, social media optimization, but I think for people who are looking to write, whether it be software, or whether it be words, or whether it be podcasts, I think there is a real incentive today to turn up the volume. To write more often.

A: Or make extreme statements even.

B: Well, I try to stay away from that to be perfectly blunt.

A; No, I wasn’t talking about you, I was just talking about in general you see, like, you know, “10 Reasons why Apple’s going to die tomorrow”…

B: Absolutely, people do that, people have done that, but that was true when print media ruled the day as well. You know, I mean, trying to be controversial. Rush Limbaugh, Jerry Springer, and so on. I agree with you about that. But I was speaking to the fact that in this day and age I think there’s more of an incentive to try experimenting. To write more often, to try writing different kinds of things.

When you’re writing, and this is an example I gave before I even knew about lean publishing, and please correct me if this doesn’t fit the lean publishing philosophy, but I believe that when you are writing a “dead tree” book there’s this enormous investment in it, which means you have to be enormously conservative. The turnaround time on making a change or an edit is massive. So, dead tree companies spend so much time on, what you might call, up-front quality control. There are editors that review, you have the schedule where you write all the chapters. Whereas when you’re blogging, you just blog. If somebody points out a flaw in your argument, you could take the post down, you could modify the post, you can correct your spelling after people have seen it, after it’s on the front page of Hacker News.

So you asked about the turnaround time, and I believe that there are two factors here. One, the feedback loop is much tighter because you don’t have to wait months to publish a book and get it out there and then read reviews. The feedback loop is tighter, number one. Number two, I think people tend to forget your failures and remember your successes. Now I won’t speak to what happens if you’re writing incredibly offensive things that people, you know, that are notorious, or just notable. But if we’re talking about the difference between stuff that is mediocre and exemplary, stuff that is forgettable and memorable, people remember the memorable stuff. So if you write 10 blog posts and 9 of them are kind of like “eh” or “meh” (I think is what people say on the internet), but the 10th one strikes people’s fancy, that’s what they remember.

A: Yes.

B: And so, I think for whether you’re measuring your success in terms of the influence you’re having over the future of the human race, or the attention you’re getting personally because that gratifies you, or the money you’re making through a venture such as Leanpub, I think the circumstances are such at this time in history and the internet that you’re rewarded for doing things which have a tighter feedback loop, and which allow you to be more prolific. Personally, I find that works for blogging, and when I stumbled upon Leanpub it clicked with what has been working for me as a blogger.

A: Right. Actually, how did you find Leanpub? How did you run into it?

B: Quite honestly, I don’t remember. From the time that you said ‘Hey, let’s talk about this,’ I’ve been sort of, I did some quick searches to try and find out, did someone email me, or something, I strongly suspect I found you through like a Google search or something. But I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember.

A: It’s interesting.

B: I ought too, but I don’t!

A: Actually that’s really neat in some ways, in the last few months we’ve run into a lot of people who’ve heard of us, and that’s a new experience for us at Leanpub… So, you’re the author of four Leanpub books, and you found out about Leanpub somehow, and then what made you decide to get started with your first Leanpub book, about combinators?

B: Well that one was a very natural fit for me, because what it was, for the benefit of the people that are listening to this and have better things to do than follow my writing, it was a series of blog posts that I actually wrote as a connected series. Combinatorics is a branch of mathematics and computer science, and it’s of deep interest to people who are interested in computer science, but it also has extraordinarily practical applications when applied to programming. It’s not so much a revolutionary ‘you can do things you couldn’t do otherwise’ but it provides a programming style. And people occasionally dip into it, the very popular jquery library for people doing client-side JavaScript, for example, is based very much on combinators, on a subset of the possible combinators. Raymond Smullyan has written a book called ‘To Mock a Mockingbird’ where he exposes this in a sort of recreational math and puzzles form that people find entertaining, and I wrote a series of articles about how this could be applied to Ruby programming in practical terms. And I was already doing that with my blog, and they were already connected,, so every time I wrote a new article about them I always kind of a little table of contents, ‘if you’re interested in this, you’ll also be interested in these other articles,’ so they were already in a form that made sense to package together in a book-like form. I’ve been approached many times since I started blogging to write a book of one kind or another, usually some sort of advanced Ruby meta-programming book type thing, and once I saw the Leanpub concept it sort of clicked for me, literally, that’s exactly what I want to do. I rejected all these all these other things; they just didn’t make sense. I have a copy of a dead tree book by Joel Spolsky, which I like, I mean amongst other things it doesn’t need batteries, and it’s easy to read in the smallish room of your house. But, you know I never wanted to go through the process of writing a dead tree book, and it’s not even a question of the economics - I can always use more money, and I don’t know why I turn down advances - but the Leanpub thing just clicked for me as something I could try, experiment with. The extremely low barrier to entry was a huge win for me. Huge, huge win for me. I currently publish all of my technical essays on GitHub where I was already using Markdown, and I had done this a few years ago, I fell in love with Markdown, specifically because it prevented me from - does this interview have to be safe for work?

A: No, go for it.

B: It prevented me from dicking around with formatting. Markdown is just like, this is what you can do with it, and it makes sense to know what to do about bolding things and emphasizing things and doing quotes and headings, and after that, stop dicking around and write.

A: Yeah, exactly. We added support for images, but similarly it’s like, we don’t support layout options or anything, you should be writing, not laying out your pages, this isn’t a newsletter, like stick it in a cafeteria, right, it’s words.

[Editor’s note: Markdown supports images obviously. What I meant was that we added support for external code samples using a similar format to the syntax for images. The full podcast audio had this correction at the end of it, after the interview ended.]

B: That’s exactly what attracted me. I used to have a conventional blog, where I could do tons and tons of formatting things, and I switched to blogging on GitHub for a number of reasons, and one of them was it forced me to just focus on the words.

A: Right.

B: It was a worse-is-better, sparse, simplified approach, and it really worked for allowing me to be more prolific. I could just bang out more words. I now also use Posterous, I have two blogs, the technical stuff is still on GitHub, and the non-technical, social observations - I don’t know why a guy who has some expertise with programming thinks he also knows about freedom, or politics or something, it’s really ridiculous hubris, but that stuff, I use Posterous, because it works in much the same way. I send it an email.

A: Yeah.

B: And my email client, it does allow me to bold things and so on, and actually if I hunt through the menus I can find other ways to format emails, but my brain sort of thinks that emails are mostly text. My brain doesn’t try to format things and how they’ll appear on the page and whether I could stick an Amazon affiliate ad link on there or whatever, my brain doesn’t do those things when I’m in an email client, and that allows me to write more.

A: I know exactly what you mean. We actually, at Leanpub we used to support HTML or Markdown, because we figured, well Markdown, some people might not like it, but then people tried to do lots of formatting, with their HTML, and we’re like, No, you only need the HTML that you need in Markdown, and it’s like, well then why don’t we just use Markdown? Okay… yeah.

B: Exactly. My theory is that if any of my books become extremely successful, then I will be able to do a royalty split with a designer, who can fiddle with things, and if they’re not successful enough, then I’m not going to do that, and I don’t believe that there is the case of a book that I write, where if only I formatted it beautifully, then people would buy it. I’m not in that business. There are such books, coffee table books, children’s books can be incredibly effective when you pay a great deal of attention to the design and layout, and so on, to create interest, this is not a general-purpose piece of advice for people about writing, but I think for my writing it’s perfectly appropriate to just focus on getting the words out, and then you know in the fulness of time, and I believe this is part of your philosophy, if any of these things become a huge hit, then I can reconsider going to a different system, where they are more laid out, more formatted, and possibly monetized in a different manner that can take advantage of their layout.

A: Yeah, exactly. For us, it’s like, we see Leanpub as the best way to self-publish in-progress ebooks, and, we feel that publishers have some value, but the value they offer is at the end of the process, in terms of taking something that’s good and adding polish to it, but that if you take them and bring them in at the beginning of the writing process, it can have effects that you don’t necessarily want. And also publishers are good at putting physical books into channels, something that we don’t have any interest in doing. So, what you’re saying is completely the Leanpub philosophy…

So we’ve talked about your first Leanpub book. Tell me about the other three that you currently have on Leanpub.

B: Well let’s see, from memory, I have one called Steal This Book, this is my favourite and I believe least popular.

A: Yep.

B: That one I am trying to give away, and not making much headway. So, my observation about that one is that people like free stuff when they think that it has a monetary value and they’re getting it for free.

A: Yes.

B: If you tell them…

A: If you had a one-day sale on Steal This Book where it normally cost $20, I’m sure you’d have about ten times as much.

B: That is my exact experience because I did have a one-day sale on one of my other books which was How To Do What You Love And Earn What You’re Worth As A Programmer. So, I’m going to come back and talk about that, or I assume you’ll ask me about that, because I think we both learned something from that one-day sale. The third of the other three books is called What I’ve Learned From Failure. That book I believe is the most valuable book I’ve written so far. That, I started blogging at a time when, it wasn’t even a blog, it was just essays on my own personal website, and they would get discussed in like Google Groups, the equivalent of, Usenet groups and stuff like that, and people could just follow them and could read them and then tell me what an idiot I was and so on. I was mostly writing about Agile methodologies and my experiences as a software development manager, and I wrote a book called What I’ve Learned From Failure where I listed four software development antipatterns and talked very frankly. I mean, it was one of those, sit down in front of a keyboard and open a vein, essays, it was very heartfelt, and it was my first, sort of, big internet hit. And, over the years I’ve continued to return to the theme of software antipatterns, not always in a nasty way, sometimes in a very positive way, but about things that we believe to be true about developing software, that aren’t really true, and why. And What I’ve Learned From Failure is a collection of essays that meet two tests, number one they were all popular, one kind of another, Reddit or Hacker News, I mean some of these go back to before there was a Reddit, and the other test is that I personally have a big emotional investment in them. And I think if I remember correctly that was my second Leanpub book, after Combinators.

A: Yeah.

B: And, that one, I actually, if I remember correctly, I originaly charged like ten dollars for the Cominators book, and twenty dollars for What I’ve Learned From Failure, and my theory was that the kinds of people that are interested in software development, at that level, are tech leads, software management managers, working programmers, and therefore they ought to be able to afford one.

A: Right.

B: And, you know, I have no complaints with the people who bought it for fifteen dollars or twenty dollars, or whatever I charged at the time. Over the years I also constantly got asked for advice about getting a job as a programmer, and some of the most discussed - discussed, not disgusted! - commented upon things I’ve ever written have been around either a personal passion for software development, or around getting a job as a software developer, they’re deeply related issues, or about interviewing people, and I hastily threw together a collection of those articles, which is, which formed the basis for How To Do What You Love And Earn What You’re Worth As A Programmer. But I didn’t put nearly as much work into sort of fixing up the essays and it was kind of the red-headed stepchild compared to the other two books, and sales weren’t really going anywhere with it, so what happened? Well, I wrote an essay in conjunction with your excellent work, the name of the book fails me, but you wrote a book in support of the EFF?

A: Yeah, Uncensored. We did a…

B:Uncensored, yeah, that’s right, pardon me, having a senior moment here, you know, ready for another espresso, but - I wrote another essay for Uncensored, called ‘I have a bad feeling about this,’ and that one, not quite at the level of ‘I Hereby Resign,’ this week’s thing, but it actually got a tremendous number of retweets, views, discussions on Reddit, discussions on Hacker News, it really struck a nerve with people. Unfortunately as far as I can tell, they didn’t really all rush to buy the Uncensored book, which is really bogus…

A: …yeah, I don’t know…

B: …but that’s, those are the breaks, and you know I mean, our job is to lead horses to water. But it really struck a nerve with people, and I sat there, after writing it, and I had a real impostor syndrome feeling, like here I am, talking about intellectual property cartels and freedom, and I do write, I’ve written a number of free sort of programming libraries that I give away, and all of my words, I don’t think there’s a single essay or anything in one of those books that isn’t also on the web somewhere, for free. I like to think of myself not so much as selling the ideas, as selling a convenient format for them. Like I sell packaging but the ice cream’s free.

A: Yeah, I know, exactly. Basically your selling the blog, like if you just do a vanilla import into Leanpub, we’re just taking your blog and just reversing the order, basically.

B: Yeah absolutely, that’s it exactly. So I had, I’m not going to say a pang of conscience, which makes sound like I shaved my head and became a Buddhist something, which is ridiculous hyperbole, but I did have a kind of feeling about it, and I wanted to give something away. And uh, the How To Do What You Love wasn’t really doing well financially, compared to the other two, you know, first world problems here! And you know when I thought about it, it kind of had the most value in another way, different than the value of the Combinators book… I mean fundamentally that’s a, you know, you’ve already got a job, you’re already doing something, here’s a way you can do it better; but it’s not going to like help you get a job to read my Combinators book - that’s not what it does.

A: No.

B: That’s not what it’s about, it’s for people who really love their craft, and they’re like interested in it, and the What I’ve Learned From Failure is a book for people who are leading teams or aspiring to lead teams, or who are influential in that process, and again I’m sure there are some people working in not for profits and so on who don’t have a lot of money to spend on a book, but fundamentally, there’s a real economic value their that you can touch, and you know honestly if someone doesn’t want to buy it, I don’t need to give it to them to make the world a better place.

A: And most of the readers of that book are already successful. If you’re reading this, you’re a software development manager.

B: Or you’re an employed developer who wants to print it out on paper, roll it up into a tight tube, and then hit your manager with it. READ THIS BOOK!

But, How To Do What You Love had some stuff in there that really I felt like, man, if there was anything I should give away, this is it. I mean there are some people it’s ridiculously arrogant to think that there people you know whose lives will be horrible if they don’t read my words on how to get a job or how to be passionate about your work, I mean no, not at all, and you know especially when you consider that I hadn’t really put a lot of work into making it a great book, but I really kind of felt like, you know what, if this isn’t really like taking off, like give it away, let people just use it, they’re already free, but you know here’s another channel by which people can take advantage of these, and hey, if there’s one person who gets it, you know a bunch of people download it, if there’s one person who gets a job because of it, you know, or who gets another $5000 a year because there’s a tip in there about negotiating your salary, you know, or something, it’s like yeah, the world’s a better place and that’s much more important than making another fifty bucks or something in royalties. So I said yeah, let’s do it, and don’t ask me why but like I had this idea, one-day sale, you know just like, tomorrow it’s free! Go get it! And for some reason, that struck a nerve with people, it was like, ridiculous.

A: My cofounder Scott submitted it to Hacker News. We normally don’t submit any Leanpub things, but he submitted that one, because usually your stuff ends up on Hacker News anyway, and we try not to be like annoying about things. But he submitted it because wow, this was cool, and it just took off. Like, you had thousands of sales that, in terms of thousands of downloads of free sales but also paid sales that day.

B: A ton of paid sales that day. And there were people who were commenting that they felt guilty, they felt pressured, and so on, and I had to go on Hacker News and say honestly ‘No, I’m sincere, take it!’

A: One person was made about our slider, like, ‘The slider makes me feel guilty’, it’s like “yes!” We brought a designer on, and the first thing I asked him to do was, I want a royalty slider, I want it on the purchase page, I want you to drag it to see how much you’re paying, I want you to see how the royalties get affected, and we were joking about how when you drag the price down, you should like show like food being removed from an author’s plate or something, or else, we were joking about making the colour of the slider all red… And we’re like no, let’s just go for a light happy green, light grey, meh, as it gets cheaper, and I think we hit the right balance there, where most people thought it was cool, some people got angry but lots of people kinda liked it, and you got a lot of revenue from that, it was like the best day for a book, it was pretty fantastic.

B: Absolutely. It did in fact blow up, and I told people, hey, you know what, if you really feel like sending me any money, you don’t even have to like pay for this book, take it for free, and buy one of my other books. Get a twofer if you feel like spending, but - it was financially successful, which was great, and it did get - I haven’t checked this morning, but I think maybe 7600 people have downloaded the book, in total, and there have been continued, and it actually motivated me to go in there and clean some things up, and tidy it up… And then when you worked on the EFF thing, that you know it sort of struck a chord with me again, and I made the fourth book, Steal This Book!, you know there’s been a theme on my blog from time to time about freedoms, it’s something I believe in very very deeply, in the importance of information, and opportunity being accessible to everyone. I recently wrote something, which is now in Steal This Book!, it’s the latest chapter of it, which is called A Woman’s Story, which is about my mother, and about her becoming an early programmer. Some people said the first black woman programmer in Canada, I don’t know if that’s true, I haven’t done as survey, but certainly one of the earlier ones, I think she got started in the late ’50s, in programming, and you know the machine has the power to democratize us, it as I said in the essay, which is something that she told me, you know it didn’t care that she was a woman or that she was black. The machine doesn’t care that you’re in, if I remember correctly, in British Columbia as opposed to being in Silicon Valley. I mean, humans care, you make deals, and you bump into people at the coffee shop and so on, but you know the machine does give more opportunities. It’ll never be a perfectly level playing field for everybody everywhere regardless of where they came from, but the Internet and openness do create more opportunities and they give us more chances and they make it more possible for small businesses to grow into really huge businesses and so on, and I think those all of those things are important both for moral ethical reasons and for economic reasons. I think that the more open our societies have been, there are a bunch of reasons why North America has become very successful economically in the last fifty years, cheap oil for example should not be ignored, but, a certain amount of that does come down to people’s freedom to be able to start a small business, as you do, that can sell books to people all around the world, and to do so with very little friction, and you know that’s the same thing that, it’s connected in a deep way, in my opinion, to being able to get on the net and read books, and learn things, without having to pay a university to teach you something, or without having to buy a book, that you can get something for free, you know the Internet will be my childrens’ library system, and you know I’m sort of really, deeply, deeply, deeply impressed by Leanpub in that aspect, it’s not like I’ve been to your offices and looked at them, or met you in person, it’s like, wow, this is, you guys are gonna change the world - I can’t say that, but I can say that Leanpub to my, in my opinion, is emblematic of, or symptomatic of, or an exemplary example of what makes this time and place in history with the Internet, and openness, and accessibility, so special, and so wonderful, this idea that people can write words, very simply, create a book, maybe make some money, maybe share it, you know maybe make their reputation for something else, and do so with very little friction, without needing an editor, a selector, and trucking physical books, or you know, an ISBN number that you have to apply for and so on, all those things to me you know they resonate with my personal beliefs, my opinions! Let’s face it, I’m not an economist, I’m not a futurist, I’m not an expert, but I believe it’s important, and so it clicks with me.

A: Thank you very much. That’s really nice to hear. Wow.

Speaking in terms of Leanpub, for us you, our opinion about what we’re trying to do in the world, is the writer and the readers, for the writer it should be you sitting at your computer, writing words, and then you click a button, and then everything else should just happen magically, and readers should be able to get your book instantly and as often as you want, you shouldn’t have to have approval from anyone, you shouldn’t have to wait on anything, we want to be this sort of thing that enables authors to connect with their readers a lot earlier than otherwise and a lot easier… That’s what we’re trying to accomplish. And I think it’s, from what you said, it sounds like we’re getting there.

So, is there anything that you wish that we’d improve, in terms of what we have now, feature-wise, or in terms of for you as an author, or for your readers?

B: Good question. I do have a couple of ideas. First, I love the Dropbox integration, I’m crazy about it. I actually, I mean this is maybe just me personally, but I would like to see either something like GitHub integration, or in the fullness of time, with your you know staggering software development resources -

A: Ha!

B: I’d like you to build something like that…

A: We actually already had it! We had GitHub integration before Dropbox. At one point, before you showed up to Leanpub, we had two choices: you could write the book using Markdown and sync with GitHub, or you could write the book in a web browser. (We’d forked WordPress.) And what we realized was that the GitHub thing was not accessible to everyone, and the in-browser experience was terrible.

B: Yes.

A: …for a book. Like it’s fine for writing a blog post, but for writing a book it’s terrible. And so we thought, well, they both suck. Well, the GitHub we really liked, because we’re geeks too right, and GitHub made sense for us, but it’s, so, but I couldn’t tell, like my father to use GitHub.

B: Yes.

A: So, we’ve had some Dropbox flakiness recently and I’ve considered thinking hey, should we bring back Git and GitHub as an option for the technically sophisticated authors who want to be able to, say, git push, and have that trigger their book generation. Is that what you’re going for?

B: No, actually. Personally, I’m actually one of the most ignorant programmers I know. I’m just terrible with all sorts of tools and git push and forking and so on. I was thinking more, I’ve been talking to the Mozilla Foundation people lately about some of their visions, something really exciting they’ve done recently called Boot to Gecko for, boy if I use an expression like ‘low-end phones’ you know it’s like so emotionally laden.

A: [laughter] ‘Ghetto phones.’

B: For, yeah exactly, but you know what, let’s use that word, ‘ghetto phones’, because the fact of the matter is that of the six and whatever billion people on earth, at least three billion of those live in what we would consider ghettos.

A: Right.

B: So, a ‘ghetto phone’ is actually a really important thing. So, what they’re doing in Boot to Gecko, and I don’t speak for them so anybody listening to this, you know, if you in any way think ‘that might be neat but it sounds like it sucks because A and B and C,’ assume that the ‘might be neat’ is true and you should look up Boot to Gecko, and ‘it sucks because A and B and C’ is just my misunderstanding. So, if it sounds interesting, go find out more.

But, what they’re doing is creating phones that boot into a web browser. There’s nothing in between there’s no, like you boot an operating system and a web browser is one of the 27 application icons on your screen - it’s all a web browser, if there are 27 application icons, this are images that you tap on, you know, just like you were faking an iPhone in a web browser. And one of the things that’s super interesting about that of course is that it bypasses all of the big questions about application distribution and blah blah blah and so on. So, why I mention that, is that in a world where half the population of the earth had things like this, maybe they had a boot to Gecko tablet, and when I think about that, I say to myself, What are all of the things that you can’t do on a tablet easily? Well, actually, fooling around with Git is something that you can’t do on a tablet easily, it just, Git is just so tied to our conventional notions of file systems and so on it just doesn’t work. I realize that WordPress, a custom forked version of WordPress or plugin that published to Leanpub or whatever it is, you know is not appropriate, especially the way I think about Markdown and so on. But, I do hope that one day it will be possible to write a book entirely in a browser in a way that is actually closer to the philosophy of what you’re trying to espouse now. Not fooling around with all sorts of styles and so on, but being able to have various chapters, to organize them, being able to create new content, Git right now, GitHub you go online, they don’t allow you to tap a new Markdown file button

A: Yes!

B: …they allow you to edit one that exists, but they don’t allow you to tap a ‘New Markdown File’ button.

A: Yes.

B: So, I, when I say GitHub, I mean to my mind, that’s like three steps backwards one step forward, but I do hope that one day it’s possible to be able to do something like Leanpub entirely from within a browser, and I think that would make the concept instantly that much more accessible to people.

A: The funny thing is it’s actually not technically that hard. We actually use Git internally as well. Like whenever you click publish, like, we had to wipe some of our old history because we used to do this badly, but whenever you click ‘Publish’ or ‘Preview’ for you book we make a new Git version of your book. So one of our ideas is that, for example, you know, imagine someone writes a great work of literature on Leanpub.

B: Right.

A: …imagine if like Ulysses had been written on Leanpub. You know how many PhDs would come out of looking at the diffs?

B: Exactly.

A: You know, you can say well here, in this version he said this, and then 22 versions later… But, the notion of version control, trying to explain what you do as a software developer to someone who’s not a software developer, I can say look, I can look at a file from nine months ago, compared to now, I can see exactly what changed in my writing, in my code, why can’t I do that in my writing? It’s like science fiction, right, and then you say, well the answer is the reason you can’t do this, is you’re storing your writing as a bunch of ones and zeroes like as a Microsoft Word document, instead of storing it as text.

B: That’s right.

A: So, to come back to your suggestion, I think it’s really doable, in that we could just, now that we’ve just decided, Leanpub has bet the company on Markdown, we think Markdown is the way to write a book, we could expose a new ability to edit Mardown files and create Markdown files in a browser quite trivially, I mean I think there are already perfectly good, because it’s just plain text right, we could do that without a problem.

B: And there are Markdown preview libraries out the yin-yang.

A: Yeah, live preview, HTML and Javascript, you just, there you go, it’ll show you exactly what it is.

B: And you can always use the GitHub API in the backend, to continue to store these things in GitHub…

A: …h no we don’t store it in GitHub, we store it ourselves, in our own Git repositories.

B: Oh, in you’re own Git repositories.

A: We don’t use GitHub for that. What we did before - the only thing we use GitHub for is so that we didn’t have to do a huge hassle around like Gitosis and whatnot. We figured anyone who’s already using Git already has a GitHub account, and so we’ll have them add us as a like a deploy key or something.

B: Perfect.

A: Yeah, whatever, but if I tried to explain myself how to add as a deploy key you can see why this is… it’s very elitist.

B: And a lot of it doesn’t even serve programmers very well. They’re you know they’re just artifacts of history, what we’d call accidental complexity in design - you know the way these things work. But I think you get my underlying idea - I’m really excited, and I’m not saying, you know it’s sort of trivially easy if you sort of write down the raw features, you need to be able to do this and do this and do this, but to be fair, you could say the same thing about creating a touchscreen telephone, but you know there’s a palpable difference between well-designed touchscreen phones and poorly-designed touchscreen phones. And I think the concept of ‘I need to be able to write a book online using Markdown’ is a tremendous design challenge, and you know I personally would be phenomenally impressed to see it done well, and I hope you guys can pull it off. I just wouldn’t want to promise anyone, oh yeah, yeah…

A: Yeah, I’m not gonna say ‘Yeah, I’ll launch that tomorrow’…

B: Maybe you should test it, you know, that’s the ‘lean’ thing to do. What’s the smallest thing we can do that can test our ideas, that can validate this business proposition, or the value proposition, and so on. You know, more to the Lean Startup concept. But I’m super excited about that being the future of communicating.

A: Excellent, wow. Is there anything else that you can think about that, in terms of… So one thing, for example, you obviously already have a lot of people commenting on your books in places like Hacker News, Reddit etc. - do you want Leanpub to do more to try to facilitate community around your books specifically? Or, do you find that you get enough communication through all the existing channels…?

B: Right. So there’s something. So I’ve noticed, so I’m a bit of a slacker, and I just give out the Leanpub homepage. I notice other people like build their own home pages for their stuff, so, you asked me about community, and I think in order to answer, I think that’s kind of a step two, the step one is branding. Now I’m not sure everyone needs to have their own custom home page for their book. I mean maybe that’s an advanced feature where there’s a tab, for the super advanced people, down the road for you, but before I would get to community, I think a really easy way to be able to say, for me to be able to go get, you know, stealthisbook.com, or .ca or whatever, and then have to go the page you already host. GitHub has found a way to do that in some sort of awkward, nerdy programming way. And now if you go to braithwaite.com it’s actually going to take you to a page hosted on GitHub’s servers. And I would say in order for me to be excited about building a community, I’d want to control my brand, and if you could facilitate that, then I’d be super excited about tools that would allow me to build a community.

Now, all that being said, you’ll notice it hasn’t stopped me from publishing books with what’s already there, so…

A: And today you could just redirect, if you wanted to make, like a sort of no-brainer solution where we do nothing is someone can make a URL and point it, direct to like leanpub.com/whatever their book is. But I see what you’re saying, that you want to mask it so that you, you’re saying so that if someone goes to braithwaite.com/stealthisbook then they end up on your book page, or if someone goes to braithwaite.com then they end up on some sort of author page featuring you and all your books, or…?

B: I think, I’m not an expert on DNS. Given that braithwaite.com is hosted somewhere else that might not be a good example, but let’s take stealthisbook.com as an example. So I’m getting a brand new domain. I believe that this can be handled now, if instead of giving me leanpub.com/stealthisbook, you give me stealthisbook.leanpub.com.

A: Oh, we could do that today. You don’t have to do anything. That was, ironically, we went back and forth on which is better, that’s like, the subdomain, like blah.leanpub.com, that, at one point we had that approach, I’m not sure if it’s when we had the forked version of WordPress, or… actually, I think we might have even at one point not have been opinionated and we may have supported both. I know that, it’s just Rails routing, we can just do that, it’s not a problem. But the thing is, we decided people, we erroneously possibly decided that people wouldn’t care whether it’s leanpub.com/blah or blah.leanpub.com, we felt they both kind of were roughly as good, like in terms of number of characters, but for you actually, for you it’s better the other way?

B: Well, if you support blah.leanpub.com, my understanding is that you can then, you need to do one other step, and if you do this one other step, then it makes it very easy for me to create stealthisbook.ca. If you look at the way GitHub pages works…

A: Oh…

B: All you have to do is create a file called CNAME…

A: Yeah, I get it now.

B: Yeah, so that’s what I’m imagining. I’m imagining you give me stealthisbook.leanpub.com and then in your instructions you say ‘And oh, if by the way along with your Book.txt, you upload a CNAME file with this format, then it would work exactly the same way.

A: Interesting. We’ll have to talk about that, it’s quite possible.

B: Because I know people like our compatriot The Grumpy Programmer, I think he has a custom website for his book which you then click a link to come to your site.

A: That’s funny, one of our first successful books was Manuel Kiessling’s Node Beginner Book, and he set up a whole blog based, well before he made a Leanpub book he had a free tutorial, but then like he’d set up like a really nice blog… Basically, the requirement for us turned into: Leanpub book pages should not be so ugly that people set up an entire WordPress blog just to say ‘Yeah, ok, click this button!’ and that’s the point of the WordPress blog, is to click the button and then that takes you to Leanpub and then you buy it. Because like our book pages used to be horrible, and now they’re passable…

B: They’re beautiful! I like it!

A: …and, I think that, you can see that our book page looks different than the whole rest of our site, because, well, we have Steve doing design work for us, and it’s like well, what’s the most important page on Leanpub’s website? And the answer is the author’s book page, so….

B: The page that holds the ‘Buy’ button!

A: …the page with the ‘Buy’ button! Right, and the page that the author, is their face to the world in terms of their book. Right, that’s the most important thing, and so that’s what we turned Steve loose on first, and then everything else, is sort of, our sort of programmer design, and it will, you know, the rest of Leanpub will end up looking that good as well, it just has to take a little while.

…Um, wow, so, I think we’ve probably gone pretty long.

B: Yes, I’ve used up a lot of your time!

A: No, it’s been really fascinating for me, and I think for our listeners as well. Reg, thank you very much for being on the Lean Publishing podcast and for being a Leanpub author.

B: Well, thank you guys so much for creating this, and as I said, and I’m not kidding, obviously I’m not a venture capitalist, I can’t pick winners, I can’t tell you who the next Google is going to be, but I do know that what you’re doing is important, and I do know that what you’re doing is, I believe, the future of publishing. And if anybody’s gonna become, you know, multigazillionaires with yachts and so on, I sincerely hope it’s you guys.

A: Well, thank you very much.

Manuel Kiessling

Manuel Kiessling is the author of the Leanpub book The Node Beginner Book. He is a software developer and IT manager living in Berlin, Germany. He’s interested in Behaviour- and Test-Driven Development and Agile practices.

This interview was recorded on April 13, 2012.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://blog.leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Peter Armstrong I’m here with Manuel Kiessling, who’s a software developer and IT manager living in Berlin, Germany. He’s also a Leanpub author. We’re talking today about Manuel’s experiences as a writer, about his experiences using the lean publishing approach on Leanpub, and about some of the interesting experiments he has done with marketing and bundling his book.

So Manuel, thanks for being on the Lean Publishing podcast.

Kiessling: Thanks for having me here.

A: So, you’re the author of the Leanpub book The Node Beginner Book. What’s it about?

K: It’s a beginner introduction, from a beginner to beginners, for the Node.js development platform. I started it as, more or less, kind of an experiment. I started writing it to myself, for myself, because there was, it was like about one year ago I started the book, and at this time there was a lot of information on the Internet regarding Node.js but it was really very cluttered. There were some examples there, a small tutorial here, and I wanted to put everything into one place and so I started this book.

A: So, how’s it going so far?

K: Oh, it went extremely well. I finished it about ten months ago, and it was kind of a success, because it was on Hacker News, for example, two times, and was featured there, and brought a lot of inquisitors, and right now I don’t work on it actively, only small bug fixes or answering comments on the website and stuff like that, and yet the visitors, the user numbers are still increasing week by week, and so it’s developing quite well.

A: And it has also translated been into Chinese on Leanpub. So how did that come about?

K: Well, people asked for it. At the end of the day, it’s an open source project, even if it’s not software, but text. It’s under a Creative Commons licence so people asked if they could help out, some people just forked it on GitHub and started translating and then got in touch with me when they were finished, and all I had to do was release the book on the website. And for the Chinese version, because China is quite a big market, obviously, I decided to also create a Leanpub book from this version.

A: Another interesting thing with the Node Beginner book is that you’ve done some experiments selling it as a bundle along with another book. What led to that?

K: I’m not really sure who had the idea. I think it was you guys bringing up the idea…

A: Yeah, I don’t remember either…

K: …but, you know, Pedro Teixeira, wrote another excellent Node.js book, Hands-on Node.js, and he also sold his book on his website and then came LeanBundle and it sounded like a good idea to bundle the beginner tutorial and the more advanced and reference style book together.

A: Right.

K: And it worked out fantastic. This is what really, really accelerated sales a blot.

A: Yeah, we’ve seen, as you know, that the bundle has more sales than the individual book. And actually, so much so that, as you know obviously, we’ve let people on LeanBundle know, but haven’t publicly talked about it, that what we’ve decided to do is basically shut LeanBundle down and make it into a feature of Leanpub. And the reason for that is that your experiment with Pedro has gone so well that we realized more Leanpub authors should do this. Just like, for example, with Leanpub, with variable pricing, once we realized how good that was, we thought, well, more Leanpub authors should look at doing that.

K: Absolutely.

A: With variable pricing, I’m interested to hear your thoughts on pricing. For your book and for bundles and just generally what you think about book pricing.

K: That’s a very interesting question, and to be honest I never really thought about it. It just came from my guts - so how should I price the book, how should I price the bundle. People here in Berlin that read my book and the web page said, a lot of people actually, said that I should make it way more expensive, because people read the web page, where the text is available, and if they decide to buy, they do it to say thank you, and surely they would be willing to pay a lot more. As you know, we never really experimented with different price tags, so no experience here. I think, well in my case, my book isn’t that long, so I think it should clearly be below the ten dollar line, but that’s just a feeling. I couldn’t make any experience with this.

A: Yeah, it’s interesting, with your book and Pedro’s book for example, one thing we found with variable pricing on Leanpub is that, for example, if you set a suggested price, that’s around double the minimum price, or even triple, then a whole bunch of people pay more than the minimum price. And some of them even pay more than the suggested price. Recently we’ve had a couple of books bought for 50$ and 100$ respectively, and the suggested price was like ten dollars, something in that range. People will overpay, not overpay as in they were overcharged, people will voluntarily pay more than the minimum price, it’s a really interesting phenomenon…. When we migrate your LeanBundle with Pedro over to Leanpub, we might actually want to revisit that, because, both of you might be leaving… Well pricing is hard! The variable pricing we found helps a lot, because we realized that authors were leaving a lot of money on the table with fixed price. But still, it’s an interesting experiment.

What has surprised you most about Leanpub, your experiences with Leanpub and LeanBundle, so far?

K: Well, maybe this sounds stupid, but what surprised me the most is - it works!

A: [laughter]\

K: That it works at all. You know, selling my own book, if you had asked me one year ago, I would have said yeah, maybe ten people buy this book? And it works so well, and it’s such a good user experience, especially the new page, the new Leanpub pages, are really beautiful, and it works so well, and I never thought that.

A: Interesting; thank you! We’ve got a designer, as you can tell, recently, to work on Leanpub, and so it’s not just programmer-designed anymore, it’s actually designed.

K: Yeah, design is the cheapest awesome money can buy.

A: I know. It’s fantastic… So, in terms of how we could improve Leanpub for you as an author, is there anything that you wish we’d improve or fix?

K: When we talked about pricing, I wanted to say, that the interesting thing is that as an author, like myself, you are a technical person, you are a programmer, and you aren’t into marketing or stuff like that. But, it’s changed a lot, with the release of the book, with the book sales and stuff like that. And although I didn’t get into price marketing decisions and stuff like that, the one thing I really developed over the course of the last month was, you know, working with Google Analytics, thinking about SEO, I never thought about SEO before, and now it’s like, yeah, to be honest every single day I have to go into Google Analytics and look, oh, OK, this works better than that, and if I add Google +1 then this works better for search, and stuff like that. So, I could imagine that a lot of authors experience this, once they publish their book and have the traffic and have the sales. It’s so amazing to look into these numbers and to see the relationship between web traffic, sales, pricing, texting, all this kind of stuff, so, I think this is an area maybe that could be even more integrated into Leanpub. You know, provide numbers. You already add the possibility to put a Google Analytics tracking code from the author into the Leanpub sales page, and maybe there is even more to this, you know?

A: I was going to ask you about this, because this is one area where we know we need to do more. So, you use Google Analytics, so do we, and we let you out your code in. Are you using that feature?

K: Yeah, I’m using it.

A: One thing we thought about is A/B testing the minimum price…. No, not the minimum price, I said that exactly backwards, I mean I mean A/B testing the suggested price. We feel that A/B testing the minimum price is bad because some people will get upset if they paid more than others, like if they weren’t able to pay what someone else paid, but we think that letting authors A/B test the suggested price would help a lot. Would that be something you’d be considering trying?

K: Absolutely. And I would go even further. You know, I learned a lot by, the book text remained the same over the course of the last year, I played a lot with layout and the other text, on the web page…

A: Right.

K: …and it would be cool to do this in a certain range with the actual sales page.

A: A/B testing About the Book.

K: A/B testing the price, and maybe also putting up different texts, playing around with the layout, maybe this is something that’s worth it, you know.

A: A/B testing About the Book. We’re also looking at being able to embed video onto the book landing page, letting authors put in to their About the Book and About the Author, like video as well, which gets embedded.

One other question I have is do you want, with your book, do you want Leanpub to try to faciliate more community around your book, or do you see your blogging and Twitter as filling that role adequately?

K: Yeah, I think so. I think most of this happens - you know this is the difference to the more traditional publishing. You know, suddenly the author is a real person, who answers questions in the comments section, who’s on Twitter, stuff like that, and, well I can say at least for me, I don’t really see a need for this kind of community around Leanpub because it would probably split the community a little bit. Like, here is the book page itself from the author, here is Leanpub, there is a small community there, the other community is there, I’m not sure about this…

A: Right.

K: …but maybe, for all those that don’t already have a following, and a community, or don’t want to invest their time into this kind of stuff, maybe for them that would make sense.

A: Maybe, we actually as you know went kind of back-and-forth on that, we did a bit of stuff, but we realized it was kind of half-baked, and the authors who were doing it really well were just using Twitter anyway, and so maybe we should just encourage that. Is there anything you’d feel, in terms of Leanpub books, integrating them more with Twitter and other social networs, like in terms of either encouraging readers to interact… Like now, on your author information you can put your Twitter avatar. We have really basic stuff like Hey, here’s the author’s Twitter name, but would you want more in the book driving readers toward, Tweet this!

K: Yeah, now that think about it, you know there is this About the Author section on the right side - maybe having a Twitter stream, a filtered Twitter stream box below this section, with some clever search put behind it, it could refer to everything on Twitter, where people talk about this book, or the author talks about the book, that would be awesome, definitely.

A: OK, that sounds easy, and helpful. Do you have any advice for someone who’s blogging about - because for you it transitioned really well - for someone who’s blogging about programming topics and considering writing a book?

K: Yeah, I thought about this lately, a lot. I’m currently, probably if my time allows I’m going to blog about this too. And the bottom line is, I don’t know if this podcast allows any swearing, but…

A: Go for it!

K: …the bottom line is, just f—ing do it. So often, before, I thought, you know, in the past, when I had an idea, or I learned something and wanted to write about it, so often I thought, you know, Oh, but I am a beginner myself, and nobody’s going to listen to me, and maybe if I write something and it turns out, maybe it’s not wrong, but it’s not the best solution, you know I have to wait for the best solution before I can write something, yeah, that’s true on the one hand, but on the other side, just f—ing do it. Maybe if it’s not the optimal solution, if it’s not the best out there, there are still, there are always people below your own level. Even if there are a million people above your own level. And this is what I think, this is what really changed with the Internet, or with the World Wide Web, is that now everybody can learn from everybody. Maybe if you are, if 99% of your time you are the student and you need teachers, there is this 1% where you can be the teacher for other people, even if you have to learn a lot youself. And so this is what I suggest is just write stuff, write about stuff, accept that maybe it’s not perfect, you will get the feedback and you can discuss it and correct it later, and everybody can be a student and a teacher at the same time.

A: Yeah, there’s a phenomenon about that, where the better you get at something, the more unsure of yourself you are. It’s not … you know what I’m saying, shoot, I can’t remember what it is now … but you know where people who are completely incompetent at something overestimate their abilities, whereas people who are really good at something often underestimate their abilities?

K: Yeah, the Dunning-Kruger effect?

A: Something like that, yeah, it’s related to imposter syndrome, but not the same thing.

…I have one more question. When you started the Node Beginner book, Leanpub, the idea with Leanpub was to write in HTML, but now we’ve switched to Markdown, and your book has gotten converted. How did that go? How is that for you now?

K: It’s perfect. You know, the web page obviously is still HTML, and now that the text is finished, I didn’t take the time to convert it to Markdown, but I do a lot of stuff in Markdown, and it’s the way to go. It’s way better. I had a hard time with the HTML, not related to Leanpub, but to the overall page, and it’s not so good for the translators for example, they have to fiddle around with my HTML stuff, and Markdown is the way to go, definitely.

A: OK, excellent. Thank you very much Manual for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast, and for being a Leanpub author!

K: Thank you.

Amanda Taub

Amanda Taub is the editor of the Leanpub book Beyond Kony2012. She is a lawyer who teaches International Law and Human Rights and Fordham University. She blogs at wrongingrights.com.

This interview was recorded on May 7, 2012.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://blog.leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Peter Armstrong: I’m here with Amanda Taub who is a lawyer who teaches International Law and Human Rights and Fordham University. She blogs at wrongingrights.com. She’s also the editor of the Leanpub book Beyond Kony2012, which has been recently excerpted in The Atlantic. We’re going to talk today about Amanda’s blogging, about Kony2012, and about her book Beyond Kony2012, about her experiences as a writer, and about her experiences using the Lean Publishing approach on Leanpub.

So, Amanda, thank you again for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast.

Taub: Thank you for having me, I’m happy to be here.

A: First of all, I’d like to say that I really like the titles of your writing. I think one of my favourites is “Solving War Crimes With Wristbands”. Do you have a favourite title out of everything you’ve ever written?

T: You know, I’m honestly not sure if I have a favourite title. Choosing titles is one of the hardest aspects of writing for me. I never have managed to do all of the things that you’re supposed to do with blog post titles, in terms of key words and SEO, so I usually end up with really esoteric things. But the “Solving War Crimes With Wristbands” one was actually not something I can take credit for. Max Fisher, who is the international editor at The Atlantic came up with that one, and I think he did a great job.

A: Let’s talk about your blog. So you started your blog “Wronging Rights” at wrongingrights.com with Kate Cronin-Furman in 2008. How did that come about?

T: So, Kate and I have been best friends since we were very young; we met in high school. And she and I were both working at big law firms in New York City and, as you’ve probably heard, the life of a junior law firm associate can be difficult at times, and both of us had a real interest in human rights work. So, we started this blog as a way to have an outlet for our interests, and a way to kind of stay involved in that field, even though we were both doing more general litigation work. And it’s been a wonderful experience, it really grew from there.

A: Cool. The tagline for it is “Very Serious Commentary on Very Important Issues”. Obviously rights issues are very important, but I take it from the Winnie the Pooh-style capitalization and the content that you’re not too impressed with the role in the media and its typical level of commentary.

T: I think that’s probably fair to say. The very “Very Serious Commentary on Very Important Issues” was definitely tongue in cheek. We tend to take a fairly kind of humorous, sarcastic approach to the mass atrocities and other terrible things that we write about, as a way to try to avoid getting involved, getting bogged down in the sentimentality that is really easy to get lost in when you’re writing about things that are that terrible and that serious.

A: Right. You’ve also recently written a few blog posts about Kony2012, including my favourite, ‘The Definitive Kony2012 Drinking Game”, as well as a couple articles for The Atlantic, and then the Boyond Kony2012 Leanpub book. Can you take me through that series of events?

T: Sure. We had actually been writing about Invisible Children for several years. The Kony2012 video that they put out was not the first thing that they’ve done on this, they’ve been working on this issue for many years. And they’ve always taken a kind of simplified, almost pop culture-based approach to the awareness-raising and the advocacy campaigns that they’ve done, and Kate, my co-blogger and I, have always had some pretty significant concerns about that. So, when the Kony2012 video came out and became so viral so quickly, the critique of Invisible Children also went viral. So the first thing that happened was that a really old post of ours from, I think, early 2009, suddenly got more hits than almost the entire rest of the blog combined in the last year, and it happened to have gotten picked up by a couple of the sites that were doing kind of ground zero for the critique of the video, and just kind of spread from there.

A: Was that the one with the picture, with the people…?

T: Exactly. So that was a photograph taken by our friend Glenna Gordon, who’s a very talented photojournalist, and it just shows how this kind of thing is driven by media and events. She took this photo of the three Invisible Children founders posing with guns they had borrowed from South Sudanese rebels at the Juba peace talks, and no news organizations were interested in it at all, because Invisible Children wasn’t really in the news at the time, and so she ended up letting us publish it on our blog. And then, years later, the post went viral, the photo went viral, and it all of a sudden was everywhere. So, that happened, then we followed that up with our drinking game post, because you know, God forbid we be substantive, but we tried to use the drinking game as a sort of humorous way to point out some of the issues that we had with this video, in terms of who was allowed to speak, who was treated as having agency, namely the kind of young, attractive white people from San Diego. And then contrast that with the portrayal of Africans, particularly Ugandans, who… the only Africans portrayed in the video were of course the rebels themselves who were demonized, and pretty rightly so, and then this young boy, Jacob, in some footage from many years ago, when he was still a chiid, discussing his own experiences as a former child soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army, and what had happened to his brother. But even that conversation didn’t put his experiences at the center, it was really about Jason Russell, the Invisible Children founder who made the video, and his sort of heroism. So he, it was about him making this promise to this child, and you know promising that they were going to stop the Lord’s Resistance Army and save the children, and he was literally interrupting this child as he was trying to tell his story. So, the drinking game was designed to draw attention to some of those things in a somewhat fun way. We definitely didn’t intend it to be an acual drinking game! I don’t think a human being could survive all of the things that we suggested.

[laughter]

A: So then, from there, what led you to the Beyond Kony2012 book and also the articles in The Atlantic, how did that come about?

T: So, the Atlantic articles developed pretty organically, we had been in touch with Max Fisher in the past, he’d kind of emailed us in the past for our perspective on some other things, but we’d never written anything for him, and he emailed us and said he’d seen the drinking game post, and would we like to write something for The Atlantic that didn’t involve quite so many swear words and dangerous activities. And we said of course, because we think that’s a great publication. And so we did that, and then we were also getting at the same time a lot of media requests, a lot of people were asking us to go on radio shows, podcasts, TV shows, and we realized that we were over and over saying the problem here is a lack of context, a lack of nuance, this is giving an oversimplified version of this conflict in a way that’s actually harmful to policy and the attempts to achieve a resolution to the conflict. But there wasn’t a resource out there to improve that situation. The information wasn’t really available in a packaged way that was accessible to people who didn’t have a background in African Studies or Political Science or something of that nature. And so I just decided to put one together. I reached out to some of the other people who were commentating on the video, and asked each of them to submit a brief essay grounded in their own kind of experience and expertise, and we put it together in about a month and then released it to coincide with Invisible Children’s “Cover the Night” poster day on April 20th.

A: And what made you choose Leanpub for the book, and how did you discover Leanpub?

T: So, you guys had been on my radar for a while, I’d actually bought a couple of your books I think. And I think the first place I saw you was through the Venture Hacks website, although that wasn’t actually a book I ended up buying, and I just thought your model was really great and it seemed like it would be a really good fit for the book that I was putting together. Because we were putting it together so quickly, I knew there was a chance that not everyone would have their essay done by the time that I was going to release it, so I really liked that you had the option of kind of adding and changing the content over time, even after the book had been published. I also really liked your flexible pricing option.

A: Cool.

T: I wanted this book to be accessible to as many people as possible. Obviously there were some costs in putting it together, both in terms of things like time and licensing photographs. And so I wanted to be able to charge for it, but I didn’t want the cost to be a barrier to anyone who wasn’t in a position to pay, and so I liked that I could make it donation-only by setting the minimum price to zero.

A: Right, so your book has a free minimum price, and it’s suggested price is $2.99, and it’s been out for a few weeks, you’ve got hundreds of readers and earned some money, some people are paying more than the suggested price - are you happy with the results so far?

T: I’m really happy. You know, I had set myself a pretty modest goal for this because I wasn’t sure what the readership would be like, I wasn’t sure how popular a topic this would be, it wasn’t clear whether people would still be interested in the Lord’s Resistance Army and this conflict after the hubbub around Invisible Children died down - especially because the narrative there started to spin off in a different direction once Jason Russell had his nervous breakdown. Which was very sad, but also not in any way related to what the book was about. And so I wasn’t sure how much of a readerhip there would be, and it’s really exceeded my expectations. We’ve just been marketing it through my blog and some of the other authors’ blogs and Twitter, and I think that as of today we have something like 750 downloads, which I’m really happy about, that’s really kind of exceeded my expectations for only a couple of weeks. My hope is that we can make this more of a classroom tool. I’m still expecting a couple more chapters to come in, but once that’s done, I’m going to put together a teacher’s guide, and hopefully that’s something that teachers can use in their classroom if they want to cover this topic.

A: Excellent. So, you’ve already gotten a lot of feedback about your blog posts. Have you gotten much feedback from readers of the Beyond Kony2012 book?

T: Not as much as I expected. I have gotten some. It’s mostly been very positive. A couple of more critical responses, but those have been made in person, from activists who I already knew, who read the book and felt that we hadn’t fully seen their perspective, or something along those lines. But it’s been really great to have it open up that kind of dialogue. And yeah, I think that so far people seem to be enjoying it. It was the first ebook I’d ever written, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

A: …In terms of the community aspect, would you want us to try to do more to enable community around your book, or do you think that the blog fills that role adequately for you?

T: I think that the blog and Twitter fill that role pretty well. I feel like I already have that platorm available to people, and I’ve made sure to put up a couple of posts on the blog so that people could comment in the comment section of those posts if they had something that they wanted to say. And same with Twitter, I’ve been happy to engage with people on Twitter, and definitely some of the other authors have as well.

A: Right.

T: And so I honestly think that you guys would have a difficult time matching that, especially for a book with multiple authors.

A: Yeah, we’re not trying to be Twitter. Twitter does a pretty good job of being Twitter. In terms of how we could make Leanpub better for you as an author, is there anything that you wish we could improve or fix to improve your experince getting started as a writer on Leanpub? I know it’s kind of rough sometimes.

T: You know, honestly you guys really exceeded my expectations. I had set aside an entire day to do the formatting on these posts, and I think it only ended up taking me like an hour and a half.

A: Nice!

T: So, you know, that was great. I always assumed that, you know, especially doing something for the first time, I always assumed that things would go wrong and it would be really complicated and difficult, and it was fine, I think I encountered one minor technical problem, and I emailed you guys, and I got a response in I think five minutes, and it was three in the morning, so that was amazing, that was great. And, yeah, it was very easy. I had used Markdown before, so that probably helped, but it’s very easy.

A: Did the other authors, did you import… did they write in Markdown, or did they write in HTML and you converted it, or how did it work?

T: They just sent me text files and I did the formatting myself. People were submitting things from all over the world via various word processing and rich text formats, and so it seemed like it was going to be easiest for me to just say, I’ll deal with it, rather than them dealing with the process of them formatting and me checking it.

A: That makes sense.

T: Yeah, you guys made it so easy that that was fine. I think there are maybe a couple of small things that maybe would make it a little, you know could be fun, like I used the heading format, I put the authors’ names as a second-level heading so that they would show up in the table of contents…

A: Ah…

T: …which I think you know if you’d had some way to make that slightly more automatic for multiple-authored books, that would be great.

A: That makes sense. I never thought about that. This is nice for us, because other than, we did a project, the Uncensored project, ourselves, about a month or so, more than a month ago now, but other than that we haven’t had many books following your model of one editor and multiple contributors, so we haven’t really put much thought into the formatting, but I know what you mean. I ended up making a cover page with a whole bunch of author names, like a cover image, so we should actually think about that, you’re right.

Um, are you still fine with time? I know we got started late.

T: This is fine.

A: So, let’s talk about more about the Kony2012 and Beyond Kony2012. Who should read _Beyond Kony2012? Who’s your ideal reader?

T: This book was written for people who had watched the video and wanted to learn more, and didn’t know where to start. So it’s designed for lay readers, you don’t have to have any background in anything to do with the conflict or political science, anything like that to be able to get a lot our of this book. The authors all consciously avoided things like jargon and acronyms and made sure to explain everything pretty clearly. I think it would be great for the casual reader who’s seen the video and wants to learn more about it. Also I’d love it if it was used in classrooms. I’ve been contacted by a few different teachers to ask if I think it would be appropriate for high school students, and I think the answer is yes. Especially given that they were essentially the initial targets of the Invisible Children marketing campaign, I think they’re exactly who should be learning more about it. And yeah I think it’s just a kind of great background tool for people who are interested in learning more about this specfically, or interested in thinking more about advocacy, and how we can ethically put together good advocacy campaigns, ethically use awareness campaigns to approach the issue of massive human rights violations that are happening outside of our own countries - which I think is something that we need to pay attention to more, now that that kind of activism is becoming so much easier.

A: Yeah, with the Internet. One reaction I had, in terms of the video and then the book, and the commentary, from my perspective, I think there are many flaws with Invisible Children, and the video, and people’s reactions to it, I’ve kind of seen it as kind of the Twilight or the Hunger Games of advocacy. Well, it’s terrible to reference The Hunger Games, but -

T: I loved The Hunger Games, I have to say. Maybe it’s the Twilight.

A: OK, maybe it’s the Twilight of advocacy. So, my question though is, despite all that, do you think the world is better off for the video having been done, the way that it was done, even given the way it was done etc., do you think the world’s better off for the video having been done and gone viral the way it did? With everything that was involved with it?

T: You know, honestly, I don’t think so. I think that, I would love to be able to say yes, and I think that there’s a real urge to say, “Well, people got this small amount of informaiton and it’s better than nothing.” But I actually disagree with that. I think that this wasn’t just information; this was a very specifically targeted campaign designed to provoke a political response, and to do so in what I think was a pretty irresponsible way. They were putting out this narrative which had a very, to say the least extremely narrow view of what was actually going on there. I think you could make an argument that it was actively misleading. And it’s designed to provoke a US government response. I think that you have to have a responsible attitude towards using power in that way. They’re asking for military intervention in a long-running regional conflict in a very unstable part of the world, and I don’t think they were really that honest about the potential consequences of that. Who we would be working with, what that type of military intervention necessarily looks like. When you say, Kony needs to be apprehended, what you’re really saying is you need to send an army to surround him and his army of people who were unwilling combatants, who have been forced into combat, and have a battle with them. And frankly that is in many ways the best-case scenario, because it’s not clear that you’ll even be able to track them in the area of the world where they operate. It’s very likely that that kind of military operation will provoke serious reprisals against civilians; in the past that’s exactly what has happened. And I think that the video doesn’t take responsibility for any of those outcomes. It doesn’t even hint that they’re a possibility. And I’m not really sure that that is ethical or fair, either to the people who will suffer the consequences, if that indeed does happen, or to the supporters who watch the video and are told only about the potential positive outcomes of their actions, and not about the potential negative ones. I’m not really sure that it’s fair to kind of include people in something like that, without really giving them an understanding of what you’re asking them to do.

A: Hmm. So, another idea I’d like to talk about is the idea of standing, because that’s an interesting idea, and the idea of armchair critics. So you’ve discussed the notion that people who criticize the video have been unfairly attacked as armchair critics, which is an ad hominem attack, and then the flip side though is that people for the video are also in their armchairs. And so you’re saying that’s hypocritical, right?

T: I think I had two concerns with the “armchair critic” criticism that was bandied about here. The first one was that the vast majority of people who are criticizing this video were not armchair anything. They were people who have been working in this region of the world, in many cases actually working on peace negotiations with the Lord’s Resistance Army, people had devoted significant portions of their career to trying to end this conflict, and to call them armchair critics, as compared to the people from Invisible Children, who have also been actively working to end this conflict - I think, to me, that indicated that by “armchair critic” they didn’t really mean, “We don’t think you’re doing anything,” they meant, “We want to listen to the person who is most like us and has made a heroic sacrifice.” So, these kind of young kids from Invisible Children who went off to Africa and promised to be heroes, and made this film, it’s a great heroic narrative, especially because they did have the option of just staying in the US, and leading a comfortable life, and just going to law school, like me. And instead they decided to found this NGO and devote their careers to ending this conflict. And, I think that if we focus too much on those people, and say that only people who have made those types of heroic sacrifices get to speak about an issue, then you end up really narrowing the field of who is allowed to talk, because that means you don’t listen to people who are from the region, who didn’t make the heroic sacrifices because they’re just living it, that’s just they’re lives, you don’t listen to the people who work in a quieter way, who are academics or government negotiators working on peace agreements or things like that, people who don’t place themselves at the center of the narrative, and don’t kind of trumpet their own experience in that way. And I think that that’s really unfortunate. So that was one big concern with the “armchair critics” narrative, is whose voice are you shutting down by making that criticism. And then, my second one, was just to say, look, this whole campaign is about getting people who are not professionals involved in this activism. You know, people call it clicktivism or slacktivism, and I actually don’t buy into that. I have no problem with Internet-based advocacy, I think it’s tremendously powerful, and very democratic, and I think that’s wonderful. But I think that you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that we want to have this democratic movement, of people who watch the video and tweet at celebrities and sign online letters to Congress, but don’t need to have any specific professional expertise, but then insist that they’re only allowed to do that if they follow this specfic expert who’s been designated on the basis of their heroic experiences. You either get to have a democratic dialogue where everyone can legitimately speak, or not.

A: Right. But, regarding that, you wouldn’t say that we should reflexively dismiss things just because the protagonist of it is, say, a blonde-haired person from San Diego, also - they have standing as well, they just don’t have any extra standing?

T: I think that’s right. I have talked with many of the people that work with Invisible Children; their hearts ar efirmly in the right place, many of them have made very signifcant personal sacrifices, including one of their staff members who was actually killed in a terrorist attack several years ago, while in Uganda working on their program. And so I don’t doubt their commitment to this, and I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to be reflexively dismissed for any reason…

A: Right.

T: …but I think that it’s important to have that attitude, rather than the flip side, which is, because of their dedication, because of their sacrifice, they get more standing to speak. That’s not something I buy into. I think that all the experience in the world won’t make you right if you’re wrong.

A: Do you think, not in terms of your reacion, but in terms of some of the critical reaction - I think, some of the critical reaction, to me, reminds me of, when I learned that the most highlighted Kindle passage of all time, was “Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them”. Which is from a Hunger Games book. I was like, really? This is the most popular thing every highlighted on a Kindle, ever? So do you think that some of the backlash is kind of about, maybe either jealousy, or like, kind of thinking about, of all the causes and all the videos in the whole world, that could have ever blown up this way, that this is the one that did? Do you think that there’s an aspect of sort of resentment or jealousy toward, the, not the overnight success because they’ve been at it a long time, but about of how this came about?

T: You know, I honestly don’t think so. Because most of the people who have been making this critique are in the same position as my blog was in, which is, they’ve been making it for years, and the critique didn’t get any attention until the video got this much attention.

A: Right.

T: But that’s the only thing that has changed.

A: Oh, OK.

T: I think it’s just that both things suddenly became more high profile. And in that sense, I think that it’s been a really good thing, I think it has opened up the debate about this kind of advocacy from being something that happened only inside a certain sub-section of the aid and human rights community, and opened it up to being something that included more people, included more mainstream commentators, included more people who were sharing critiques on Facebook and Tumblr, and I think that is wonderful.

A: But for something to get mainstream it’s got to get dumbed-down though, right? Like everything mainstream gets dumbed down.

T: And that’s true. And there are a lot of people, I think Nick Kristof is probably the most notable champion of the idea that making something mainstream is itself important enough to make it worth dumbing down. And I don’t agree. Because I think that you can simplify things in a responsible way, but past a point it becomes irresonsible. You’re leaving out important information, and if you’re asking people to make a decision based on that information, especially a decision about something as important as the use of military force, which is, you know, a super big deal, there’s a minimum amount of information that I think people need to have to make a responsible decision about that. And if you are the person who is putting out the narrative, asking them to make that decision, and actively dumbing it down, actively simplifying it beyond the point where they can make an informed decision, then I just don’t think that’s the right thing to do. And that’s a losing battle for me to fight…

A: You’re an amazing optimist.

T: I am an amazing optimist.

A: So you think that I can make a viral video that wasn’t oversimplified?

T: No, I’m saying that if you have a choice to make between your video going viral in an oversimplified way, and a video that doesn’t go viral and maybe doesn’t have the policy impact that you would hope it would, but is more responsible, I’m saying I think the right thing to do is choose the second one.

A: Ah, OK. So it’s like a Utilitarianism versus Kant kind of thing. That’s interesting.

T: Yeah, you know I think there’s this idea out there that awareness is in and of itself so powerful, and has some sort of magical ability to end mass atrocities, that making a viral video is in and of itself a legitimate goal, no matter, kind of, what needs to be sacrificed along the way - and I just really question that. You know, I think that it is - no, frankly nobody is totally clear on how that’s supposed to work! But really the general theory is that you build up enough pressure among people in America and other Western countries to put pressure on our own governments to then put pressure on the governments of the places where this is happening, or do things like send troops to assist in a military intervention, or something like that. And I just really question whether that’s the right thing to do. You know, by placing ourselves at the center of the narrative, especially in the policy decision, it really changes the incentives for what types of policies are suggested and pursued. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a video like that gets a lot of traction for something like, capture him and send him to be put on trial at the ICC, whereas the people from the region of Central Africa where this army actually operates, there is dramatically less support for a military intervention; partly because they don’t trust the militaries in question, for good reason. They themselves have committed really terrible human rights abuses. And partly because it’s their own brothers and sons and daughters who have been kidnapped by this rebel organization, and they know that a military solution means that a lot of those kids are going to get killed. And so there’s much more support for a negotiated peace that would allow the lower-level soldiers to return home to their families, and that’s completely missing from this type of narrative. And I think a big reason why is that if you want something to go viral, you need your single call to action. It’s true whether you’re running an advertising campaign or a viral video advocacy campaign, and it’s hard to shape a call to action for high schoolers sitting in the United States that centers around a negotiated peace in a different country involving several different nations in the region. I’m not even sure what that would say.

A: Right, yeah, well that makes sense. Well, Amanda, this was very interesting for me!

T: Thanks.

A: I think that given this, and then the couple attempts we had getting started, I think I’ve probably taken up enough of your Monday. So thank you very much for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast and for being a Leanpub author.

T: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been great to talk to you.

Andrew Dubber

Andrew Dubber is the author of the 3 Leanpub books: Music in the Digital Age, The 20 Things You Must Know About Music Online and How To Make Wishes That Come True.

Andrew is Reader in Music Industries Innovation at Birmingham City University. He’s a member of the Centre for Media and Cultural Research, and is Award Leader for the MA in Music Industries (which can be studied online via distance learning from anywhere in the world) and also runs the MA in Music Radio.

He is the founder of New Music Strategies, a pan-European music consultancy and strategy organisation focusing primarily on non-commercial and social projects that use music to improve lives. He is also a member of the Board of Advisors for Bandcamp.

He can be found online at http://andrewdubber.com.

This interview was recorded on May 21, 2012.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://blog.leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Peter Armstrong: I’m here with Andrew Dubber, who’s a faculty member of the Birmingham School of Media. He’s an internationally-renowned lecturer, author, consultant, public speaker, broadcaster anmd blogger, as well as being the founder of New Music Strategies and a member of the board of advisors for Bandcamp. Andrew is also the author of three Leanpub books, all of which have been published in 2012. We’re going to talk today about his books, his experiences as a writer, and about his experiences using the Lean Publishing approach on Leanpub. We’re also going to talk about ways we can improve Leanpub for him.

So, Andrew thanks for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast.

Dubber: Yeah, no problem at all; thanks for having me.

A: Your title is ‘Reader in Music Industries Innovation’. What’s it like being a professor of innovation in an industry that’s being violently disrupted?

D: Yeah it’s kind of weird, ‘Reader’ is a funny term. It’s one that really only makes sense over here. It basically means ‘almost but not quite smart enough to be a Professor’.

A: Oh, OK … like ‘Sessional Lecturer’?

D: Sort of. In the US I would be called a Professor. I have a full-time job, a teaching gig, all the rest of it, but here it’s like becoming a knight or a lord or something.

A: So what’s it like teaching about innovation in the music industry.

D: It’s kind of fun actually, I’ve got to say. Because you run into some really interesting conversations. But what’s really cool is the people who come to study with us. I run an MA in Music Industries and the people who come to study with us know what they’re in for. So, in a sense, the kind of people who sign up to our MA are the kind of people who go ‘Actually I don’t want to learn about how the music industry used to be, I want to learn how it is now’, which is kind of what I focus on more than anything… The music industry shifts slowly, so it’s one of those things where it’s an analysis of what’s not going on as much as it is an analysis of what could be.

A: It’s funny, I know an academic in Vancouver who does work in a Masters program in publishing and it’s the same sort of environment where publishing is in the middle of being… is going through a lot of changes, and the students who are in there are Master’s students, and they’re, they have the same sort of mindset, you have to, because there’s so much change…

D: That’s kind of the interesting stuff that’s going on, really, is getting to grips - that’s one of the good things about being an academic I guess, you get to, you can step back from it and go, what is actually going on, and what are people doing about it, and what are they saying they’re doing, as opposed to what they’re actually performing. So that sort of arm’s-length analysis can be really interesting, but also the students that I work with, they have a really hands-on approach. So most of them are actually sort of working quite substantially within the music industries as well, particularly from a kind of independent, entrepreneurial perspective.

A: So they are actually entrepreneurial? That’s good!

D: Yeah, that’s one of the things I really push. In fact, as part of our MA, there’s a kind of core module within it called ‘Enterprise’, and basically that’s what you study as part of, it’s kind of related to some other MAs that we do around creative industries, and online journalism, and various other things, but Enterprise is a really kind strong thread in our MA. I sound like I’m shilling for our MA program! Come and do our MA program!

A: I was just curious, it was funny, when I was talking to some of the students in this publishing program, there was a mixture of typical student optimism, but also massive depression about - “Well, I’ll probably never get a job in this industry.” And I’m like, “well would you like to do some freelance stuff involving Leanpub”, you sense this sort of trepidation…

D: Yeah, I always say to my students, anybody who aspires to a job in the music industry lacks ambition. Because I think the most interesting stuff is when people find their own niche, their own thing that they’re excited about. I mean nobody gets into the music business because they think it’s a great get-rich-quick scheme. That’s the wrong reason to do it. But if you’re really passionate about music, there are ways in which you can make money at it, but most of them don’t involve sitting in a basement at Universal Music putting CDs in envelopes.

A: Along that line, besides teaching at Birmingham University, you’re also involved in a lot of projects. Tell me about New Music Strategies.

D: Well, New Music Strategies actually started as a blog about five years ago - more like six years ago - when I first started studying this. Because I didn’t start studying the online music industries. I started actually studying radio, and digital radio, and online radio, but I kind of, when I shifted to the UK, about eight years ago, it kind of coincided with a shift in focus. I kind of do both now, essentially. But the New Music Strategies was a blog in which I was kind of thinking out loud about the research that I was doing, and also the music industries that I was working with, and the innovation stuff were doing. So it was just kind of, “here is something interesting, let me share it with you.” And, at the time there were very few independent music industry blogs around. And so New Music Strategies picked up a bit of a following, particularly because I wrote this–well, I put it out as an ebook, but essentially it was just a series of blog posts–and I made it as a PDF download free from the website. And people downloaded it and shared it around. There was really kind of nothing else like it at the time. Now, every man and his dog has a blog about giving advice to independent musicians. So over time, New Music Strategies doing that became less important. But I’d worked with some really cool and really interesting people while I was operating under that name. And so what I did was I approached them and said, OK, New Music Strategies doesn’t really need to be an advice blog for online music. People can find that stuff now. And I kind of feel like I’ve said what I needed to say in that sphere, a little bit. So, why don’t we just get together and do stuff when it’s cool and interesting? And so there’s five of us. There’s a woman in Amsertdam, there’s a woman in Berlin, there’s a guy in Oxford, there was a guy in London, he’s now moved to Birmingham where I live as well, and me. So the five of us, we just try and think of interesting things to do. Call organizations to partner with. And then we try and make things happen. Which is about, not about ‘How can I be famous on the Internet’, but more about, ‘How can we get more music by more people in more places?’ And that manifests itself in all kinds of interesting ways.

A: That’s cool. So, you mentioned the blog posts, around New Music Strategies, and how those led to your book, The 20 Things You Must Know About Music Online. So, tell me how that evolved into _Music In The Digital Age?

D: Sure. Well, The 20 Things You Must Know About Music Online was just a series of 20 blog posts originally. I got asked to come and do a talk locally, and they said, just come and tell us the things you think we need to know about the online music business, because you’re studying it and we’re not, and we’re trying to make money at this. And so I wrote a bullet-point list, and I went with it, and I stood up and said the first one, and then got on to the second one, and by the time I got into the third one, they said ‘well, we’re kind of out of time now’!

So I said well, what I’ll do is I’ll stick them up as blog posts, and you can just read them as you want to. And somebody said, I don’t really want to come and read your blog, can I just get it as a PDF and you send it to me when it’s done? And I thought, well that’s actually fair enough, and not a bad idea. So that’s what I did. I wrote the ‘20 things’ as blog posts, bundled them up into an ebook, stuck it up online.

But like I say that was about five years ago. And ever since then people have been asking me, ‘When’s the update coming?’ or, ‘Is there a new version of it?’, or ‘Does it still do what you wanted it to do?’ And within about 18 months of me publishing it, I felt it needed revisiting. And I’ve had that at the back of my mind for a long time. And every time I’ve tried to address it, I’ve never really got the recipe right. I’ve tried to do ‘20 More Things’ and I’ve tried to do ‘The 20 Things Updated’ and I’ve tried different approaches to it. I even tried to do one that was turning those 20 things into actual strategies, so, ‘You should do this’, rather than ‘Here is something to know’. And it never really felt like it worked.

But then I was doing a talk in the Netherlands, and one of the guys at it said, ‘What would the book be like if you wrote it now?’ And I thought, well that’s a good question, I hadn’t actually thought about that, because there wouldn’t be 20 things, there’d only be one, and that one thing is, this idea of the Internet as a conversational medium. The way I put it in the book is, this is a conversation. And that became the starting point of, when I first started writing it, it was called The One Thing You Must Know About Music And Everything Else Online, which was a bit of a mouthful, but actually because I ended up writing, I’m writing another book for a traditional publisher, an academic book, called Radio In The Digital Age, I thought it would be nice to have that mirror image, and just call it Music In The Digital Age. So I’ve started there, and I’ve written this kind of, here is my idea about the Internet as a conversational medium, and while I’m at it, what the hell, let’s revisit the 20 Things, but within the context of a larger book, which I’m still in the process of writing. So I’ve kind of got those bits out of the way, here is what I think about the Internet, particularly as it relates to music, and here is me just going back to that book and saying, you know what, here’s what I think about that now. And now I kind of feel like I’ve removed those shackles and I can move on and publish the next bit now.

A: Going back to the shackles for a minute, actually when I read through Music In The Digital Age and I was looking and comparing that with 20 Things You Must Know, I was trying to figure out whether you think it makes sense to… So are you assuming in Music In The Digital Age that someone has familiarity with the previous one, or would you think it would be, in the part in Music In The Digital Age where you write, addressing the 20 Things and referencing what you’d previously said, whether that makes sense to go, whether you think… the best thing to do is start fresh? Or whether, like assume that…

D: I kind of struggled with that…

A: …you know what I mean? So many other things start with, Well I said this five years ago, and it kind of relates, and I was thinking, hmmm - you know what I’m saying, right? You know what I’m getting at?

D: Yeah, I did struggle with that. I thought, do I repeat myself, or, and actually what I ended up deciding was, what the hell, I’ll just put the 20 Things book up on Leanpub as well, and if people want to look, I’ve already written it, they can just look at that, and they can have it for nothing, and that’s fine. So it kind of feels like you don’t need the 20 Things book. If you have read the 20 Things book, then this will make sense, and if you want to read the - well in the original book I said ‘This is what I feel about it now’, and you go ‘Really, he said that, let’s go and see what he actually said in detail’, and you can actually read the whole thing if you want to, because it’s all just there. And I thought, in fact, one of the things that I thought of doing was 20 Things 2.0, which actually takes the individual things, the individual chapters, from the first one, and then intersperses the update version, and actually having that as a different edition if you like. I haven’t decided not to do that yet, I just haven’t done it yet.

A: Something that assumes that the other, has one paragraph saying, ‘By the way, this is an old, the old version exists here, but let’s just ignore it from now on and just go from scratch and just talk about the ideas rather than the relationship of the old ideas to the new ideas. Yeah, I know what you mean.

D: Here’s the fun bit. With something like Leanpub, I can play with these ideas.

A: Yeah.

D: And I can just change my mind about it, or I can put things up and I can experiment. And if it doesn’t work, then I’ll just kind of, you know, that’s fine to leave it there, I mean I’ve published books that I imagine nobody will ever want to read. And when people do, it’s thorooughly gratifying, and, but the thing is you’ve go the opportunity to kind of play with it and test things as you develop them.

A: Yeah, exactly, that’s the whole idea of Lean Publishing, is being able to publish while you’re writing, get feedback from actual people who are invested, like literally invested because they paid money for the thing, and they want it to be good, right?

D: Yeah, well, that’s the thing, even that thing on pricing has been a complete sandbox for me, all the way along. What is my book worth to people? And I’ve sort of come to some weird decisions about that. The less I charge for it the more people seem to want to pay! Which is kind of nice.

A: I like that we both independently came up with sliders!

D: Yeah.

A: Because that seems like the new, the slider is the new text input for how much something should cost.

D: I think so because, and actually this is, somewhere that I’ve seen, I can’t remember where I saw it, but I’d really love to do it, is, that as you move the slider to the right, there’s a frowny face that turns into a happy face.

A: Ha! We were joking about having a plate of food - you move it to the right and you get a better dish, and a glass of wine, and stuff, and when you move it to the left it turns into like a hamburger, and then a half-eaten hamburger!

D: That’s kinda cool. But my tech skills are fairly limited and I’ve got a friend who helps me out, but it’s really just kind of a favour, so I thought, just a nice simple slider would be the way forward.

A: Let’s talk a bit about some of the ideas in the book. You’ve written about the relationship of music and commerce. Tell me about that.

D: Here’s the thing. I think people have this really weird idea that music as culture and music as commerce are in opposition to each other. That if you add the commercial element to something it ruins it, or if you just think about music as culture, you haven’t understood its commercial potential, or whatever. But I kind of step back from that and go, actually, music is culture, but culture is just what people say, make and do; that’s all culture means. And commerce is a subset of what people say, make and do. And so, music being commerce is part of music being culture. And it actually pays to understand the broader cutlural aspects of music in order to be able to make the most of it from a commercial perspective. Because music makes money for people to the extent that music makes meaning for people. I think the same can be said about books, too, actually. The more meaningful they are in people’s lives, for whatever reason, whether it’s identity or memory or whatever it is, the more those things will link into how many copies you’ll sell. And that’s true of music, it’s true of books, it’s true of all sorts.

A: Yeah, that’s why when you talk about things being a conversation, how you see releasing music, and then interacting with your listeners, and releasing a book and interacting with your readers - the same type of idea obviously…

D: I think the analogy breaks down a little there, because what musicians… what writers do is they write books. But what musicians do, making recordings is such a tiny part of what they do. This activity of being a musician, what Christopher Small calls ‘musicking’, isn’t reducible to locking yourself in a dark, windowless, airless room for three months while you make these idealized versions of what you think your songs should sound like. And then sort of selling them as commodities - that’s kind of a small part of it. And I think what’s really interesting about the online environment, is you have an opportunity to find other ways for people to make meaning from what you do, and find other ways for them to give you money for that.

A: In terms of interacting with your fans, how do you think the use of things like Twitter differs between writers and musicians?

D: I think Twitter’s really interesting because people think of it as a technology, but the more you use it, the more the technology disappears, and you start to realize it’s just human beings having conversations with each other. And this idea that ‘This is my online strategy, I want to use Twitter and I’m going to use Facebook’, is like saying, ‘This is my direct mail strategy, I’m going to use pens and paper’. What are you going to say, is the more important part, and how are you going to engage with people, and I think the fact that the online environment is a conversational space means, alright, well then I’ll have conversations. How do you have conversations? Well, you listen to people, you join in, you don’t stand on a chair and shout, ‘Look at me, I’m amazing’. I feel like, that as a social space, Twitter’s quite a bit like a bar, really. And you can kind of join in conversations, or you can hang back, or you can just say things to yourself in a corner - or you can stand on a chair and shout about how amazing you are! This retweeting praise thing is really interesting, it’s like, ‘Hey, did you hear about what this guy said about me? He says I’m awesome!’ You just wouldn’t do that in that social situation. It’s that kind of - when you think about the online environment as a conversational space, you actually, and this is why I said you only need to know one thing about music online, because actually all those 20 other things follow logically from there. If you think about it as being a conversational space, you’re not going to screw it up.

A: [laughter] Right, yeah, I’m really guilty about the retweet stuff about Leanpub! When people say nice things about Leanpub, it’s like, retweet! So I guess I do lots of the standing on a chair…

D: But you’ve got something to push, something to market. It’s a weird space to be in. Because being an organization is not the same as being a band.

A: Right.

D: And yeah, it’s funny, you get these bands’ Twitter accounts, you don’t know who’s talking, whether it’s the drummer or the singer or the cute guy, or whatever. And so there’s this kind of faceless, corporate entity just going ‘We’re amazing, check out our video, look at our… and there’s nothing engaging about that, and actually it turns into something quite boring, quite quickly. I think if you’re an organization, if you’re a company, there’s a reason to have a corporate, authorial voice I guess.

A: That is weird.

D: Yeah it might be different for small organizations. I kind of like the idea of ‘Peter from Leanpub’

A: Scott and I both tweet. Scott tweets stuff; I tweet stuff. We have our Leanpub one, but it’s weird, we have that for stuff like, ‘Hey, we’ve had a problem with our book generator’, or sometimes Leanpub often retweets nice stuff people say - but Scott and I tend to do things more individually as well. It’s kind of like, the account kind of functions like a tag. If you say something about @leanpub, then you know Leanpub is involved, and it becomes…

D: …it becomes part of the conversation. And there’s an opportunity to engage as an organization. I mean, we’ve got a New Music Strategies account. Unfortunately, New Music Strategies is too long to be a Twitter name so we’re @thisisnms, but the @thisisnms account almost never tweets, because we’re like Steve Lawson, and me particularly. I mean, Steve Lawson tweets more than any person alive! You follow him on Twitter and you’ve got to be prepared to balance that with other people, you have to actually start following more just so it doesn’t seem like it dominates so much. But he says some really cool and interesting stuff. But we look at the ‘corporate’ account, if you like, for New Music Strategies Twitter account, and we’re not really sure what to say there. So it’s funny, because we’re a group of individuals who happen to work together, but we have our own voice. And I guess if we were in a bar, we might have conversations with people that might be about New Music Strategies, but aren’t from New Music Strategies, if you see what I mean.

A: Exactly, and that’s what, when you’re talking in your book, Music In The Digital Age, about how the digital age compares to the electric age, right, it’s the same idea…

D: Yeah, for sure, And the electric age is all about broadcasting. It’s about, make one sell many, it’s about centralized production and then mass distribution, it’s recordings, it’s broadcasting. Whereas the digital age, I think the thing that characterizes it, is that it puts that within a conversational space. Marshall McLuhan says this thing about, the content of any new medium is its predecessor. So people think they’re watching TV on the Internet, or reading newspapers online, or whatever - that’s not TV, that’s not newspapers, that’s the Internet, and actually it’s a completely different context when it’s within there. And they become social objects, which is something I’m going to talk more about in the book. But they become the things about which the conversation takes place. So, I think the two main ingredients on the Internet are conversation and the things about which the conversation takes place. And the way that you have success with music, if you want to distribute it and get it out there, is the extent to which it makes significant meaning for people to want to take it and have conversations about it. Being shared is more important than being distributed, if you like.

A: Speaking of that, one idea when I was reading through your book is, twigged the idea for me, the notion of ‘digital native’, and that’s gotten bandied around a lot lately. Do you think that’s a legitimate and valuable term, or do you think it’s full of itself, and overblown?

D: It’s a valuable term in the sense that it distills a really simple idea. But it’s not actually descriptive of anything real in the world. It’s one of those things where you say, ‘I’m a digital native’, and it just means, ‘I know how to use computers’ - which is like saying ‘I’m a driving native’.

A: I’ve heard the stupid version, which is, people who were born after Google or after Facebook or whatever, somehow are magically, since they’ve for their entire lives these things have existed, that they somehow understand digital things better than people who, were born before Google.

D: That’s true of any technology though. There’s a great Douglas Adams line about, anything that was invented before you were born is part of the natural order of things, anything that was born between your birth and the age of 30 is something you could get a job in, and you could learn and probably become quite comepetent at, anything after that is of the devil. But that’s true no matter when you were born. I’m going to be 45 this year, so I’m not, on paper, a digital native, but actually I’ve been using computers, like immersed in computers, for the last 20 years. And I’m not a computer programmer, I’m not a code monkey, I’m not a technical person, these are just tools that I happen to have found useful, and have used over the last 20 yars. And so, I’m a digital native in the sense that, this is where I spend all my time. But, I mean, ‘digital native’ is not interesting, it’s like saying you’re an ‘electric native’. It’s like that thing about driving: you don’t just press the button and pull the lever and look in the mirror, and indicate and pull out, and turn the handle or whatever, you just drive to your friend’s place. Once the technology disappears, it just becomes the way in which you do things. So, in a sense, that kind of makes you native, but at the same time it means that the technology’s not the interesting bit. Being digital is no more interesting than being electric. It’s just, what do you do, and how do you communicate, and how do you get on with other human beings.

A: That makes sense. Speaking of tools and how you use digital tools, how did you find out about Leanpub, what made you try it?

D: Actually it was one of my colleagues at the university who suggested it. He works in the music department… well, we’ve got different departments, I teach music within the media faculty, but, there’s some really good research going on in our conservatory as well, who do the composition of music and performance of music. And there was a guy there, we were talking about online publishing, and he said, ‘Have you tried Leanpub?’, and I said ‘No’, so I had a look, and it ticked all my boxes when I went there, and it just kind of seeemed to do the trick.

A: Cool. So tell me about your third Leanpub book. How To Make Wishes That Come True.

D: Yeah, that one was kind of interesting. I’ve got a friend, Stef, who now lives in London, who’s one of the most remarkable, imaginative, creative people that I know, who is also a really amazing coder, who’s been involved in startups and so on. We did this for a while on a Friday, once a month we’d get together and we’d try to do a startup in a day - like an online, like build it and release it into the wild and see what the world made of it, and then if we got bored of it… and if it took off we’d work on it, and if we got bored with it, it would wither and die. There were a few that we did that were quite interesting, but one of the ones that we did that we liked was called “I So Wish.” And what “I So Wish” was, essentially it started out, well let’s just get people, can make wishes on the website - the end. “I wish I had a pony!’, and publish, and then it would go up, and there would be a big stream of people making more wishes. And then, people said, Well, I want to be able to do things with these wishes. And other people said, Well actually, you know what, that person who wished that, I can actually grant that wish for them! And we thought, there’s something interesting here. And so we spent a little bit more time on it, and we developed it a little bit more, and we got to the point where it was a real commununity. It wasn’t huge, but we had quite, you know, several hundred people were posting, and helping each other out, and then we were granting points for people who were particularly helpful to people - so rather than being, just sort of idly wishing things, we actually made a community where the whole point of it was to try and grant other peoples’ wishes.

It was a really cool thing to do. Like for instance, one woman posted that she wished that she lived in the US, and she was in the UK. And this guy from the States said, Well actually, I’ve got all these spare Air Miles, why don’t you use those, come over and check out some properties. Stuff like that was happening. Some of it was really moving stuff, people in tragic situations, and people coming together and really helping them. So it was a really exciting thing. Of course neither of us had the time or the money or the energy to spend on it, and it’s sad, I’d really love to revisit it later, but it withered and died.

But the really cool thing about it was, it sparked a whole lot of other things. And we were kicking around ideas about what we could contribute to it, and what we could do, and I can’t remember why, but I spent 24 hours in bed sick, but still conscious enough to write something. And so I said to Stef, Since I’m stuck here anyway, I’ll see if I can write an ebook, and we can sell that on the website. Everybody seemed to like the ebook that I did on New Music Strategies, let’s do one for here. But I didn’t want it to be this kind of wishy-washy, you know, because it’s a book about wishes, you know, very quickly you go down that really dodgy path of, if you just close your eyes and wish hard enough the universe will grant you everything you want. Which is nonsense.

But I thought, well actually, if you think about it right, wishes are just, it’s just goal-setting. It’s like, I want the world to be in this way, it’s not yet, and how do I go about doing that? And so what I did was rather than saying, Here is a goal-setting workshop, or saying, Here’s a book about wishes and fairies and pixies and whatever, it was Here’s how to make wishes that come true. And that was the core. This is like real wishing. This is the way that I want the world to be, I wish, whether it’s lose weight, or get a particular job, or have an amount of money, or write a book, or whatever it is, you know what it is you want to have about the world to be true that isn’t true at the moment.

OK so how you make wishes that come true is you start with the wish, you make sure it’s a good one, you make it’s one that’s real and practical and achievaable and measurable, and all the things that people tell you goals should be, but then you actually set in place steps that take you towards that. And in that sense it’s really kind of basic goal-seeking workshop stuff. But it is a workshop. Here’s how to make wishes, here’s how to make really cool wishes, and here’s how to make really cool wishes that come true, if you actually are a bit real about wishes, rather than just, I wish I had a pony with, whatever, pink tassels.

A: It’s funny, I just retweeted something from Tim O’Reilly; Tim O’Reilly tweeted something from Werner Vogels from way back in 2006, about how Amazon does products, and the notion of starting by writing the press release and then backing out to FAQ and thinking about that sort of company version of the same thing, thinking about what does this look like when it’s done, and describe exactly why… describe the thing completed, and then backing out to thinking, well how did it get there…?

D: That’s project management, it’s Gantt charts, it’s where do you want to end up, when do you want to end up there, what has to be true before that happens, what has to be true before that, so you can just kind of take the steps backwards, and it’s not, it’s the furthest thing from magic. But as soon as you put the word ‘wishes’ in the title, people are going to get the wrong idea, so it’s not the greatest piece of marketing in the world, and it’s not a terribly successful book either! But it’s one that I’m quite pleased with all the same, because it does actually take you through this process. There’s some friends of mine who’ve used it for things like losing weight, or, in fact one of them used it for writing a book, which was just, These are the things that I want to be true in this amount of years, and I’m going to go and set out and do it now.

A: Yeah, just working backwards; that’s nice, I like that…

Back to Music In The Digital Age. It’s been translated into a lot of languages, or been translated into a lot of languages already, and so tell me about that, and how the process is going…

D: That’s been really cool. When I put out 20 Things You Must Know About Music Online, a few people approached me and said, Can I translate this into my language? And I went Yeah, knock yourself out, fine, help yourself! And so they would go away for six months, and then come back and go, I did it! And present it to me and I’d go, Cool, and put it up on my website. But what I thought would be good this time, because I want the book to almost be an experiment in the kind of things that I talk about, so, I said, well if anybody wants to translate this book, let’s translate it as we go. You’ve got the opporunity with Leanpub to publish it in progress, why can’t we translate it in progress as well? I’ll write the next bit and publish that, you translate it, when that’s ready we’ll publish that, and we’ll just kind of tick along. And I thought, I wonder how many languages I could probably do? And so I went through a list of a) the people I know who speak other languages to start with, and then b) what are the most common spoken languages in the world? And I ended up with a list of between 25 and 30. And of those so far I’ve got 20 under way, and five of them I think are already in a state ready to be published. There are some that are just people getting started now, but I’ve got a Greek version, a German version, Spanish, Portuguese, and Estonian up on the website already. Dutch is almost ready to go, there’s a few others just waiting in the wings, and as it happens. But there’s no rush - that’s the thing about this. When people are ready, we can put it up. But what I’ve done is, to try and make it worth people’s while, because I can’t pay them to go and do translations, but if people are giving me money it would be churlish of me not to share it, so what I’ve said is, if you want to translate it into your language, whatever we sell of your language version, I’ll just split you 50/50. And people seem happy with that, not because they think they’re going to make lots of money out of it, but because that seems fair.

A: Right. Actually I have a question about translations: Since it’s being translated as you’re writing it, have you found that in-progress translation has affected the development of the original, in terms of, if one of your translators asks to clarify certain ideas, or how something possibly translates?

D: Yeah, totally. In fact there’s a chapter in the book that I had not thought of writing because the way in which I describe something doesn’t make sense in translation to every language. Which is this idea of ‘media’. Because in English, ‘media’ is the plural of ‘medium’, but there’s also this thing called ‘the media’, which is a single entity. So rather than trying to explain it each time to the translators, as they came across it, I ended up writing a chapter that said, When I say ‘media’, this is what I mean, this is how I think about it. But actually that turned out to be a really helpful clarification, and in fact that’s what I’ve had the most feedback about, That was really helpful, because all of the other stuff you talked about, I kind of had a vague idea of what you meant. Because I’ve got all these ideas - I’m in a Media Studies department, I’ve been studying media for the last 12 years, and I understand what I think of as ‘media’, but I don’t explain it very well, I sort of start as this, well, the digital media are these things, and the electric media are these things, and, What to you mean ‘media’? And you have to actually answer some more fundmental questions about what that means and how that works and how to think about it. And actually that’s made me write something better, because it was essentially untranslatable.

A: Hmm, that’s interesting.

D: The other thing was, because, when I started on Leanpub, what I would do is, I’d publish something, and then I’d go back to the first bit and I would change that and republish that, you know, updated version, but of course I need the early stuff to be canonical, so that the translators don’t go, Oh, he’s changed that, I have to translate that chapter again!

A: I was actually going to ask you about that, because I ferociously, when I write, revise old stuff, and I was trying to figure out, if that had impacted what you were doing, if it was making you hesitant to revise your older writing in the book, or whether you were just going to be like, if you’re signed up to translate, then this is what you’re in for…

D: No, what I’ve done is, I’ve decided that, what I’ll give the translators, is the stuff that I’m 100% on. So I’ve published more than I’ve given to the translators to translate, but I’m 100% happy with it. At least the first half-dozen chapters of the book will not change now. Because it wouldn’t be fair to anyone that’s tranlsating it. But by the same token, the stuff that I’ve done - I just published a couple of weeks ago, and then when I was doing the audio book, I went through and noticed a bunch of mistakes, in the latest stuff - you know, typos and stuff, and little things like, a whole chapter missing, and so I had to go back and go, actually this version that I published a couple of weeks ago, that isn’t right, let me re-publish another one. But of course the stuff that I’d changed hadn’t gone to the translators yet, so they’re about six to eight weeks behind what I’m doing.

A: That’s interesting. It’s reminiscent of a lot of things. For example, in software, unit tests are a good thing, but then the more tests you have, then when you make a change, that changes what the thing does, you have all this extra work to change the tests, which you have to do, but, yeah, the more derivative things that are based on the current reality of what something is, the more inertia… You have to decide what you’ve committed to and what you haven’t, right, which makes you think harder about what you’re doing…

D: The great thing for me is that this is a really great experimental space. And nobody dies if I mess something up, or if I do it wrong, or I change my mind about something. But, what you’re doing, is this kind of, iterations of a software service. Lots and lots of people are using the service, and lots of lots of people are banking their livelihoods on it, so there’s a little more pressure on you than there is on me to get it right with each iteration. But if I publish a version of my book which is nonsense, or which is wrong, or has bits missing, or it just doesn’t work, as a book, people will barely notice. So I’ve got this kind of freedom to try and make it as good as I can possibly make it, but also go, What happens if I do this? What happens if I try this experiment? What happens if I completely change the way I price it, for instance? What happens if I ask people to translate it, can I do that? So it’s been a really interesting experimentation, with, not music obviously, but a creative practice in the digital space, that I can take lessons from. In fact, on New Music Strategies we did a podcast which was essentially about pricing, based on some experiments Steve and I had both done, Steve with his albums and me with the books. And thinking about what pricing means, in an online environment, and how people express what they consider to be value in monetary terms. And you just saying, Well it costs this, and that’s all it is, isn’t necessarily the right answer any more.

A: Right, yeah, your books all have, all three of your books have a free minimum price, and a fairly low suggested price. Can you go into the details of what you’ve found so far, and what the thinking is?

D: Well I’ve tried a few different price points, and I’ve tried a few different recommended prices as well. I really like the idea that people can get my book for nothing if they want to. It’s a digital thing. If they really wanted it for nothing, they could get it for nothing, so I might as well be the person they get it for nothing from.

A: Yeah.

D: But by the same token, I don’t want to make a presupposition that my book has value to anybody. And if it does, great, and if they want to reward that value, fanstastic. So this idea of a recommended price is kind of cool. But what was really interesting, when I first decided, you know what, I’m going to make it minimum zero, if you want it just have it, and if it means something to you you can pay for it, and if you download it and never look at it, then why would you have paid for it anyway. So zero’s cool, and it also means that if people who need my book, who need the advice, but actually can’t pay for it - I mean I do a lot of work in South America, and countries, and India, and places where people just don’t have money, who don’t have PayPal accounts, and for me to say, Well you can’t have this unless you give me money, is sort of cutting out a large proportion of people who could find what I do useful in their lives. So that was my reason for making it zero.

But when I first put the recommended price at five dollars, just to try it out, because five dollars seems like a reasonable amount, and people didn’t really download it. Because I think they thought, and this is my reading of it, they thought that, Well, I need to pay five dollars. I’ve got five dollars, but this is not really what I want to spend five dollars on, or at least I’m not 100% certain that I want to spend five dollars on it. So I know that I can get it for free, but, I’m not going to. So a lot of people just didn’t download it when the price was five dollars. And that’s some anecdotal evidence of that. So I lowered the recommended price to $1.99. They could have put $1.99, but I put the recommended price at $1.99, which is basically a cup of coffee, or not even that, but, what it means is people go, Oh, it’s only $1.99, I’ll just, it’s that sort of impulse-purchase app thing, which is what I’ve based it on, it’s like, $1.99 is an impulse-buy app that you might use for two days and then you get bored with. And so people go, It’s only $1.99, I’ll check it out. And then they go there, and they go, Well I can’t just give $1.99, that’s really mean, I’ll give five dollars! And so what’s actually happened is, the more I move the recommended price to the left, the more likely people were to pay more than what the original recommended price was. And so, the lower, I don’t know if this is kind of, you know, if you put it at one cent, people would pay $100 -

A: We actually can’t. The floor is either zero or 99 cents, right.

D: Right, because you’ve got this PayPal account. So let’s, if you’re going to pay, I’d kind of like to give a little bit at least, so let’s not give it all to PayPal, so let’s make it $1.99 as a recommended price - you can pay $0.99 if you want, but, it’s just, you donating money to PayPal, essentially.

A: And that’s why we put the royalty slider there, is to show people what you’re getting. We’re trying to show, look, you drag it to the right and look how much better it is for the author.

D: Yeah, for sure, because it is that sort of percetage plus 50 cents sort of thing, which you know you can do the maths visually by moving the slider around, but, it’s really interesting, the number of people who, since I’ve put the recommended price down to $1.99, have paid ten dollars, has been really interesting. Nobody paid ten dollars when it was recommended five. The people who did pay, paid five.

A: Yeah, exactly. If you’re asking for something, then there’s less opportunity to be generous.

D: Exactly, yeah. And I think if you cater to people’s generosity, then that’s a really interesting, you know, situation to be in. But the other thing that I do, is, if people want to come back and pay for it, that’s cool too, and I encourage that in the book. If you start from the basis of, pay what it’s worth, you’re not going to know what it’s worth until you’ve read it.

A: Right, and so you have this thing on your website…

D: Yeah. And so if you want to come back and pay me, that’s on the website, I’ve got a thing now on my website, there’s the slider there of course, but I’ve also put, you know, Here’s my Amazon Wishlist - if you’d rather just buy me something nice, that’s cool too! And so you’ve got this opportunity to indulge people’s enthusiasms, and indulge their generosity, and I’ve had - I had a couple who produce music in the States, came to my website, moved the slider around, and ended up at $75, and gave me that.

A: Nice!

D: …and ended up getting a Skype call out of it, and we chatted, and I gave them, did consultancy with them, and that was really cool. But this sort of thing where, you don’t get to… what my book is worth is not up to me, as far as I’m concerned, as a kind of a cultural text if you like, it’s only valuable to the extent that it’s meaningful to people. And so this is opportunity to experiment with, what does that translate to in terms of an economic transaction.

A: Yeah, we’re thinking around, we’ve had a couple of people say, Hey, I’d like to be able to come to Leanpub and pay more for the purchase afterward. And so you’ve obviously just provided that functionality yourself, but, this is one thing we’ve been thinking of doing. We’ve had people ask is to build it, to let us do that -

D: Because people could just buy it again -

A: But people don’t want to do that, it’s weird. We’ve had people say, I want to be able to modify my purchase so that I’ve paid more, instead of just buy another copy.

D: It is, because it’s a discursive thing, it’s a statement.

A: Yeah, exactly.

D: And the other thing that people don’t want to do, they don’t want to donate.

A: Yeah, they want to buy the thing.

D: They want to buy the book. But they want to, they want to have bought it for more, after the fact.

A: Yeah, and some people want to let the author know who they are. Is that something you’d be interested in…?

D: Yeah, for sure. Some authors will be interested from the perspective, Well if you let me know who they are, then I can market to them, I can sell them other stuff, I can, they can be on my mailing list. And I’m less interested in that. But I actually just want to be able to say Thank You to people! You know, to say, I’m really glad you found that interesting. At the moment, people who want to, they can drop me a note, I’m sort of the most findable guy on the planet, they can go through my website, they can catch me on Twitter, they can send me a message and go ‘Hey I’ve got your book’, but I find myself going, Hey somebody just paid ten dollars for my book, whoever that was, thanks a lot, that was really cool. And I’d really love to be able to do that in person. And so from that perspective I think, it’s not about knowing who they are, but actually being able to go, to make an individual piece of communication just to say, Thanks, that’s awesome!

A: So for us - I’m doing customer development here, and I’m trying to figure out, I think there’s some feature here, we’ve had a couple of ideas and I’m trying to get a sense of your take on it. We’ve had some authors who want to see names of everyone, but we want to keep the purchase form simple, so that people don’t have to think about how social they’re being when they click the button that buys the thing.

D: And also, by the same token, every time you go into a shop, you don’t want to tell the person your name…

A: Yeah, or else you go to IKEA and they ask for your postal code, and it’s like, No, I don’t want to. But the flip side is, I can see, after the fact, people wanting to let the author know either who they are, like name or name and email, or…

D: Well, my contact details are in the book, if people want to let me know who they are, they can let me know who they are. But I just think at that point of transaction, to have something that’s a little more than just a standard automated response - “Hi, thanks for purchasing!” - that’s meaningless. But if I, because I get these email notifications from you guys that say, ‘Somebeody just bought your book, we’re not telling you who!’ - but if somebody just bought your book for X amount, to have a link on that that says, “Thank this person” -

A: That would be really nice.

D: Yeah, that would be really cool. So I could actually type a - ‘Hey thanks very much for checking it out, if you want, here’s some information about me, be glad to hear what you think of it, etc.’ - to have that as a real person interaction rather than just an automated response, I think that would be really cool.

A: And if we did that, would you be fine with that, like even if we kept the thing right now where we don’t share emails, you could just send them a message -

D: I actually prefer that.

A: Yeah, we could make the Reply-To be from you. I want to, we had that thing the other day, where someone sent, occasionally people have sent us emails, thinking they’re emailing you, and so, we could do something where we set the Reply-To header of our email, be like you, and so you could send someone an email saying, ‘Thanks a lot for buying my book, that’s really generous’, and it would come from Leanpub, but it would be Reply-To Andrew Dubber.

D: Yup.

A: That’s actually a good feature, I like that.

D: I would be more happy with that than you telling me the name and address and contact details. Because, from a privacy perspective -

A: …No, that’s why we’re not doing it. It would have to be opt-in, and if it’s going to be opt-in, it has to be after the fact, so we don’t clutter up the Buy button. But, it’s like, just because an author is like, I want this information - Well, yes you do, but you’ll also sell a lot less, and you don’t want that! And also, as a reader, I don’t want to provide that, if I’ve just tried to buy something anonymously and read it.

D: Well that was one of the central statements of the 20 Things book, which was, fewer clicks - you want people to give you money, get out of their way!

A: Yeah, exactly. I like this idea, I like that idea a lot. We should look into that closely…

Just a couple more things. So you’ve done a lot of things on Leanpub. What’s surprised you the most about using Leanpub so far?

D: You guys. Just how responsive you are, how helpful you are every time I’ve got a problem. Like, I’ve got a, the translation thing is causing you guys headaches -

A: Ha, Hebrew! Holy crap, it’s like, really, we’ve hit this point already?

D: But that’s the thing. To actually go to an online startup service that provides something that’s so incredibly useful, and you go, ‘Oh, I’ve got a problem with this’, and the guy who coded it says, ‘Well let me help you with that’ - that’s awesome! And I think for me, that’s been the biggest surprise and the biggest delight, actually, from working with Leanpub, is you and Scott just kind of getting it right in terms of having conversations like human beings.

A: That’s really nice to hear, thank you. Is there anything that you wish, is high on your list of what we can improve or fix?

D: Well, it would only really benefit me, it’s the Hebrew translation’s going to cause me all sorts of issues, because it’s right-aligned and it doesn’t play very well with Markdown language, and that sort of stuff, so figuring out a solution to that’s sort of top of my list at the moment, but it’s probably at the top of nobody else’s.

A: [laughter] I think you’re about right on that!

Well, this has been very interesting for me. Andrew, thank you very much for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast and for being a Leanpub author.

D: No problem at all. Look, if you want anything from me, just give me a shout.

A: Thanks.

Caitlin McDonald

Dr. Caitlin McDonald is the author of the Leanpub book Global Moves: Belly Dance as an Extra/Ordinary Space to Explore Social Paradigms in Egypt and Around the World. Caitlin holds a PhD in Arab and Islamic Studies from the University of Exeter in England. Her findings about the international belly dance community have presented at several international and interdisciplinary conferences. She’s also an avid writer of non-fiction, and a Skirt!setter for US-based Skirt! Magazine’s website. She blogs at caitlinmcdonald.blog.com.

This interview was recorded on June 26, 2012.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://blog.leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Peter Armstrong: I’m here with Dr. Caitlin McDonald. Caitlin holds a PhD in Arab and Islamic Studies from the University of Exeter in England. Her findings about the international belly dance community have presented at several international and interdisciplinary conferences. She’s also an avid writer of non-fiction, and a Skirt!setter for US-based Skirt! Magazine’s website. She blogs at caitlinmcdonald.blog.com. Caitlin is also the author of the Leanpub book Global Moves: Belly Dance as an Extra/Ordinary Space to Explore Social Paradigms in Egypt and Around the World.

We’re going to talk today about Caitlin’s book, her experiences as a writer, and her experience with Leanpub. We’re also going to talk about ways we can improve Leanpub for her.

So Caitlin, thanks very much for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast!

McDonald: Well it’s my pleasure, thank you for having me!

A: First off, reading your blog, I discovered you’re not only a PhD, but also a belly dancer and a practitioner of Jiu-Jitsu.

M: Indeed!

A: So, what’s it like to do both Jiu-Jitsu and belly dance, and what led you to choose to take them up?

M: Well, I would say that the Jiu-Jitsu was a bit of a reaction to the belly dance, because when I was in the middle of my PhD, all I would do all day was write about belly dance, or read other people’s writing about belly dance, and my whole life was belly dance, and it was a bit like being in, working in the ice cream store, you want something that was a little bit different but that was still physically active and social, and that you needed to learn, and so Jiu-Jitsu was my thing that I did. And that was great, and the reason that I took up belly dance was basically it looked like a lot of fun, and I started doing it when I was 17, and it just continued from there.

A: So your belly dance predates your academic research, and then the Jiu-Jitsu happened during your PhD…. So let’s talk about your book Global Moves. How did it come about, and what’s it’s relationship to your PhD? It’s not exactly your PhD thesis, but is it excerpted from it, or how does the relationship between them?

M: It’s modified. Certainly all the research is based on my PhD, and it’s modified to make it more readable to a more general audience, certainly a very smart audiences, and I’m hoping that lots of people will find it very interesting. And updated as well: there were some, I got to speak again to several of the people that I’d researched, and update some of their stories, and talk about what they were doing in the intervening time, because it took quite a long time, because of course when I started my research that was way back in 2006, 2007… By the time I got to the point where I was finished my thesis it was already three years down the line, and then it took quite a long time to adapt the book. So it was nice to go back to that and have a chance to look at what was going on. And, of course, around the time that I was adapting the book, the Arab Spring was just starting, so there are some very small refernces to that, but it’s something that I think would be a great point to continue research to see where things are going in Egypt politically, now and in the future.

A: Yeah, I have a whole bunch of questions about that… What is your take on how the Arab Spring will impact belly dance is? Is it seen as something that’s traditionl… Is it considered a positive cultural thing for Egypt, or is it considered to be something to be reacted against?

M: It’s a really complicated cultural issue because dance is, and music, they are a very very big part of Egyptian life, in a way that dance and music are not really parts of… I mean, dance and music are really big parts of lots of people’s lives, but it’s not quite the same, there isn’t that kind of passion, there’s an embarrassment, I would say, about dance in Western culture that is not there in Arab culture, as long as it’s being done appropriately. And this is where the controversy comes in. Because if you are dancing as a woman, at home, in your house, in an appropriate space, away from men, in a tradtional setting, that’s absolutely fine, as long as you’re not out in public, doing it for money, in front of people. And of course that a lot of professional belly dancers do this, and so that’s perceived as negative and not something that should be culturally appropriate. However, belly dance shows are extremely popular, even among people who are traditional, and dance is a very big part of ceremonial life as well. During a wedding, dance is a big part of what’s going on, as a celebration of joy, but also as an expression of fertility, and there are lots of cultural connotations for dance in Egypt, and throughout the Arab world. And it’s, interestingly, because it’s so contested, because there is a sense that dance is both this wonderful positive thing, but also this slightly dangerous thing, it can also be used as a site of resistance to cultural norms, certainly in a place like Iran, where dancing is recently, they’ve kind of overturned this, but for a long time it was considered to be illegal to dance publcly in Iran. As a result of that, you can then use dance as a site of resistance, because the second that you do dance, then you are resisting the political situation, and so you’ve, by making it illegal, it then becomes a ground to become a political statement.

Returning to Egypt, certainly music and the songs that were such a big part of the protesting, and then as the announcement of the elections were announced yesterday, dancing in the streets, that was literally happening, there was dancing in the streets as people were celebrating the election of Morsi, the new Islamic president, the Muslim Brotherhood president. And it’s a complex issue, because certainly a lot of professional dancers are speculating about what will happen to the entertainment industry, whether it will be negatively impacted by the election of a president who is from the Muslim Brotherhood party. But there’s equally speculation that the tourism industry is so dependent on people, a lot of people do go to Egypt specifically with the purpose of watching dance, and so it would be very, um, it wouldn’t be a very wise move. And the other thing is that throughout history, there have been several times where dance was banned, or partially banned, or there have been these attempts to restrict dance in a professional setting, going all the way back to I believe it’s 1854 I believe was the first known ban, where all the dancers were sent out of Cairo and away up the river, because they were these creatures of, you know, iniquity and sin, and just causing all kinds of problems. But a few years later they relented and the ban was taken away, because, partly because I think it’s such a culturally important part of peoples’ lives, and also because economically it’s not very wise to ban something that generates a lot of tax revenue. And generates a lot of revenue generally, and so I think it’s a fine line to walk, and it will be interesting to see whether dance becomes part of the national dialogue, in this new Egypt that’s being built, whether dance becomes a big symbol or not, it will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years.

A: Right, that’s like when you were discussing how your friend, when you did the research, your friend had been working, she was from Scotland was it?

M: Yes.

A: And she was a foreign dancer, and then there was a brief time where foreign dancers were banned, and then they removed the ban, sort of a similar type of idea…?

M: Yes, similar. I don’t believe that dancers, what had happened was that there were restrictions put in place on what foreign workers were allowed to do. There was a brief period where foreign dancers were no longer allowed to, this is another example of that kind of restriction, where foreigners were not allowed to take part in certain professions, and one of these was dancing. But, there were several ways around this. One was that you could rejig your act to become more of what’s called a ‘folkloric act’. So instead of doing specifically what’s known as belly dancing, or in Egypt it’s called ‘Raqs sharqi’ which means ‘Eastern dance’, and instead of doing that, you could do something that was a more folksy kind of folk dance. But equally there was a lot of pressure, both from foreign dancers and from Egyptian dancers, to remove this ban, partly because frankly a lot of the dancers working in the tourist trade in Egypt now are not local dancers, because as Egypt has grown more conservative, it’s become such a negatively-perceived profession that a lot of young Muslim women don’t want to go into that profession. They may enjoy dance, they may enjoy watching dance, it might be part of their private lives, but a lot of them don’t want to become dancers, and to kind of fill this gap, economically, foreign workers are used, in the same way that foreign workers are used in many professions around the world. So they weren’t able to keep the ban going very long, it was only a couple of years, and then it was overturned very quickly. But restrictions are still in place. There’s restricted movement because you have to give your passport in to the people that are managing you, and things of that nature. So there’s still quite a lot of restrictions on foreign dancers, compared to local dancers.

A: So are most of the foreign dancers Western, or from Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, or all over?

M: There are a variety. I would say people from Lebanon, Turkey, and Greece, Egyptians wouldn’t look at them as being quite as foreign, I suppose…

A: Right

M: …maybe Turkey. But I spoke to a few dancers that are from the UK, there were certainly dancers that are from France, but the big one is Eastern European dancers, there are quite a lot of those working in Egypt, and they’re not perceived very highly. They may be very technically skilled, but they’re often seen as undercutting the market, which I think is rather unfortunate, but I also understand that in any situation where there’s a lot of pressure, and there’s a very, in a market where everyone wants to be successful, it’s very easy to try to differentiate yourself in a way… to need a scapegoat to blame the negativity of the profession and the negative connotations of the profession on someone else. And in this case that’s become the dancers from Eastern Europe.

A: Interesting… So, your book is called Global Moves, and it’s really interesting in terms of thinking about globalisation in general, about how belly dance for Egypt is an import and an export. In Egypt, is it considered, when you look at Wikipedia you’ll see it’s kind of one of those muddled things where, you know, belly dance, people aren’t sure is it originally Egyptian, or from Turkey, or farther east, or Greece - it’s harder to pin down belly dance, compared to say, some religions, which say, well, it was founded on this day, or at this spot. Do people in Egypt see belly dance as, this is our Egyptian dance, or is this something that they see as more muddled as well?

M: I think that’s a really interesting question. I think the question of origins is always incredibly interesting because there is absolutely no way to know. There’s very little evidence before a certain period, that’s written down, about this particular style of dance, and as a result of that the idea of what the origins of this dance might be has become a really strong area where people project their imaginations to give them a sense of what they want to be. It’s become a place where people can then enact their fantasies about what they would like dance to be. And that’s resulted in a lot of interesting things. In terms of a sense of national identity for Egyptians, speaking in the modern period, definitely yes, people are very proud of dance. Certainly Egyptian dancers are. There’s a sense, it was interesting because in the most recent ban where foreign dancers were excluded from the profession for a time, the argument was that it should be kept as a part of Egyptian territory. There’s kind of a contradictory argument going on. One side of it was, Egyptian dance, this kind of dance is Egyptian, only Egyptians can do it, it belongs to Egyptians because it iss something that is in our blood, essentially. But then conversely, the other argument was, basically it’s not really a profession, it’s so easy that anyone can do it. And it’s like, well, you can’t have it both ways. It’s either that you’re born with it, or everyone can learn and therefore it’s not valuable, and that’s why you shouldn’t be doing it. And so there was this kind of converse. But certainly one of the strains is that people are very tied to dance because it’s an expression of self, it’s an expression of connection with the land, with the nation, and certainly many kinds of folkloric dance in Egypt are very evocative of rural Egypt, and living in Cairo, a lot of people will have families, or they will have been from a place that’s further, not near a city, and dance is something that connects them. In the same way that something like country music is actually an expression of longing for the country, rather than actually being usually about the country, it’s more, it’s a music that people listen to in the city when they’re away from their country background. Dance is like that for people in Egypt as well.

A: OK… Also, when you think about, in terms of authenticity, in terms of you think about costumes, like for example reading about the ‘bedlah’, about the idea that it was imported into Egypt supposedly by a cabaret owner in Cairo to meet Western toursists’ expectations about what belly dancers should look like. Is that… right?

M: Do you mean the two-piece costume?

A: Yeah, the two-piece btereotypical belly dance costume be something that was sort of a Hollywood origin?

M: Yes.

A: I forget if it was Hollywood, or Europe in the 1800s, and then imported into Egypt. Is that sort of a standard costume? Your cover of your book has like the one store, Mahmoud’s, with all the costumes. But is this, is there a sort of a standard costume, and is that the one that was imported, or is all over the map…?

M: Well, it’s an interesting one, because origins are something, I mean when you look at any performative thing that’s done for the outside world, any kind of performance that’s done where suddenly there’s an outside, there’s another culture involved, suddenly you’re no longer doing it because that’s what you would do if you were there with your friends by yourself, it suddenly becomes something that’s looked upon, and as a result it changes, and you, especially when there’s economic inequality involved, if people come along, you know, you can go back as far as the writer Flaubert, who was there in the 1850s, looking for these belly dancers, looking all over, up and down Egypt for these belly dancers, and when you consider that he was only one of many that went to Egypt on this, pilgrimages, these journeys of the self, to look for these dancers and find something, and here are all these dancers saying well, if everybody’s coming this way, you know, even people who may not have been dancers, coming along and saying, well here are all these people coming, and they want to see the dancers, so let’s show them what the dancers are like. So from their perspective, anything that they could do that would give the experience of, you know, the expected experience of this exotic dancing, to see, that they all wanted to see, you know, as far as they were concerned, it just gives them an economic way ahead. Because they’ve, you know, been asked to do something, implicitly asked to make this performance, and so, for them, perhaps that wasn’t what they would have chosen to do just by themselves, if they weren’t professionally doing it, it just becomes another aspect of the performance itself. And I think the costume is very much along those lines, and certainly the evolution of the standard expectation of what the belly dance costume is, I think is very strongly influenced by Hollywood, and you can kind of trace back–but the other aspect of that is, even if you look at older images, if you trace back these older images and look at things and say, they weren’t wearing two-piece costumes, they were wearing your regular-style galabeas, which is long dresses, or they were wearing Western-style clothes, a lot of the old lithographs just show women in basically what like 18th-century women’s clothes, with wide skirts and the bodice tops. Then even all of that is in many ways constructed, because the images were created by artists, certainly a lot of the Orientalist imagery, is very constructed, it’s very posed, it’s very much a fantasy, it’s not a documentary, it’s a fantasy. And you know there are lots of writings about how problematic that is as an approach to culture. I mean, I think you can certainly take away that lots of the images are beautiful, whether is that an accurate representation of what that culture was like, I think is a much bigger question, which is why authenticity is such a troublesome word in my book.

A: Yeah… That’s what I think is so interesting, is that there’s so many thorny questions around authenticity, but if you think about yourself, in terms of feminisim, like, you described yourself as a gender theorist…

M: Yes.

A: …so what’s your, I’m sure that belly dance is not without controversy in feminist circles also….

M: Yeah, I think that’s definitely very true. But equally, I think that it’s a dance, you know, there’s a part where I’m talking about the difference between belly dance and burlesque, because a lot of belly dancers don’t like to be, even if they like watching burlesque, they don’t like to be associated with burlesque, because they think that there’s a very different ethos, and a lot of people will ask, when you talk about belly dance, they’ll feel that it’s a very one-sided transaction, that for them, if they’re not familiar with, you know, the variety of belly dance that I’ve come into contact with, they might assume that belly dance is only ever a female dancer in front of a male audience, a primarily male audience, and my experience has been the complete reverse of that. I mean it often is a female performer, but usually it’s in a context of other women. Men tend to get very uncomfortable at belly dance shows because they are not, the kind of belly dance shows that I go to, they’re not for men, they’re for women, they’re something that women do to socialize with one another. And I think that it can be a very empowering experience to have a kind of feminine sensuality that is not restricted, or not being, um…

A: …held down…

M: …held down, or equally, that’s not being, there’s no expectations, I suppose, is one way of looking at it. I mean certainly there are, there’s always expectations, with gender, that’s one of the points that I raise, is that gender is always something that you do for someone else, it’s never, it’s rarely something that you do just for yourself. But equally, there’s a very different level of expectation when you’re in a situation that’s outside of your ordinary life, and for a lot of women, this kind of dance was a femininity that they could engage with, that was perhaps more exaggerated than they would normally have in their regular lives, but equally not exaggerated in a way that meant that they felt they had to have sexual expectations put upon them, I guess is the best way of describing it. And I wouldn’t say, I mean I think that there are a lot of modernist feminist interpretations of burlesque as well, but that dance does come from a very different background, and that dance is primarily about, you know, the female display for a male audience, it is, it’s not as, I mean, belly dance has a history and roots in homes, in mothers and daughters, in aunts and nieces, in female societies. And while, when you take the dance out of that context, when you take it outside the Arab world, and then you’re in classrooms and you’re at festivals, and it’s no longer a family activity in the truest sense, in the sense of family members doing it together, I think that for a lot of people the appeal was that here was something that you could do that was sensual, but equally was still something that you could bring your family to and not feel uncomfortable about this, something that you could go, you know, certainly I’ve seen plenty of mother-daughter teams going to belly dance classes together and finding this to be a really relaxing experience, to have time that they could spend together exploring femininity, I think that’s something that does carry over. So I think that that’s certainly there are valid feminist critiques that you could bring to bear, but equally, I think that on the scale of things, it’s also a feminist activity, as well.

A: Right. My assumption would be that, do you think that the critiques are something that is probably more old school, and that the sort of reaction that would be more focused on empowerment, or in terms of something that women do, for each other, is a more modern way of thinking about it, compared to like a cardboard-cutout caricature?

M: Well, interestingly enough, I think that in fact a lot of the, much of the popularity of belly dance, certainly in the States, came about with new age feminism, with new wave feminism in the 1970s, as people were starting to explore and become more comfortable with their bodies, as women, specifically, were starting to explore and become more comfortable with their bodies, this was perceived as a way that women could engage with themselves physically, to break out of this mold where they were only ever being enacted upon in a sexual way, and that they could kind of explore things without having to feel like they were transgressing their usual gender boundaries. Because you’re in this whole different world, you’re in this whole different space, you’re dressed in a completely different way, you’re doing things that you would never do, and so therefore you’re allowed to break the boundaries a little bit, and so I think as a result of that a lot of feminists, it was very appealing, and that’s where some of this imagery, goddess imagery has come out of, and I think now in fact some of the feminist critiques would be not so much about the male gaze issue, as it would be about feminism as a… the globalness of feminism I suppose, because there have been a lot of critiques recently about whether feminism actually has the same aims in all countries and in all nations and in all walks of life, and whether feminism that speaks to people in the United States, the needs of feminism there, are the same as the needs of feminism in Egypt, are the same as the needs of feminism in Hong Kong, or sub-Saharan Africa, or all around the world, and whether women really have the same needs, and whether those needs can be addressed using the same tools. So that would be a kind of critique of feminism now of belly dance would be, not so much about the male gaze, but it would be more about whether using this dance as an expression of feminiity and sensuality is in some way impacting on the women that use this dance in the Middle East or in other parts of the world, and whether that’s challenging, or whether it’s helpful or whether it’s not helpful for other women who are exploring feminism in different ways.

A: That’s interesting. On a sort of unrelated, well kind of related note, you mentioned on your blog you were going to do a paper about belly dance in Second Life…

M: Indeed, yes!

A: So tell me about that.

M: I did write a little bit about it in Global Moves as well, but now I’ve kind of updated it, it’s going into an anthology of chapters by many authors about belly dancing globalization, and I found out about belly dance and Second Life through a conversation that I was having with one of my research participants who lived in Florida. And she just happened to kind of casually mention it as we were having this conversation about wide-ranging topics, and I really became fascinated by this, mainly because I just could not get my head around the idea that you would want to do something like dance in a virtual scenario. Because, I mean, I understand the appeal of virtual reality on many levels - it allows you to communicate with people, it allows you to try on things that you wouldn’t otherwise get to do.

In fact, in a lot of ways it’s parallel to things like dance. You know one of my arguments about dance is that it is a space outside your ordinary life where you get to do things that you wouldn’t ordinarily get to do, and virtual reality is much like that. You can explore things that you wouldn’t ordinarily get to do, and it allows you play to around with bits of yourself that you don’t normally get to engage with. But, belly dance, any kind of dance, or sports, or anything that’s really physical, I just could not understand why you’d want to do it. Or like, baking cookies - would you really want to do that in a virtual environment? You don’t get a cookie at the end, I just don’t understand!

A: You don’t get the calories either, I guess!

M: That’s true, well exactly. So I was just fascinated, and completely couldn’t wrap my head around it at first, so obviously I had to go try it for myself, and see what it’s all about, and interview a few people, a few avatars in Second Life and figure out their, why they were doing it, what they got out of it. And the other thing I learned in the end was it’s not so much that belly dance is a big phenomenon, as dancing as a whole is a really big phenomenon on Second Life, it’s one of the main activities that people do. You know, anywhere you go, often when you go into like a bar in Second Life, there’s like a glowing ball that hangs above the floor, and then you click on that and it makes your character dance. And you can also download little animations that will make your character dance when you play them, and things like that. And it just became, it became apparent that it wasn’t so much about belly dance, although of course for a lot people - really what I learned was that people really weren’t doing things that were that different from what they did in ordinary life. I mean they might lead a slightly enhanced life, or they might have a different shape, or they might have built something, like an island, that they really enjoyed, or, you know, they may have constructed things slightly, but mainly people did a lot of the same activities that they did in real life. And as a result, of starting down this road of conversations and speaking to people and interviewing people I eventually found out, someone pointed out to me that some of the moves that they were seeing in one of the videos that I was sharing with the research community, somebody emailed me and said, Well, that’s a routine that my teacher taught to me, my real life actual teacher, taught to me, and I know that she did some motion-capture animation for this company. And so then I interviewed the company, and I interviewed the dancer, and I talked to them about what they thought about dance in a virtual world and things like that, and in the end the conclusion that I had was that people like to do things that are a little different bit from themselves, but they want to, you know, most people, certainly there are people who really push it to the extreme, but a lot of people, you know, they don’t, people would ask me, is everyone that belly dances, is it like an old, you know, 40-year-old man who’s sitting in his basement and lives at home with his mom, now he’s having this fantasy of being this amazing belly dancer, and the answer is no - a lot of times it was people who really were belly dancers in real life, and who either had stopped taking classes for a while, for whatever reason, or realized that it was much cheaper to buy a costume online, than it is in real life, or, there were a number of reasons, but they weren’t at all what I was expecting. And so that was really interesting, to find that it was really not so different from real life. I thought that was fascinating.

A: Interesting. So, moving on from Global Moves. You’re planning another book on Leanpub, it looks like you’ve started another book on Leanpub, is that something that you’re going to publish in progress, or are you going to wait until it’s finished as well? Do you want to talk about that book?

M: The new book is called We Dance Around In A Ring And Suppose: Travel Memoirs Of A Belly Dance PhD, and it’s, it is what it says. It’s all the kind of stuff that I couldn’t put in the research book, because even though they were really fun and lovely and exciting stories that happened to me while I was doing the research, they weren’t really about belly dance, they were about things that were going on in Egypt while I was there. And I just think that, you know, I really enjoyed my time in Egypt, it was a really intense time, but I had so many stories at the end of that time that I really wanted to share with people, and I would like to publish this one in a different way. The reason that the first book was published in the way that it was, is that I’d not actually planned to go down the Leanpub route at all. It was sort of, it was something that was suggested to me much later, after the PhD was done, so all that, that book was already completed anyway, whereas with this one, I have a bit of more of a chance to play around with things, and let it develop a little more organically. A lot of the material I have already because I was keeping a blog in the time that I was in Egypt, and so there’s some organization to be done, but certainly this book, I could take a much different route, and kind of explore the way that I want it to be structured, and release things slowly and do all the things that Leanpub is known for.

A: How did you discover Leanpub?

M: I discovered it through a software developer that I know who suggested Leanpub as a publication option when I was looking around, because initially, the first book I’d wanted to publish an acadmeic book, with an academic publishing house, and have it, you know, hardback copies and all that, and I’d had some interest from publishers, and then because I was no longer in the world of academia, I knew that I wouldn’t have the time to do the revisions that they wanted, and I wanted to get it out quickly, because in academia, and certainly in publishing, everything moves very slowly. Like, even if I’d done all the revisions in the way that they wanted it to be packaged, it would still be another year, and I could see that things in Egypt were moving so rapidly, that I really wanted the research to be available quickly. And, so I found out about the site, and I decided that it would be a really good way of doing it, because it just looked very straightforward, and not as… I’d looked at some other self-publishing options as well, and this one, I think for me, the big thing was it would allow me to have a lot more control over the material than any of the other options that I’d explored. So, even though I wasn’t doing the slow release of material, it was still something that would allow me to do things in the way that I really wanted them to be done, and, you know, just that, things like, release it at a price that I was comfortable with, and things like that, which you wouldn’t really get in a lot of other places.

A: Right… Excellent. So, do you think that, in terms of books that originate as, I think your book is our first book that originated as a PhD thesis, Global Moves. Do you think it’s something that other people who’ve done a PhD thesis and are looking to - because I don’t know how copyright works. I assume the university owns the copyright for the thesis itself, but that the work is something that obviously is yours, and you can adapt; do you think this is something that other people doing PhDs should look at if they want to make their work more available to a more global, a more broad audience, or, is there anything we should try to do to improve, to make that easier to get started?

M: Sure. To start with the copyright issue, I’m not sure how it works in the States. It depends in part on what kind of research you’re doing, and things of that nature. I would need to look again at the copyright page, but I believe that I still own the copyright for my thesis. The issue weasn’t so much that the copyright would belong to the university, as it was that the university also publishes a copy. So, it’s also available on their website. But if someone else wanted to publish it, it would be available, it’s just that there would already be a competing copy out there. And with Leanpub that wasn’t an issue, whereas with a lot of traditional publishers, and even self-publishers, they’re going to say, Well, why put this content out there, even revised content, why should I put this out there when there already is an existing, the research can be accessed somewhere else. And so this was one of the appealing things for me, was that there wouldn’t be that issue, I could still do it, and I think it is actually a really appealing model for young researchers to go this route.

The risk that they would take at the moment is that if you are still working in academia, then it’s not as prestigious, because you won’t have the pedigree of an academic publisher. However, lots of people graduate with PhDs, and there are only a limited number of academic positions in the world, so plenty of people move on from academia and they go on and do other things, and then their research, there might be one copy languishing in a library somewhere, or it might be online; lots of universities have moved to that model, where they make the thesis available, usually as a PDF, which can often be hard to work with, and I just think that, there is, it’s underused, the technology at the disposal of universities to disseminate reasearch is really underused, and something like this, it allows people to download in many formats, it allows you to market things in a much more interesting way, I think it could be much easier to find as well, because if it’s just on the university website, then you’d have to know who the researcher was, you have to know which university they went to, it can be very difficult to find things when they’re only limited to that arena, and with this, you have a little more flexibility.

I also think that for a lot researchers, it would be really interesting to not publish all at once, but to publish results as things go along, which is kind of the way that journals work, traditionally, is that you have a small amount and then you publish and then you have a little more, and then you publish, and at the end, maybe you put it all together and you get one big book. But this, you could kind of replicate that idea by using the Leanpub model and publishing you know, a chapter at a time. And certainly lots of researchers are really fed up with the way that academic journals traditionally work, because, you know, you write all of this stuff, and you send it off to the journal, and you do that for free, and then the journal charges you money to, not you yourself, but when you want a copy of the journal, you then get the, the university gets charged exorbitant fees to subscribe to the service. So basically, in the end, the only people making money are the journals themselves, and all the researchers contribute the content for free, and then review the content for free as well, because everything in academica has to be peer-reviewed. So all this stuff is done out of the goodwill of their hearts, and then at the end you just feel like, well, it’s nice to have the prestige, which is important in academia, because having the recognition of your peers is really how research gets vetted. But equally, it would be nice if I had a few more pennies to support the research that I was doing. Not just from grants, and not just from salary, but also to have the sense that the research is getting used, and downloaded, and nobody’s missing out. So, I think that was an appealing thing for me as well, because when I looked at some of the other self-publishing models, certainly they were not as, the percentages were not as good, and certainly in academia, if I’d gone down the route of publishing a print book, I wouldn’t have expected any money out of it at all. So, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at my royalities so far, and even though that wasn’t the reason to do it, I was pleasantly surprised by that.

A: I really liked how you reached out to the people on the Leanpub Google Group. What was that one email, like “hey, software developers!” It was really cute; I thought it was awesome. It was a really good email, I liked that.

M: Thanks.

A: Is there anything you’d want us to do? Like we talked about journals. In general is there anything you wish we’d improve or make easier, and then specifically around the idea when you talk about journals and research, people coming from acaademia where there’s this notion of peer review, etc. Is there anything that you wish Leanpub made more… like, enabled?

M: I think there’s two things that I think would be really helpful. One is that when I tried to convert my thesis from Word into the Leanpub format, it was a bit of a shambles. It did work in the end, and you guys were really helpful, and really responsive, and I appreciated that a lot. But the only thing that worked was saving it as a web page, and then redoing it, and I think a lot of that has to do with the way that when your managing a long document like a thesis in Word, it just happens to be that mine was already in Word. If somebody were coming into their thesis, were entering their Phd for the first time and saying OK, I’m not going to write it in Word, I’m going to do it in Markdown, then they wouldn’t have had this problem. But I think it’s going to be a while before that happens, and it would be nice if there were an easier way to manage long documents, conversion of long documents from Word. And I also had that one very strange issue where all of my offset quotes, which are a big thing when you’re quoting long quotes, because of the way that code examples work in Markdown, everything that I quoted from someone else was showing up in a really weird format, and it took me a while to work out why that was happening. And again, it was fine, but it would be nice if there was ‘The Academic’s Guide To Converting Your Thesis From Word Into Markdown’, because I think some specific issues about having a really long existing document, that could be better addressed. But the one thing that wasn’t an issue at all, which surprised me, was that I use kind of a program to keep track of all my references, it’s just like a database program, and I expected that the tags that that program uses were really going to screw up, and that it wasn’t going to work, and that it was going to break everything. It didn’t, it worked fine, so I was pleased by that because that will make it easy for a lot of people who are using that same program to convert their theses into Markdown, that will make it a lot easier. In terms of other things that you could think about, I spoke about peer review. It’s a difficult one. There’s some really good guidelines about setting up an academic journal, that include things like best practice about peer review and things like that. I think that the thing that you struggle with is that when you’re doing that kind of thing, you need a big enough set of peer reviewers. Because in my case, for instance, I would need people that were in the humanities, you’d need other people that were academics, but if someone comes along who’s a biologist, you can’t peer review them, so you’d need a whole community for that separate group of people. But, equally, they wouldn’t all have to be Leanpub authors, you could have a group of, you could set up a program where people could become Leanpub peer reviewers. They wouldn’t have to be, you could have a database of reviewers people could use, set up some kind of affiliate, academic affiliate program.

A: Is this something where the peer reviewer is known, where the author goes out and gets the peer reviewers, because like obviously at Leanpub we don’t have the type of editorial thing that a journal does, but if you went and found top experts in your field and said “Hey, I’ll send you a Dropbox sharing request, and you can do a peer review of my work”…?

M: The answer is, if you’re working with a journal, then you send your article in, and they have a board of reviewers that they already have set up, and it’s normally done blind. If you were working, if you are producing an academic book, like for instance when I was shopping my manuscript around to different academic publishers, often times they will ask, Who do you think would be a good reviewer for this, and you just, you mention some big names in your field, depending on how close a relationship you have with them you may have turned around to someboday and said, Hey, I’m shopping, I have a manuscript, I’ve sent it off to these publishers, and they may come to your for a peer review, would you have time for that, is that something that you’d be interested in doing? So the answer is yes, you can certainly depend on authors to provide a list of people that might be good peer reviewers, it’s certainly something that would be in their interest to do, and to have a community, because that’s how it works. You peer review someone’s book, and then they turn around and they ask you to do it a few years later.

A: Right, a “favour model” economy.

M: Yeah.

A: Obviously since in terms of the program that you mentioned, that you used to keep track of your research, if this is helpful to someone else, what program was it?

M: Yes, I used one called EndNote. I think that there are other ones, but that was the one that my university supported, so that’s the one that I used. EndNote is a very… it’s great program when it works, but it also does some very funny things at times, so I was very pleased that it was able to convert the tags easily. Basically, it just keeps a database of all of your references, and you either enter those manually, or in an academic library, normally when you check a book out, you can download a file that contains the bibliographical information from that book, and so then you can keep that, you just add that to your list of references, and then as you’re going through and you’re writing your book or your paper, you just kind of insert a little tag that says, Please put so-and-so in this point, and then it will automatically do your bibliography for you as well at the end. And it just kind of keeps track of everything, and it really, really makes things much easier than doing it all by hand, and you can put in a lot more references, I feel, it just, it definitely upped the amount of stuff I could include as references. There were issues that I had, but none of them were with Leanpub, so we won’t go into that!

A: OK… So what’s surprised you most about Leanpub, other than the issues around long documents that you had? Is there anything that you wouldn’t have expected, either good or bad…?

M: Let me think about that for a minute. I think the thing that surprised me in a very good way was how responsive you guys were to feedback and questions. That wasn’t something that I was expecting, I was expecting to kind of be there on my own, and furiously working away, and having problems, and just having to overcome them. And you know every time I had a question, within a few hours or within a day, it was answered, or partially, someone had said something about it that was helpful, and most of the time it was resolved, and I found that incredibly encouraging. And you know, and really supportive and really wonderful, because you don’t get that kind of treatment, as an author, as an academic, you don’t really get that kind of help most of the time, when you’re working on something that’s as big as a PhD, obviously you have your supervisors and you have people there mentoring you and helping you, but in terms of technical problems, you don’t usually have somebody to really help you sort that kind of stuff out, and so I really appreciated that. In terms of surprise, surprising things… I think we’re going to end at that actually.

A: OK. Cool. Excellent. Well I think that’s probably it for me. So, Caitlin, thank you very much for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast and for being a Leanpub author.

M: My pleasure, I’ve really enjoyed it.

John Hunter

John Hunter is the author of the Leanpub book Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability.

John is currently Senior Facilitator at The W. Edwards Deming Institute. His work focuses on management and software development consulting. He blogs about management improvement on his website at http://curiouscat.com/guides/.

John has worked in various capacities at the Office of the Secretary of Defense Quality Management Office, the White House Military Office, and the American Society for Engineering Education

This interview was recorded on January 17, 2013.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://blog.leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Len Epp: I’m here with John Hunter, who is the author of Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability, a book on Leanpub. We’re going to talk today about John’s book, about John’s experiences as an author, and what led John to try Lean Publishing with Leanpub.

So, John, thank you for being on the Lean Publishing podcast!

Hunter: Thank you for having me, I look forward to it.

E: Great. Before we start discussing your book and Lean Publishing, I’d like to find out a little bit more about you and your background. So if you could tell me a little bit about what you do, and whether you’ve published a book before, things like that.

H: OK. I have not published a book before. A really quick view of my background is I’m actually right now, the closest thing you could call it is a sabbatical, it’s not actually a sabbatical, but that’s the closest thing I can come up with. I’m in Joho Bahru Malaysia, and as I sit in my condo, I see Singapore out my window. When I was a little kid, my Dad was teaching in Singapore, and we were living there, and he was teaching on the stuff that I basically now do, which is management improvement, and helping organizations improve their management, improve their results. That’s basically what my career path has been about. Over time I moved into doing technology, largely because I was frustrated with the technology departments I would need to get service from. I found it easier to do the things myself, and then I eventually moved into being in those departments.

E: So have you worked as a consultant then, or were you working within the department itself when you were doing this kind of work?

H: Sort of both. During my career I started out, I was doing it myself, and I was somewhat doing it in a consulting relationship, because I was doing things outside of my official duties, and helping other parts of the organization. Then I went to the Secretary of Defense Quality Management Office, where we would largely help the huge Department of Defense get things done with consultants, and we would do some consulting along those lines.

E: Quite a challenge I imagine, the Defense Department.

H: Yes, it’s huge, it’s enormous, it’s impossible to appreciate. But they did lots of great stuff. They’re huge. Then I went to the White House Military Office for a few years, and then I went to the American Society for Engineering Education. During that time I did a little bit of consulting, and some seminars, and talking. Now on my sabbatical, I’m doing some consulting and some seminars and some writing during this time.

E: It sounds like you’ve had a wide range of experience all around the world. Can you tell me then a little bit about the subject of your book Management Matters and what you’re addressing in it?

H: The book is my look at a system of management. I have a blog that I’ve been publishing for seven or eight years, and one of the troubles I have when I’m trying to write a post is I have all sorts of connections that I want to make, and so I love hypertext, because I can link over to all these things, but my plan was actually to write a specific book on a specific tool or practice. I figured that would be small, a good place to start, it would be targeted, and it would probably be easier to market. But I thought about it and I could never get myself started, and one day I decided I really need this full management view that I can then stick everything else to. So then if I write a second, most likely smaller, targeted book, I can refer to this book for how it fits into the bigger context. So my goal with this is to try to have a book that has management as a system.

E: So you’re ideal reader would be, say, people who are already working as managers and have some training in that field? Or them, and also people who are new to management?

H: This is one of the problems with the marketing of this particular book, compared to my other one. I don’t have a specific answer to that. I think you’re sort of right, but it’s really people who want to improve results. The thing that I’ve found is, software developers have, by far, the most success with the thinking that I have - the thinking that Deming had, with process improvement, with systems thinking - of anyone I’ve worked with. Much better than managers, overall.

The truth is that software developers could very well be a better target audience, in that they’ll be able to pick it up more easily than many managers.

E: On that note, you mentioned Deming, and I know the theories of William Edwards Deming play a big role in your book. Can you tell us something more about him, and why his work is so important to you?

H: I was talking a little earlier about living in Singapore. We also lived for a year in Nigeria. I write the W. Edwards Deming Institute blog, and in the first post I did on that blog, I talked about Deming’s background and what I see as very important, that I think a lot of people miss. That is, that he grew up, he was born in 1900. There’s World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and then post-World War II recovery in Japan. That was a bunch of bad stuff! He also travelled extensively throughout the world, so he was in Asia and other places. As I grew up, I saw first hand that there was a lot of people that were not nearly as rich as pretty much everyone in the United States. What Deming had as his personal vision was to foster prosperity, commerce, and peace. I have that same notion. What is needed for improvement of humanity’s life, is commerce and prosperity.

E: I read a little bit about Deming in preparation for the interview, and I came across a great line that goes something like, ‘Although Deming is something of a hero in Japan, he’s still in some ways obscure in the rest of the world, including the United States’. I was wondering if you could tell me a bit more about what he achieved in post-war Japan, and what he’s famous for there.

H: That’s a difficult question to summarize quickly. Essentially he went there and helped them understand how to look at the organization as a system. The biggest example of Deming’s ideas is Toyota. Deming’s ideas are not very prescriptive. He has a system of thinking, a system of management, but it’s not prescriptive, like ‘you must do X, Y and Z’.

E: And he was behind a lot of the improvements to manufacturing processes that Toyota is so famous for now?

H: Yeah. What Toyota did was they took his ideas, and they did what Deming wants, which is you take the ideas, you institute them in your organization. Inside your organization, there are specific adaptions and improvements you’ll make that work best for you. So Toyota took the base and then added to it.

E: So, to go back to before I interrupted you, to get a bit more detail about Deming - you were talking about your idea that increasing commerce increases prosperity and the human good. Was this also an idea of Deming’s, that you’ve developed further, or carried on in the tradition of?

H: Yeah. It’s also something that Deming didn’t talk as much about. I mean, Deming had the idea of commerce, prosperity, and peace, but mostly he talked about what we can do for the organization. But I think behind him was this idea, that he saw all these suffering people throughout his whole life, and he saw that what was needed was prosperity. When I was growing up, you had billions of people who don’t have electricity, billions of people who don’t have running water, billions of people who don’t have a secure future. It’s not some minor little thing. And what they need is prosperity, that’s what’s going to make it so that everyone’s doing better. And it’s happened in the last forty years, there’s been a lot of improvement, but there’s still a lot more to go. It’s hard for people in the United States or even in Europe to understand that prosperity is not about having the fourth new car. In most of the world, prosperity is about having, you know, shoes. Those are different ideas.

E: That reminds me of an interesting article in The Economist recently in which they talked about this worry that there’s an end to innovation coming, and they in particular seemed to define innovation as adding new things - you know, there will never be another invention as fundamental as the toilet - and so we’re kind of at the end of progress. But what you’re saying reminds me that this is a very prosperity-centric point of view, because there are a lot of people who don’t have toilets, even though they have been invented.

H: Right, yeah, hundreds of millions!

E: So from their perspective, and to tie it in to what you’re saying, what’s at stake for you in management, and improving management, isn’t only improving the functioning of businesses in order to make more money, but actually fundamentally improving the world, and that that kind of innovation is something that we’re still, in the dark on, and need to improve dramatically.

H: Yeah. One of the things that I really like, and my father was involved in, is appropriate technology. I’m talking about technology that really works where it’s needed, which is very similar to the whole ‘lean’ way of thinking. You know, you don’t need some big, complex solution, you can find the simplest solution that works and is reliable. And so I continue to do work there.

Another way that this ties is, a lot of people think of Deming as sort of a statistician, which he was: his management system uses statistics. But that is far from the core piece, or the central peice; it’s one piece. A huge portion of Deming’s management system is what he called understanding psychology, and it relates to psychology, but it really relates to managing human systems. In the lean thinking world, they essentially call this respect for people, which I think has more power than just saying psychology. Deming would also talk about joy in work -

E: Can you tell me a little bit more about that? I was interested in your book, where you write about the importance of respecting people in the workplace as good strategy.

H: So, if you look at the bigger picture, of what Deming is trying to do, I think there’s a lot of what I was talking about, increasing prosperity. Another piece of it is, in the United States, we’re extremely prosperous, but people were by and large miserable in their jobs. To some extent that’s still true. Respect for people is about the idea that our focus needs to change to having people enjoy their lives. And, this will benefit all of us who have our lives to live, but it also benefits the organization.

It’s very easy for knowledge workers to think this way. So in the software development workforce, or in the medical workforce, or in the engineering workforce, the workers demand it. If you try to treat your Ruby developers poorly, they’ll leave, there’s no question. So, in large part, you give them foosball tables, and you let them bring their dogs to work, and you let them do whatever they want. I think most of the managers that allow that to happen are not necessarily doing it because they believe in the intrinsic goodness of treating people well. They do it because they can’t figure out how not to do it. But, there is the segment of people who manage knowledge workers well, who understand that this is how you get the best work.

One of the things that I’ll do on my blog is I’ll put a post where I can draw links to more detail on a bunch of things that I say, but there’s a lot of work on it. Dan Pink is very popular right now, and he talks about it. Clayton Christenson is very popular.

E: Can you tell me a little bit more about your blog, the Curious Cat Management Improvement blog? I seem to remember you started that, you had your first website in 1995, and your blog has been going for almost ten years now?

H: Yeah, the website was 1995, and then I started the blog in 2004. The blog is on my ideas on management, and it was what formed the basis for the book. One of the nice things I was able to do was import my blog into Leanpub as the start of the book. So what I was able to do was take all the blog posts into the book, and then, there are a bunch that don’t really relate, that are sort of off-the-cuff comments. So I got rid of those, and organized it into something that makes sense for a book. So that formed probably the basis for fifty or sixty percent of the book, that then I had to build on. So the blog is about largely the same thing as the book.

E: Did you find that going through that process focused your mind on your work at a higher level, when you had to curate your posts and see, you know, what have I actually been writing about?

H: The reason I wanted to do it, and the thing that it did require, was that focus on the system, of how everything ties together. So I would do that a lot, and I use far more hyperlinks than almost anyone I know, because I’m trying to link all these things together. But I knew that in writing the book, that’s the focus, is how these things all link together. Curating that and making that work, and then writing all the pieces - there are big sections that I’ve thought about writing for the last several years, but I just can’t get my head around for a blog post. So then I had to do that stuff, which is generally harder and more complex, and write that. So yeah, that made you focus and think about it more.

E: Before we go on, I’d like to - obviously I’d like to talk about this more, maybe in the second half of the podcast, about using Leanpub, what brought you to it and what worked for you, and what didn’t - but I do have one question I’m very interested in asking you about. In your book you talk about how executive pay is a big problem today, and I know you’ve been asked about this in another podcast recently, but I would like to know what solution you propose to the problem of executive pay that’s too high. Do you think shareholder activists will take care of it? Or should there be explicit regulation?

H: Well, my solution is not an answer separated from all the other factors in the system. So, I think, if we say, take the broken system that we have, and all of these broken pieces, and what can we do to make that work, what band-aid can we put on there and have it stick? I don’t think any band-aid is going to be particularly effective, and any band-aid, given all the other factors, will cause huge problems. It is a solution that requires mane more underlying things, but, I think my solutions would be, yeah, probably have some regulation around the deductibility of bonuses.

But I think a bunch of it would come down to more moral and ethical pressure on organizations so that it’s just not tolerated. I mean, one of the things I find frustrating, is these people who choose these policies that are not - this high pay is one thing, but they also do things like risk the future of the company in order to get high bonuses, and then when it fails, thousands of people lose their jobs. When that happens, that person still has forty million dollars sitting in the bank. They give two million to Stanford or some other school, and then that school gives them publicity, and puts their name on a building or whatever. The school that I went to, Davidson College in North Carolina, has an honour code, and those kinds of things would just not be tolerated. You can’t, you know, make a huge amount of money from unethical behaviour, and then buy your way onto boards and buy your way into country clubs, and buy your way onto, you know, the opera board. People should not accept unethical behaviour by rewarding it with all sorts of accolades outside -

E: I think I see more clearly what you were saying before, that it’s a society that’s rewarding this kind of behaviour that is part of the problem, and so merely changing some laws around, or rules around particular organizations won’t change that underlying factor.

H: Yeah. One of the hopes I have on how things will change is if other countries can withstand the pressure that US and US business schools are putting on moving in this direction which I think is wrong, because they don’t ridiculously overpay their executives. They still pay them a lot of money, but the top twenty executives at Toyota, together, don’t make what senior vice presidents at the large US firms -

E: Including options?

H: Yes, including options and everything, because they don’t really give that many options.

E: Is the golden parachute, do you think that’s largely an American phenomenon as well? And perhaps British?

H: Basically, what’s happened is, a lot of these things are American. The thing is that in 1980, executives were paid a ton of money, and there were plenty of people who were complaining. People like Drucker, at least a little bit before 1980, said look, the executives deserve a lot of money, they have hard jobs, they do things, they make a difference, they should be paid a lot of money. But as the abuses got so ridiculous, Drucker said, this has to stop, it’s bad. It got to the point where Drucker said this is unethical. I can’t remember if he said it’s immoral, but he came pretty close -

E: So we’re talking about Peter Drucker, the famous management guru?

H: Yeah, and it wasn’t that he’s against paying a fair wage, he supported it when it was reasonable. It got to be so bad. But we’ve gone ten or twenty times beyond THAT! Beyond what was already not just bad, you know, management - unethical. And it’s not just that they’re taking money that belongs to someone else, it’s that they subvert the organization in order to have this happen. They take huge risks that everyone else must pay for, and if it doesn’t work out, well fine, they still walk away with a huge amount of money. And if it does work out, well then they say, I deserve this huge amount of money, because I was successful.

One of the big pieces that I have is that, you have to build up the capacity in the organization for critical thinking. And part of my idea, the reason I’ve come in the last five or six years to building enterprise capability as the key, is, it isn’t about what we can do in one day. It’s about what we do over the long term. And so when I’m looking at how we need to improve today, I’m not just paying attention to, this one project is going to solve this problem and be very effective; I’m looking at the way that I can solve this problem. I can build this organization’s understanding of critical thinking, I can build an understanding of variation, I can build an understanding that the results are not the only thing that matters. Results matter, but results matter within a context.

E: And do you see any movement towards these kinds of ideas in management schools, or management programs, in the United States?

H: I haven’t paid much attention to management schools. But they weren’t very good before. I don’t think they’ve got tremendously better. There are tons of professors who have great ideas, but the focus ends up being on, essentially, financial management, and working with spreadsheets, and the rest of it is not given much focus.

E: I see, so getting people away from the spreadsheet is part of your idea.

H: Yes.

E: What else do you think people should be focusing on?

H: Well, with the spreadsheet, it would be twofold. One, yeah, getting them away from it, but two, having them actually understand data, instead of being able to be fooled by people that can manipulate data. Building this capacity for critical thinking, building the ability to understand what is actually a cause and what is just correlated to good results. That’s one of the big keys. So in Deming it was understanding variation, which is important - understanding that results vary, and humans, this goes to psychology things from Deming, humans happen to think that there’s a lot less variation than there is in the world, and humans happen to have brains that were evolved for pattern-matching. So we’re very good at seeing patterns. We think that there’s less variation. Our brains can see patterns, so we can find variation that exists in the data, and we can then tie that to some cause that we believe is there. So our brains can create this pattern. And what we do is we believe all sorts of things that just are not true because we don’t understand how to accurately interpret the data.

E: So if you were brought into a corporation, say, and you were given an - let’s say you had your own office or budget in order to try and make this a reality within that organization, how would you go about doing it? Would you set up courses internally for employees, would you try and change the way they fundamentally interact with data?

H: I’m a bit different in my style of change from most people. I talk about some things in the book, but, my basic idea is, building the capability in the organization. So it isn’t mainly about what’s the role I would play or anything else, but what do we have today, where can I see to build things? So, do we have a good, a somewhat good understanding of data, and I can build on that to make things stronger? Do we have a culture that totally disrespects the employees and we need to change that before we can move forward? So basically what I would do is I would look at the organization I have specific things where I talk about all the details. You need it to be things that people will notice, and also at the very beginning, I’d pick things that I believe I can win on.

You need to build some trust that this stuff works, before you can keep growing, and especially do some of the things that don’t have as direct ties that you can see. So, I would take the projects, I would take the things that people really care about, I would take the opportunities, and it might be that it’s training these people on design of experiments, and having us do some design of experiments, and make that a focus for a while. One of the things I talk about is to have some focus with your initial efforts. So there’s lots of things you can do, depending on the organization. Pick five or six things, and really get to be really good at those five or six things, and then keep adding in a few more pieces over time.

E: Before we move on to the second part of the interview, I do have one final question: you mentioned experiments. I think that for people who are familiar with Steve Blank and lean philosophy and things like that, the idea of running experiments within an enterprise might be familiar, but it might not be to everybody. Can you give me an example of what you mean by doing experiments in that context?

H: Yeah, one of the things is, I believe that most of these good ideas have been talked about for a long time, by people like Deming, and Ackoff, and others. The basic core idea is you pilot an improvement, or you pilot a change in a small scale, you get results, you see how it worked, and then you expand. And a neat way that that’s been talked about recently, especially with all the software people, is minimum viable product, and fail quickly. It’s wonderful, and it’s sort of like what Toyota did with Deming’s ideas, in my opinion. It’s taking the basic core idea, which was been around for a long time, and giving some really nice implementation to it that adds that value.

E: So an example might be, we want to improve the quality of our dashboards, or something like that, and so let’s actually implement a change, clearly, in one place, and then actually set targets, and watch to see what the results are, to see if our idea actually worked. Is that an example of what you mean by experimenting?

H: Yes, although, I believe that a big huge strength with agile software development is, get working software in place quickly. I totally, completely support that idea. The quibble that I have with where a lot of this stuff ends up going, is, people try to make it too measurable. And sometimes it is. It’s very easy for companies like Google and Amazon to make things measureable because they have millions of users; you can see what goes on. When you have a lot smaller organizations, there’s huge amounts of variation, and if you’re totally focused on the data, numerical data and that’s the only way you’re going to judge things, I think that can cause problems. But the basic core idea I totally agree with: get a working model in place, have people actually using it, have people tell you what they miss. It’s like, this is great, except it kills me that this one feature is missing, and if fifty people say that, it’s like, ok, we better build that one next feature.

E: I think that’s a great transition to the second part of this interview, where we’re going to carry out that process. I was wondering if we could talk a bit about what it’s been like for you using Leanpub as an author, and indeed a first-time book author. What do you really like about Leanpub, and what could we do to improve it?

H: I had no interest in the traditional publishing method, for several reasons. One, my personality is one where it’s very difficult for me to finalize and ship something off. One of the reasons I like this continual improvement idea, which is a central idea for Deming, is it fits with my personality. I think things should always be continuously improved. My entry into the technology world was essentially with web-based apps, even if they were internal to the organization, so they were on an intranet.You know, basically web technologies, where you didn’t have this release thing of sending out a disk. It’s like, now we’ve locked our software in place! So I’ve never had to have this idea that, ok I’m done, print it. So I didn’t want it for that reason.

Also, I’m a first-time author, I don’t know anyone would want to publish me, but I know plenty of very successful business and management- improvement-type authors, and the troubles they get from their publishers, it’s ridiculous. The lead time that it takes to get stuff done. So I had no interest in that. For an ebook, I looked around, and like I said, for a couple years I was throwing the ideas around in my head and trying to see where to go, and I would look at what options there were, and I found Leanpub and I liked it. I had looked at some other ones, but one of the things that I really liked about it was not specific features or specific anything, it was, they used ‘lean’ in the name, but they also had lean thinking behind what they were talking about. So I saw that they have a mentality that matches my mentality. And I think it’s an effective and good way to manage. I want to be associated with organizations that are like that.

E: That’s very interesting - so the ability to continuously deploy your book, both fits with your needs, which is to get your work out there, without having to go through the titanic struggles that authors sometimes engage with with publishers, but it also suits your personality, perhaps in another way, in that it encourages you to overcome that struggle within yourself at the same time. So there’s a kind of attitude that’s reflected in the ability and the encouragement of just getting your book out there.

H: I didn’t really get the second point, but the first point I totally agree with. And the idea of being able to publish early and often was definitely part of what I liked. So with Leanpub there is the idea of publishing before you’re finished. And I really like that idea. Give people a chance to try it out and see what they like, and then keep going. And I knew when I was contemplating this idea that I wanted to continuously update it forever, but I didn’t know exactly what form that would take. It’s very easy, the way Leanpub does it is very easy for me. I don’t have to deal with anything, essentially.

E: When you first clicked the ‘Publish’ button, how finished was your book in your mind? Were all the chapters there, was there more improvement that you wanted to do?

H: I did have all the chapters, but several of them were pretty sketchy. And there’s still a piece that I’m not totally sure about. I have a couple things where I don’t know where to fit them. And so, I still have those things sitting out there. But yeah, I had maybe sixty percent done, or something like that. And I decided - it’s artificial in a sense, I don’t have to push a ‘Print’ button or anything - I’ve decided that now it’s release-ready, although it definitely isn’t something I could print. I still have four or five places where I say ‘To Do’.

E: That’s great, we’ve seen authors using Leanpub for that, and personally I really like the straightforwardness of that. And as a reader, that would draw me in, an author being that straightforward, that this is something left to do, and don’t worry, you’ll get it when it’s done.

A very specific technical question: Leanpub books are written in Markdown, and I was wondering if you’d ever used Markdown before you came to Leanpub?

H: No, I had not. But it was really quick to pick up, and I like it. That goes to my philosophy versus personality. My philosophy is very much with the agile software development: keep it simple. If you have to cut features, fine. And I like that. But my mentality is also, I want it to be exactly how I want it to be. So I get frustrated with - it isn’t so much true today, but like ten years ago you would use a word processing program, and it wouldn’t do what you wanted it to do, and you couldn’t go in and see the code and just make a little change very easily. Or if you’re using a visual HTML editor. I would just go in to the HTML itself and make it do exactly what I wanted.

With Markdown, the biggest limitation I’ve had, and it’s not huge, but it’s the only thing that really caused me any frustration, is there are places where I would like to be able to be more specific about what it does exactly, and it’s like Markdown just isn’t specific enough to do that right now.

E: Can you give me an example of that?

H: Well, this isn’t a perfect example, because it’s dependent on other variables, but you can put in a link to another part in the book, and the way that that gets done currently in Leanpub for a PDF-generated document, it puts it below the title. So if you link to the section on PDSA cycle, it puts it below the PDSA cycle, so all you see is text.

E: Right, instead of also seeing the title of the section. Actually that’s something that’s been on our backlog for quite some time, so this is definitely a big vote in favour of getting to making that fix, so thanks for that.

H: That’s one I can remember, but there were a couple things. Oh, putting in white space was another that I was having difficulty with, and I’ve come up with some things that seem to work most of the time. I think what I do is fake like I’m going to have a block text, but it’s blank, and that’ll throw in some white space.

E: Right, I see, that’s clever! Another little Markdown trick we’ve seen people use is an empty table.

H: Oh, ok, yeah.

E: So you just put two pipes with nothing in between them, and then you’ll actually get a blank line. Thanks for that, that’s one of the limitations in Markdown that we’ve had people ask about from time to time. For us, it’s always a difficult thing, because in a way we want to have some limits on features out of principle. We don’t want authors to be spending too much time worrying about formatting. In other words we don’t want to invent - you know when you were describing earlier, the sort of troubles one can have working with these complex text editors. I’m sympathetic, I’ve spent a lot of time shouting at my computer when I’m using Word. We’re totally open to adding features, but for us it’s a philosophical thing when we do it, because that means it’s something we deem more important than spending that time thinking about your writing - that piece of formatting.

I was wondering, if you think back to when you were actually importing your blog on Leanpub, did that work well for you, or were there any weaknesses or things we could improve, in that part of the process?

H: I forget totally, I think it worked very well, but I can’t remember whether there were some things that I had to manually deal with or not.

E: Well that’s good, because if it had been too bad, I’m sure you would have remembered somthing!

H: Actually I remember there was something, it had trouble with if you had a ‘More’ tag - I remember a bunch of my posts ended up being clipped, and I think it might have been where I had a ‘More’, so that it sort of separated the post into what would be displayed and what would be the total post, but I can’t remember if that was it or not.

E: You may have, because that’s a known limitation that we have with importing. Because of people like you telling us about this, we’ve added some wording to that import page, where we explain that, if you’re blog has settings with ‘More’ or ‘Read More’ links, it means that it’s only showing our importer partial posts. The solution to that is unfortunately not something we can really do on our end, but we are trying to make that part the process a bit more transparent.

H: For me it didn’t matter, because I was drastically editing everything, so it was simple for me when I ran into those to just pull in text.

E: I wanted to ask you about our variable pricing feature, the sliders on our purchase page. Have you been experimenting with your minimum and suggested prices?

H: I have not been experimenting, but I’ve been using. I like it, I think it’s a cool idea, and so I use it. I have it set right now for five dollars as a minimum price someone can pay, and fifteen dollars for the suggested price. People pick prices all the way around. For me, I would much rather have people reading my book. The pricing matters much less to me than that. Now at the same time, I think if it’s just totally free… basically I want people reading my book. Getting my book or downloading my book I don’t care about, I care if they read it. If I could, if there were a thousand people in Nigeria that said they wanted the book and didn’t have any money to pay me, I’d be perfectly happy to have them get the book. But if I had a bunch of people get it that don’t read it, I’m not interested in that.

E: On that topic, is there anything that Leanpub could do to help you market your book more, or spread the message about your book in a better way?

H: Probably, but I just don’t know. My opinion of myself on management and process improvement is very high, my opinion of myself on marketing is very low. I don’t even know what are the foolish things that I don’t do! So my guess is that there’s probably stuff that would be useful, but I don’t even know what many of those things probably are.

E: Our approach towards that is we’d like to ask everybody if there’s anything we can do to help them so we understand the challenges better, but it’s mostly, start a blog, which obviously you’ve had for a long time now, and tweet about it. If one’s doing those two things - oh and using coupons, to send out free or discounted copies of books to potential reviewers and potentially influential readers. Have you been using coupons for your book?

H: Yeah, and I like that. I’ve used it for friends, to give them the opportunity to get the book, and also, like you say, for people who might review the book, or people I know who have blogs on the topic who might be interested and might review the book. So yeah, I’ve been doing that.

E: Just before we sign off on the interview, I was wondering if there’s any final thing you’d like to take the opportunity to say, either about the subject in your book, or about Leanpub?

H: There should be, but I can’t really think of anything off the top of my head!

E: OK, well that’s about it for me then! John, thank you very much for being on the Lean Publishing podcast, and for being a Leanpub author.

H: Great, thanks a lot.

Chris Hartjes

Chris Hartjes is the author of two Leanpub books, The Grumpy Programmer’s Guide To Building Testable PHP Applications and The Grumpy Programmer’s PHPUnit Cookbook.

Chris is currently Principal Engineer at Synacor. He also has an online presence as the Grumpy Programmer, and often speaks at conferences, usually on the subject of testing applications in PHP frameworks.

This interview was recorded on August 12, 2013.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://blog.leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Len Epp: I’m here with Chris Hartjes, a PHP developer and speaker based in Canada in Milton, Ontario. Chris is currently Principal Engineer at Synacor, and has been building web applications of all kinds since 1998, with a particular focus on the importance of testing. Chris has a popular online presence as the Grumpy Programmer, blogging and making products that help developers write better and more maintainable code. He’s also co-organizer of the Greater Toronto Area PHP User Group, and he writes the “At The Keyboard” blog at littlehart.net, and co-hosts a podcast series at devhell.info.

Chris is the author of two Leanpub books, “The Grumpy Programmer’s Guide To Building Testable PHP Applications” and “The Grumpy Programmer’s PHPUnit Cookbook”. In this interview, we’re going to talk about Chris’s interests and his two books, how he’s gone about promoting them, and about his experiences using Leanpub. We’ll also talk about ways we can improve Leanpub for him, and for other technical authors.

So, thank you Chris for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast.

Hartjes: I’m glad to be here. You know, when you list all those things, that I did, now I understand why my wife is mad at me for spending so much time on the computer. Wow. You never realize how much time you spend doing stuff until someone collects it all and lists it all out for you.

E: Yeah, and actually I left a couple of things out because the intro was getting a little long!

So, just let me start by asking, in the past you’ve referred to yourself as “an Internet plumber or electrician”. What do you mean by that?

H: Well, when you think of what I would call a modern-day web developer, for lack of a better phrase, they kind of know how to do a little bit of everything, they know some front-end stuff so they’re probably familiar with doing a little bit of deseign work, they’ll know some HTML, some CSS, they’ll know JavaScript, whereas the vast majority of my experience has been on the plumbing side of things, back-end code. So when I’m explaining what I do to people, I tell people, if you ever go to a website, and you want to go pay for something with a credit card, or you’re signing up for an account, I’m the guy who’s writing all the code that makes sure that that part of the application is flawless. So, in many ways I feel like an electrician. I’m rummaging around in between the walls, and dodging vermin and dirt, and trying to fix peoples’ applications, their plumbing, your virtual plumbing I guess is another way of calling it.

E: I was going to say, it’s a very rich metaphor. As you say, it’s sort of between the walls, but those walls for you, like for a plumber or an electrician, are actually built by somebody else.

H: Yes, generally speaking. I don’t do a lot of kind of, bespoke, I guess is the hipster term, people are using these days…

E: Artisanal.

H: Yeah, artisanal, or artist anal, as I like to call it sometimes. I don’t know if this is a PG podcast. But, yeah, I spend a lot of time screwing around with other peoples’ stuff, and trying to fix it, and make sure that it’s working better.

E: And what’s that like generally as a relationship? With the people who’ve built it? Do you come in mid-way through the process, or are you there from the beginning?

H: I generally find I’m coming on to projects, even ones where like, because I’m a full-time employee where I am, coming into projects that are basically already started, and most of the time the application is working, and it’s live, and it just needs to work better, and the deploy, and you know the pushes to production need to go a little bit better, and the quality of the code needs to get a little bit better. So I’m kind of brought in to help push them along that road. And I try to do it, despite what my Twitter stream somestimes appears like, in kind of a non-adversarial way. I tell people that my Twitter account is, I’m not really like that in person, it’s more a combination of performance art and trying to promote my little marketing brand of being the Grumpy Programmer.

3:43

E: That was actually my next question, if you could tell me a little bit about that identity, and why you chose grumpiness?

H: Well, I don’t know. I mean, I’ve been programming web stuff anyway since 1998. I like to joke, one year’s like ten in the real world, so that’s like a hundred and fifty years, fifteen years of programming, so a hundred and fifty years on the internet. There’s lots to be grumpy about if you’re a programmer. There’s lots of poorly-designed applications, difficult-to-use tools, lots of corners cut, taken by developers who haven’t gotten the experience of what it’s like to create a big, especially on the PHP side of things, where it lends itself very easily to the big plate of spaghetti metaphor, with everything all twisted up. So, plenty to be grumpy about, and my wife always would joke about how grumpy I was about programming in general.

And so, when a couple of years ago, when I decided I wanted to start creating things that I could sell, to supplement my income - because a little bit of extra money’s always nice - I knew instinctively that I needed some way to make myself stand out from the crowd. So, I thought about, what am I really when I think about these things? What I really am, is I’m a grumpy programmer. Grumpy about all these things that I have to see, that I have to help fix, and constantly remind people about what they should be doing. So, I hit upon the idea of doing ‘The Grumpy Programmer’s Guide To Whatever”, and a combination of some really aggressive marketing, plus being at the right place at the right time, which seems to be how lots of these things succeed. The idea of a grumpy programmer seems to have really resondated with people, and I’ve just taken the ball and ran with it.

[5:36]

E: That’s great. And do you find that sometimes your grumpiness is kind of, people don’t get the joke, or the idea?

H: Yeah, sarcasm tags are hard to wrap around a tweet.

E: Fair enough! I was wondering, have you always had a special interest in the importance of testing, best practice and automation, or was there a particular experience that led you towards those interests?

H: Yes. About ten years ago, I was working on a project, I was working for an adult dating website. It was a PHP app, and it was a big, humungous mess. I had been on the original team, I was the person who had committed the first line of code into the CVS repository, if that gives you any idea of how long ago that is. We built this thing in a big huge death march to get it done, for what turned out to be a totally arbitrary deadline, and when we were done, we had created a mess. What happened is that we kept running into the situation where we would change a bit of code, and then something elsewhere in the application would break. So we would test, and be like, I don’t understand how this one change over here, messed something up over there.

So, I started looking around, saying, somebody must be dealing with this in a better way than we are. So, I started searching for stuff about testing, and somehow I stumbled across a copy of one of the early Extreme Programming books. I think on of our project managers had a copy. So, I borrowed that over a weekend, and kind of read through it, and oh, this stuff kind of makes sense. The interesting part was, you mean I can write a whole bunch of code, that would test everything and let me know that I’ve broken something before it goes up into production? I was like, why did nobody ever tell me about this before?

Ever since then, I’ve been pushing, with greater intensity of course over ten years, with a really hard press probably for the past three, of trying to get other people understanding the benefits of wrapping your application in automated tests, with the whole goal of finding problems before the users of your application do.

E: And is there something peculiar to PHP, with respect to testing, that makes it more difficult, or is that just a general issue?

H: No, I think, PHP having a really low barrier to entry because it’s so easy to use, beginners aren’t forced to learn any kind of structure. And a lot of what makes testable code testable, is structure. You have to learn about proper object models, and dependency injection, and Demeter’s Law, and what it means to have something that’s tightly coupled. So, all sorts of concepts that I go on and on endlessly with people about. It’s just that PHP makes it so easy to just slam something together and get it working.

Most of the other mainstream scripting languages, I guess if you throw in Ruby, Python, and JavaScript - JavaScript is kind of loosey-goosey, like PHP is, but in a different way. But Ruby and Python, they have a - I’m trying to think of the right phrase here - a smaller funnel. You have less options with Ruby and Python, to do things, whereas PHP, there’s a zillion different ways to do stuff. And you can do it really structured, or you can just slap it all together.

So, PHP by its nature, of being a templating language, one of the first languages designed specifically for the web - people just learn through the “slam everything together” programming methodology. And then later on, when they discover that this thing that they’ve built is no longer maintainable, and they can’t change it without breaking stuff, that’s when they end up like I was, trying to find better ways to make their applications work.

E: You mention in your first book that you, and I’m quoting here, “feel out of sync at times with the ‘mainstream’ PHP community”. Can you explain a little about why you feel that way?

H: I think one of the main reasons that I feel out of sync often, is that for the most part, the PHP community concentrates on using frameworks, to build appllications. And I’ve used, probably, if we’re talking professionally, meaning having been paid money, I’ve probably used about a dozen different frameworks. And what happens is that people get focused on the tools, instead of on the techniques. And I’m a big guy on technique, on repeatable processes. I like to keep things simple, and so much of what goes into frameworks that are designed to help you rapidly build stuff, is to me magical, and can be difficult to understand. I often find myself fighting against the framework, to get it do something that I want to do, and I’m one of these people that despite my grumpy demeanour, I don’t enjoy fighting the tools that I’m using.

So I feel like there’s a constant push and pull between people who want to build things quickly, and people who want to try to build things by creating small, simple, easy to understand modules and componenents, and then mushing those components together to do other things. Most frameworks don’t do that. There’s still tons of couplin. Even with frameworks that promote themselves as being modular, you still end up with a ridiculous number of dependencies, and again that makes it very difficult when you’re debugging, and trying to figure out why something isn’t working. The further you are away from just simple, easy to understand code, the more likely you’re going to end up with a humungous maintenance problem on your hands.

So that’s the way I feel. PHP people all the time are saying, “What frameworks should I use”, and “What tools should I use”, and all the time I’m like, “How about you just learn PHP?”, and learn some good programming practices, and then the rest will take care of itself. Because every PHP programmer that I admire is very much the same way, in that they learn the language first, and frameworks are just a side effect of the things that they do every once in a while. But if they have to do something without a framework, they’re not lost. So many PHP developers are lost without their favourite set of frameworks, libraries, and tools. Whereas I’m more than happy to experiment with stuff and grab new things, just to fit my idea of the thing I want to build at a particular moment.

E: Are there any big controversies in the PHP community at the moment that you have a strong opinion about, that you’d like to have your say on?

H: Not really. I mean I’ve probably vented most of the things that I don’t like on Twitter. I’m not the type that holds grudges, so I let it all out, and then move on to the next thing that happens to be bugging me.

It’s still the fact that testing is a really hard sell, simply because I think, testing is one of these things that you have to get absolutely burned, by not doing it, before you understand why it’s worth the time and effort to put all these things. To build your little continuous integration setups, and to write all the tests, and make sure that every time you’re merging changes together, all your tests get run. All those things are all building up towards what I call my own personal holy grail, which I’ve only ever gotten to do once, which is, the continuous deployment idea, where a developer makes the change, and then it gets run through a whole battery of tests. And then if everything passes, it goes up into production, without any other human touching it. And that means deployments become a non-issue.

And that’s the thing that I see all over the place. Wherever I’ve worked, doesn’t matter whatever the language is, deployments are always stressful, and people seem to want to make it stressful, instead of saying, “What can we do to make a deployment of something that’s mission critical, a total non-issue? So that, we can push things, and go to lunch, and no one’s going to be freaking out”.

E: Do you see a difference between small companies and big companies with respect to resistance to testing?

H: No, it’s pretty much the same across the board! I think if anything, there’s kind of like a sweet spot, like really small companies, probably it’s a really hard sell to devote resources, to get all that infrastructure in place. And really large companies probably have their own set of processes in place, so those are also incredibly difficult to disrupt. I think there’s kind of a sweet spot, maybe a team of like six or seven developers. I think with that many people in place, you can probably free up enough time, and maybe stall people out while you get all that stuff in place.

Small shops are usually super busy, and you hear the whole “I’m not getting paid to write tests” mantra, which I’ve talked about in presentations. And then large companies usually have their own idea on how things are supposed to be done. I’m extremely lucky and grateful that my current employer, Synacor, they had a humungous commitment to testing already, so, when I started working there, all that stuff was in place already. So, it’s not like I had to start complaining, and getting into conflicts with people, just to get basic testing stuff put in place.

E: Speaking of your conference speaking and book writing and podcasting and all the other parts of your career, I’m sure people would be interested to know, how you go about balancing all of these activities with a day job?

H: With a day job and a family. I’m married and have two kids. The secret is, for me anyway, is really strict use of a calendar. I usually plan things a week at a time, and I’ll literally look at my calendar and say, find out the days where I’m doing something already. Summertime is a perfect example, so I play slo-pitch baseball, my youngest daughter plays softball. One of my hobbies is, I participate in a online simulation baseball league, so if I were to pop into my calendar, for the months of May through August, almost every single day I have a little dot on the calendar, meaning there’s something I’m supposed to be doing.

Without that calendar, to make commitments, firm time commitments, I would never get anything done. I literally plan my week, and say, on this night I’m going to do this thing, and on this night I’m going to do that thing, and then I always try to put a few breaks in there, as well.

E: Speaking again of conferences and speaking, you were in Europe recently - were you there to do any speaking engagements?

H: Yeah. Earlier this year I spoke at PHP Benelux. I did the keynote, which was kind of an awesome experience. I’d done lots of technical talks, but this was more like a soft skills talk, where I talked about what I saw of trends in web development and things like that. And then - they all kind of blur together after a while. I did so many of them, compressed into a short period of time, especially like November, December, January. I think I went to four conferences or something in two months. And then I went to Minneapolis and spoke at a PHP conference there. Then I did the largest community-driven PHP conference, which is php[tek], which is always in May, so yeah, I speak a lot.

I haven’t done so much speaking in the second half of this year. I promised my wife I would actually stay home this summer, instead of travelling all over the place, so it’s been a little bit of a different experience.

[17:19]

E: Did you do any training for speaking, or was it something you just dove into?

H: I sort of did some training. When I was in college, one of our required courses was a public speaking and presentations course. Until that point, I had been one of those people who are like super nervous and didn’t want to do speeches. I’d be the guy up there with a piece of paper in his hand, and I’d be so nervous that the paper would be shaking, you know that type of person?

E: Yes.

H: But when I took that course, something happened where a few bits in my head flipped. And I no longer was scared to get up in front of a group of people, and speak on a topic. So, I don’t know what happened, I really don’t, I wish I could have figured it out, but all I know is, after that point, I never had a problem speaking. So, when opportunities came up to start submitting talks to conferences, I just said, “OK, I’m in!”, and I did it.

With every talk it gets a little bit easier, a little bit smoother. I mean, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous before giving some talks, but there are some talks - I have a “Building Testable Applications” talk that I’ve given almost a dozen times now. I can almost do that one without any slides. It’s just a combination of, something happened to me in that course, everything lined up in my brain to not freak out when I have to give a presentation. Knowing the material and being passionate about it, I find makes it super easy to talk.

E: Coincidentally that’s a perfect segue into the next question I had, which is more general. There’s a lot of talk these days about the value of online courses, and corresepondingly the value of increasingly expensive, traditional university degrees. With the 2013 university year about to start, here in North America anyway, I was just wondering what you think about that issue, particularly in the computer science space. So, what would you say to all the university students starting conventional computer science degrees in the next month?

H: That’s interesting, because, I went through the community college system, here in Ontario, so I went to Sheridan College. I went twice, I liked it so much. So I have diplomas from Sheridan in civil engineering, which was very interesting. And then one in computer science technology. So, not degrees, but diplomas. I have no idea what the US equivalent would be, like a bachelor’s or something, I don’t know what it is.

When I went to college, the internet was there, but it hadn’t been commercialized yet. I remember surfing the web in text, and doing all my email in Pine, so, a much much different world than there is now. And then we did absolutely nothing to do with the web, so everything that I learned about the web was self-taught. But once in a while, I think back, if I had gone to university, and taken computer science - it just wasn’t in the cards for me for a variety of reasons - what would have been different? I often wonder what would have been different. There is so much stuff out there, that if you’re the type of person that’s self-driven to learn, you can probably fill in a lot of the gaps pretty quickly. But if you’re not, then the collaborative environment of a university will probably help you.

These days, I have no idea what people are being taught at university in computer science. Sometimes I think, did I miss out on some fundamentals that would have given me a shortcut, to be a better programmer in a shorter period of time? Are there some algorithms and design patterns that I would’ve learned at university, that I didn’t learn because I’m self-taught? Those kind of questions creep in every once in a while, but for the most part I’ve been pretty succesfful in filling those gaps, either by teaching myself, or finding people who are way smarter than me, who taught me the things that I needed to know.

So, I think that there is value in a computer science education, if you are the kind of person that is not self-directed, if you need that collaborative environment. Because if you need help, you’re never going to learn anything on your own.

E: I was going to say, it’s a very interesting question, partly because, the particular nature of programming, which involves constant learning, all the time -

H: Oh, absolutely. I tell people I feel like a shark, I’ve got to keep swimming or I’m going to die. You know, die not literally, but die in the technology sense. Because things happen so quickly, new and useful tools come up out of nowehere. And if you get complacent, and pick a favorite set of tools and say I never want to do anything else, you’re setting yourself up for a really bumpy ride.

E: And so if someone weren’t - I guess I’m sort of picking up on what you were saying about being self-driven - if you’re not sort of driven, to begin with, it sounds like maybe, programming isn’t the way to go.

H: It depends on what you want. If you just want a job, I’m pretty sure you could pick up enough at university, or even on your own. There are plenty of, not to use it as a derogatory term, workaday programmers. There’s programmers for whom writing code is just a job, and they’re in at nine, and they’re out at five, and when they’re not at work, they’re not touching a computer for any programming purposes. There’s lots of people like that. People have tried to estimate what percentage of people are actually going to conferences, and pursuing sharing knowledge, and they’ve thrown numbers around like one or two percent. I mean, I don’t know, I can see that there’s lots of programmers out there who are just working, and they don’t care about programming as a career, they care about programming as a job. And that’s cool, there’s lots of people who have interests outside of their job, and those interests take precedence over everything else.

Me, computers is the thing I’ve always liked since I was little kid. My first computer was a Vic-20, I was like eight or nine years old. I’m 42, so I’ve had a computer around for over 30 years. I don’t know anything else, other than having a computer around to fool around on. So, for me it’s a very natural thing to do stuff at work, and then in the off hours find other things to do on the computer that I find interesting. Sometimes they’re programming, sometimes they’re not.

E: Just to switch gears, other things to do are write programming books, which you’ve written two of, and I just wanted to ask you a bit about your first book, which was “The Grumpy Programmer’s Guide To Building Testable PHP Applications”. Can you explain a little about what led you to write this book, and who the intended audience is for it?

H: I had been doing presentations on the same topic. So, I thought to myself, I had written a very small self-published book before this one, about how to take a legacy PHP application and refactor it to use a specific framework called KPHP. The framework’s still around, but it’s almost in version three, and when I wrote the book it was a while ago. I kind of liked that experience, and I said, OK, so what’s the next level? I want to start doing info-products, I want to start selling stuff. I’ve been blogging for a long time, so writing is something that I’m comfortable doing, and I can crank out the material when I need to. What can I do to make these two things dovetail together? How about I write a book to help me do better presentations on the same topic?

So I started doing research, into, what are some of the things that people need to know if they want to get their application from this messy, untestable state to one where they can actually start using the tools and frameworks that are avialable? So that was research to do talks at conferences. Once I started putting that together I thought, that would actually be a pretty decent book. I can do the book, and I can make some money on the side, and help pay for some of my hobbies, and keep my wife off my case with the credit card bills, and all these other wonderful things that come from being passionate about so many things in your life. It just seemed like a natural thing to, the research for the project led to a large number of notes, which made me think, I can easily turn this into a book.

E: And with your second book, you were, I haven’t checked the sales pages lately, but I think you were even more successful, and I know you had a really succesfful launch. It’s probably a really big question, but can you tell me a little bit about how you managed that launch?

H: I can definitely talk about it. So, last summer, after years of procrastinating and trying to line eveything up, I got into a product development course that a friend of mine, Amy Hoy, runs, called 30x500. The whole premise of this course was the idea that, she has been very successful with running several boostrapped businesses. Her and her husband have a software-as-a-service app called Freckle that does time-tracking, and the two of them have actually been very successful consultants, doing mostly JavaScript and Ruby stuff. She found that she really enjoyed teaching people the things that she did, because she found that she could teach people to do almost the same thing that she was doing.

I looked at my experience with my first book, and I thought, You know what, this went OK - and I know nobody can see this, I’m doing hand motions while we talk - my success was at this low level with the first book, but from what I knew and from the things I had talked to Amy about, because Amy and I have had a friendship for quite a long time, we’re not super good friends, but we’ve known each other for a long time - and after following Amy, I was convinced that I could really crank it up to the next level.

So I went into her course, this 30x500. The idea is that 500 customers paying $30 a month is $180,000 a year, which should be enough to run all but the most really resource-intensive online businesses. So when you look at it that way, this sounds like an achievable number. But, of course, I wasn’t building a platform, or any kind of software thing, because I had a day job and lots of hobbies, and there was literally no room to do something like that. But I could carve out time to make something, like a screencast, or a book. So I went through her course, and did all the exercises.

Her whole thing was, basically, do your research. Too many people are like, “Oh, I have this great idea, what do you think”? It’s more like, “What are the type of problems that people are really having?” So, go do some research, find out the things that programmers of your language of choice are complaining about. And then say, “Can I give them something to solve this problem?” It’s this whole, you know the little tripod that Amy’s stuff sits on is: you have a pain, and a dream, and you’re going to offer them a solution. The whole idea is that you don’t want to build something until you know with 100% certainty that people are going to give you money.

I followed Amy’s process pretty much to the letter. I did research, I started looking around at people who were getting into testing stuff for PHP like I was, and what were the things that they were complaining about? What were the things they were struggling with? And the thing I found the most was, people were struggling just to use the testing framework. So, that’s when I knew, Aha! That’s the thing I should do for my next book.

And then that thing basically wrote itself. People have asked me how long I spent. I imagine from beginning, and including writing the book, doing some edits myself, I got a whole bunch of people to do technical edits, which was incredibly helpful, and setting up the website for the book, and getting the stuff with Leanpub, getting that set up, it took me 100 hours, to crank out that book. So 100 hours, and I’ve made, I don’t even know what the latest number is, probably close to $11,000 off of the book, and if I remember the numbers correctly, like $23,000 or $24,000 in the last two years off the two books together, which is awesome.

E: Were you leveraging any email lists that you had?

H: I used the email list from the first Leanpub book to promote the second one, and of course I tweeted all the time, incessantly, about what I was working on. For me, social media was really the key strategy, to attract people. Even today, where I tweeted about by bundle, the Leanpub bundle that I have, being on sale - and you guys very graciously put it on the front page, which was even better - and every time I tweet, it translates into sales. Because I took the time to learn how to use Twitter as a marketing tool for all these things that I’m working on.

Just to go on a little bit of an aside, people think that, developers often have phobias about talking about money, and promoting themselves. I have no problems talking about money, and you can definitely learn to promote yourself in a positive way, without coming across as as douchebag. I think that sometimes, I get close to that line, of promoting a little bit too hard, but I’m right on that edge, and I don’t think I would have done nearly as much, in terms of book sales. Plus I did some videos which have sold quite well. Plus the recognition that if I do submit to conferences, I get consideration because people know who I am, and they know the message that I’m trying to send out. So all of the things together, the books, plus the incessant marketing on Twitter, have been awesome for my career.

E: Did you publish either of your books while they were still in progress?

H: No, I never did the in progress, I didn’t want to do that. Simply because I wanted to work on it and present it as a finished product. Because I felt that I would be too tempted to go back and screw around all the time, would get too finicky about, This paragraph isn’t quite right, and I want to re-do this chapter.

I’m pretty sure that I could do something like that. I haven’t decided if I’m going to do another book yet or not, but I could do it as the beta thing. But I worrry that I would be spending too much time fiddling with the book, and not actually getting stuff done, not actually getting the book to a whole state, where I was happy with pushing that out to people.

E: That’s very interesting. So, have you gone back at all to re-publish any new versions? Like with some bug fixes or typos?

H: Oh, I fix typos and stuff all the time. I’m very open with that. But I didn’t do an outline, and then a couple of chapters, and then say, Hey, you guys, there’s a beta book! I just wanted to make the whole thing available at once. And then I would tell people the benefits to getting a copy through Leanpub, was that, any time I make a change, you’re going to be notified, so you can always know that you can grab the latest and greatest version of the book.

Which has been good, which has been something that you don’t get if you go the total self-publish route, where you use something like - I use E-junkie for my videos, and I think the feedback loop with your customers, to tell them that there’s updates, would be a lot more painful than what it’s been with Leanpub. I love the fact that with Leanpub, any time I made a change, I can notify everybody and say hey. I would always thanks people, and say, So-and-so on Twitter pointed out this problem with this code, I fixed it, thanks so much, you can now grab the updated version of the book.

E: On that topic, I saw that you also have a paperback version of your second book on Lulu.

H: The first book’s up there too.

E: OK, great. Do you update those as well?

H: Yes, every time I make a change, I push an updated version. Of course, which sucks for people that bought copies of it already, but I warn people: when you get the paper copy, I do update the ebook versions, but at some point the updates stop. I think now, for the second book, there’s no more updates. If I were to change anything, maybe if at some point down the road I wanted to do a second edition, I would be adding new material, but I don’t want to go back and change anything. It just feels, I don’t like doing it, it feels kind of weird.

E: Do you sell your ebooks on any platforms other than Leanpub?

H: No, just Leanpub.

E: Is there a particular reason for that?

H: I like it that you guys do all the difficult stuff, of collecting the money, and the cart and all that stuff. Having built several e-commerce systems over the years I know how painful they can be. I think it’s a lot easier now, because I think the payment processors are way easier to work with than even three, four years ago. So I imagine Leabpub’s having a little bit easier of a time than with stuff I’ve tried to do in the past.

I found Leanpub was the easiest way for me to - I could concentrate on writing the book, because I wasn’t going to be worried about building the website that goes with the book, worrying about, do I have a merchant account set up? And, is PayPal going to screw me and hold onto my money? And all these other horror stories that you hear about people dealing with stuff with PayPal, where PayPal at times appears to be very arbitrary and capricious, in holding onto people’s money, and I was like, I don’t want that happening to me at all. So, that was a whole thing I didn’t have to worry about.

E: That’s very interesting, because we do use PayPal, but we take care of all the complications, I guess, for you.

H: Oh, absolutely. That’s been the easiest - Leanpub has been the thing that let me do - I’m big on figuring out shortcuts, to help you get things done faster, and Leanpub has been the best shortcut for my products. Because I can just work on the book, and not have to worry about setting up anything else. I don’t have to worry about marketing messages. Everything else, Leanpub does for me, which is awesome.

E: Thank you very much for saying that. What you’re describing is one of the reasons that Peter and Scott founded Leanpub in the first place - it was to get people focusing on writing.

H: Absolutely. I don’t want to have to - like I said, the first time when I was thinking about this, before I discovered Leanpub - who I think I discovered through Reg Braithwaite - I was like, man, so I’m going to write the book, and then I’ve got to figure out how to put together a toolchain to turn the text into PDF, and then I’ve got to build a shopping cart, and I’m like, oh, man, do I really want to do all this? And then when I found Leanpub, I was like, that’s like 75% of the stuff I was worrying about, gone. And then I could just concentrate on writing the book.

E: That’s great to hear. With respect to selling, I’d like to ask you about your approach to pricing. How do you decide the price for your books?

H: I think of a price that makes me personally uncomfortable, and I set it right there. I have found, and this is one of the things that Amy talks about as well, that generally speaking, programmers undervalue their time, and charge way too less for the things that they’ve produced. It’s not like writing books, writing Leanpub books, could replace all my income from my day job, because it couldn’t, but if I’m going to charge people money, I don’t want to give away.

Because I look at it in terms of, like if you look at my books, the two of them together, even with the bundle, 40 bucks. If you’re a decent programmer, that’s less than an hour of what your time would cost as a freelancer, and you will earn yourself, I don’t think this is a hyperbole, tens of thousands of dollars extra, by learning to do those things.

So, that’s how I convince people. If you’re so cheap that you can’t spend 40 bucks, then probably nothing I’m going to say to you is going to matter. But if you look at it in terms of, here’s the skills that I’m going to learn that are probably going to get me a better job, or if I’m a freelancer, make me more money, 40 bucks is nothing. Most people waste 40 bucks on stupid stuff every week anyway. Unless they’re cash-strapped, which, you know, that’s how it is, but I look at it in terms of, I want to charge what I think is the right price for my stuff, and if people complain about the price of my book, well, I have lots of evidence to show that people are more than happy to give me that amount of money.

E: Have you experimented with the variable pricing at all? Where you can change the suggested and minimum prices for your books?

H: For the first book I had a minimum and suggested price, and it was probably, about half the people went with the minimum. For the second book I just said, no, I’m going to have a hard price. And if I want to offer different pricing, I just do promotions, and discounts, and things like that. I believe very strongly that I have a minimum value that I put on the book, and I would like to get that minimum.

E: I can probably guess the answer to my next question, since you’re selling your books on Leanpub, but do you have any particular opinion about digital rights management for books in general?

H: I think that - I’m trying to think of the right way to put this - I don’t worry about people stealing my stuff, and putting it up on BitTorrent, or trading copies of my books around, because I’m more interested in getting people to understand the ideas, and concepts. If someone learns it by borrowing a copy of my book from somebody, or getting someone to send them a copy, I don’t have a huge problem with that.

I think that if books were my only source of income, I might be a little bit more strict about it, but for the most part, I can make more than enough money to offset what I believe is the low percentage of unauthorized copies of my books, because - I’ve told people about other stuff, I don’t put DRM on my books, and I don’t put any of that stuff on it, because I’m willing to trust people. Just respect that I’ve put a bunch of work into this book, and just don’t give away copies. I’ve offered people discounts on bulk companies, I’ve offered company-wide licences and things like that. Simply because it’s easier to tell someone, if you want this thing, OK, I can cut you a deal. If it’s really that important to you.

Because, with digital stuff, the cost of making a copy is minimial it’s pennies, pennies worth of bandwidth, or server time, or whatever. I don’t feel like the movie industry, or the music industry, who are treating every single downloaded copy as a lost sale, when there’s absolutely zero proof that the person was going to buy it anyway.

I’m just more interested in getting my name out, building my career, and making more and more people aware that there is a better way to build PHP applications that lets you go home from work on time. I work from home, and I love at the end of the day, saying, OK, I’m done. And I don’t have to stay late because I really work hard to wrap tests around everything and set clear boundaries on when I’m going to work and when I’m not going to work. Testing and automated systems has been one way for me to really enforce that.

E: I have a couple of Leanpub-specific questions to ask. We’d like to know your ideas about these kinds of things, since you’ve written two of our more successful books. I know that you mentioned that you’re selling some DRM-free videos, I think they’re called the “PHP Testing Bootcamp Sessions” on your Grumpy Learning website.

H: Correct.

E: I was wondering what you’re doing to drive sales there, and if there’s anything Leanpub could to do help you with that? Or do you prefer to keep your book and video sales separate?

H: Well, I am trying to kind of get everything under the one umbrella of Grumpy Learning, because it helps a little bit from the branding point of view - again, with the marketing stuff, right?

Leanpub seems to - screencasts and ebooks are two completely different beasts. I think Leanpub does a really good job of promoting to people that, if you have a niche technical idea, Leanpub is a great way to validate that idea, because you can start working on something, and get money in, while you’re working on building the book out. I’m probably the rarity amongst your authors, who doesn’t release the book until it’s done. I get the impression that most people are doing the beta thing: they’re starting off with a couple of chapters, and they’re just writing as they find time, and people are happy to give them money, and follow them along on the process. I found myself, when I got involved in one of these beta book things, that you kind of feel like you’re there with the author, and you’re helping to participate and shape the book in some way, even if it’s only dropping them a note about a chapter and saying, I really liked this part, or, I found this part confusing.

There is really no market for in-progress screencasts. If there is one thing, that Leanpub, again does a great job of managing the sales part of things, and if I ever wanted to do a subscription-based type thing, you know, crank out the content and sell subscriptions, having a party that could handle the digital distribution and the collection of money, and doing all the recurring billing, because you can do all that stuff yourself, with PayPal and other payment processes. But again, like I mentioned before, if someone else gives me a shortcut that they can handle all that stuff, then I can concentrate on making sure that the content gets done.

I don’t know - “Lean Screencasts”? I don’t know what the next step with that, infrastructure to handle digital delivery and subscriptions, that would be the thing that would make me want to use Leanpub for the screencasts. I’m ok to keep them separate, just simply because Leanpub’s not set up to handle that stuff. I can handle the collection of money and setting things up with E-junkie and stuff like that, but if I got into like a subscription-based model, I may have to do something myself, and that’s when I would start looking and saying, who has already done the infrastructure for me?

E: That’s very interesting, especially because the idea of in-progress publishing corresponds to serial publishing, or one version of in-progress publishing corresponds to serial publishing, and books often, novels were often written in the past, published serially in magazines, so there is a possible fit there, I think.

H: It would be kind of interesting. I’ve thought about doing stuff like email courses. Take a bunch of material, chop it up, and get people to sign up, and then you drip stuff - they’re called “drip courses”, you just drip stuff out to them over time. The thing I never figured out was, how do you make money off of that? Unless you’re just using it as a marketing thing, that, every email is loaded with all your marketing messages, buy my books, buy my videos, all that stuff. The idea of doing serial technical books is an interesting one. A time-intensive one, a labor-intensive one, to be sure. But again, since I’m big on this stuff, with the right amount of research, and the right content, it’s probably something I could make money at too.

E: Is there anything in particular that we could do to help you engage with people who’ve already bought your books? We do have, as you mentioned earlier, that you used, when you were starting to promote your second book, you were emailing the readers of your first book, using our email readers feature - but is there something else that you were thinking, did anything else occur to you, along those lines of engaging existing readers, that we don’t have, that we could have?

H: One of the things that I found interesting was, I know that Leanpub has the unconditional money-back guarantee, and I had somebody ask for a refund, because he happened to find the GitHub repo that I’d been using for the book. I had it public. So they found it, and then said, well I don’t see why I should pay, when the author’s making the material available for free on GitHub. And I blew a gasket, because I didn’t like that. I didn’t like throwing away, even though it’s a relatively minor amount of money, I didn’t like the fact that somebody got a refund because they happened to figure out where the repo was. And so, one of the things that I’m finding I’m not getting is, it would be nice, if there’s feedback, that the author gets copied on it. It would’ve been nice if I would’ve, a refund has been given, and here’s their explanation why.

And now, I understand, I wasn’t intending to put the screws to Leanpub and say, I don’t want you issuing refunds, because that’s part of, you guys want to issue refunds, that’s cool. I file it under the same thing as with DRM. An extremely small percentage of people that have bought my book decided they didn’t like it, and that’s ok. I tried to make the book targeted to a certain group of people, and if it’s not working for them, and you want your money back, no problem. I would rather have people who are interested in what I want, giving me money, instead of people being resentful that they’ve bought something and there’s no way, if they feel that they’ve got ripped off, that there’s no way for them to recoup that stuff. I don’t know how much feedback Leanpub gets from people who have bought the books, because I encourage people to hit me up on Twitter and email, so I’ve had people tell me, they didn’t like the book, for whatever reasons, and I always tell people the same thing: I appreciate the feedback, if it’s a problem I can fix, I’ll fix it. If it’s not, if it’s just like a philosophical thing, then, I’m sorry that the book wasn’t for you, and you can always go hit up Leanpub for a refund.

E: The good news is we actually do have a feedback feature for refunds, so when people are requesing their refund, they have an opportunity to leave a comment. We made it light-touch, so you don’t have to leave a comment, but if you go to your book’s URL, at Leanpub, and just put /refunds, you’ll see a column of comments.

H: I think it’s more along the lines of, what I would’ve wanted, is just an email, saying, hey, someone just got a refund, and here’s their comment, just so, again, all about shortcuts, right? If I can get little shortcuts that pop up reminders that tell me things, then my to-do list every day gets smaller and smaller, because over time I slowly replace manual systems with automated ones that let me know when things have happened. So, again, I don’t have to worry about it.

I’m a big believer, I’m not a neat freak by any stretch of the imagination, you should see what the desk that I’m sitting at looks like, it’s covered with junk, because I play that collectible card game Magic, so there’s Magic cards at my desk. But I’m always a big believer in repeatable processes and putting things in the same place all the time. So, if I always knew that refund comments were going to be sent to my email, I never have to remember, oh yeah, I need to go to Leanpub today, or, this is my weekly check to see what’s going on with the refunds. Systems that notify me always prompt me to do better action than systems I have to remember to go see. But just a minor quibble.

I will say, and this is not just because I’m on the podcast, I’ve been extremely, extremely happy with everything that Leanpub has done for me. And I feel like my books couldn’t have been as big a success without Leanpub providing all the infrastructure shortcuts for me. I would’ve had to do it all myself, and who knows what problems I could’ve run into. I could’ve had problems getting payments, getting money out of PayPal, and all these other things. Leanpub has eliminated that problem for me.

E: Well, thank you very much, it’s very validating. Leanpub was and is being built on the Customer Development model, where you launch something that you know isn’t perfect, but you do it in order to see if you’re actually addressing problems people have. And then, the people with those problems, you build the product based on their actual needs, rather than some kind of formal vision of what you think the world should be like.

H: Shortcuts people, it’s all about the shortcuts. It’s how I get so much stuff done, because I don’t do everything manually. That’s the secret, that’s what I tell people my secret is: shortcuts. Automate everything you can.

E: That idea of getting an email when someone requests a refund is excellent, because it also corresponds to the idea that when you’re managing a book, it’s a relationship with your readers, that’s changing, and so getting little alerts that something’s going on would increase that sense of engaging.

H: It’s not like I’m looking to pick a fistfight with people who want a refund or anything, I just want to know, if you didn’t like it, ok, that’s cool, I can respect that, I just want to know why, so that I don’t make that second mistake. Or if it’s not even a mistake, it’s just like, well I didn’t like it because of reasons X, Y, Z, and I happened not to agree with them, then now I know why some people don’t like it. I mean, I do look, from time to time, and I am happy that the percentage of people who have requested refunds is like really really small.

E: Yeah, that’s definitely true, it’s true of your books, and it’s actually true of most Leanpub books. The rate of refund requests is very low, which we think is a sign of the quality of our books, but also the fact that if you trust people, they’re often trustworthy.

H: Absolutely.

E: And refunds, they also serve an important function. Our two-click refund feature is very important feature because, when you’re doing self-publishing, in-progress, when you’re a platform for mostly self-published, in-progress books, giving people the security when they’re buying it that they’re not taking a risk, at all, except maybe with a little bit of time, on this book, is a really key part of what we’re doing.

H: I feel like Leanpub lets me be a little bit closer to everyone that’s bought my books, or wants to know more about the stuff that I’m doing. I feel like there’s not all these layers of middlemen, for lack of a better - I wanted to say rent-seeker, but that’s probably being mean - I mean, I had people telling me stuff like, oh, a self-published book isn’t legit. And I’m like, well, I don’t know about you, but I know people who’ve written books for O’Reilly, and I’ve made way more money off of way fewer units, than what they got from O’Reilly. It’s more like, if you’re doing it for notoriety, OK, but wouldn’t you rather make more money, with the same amount of effort? You look at O’Reilly, you have the publisher, and then you have an editor, and you have a PR person, and sometimes, you know, those are too many layers, for people to go through, who want to actually just talk to you.

It’s interesting, when I meet people who’ve bought my book, and they kind of get awkward, about, it’s actually me, and, oh, I had your book, and I just felt kind of weird coming up and talking to you, and I’m like, yeah I get that, but behind all this stuff, behind the book, and Twitter, and all the other nonsence that I do, I’m just, I’m still, just a person, or speakers, and all that stuff, I’m just a person who happens to have worked very hard at promoting themselves. And at the end of the day, I feel like Leanpub lets me be closer to those people. Way less of things getting in the way of when people want to ask about the book, and then buy it, and want to talk to me about things that are in it.

I always feel like a book done through a more traditional tech publisher, more like a, more obstacles in your way of actually getting to talk to the person, and seeing that your suggestions are being acted upon in the book. Which I imagine is something that happens a lot more often for the people that are doing the in-progress books, that that early feedback from the early adopters is probably really really good. But like I said, I didn’t want to do it that way, I didn’t want to publish it until it was complete, and I didn’t want to share it until it was at a place where I had everything done. I don’t know if that’s some sort of insecurity that belies my outrageousness on Twitter, but no. People are complicated.

E: Do you have any other feature requests, something that, if you could magically snap your fingers, Leanpub would do it, that came out of your experience using our services?

H: I do know one thing that you guys actually did for me, way back in the day, early on, in the, I think it was the first book. I noticed there was no way to download sales data. You guys didn’t have an export feature. So, I remember asking Peter, I want to graph how my book’s been doing, to give people a chart to show them over time, and within a couple of days, Leanpub implemented export sales as .csv, so that I could take it and put it in a spreadsheet, and look at it.

If there is one thing, something that I learned out of my experience with the product development course, which may be a touchy subject for Leanpub, is the exporting of email addresses. Now I know you guys have opt-in, where they can agree to share their email address with me, and I can see it for every sale, but just from a marketing of future products, and trying to engage people who have bought stuff, to see maybe if you’re interested in some of the other things that I’ve done, something that might be outside of Leanpub, the ability to export email addresses, of people who’ve bought stuff, if they’ve wanted to share them.

E: If they’ve opted in.

H: If they’ve opted in. Clearly I don’t want to just take everyone’s email addresses. If they’ve agreed to share, just from the way that I do things, it would be immensely helpful, because I can then turn around and combine things into a list, and again, just focus on making sure that people who are interested in things that I want to talk about, are getting that message. So, the ability to export lists of email addresses that have opted in would be something that I’d like to see.

E: That sounds reasonable to me. If people opt in to show you their email address, we are already showing it to you, and allowing you to export that would just make it more useful. But we are, as you know, we’re very protective of things like that, so we’ll discuss it internally, but it sounds quite reasonable.

H: If I want to send a message, to people who’ve bought my book, I can just do it via the form. And maybe you can answer this question for me: If I go to my second book and I go to send an email to all my readers, is every single person that bought my book getting that email, or just the ones that opted in?

E: I believe, that they have to opt in, but just let me check something here.

H: I’ve always been curious about that. Because if that’s the case, then the export email is a nice thing, that just lets me take their email addresses and put it into a mailing list manager, like MailChimp or something like that. I’ve always been curious, because I’ve always thought that every single person who’s ever bought my book will get an email, if I send it via that.

E: I’ve just checked, that is the case. They’re automatically opted in to new release announcements, and author email sent from Leanpub. But that doesn’t mean that you actually see the email addresses of the people that you’re sending to.

H: Because I have sent emails saying, hey, I have this email list and I would really appreciate if you sign up for it. And, yeah, a large number of people have signed up, but it’s not the same number of people that bought the book. So clearly, there are some people reluctant to hand out their email addresses. And again, that’s cool, it’s just that from the product development perspective that I’ve gone on, it would be nice to actually have those email addresses.

Not that I would, and to make it 100% clear, I would never, ever, ever in a billion years sell those email lists to anybody, because I hate spam just as much as the next person. I’m just interested in having people who want to hear from me, hear from me. And if you don’t want to hear from me, then please, I don’t want to waste any time sending you a message.

So, that’s just one thing that would be nice, the ability to export that list of emails from people who have already agreed to share it.

That’s about it. I know that sounds like a pro-Leanpub commercial, but I’ve been extremely happy. I’m extremely happy, and extremely grateful that I found you guys, because like I said, it’s made me worry about the books, and not worry about all the infrastrucutre.

E: On that positive note, I’m actually at the end of my questions, but is there anything you’d like to add?

H: I don’t think so. I mean I do, anytime that people talk about wanting do do a book, I always recommened that they use Leanpub for all those reasons. The infrastructure’s taken care of, the tools to convert Markdown to PDF, EPUB and MOBI are awesome. Again, it’s just stuff I don’t have to worry about. I write the book once, and somebody else takes care of making sure it looks right, and again, since I’m all about automating and shortcuts, that’s perfect for somebody like me.

E: OK, great. Thanks for a great interview, thanks very much for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast, and for being a Leanpub author!

H: Thank you, I enjoyed our talk.

Paul Bradshaw

Paul Bradshaw is the author of several Leanpub books, including Scraping for Journalists, 8000 Holes: How the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay Lost its Way, and Data Journalism Heist.

Paul runs the MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University, where he is a Reader in Online Journalism at the School of Media. He is also currently a Visiting Professor at the School of Journalism at City University, London.

This interview was recorded on August 15, 2013.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://blog.leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Len Epp: I’m here with Paul Bradshaw, who runs the MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University, where he is a Reader in Online Journalism at the School of Media. He is also currently a Visiting Professor at the School of Journalism at City University, London. Paul has written and contributed to numerous books, in addition to his work for journalism.co.uk, the Gaurdian and the Telegraph’s data blogs, and other media organizations. In addition to running the Online Journalism Blog, he is the founder of HelpMeInvestigate.com, a platform for crowdsourcing investigative journalism. Paul also works as a freelance trainer and speaker.

Paul coauthored the Online Journalism Handbook, and the third edition of Magazine Editing: In Print and Online, both of which came out in 2011. He is also the author and coauthor of a number of Leabpub books, including “Scraping for Journalists” and “8000 Holes: How the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay Lost its Way”.

In this interview, we’re going to talk about Paul’s work and interests, as well as the subject and development of his Leanpub books. At the end of the interview, we’ll also talk about his experiences using Leanpub, and ways we can improve Leanpub for him, and for other authors.

So, thank you Paul for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast.

Bradshaw: Thank you for having me.

E: My first question is, how did you become interested in journalism?

B: Well, I guess I grew up reading newspapers and being very much aware of the news as a kid, and I was seen as quite unusual at college, as being someone who read a newspaper. So, I obviously stood out in that sense. That probably says more about the college I went to, than me! I was really more interested in writing, and actually art, when I was a kid, and I kind of drifted into journalism, so to speak, because I could write and that was a job that I ended up doing.

I actually wanted to work in radio, I didn’t have that high an opinion of journalism when I was first working in it. But what I enjoyed when I became a journalist was that ability to hold power to account, and that you could represent your readers and get results in a way that they couldn’t always get themselves, individually. So that’s really what gave me a bug, if you like.

E: What was your first job in journalism?

B: I worked for a publisher when I was about 17, just as an admin role, I worked for another magazine when I was about 19 in a similar admin role, but my first full journalism role was a magazine, reporting on the internet, and I was very lucky to get a job as an editor, and I grew to become group editor, and other editorial operations.

E: Why did you eventually make the switch to academia?

B: I wanted to leave the job I was in. I’d completed one major project, of building a series of websites, and I wanted to move one, and a job came up at the university, what’s now Birmingham City University, and I originally applied for that with the intention of it being a bridge to a freelance career. But I actually really enjoyed teaching and learning new skills. I never planned to go into academia, it was something that I did initially as a bridge to something else. I still enjoy now learning new skills and trying to communicate those in the books.

E: You run the MA in Online Journalism, as I mentioned in the intro at Birmingham City University, and I watched a video in which you say it’s about “defining online journalism” and “shaping the medium for the twenty-first century”. Can you talk a bit about what the course offers, and how it’s different from what journalists were taught, or needed to learn, maybe even just a few years ago?

B: Well, I think a lot of journalism education has been set up to meet quite a uniform news industry. And that’s all changed now. The news industry is trying to reinvent itself, in reaction to different ways of consuming information, and different ways of advertising as well. So, what I wanted to do with the MA was, I guess the realization I had was that sending out students with identical skills was not going to help the news industry or the students themselves. So, the people who are going into the news industry now are the people that are finding out how it can be different. They’re the people who are innovating in forms like audio slideshows and live-blogging, the people who are doing investigations with data journalism, the people who are engaging with online communities.

So I wanted to create an MA which was worthy of a Masters-level certification and allowed students to define the medium and to push the boundaries of the medium that they were working in. The way that it does that is it gives students an introduction to a broad range of key skills in online journalism, but gives them a bit of a nudge to experiment and to produce high-quality, in-depth work.

So there are parts of the course where they have to experiment. There’s an element which is called an “Experimental Portfolio”. It’s a space where they can try something that might be intimidating to them, but they’re not going to necessarily fail if they don’t pull it off, as long as they learned something in the process.

And alongside that there are more traditional portfolios of work. There’s a lot of working with clients, so they take industry problems and research those and try new ways of addressing those, and that might be anything from, how do you make online videos successful, to how do you train citizen journalists. And they all come out with very different skills and unique representations, a lot of them build reputations on the course, and so far every single one of them has found a job, which is incredibly unusual.

E: That’s fantastic.

B: Most of them at strategic levels as well, which is also encouraging. So they are genuinely going into positions where they are shaping where the news industry goes next.

E: That’s fantastic. Can you explain a little about what “data journalism” is?

B: Data journalism is quite a broad range of skills, really. In a nutshell, it’s using data, structured information, at some point in the process of getting or telling a story.

That’s quite a vague definition, but in practice that means someone could be collecting data in a way that might be hard for other people. It might be that they might tell a story about that data, or public data, again in a way that other people aren’t doing. Or it might be that they use new storytelling techniques like data visualization, interactives, databases, things like that, to communicate the story. Like I said, there are quite a wide range of skills involved potentially, and quite often there are collaborative projects that allow different people different skills to do that.

E: Is that also what you mean by “computer assisted reporting”?

B: Really, it’s grown out of computer-assisted reporting, for me. So, computer-assisted reporting came to prominence in the US in the late 60s, through into the 80s and 90s, and for me that’s using spreadsheets and databases to find stories. The difference with data journalism is that you’re now starting to do that in a networked environment, so you might be accessing data on other computers, you might be alowing users to access that data and do things with it, and make maps and so on. So it does include what traditionally has been called computer-assisted reporting, but I think it also takes in a number of other techniques. You’ve got design skills, you’ve got web development skills, that traditionally, are new things really, I guess.

E: In your Online Journalism Blog, you mention that you support experiments with “wiki journalism”. Can you explain what that is and why it interests you?

B: Well, there was a period, probably a couple years after Wikipedia came to prominence, when journalists and news organizations were experimenting with wikis as a way to, again, tell stories and engage with audiences. That was, I did some research at the time into what worked and what didn’t, and different ways of doing that.

It has been a really interesting way for news organizations and journalists to collaborate with users. You’ve got all sorts of knowledge out their in what used to be an audience, a traditional audience, which now you can access and publish as a news organization, and wikis were one of the earliest attempts to do that in some sort of structured way. And you had some interesting examples where newspapers would say, “We’re going to do a wiki on our local music scene, and can you help us add entries for all the bands that you know of, and the venues”, and all the rest of that. It’s something that you wouldn’t necesssarily do as a journalist, but is a tremendous community effort of sharing information and expertise, for something which everyone benefits from and enjoys.

I think you’re seeing less of that now. I think the novelty of wikis has worn off, and people are interested in other things now. But potentially still, I think increasingly you now get specialist, either wikis, or people use Wikipedia. So for example if you’re a Lego fan, then there’s Brickipedia for you, and if you’re a Star Wars fan, then there’s Wookieepedia. There are all sorts of speciallist wikis now, and I guess if you’re interested in one of those areas, you will contribute to one of those wikis.

E: Can you talk about helpmeinvestigate.com, how it got started, and some of its successes?

B: This came out of some research that I did for a book chapter. I was asked to do a chapter for the second edition of a book called Investigative Journalism, which is edited by Hugo de Burgh, and they asked me to do a chapter on investigative journalism online. And in the process of looking at that, and writing this book chapter, I looked to a few examples of crowdsourcing, and it really struck me as - by the way crowdsourcing is the idea that you gather information from a number of different people, so you allow users somehow to contribute to an investigation, or a story - and when I looked at crowdsourcing and investigative journalism, I found some really interesting characteristics about the engagement, for example.

There was a particular example of an investigation by the Florida news press, which had tremendous levels of traffic, the traffic on that story was higher than pretty much any other story on the site, that they’d ever done, apart from hurricane season stories. So, that’s relatively unusual for investigative journalism. Yes, you get big scoops, and yes they make a lot of noise, but in terms of how many people actually read that, you’re always struggling with investigative journalism to get people to care about something that’s important. So, the engagement around that was really interesting.

And the other factor that struck me was you could use crowdsourcing to to do investigations that traditional news organizations would not normally do, in other words, unfashionable subjects, subjects that didn’t have a mass audience, or that didn’t warrant a particular amount of effort. And so it openened up new possibilities editorially. That kind of led me to come up with the idea for Help Me Investigate, which was really a way of systematically testing, how could you crowdsource investigative journalism, and was there a way of doing it more successfully? You know, what would be the techniques for doing that?

And after a year or two of developing the idea, I got some funding from Channel 4, a television company in the UK, and we launched that in 2009. It’s been running for four years now, in fact it just celebrated, although without any noise at all, its fourth anniversary, and we’ve just been investigating different questions, anything that people raise or approach us with, and it’s just a network of people. It’s completely non-profit, it’s completely voluntary, there is no business model because there are no costs. But we work with news organizations including the Guardian, the BBC, lcoal newspapers, newspapers in Germany. We’ve done all sorts of different things with different organizations, and it’s really just a way of trying to use network technologies, the internet, to put people in touch with other people who might want to help each other investigate something.

E: Speaking of the internet, what’s your view of the recent sale of the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.com?

B: It doesn’t surprise me at all. In fact, funnily enough, I was predicting, for the last two years I’ve been saying that Facebook, Amazon, or Google will start buying news organizations at some point. What surprises me is that it isn’t Amazon, it’s Bezos. But having said that he’s not the first, I can’t remember who it was, but one of the founders of Facebook bought one of the news magazines in the US, I can’t remember which one. There are other examples of either people who’ve made their money from the web, or organizations, web companies, buying traditional media properties. I think that’s going to continue.

It does open up some interesting possibilities in terms of, what he’s going to actually do, and that’s probably more interesting than the sale itself. But, any print organization I think has got a very difficult challenge in trying to straddle new opportunities, and where things are growing, while also not losing the massive revenue that still comes from print. And also, ultimately, they’ve still got people in jobs that they can’t just chuck out the window, so you’ve got a whole workforce which is something you’ve got to work with.

E: So you think this is a potentially good thing?

B: I’m always hesitant to say something is good or bad, because it’s always going to be mixed. So I guess that would be my prediction, if anything. I think it is a thing, which will have both good and bad consequences, and we will always make mistakes, particularly with change, but we learn things along the way.

E: Switching to the subject of your books, the first book you published on Leanpub was Scraping for Journalists. Can you explain a little bit about the book, like for example what “scraping” is, and why it’s important for journalists?

B: Scraping is the process of getting information from a series of web pages or documents online, or even just one web page. And how you get that information from that web page or those web pages normally involves creating some sort of script, which is a set of instructions. So that’s scraping: scraping is essentially writing a set of instructions to grab information from the web.

Now, there are a number of ways you can do that. You can get tools where you click buttons that write those instructions, and you tell it what information you want, and where it is, and you kind of press play, and off it goes and gets that. But if you want to get something that’s more complicated, or for example it’s in PDFs, or it’s in spreadsheets, then you might have to actually write something more advanced, and write some programming.

The book really takes you across those tools and those skills. It starts from a very simple script, which is just using Google Spreadsheets to grab information from a web page. It takes you from that to the kind of click-and-play tools that will scrape pages for you, and then right through to learning some programming to write scrapers.

Now, the reason that that’s important, is that obviously there are millions of pages of information out there that are potentially of interest to journalists, and a lot of those pages include government data, information about health, education, all the sorts of issues that we’re supposed to be reporting on as journalists. It allows us to check facts, it allows us to identify problems, it allows us to identify trends, it’s not just hard news, it can be softer subjects like sport and fashion, and quite often scraping is a really useful technique for getting hold of that data, when you either couldn’t get a hold of it in any other way, or the alternative methods take a lot of time, like Freedom of Information requests. So that’s really what scraping is about and why it’s important.

The other part of the book is, I’d kind of been trying to teach this to journalists for a while, and I’d found that there was a disconnect between how journalists saw scraping and how programmers saw scraping, and basically journalists quite often come from a humanities background where they learn in a particular way. Programmers, I’ve noticed, operate differently. They’re more like scientists. They work through trial and error. They borrow from each other. They don’t expect to learn everything, and then that body of knowledge is all they need to know.

E: It’s interesting, you have a great line in your book where you say, “If you were used to getting things right first time in school and college, get unused to it”.

B: Yeah, absolutely. That was the hurdle, I think that I saw in doing this in training, and also learning it myself. I’d been trying to learn scraping, and I’d read books about programming languages, and I’d be kind of like, “Well, this is great, I know how to write a script that adds two numbers together, but how does that help me get data from that web page?” And I could see that journalists, that they want results, and they’re not going to read a whole book on a particular programming language, and then feel satisfied that they can write a scraper.

So it’s as much about that as anything, about a way of learning, and about saying, forget the idea of getting everything right, you’re going to get things wrong, and actually the fun of scraping - and I really enjoy scraping, because it is like solving puzzles, and the fun is making mistakes and solving them, and coming up against problems - it’s Sudoku, really.

E: I have what might be a very specific question about that, actually. I was wondering, for example, if you wrote a story based on some data that you’d scraped, and then, let’s say, one of the subjects of the story later changed the data on their website, how would you establish some kind of audit trail, proving where you got the data from?

B: That’s a really good question, actually. I imagine the audit trail would be the scraper and essentially the metadata that that scraper recorded at the time of being run. So you would be able to prove that, this scraper ran at this time, and it grabbed this information from this URL. Really, if this was a court case and they had to seize computers, or whatever, those computers would be able to back up that information, and it would be very - say for example the other party says that you falsified that, again, they could check, well is there a way that this could be falsified, and all these logs have not been manipulated. So that would be, that’s getting into too much depth really. All you’d have to do, practically speaking, is going on Google and search for a cache, or go on the Wayback Machine. Or their computers would be seized, and you’d be able to look at the previous versions of the pages that were on, and when changes were made, and so on. So there’s always going to be an audit trail on both sides.

E: In the introduction to the book, you mention that it’s being published in progress, and that readers can influence what gets written and how. Can you give me an example of how reader feedback has influenced what you’ve included in the book?

B: This week I’ve had a tweet from someone who said that there was a particular page that I’d used as an example in the book which was no longer online. So I went back in and I’ve changed that passage in the book, now, so that doesn’t include a mention of that. Someone else suggested all kinds of alternative ways of creating a particular process in the book, so I’ve added quite a lengthy section at the end of that chapter which says, this is what this person says, here’s another way of doing it, and it’s much better because of X, Y and Z. People have picked up typos, people have picked up things that are changed, people have made suggestions of different ways of doing things.

Another thing that’s happened is new tools, people have suggested alternative tools. I had a great case where someone in, I think it was Portugal or Spain, where they said that Google Docs or Google Drive, in their language, doesn’t use commas, it uses semi-colons. So you get these small idiosyncracies that I added into the book. There’s a little alert box, saying, “If you’re using the Spanish or Portuguese (and there’s another language as well, it may have been German), then use a semi-colon instead”. Just small things like that, which you’d never be able to do in print.

E: That’s great. And the kind of thing, especially if you’re learning programming for the first time, the kind of thing that could really frustrate someone. Because you see you’re copying what you’re being shown, and you know you’re doing it right, but even the difference between a comma and something else can break everything that you’re doing.

B: Exactly, yeah, and even, you can try and anticipate people making mistakes, or misunderstanding, or having problems, but having people raw testing the book and saying, “This doesn’t work” or “I made this mistake at first”, so then you can add just a little passage, or then you might want to rewrite a sentence so that it’s clearer. That makes a big difference.

E: Your second Leanpub book, which you coauthored with Carol Miers, was 8000 Holes: How the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay Lost its Way. Can you tell me what led you to write this book, and what it’s about?

B: It’s a great story, at least to me, I think it’s fascinating. This came out of scraping. To cut a long story short, I scraped details on the Olympic torch bearers, and there were 8,000 of them - this is for the 2012 Olympics in the UK - and the official website published details on all of the torchbearers, so I scraped that information and started to investigate all sorts of things about them. So we did dozens of stories about the torchbearers, everything from who was the oldest torchbearer, through to these stories that appeared on the front pages of the national newspapers, about corporate torchbearers.

The main story that we told as a result of this was that a number of corporate sponsors of the Olympics had nominated their own executives to carry the Olympic torch. What was important about that, was that when the Olympic torch relay was announced, in London, they made a promise that it would be about people who were inspirational, who had sporting achievements, who were young - 50% of the torchbearers were supposed to be young - 95%, I think it was 95% of the torch relay places were going to be made available to the public. It was very much about celebrating people, everyday people, inspirational people, and so on. It wasn’t about executives. And in fact the Olympics minister said that they had issued guidelines to these sponsors saying, do not nominate executives.

Now it turned out that dozens and dozens if not hundreds of executives carried the torch. And it was clearly being used to buiild corporate relationships. Corporate partners got them, and so on. And that was a story that I found early on in the process of looking at the details of the torchbearers. But as the torch relay progressed, I wanted to tell a deeper story about how that had happened. Because, it’s one thing to say, these corporate executives are carrying torches, but it’s supposed to be for normal people, but it’s another thing to actually tell the story of, why did that happen, and why is it important?

E: You tell a very moving story in the book about an athlete with brittle bone syndrome, who ended up not being able to carry the torch, and then discovered that there were all sorts of people who hadn’t done, and he had to go through a very long process of being nominated, and rounds of assessment, and was disappointed to find out that he wasn’t included in the relay, even though a bunch of people who hadn’t done anything nearly as sporting or inspirational were included in the relay.

B: Yeah, and that was what it came down to. As the torch relay came towards its final weeks, I wanted to write the full story of why this matterred and what had happened. So we started the book with the story of Jack Binstead, who was I think 17, so he fitted the criteria of youth, he had broken 60-odd bones since he’d been born, and he was probably going to compete at the next Paralympics. He was nominated by the maximum number of people, but he didn’t carry the torch, and as you say, on the day that he probably would have carried the torch, there was this long list of marketing executives and chief executives and political donors, all of whom were carrying the torch instead. And, I mean it’s sad, but I recently found out that he’s retired from the sport, he’s not going to be competing at the Paralympics, he’s decided to quit wheelchair racing, and you do wonder, had he been successfully nominated to carry the torch, would he have retired?

So, that was why this story mattered, and I’m glad you think it’s moving, because it certainly moved me, and moved me to set up the book on the site so that people could get it for free, but any purchases went straight to the Brittle Bone Society, and Leanpub was kind enough to volunteer to donate the Leanpub share to the Brittle Bone Society, so 100% pretty much goes to them. And we also closed the book with the story of a person who did carry the torch, but also found the experience sullied by the fact that all sorts of people who carried the torch when he was, got to carry the torch because they sold the most bottles of Coca-Cola that month.

E: It’s that kind of thing that moved me about it, the contrast between a person who had strived to do things of Olympic kinds in order to carry the torch, and then the, I don’t know, the kind of ugly vanity of someone who’s merely doing it so they can brag about it at a dinner party or somthing like that.

B: It’s a shame really, and even after all of that, there were probably a good thousand or so torchbearers who were never named on the site. I know at least one of those is an executive at a sports retailer that was never named, and never identified, and his two daughters managed to carry it as well.

E: Wow.

B: It’s a family affair. But yeah, it was a really interesting exercise to try to tell the full story and detail all the various twists and turns of that.

E: I can see you’re working on a new book, Data Journalism Heist. Can you talk a little bit about that?

B: This is me trying to keep it simple, after doing ‘Scraping for Journalists’, which was very, it’s quite a long book, it takes you from a very simple starting point to somewhere that’s quite advanced. And I wanted to do something which was very introductory, very basic, very short, was for people who were nowhere near scraping really, and were just interested in data journalism generally. So it’s going to be a very short book which teaches a couple of simple techniques in spreadsheets to find basic stories in a simple dataset.

It’s probably more like a very long article than an ebook, and the idea varies, but hopefully a lot people will use that, will get interested in data journalism, and then they might want to start to explore some of the more advanced techniques like scraping. I’m hoping to do some other books around other data journalism techniques as well.

E: Switching gears a little, I’d like to ask you some questions about your experience with Leanpub and the Lean Publishing process. Can you tell me how you found out about Leanpub, and why you chose us for your publishing platform?

B: A colleague of mine at Birmingham City University, a guy called Andrew Dubber,he used Leanpub to publish, well he still uses Leanpub to publish all sorts of books on the music industry, and I’d been looking at ebook publishing for a while, and he’d mentioned it in conversation. I liked the idea that you could continually publish, and that was the main selling point for me. I’d obviously looked at other ebook publishing platforms and so on, but the way that this seemed to be designed to allow you to start publishing and then keep adding to something, that was the key thing for me, particularly for something where technology is changing. In fact, I myself was still making that journey and still learning things. So that’s how I got into it, really.

E: And did you know Markdown before you started using Leanpub?

B: No.

E: What was the experience like learning it? Was that a barrier to you, or was that just something you picked up easily?

B: It was a barrier. Not a huge one. I think I’d stumbled across it a little bit, and I don’t think, I don’t know if I’d ever used it. It was something that made me think, well that might stop a few people. Occasionally it will still trip you up. I think it’s, once you’ve kind of got the basics of it, it’s largely just things like images and having to remember, I think you occasionally have to think, “How do I do an image again?” And you have to look at another chapter that’s got an image and just copy the syntax and paste it into your new chapter.

And I only recently discovered the Asides, the different things that you could use to create information boxes, or question boxes, or discussion boxes. So I went back all the way though the book finding things that were, you know, “that’s really an information box, I’m going to change that now”. So yes, there were all those hidden gems as well. That’s probably more of a selling point, actually, the special codes for Asides.

E: And Markdown of course is a great way of making it so that you can write one single source text, but then output in multiple ebook formats, and even HTML of course, which is what Markdown was designed for.

B: Funnily enough, I use it now for other things as well. I’ve just finished writing a book chapter for a print book, and I wrote it in Markdown, copied it into a Markdown converter, and then copied it into, if you like, a word processing document, because it means I can type it on the train, just in a text editor, and not have to think about that.

E: That’s great for us to hear! I see you have a Facebook page for ‘Scraping for Journalists’. Is engaging directly with people who have already bought your books important to you, and is there more we could do at Leanpub to help you engage with your readers online?

B: It’s definitely important to me to engage. I guess the Facebook page doesn’t do a lot of that. It is a channel for people to point out things, or ask questions, but because I’m a lot more active on Twitter, I tend to get people contacting me, or occasionally through email, so the Facebook page is really there as a point of contact, more than anything else, and I’ll just publish anything that I find about scraping will get published on there, but nothing much else happens there I guess. Although I did use it to announce the new chapters, and I guess that’s probably where it could be better integrated in Leanpub, in that you could say, “when I publish a new chapter, don’t just email readers, but update Facebook, or update the Twitter account if there’s one for that”.

E: That’s very interesting.

B: So, for example, I’ve got a Twitter account for the ‘Online Journalism Handbook’, but I didn’t think it was necessary to create one for ‘Scraping for Journalists’. Having those different ways of being updated, and then also, as part of that, thinking about it, when someone buys the book, they obviously make a choice whether to get updates. Now they could choose to either get that via email, or they could follow the Facebook page, or they could even follow the Twitter account, from that single point. That might be a different way of approaching it.

E: That’s very interesting. Is there anything generally that you think we could improve, or any other features that you’d really like to see?

B: I guess, I had to go off to find a Markdown editor, converter-type-thing, so having something on the site, where you could type in Markdown and see what it would look like, that might be quite a nice addition, because I imagine that is an obstacle for a lot of people.

I was thinking about something. I actually downloaded the purchases, the spreadsheet of purchase data, and the one piece of data that was missing, this is quite geeky, but the minimum price and the recommended price.

E: Yes.

B: I would like to be able to know what they were when someone bought, because I’ve actually done quite a few experiments in seeing what happens to buyer behavior, depending on the pricing. So if you’ve got a minimum price and a recommended price, and they’re different, what do people do?

E: Ok, that’s great, that’s actually something we’d given a little bit of thought to, and it’s validating to hear that authors out there are actually thinking about that.

B: I think pricing is really interesting, actually. One of the reasons I used Leanpub as well was to learn about ebook publishing. Because I’m also dealing with journalists who are looking at this themselves. And that kind of, the idea of having a minimum price and a recommended price is a really interesting dynamic. For example, I found, for a while I made them both the same, and I noticed people almost never paid more than the recommended price, when it was the minimum. But if they are different, people do spend more than the recommended price.

E: That’s very interesting.

B: And obviously a lot of them spend the minimum. And when I did look at those figures, it averaged out still at the recommended price, but it was interesting that people would pay more, as well as less, when there’s an option.

E: Have you done any special one-day promotions, or anything like that? Like, where you lower the price or give out coupons?

B: No. I may well do that in the future. What I’ve really done is more of a gradual price-increasing. I think for the first week I said it was $4.99, so anyone who buys it in the first week, when there’s only one chapter, it was $4.99, and then it went up to $9.99, and it would increase as more chapters were added. Even though obviously everyone got all the chapters in the end. So it was kind of me saying, “I know that you’re buying something, and you don’t know yet what it’s going to be, so I’m reducing the price to recognize that”, and also recognize that the people who buy it at the start are quite important.

So I’ve not really done any price promotions in terms of reductions or anything like that. I might look at that in the future. At the moment sales are pretty constant, and have been throughout the thirteen months or so. But I may look at it in the future.

E: Well, that’s about all the questions I had. Is there anything you’d like to add?

B: No. I think you covered it all. Quite a wide range of ground I think we’ve covered there.

E: Well, thanks for a great interview, and for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast, and for being a Leanpub author!

B: And thank you as well, as I said it’s very educational.

Luc Beaudoin

Luc Beaudoin is the author of the Leanpub book Cognitive Productivity: The Art and Science of Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective.

Luc is President of CogZest and Adjunct Professor of Education at Simon Fraser University. At Simon Fraser, Luc is leading the Cognitive Productivity Research Project, investigating knowledge worker cognitive productivity.

This interview was recorded on August 19, 2013.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Len Epp: I’m here with Luc Beaudoin, President of CogZest and Adjunct Professor of Education at Simon Fraser University, based in British Columbia, Canada. Luc is currently running the Cognitive Productivity Research Project at Simon Fraser, investigating psychological questions regarding knowledge worker cognitive productivity.

Luc has a Ph.D. in Cognitive Science from the University of Birmingham, where he conducted research on computer modelling of goal processing and motivation. Over the course of his career, Luc has held a number of positions in different fields. For example, he worked as a technical writer for Tundra Semiconductor, as a Senior Software Developer for Abatis Systems Corp., and he was Assistant Professor of Military Psychology and Leadership at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Luc is the author of numerous scientific publications on a wide range of problems in cognitive science. One of his most recent publications is his Leanpub book, Cognitive Productivity: The Art and Science of Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective. In this interview, we’re going to talk about Luc’s research interests and his book, and about his experiences using Leanpub. We’ll also talk about ways we can improve Leanpub for him, and for other scientific and academic authors.

So, thank you Luc for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast.

Luc Beaudoin: It’s my pleasure.

E: Just to start out, can you tell me a little bit about how you first became interested in cognitive science?

B: Whoah, we’re going back! 1980s. I was a psychology student, and my career path was to become a clinical psychologist, and I was taking a neuroscience course, and that had me broadening my horizons a little bit, as university does to students. I was very interested in neuroscience, with this course I was taking, and I worked in a neuroscience lab. We were studying the neural basis of motivation and reward. So that basically opened me up to all kinds of possibilities. I took a philosophy course, an epistemology course - it was a requirement at the University of Ottawa - and there I discovered cognitive science, and that really intrigued me.

Cognitive science is basically the study of the human mind, and the reference model that we use for that, or the way of thinking that we use, is information processing. So it’s not that the human mind is a digital computer, but that it’s a device that could be understood as something that processes information. I thought that was very interesting. It’s also an approach to the human mind that recognizes that the human mind is too complicated to be studied just from one perspective. So there’s no one discipline that’s constitutive of cognitive science, that owns cognitive science. We often think of psychology as that which studies the human mind, but actually there are many contributing disciplines to this cognitive science thing. So there’s artificial intelligence, there’s philosophy, linguistics, and other disciplines. Neuroscience contributes as well.

To make a long story short, I just fell in love with the idea. And there was a professor there, called Claude Lamontagne, who was just an amazing professor, and I was told “Luc, you have to take Professor Lamontagne’s course on perception”. I was going to take cognition, and I took perception in addition to that, so beyond the requirements I took that course, and I guess they knew that he and I would really hit it off. Which we did. He has a tendency to blow people’s minds, and that he did with mine. He basically convinced me that this was the way to understand the human mind, using information processing as a kind of metaphor.

E: Speaking of the connection between cognitive science and psychology, you’ve mentioned online that your Ph.D. thesis and your honour thesis “diverged from empirical psychology approach to the issues you addressed in your theses, and you instead used a “designer approach”. Can you explain what you mean by a “designer approach”?

B: The idea is that if we’re to understand the human mind with this approach, we have to, in a sense, reverse engineer it. So we think, what are the requirements that this system implements? Typically we don’t look at the entire human mind. Some of us do look at the big architecure of the human mind, but typically people focus on perception, or linguistic processing, and usually some very specific aspect thereof. But basically, we proceed as engineers would. First, understand what are the requirements of a system, and then we propose designs to satisfy those requirements.

And then we move on beyond that to developing computer programs that implement those designs, and then we actually press the Run button - the Compile button and the Run button - and we find out, well, this doesn’t exactly do what I thought it would. Actually it doesn’t compile. Or, more typically, you don’t even get to the point of being able to write the program, because what this does is it exposes gaps in your understanding.

But, you move along, and you do try to run these simulations, and then you can actually test your predictions in one way or another using your computer program. And then what you do is you study the relations between these different levels. So, by going through this whole process, you find out that you maybe didn’t understand the requirements properly, so you have to study that more in detail, your design wasn’t right. This is basically an engineering stance, which involves some reverse engineering to understanding the human mind.

Coincidentally, I had taken a psychological assessment my first year of university, in psychology. They said, “Did you every consider being an engineer?” And I thought, what are you talking about? I’m in psychology! I want to do therapy and understand the mind! Then, later I realized that this person, this psychologist, was spot-on. But I just didn’t know it was possible to study the human mind using engineering methods.

E: That’s fascinating. Is that still something that you carry on with, in your work for the Cognitive Productivity Research Project?

B: Yes. If you read my book, you’ll see that I do delve into that. As a matter of fact, I think it’s generally useful for people to have a working model of themselves, and each other, and to think of the components of ourselves and what they do. It helps us understand all kinds of things. Our emotions, each other’s emotions, how people respond, etc. We kind of have to do this anyway. Whatever reference model we use, we have to think about ourselves, and our behaviour, and what implements it. But cognitive science gives us some new concepts to think about ourselves, and to think about each other.

It’s a point I make in the book, that natural language has provided us with concepts and ways of thinking about psychology. That’s called “folk psychology” and it works very well, most of the time, but there’s all kinds of limiting cases. If you want to go beyond that, then you enter into the realm of cognitive science.

E: Actually, I wanted to talk about your book later on, so I’ll ask you some questions about that specifically. When you talk about some people’s misperceptions about the impact that technology can have on the mind. But before we do that, can I ask you a little bit about what CogZest does, and the story of how you founded it?

B: Sure. CogZest is an ambitious enterprise. The project actually started in 2002. It had a different name. I’ve switched domains many times, and you always bring some knowledge with you when you switch domains, but you also have to do a lot of learning. So as you mentioned, I started in psychology, then I was doing artificial intelligence, for my Ph.D. in Cognitive Science, and then I was teaching psychology at the military college, some courses that I hadn’t even taken myself, so I had to come up to speed quite quickly. That happens, that’s typical for a professor to do that. And then I worked as a technical writer, and all these different things.

So I’d gone through this intense, very intense series of learning cycles, culiminating at Abatis, where I was the first employee. We set up this company, and we had very ambitious objectives for it, and we were all just learning lots of stuff. I was the person who probably had to learn the most, in the early days, because of my bakground being different. They wanted somebody who was more of a startup expert, but I had done a startup before, and proven I could work on different parts of the business. So I was actually the first, and I had to learn about internet protocol, and routers, and all these things. I had to basically absorb lots of specifications, IETF documents, Internet Engineering Task Force documents. For a lot of people, including myself, that was new stuff at the time, the RFCs.

So I had to absorb this, as did other people, and it just occurred to me that the technology wasn’t really supporting us in the learning we had to do. We had these specs, and we’d print them out, so the printer was very very busy at Abatis, although the founders had ensured that we had the best technology. We had very fast computers, and we had the best monitors available, CRTs in those days. But still, we’d print out these documents, and we’d highlight them, and mark them up. So it occurred to me, as I was going through my learning process, at Abatis, that somehow, there’s something wrong with the browsers and the PDF readers. They’re not supporting our learning if we’re printing. So I thought to myself, you know, there’s got to be a better way. And coming from a cognitive science background, I had some ideas about what those ways might be.

After Abatis was acquired, and as things go, our parent company started to implode, so I started thinking about what do do next, and I had a lot of projects in mind. The one that appealed to me the most was, basically, bringing together cognitive science and technology to solve the problem of helping people learn, with cognitive science and with technology. My goal was to understand, first of all, what would be required. Again, the engineering approach, right? What would technology look like to better support our learning? As experts, now. I wasn’t looking at childhood or classroom learning. My interest since 2002, or 2001, has mainly been adult learning, thinking that then we can go back and help students with that, I think that’s true. So how can we help experts, at the top of their game, learn. So, I wrote some specs, and started a business - I was writing a business plan, all kinds of functional specs, that kind of stuff.

And then I met a professor called Phil Winne, who was studying self-educated learning from an educational psychology perspective. He had done a software project before, and he wanted to continue doing that. And he was doing another one at the time, so he invited me to join him, and we decided to join forces. I brought the Cogsci Plus technology, he had the educational psychology, and had done technology work as well, and we had business aspirations, and so we decided to work together, and we did. And we spent to the end of 2009 working together on various products, which did part of this. That’s the story.

E: That’s great, that’s exciting, startup life is fun.

B: Yup!

E: Speaking of fun, I was looking over your list of publications, and I can see that you’ve coauthored the introduction to a forthcoming book called ‘From animals to robots and back: Reflections on hard problems in the study of cognition’. That’s a fascinating title - can you explain what the book is about?

B: Actually, I think the way I put it is that I’ve been invited to co-author, but I haven’t actually written that document yet. I’m co-authoring, is the idea here. What’s going on here is a volume of papers for Professor Aaron Sloman, who’s had his Festschrift, which is a celebratory conference, and a book being prepared for him, in 2011. He was my Ph.D. thesis supervisor, at the University of Birmingham, where I did my Ph.D. We decided that this warranted a book, and the book is a collection of papers from his various students, and people who worked with him, etc. What I’ve got, is a paper, the title of which I can give you - I think it’s on the website - it basically explores learning, learning with technology, i.e., the project that I’m currently on.

E: You’ve also written about “super-somnolent mentation”.

B: You picked up on that!

E: Yeah, I had a lot of fun reading your list of publications. I did read a little bit of it, but could you explain what “super-somnolent mentation” is?

B: Funny you should ask! Again, you can think of this as a proof-of-concept for cognitive science. The problem that I address in that paper is reducing sleep onset latency. Many of us have limited contact time with our beds, whether we’ve got insomnia or not. Let’s say you give yourself seven or seven and a half hours in bed - well, let’s say you sleep seven or seven and a half hours. In order to get enough sleep, you need to sleep all the while you’re in bed. Typically, it takes people 15 minutes, sometimes 45 minutes or more to fall asleep. So the problem I’ve been addressing, one of my background problems over 20 years, is, how could we reduce that sleep onset latency? And I think I’ve found a way.

E: Great news!

B: Yes, yes. Because it’s not just the initial sleep onset that’s the problem. By the time you hit 35 or something, you’re waking up in the middle of the night, and then you’ve got to go back to sleep. So then you’ve got to go through this cycle twice. So I thought, this is a really interesting problem, let’s solve it.

To make a long story short, I developed this theory, which basically said that if I could get people into a state that’s very much like the mental state that they’re in as they fall asleep successfully, that might be part way to helping them actually fall asleep. So that was one part of it, that was one angle on it. The other thing, I distinguish between different kinds of thinking that happen at sleep onset, or that happen at any time. I distinguish between “asomnolent thinking” - somnolence has to do with falling asleep - so “asomnolent” means that’s neutral, to sleep. Often we have “insomnolent” mentation, right? “Insomnolent” is the kind of stuff that keeps you up. So this is what most of the pschyology techniques aim to help you deal with. If you’re going to sleep thinking about problems, or problem-solving, planning, etc., that’s inconsistent with falling asleep.

E: So, overcoming a negative thing, that’s preventing you from getting what you want.

B: Yeah. To overcome that is counter-insomnolent. Most of psychology deals with counter-insomnolent stuff. So I thought, really, if we want to do something which is better, let’s combine the counter-insomnolent with something that actually takes you ever the edge.

Take meditation, for instance. That’s a technique that’s sometimes advocated for helping people fall asleep. Now, meditation, if done right, does not put you over the edge into sleep. It actually is a very focused state. You’re alert; you’re not supposed to fall asleep if you do it well. But it does deal with the insomnolent mentation. If you’re doing it well, you’re not bothered by these insomnolent thoughts.

So I propose that there are certain features of somnolent mentation that really take you over the edge. That involves having very disjointed thoughts and imaginings going on. And as a matter of fact, if you wake somebody up who’s falling asleep, you’ll find that they’re having these random memories and images and thoughts. Now, the trick is to get people into that state, and that’s one of the things I think I cracked with that paper. We’re actually working on a little project that implements that - that helps people implement that. That’s going to be out very soon.

E: Speaking of disjointed thoughts, I’d like to return to your book. Sorry for having changed the subject abruptly, but you were bumping up against something, a great quote I found in your book that I wanted to ask you about. Near the beginning, you talk about “public epistemic overexuberance”. Maybe you don’t remember that line, but I really liked it! You’re talking about Steven Pinker and claims about how the internet can rewire our brains, by Nicholas Carr -

B: Hey, that’s pretty good, you found that in a footnote. Yes, I think that sometimes people get a little bit excited about neuroscience. I think neuroscience is great, it’s something to get excited about, but we sometimes get overexcited, and we lose sight of the way progress happens for the most part, in cognitive science. A lot of people are pushing brain-based education, and that kind of cognitive concept, and they’re not being called on it very often. So my book does a bit of calling, right? There are some things you can do at the brain level to take some barriers out of education, there’s no doubt about it. But I think it’s important to separate levels, just as we do with computers.

The computer metaphor is really powerful. It’s used at a high level, but it’s often not exploited as much as it should be. Because in computer science, you have very clear ideas of what levels you’re operating with. There’s the TCP/IP stack, a very clear conception of levels. In psychology sometimes, that gets blurred a little bit. You can do things to improve your brain - exercising is absolutely very important, it’s critical for brain health - and nutrition. But those are fairly indirect. So they give you some enablers, but the information processing level is different nonetheless. That’s what I’m getting at there.

E: It’s very timely. There was a great article in The New York Review of Books a couple of months ago, a review by Colin McGinn, of a book by a French neuroscientist, who was moving into the philosophical realm more than McGinn believed he should. It’s discussing exactly this - I just wanted to draw your attention to it, there’s a fascinating exchange between them in the Letters section of the latest issue where they’re talking precisely about what you’re talking about. It’s actually funny, to see the contrast between the neuroscientist, and the philosopher who’s calling him on a lot of these claims. That’s one of the reasons [for] the “epistemic overexuberance” [claim], which would perhaps apply not only to the public, but also to neuroscientists themselves often.

B: Without being critical of anybody in particular, I worked very hard on that footnote, because one has to be careful what one says. But the quote I have by Pinker there, I think he’s just got a great quote - I invite people to read the book, just to get Pinker’s quote.

E: On the broader subject of the book, you talk about “meta-effectiveness”. Can you explain a little bit about that?

B: Yeah. Actually, that’s really what the book’s about. “Meta-effectiveness” is basically a matter of becoming more effective at becoming effective.

The main problem that I address in this book is, how do we become more effective at taking information on the input side - I refer to knowledge resources, be it a book, a podcast, a lecture, it could be any piece of information that has conceptual artifacts in it, so ideas that are packaged up by somebody to help us learn something. That’s the input side. How do we use that information to get to the other side? What is the other side? We’ve got to specify again, if we’re looking at requirements here, we’ve got to think of, well, what are we after? Often we just want to be able to remember something. Or we want to be able to develop some understanding of the thing. Or you want to develop a skill, if it’s a programming skill or whatever, and you want to be able to apply it when the time comes.

So in the book I look at these different outcomes, and I ask, how do we connect the input side to the output side? That’s a problem that we face when we pick up a knowledge resource. When we’re using knowledge resources, we often just want to solve an immediate problem with that knowledge resource. So it’s not as if we always want to use knowledge to become more effective in general, or disconnected from the resource. But sometimes we do, and we call that learning. Learning’s a word that’s used for all kinds of things, including this problem of developing understanding from information that we read. The book poses this meta-effectiveness problem: how do we become better at becoming effective?

E: Can you give us an example of one of the - I don’t want to give away the whole book, but maybe one of the techniques or tools for achieving better meta-effectiveness?

B: Sure. The book deals with a lot of the problems we face just processing information.

I should maybe say something about the structure of the book, in order to put his into some context for people who are listening. In the first part, we characterize the problem, including this problem of meta-effectiveness, and the roadblocks that we face in solving this problem. In the second part of the book, I deal with the science that I think is most relevant to this problem. And in the third part, I deal with applications. There’s all kinds of concepts and tips and workflows and solutions for using information to become more effective. In the last two chapters, I really focus in on the problem of applying, and sometimes remembering, information.

I develop a concept there called “productive practice”. It’s an extension of some important concepts and findings in cognitive science, having to do with the importance of testing ourselves and learning. That’s called “test-enhanced learning”.

Then, there’s this concept of “deliberate practice”. So if you look at experts in performance practice, say a pianist or a golfer, or an athlete or musician or some artist who performs for the public - they do a lot of practicing, right? It’s essential for expert performance.

Now, knowledge workers also tend to practice in their own way, but it doesn’t tend to be as systematic. As students, a lot of us use practice, as a way of learning. Students test themselves, they might read a chapter, and then write down questions that they need to able to answer without reference to the material. Then they test themselves on that. That’s quite a good way of learning content, and learning all kinds of things, like developing skills as well.

E: That’s a great connection, between something that we’re familiar with, such as practicing for sports or things we do with our bodies, but don’t necessarily think often about doing with matters of the mind.

B: That’s right. But again, students do this and they kind of have to. There are studies on this, and about 30% of students say they test themselves systematically as part of their way of learning.

But, student learning, one of the things that I draw attention to is that student learning is different from knowledge worker learning. For instance, students become very skilled at figuring out what’s going to on the exam, what am I going to be tested on, etc. And then they adjust a lot of their mental work towards those aims. And that’s great. It’s good if as a student you can also think beyond that, and there’s ways of learning to get you down the long haul, but that’s a different story.

Many students will learn these tricks, and then graduate, but then practice kind of drops out of it. It’s not that practice totally drops out of it - we still practice. For instance, if you’re given a presentation, you may well rehearse it. If you’re learning a computer programming language you might do a whole lot of practicing to build up your skills.

But for the most part we don’t have a very systematic way of practicing, as knowledge workers. There’s many reasons for that. One is that there’s a lot of information to learn. Another is, so what do you practice? Another problem is, the tests of life are kind of flash exams, they’re implicict, you don’t know exactly when they’re going to come, how they’re going to come.

Another problem is, it seems to me that the tool developers haven’t really made the connection that I’m trying to explain in this book, which is that to master information, and to master stuff, you really do need to practice, and systematic practice can be very beneficial. This is one of the things I realized in 2001 and 2002, is that we still don’t have these tools to help test ourselves on what we’re learning. I had previously developed tools like this, in 1991 and 1992, in Smalltalk [a programming language]. I had developed my first tools, because I fell upon this way of learning in the 1980s. I realized it was quite potent.

To make a long story short, if you can find a way to test yourself on key information, which I call “knowledge gems”, as you’re learning, then that could be very useful. One of the reasons why it’s useful, is that it changes your way of looking at a document. So all of a sudden you’re looking for knowledge gems. You’re saying, ok, what do I want to do with the information? Is there something in this document that is so useful that I could actually become a better person with this information, I could solve all kinds of problems on the fly with this information, or I could avoid problems. And I give some very potent examples from other researchers of things that, it really helps to know these things. So it makes you focus on these knowledge gems, and then it gives you a way of exploiting these knowledge gems. And that’s through practice, so to fully answer your question, it’s practicing with yourself, with challenging, that’s the way to do it.

E: I was going to say, on the subject of making better tools, and people who are making them, you’ve got a tantalizing little story in your book about how once you wrote a white paper for Steve Jobs on how Apple could better support cognitive productivity in its products.

B: That’s right, yeah.

E: Can you tell us a little bit about that?

B: What happened was, because I had been working in this space for a long time - the space of using technology to learn - we all knew that approaching 2010, Apple was working on a tablet. That was no secret. Of course we were all speculating on, what would it be? So I thought, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I think I should document what I think it should be. So, I was interacting with the folks at SharpBrains, and I proposed, or they proposed, a paper, something on the iPad, and I said, I can do a piece on what the iPad should have, to support - I think at the time I pitched in terms of cognitive fitness, which actually ended up being titled “Brain Fitness”, which contradicts what I’m saying in terms of the levels, so I’ve felt uncomfortable about that title for a while. But really it was about cognitive productivity. So I wrote something for SharpBrains, and that’s publicaly available, saying, here’s some things that I’d love to see in the iPad.

And then when the iPad came out, it blew my mind. I was really impressed. But I thought, you know, there’s still some things missing. So I wrote about the iPad in light of what I had previously written - I wrote, it’s got a lot of things, but here are some things that are still missing. Basically, I felt that the iPad as a platform, just taking the iOS basically - it wasn’t even called iOS in those days - taking the iOS, the iPhone operating system and slapping it onto a bigger device, that just blew my mind, I thought, that’s so beautiful. And I thought, you can do tons with this, but it still hasn’t been done, so I then said, Why not? I can keep trying to do this myself, or I can go to the top here. So I offered some kind of collaboration with Steve Jobs, including a white paper, and he wrote me back and said, sure, send me a white paper on it.

E: Great.

B: I thought, that’s pretty exciting! I mean, people knew, if you were in the Apple world in those days, you knew occasionally Steve Jobs would answer people he didn’t know. It’s explained in his biography why he did that - he had a similar experience in the 70s, being on the asking end. So, I spent the most exhilarating week of my life writing a pretty hefty white paper for Steve Jobs, basically collecting a lot of my thoughts from the last ten years.

So I did that. But that’s not a public document. But I decided after he passed away, with different stories coming out, about how he approached innovation, I thought, this is a story that’s worth sharing. I’m not making a big deal about it, but it’s a nice little anecdote, and it speaks to a beautiful aspect of Steve Jobs, that he would accept to interact in this way with some person that he didn’t even know.

E: That’s a great thing to do. So, you mentioned some things are public, and some of your writings aren’t, so that’s a great segue into the next thing I wanted to ask you about, which is academic publishing. We’ve seen a couple of authors publish the Ph.D. and Master’s theses on Leanpub, but I’m quite sure yours is the first original book-length academic work. What are your thoughts on self-publishing and academic writing?

B: That’s a pretty general question.

E: I was trying to think of a way to put it more precisely. So I could say, Do you think that self-publishing is compatible with the traditional practice of academic publishing?

B: I think it really is a way forward for academics to do it. I think it’s a very significant way forward for academics to do their work. Let’s face it, the open access, it’s not exactly the same as open access - self-publishing and open access are not the same - but there’s some parallels, and they can intersect. Particularly with Leanpub, there’s no obligation, I don’t think - books can be free on Leanpub, right?

E: Yes.

B: I take the question in particular in terms of what Leanpub offers, which is to develop important ideas, important documents, and to publish them as you’re developing them. Which, I think a lot of strong thinkers should be doing anyway. There are some, I think of Aaron Sloman, he’s my Ph.D. thesis supervisor, if you look at his website, he’s got these presentations and these documents that he iterates. It’s the same ideas, but they’re developing over time. You track his thinking as it’s developing over time. So he’s got these different documents, and you can trace their lineage.

That’s what a lot of people are doing, and that’s great. But it’s nice to be supported with a structure like Leanpub, in which it’s basically understood that, this is what’s going on here, that people are putting their ideas-in-progress on a particular site, and they can receive feedback and update their documents with feedback from their peers, or from anybody out there. It puts you in a mindset of thinking lean, which is, start small, iterate, and get feedback, and continuously improve your work.

If you look at what academics often do anyway, there’s a lot of rehashing that happens. Sometimes it’s the same idea being expressed in different terms, for a different publisher or whatever, but often there’s progress. So something like Leanpub I think really opens the door for academics to do this idea development in an open, honest, transparent fashion.

E: I’ve often encountered a stark contrast between the typical reactions of humanities professors and scientists, on the subject of in-progress self-publishing. Can you tell me about the reaction you’ve had from your colleagues when you tell them about your Leanpub book?

B: Actually, so far, I can’t say that there’s been a negative or a positive response, there’s hasn’t even been a big response so far. Yes, some people have said, if you want to be recognized, then you should put it through a decent publisher and get it published through there. But hey, I’m an adjunct prof, I’m not out there for recognition. And you know what? Maybe that’s important for the progress of science as well. But this book, while it has a lot of practical information, there’s a core scientific piece. This book really is proposing some new ideas as well. That aspect of things is not something that I’ve ever been too troubled about. I’m not a career publisher, so that’s not a big deal for me.

But I think, you know, a professor, or somebody who wants to be on the tenure track, probably, will want to be sensitive to those concerns. But one can also do parallel processing. To self-publish is not necessarily an impediment to doing another work using the traditional ways. And as you mention in your publications on the Leanpub site, there’s nothing in principle stopping from publishing their books with a regular publisher, after they’ve published it on Leanpub.

E: Yeah, that’s actually one of our hopes, that people will do that. And that publishers will start to see in-progress publishing that way. So that, instead of, sort of, passively waiting to be approached by agents, or people submitting manuscripts, or proposals for manuscripts, they’ll actually go hunting.

B: Yup. I think that the publishing industry is facing very significant challenges, and what’s going to happen is basically a process of economic natural selection. There’s going to be some publishers who are going to realize, doing this Leanpub way is really good, so let’s find a way to work with Leanpub authors. And it’s actually a great way to vet work, and to get some good content to publish. I think the publishing industry, and you’re a great example of this, is in transformation, and those publishers - there will be some more dinosaur-like publishers who will survive for a long time, but there’s a lot of pressure, and I think some of the publishers who are not adapting properly will have difficulty.

For instance, one of the big problems I have, is with platforms like Amazon and the iPad, even publishing for the iBookstore. I think of Kindle as an information jail. It’s so difficult to get information in and out of a Kindle book as a reader, and that’s a big problem. So in my book, I talk about how one could learn with PDF readers, and you could see that reading with a great PDF reader is a superior experience, compared to reading with, say, Kindle. To be fair, Amazon has improved Kindle, but it’s still a jail.

For instance, one of the techniques that I propose is to mark up a PDF file as you’re reading, to tag the key concepts that you’re after, or the important thing, important information. Versus, say, your knowledge gaps, things you don’t understand. Those are three kinds of things that from an educational perspective, there’s no doubt that it’s very important to do that. So you go through your document, and you can actually mark things up that way, and then when it comes time to review or take action on a document, you’ve marked it up, so you can go and you can quickly list, say, with a PDF reader called Skim, you can quickly list a document using the techniques I’ve described, say, to pull out your knowledge gaps.

Well, what’s the difference between an A student and a B student? After they’ve read a chapter of a physics book in grade ten, for example? Well, if you quiz these two grade ten students on that chapter, an A an a B student, odds are you’ll find that they’ll get a very similar grade. The A student actually won’t necessarily beat the B student on the first reading of a book, of a chapter. Where the A student shines, however, is if you ask him, What is it that you don’t know? What did you not understand? The A student has a pretty good idea of what he or she doesn’t understand. And that makes a lot of sense, because how do we improve ourselves, how do we come to understand things better? It’s not by focusing on, “Hey, man, this is the stuff I really got figured out, right?” It’s by focusing on what you don’t understand.

So if you look at the Kindle, where’s the tool for designating a piece of text as a knowledge gap? It doesn’t exist. Those tools aren’t currently available, but there’s ways of using, say, Skim, to do that kind of things. For knowledge workers, that’s very important. It’s also important for students.

E: That’s fascinating. It reminds me of Socrates - the wisest man, because he’s aware of his own limits.

B: That’s right.

E: On the subject of Leanpub, now that we’re nearing the end of the interview - can you tell me generally what your experience was like using Leanpub, and if there’s anything we can do to improve it overall?

B: I’ve really enjoyed using Leanpub. I had written my first draft, which was quite an extensive draft, using Scrivener, a tool that I really like. But then I realized, I want to do Leanpub - well I had realized, half way through this, that I really wanted to use Leanpub. I had not used Markdown extensively before, so I needed to convert the content from Scrivener to Markdown. Scrivener’s got a tool to generate Markdown, but I couldn’t work with that Markdown, that didn’t work for me. So, I ended up doing an HTML export, and your tool managed to import quite well, I was really surprised.

And at first I thought, well, this is not going to be that much work. But actually it ended up taking me several weeks. But, you know what? It was a big book. The Leanpub way of doing is you start with Leanpub. So, for an author’s who’s starting in Leanpub, he doesn’t face that, in Markdown, he doesn’t face that problem. This is not a small book, you know, so I had a lot of content. But I did reserve some - there’s a chapter that I started, that I’m working on from scratch, on the Leanpub platform, so that’s the deliberate practice chapter, that’s not complete. That’s chapter seven, and the conclusion, because I want to go through that experience of really adding new content with Leanpub. So, what can I say? Just generally I can point to the fact that that was not as easy as I had hoped it would be.

Now, in terms of other things that I would like to see in Leanpub… Right now, for some reason I’m drawing a blank… I had proposed certain things, I’d like there to be an even better PDF reader, and I thought, this would fit so naturally with Leanpub, but that’s not really targeted at authors, that’s more targeted at readers, and I realized that Leanpub is really focused right now on supporting, getting authors to get their content out.

E: That’s true, although we’re now expanding our focus a little bit to be more reader-centric. It’s sort of the next stage in the evolution of Leanpub. In particular, we see the relationship - the idea of in-progress publishing like this, is relatively new, and it’s a way of potentially establishing a new kind of relationship between authors and readers. Authors and readers have always communicated with each other, but not as it were in real time, on the subject of an evolving book. So maybe that might - is there anything along those lines maybe that you’d like to suggest?

B: Well, here’s one thing, and we’ll come back to that particular aspect, before I forget the other thing.

As an author, I keep track of my release notes, but I haven’t actually published them yet. I published them once, but I didn’t like the structure, so I’m going to come back and let people know what’s changed between revisions. Now, O’Reilly, as you know, has this feature - I don’t know how they do it, but it must be self-driven, it is O’Reilly, after all - where the author, in a systematic fashion, is able to indicate what’s changed in each revision. So, right now, as an author, when I publish a new revision, I have a choice of emailing all my readers at once, which I don’t like to do, you wouldn’t want me to do that either. I’ve already got I think over 60, maybe over 70 releases,of my bookk.1 Because I love lean, I love this idea, I embrace lean, I think it’s great. So although I did a “Big Bang” integration with my first integration into Leanpub, since then I’ve just been doing these minor modifications as I go along. Why not? If I find a typo, why should I wait? I just press the publish button. Or, more significant changes, I’ve done all kinds of changes already. But I’d like to systematically be able to indicate the problems to my readers. I’d like to have a form, or, even better, in Markdown, or a spreadsheet or something, a tab-delimited file or something where I can say, OK, chapter, page number, original text, new text, description of change, attribution, you know, to thank whoever found the error. Something like that would be cool.

E: Attribution, that’s a very interesting idea. It would encourage people to respond, and give them some positive feedback, a positive sense of participation in the project.

B: Yeah, and then readers could go, and they’d have access to this release note on the website, they can see what’s changed. Then they can get a sense of the book, this is an evolving [document]; you can look at the velocity of change, and it’s cool. I’m sure you’ve got all these data in your <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Git_(software)”>Git</a> [repository], so there’s endless possibilities, even scientifically, for you, with all your data. So that’s one thing.

The other thing I would say, maybe getting back to your reader concern, is helping my readers, who would adopt the ways of working with PDF and other formats, that I propose - say, a user marks up a document, using Skim, which is a PDF reader - he marks up a book, say, finds several key ideas, marks them up, and then I come out with a new revision, and then what? Well, his annotations are now lost. So here, Kindle wins. I don’t know how Kindle handles updates, but presumably they try to anchor and re-adjust the annotations. So a framework like Diigo for instance, does that all the time - Diigo’s a web annotation tool, so you can go to a web page and highlight or make annotation or add notes - and if that web page changes, then Diigo’s got some logic to take a best guess at where the annotation should be anchored. I’ve developed tools with teams of software developers previously to do this kind of thing with web content. So, right now, the PDF readers such as Skim, they’re not set up for this, but if you wanted to get into that, then I think it would be very important for this tool to be available.

E: So what you would like to see, perhaps, from us, is something of a metadata kind, that an external app, designed for annotating, could then use in order to do things like appropriately anchor a note, in a section that’s actually been deleted, or something like that.

B: That’s one way you could do it. You could perhaps provide the metadata, that would be one approach. The other approach would be to collaborate in some other way with a small business that’s developing an enhanced PDF reader, that would handle this aspect, or maybe other problems. What’s the big picture? It’s to allow a PDF reader to continue to delve an evolving document. “Delve” to me means “actively read”, in this context.

E: And is there anything we could do to help you discover more readers, or help readers discover you, that occurred to you as you were launching your book, and starting to tell people about it?

B: I don’t necessarily have solutions, but I’m acutely aware of the problem. That is an issue, right! But I’m sure it’s one that’s going to be solved. I thought, well, maybe connecting is one thing that could be done, maybe on the service side, connecting service providers, editors or book marketers or whatever, who you’ve vetted in some way, that would help in the book marketing process.

E: Ok, like Leanpub-approved cover designers, and things like that?

B: Right, yeah, and even on your site - I don’t know how integrated you want to do it, but something in that direction.

E: Ok, that’s a very practical suggestion.

B: I’m just very happy, I’m really pleased with Leanpub. I’ve recommended it to other authors, and I’ve had a great experience with it.

For instance, the bibliography thing. We talked about Leanpub for academics, and bibliographies weren’t being formatted properly because Markdown doesn’t handle that. Within a couple of emails, the feature implemented, and then all of a sudden, bang, my glossaries and my bibliographies are up to a standard that they’d be if I was publishing this with anybody else.

E: It was hanging indents I think that Scott implemented for you.

B: Hanging indents, yes.

E: Thanks for all the positive comments and suggestions. I have one last question. Are you planning on writing another book?

B: Oh yes, we’re quite ambitious actually. There’s a follow-up to this one, which would be focusing more on the practical stuff. Taking ideas from chapter three and re-presenting them, and extending them, minus the science.

E: Ok, so the techniques and tools.

B: Yeah, so there’s that. We’ve got sleep products coming out, and there’s a need for a book on sleep, specifically on sleep onset acceleration. So things like that. I think I will write more, with co-authors, perhaps. I’m looking forward to it.

E: I’m looking forward to reading the full article on how to fall asleep! That’s very good. Ok, well, thank you very much Luc for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast, and for being a Leanpub author!

B: Thank you very much, and we’ll be in touch.

E: OK.

  1. Correction: I have only made 39 revisions so far, not 60+. I think I was remembering the number of readers! (69!) - LB

Taylor Otwell

Taylor Otwell is the author of the Leanpub book Laravel: From Apprentice To Artisan.

Taylor is the creator of the Laravel PHP framework, one of the most popular open-source PHP projects in the world. He is also a Software Engineer at UserScape.

This interview was recorded on September 3, 2013.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Len Epp: I’m here with Taylor Otwell, creator of the Laravel PHP framework, and a Software Engineer at UserScape. Since it was created in 2011, Laravel has become one of the most popular open-source PHP projects in the world. The framework has a large, growing, and devoted community, with thousands of developers using it to build web applications.

Taylor is the author of the Leanpub book, Laravel: From Apprentice To Artisan: Advanced Architecture With Laravel 4. In this interview, we’re going to talk about Taylor’s career, and the creation and development of the Laravel framework. We’ll also talk about his book, his experiences using Leanpub, and ways we can improve Leanpub for him and other technical authors.

So, thank you Taylor for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast.

Otwell: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.

E: Thanks! I’d like to start by asking you for a brief introduction to your career - how did you get interested in programming, and what led you up to the point where you created the Laravel framework?

O: I’ve been interested in computers ever since I was a kid, like probably many of us were. I went to Arkansas Tech University here in Arkansas, in the United States, and majored in Information Technology. In college, I learned kind of the basics, C++, you know, but I wasn’t really familiar with open-source programming or programming as a hobby, or hacking, you know, and when I graduated from college, I went to work for a large trucking company here in the US called ABF Freight. There, I started doing mainframe COBOL and .net at the same time, which was kind of an odd mix. They actually had a six-month training program, taught me .net. One of the great things about working with ABF, was I worked with a very good group of programmers. They taught me a lot about programming, a lot about software design, and started to introduce me to open-source software. So now, I was doing .net at work, but in my free time I had ideas for side business, or whatever, things I thought I’d like to start. I knew from my college experience that PHP was a popular web language, that was cheap to host, and so I thought, Hey, why not? I’ll learn some PHP and hack on some of these ideas at night. It’s cheap to host, I can just throw the files up on a server, and I’m good to go. So, that’s how I started hacking and working on PHP.

Now as far as the Laravel framework, I was using another framework called CodeIgniter, I was continually hacking the core of that to make it behave more how I thought it should behave, from my experience with ASP.NEt. I wanted things like dependency injection, and a better templating system, a better ORM, and so I started hacking on Laravel in my free time at night, and released it after about five or six months of working on it. It was a very small framework at first, but of course now it’s grown to be quite popular, and a full stack framework.

E: Did you work on it independently, or did you have people helping you along the way for the first release?

O: I worked on it totally independently. I did all the coding, and of course drew inspiration from other projects, so indirectly, there was lots of help from projects that were built before mine. But yeah, I was the only one doing the coding.

E: Was there a particular type of developer that you had in mind when you were building it? Is there a particular type of person that it clicks with?

O: It seems to click a lot with people who want to build something very rapidly. People who like lots of great documentation. From the very first day that I released Laravel, I had total and complete documentation over the project, because I knew that documentation was king for new open-source projects. If a project was thrown out there with not very thorough documentation, like a lot of projects are, it’s a lot harder for it to gain steam. So I knew that even if the framework wasn’t the best PHP framework out there on the first day of its release, if it had good documentation, that I could build a solid community around that, because people would be a lot more inclined to use it if they could learn more about it from the docs.

E: It must have been very exciting to see the community develop around it. Did that happen quickly, or did that take some time, and did you have to do a lot of encouraging?

O: It took a little bit of time. Building a community nowadays is a little bit easier, thanks to things like Hacker News and reddit - you can gain some early adopters pretty fast. So, early on we probably had a few dozen people that were regularly using it, and that quickly ballooned, and a lot of that because I was very persistent in doing screencasts, new features. Laravel at first was kind of half-framework, half-marketing effort by me, so I was constantly trying to put new information out there, advertise new features on various PHP websites, and keep getting the word out, even after the initial launch.

E: You’ve recently, just earlier this year, released version four. Can you tell me a little about what’s new in this version?

O: With version four, we wanted to make a big architectural change under the hood, because versions one through three were kind of, we were still feeling our way toward how the framework should behave, and how we wanted it to look. With version four, we knew we needed to improve on a few things. One was testability, we needed the framework to be very testable out of the box. We wanted good PHPUnit support out of the box. So that was a big focus. We also wanted to start playing nicely with Composer, and we adopted Composer, which is a PHP package, kind of installation system, sory of like Bundler for Ruby. We adopted that as our primary way of distributing packages. So that opened up a whole ecosystem of packages that are easily installable and integrate really well with Laravel. I think that’s going to be very beneficial for years to come.

E: Were your decisions about new functionality and features driven by signals you were getting from your community?

O: Yeah, they were. I’ve always been really involved with the community personally. Early on, in the forums, and now more with IRC and Twitter, but I’m always listening to community feedback and seeing how things are trending. Plus I work on a large Laravel application day-to-day myself. So, I tend to identify the awkward spots in the framework fairly quickly too, because I’m using it so much, in a real world setting. The community drives the development in a lot of ways, and I add my own insights here and there too.

E: I’ve seen people refer to the community as a “family” online, it seems very friendly and supportive.

O: That was one of the goals from the start: to have a very inclusive community, but at the same time not a stagnant community. We want to be very welcoming of newcomers, so to speak, but we don’t want to dumb things down too much. We want to encourage people to grow, and that’s one of the things people tell about Laravel, is it sort of grows with you, in the sense that, when you first start using it, it’s very easy to build out an application, and to get some basic routes going, to log people in, to put some stuff in the database. That’s all very quick and easy. But at the same time, it grows with you, and as your architectural skills grow, you have access to more powerful features, like the IoC container, like background queueing, like doing some Redis caching, and more powerful features. So the framework sort of evolves as you evolve as a developer, which is kind of nice.

E: That’s fantastic. I know you’ve just returned from Laracon 2013, which was a two-day Laravel conference based in Amsterdam. I think that was the second Laravel conference that’s happened, and the second this year. Can you tell me a little bit about how it went, and what the highlights were for you?

O: Yeah. So, like you mentioned, this was the second Laracon. We’ve having an annual Laracon US, and an annual Laracon EU right now. The first one was in Washington, DC, and the second was in Amsterdam. I think it went really well. We actually had Fabien Potencier - I’m sure I’m not pronouncing that right! - he is kind of the maintainer of the Symfony framework, which we use, so we consume about seven or eight of their components. We also had Jordi from the Composer, kind of co-maintainer, so that was really great, because we had some prominent members of the PHP community that don’t necessarily even use Laravel on a day-to-day basis, but have had a big impact on Laravel. I think people enjoyed meeting them, and talking to them, and bouncing ideas off them. It was just a fun time of hanging out. You know, conferences are always kind of like, half-learning, half-social, or maybe even like 60% or 70% social, 30% learning. So yeah, it was fun to hang out with everybody, meet people you’ve talked to online, and stuff like that.

E: I was going to say, it’s must be very interesting, I mean it’s probably been a roller coaster couple of years to go from just launching something you built on your own, and now you’re going to a conference in Europe and meeting, I would imagine, a few hundred people who are using it.

O: Yeah, it’s really crazy. It’s just kind of wild. It’s weird, to go somewhere, and have people say they’re using Laravel. It seems like not too long ago I was sitting in my office building it. It was fun to meet people that I’ve known for a couple years now.

E: You mentioned your day-to-day work at UserScape. Can you explain a little bit about what UserScape is doing?

O: Yeah. At UserScape we have two products, we have HelpSpot, which is an on-premise help desk solution. It’s very powerful, very flexible. And you actually can download it and install it on your own servers, which is nice, a lot of companies really like that. Our second product is Snappy, which is also a help desk solution, but it’s a little lighter-weight. It’s a SaaS application, so you actually just log right in, over the internet, you don’t need to download or install anything. It’s working out really great, and it’s got a great interface, live-updating with your emails, and you can assign stuff to other people, using @ tags. You can hashtag emails to categorize them, so it’s a really cool app - it’s besnappy.com if you want to check it out.

E: I’m sure some of our listeners would be interested to know how you manage being the architect of Laravel, with your work at UserScape, day to day.

O: I have kind of a routing schedule, where 8:00-5:00 I work from home, I work on UserScape stuff, that’s primarily Snappy, which is built on Laravel. And then, after work, from like 5:00 to 9:30 or 10:00, I just hang out with my family, and then after my wife goes to bed, I work on Laravel for a few hours, from say 10:00 to midnight, or 10:00 to 1:00. And then get up the next morning and repeat. Sometimes I’m too tired to stay up and work on Laravel, but usually a few days a week I get to work on it at night. And Ian, my boss at UserScape, also gives me the last week of every month to work on Laravel, when I usually go on a pull request rampage, and close like hundreds of issues. So that’s really nice.

E: That’s great to have that kind of support. I know you just released version four, but can you give me some indications about what you see in the future for Laravel, say next year, or even the year after that?

O: One of the complaints we had about Laravel early on was that we released versions really quickly. At first, that wasn’t really am issue, because we were all hacker, early-adopter types, so it was like, we don’t care if you break backwards compatibility, just give us cool new stuff. But as the framework has grown, and more businesses are using it, we had to kind of play it a little more mature, in terms of our releases. So we’ve adopted a six month release cycle, which started in this May. So that means Laravel 4.1 will be in November, and Laravel 4.2 will be in May of 2014. Right now, there’s no really backward-breaking being planned for those releases, but we are releasing some exciting new features. We’ve got some new components in the framework to let you make deployments easier. We’ve got some new debugging capabilities coming out for the release in November. So, we’‘ll have two point-releases, they’ll be incremental releases, adding new stuff but no major rearchitecting or anything.

E: I’ve heard you speak in a couple of podcasts at Laravel.io about the development of PHP in the last few years and how a lot of people who may make negative comments about PHP in forums often don’t even know where PHP has gone. Can you say a little bit about that, about how PHP has changed in the last couple of years?

O: Yeah. I tell people that when I first started writing Laravel, and using PHP a few years ago, I almost felt guilty for not using something else. You know what I mean? I almost felt guilty for not using Rails, I felt like less of a programmer. But now that PHP has grown so much, like 5.3, we’ve got like namespaces and closures, and now with 5.4 and 5.5 - I’ve talked to a lot of other people, and they felt the same way, you know, they felt like, Argh, I really shouldn’t be using PHP, I should be using Ruby or Python, or something like that.

But now I think with these new tools, they feel comfortable with PHP, and they don’t feel bad for using it. I never think anymore, personally, like, Oh, I should go try Rails, because everything that I need is pretty much available in PHP, and Laravel, feature for feature-wise, is really getting to the point of being on par with Rails. Especially with Laravel version 4. I think it’s a really exciting time for PHP, and tools like Composer, and this emphasis on growing this package ecosystem for PHP is really nice. Because, when I do look at Ruby and Rails, one thing that I do envy is the sheer amount of cool gems and stuff they have. As Composer grows in popularity, and more and more people build these packages, hopefully we can catch up to that. That is one area they’ve been whooping up on PHP. But I think we’re heading in the right direction for sure.

E: I’m curious, you say when you were first launching it was really important to build community and have documentation and screencasts and things like that. I’m wondering, if media attention is something that you’re interested in, or it something that just kind of drops out of all the other activities you do? Or is it something you completely ignore?

O: I try to do, still market the framework in a sense. I try to tell people I view the framework as a product. I don’t look at it as just a side project anymore. I want Laravel to be - I want it to have a certain personality and presentation, and so I spend a lot of time thinking about that, thinking about how the docs look, how they read, how the framework feels, in terms of its API - just very, almost obsessive in terms of how the framework comes across, and just the way that it presents itself - I want it to present itself as kind of a light, accessible tool, that’s out of your way, that’s easy to use, and helps you build a lot of great stuff really rapidly.

I don’t know if that made sense!

E: It does, and it meshes with what you said earlier about being friendly to new users, and generally having an inviting atmosphere.

O: Definitely. And a lot of this, I mean, everyone’s inspired by what Apple has done, in the sense that they’ve made technology very accessible and usable, things like the iPhone. And I kind of think of Laravel as a product, obviously nowhere near the scale that Apple operates on, but I wanted to have that same kind of accessibility.

E: I know you get asked this question a lot, but I have to ask it on this podcast, because some people might not know - can you briefly explain where the name “Laravel” comes from and how you chose it, or made it up?

O: The name actually has no meaning. I was struggling to come up with a name, and I just started thinking of words that sounded cool in my head. It does rhyme with a word that has meaning. In the kids’ books, The Chronicles of Narnia, there’s a place called Cair Paravel, which is where all the kings and queens live, and so it kind of rhymed with that, Laravel and Paravel, so it just kind of stuck. So, it has no meaning, it just kind of stuck in my head. I was having a hard time coming up with names, so I just kind of gave up coming up with meaningful names!

E: I was just struck by how good it is, on all sorts of levels - naming is something people talk about a lot on the web, and finding something with seven letters, that was, I’m sure, available, and is spellable, is really important, and that name captures all of those things.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to move on, to asking you some questions about your experience with Leanpub and the Lean Publishing process. Can you tell me how you found out about us, and why you chose us for your publishing platform?

O: Yeah. Actually I found out about Leanpub from Dayle Rees, who’s like, maybe the all-time highest grossing author on Leanpub. He also wrote a Laravel book, kind of a more introductory book, and he really enjoyed Leanpub, and recommended that I try it out.

E: It’s been an extraordinary thing for us - I’m just checking our bestsellers right now, our all-time earnings, and Dayle’s “Code Bright” is on top, and yours is number three, and Dayle’s first book is number seven. And then, Jeffrey Way’s book, Laravel Testing Decoded, is the tenth, so of our top ten, three of them are Laravel books.

O: Yeah, it’s wild. It’s really crazy. But yeah, he’s the one that turned me on to Leanpub as a platform.

E: And how long has Dayle been involved with the project?

O: Gosh, let’s see. It’s probably been a year and a half now, I’d say. He’s been around for quite a while. But, with the latest version of Laravel, he really came on board and started helping me manage the pull requests, because we get quite a few every day, and has been really helpful on IRC, answering questions and stuff.

E: I have just a general question. How would you describe your experience using Leanpub to write and publish this book?

O: Leanpub is really awesome, because I kind of feel like I don’t notice Leanpub, and I mean that in a good way. I just write my Markdown, and go to Leanpub and hit publish, and you know, you all handle everything. I never have any Leanpub headaches. It’s just really nice because Markdown is such an easy way to write, and because all the Laravel documentation is already in Markdown, I’m kind of used to writing Markdown. It’s just such a simple little markup for writing. And just the way that Leanpub lets you manage everything very easily, it’s just so straightforward, and I could get started really fast. Even now, with multiple translations of the book, it’s very easy for me to set up a new book, and get a coauthor set up, and divide out the royalties, you know, it’s just really straightforward.

E: Thanks! Unless I’m mistaken, you didn’t publish your book in progress, you published it when it was finished.

O: Yeah. I guess it was like a discipline thing for me, just so I would finish it first, and not put it out, and then get distracted with other things and never come back to it. So I decided to finish the whole book, and I think I do have a few chapters in my head now, that I’ve gotten some community feedback on the book. Kind of what people are wanting, or thought was missing, that I probably will go back and add a few chapters now. But essentially the book was published with all the material that I had originally conceived.

E: That relates to my next question - I guess you’ve answered it - but, is engaging with people directly important to you, and is there more we could do to help you do that? Or is that something you’re happy to manage on your own?

O: Right now, that’s been pretty easy enough to manage on my own, since I communicate with the community a lot through Twitter. I marketed the book mainly through Twitter. So people have been getting back to me on Twitter with feedback, and ideas for what they’d like to see, or what they’d like to see expanded on. It’s always hard to tell, you know, when you’ve written the framework, you have so many blind spots to what might be hard for other people to understand. It might make reasonable sense to you, but it could be clear as mud to everyone else. And so, it’s nice to get the feedback, because it’s very hard for me to ascertain what needs to be worked on.

E: OK, so you don’t find yourself wishing there was something more systematic, say, like what O’Reilly has, a kind of reporting system which is line-by-line, people submit errata and suggestions. Buy you’re happy, just using Twitter to interact with people that way, and I suppose keep your own list of things you’d like to change?

O: Hmm. It would be - you’re kind of putting ideas in my head now! - it would be cool to have almost a GitHub-style interface, where people who have bought the book can submit pull requests to fix stuff, that would be nice. But I’m sure that would be a lot of work!

E: Well, right now we have a very simple solution, which is Disqus comments that you can turn on. So there’s no, sort of, finishing them off when they’ve been completed, but it is a simple way to sort of focus things in one place.

O: That’s pretty cool. But mainly I’ve been managing it through Twitter, and people have been emailing me stuff to fix, and I just go ahead and fix it in the Markdown, hit publish, and you know, the update just goes out to everybody nice and smooth, so -

E: Do you watch Google Analytics for your book pages, or anything like that?

O: No, I don’t. I’m really bad about analytics! I don’t do a lot of analytics on Laravel’s downloads, or on the book, or anything, but that would be interesting to know - you know, who’s my primary buyers on the book.

E: Yeah, it’s a very interesting thing - given that your book is our third-biggest seller of all time, it might be a comment perhaps about, at least in the early months after publishing a book, what’s most important to focus on. Which is, getting out there to people, and maybe not watching obsessively one’s analytics every day.

O: Yeah, definitely. As a creator of a framework, I found it was easier for me to publish the book, because I had a fairly large Twitter following already. But yeah, it would be interesting to know, coming into Leanpub as a new author, that may not be well known, although you could have great things to say in your book, what the best ways to get the word out on the book would be. I’d be interested to learn more about that.

E: Can you tell me a little bit about what the book is about? I know it’s about 63 pages long, and I can see that it’s meant to be directed at people who are past the beginner stage.

O: Yeah, so, Dayle’s book was kind of the introductory, and I wanted to write a, “Here’s where you go next”, after you’ve read Dayle’s book, and got the basic grasp of the concepts of the framework, and now you’re ready to go deeper, and see what else the framework has to offer, in terms of building a more complex application. Something like Snappy, like we do at UserScape, where you have lots of classes, lots of stuff going on - how do you structure that, in PHP? PHP’s not really well-known for being, like, this well-structured and thought-out area of development. So we’re trying to change that, and give people some ideas for how to structure a complex PHP application, and particularly a Laravel application. But there’s lots of good info, I think, even if you’re not using the framework. We have five chapters, one on each letter in the SOLID acronym, which is a pattern of good software development -

E: Uncle Bob, right?

O: Yeah. From Uncle Bob. And then we have a few other chapters that are Laravel-specific - where to put your files, and how to organize everything.

E: I see that the book is very well-produced, including the cover. I’m wondering, did you go through a process whereby you had technical reviewers before you launched it, and did you hire say, editors, or something like that?

O: I didn’t hire anyone. I did have more prominent, or key members of the community review the book. I sent it to Jeffrey Way, who wrote the Laravel testing book, and of course I sent it to Dayle, who wrote the introductory book. And a few other people I communicate with a lot - I let them read it over, and give their feedback, and correct typos and stuff like that, or tell me I need to expand in certain areas. So that was kind of nice, to have a few members of the community that I could rely on there. I kept the book straight and to the point, which is why it’s fairly short, really. But I think the quality of the information is really good, even if the quantity is pretty short. And at the same time, I personally don’t like to read 200-, 300-page books, so I wanted to keep it fairly readable, where a person could buy the book, and actually finish the whole book, word for word, fairly easily.

E: Did you consider at any point going down the traditional publishing route?

O: Yeah, I did, actually. I got a few offers from other publishing companies before I settled on Leanpub. It just doesn’t make sense anymore, for me. With the framework being established, and with having a fairly large community, I decided it would be silly for me not to use Leanpub, because I would just be throwing away tons of money to write for a traditional publishing company. It just didn’t make any sense at all. It was harder to write, the platform was not as good - I couldn’t just write in Markdown, which was a killer for me. That was like a deal-breaker: I have to be able to write this in a simple Markdown syntax, because I can’t do some legacy Word crap, and just take forever - it would just suck.

Leanpub was an obvious choice, even though I had offers from, I think, Manning was my main offering, so…

E: Was timing an issue at all in that as well? With traditional publishing, well, I know that Manning has an early access program, but the traditional publishing process really does, can take quite a long time.

O: Yeah, I forgot about that. I was nervous about that, you know, like committing to the publisher, and being pressured to finish the book by a certain day. You know, I have a family, and I’m working on Laravel, and I have a day job - being able to write at my own pace was another big factor in that decision. There was almost no cons to using Leanpub, you know what I mean? It was more money, it was more time, it was no one telling me what to do, or what to write one, it was an awesome platform, you know, with Markdown, so it was like a no-brainer. There was really no question.

E: That’s really great to hear. That’s interesting, that one of the positive aspects, was the freedom to take more time than you needed to, because when we speak with authors, often they’re, especially when they’re people who are successful in one way or another, like you are, they’re often, they feel hamstrung by the amount of time that it takes with a traditional publisher. They feel that it’s a delay.

O: Yeah, for sure. I could just tell it was going to suck. I didn’t want to commit to a timetable because stuff comes up, I might have to work - something comes up in the framework, and I might have to spend like days on that, you know, don’t get to work on the book, and now I’m behind…. It was just going to be too much stress and too much pressure, I thought.

E: Have you been updating the book when you receive, say, typo suggestions and things like that?

O: Yeah, I have been. I’ve released a few updates. I’ve got a couple of emails of typos I need to go ahead and push out here soon. Yeah, I’ve made several updates to the book, to correct things, and fix any wording mistakes or example mistakes. It’s been nice, people have been nice to kind of report them, and stay on top of that.

E: Have you used the feature that allows you to email readers when you update the book? Or has it just been silent updates?

O: I think I’ve emailed on every update, and mentioned, Hey, this just fixes a few typos. It’s also a way to say Thanks for buying the book, and if there’s anything you see that’s missing, let me know. I use it was a way to communicate, at the same time, and not just to talk about the update. So I always remind people - if there’s anything you want to expand on, tell me, because that’s how I’m basing what any further chapters will be. So that’s been nice.

E: I see that you set your minimum price at $29.99 and your suggested price at $34.99. Was there any reasoning behind that?

O: Yeah. I priced it the same as Dayle’s book, and I also priced it a little higher, because the framework is free, obviously, it’s open source. And I felt like with the framework, I had made relatively little money off the framework, I mean, before I wrote for Leanpub, I may have made, I don’t know, let’s say one or two thousand dollars. I mean, not tens of thousands of dollars. And so, I kind of looked at the book as a half-donation, half-product so to speak. So when you look at the book, it is priced a little higher, but I think people have been really receptive to the idea of, Hey, I’m making money building apps for clients on this framework, and this is kind of a way to give back, and get something at the same time. It’s kind of a donation that has a reward to it. People have been really understanding of that, I think, even though it’s a short book, you know it is priced a little higher, but it is kind of a nice gesture toward the framework, and it will help us do some things down the road, actually, that we have planned, that might cost a little money.

E: Excellent. And have you used any of our features, like say the coupon feature, or anything like that? Or one-day discounts?

O: Yeah. I’ve used the coupon dozens of times. When I did release the book, I let people know there if there was a financial hardship, to email me and I’d give them a copy of the book, so, we’ve had various people, college students, things like that, that are kind of strapped for cash, but they want to learn about the framework. So we’ve given copies of the book to them. Also, at Laracon EU, we actually gave away 180 use coupons, so everyone at the conference got a free copy of the book.

E: Oh, fantastic!

O: Yeah, so coupons have come in very handy, I’ve used them quite a bit.

E: Do you have any specific feature requests? Something that you’d love to see, that occurred to you, when you were using Leanpub?

O: The only one that’s come up recently was bulk-creating a lot of different coupons. So like, with Laracon I needed to make 180 coupons, so what I did was make one coupon with 180 uses, but, if I could somehow create like 100 coupons at once, and just get a list of all the new ones, that would be great.

E: I see.

O: It wasn’t too hard for us to work around, I think it worked just fine. I don’t think anyone tweeted the coupon code to the outside world!

E: On that note, is that something you have a strong opinion about? Leanpub books are DRM-free, and people can actually, with two clicks, get a refund, within 45 days of buying. Did you think about those things at all, or are they - ?

O: No, I didn’t really. If people don’t like the book, I want them to have the refund, and if someone gets a refund because they just want their money back, I felt like that would be the minority. It’s not the way the community operates, in a sense. It’s kind of a very, I don’t know - like I said it’s a friendly community, I didn’t expect that to be a huge problem, people just buying the book and then say, I’m getting a refund and keeping the book. I didn’t think that’s the way it would be, so I didn’t worry about it.

E: And piracy isn’t a preoccupation of yours?

O: Not that I know of, we haven’t had any problems with it. No, I’m not really too concerned about it. I think people respect the framework enough, and what it’s done for them and their business. Really, thirty bucks is a drop in the bucket, I think, compared to what they’re getting out of it on a day-to-day basis, at least the people I’ve talked to.

E: Well, that’s great. A lot of the things you’re saying, are a lot of the reasons we built Leanpub, so it’s great to get the validation, knowing that it’s working.

O: Yeah, it’s a great platform, I totally love it, and if I ever write any more books, it will definitely be using Leanpub.

E: I guess that was going to be my second-last question: do you have any plans to write another book? You mentioned that you’ve got future chapters, probably to add to this one.

O: Yeah, I think I’ll stick with this book, for a while, and add some further chapters. I don’t want to - when I released this book I was kind of wary of, like, pimping the framework, so to speak - I don’t want people to think I’m trying to profiteer on the framework, so, I don’t have any ideas for releasing a second book, or really want to right now. I’m just going to continue to expand the book I have. And everyone gets updates for free, which is nice, so, yeah, I’ll stick with this one for a little while, and just expand on it.

E: Great. Well, I guess our time might be about up. Is there anything you’d like to add, or any comment you’d like to make?

O: No, it’s been great. It’s been great using Leanpub, I love it, and, you know, I think it’s really changed tech publishing in a way, in that, all these authors have access to a great publishing platform, and they get rewarded fairly for their work, and it’s just, I think it’s awesome - it’s awesome for the whole tech community, and I really commend you guys on the platform, it’s a really great platform.

E: Thank you very much, for your positive comments, and for being on the Lean Publishing podcast, and for being a Leanpub author!

O: Yeah, thanks for having me, it’s been great.

Matthias Noback

Matthias Noback is the author of the Leanpub book A Year With Symfony: Writing Healthy, Reusable Symfony2 Code.

Matthias is a freelance developer from the Netherlands. You can read his blog at matthiasnoback.nl

This interview was recorded on September 12, 2013.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Len Epp: I’m here with Matthias Noback, a freelance developer, consultant and writer based in Zeist, in the Netherlands. Previously, Matthias has worked as software developer, paying special attention to internal quality assurance. He’s been a PHP developer since 2002, and has been developing with Symfony web application framework since 2007. He regularly writes about advanced Symfony2-related topics on his blog, which you can find at matthiasnoback.nl, and you can find him on Twitter @matthiasnoback.

Matthias is the author of the Leanpub book A Year With Symfony: Writing healthy, reusable Symfony2 code. In this interview we’re going to talk about Matthias’ professional interests, his book, his experiences using Leanpub, and ways we can improve Leanpub for him and other technical authors.

So thank you for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast!

Noback: Thank you.

E: I’d like to start by asking you to go back a little bit, and ask you for a brief introduction to your career. How did you get interested in programming in the first place?

N: It was at high school. I tried some things with HTML and I noticed there were some very nice editors around the time like Microsoft Frontpage. I used it as well as Dreamweaver. It started with the usual WYSIWYG modifications and all of a sudden I had created a web page to begin with for my father. He is a photographer. So this was my first non-official assignment. And only later I started looking behind the images and the layout and looked at the code. Well, as soon as I saw code, I wanted to know more about this, and I started reading everything I could on the Internet - still over a telephone cable at the time, with a modem that said “<dial up noise>”. Great time! Later, with faster Internet connections. Also, I went many times to the library. The local library. They had a computer so I could use it to find out more about the Internet and how you could put some stuff on it yourself. So this was very interesting to me. I was 16, maybe 17.

E: Ok, and did you study programming or web development?

N: Not at all.

E: Ok, ok.

N: No, that’s something many people don’t know. I started with philosophy. It took me eight, I think eight years to finish it. All the time I was working on websites and applications. So I think I spent just a couple of hours every week to study philosophy. The rest of my week, I was already a freelancer, in 2002. But only after a couple of years, I noticed that I was repeating myself. I was living literally in an attic with my uncle near the place where I live now. I missed the fact that there were other people around me that I could talk to about the technical issues. I started looking for some company that I could work for in a team. And there was a company in Amsterdam called Driebit, it’s “three bits” translated. They had quite a nice team of, maybe I think at the time, eight people. Some front-end developers, some back-end developers, some project managers. They had some great products, projects which I loved to work on. Even before I started there I got a book on Symfony1 and I started reading it. This was a great revelation for me.

E: I was going to ask you what led you to start working with the Symfony framework.

N: It was at this time that I had created a CMS system for myself. For my own customers. This wasn’t a very good system of course. Yeah, what could I do with just me as a developer? But yeah, I noticed that after reading this book on Symfony there were so much more possibilities to create software with just PHP and Symfony of course. I became very excited about this new of doing things. I think there were already good CMS tools and also frameworks but I think Symfony was even then one of the best.

E: And what was it that distinguished Symfony from the other ones that made it better for you?

N: Yeah, I’ve always found the documentation very clear and very friendly. Also, the community has always seemed very warm or welcome to me. Though I must say I don’t have that much experience with other frameworks so you may just call it bias. This Symfony thing.

E: Fair enough. That’s something I’ve found with people who, the way they choose different frameworks, is often sometimes even just the first response they had when started entering into a new community.

N: Yeah, yeah. That’s right. But I think Symfony has always had it’s documentation very good. So from the start even with Symfony2. In the very beginning there was already a good site with some information. Although it changed a lot, it changed frequently.

E: And you’ve contributed to the documentation yourself.

N: That’s right, yeah. Only later. I worked in Amsterdam at the time and there was a lot of discussion in that company should they take the step from the first version to the second version and do things differently. Very much. There’s almost no way, I think, to port a Symfony 1 application to a Symfony2 application.

E: And can you tell me a little bit more about Symfony2 and what in particular was it meant to address? Who was it useful for? Things like that.

N: Yeah, well, I think Symfony2 is very useful for developers who are looking for a more advanced way to do things while they are developing Internet applications. They want to have as much, I mean, they should be able to make as many choices as possible. The builders of the framework have made, have built in very many options for them to choose from.

E: Ok. I’ve read from things you’ve written on your blog, I think, and also in your book that developing software for re usability is very important for you and you’ve already mentioned it. I was just wondering if you could explain a little bit about what this means for you and why it’s so important.

N: Yeah, I see this happening all the time. Especially now that I pay so much attention to it. I see many people who love frameworks develop software only for this framework. For example, there are Twitter clients, Twitter API clients, just for Symfony. There is someone who build it just for Symfony. This was especially so for Symfony 1 and now there has been and more and more knowledge about how to create packages or reusable parts of software so I think this is changing right now but still people have much to learn about this. Many things are too specific. Too specific for just one framework.

E: I see. So you’re saying when someone’s developing an application, and parts of an application, they should keep in mind that if they develop in a certain way then this can be useful, not just in this particular instance, but in other instances as well.

N: Right, right. Yeah. I always encourage people to share their work so if they make it reusable from the beginning this will be much easier to do.

E: When did you first get the idea to write your Leanpub book A Year With Symfony?

N: I think in April this year. I don’t know what I thought exactly. At the time. If I could ever finish this, it seemed like a very big task. Though when I think back of this, I had a blog already with more than 50 articles on it. I was a bit encouraged by this idea that if I could write all this stuff and put online I could surely write it and keep it offline for a while and later release it to the public.

E: So some of the content in your book came from your blog?

N: Not exactly, but some ideas. I’ve taken some from my blog.

E: In your book you say that Symfony encouraged you to do things right. Can you tell me what you mean by that?

N: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. This is one of the facts I wrote recently on my blog. I wrote an article called “Why Symfony - 7 Facts”. This is all sort of controversial of course because facts, well, they are just strong opinions. But the seventh one is interesting. It’s the most interesting I think because I’ve noticed around me start using Symfony are becoming better developers right away. They look at the code from the framework, written by very good programmers around the world, and many times they will feel inspired by this. They will, in the first place, try to replicate this coding style and write their code in the same way.

E: Ok. Since you say you started in, you just got the idea in April. How long did the book take you to write?

N: Yeah, I was already finished in July and then I had a holiday and some time to think about the book. Is this the way I wanted to become known to many people? My conclusion was yes. This is ready. I had three, no, actually more, four or five people who had read the book already. Or partially. Their comments were not very substantial. They were good comments, so the book has become better in those few weeks but no reasons to postpone release.

E: Ok, so it’s mostly you but with some opinions from other people. That’s great. I wanted to that sort of, I think a lot of people who, you know, are developers and are thinking of writing a book themselves like to hear about those details that you normally don’t hear in kind of big stories. It took you from the moment you started thinking about it to when you were finished it was about three or four months. Then you took a break and had other people read it before releasing it. But also, one of the reasons I gather you could do it in that period of time was that you’d actually been writing about it already for a long time and already had an audience of people for your blog.

N: Yeah, those are important things. The writing experience. If I had tried this two years ago it would have taken me much longer. Some good native English writers or speakers had to correct me on many things.

E: Who is the intended audience for the book? Your ideal reader that you were keeping in mind when you were writing it?

N: That’s interesting. I sometimes thought of a new colleague or a fellow developer who would become a member of my team. I would explain to him some things and then another developer and I wouldn’t want to tell him everything in person again. So I would like him to read the book. It would get me a lot of free time back.

E: I see, that’s really interesting.

N: Yeah, this has been a good idea I think because my idea from the beginning was there is a lot on Symfony on the web. There is a good documentation. It’s called “The Book”. That was already a program for me. Yeah, “The Book”, so how could there be another book on Symfony? Right? But this documentation is very, yeah, it contains only the facts and no suggestions on how you could create your project or know best practices. Even some very bad practices on this side. Especially when it comes to security of web applications.

E: I have a very specific question that is very important for successfully launching and spreading word about an ebook. Which is who made your amazing cover? It’s fantastic.

N: I did.

E: Oh you did?

N: It is a picture I bought from a stock photo website. So yeah, that would have been awesome if I had such a mosaic in my garden or something like that. But no, just the image and then some overlay. But it looks very good. If I may say so.

E: It does, yeah. It’s just amazing and one of the things, and again it’s a very precise thing to talk about but it’s very important for selling ebooks, that the font you chose and the sort of precision of it is very clear in a number of different sizes including small ones. That’s something that a lot of people who are making book covers don’t take into account that it’s not just the size of a big book page. People are often are going to see a sort of thumbnail and your title stays clear at different levels of zoom I guess. I just wanted to mention that. That’s one of the things that I found so impressive about the book when I first came across it.

N: Yeah, it was more intuition that really designers knowledge or something like that.

E: You launched your book in a really interesting way. Can you explain what you did?

N: Yeah, I thought of this just a couple of weeks before I would release this book. I thought it would be great to really release the book real-time with an audience in the room. Well this is possible with Leanpub, of course, there is a button I would have pushed myself, but then in the room with just me. When you push it, it says “Publish Your Book”. You see all the build steps being taken with the real book as a result being published online. So after that, immediately, people can start buying the book. This is what happened, actually, two weeks ago. I had a presentation at the local user group of Symfony. Two users. I put the page on screen and also the publish button. I clicked it there and people were waiting and looking at the screen.

E: That’s amazing. So they were seeing the build process live.

N: Right, yeah. And this was very nice. It took only a couple of minutes. It would have been longer this would have been quite boring but people were actually very excited while they saw the progress. They even saw the message “sending mails” to interested readers. Many of the people were interested readers. Interested people. They were even subscribing at that same moment.

E: Oh, well that’s very cool.

N: So it was a great time that night.

E: I guess that’s a good transition to the next part of the interview. I’d like to ask you some questions about your experience with Leanpub and the lean publishing process. Can you tell me how you found out about Leanpub in the first place, and why you chose us for your publishing platform?

N: Yeah. One big example for me was Chris Hartjes. He has published with Leanpub two books on PHP unit testing. I didn’t actually read the books, but I saw it was very good at this. He’s very good at marketing and at promoting his own brand. Which is “The Grumpy Programmer”. He does this very well. I thought well, maybe I can do this too. I have something to say about Symfony and I feel very passionate about this. It was a good moment to start. I also mentioned this to him and he was very happy about this.

E: Oh that’s great. We actually interviewed him a couple weeks ago and that interview is already live on our blog and on our podcast.

N: Yeah, yeah.

E: Oh you’ve seen it? Ok, ok great. Well that’s great that you came to us through Chris. How would you describe your experience using Leanpub from when you got started to when you published?

N: It was a very clean sort of experience. I wanted to write a book but not have many troubles with layout things. I was very happy that the whole infrastructure was there. So, the Dropbox folder and the build process. Whenever I wanted I could have a preview of my book. Also, Markdown, the format of the original manuscript, that is a very good format. It has many good options but not too many. So you have to use the right options and automatically be consistent in your writing. This is a very good combination of techniques. And since it was launched, I have had no trouble at all to see people buy the book, see who bought it, which discount.

E: Is engaging directly with people who’ve bought your book important to you?

N: Very much. I reserved last week a couple of days just to spend some time with these people. Sending messages, listening to what they said, making small corrections to the original text.

E: Is there more we can do to help you engage with your readers?

N: Not that I can think of, no. It is already very good: the discussions, the way people can reach me by sending an email.

E: And you’ve enabled the feedback feature so that people can either use the Disqus comments or actually email you directly.

N: Yeah. This was one of my main goals with this book. To mention Chris again, he said somewhere that one of the problems always is determining a price for your product. He said he would think of something that made himself feel uncomfortable. A bit too high, really, and that would be a good price. I thought no, not for this first book. So I chose the average price that was suggested to me by the Leanpub calculations itself.

E: Ok, oh that’s interesting.

N: Around $20. Or maybe $15.

E: So was this from people who’d gone to your page before you published the book and had entered a price they’d be willing to pay for the book?

N: That’s right. About 500 people. So I thought that would be quite representative for the price they would really want to pay. Some people were very generous at that time so they had said $30, $40, $50. Most people around $20. I thought that was a friendly price. Also, my main goal was to reach as many people as possible at this time. So I chose not too high a price.

E: You’ve chosen $25 I see.

N: Yeah, but in the beginning this was $15.

E: Ok.

N: If you were an interested reader and you supplied your email address, I gave all these people a discount code.

E: And you’ve also chosen to have the minimum price and the suggested price be the same. Is there a reason for that?

N: Not really I think.

E: There doesn’t have to be.

N: I think it’s good to have one fixed price. I have noticed not many people would want to go higher with the price.

E: Ok, so you haven’t found too many people clicking and dragging the pricing slider to the right?

N: Yeah. That’s right.

E: I see that actually already, even though you just launched recently, you already have four translations on the go.

N: Yeah, that’s amazing. As soon as maybe an hour after the official release, there was already someone saying “may I translate this book to Portuguese, German, Polish, and Spanish?” The Spanish translator already wanted to translate before the book was published. He trusted me that much that he would want to do this.

E: What is your plan for splitting royalties with your translators?

N: This will be 25% for them. I know this is kind of generous, but I see that this takes a lot of effort for them and I’m not sure if it will pay back. So I think this is a good middle way.

E: Some people actually do 50%.

N: Ah, right!

E: So you don’t need to feel like you’re being… I mean I just ask these questions because when an author is doing pricing, especially the first time, it’s hard to know what to do and whether or not what one is doing is unusual, or right down the middle. Sharing this kind of information is very useful.

N: Yeah, it is difficult in many ways. I’ve looked very much at other Leanpub authors, publishers, and people writing books and what they do with the price.

E: Is there anything generally that you’ve thought, even if it’s very minor, when you were using Leanpub, or when you think about it now that you’ve published your book, that we could improve?

N: Well, not really big things. Some things thats come to mind… when it’s formatting the text, I would like to have more freedom to choose my own font.

E: Oh, fonts. Ok.

N: Yeah, but overall it’s a very clean way of doing things. Very fast.

E: So you had used Markdown before you started using Leanpub?

N: Yeah, it’s a common format for developers who write documentation for their own code. So that’s no problem.

E: So there were no big features that you’re thinking “ah, I really wish Leanpub had this”?

N: No, not really. Some convenience, maybe some tools…. There is a feature where you can create a sample of your book. The assumption here is that you can take some chapters and provide them as a sample to the readers, potentially. I chose to not give entire chapters away, but only parts of chapters. I devised my own system for extracting parts of every chapter.

E: Oh, I see. And then you’ve got to maintain two different files, and so if you update the complete, primary copy then you’d have to update separately the sample partial?

N: Right, but I had created a tool for this. I would have comments in the original files saying “this is the beginning of a sample, this is the end of a sample”. Then it would take from all the different chapters the sample parts and put them in one file. It removes the duplication.

E: If you had any advice to give to any other developers out there who are thinking of writing a book, what would your advice be?

N: My advice would be to just start and try this. I think within ten minutes I was already writing this book. I had some ideas and I had a small brainstorm in a text file. From that I started to split this in real chapters and, well, take my time. Maybe one hour a day to write a book. It is easy because of the infrastructure that Leanpub provides. It’s very much appreciated. Anything like this. Developers really like to read each other’s ideas.

E: My last question is that, at the end of A Year With Symfony, you say that if you were ever to write a book again, it would be about PHP package design. What are the chances you’re going to do that?

N: 100%.

E: Great.

N: I’ve already created a new book on the site. On leanpub.com. I’ve already started writing on it.

E: Oh, excellent, good luck with that! If you ever have any questions or feature requests, or run into any problems, please get in touch with us directly.

N: I will.

E: Ok. Well, I think that’s about all the time we have. Thank you very much for being on the Lean Publishing podcast and for being a Leanpub author!

N: Thanks for having me.

Derek Sivers

Derek Sivers is a blogger, musician, and founder of CD Baby, one of the first online stores for music by independent musicians. In June 2013 he founded Wood Egg, which is using Leanpub to publish ebook guides to starting a business in 16 different countries in Asia. You can read his blog at sivers.org and you can find him on Twitter @sivers.

This interview was recorded on January 15, 2014.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Len Epp: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub and I’m here with Derek Sivers, blogger, musician, and founder of CD Baby, one of the first, and most popular online stores for music exclusively by independent musicians. Amongst his many activities, including some very popular TED Talks, Derek is the author of Anything You Want, a chronicle of his adventures and lessons learned founding, building, and eventually selling CD Baby. In June, Derek launched his new company, Wood Egg, which is publishing annual ebook guides on how to to start and build companies in 16 different countries in Asia. Along with his team of 22 writers and 17 editors, Derek is using Leanpub to publish and update these guides, which are comprised of thousands of answers to questions posed by over 100 researches to over 300 experts. In this interview we are going to talk about Derek’s professional interests and history, his work at Wood Egg, his experiences using Leanpub, and any suggestions he might have for us at the end.

So thank you, Derek, for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast!

Sivers: Thanks Len, thanks for having me. Hey, I had to say, have you ever heard of this thing how there are an extraordinary amount of dentists that are named Dennis, and there are a lot of lawyers that are named Larry, and how there’s this feeling that our name actually influences our career choices in life? Right, have you heard about this before?

E: I haven’t heard it, but I’ve thought it before.

S: Well, when I first started communicating with you I was like, wow, Len Epp. Lean Pub. It almost looks identical. I think it’s destiny that either Leanpub was named that because of you or that you were working with Leanpub because of your name.

E: It could be, yeah, names are a powerful thing. And definitely I’m glad I didn’t go the used car salesman route because my middle name is actually Lawrence.

S: There you go.

E: So that could be Larry as well. Ok Derek, many of our listeners are familiar with your biography already I’m sure, but we do like to start our interviews by getting people to talk a little bit about themselves. So, I was wondering if you could give me a brief two-minute autobiography of Derek Sivers in your own words?

S: Sure. Born in California, I’m very American despite everything else we may talk about here. When I was a young teenager I picked up guitar and that just changed everything for me. I said I want to be a rock star or at least I want to be a really successful musician. But knowing that one in a million gets to be a successful musician, to me that was a real turning point in my life because I started to focus. Wanting to be a successful musician is like wanting to be an Olympic athlete. You know that you’re going to have to be the best of the best to be that one in a million that actually makes a living doing the thing that everybody wishes they could. It got me really focused and serious as a teenager. I started reading lots of self-improvement books and always trying to learn about the world and learn about business and communication and marketing and all these things. Even just the philosophies of how to overcome adversity and not let things get to you, and healthy attitudes towards making your way in this world. After that I noticed that life became easier and business became easier. Learning to see things from the other person’s point of view really made all the difference in the world for me. When I was 20 years old, I moved to New York City to be a professional musician, and I did it. So, for 13 years I was a full-time musician. I actually made my living playing on people’s records and touring and doing gigs and producing people’s records and even bought a house with the money I made making music. So that’s the life I was living when I was selling my own CD on my band’s website.

Back in 1997 when I was doing this, it was a very different world. There was no PayPal. Amazon was just a bookstore. So if you were a musician with a CD and you wanted to sell your CD online there was literally not a single business anywhere on the Internet that would do it for you. So I had to build my own. So I got a book about cgi-bin Perl programming and it took me three months of effort. But after three months, I had a “buy now” button on my website, and that was huge. In 1997 that was a big deal, so when I told my musician friends in New York City that I had this buy now button everybody went “Dude, could you sell my CD too?” So literally as a favor to friends I started putting my friends’ albums on my band’s website. Like “click here to buy my CD” or “click here to buy my friend’s CD”. And after a while, friends of friends started calling so I had to kind of take those people off of my band’s website and put them on their own website, and that was CD Baby.

After 10 years of doing that, CD Baby grew into the largest seller of independent music online from 1998 through 2008. It just blew up. It ended up selling music for a quarter-million musicians with millions of customers and 85 employees and a big giant pick, pack, and ship warehouse in Portland, Oregon. It was really much bigger than I ever wanted it to be. I really thought it was just going to remain a hobby, so it really grew against my wishes. So, in 2008, after doing this for 10 years, I sold the company, which is something I thought I would never do. I thought I was just going to do CD Baby for the rest of my life. But, in 2008, the learning, growing experience was to actually move on and force myself to do something new. Probably like most people here reading or listening to this, we’ve all hit a point in your life where you want to make a major change in your life. Whether it’s a divorce, or a death, or a graduation, or getting fired, or something like that. You hit a point in your life when you make, when you want to make a real big change in your life. To me, selling the company was like that. I realized I could go start another company the next day but I wanted to make a real change to my operating system, if you know what I mean. I wanted to change the way I think, and change what I do. That’s when I started lifting my head up to the world and speaking at TED conferences, and visiting different countries, and vowing to spend the rest of my life outside of the US. Trying to expand my mind and see things from different perspectives. So here we are.

E: Ok, great. Thanks very much for that. I know that recently you moved to New Zealand. Can you tell us a little about why you made that decision?

S: Sure. Well, three years ago I moved to Singapore and thought that that was going to be my permanent home. In fact I filled out ten months of paperwork and I applied for a permanent residency and I became a permanent resident of Singapore which I’m really proud of. I love Singapore. I’m really proud of that little country. I really internalized it. I’m really happy to be a permanent resident of Singapore. I love it. But I think we all need to re-evaluate in our lives sometimes why we are where we are or what we’re doing.

Even in the music business, for example, I saw some miserable rock stars. I worked at Warner Brothers for a few years. I was running the tape room when I was 20 years old. It was my first job inside the music industry., and I got to meet a lot of miserable rock stars, because they would come in for a meeting with the VPs or something and then they would kind of come into my tape room to exhale and regroup. So I got to have some interesting conversations with some famous people that were really miserable because they wanted to be a rock star when they were a teenager, and so they followed through on that, and they became a famous rock star. But now they were 30-something with kids, but they were still acting like their 19 year-old dreams. Even though it didn’t really apply to what they really wanted out of life now. You know what I mean? So I think a lot of us are maybe in a job or a situation that we got ourselves into years ago but we but if you re-evaluate what you need in your life now, it’s not always what you want now.

So last year I was in Singapore. Very, very social. Saying yes to every invitation. Every conference. Every university that wanted me to speak to every class and every person who emailed me out of the blue saying “let’s meet for coffee”. I just said “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes” to everything and I was so social that I was getting nothing done. And now everybody knew I was there and so every person that passed through Singapore would send me an email saying “let’s meet”. Even if I said no to four out of five of those I was still swamped in social activities. And I realized that what I really wanted was solitude. That at some point in your life being out there and meeting everyone is what you need, and sometimes at a different point in your life being in here, and meeting no one, is what you need. You need to focus. I just hit that point. And that’s why I symbolically just packed up and went off to New Zealand where I didn’t know anybody and it’s wonderfully under-populated, and nobody passes through New Zealand. Its been wonderful. I’m getting a lot of work done.

E: I’m very interested in when you’re speaking about evaluating and evaluating yourself. It reminded me about something from your book Anything You Want that really struck me which was, I suppose, that negative form of evaluation where you and invoke “the invisible jury”.

S: [Laughter] Yes.

E: I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about what you mean by that.

S: Ok, the invisible jury. I thought about this first with programming, right. There are a few different ways of approaching programming. Either you can just hack together whatever works. The bare minimum, ugly code, whatever it takes to make the computer do what you want it do. Or you can try to please this invisible jury if you imagine people on GitHub reading your code and you think “Oh no, am I doing my proper object-oriented encapsulation? Am I doing my semi-colons right in a way that I won’t get criticized for on Stack Exchange or whatever it’s called, Stack Overflow?” And sometimes I find when programming that I’m trying to please someone, I don’t know who, this invisible jury that I think is going to tease me if I do something wrong in programming.

And it’s the same thing in business I think. We read books like, whether it’s 4-Hour Workweek, or whatever book that said you start to re-evaluate your business or life or work decisions through the lens of pleasing some invisible person out there that you think is going to be criticizing you if you do it wrong. I think that’s really hard to let go of. It’s kind of tied together with, I don’t know, anxiety or insecurity or who knows what kind of mental issues.

E: It’s just such an interesting idea because, you know, one of the things that I imagine makes it hardest to let it go, is when you realize no one was listening that whole time to your internal defense against that non-existent jury…

S: Yes!

E: …and there was no trial.

S: It’s hard to get over that. To just stop trying to please other people and just let it go and do whatever you personally want. Realizing, actually, sometimes I believe that you need to realize that people are going to tell you you’re wrong no matter what you do. With coding you could have your perfect code that would please whatever Rails guru you look up to or something, and still somebody somewhere else is going to tell you you’re an idiot and doing it wrong. It’s the same thing with life, you know.

I think about these big life decisions. Big life paths we could take. Some people are pursuing money. And they want to make as much money as possible. And if you follow that path, some people are going to tell you that you’re wrong. They’re going to tell you that you’re being greedy, or that you’re shallow, or whatever. Other people in life are giving up money and instead pursuing the charitable life or something. They’re giving themselves all the time, they’re donating their time, and life, and money to charity or whatever. And you know what, somebody is going to tell you you’re wrong for doing that too. They’re going to tell you you’re stupid. You should try to make as much money as you can now while you’re young. And other people, you know, I’m in the music business, and so I know lots of people that are pursuing fame. Even if it means making no money. They’re getting themselves out there into public situations trying to get famous more than trying to get rich. Somebody is going to tell you you’re wrong for pursuing that. The point is no matter what you choose somebody is going to tell you you’re wrong and you just have to let it go and not worry about that or just accept it in advance. Of course people are going to tell you you’re wrong. There is no path you’re going to follow that’s going to be devoid of criticism. So instead you just have to ignore those other voices and just listen to that quiet voice inside that knows what this is a thing that you really, really want and kind of optimize your life and career to do that, even if it’s an unpopular decision.

E: Speaking of being told you’re wrong in one way or another, that leads very well into my next question. I have a couple of big questions about CD Baby and this one is about - you had a notable incident with Apple and Steve Jobs that you talk about in your book and on your blog. And without necessarily going into the details of what that was here, I would like to ask you what you think the best thing is that Steve Jobs did for the music industry, and what you think the worst thing was.

S: Oh, I’d say there actually is no worst thing, even though that little scuffle I had with him was nasty, and I don’t own any Apple products, maybe because of that.

Actually I think the launch of the iTunes music store in 2004 was massively important for independent musicians. It was one of the best things that ever happened to independent musicians and here’s why. Up until that point indie musicians couldn’t really get their music into most places. Yes, I set up CD Baby because in 1998 there was no place that would sell your music. But within a few years there were lots of competing companies. So if you were an independent musician, you could put your CD out there on a dozen different little CD Baby-type indie shops. And then eventually Amazon started their, I forgot what it’s called, Amazon Associates or something. Amazon Advantage Program I think it was called, where just anybody could put a book or a CD or something into the Amazon system. So technically you could still be on Amazon, but it was very difficult. It wasn’t very optimized. But then CD Baby represented over two million songs or something like that in our digital catalog when the iTunes music store launched. And iTunes called us into their office and asked us to be a distributor. To send all of our catalog into the iTunes music store. And in that moment, that changed everything for musicians, ‘cause now every independent musician, no matter how unknown or small, was truly in the level playing field that everybody had been desiring because every album from Madonna to, you know, an unknown plumber from Oslo, Norway now looked exactly the same on iTunes. Everybody had the same treatment, the same placement, the same visual display. Being sold in the same store. There was no difference. And if you went into iTunes search engine and typed, whether it’s salsa music or you typed the name of your favorite song - say you typed in, whatever, “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison. You decided you wanted to buy that song. You would type it into the iTunes search engine and now there’s Van Morrison’s version and here’s five cover versions by unknown musicians from Finland or Uruguay are listed equally with Van Morrison in a search engine on iTunes. It was brilliant!

And I think it was one of the single best things that ever happened to independent musicians because after Apple did it, then of course the Amazon MP3 store launched a year later, and then the new Napster, and Rhapsody, and Yahoo! Music. All of these companies now, in order to compete with Apple, contacted companies like CD Baby and said “We want everything. We want your whole catalogue.” All four million songs, or whatever it grew to be. They took everything, no questions asked. Every independent musician had equal placement. Now you almost take it for granted. There’s so many companies out there. A new one that I really like is called DistroKid.com. Personally, actually, that’s where I’m distributing my music through right now. My albums are up through DistroKid. So it’s amazing that just anybody could make some noise into a microphone right now, save it as an MP3, upload it to any number of distributors out there and it will be for sale on iTunes tomorrow. And Amazon. That’s amazing! That’s a world of difference from where we were at ten years ago. Night and day. It’s just amazing the change that one thing made in 2004.

E: And in the contemporary music landscape are there any companies or certain individuals out there who are doing something very special that you think is maybe setting the tone for the next few years?

S: I think that DistroKid, that I mentioned, it’s not a revolution. They’re not doing anything massively different. But, it has the same friendly, no-nonsense, cut the fluff, kind of simplicity that I launched CD Baby with in 1998, and I think made it really charming. I think DistroKid is doing that now for digital distribution. They let go of the concept of an album. If you have an album, you can still create an album, but their system is very optimized for musicians recording a song at a time. As soon as you finish a song, you want to put your song out on to iTunes, Amazon, and the rest. Their system will let you do that very easily. It’s great.

E: I have one last music industry question for you which is about piracy. This obviously has been a big controversy in the music world ever since things went digital and online. And I would like to know your opinion about it, just in general. I know independent musician friends of mine are often in conflict with each other about whether or not piracy is good for small bands.

S: Yeah, I’d take the side of, piracy is not a problem. I don’t think there are a lot of people out there on PirateBay, or something, searching for the name of a local unknown band. I don’t think it’s a big problem.

I think when you’re not as famous and successful as you want to be, it’s easy to look for anybody to blame. It’s almost a comforting thought to think that if it weren’t for piracy, I would be world famous right now, or I would be rich if it weren’t for piracy. Very often, when I was with CD Baby, people who would email us to complain that iTunes was stealing money from them because they had been on iTunes for three months and hadn’t gotten any money yet. We’d ask them to provide any proof of sales. We’d say “Wow, ok, let’s look into this. Can you show us some sales on iTunes that have happened, that you haven’t gotten paid for?” And they’d say “well, I don’t know any”. Then we’d ask them to buy the album themselves from iTunes. Just to make sure that the system was working. And we’d say “Well, don’t worry, you know if you’re buying it yourself. So you’re going to spend $9.99 but $8.99 is going to come back to you” or something. And sure enough they would buy the album themselves on iTunes and then the iTunes report would come in a few weeks later that that was the one and only sale of that album. So it’s nice to think that we would all be, really, much more successful if it weren’t for piracy. But I think the truth is that piracy may be hurting a few ticket sales of Iron Man 3 or something, but, I don’t think it’s hurting most of us on the independent level.

E: Ok, great. That’s a very clear answer. Thank you.

S: Well, I love the statistics that more people are killed by pigs than sharks each year. That sharks are the newsworthy, noteworthy, media-shocking, headline-grabbing news. But, very quietly, more people are killed by pigs each year. So I kind of feel that way about piracy. That it’s a shocking thing that’s easy to demonize, and talk about how this evil Internet is making piracy rampant. But I think it’s actually the other things that are hurting our careers more than piracy.

E: Oh, and what would one of those other things be?

S: [Laughter] People’s communication skills. People’s production and engineering skills, or ability to go hustle and get themselves some gigs, or their media-friendly presentation. Their photos. Things like that. Just off the top of my head. Any one of those seven things I just named, I think, are likely hurting your career more than piracy. And I’m sure there’s a hundred more.

E: Ok, thanks. Moving on to discuss publishing a little bit. Your first book, Anything You Want was published as something part of something called The Domino Project. Can you explain a little bit about that project and who’s involved in it, and why you were published as a part of it?

S: Yeah. I never wanted to write a book. I know some people have this life-long dream to be a published author and it’s a dream to see their name in lights at Amazon. But I never wanted to do a book. People had been asking me for years to turn my blog posts into a book or write a book and I just said “No, too much work. Don’t feel like it. Not interested.” And then one day Seth Godin called me, or rather sent me an email, saying “I’d like to talk to you. It’s important.” I got on the phone and he said, “I’m starting a new publishing company and I want you to be my first author.” So of course I said: “Oh, yes. Yes sir.”

Originally he thought maybe I would do a music book. Like, a how to make it in the music business kind of book. But as we talked more, he said “No, actually, let’s take a lot of these articles on your blog and turn them into a book, plus add some more. It’ll kind of tell the story of starting, growing, and selling CD Baby, including your philosophies throughout. We’re just going to turn it into a little 88-page manifesto.” That was his big idea. He felt that most books are too long. That most of us have what he called a manifesto inside of us, that would be short, powerful, the kind of book you could read in under an hour. And it would be sold exclusively through Amazon, Kindle and hardcover, using their print-on-demand system, I guess. And that he setup a system with no advance, but, royalties were split 50/50 with the author. Something like that, I forget. The details didn’t matter to me. It was Seth. I said yes. I think I thought it was going to be an ongoing publishing company. Like he had setup this new company that was going to go for years, but he actually just did it for one year.

And in hindsight, I look at other things Seth has done and I realize that’s what he always does. He actually started a record label for a year. That’s how I first met him, when I was at CD Baby. He started a record label and signed a few artists and put them on CD Baby. And he started a publishing company and did that for a year. And he started this and that project. And he tends to do things kind of as a way of testing out his ideas in the real world. But then he delegates it off to somebody else. Or sells it and moves on to the next idea. Which, honestly, I really admire. He keeps his systems very streamlined. He has no employees. When he launches a new project like Domino Project, he got a dozen interns. People that were clamoring to work alongside him. I think he paid them, but it was clear to them that this was just, come in for nine months, help get this company going. You’ll get a lot of great experience and then it’s done and we’re on to the next thing. So yeah, that’s Domino Project. I think it’s - as far I can tell, they’re not doing any new books.

E: Speaking of launching publishing companies, on to Wood Egg. You launched Wood Egg in June, 2013. I was wondering if you could give me a description of what it is and why you founded it?

S: Yeah. So moving to Singapore three years ago I was now living in the middle of South-East Asia and realized that I knew nothing about all of the countries around me. That I could literally see Indonesia out my window but I knew nothing about Indonesia. And I could also see Malaysia out my window, and I knew nothing about Malaysia. And knew nothing about Myanmar. Or Cambodia. Or Vietnam, except something about a war a long time ago, that we see lots of movies about. I didn’t really understand the relationship between Taiwan and China. And I didn’t really understand Mongolia. Some place with Genghis Khan and some yaks I think. I wanted to understand these countries more, now that I was living in the middle of them. So at first I started out just kind of taking trips occasionally. Taking three-day vacations off to Indonesia and walking around and talking to people. But after a while I felt that that was too casual. I wasn’t learning enough, fast enough. I wanted my learning to be more focused.

They say the best way to learn something is to teach it. So I thought, “Yeah, this will help my understanding. I will commit now to starting a new company that for the next five or ten years will publish 16 books about these 16 countries in Asia. Every year. And every year I’ll release the new updated version, improved, rewritten, etc.” And at first I thought I was going to go write these 16 books myself. And that’s actually why I limited it to 16. I thought “Ok, three weeks each in 16 countries. That’s 48 weeks. Take a few weeks off for Christmas and do it again.” That’s how I’m going to spend my next few years. But, that idea only lasted about two minutes because my wife was pregnant at the time. So, then I kind of decided that I was going to be the owner/publisher of this company and I was going to have to turn it into more of a system for learning and research and turning the knowledge into books. So, that’s how it began. Really just out my own self-interest and desire to share what I was learning with others.

E: You’ve got a post at sivers.org/robust about some of the hurdles you’ve had to overcome along the way in the last, well I guess, not quite a year now. Can you tell us what were one or two of those problems and what kept you going through them?

S: Yeah. So imagine if this was you. Sitting in a hotel room in Indonesia and you decided that you wanted to publish 16 books per year about 16 countries in Asia. But you knew that you couldn’t do it all yourself. So probably then your first impulse would be to hire 16 different writers. Like one per country. Let me hire a guy from India to write the India book. And let me hire a guy from Taiwan to write the Taiwan book. So that’s what I did. And that idea lasted a few months. Actually the people from India and Taiwan did a good job but the guy from Indonesia flaked out and disappeared. And I realized that this was too fragile of a plan. That I can’t have the whole book project collapse because one person changes his mind. So then I had to think a little deeper about everything I had learned about the wisdom of crowds, and wikinomics, and crowdsourcing, and all of those books about combined efforts.

And one of the big points that those books shared that I thought was really insightful is that crowdsourcing works best when people are given simple, specific instructions. I think of Hot or Not as the extreme example. I know it’s been ten years or something since that site. But, if you remember Hot or Not, all you had to do is just, you were just given two pictures and almost like a mouse with cheese you just had to click on the one that you thought was more attractive. Or maybe give it a number or something. And that’s it. That’s all you had to do. So I realized that the problem before, that I was finding a brilliant person in India and saying, “I want you to write this book about India. Please cover these ten subjects. Go.” And it just left, what’s that saying, enough rope to hang yourself with? It was too vague. It was too broad a definition, so that’s why it wasn’t getting done. That’s why authors I was hiring were flaking out. Because it was too broad.

So then I realized the pressure was on me because I wanted to be my target. Or, I already knew that I am the target market for this book. People like me that would consider moving to a new country like Thailand, to live there and start a business there. I know it’s a small niche but there are probably a few hundred or a few thousand of us in the world who consider doing that. And so I wanted a book that addresses that.

So, here’s what I did: I came up with two hundred specific questions that I wanted to know about living and working in these countries. Two hundred questions per country. Two hundred questions to be asked of each of the 16 countries. And then it was much easier because then all I had to do was go onto elance.com and odesk.com and hire business consultants in each of these countries to answer these two hundred questions. And now I had a robust system, in fact, I made it even one level more robust by - again, I realized that if a person dropped out it would collapse. Or if a person gave me a bunch of bad information the book would suck. So instead I hired three researchers in each country to answer all two hundred questions. Now every question had three different answers, and I tried to find a variety of people. You know, one native local person to that country, one ex-pat that had been living in that country for a while, and one third person that would now give a broad perspective to each question. So then I hired a writer to combine those three different research answers into one essay. Now, this was my robust system. Researchers would occasionally drop out. No big deal. Replace them with somebody else. It doesn’t matter that much if they’re brilliant or not because their answer is just one-third, or their research is just one-third of the final answer. And it became this really robust system that has worked really well to make these books no matter who comes and goes.

E: And the books, you intend them to be updated annually?

S: Yeah, so, in fact, the ones that you see on the woodegg.com website right now are actually the second year’s books. Last year in June I released 16 books that were not very good, and luckily I knew that from the beginning. I think when I first had this idea, the reason I said that I was going to commit five or ten years to doing this is I think any of us who think about launching something, or I’m sure you have plenty of listeners who would like to write a book and have not yet and are scared of the criticism of putting a book out there into the world that might not be genius - I think it really helps instead to commit a few years to doing constant improvements. Because then you admit the first one you put out there is just not going to be that good. And you admit that up front, but you commit then to the following year, making it better, and the following year making it much, much better. So, yeah, my motto was that I know the first year’s books would be not-good. Second year’s books should be quite good. The third year’s books should be very good. And maybe by the fourth or the fifth year I’ll be able to call them great, or even amazing. If you just keep committing to massive improvements every year.

E: And at that point there will also be a record of how things have changed over the last few years as well. And actually there’s, I mean, you’ve covered 16 countries. It’s an amazing project. There’s one country I’d like to ask you about specifically, which is Myanmar, or Burma. Can you tell us what you’ve learned about the situation for entrepreneurs there, and how it’s changed in the last couple of years, and where you see things going in the next few years?

S: Sure. Actually, I don’t have that much to say about Myanmar. It’s so really tough. Up until just two years ago I think, they were completely closed to foreign investment. You really couldn’t go to Myanmar and do business. It wasn’t allowed. And just two years ago they started to open some doors but it’s still incredibly difficult. There’s even mixed information about how to incorporate a business. Some people say that you can just fill out the official forms and set up your business. And other people say that you have to prove that you have a million dollars in capital and then you have to know someone, or bribe someone, to get your company even started. It’s all a big chaotic mess but in a, hey - rule number one of investing is risk equals reward. So the few that are in there doing it right now and learning the ropes are probably going to be the ones that are rewarded the greatest in the future. You think of the people that came to the US in the late 1700s and setup the first, whatever, boot manufacturers or something. It was probably incredibly difficult to start a company in this untapped land, but those who got in early and stuck it out through the difficulties are the ones who profited the most.

E: Speaking of being there at the beginning of a big change: you’re the founder of CD Baby, and now you’re getting into publishing, and I’d like to ask you how you think the book publishing industry in 2014 compares to the record industry in 1998?

S: There aren’t many similarities but the biggest, and most important one, is that there are now no gatekeepers. In a very similar position, in 1998 things had changed radically just in four years. Because say in, like, 1994, if you wanted to put your music out into the world so that people could buy it, you couldn’t. [Laughter] You couldn’t. You would have to go know someone who knew someone to kiss some ass at a cocktail party to get a meeting with a lawyer who could introduce you to a record executive who, in between puffs on his cigar, might think that your music is good enough to sign you to a deal. And only then, and after a year, and after this and that, and debt that will never be recouped, could your music get out into the world. That was the only way in 1994, say, to put your music out there. Except obviously you could sell your CDs and cassette tapes off of the stage in person. But that was it. The only way to get into record stores was through the major labels.

So in 1998, that all changed. Now you had companies like CD Baby that would sell just anybody, anywhere, internationally. So, I think 2014, as compared to just a few years ago, now anybody who wants to put a book out into the world can do it. There’s no gatekeepers. Think about what a huge difference that is from just five or ten years ago or something. You couldn’t. If you had a book in you, the only way to get it out to the world was to know somebody that knew somebody that tried to get an appointment with a publisher, and in between puffs on his cigar, if he liked your book, you know, maybe it would be released to the world a year later. Now just anybody can put it out there. So, that’s huge. I think it’s not appreciated as much afterwards, what a massive difference that is. We take it for granted now.

E: Yeah, that’s very interesting. It reminds me again of the, if I remember, one of the main issues that happened in your incident with Steve Jobs was that he said “You know people can just put their music on there.” And then you say in your book that he obviously changed his mind about easily letting independent musicians onto iTunes. I find, I don’t know if you’ve encountered this as well, but often in the publishing world there’s a sense of elevated status. That people are, even to the detriment to their own interests, protective of the power that, say, I guess in the music world, that big labels have, to make you a real musician, and that big publishing companies have to make you a “real” author.

S: Yeah. And culturally, speaking of Asia, that’s still more true in parts of the world where in the US, for example, or in America in general, there’s this champion of the underdog that’s almost cool to be indie and not sign your life away to a corporation. But in Asia, the biggest one is still considered the coolest one. It’s actually, you don’t want to tout your credentials as a small underdog indie as much in Asia. Instead it’s almost better to appear bigger than you are, and you can see a culture difference.

E: That’s very interesting.

Now, moving to just a couple of questions on Leanpub. You chose Leanpub to make your books. I know that you’re also selling them on Amazon. Can I ask you what led you to choose Leanpub for your publishing company?

S: Markdown. I love that Leanpub uses Markdown as the book format. That was just amazing. I think even, I don’t know if you consider CreateSpace to be competition, but I looked into CreateSpace once and they talked about “upload your Microsoft Word file.” I was like [blows raspberry]. Gone. Forget that. These books are generated by my database full of essays written in plain text. I’m not going to put things into a stupid - I don’t even own a copy of Microsoft Word. I don’t want to, you know. So, I love how Leanpub is this, kind of, Linux nerd-friendly, programmer-friendly system for those of us that like to use a format like Markdown. I think it’s just brilliant. And then the fact that you, that the same system system that helps me make the books also sells them at a wonderful, friendly, author-friendly price, is just ideal. I’m a huge fan and I’ve been sending everybody your way. Everybody that asks. You know “Hey, I’ve been thinking about writing a book. What should I do?” I tell everybody to go to Leanpub.

E: Oh, ok. Well that’s great. Yeah it’s interesting what you say about Microsoft Word. Yeah, I mean, it makes me cry when I open it now. And I spent, I mean, I’ve got a Ph.D. in English and I spent all those years writing in Microsoft Word. And it was absurd when I look back on it now. So it’s great to hear that, because one of the big bets for Leanpub was that Markdown is the way to go for the future. And so it’s really great to hear that people like you agree.

S: Absolutely.

E: Can you tell me a little about how you found about us? Were you just surfing the web, or did someone mention us to you?

S: I think, well I’m a Ruby programmer, and a lot of Ruby programmers put their books on Leanpub. I think JavaScript, a couple of the Node.js books that I bought in the past were through Leanpub, and JavaScript Allongé or something like that. And Hands-on Node.js I think. I had already bought a handful of books from you, just because I’m a fan of - I’m really a book learner, so a lot of what I know from programming is learned from books more than videos or courses or whatever. So I had already bought some books from Leanpub, and was already a fan, so I knew I was going to use you guys once it was time.

E: OK. Actually, one thing I’m sure that our listeners who are either publishers or self-published authors would be interested to know is how you’ve gone about promoting the Wood Egg books.

S: Actually, I don’t have anything interesting to share there. Because Wood Egg wasn’t started as much of a business as it was a personal curiosity project, that I only finished this year’s books 12 days ago. And up until 12 days ago, everybody would ask me “Hey, what’s your marketing plan? What are you going to do to sell these?” And, I would just shrug. I just wanted to get them finished. Get them done. I was 100% focused on just getting them made. I was spending all my days just editing, and improving, and writing. Just as of 11 days ago now they exist in the world, and it’s such a huge relief. But, don’t have any business, marketing, brilliant ideas to share. Sorry.

E: [Laughter] Ok, nope, that’s fine. It’s actually, there’s a lot of important things I think for Leanpub authors in that answer. Including, think about the writing first, maybe, before you get ahead of yourself and start worrying about a lot of the marketing.

S: Well, it’s funny because, if you don’t mind, let’s look at the flip-side. There are some people making a ton of money doing helpful ebooks in the world. I forget, it was the top story on Hacker News today, it was somebody who made $350,000 on an ebook about creating iPhone apps or something. And there lots of stories out there that are worth paying attention to, but I think the difference is you can choose upfront whether you are making a book for the marketplace, or whether you’re making a book out of a sense of, like, personal, this is just something I feel like doing, whether it makes me a dime or not. So if, on the other hand, you feel like making maximum profits from the book, the best time to think about it is actually before you start writing. If that’s your intention, to make a lot of money and sell a ton of books, then you should be thinking, before you write a single word, what does the marketplace want? And the 4-Hour Workweek book gives some brilliant examples of that about - I think he wanted to call that book Drug Dealing for Fun and Profit because he was running a vitamin supplement company at the time and he was going to share some lessons learned from running his vitamin supplement company - and felt very passionately about that title. He loved that title. Drug Dealing for Fun and Profit. But apparently he contacted Walmart and found out that they would not sell a book with that title.

E: Right.

S: So he, you know, begrudgingly said “OK, I guess I need a new title.” And he started Google AdWords campaigns with a handful of title ideas, and then even with his subtitle ideas. I forget what the subtitle is. Something like “How to join the new rich and live a free life” or something. Each one of those things was tested in Google Ads to see what phrases people would click the most. And choosing that ended up helping him - seeing which phrases people clicked the most ended up shaping his whole project, in deciding what kind of book to write based on what people were clicking on the most. So Leanpub is actually a great way to do that kind of thing, I think, where you can, first start running some ads or surveys, or whatever it may be, to find out what kind of book people want. Or what will be the biggest seller. And then you can start writing it, and that as-you-go process, chapter by chapter. Getting feedback on people saying “Yes! You need to talk about this some more.” And voilà , your chapter three is now different than what you had already expected because of what feedback people gave you in chapter one and two. So I think you could write a much more successful book if you think about the marketplace from day zero.

E: Hmm, yeah. That’s very interesting. One of the features we do have that is intended to accommodate that, is that you can easily create a landing page for a book with different titles and people can sign up and say “I’ll buy this if and when you release it.” So people could do tests of different books they might want to write. Even different titles. But it reminds me, Peter Armstrong, Leanpub’s co-founder, has this great line about how “A big success for Leanpub can be when an author stops writing a book.” And that’s because, as you were describing earlier, often, people can, well I think we were talking about this, but people can feel like the thing needs to be complete and done, done. And you work pm it for years. Toiling, toiling away. And then you release it and, you know, crickets can happen sometimes. So one of the things about Leanpub is, set up a landing page. Test the idea. If you get some responses, then work on that project. Get to the end of three chapters. Get going. Start publishing that and seeing if there’s interest out there for what you’re working on. If that’s a necessary, an essential criterion for evaluating your own success - getting a lot of readers.

S: Exactly, yeah. And I think most people probably would like to sell as many books as possible. But for those of us that are actually just doing this more as a personal project, like, this is something I feel like writing for my own sake. Even technical books. I know a lot of people - I think there’s a guy, Steve Klabnik or something, that’s currently writing about Rust a lot. And he’s writing about the programming language Rust on his blog as a way of learning Rust. So to him, he might end up - somebody like that might write a book about Rust as a way of learning about Rust, and whether it actually sells a lot or not is a secondary concern. First and foremost it’s your own self-education or personal project. As long as you know which way you’d like it go, you can optimize your workflow based on which one.

E: Speaking of self-education, that actually leads right into the last question I wanted to ask you. Not just self-education, but dedication and training. You have a great post about learning to sing over the course of 15 years, I think, on your blog. And you talk about the years of practice and hard work it took you to get to the point where you could sing well enough that people assumed you’d been born with a great voice. Have you taken a similar approach to writing?

S: Writing. Programming. Everything. Even my cultural understanding in living outside the US and traveling. I think once you understand that you’re not going to be great at anything at first, it really helps to instead make that long-term commitment. There’s a book called Mastery by George Leonard, and I’m sure there’s some other books like this, that use the martial arts metaphor, that if you go into a karate dojo, studio, and say “I want to be a black belt this year,” they’ll just laugh because that’s not - you don’t get to be a master like that. First you need to do this simple move 150,000 times before you’ll really be good at it.

It’s all about the ongoing dedication. So the problem is if you’re impatient. You just want to be great and fast. In anything. I want to be a great writer. I want to be a great programmer. I want my business be big, big, big! If you’re impatient, which sometimes we think that impatience is a virtue: “Hey, I’m not going to stand for the speed limit that everybody else sets for themselves. I’m going to, what is it called, growth hacking. I’m going to hack master. I’m going to hack marketing. I’m going to hack this. I’m going to speed this process.” The problem is, if you are expecting everything to go so fast, then you might end up being a miserable dabbler. And that’s where you do a couple years of this, and then you get frustrated. You throw that away and go do a couple years of something else. You spend a couple years trying to be a good writer, but you’re not a great writer after nine months, so you lose interest and now you try to go get your pilot’s license or something, I don’t know. So that is the opposite path of mastery, that you will never be great at anything if you have that impatience - that instead you need to understand that to be great at anything, it’s going to take a long time.

Maybe having that impatience upfront can be healthy if it makes you focus harder, try harder, practice more. But then you still have to understand that it’s still going to take years. Maybe if you’re impatient you’ll be much, much better in ten years than somebody who is just kind of lackadaisical and committed for ten years, but you still have to understand that it’s going to take years regardless. So, yeah, sorry, to answer your question, it took me 15 years of trying to be a good singer, and I think it’s going to take me 15 years to be a good author and 20 years to be a good programmer. I just assume that these things are going to take a long time, but work as hard as I can in the meantime.

E: Well, “Focus harder, try harder, and practice more” sounds like a great slogan, not just for martial arts, but for anything!

Thanks very much Derek for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast, and for using Leanpub as a platform for Wood Egg.

S: Yeah. I love it! Thanks Len!

E: Thank you.

Roger Peng

Roger Peng is an Associate Professor of Biostatistics at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Data Science Specialization on Coursera and the Simply Statistics blog, where he writes about statistics for the general public.

This interview was recorded on May 27, 2015.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Len Epp: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub. And in this Lean Publishing Podcast interview, I’ll be interviewing Dr. Roger Peng. Roger is an Associate Professor of Biostatistics at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He is also a co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Data Science Specialization on Coursera, which has enrolled over 1.5 million students, and he’s a co-founder of the popular Simply Statistics blog, where he writes about statistics for the general public. Roger’s research interests include the study of air pollution and health risk assessment, and statistical methods for environmental data. He is also a leader in the area of methods and standards for reproduceable research, and is the reproduceable research editor for the Journal of Biostatistics.

In addition to being the author of more than a dozen software packages, implementing statistical methods for environmental studies, he has also given workshops, tutorials and short courses in statistical computing and data analysis. Roger recently published his first Leanpub book, “R Programming for Data Science”, which uses material developed as part of the Johns Hopkins Data Science Specialization. The book is available for free, with a suggested price of $15, and already has over 17,000 readers. The book can also be bought along with lecture videos and datasets.

In this interview, we’re going to talk about Roger’s professional interests, his book, his experiences using Leanpub, and ways we can improve Leanpub for him and other authors. So, thank you Roger for sitting through that introduction and for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast.

Roger: No problem, thanks for having me. And I just want to warn you that my building is right next to the hospital here, so you may hear the occasional siren.

E: That’s okay, it’ll just give some background color.

P: Yeah.

E: So I’d like to start with a couple of biographical questions. Can you tell us how you first became interested in statistics generally, and in biostatistics specifically?

P: That’s a great question. It’s kind of a weird path that I took. I studied math in college, and I think that’s how a lot of people get involved in statistics initially. Part of my math requirements required that I take a course in statistics, so I took a - I think it was probability theory. And I really enjoyed it, and so I kind of kept going down that road and taking more and more statistics classes - and ended up being kind of like a minor in that area. And so I just naturally thought about applying to graduate school. My older brother had gone to graduate school, so I figured that was the right thing to do. And it was kind of funny - so I graduated from college in 1999, and basically it was the dot com craziness. Everyone was going to the software companies, and here I was going to apply to graduate school. So I kind of bucked the trend there.

Anyway, so I applied to graduate school in statistics, because I thought that’s what I wanted to do. Seemed like a fun field. And so, I went to UCLA and got my PhD there. And I originally didn’t learn any biostatistics per se. I wasn’t really working in biomedical sciences. And so I was looking for a job, and my adviser, his grad school roommate was a Professor at Johns Hopkins. I had no intention of really applying there, because I didn’t really think I was doing biostatistics. And then I think, my old roommate’s there, he says he really loves the place, so you should check it out. So I applied and I interviewed, and I really liked the people there. And I thought, “Okay, well even if I’m not specialized in this topic area, it seems like a great environment, a great institution. So I got the job here and I came.

So it was kind of weird, because it wasn’t necessarily directly what my training was. But I think for me, a lot of decisions I make, in terms of what to do or where to go, are based on, what people are involved in it? Are there good people involved? And if I like being with them, then that’s the bottom line for me.

E: That’s interesting how you bring up the startup world as. I mean that’s how a lot of decisions are made in startup-land as well, right? It’s like, we’ve got lots of options, but we’ve got lots of ideas. But what startup should we work with? The people that you’re going to be involved with are often a driving factor there.

P: Yeah, because I think things always change, and the people need to be able to deal with it. And you’ve got to make sure that you’re with the right people when things go wrong.

E: I have this specific question about the work that you’re doing now. It’s on your website that you’re working on environmental biostatistics, and how air pollution and climate change affect human health. Can you give us a little information about how you would use statistics to study those effects?

P: There’s a couple of areas. My biggest area is probably looking at outdoor air pollution and population health. This work directly informs national level type regulation on air pollution standards. So what we do is we look at the study in the US where the US Environmental Protection Agency monitors air pollution all across the country, in all the major cities. The idea is that we want to see how the levels of air pollution that are changing in the air, are related to different population health metrics. So we might, say, look at the number of people who have been hospitalized for a heart attack on a given day, or the number of people who were hospitalized for respiratory infection - something we think is linked to air pollution exposure. So we have these very long time series of daily levels of pollutants, and from day to day, things go up and down.

So, you would imagine that if pollution is linked to health, that as pollution’s going up and down, the various health metrics also should be going up and down. But the problem is that teasing out that signal is really hard. Because it’s not the kind of signal that - air pollution’s not the kind of thing that knocks you over as soon as you walk outside, right? Well at least not in the United States, right? And so, there are all kinds of other competing factors that are a risk for your health. Teasing out the signal that air pollution contributes to either morbidity or mortality risk is really where statistical models are needed.

Back in the old days, in the 40’s and the 50’s, when pollution was just out of control, you didn’t need fancy statistical models to see that it was affecting people’s health. You just had to go out on the street and see people having problems. But now that pollution levels are lower, it’s not so obvious to see those kinds of problems. But nevertheless, we still do see pretty strong associations between changes and pollution levels and various health outcomes.

E: I imagine it must be even more complex when you factor in climate change?

P: Yeah, climate change is an aspect that affects how we think about things in the longer term, right? There are different time scales in which you could think about air pollution problems. One of them is the day to day level. But another one’s how things change over time, and are things improving as air pollution levels go down? Climate change can affect that in a variety of ways. One is affecting the weather, which has an interaction with air pollution levels. And the other is that, as we implement policies to deal with climate change, that has a direct effect on air pollution levels too. So, for example, we want to deal with climate change by shutting down some power plants. Then that will also affect the direct levels of pollution. So there’s lots of interactions between the different things there. And so, statistical modeling is useful for integrating all the different kinds of data that you come across. So there’s climate data or air pollution data or health data. And it’s also useful for teasing out these small signals that we have to detect.

E: And are you always working with a national dataset, or do you focus on a specific region, or say, urban versus rural, or something like that?

P: My work focuses on national-level studies. We get data on the pollution side from the entire US EPA monitoring network. Also, we get health data from really large administrative claims databases like Medicare, and Medicaid, which are these large national insurance programs. So we can look at insurance records and see every time someone was hospitalized - we can mark that up, and then see if it’s related to changes in air pollution levels from the monitoring network.

E: That’s really interesting. This reminds me of stories in the media in the last year or so about Paris shutting down half the cars on the streets, when you can only drive a car if your license plate ends in like an even number, or an odd number, to cut down on car pollution. As you were saying, pollution levels have gone down generally in the States in the last couple of decades - do you see any problem like that emerging in an American city in the next 10 or 15 years?

P: Any problem like what, sorry?

E: Like there is in Paris.

P: If you look across the nation, things have gotten much better over the last few decades. But there are still cities that have very high levels of pollution and still have problems. For example, if you look at the, I think it was in 1996 - the Atlanta Olympics, Summer Olympics. They implemented a scheme like that in terms of traffic, just traffic control. I think just because they envisioned lots of people coming and things like that. But I think there are cities that are still beyond the regulations here in the United States that need to improve their levels. And so, although conditions are generally much better. it’s not a solved problem yet.

E: Just switching gears slightly, and just talking about data science more generally, I looked at the John Hopkins Data Science Lab website, and I’m going to read a quote and ask you to explain a little bit about what it’s talking about. It says, “The revolution in measurement, and the resulting deluge of data has made data science the most important field of study in the world today.” So can you explain a little bit about why data science is so important generally? Just for people who might not be familiar with it.

P: Sure yeah. So I think, if you look around - if you just look around yourself, everything that you look at is essentially generating data. And if it’s not generating data itself, we have some device that can collect data from it. So everywhere you go in the world, and in your life today, there is information that’s being generated, kind of spewing out into the world. And a lot of it we can’t collect - there’s just too much. But we can collect more and more of it as time goes on, because of improvements in technology and in computing power.

And I think if you looked back many, many years, say 100 years, the biggest issue was collecting the data, because it was very expensive, and you had to be very careful not to waste a lot of resources collecting data. And then once you got the data - assuming you did it right - the analysis is pretty straight forward, because there’s maybe 10 data points. But now we have the kind of reverse situation, where the collection of the data is very routine, in fact almost too routine sometimes. I mean, the data is just happening. It’s being collected whether we like it or not. You look at some server web logs, the data’s just being collected, it just is. And so now the analysis actually has become much more complicated, and much more difficult to do, because of the volume and the complexity and the heterogeneity of all the data that’s just being generated automatically.

So the difficulties and the skills that are required have really flipped. Whereas before, you had to be really careful about optimizing your study design and making sure that you’re not wasting things. I mean, you still have to worry about that. But now the skills for data analysis are really necessary. And there are lot of fields that didn’t emphasize the data analysis part. And they’re realizing now, “Oh, actually we’ve really got to train people in this area,” whereas in the past we did not have to. So that’s why I say that I think data science is, in many ways, taking over every area of either science or business or whatever. Because everywhere there’s data. And so the skills to analyze those data are becoming increasingly valuable.

E: I imagine that the presence of this data is unlocking new areas of study. For example, in the past, people weren’t all wearing Fitbit’s and clocking their steps every day and stuff like that. So now that things are being tracked that weren’t being tracked before, it must open up new areas for study.

P: Yeah, there are new areas of study being created. Things like wearable computing - that didn’t exist a couple of years ago. There’s just new kinds of data that we’ve never seen before, and so we don’t even know how to characterize it. If you have an accelerometer that you’re wearing, how do we even get any information from that data? How do we know what you’re doing with the accelerometer? That’s where statisticians like me, and many other people that I work with, earn our money, because we have to figure out ways to look at the data, to characterize it, to understand what’s happening.

E: Okay, I’m not sure if my next question is related to that. But you do say on your website that you have a special interest in reproducible research. I was wondering if you could explain a little bit about what reproducible research means, and why it’s so important to you and to your field?

P: Reproducible research is like the scientific analogue of open source software. The basic idea is that, for your, for work to be reproducible - and there’s a lot of confusion sometimes about the terminology - the idea is that you want your data and your software code to be available for others to look at. So, the idea is that I can take your data, and I can take the software that you used to analyze it. And I can reproduce the numbers that you’ve published, or the graph or the plots that you made. Or whatever it is that the result was. It’s not that I’m going to redo your whole study, I’m just goint to take your data and produce what you produced.

And the funny thing is that, this was not really that important many years ago. Because the data, it was so small - there was no software, right? There was nothing to provide. If you really want to know whether an experiment was valid or not, you would just do it again, right? You’d do it yourself, right? But now the problem is a lot of studies are so big, and they involve such large quantities of data that the collection of it - like I said before, the collection of the data’s not really the challenging part. It’s really the analysis, and how they analyze data to come to a conclusion about nature or whatever it is they’re studying. That’s really where all the difficulty is.

So we really need to know, the problem is that the publishing infrastructure is not really designed to let people know what those details are. So the bottom line way to know what those details are, is to see the code to see the data. But again, because a lot of this happened very quickly, there isn’t the kind of infrastructure there for allowing people access to data, giving people access to software code. And so a lot of that has to be built. So I was interested early on in getting this idea across to people, and convincing them that it had to happen in order for science to then move forward.

E: It’s really interesting. I mean, I know that in the popular science media there have been articles over the last year or so about how the interests of scientists aren’t necessarily aligned with actually reproducing research. Because you get the headline or you get the promotion or you get the patent or something like that for actually doing the original research. And so, often articles will be published, and I guess there’s some very low proportion of experiments or studies that are actually reproduced at all.

P: Yeah, yeah.

E: I mean, is that true in your specialty as well? That there’s less of an incentive to just work on reproducing someone’s results than there are to do your own original work?

P: Yeah, I mean I think that’s a general phenomenon, and it’s a general aspect of our culture. I think the emphasis is on discovery, and I think analyzing a published data set and coming to the same results is not what might be considered as discovery, right? On the other hand, analyzing someone else’s data set and finding out something that was wrong, well that is discovery, right? So there are some people interested in doing that. But in general, just reproducing another finding is difficult. It’s sometimes difficult to, for example, get funding for, or to get published in a high profile journal.

However, when it comes to something that’s really high impact, something that’s really interesting to that subfield, to that field, it will get reproduced. If it’s something that’s really surprising or something that could have an impact on the entire field, people are going to want to know whether it’s true or not. And the only way you determine whether it’s true or not, is to have multiple people do the same experiment independently.

E: Right.

P: If no one cares about it, then it’s kind of hard to justify reproducing it. And there’s a lot of scientific publications out there. And it’s, it’s not like every single one of them is going to be reproduced. It’s just not physically possible.

E: Right, okay.

P: But there are many examples in the recent popular press, either of things that were faked or things that weren’t reproduced. And you realize that that’s kind of how the system is supposed to work. There’s this example with stem cells I think. It was a very surprising result, right? So what happened? Well, immediately ten labs went to reproduce it, and they couldn’t do it. None of them could do it. So they knew it was wrong. And so, there is an interest in reproducing things, but probably weighted more on the things that are surprising or really exciting.

E: Fair enough. Speaking of original research, I read in the preface to your book that your first experience with R - and I’ll ask you a question about that in just a minute - involved an analysis of word frequencies in classic texts like Shakespeare and Milton, to see if you could identify authorship based on word frequency. And I was wondering if you could explain a little bit about how you got into that, and what your results were, if you can remember that far back?

P: To be honest, I can’t remember how I got into it. I needed a senior project when I was in college, and I think my advisor pointed me to this paper, it was published in the 60’s, about two statisticians who had analyzed the Federalist Papers, because there was some controversy over who wrote which of the Federalist Papers. And so they did a little statistical analysis, and I adopted the same approach that they took. The question was, “Can you identify certain written works based on the rate at which they use what are called function words?” Words you don’t really think about, like “the”, “and” , “he”, “she”. You probably don’t spend a lot of thought on how frequently you’re going to use that word. And so, the idea is that it reflects your natural personal style.

And so the analysis involves taking these texts that we downloaded out of Project Gutenberg, and you’d use a Perl script to divide up the text into words, and to count how often they used a certain sub-set of these function words. And then, from that - I don’t know how technical you want to get, but we used a basic linear discriminant analysis to see if we could separate one author from another. And it was pretty straightforward actually. It was surprising how well things authors separated. Granted, we picked a group of people who were pretty different from each other. But you could see that authors that wrote in the same time period, they were closer to each other than authors that were writing in very different time periods. And so, there was a kind of logic to what we found - it did seem that a lot of the books or plays from these famous writers were identifiable from these patterns of how frequently they used these kind of meaningless words.

E: And did you have - I’m just curious if you had any kind of response from people on the humanities end of things?

P: Well I would be surprised if you met anyone who’s actually read that paper. I mean it was published in a statistics journal, so I’m not sure how often they’re pulling that off the shelf.

E: Well it’s interesting, because there are some pretty big controversies about authorship, specifically around Shakespeare, right? Like did Shakespeare write the plays? Or was it a group of people, or was it in fact someone else? And so I was just curious when I read about your experience with that - if anyone had kind of gone, “Aha, here’s another tool for me to make my argument that it was actually not Shakespeare who wrote the plays,” or something like that.

P: No, I have not gotten any emails or issues along those lines. But I think you’re right though. Authorship is always a very interesting topic to people. And even not just in literature, but in many different areas. It is interesting to think about how you would characterize numerically something like - for example, a piece of music or whatever, and then be able to separate it between two different people or so. But I’ve not been enlisted in that.

E: Yeah, it’s a fascinating space. I mean, because there are often biographical things that people will try to pull out of an author’s writings. Like, were they hiding something? And people will, I mean, I know this from my experience in the humanities, that sometimes people will try to tease those things out. But it’s been quite a while since I’ve heard of anyone trying to do a statistical analysis of word use like that.

P: Yeah.

E: Anyway, moving on, to talk about your book more specifically. You explain in the book that the R programming language has become the de facto programming language for data science. Can you explain a little bit about what R is, and why that’s happened?

P: Yeah sure, I’ll try. R is a language that was started in the early 90’s. It was created by two statisticians from New Zealand. Originally they wanted to create a statistical language that was free, and that could run on very lightweight computers - I think they were using old Macintoshes - and they wanted to use it to teach statistics. That was their goal. They didn’t have any grand aspirations at that time, I think. But, one of the issues - so, back then, open source software was still in some sense controversial. There were really no statistical packages of any quality that were free or open source. And so, you had to pay a lot of money to use these statistical packages to analyze any data. Unless you were at a big company or at a university, you didn’t really have access to this kind of stuff.

And so they put R up on the web in the later 90’s. And it was really one of the first open source statistical packages out there that you could really use to do serious data analysis. I found it just because I didn’t really want to pay the money for all these expensive packages. And so, I found it, and I started using it pretty early on actually. It’s a language that’s in some sense a clone of an earlier language called S+, which was one of the ones that cost a lot of money. A lot of people, including myself, had been trained on S+, and so it was easy to go over to R. It had a similar syntax - things like that. So that’s how I started out using it.

And I think very quickly, as many successful open source projects I think experience, a big community developed around it - all over the world, in Europe, the US and Latin America, Central America. A lot of people gathered around it, I think initially because it was free, and eventually I think because the community itself becomes a reason to use the package. People started building add-on packages that you could load up, and it became this thing where all of a sudden R was better at some things than a lot of the commercial packages. And I think from then there was no turning back.

I got involved somewhat early on in the kind of history of language, and saw it develop and become popular. And now it’s actually hard for me to comprehend sometimes, how popular it’s become. I always thought it would be this niche academic thing. But now it’s in business everywhere. There’s companies developed around selling and consulting in R, and there are a lot of data science companies using it for analysis. Its capabilities have just really expanded in so many different directions. One of the things that makes it great is that it has this ability to be very customizable. Anyone can implement a procedure that they want to use to analyze their data. It’s a very flexible and powerful programming language, and it has a great community behind it, an enormous community now, to support and to learn new things.

E: Speaking about size of community, I noticed from the description of your book, that the Coursera course it’s partially based on has 1.5 million people who have participated in it. I’m wondering just if you could explain it a little bit about that, or if I’ve got it slightly wrong?

P: The 1.5 million is not for the one course. We have a sequence of courses that they call specialization on Coursera, and the sequence has nine courses. That’s our data science specialization. And it kind of follows the pipeline from, how do you get data, to how do you clean it, to how do you kind of analyze it? Then how do you make data products? So R programming is just 1 of the 9 courses. It runs every month, and it’s a month long course that runs every month. It typically gets on the order of 40,000 to 45,000 students enrolled per month.

E: Wow.

P: The other 8 courses are not all quite as popular as that. Across the 9 courses, they all run every month, we get about 170,000 people enrolled per month. And so we have a lot of students. There’s a lot of interest obviously in this area, and the R programming class is one of the more popular ones in the sequence.

E: Do you know if your students are coming from all around the world? Are they concentrated in certain areas?

P: They are coming from all over for sure. Less than half come from the US. Something like 30 to 40% come from the US, and then the rest come from all over. We get a lot of people from China, Brazil, India, the UK. So it’s kind of all over the map, yeah.

E: That’s amazing. Are they mostly people who are studying in a university somewhere, who get directed towards one of the nine courses, or towards the entire specialization?

P: The people who are studying in university are a big group. But they’re not the majority. A lot of the people that we get are working full time, and are kind of looking to upgrade their skills. To learn something new, and to maybe look to change careers or change positions in whatever they’re doing. I think our sequence is structured nicely for those kinds of people, because it’s a month long. It runs very frequently, so you can take it whenever you’re ready. It’s a lot of working professional type of people.

E: I imagine that the courses are taught mostly by video?

P: Yes, we have lecture videos. And then, depending on the nature of the course, we may have quizzes. My course has programming assignments that you have to complete, and they are graded by a unit testing framework. Some of the courses have projects where you have to do a data analysis, or create some software. So yeah, we have all kinds of things like that.

E: And is having accompanying books, is that a conventional thing for a Coursera course? Or is that something that you and your colleagues are innovators on?

P: That’s a good question. It’s hard to say what’s conventional, for something, for a phenomenon that’s like 3 years old.

E: Very good point.

P: But I don’t know, I don’t think it’s that common, unless you are someone who already had a textbook. But we felt like it was a natural thing to do. And I think we would have done it sooner had we learned about Leanpub sooner. We were looking, but we couldn’t quite find the right mechanism. We didn’t want to use a regular publisher, and I think the nature of the courses that we teach - it’s very low cost, it’s hopefully accessible. And you can take it for free, so it’s hopefully accessible to as many people as possible. We wanted to layer on something like a textbook, using a similar kind of model. And the traditional publisher really was not the way to do that.

E: No, no, fair enough! Do you use the ability to update your book quite a bit? Is that something you do once every couple of weeks?

P: No, well - initially I did update it a little bit. But the courses are fairly mature at this point, so they don’t change that much. And I wanted the book to match the course material somewhat closely, not exactly. My plan is that the books will evolve. So maybe not on a very frequent basis, but on a regular basis things will be added to the course, things will be added to the book, and so some things will be updated.

E: And what were some of the reasons you didn’t want to go with a traditional publisher?

P: Well, so I’ve done it before. I have another book through a traditional academic publisher. The bottom line is that they don’t really hit the right audiences, in my opinion. And also they - you have to charge a lot of money to make it worth your while. From an author’s point of view, you’re going to have to charge a lot of money to make it worth your while. It’s also a very slow process, because the publisher really doesn’t do anything for you. You have to do all the formatting, everything.

E: Oh really, you have to do the formatting as well?

P: Oh yeah, I mean for an academic book, unless you’re writing something that’s guaranteed to be a bestseller, you have to do everything. They do a little bit of marketing for you, and then they go to the conferences and stand at the exhibit booth for you. But there’s not much else that happens. And they do a little editing. So it’s a lot of work to go through, and then to have to sell it at such a high price. The number of people who are going to see this book is very limited from the get-go. I had that experience already with one of my other books. And so I was looking for something different, something that we could price low but still make it worth our while. And I think Leanpub just kind of hit all those points. And in addition, I think the authoring process I found really attractive.

E: Oh great.

P: Writing in Markdown, but still being able to do all the mathematics and the code and everything. It was just, it hit the right kind of balance I think.

E: So you were familiar with Markdown before you came to Leanpub?

P Yeah, in fact we teach it in one of our courses.

E: Oh, great. Just talking shop a little bit - can you tell us how you found out about Leanpub? Was it just kind of searching around for a publishing platform?

P: Yeah, so I actually heard about it from one of my colleagues. My colleague, Brian Caffo, who teaches the specialization with me. He’s one of these guys that he’s like - his brain is kind of connected to the Internet. So he’s always aware of what the latest things are. And I think he found it, and he published a book, it’s called, “Statistical Inference.” And he just raved about it, so to the point where I said, “Okay, if I don’t do this myself, I’m just going to have to keep listening to him talk about it.” So I just signed up and started the book. And once I just got going, I realized, this is just like - it feels like, I don’t know, it kind of feels like Leanpub has just hit every pain point that I had about publishing, like simultaneously - I don’t know, like maybe you guys are living in my bedroom or something - figured out every problem that I had with the publishing process, you just solved it. And so, it was just a weird coincidence I think.

E: Well that’s very nice to say, and I’m very glad to hear that. I mean, Leanpub’s been around for a couple of years already, and customer development has been really important to us. So a lot of what you’re seeing in Leanpub is other people like you who’ve been kicking the tires for quite some time, and giving us feedback. And it is one of the pleasures of working with people who are doing something serious and sustained, like writing a book - is that, they like to give you feedback, and they like to write. And they like to analyze things. So I’m really glad to hear that, because if you find something in Leanpub that you’re like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe that was there, but that’s exactly what I needed,” that’s probably because someone just like you was there at some point when it didn’t exist, and was like, “You know what would be really great, would be if we had this.”

On that note actually, I would like to know if there’s anything you think that we could do to improve? Or if there was anything you saw that was missing? If you could have your one wish feature built for you, what would that be?

P: There probably is something, but I can’t - it’s one of those things where like, when someone asks you, you don’t remember. Right now it’s really quite good for me. And I think actually, it’s quite good for academic publishing. If you’re writing, if you’re a different kind of writer, I don’t know how good it is for you. But for people like me, who are doing academic publishing, I think it’s just the right tool and it’s just the right model for that style. Unfortunately I don’t have my wish list in front of me.

E: That’s okay, that’s okay. If you ever think of anything, please get in touch.

P: Yeah, but I think - I really am serious though when I say that you really hit all the major points. And so I think you’re at least 90% of the way there, so there’s another 10%, we’ll figure it out.

E: Well thanks very much for that actually. I do have just one more question about academic publishing specifically. It’s something we’ve been thinking about for quite some time now. And I was wondering, one of the big questions about academic publishing is that people are often looking - I mean, if they’re tenure track, but they don’t have tenure yet, that’s kind of the most important promotion point. And there’s often very specific, in fact even calculated methods for saying what the value is of getting a publication in a certain journal. I don’t know how much it’s like this in the States, but definitely in the UK. They have this thing called the “Research Assessment Exercise,” which actually kind of quantifies your contribution to the field. And often this is based on rankings of journals or university presses for example. And so getting a monograph published with The Oxford University Press or something like that is worth more than one from somewhere else. I’m curious about what you might think about that when it comes to academic publishing in the future. Do you think this is something that’s going to change, where for example, if you published an academic book on Leanpub, it’s hard to know how it would fit in with that ranking, where people are looking for quantified professional development?

P: Yeah, I think that’s a short term issue. So people today may have an issue, may have a problem, because it’s we’re in transition. Ebooks are still kind of new. But I think in a couple of years, it won’t even come up. And the idea that you’re self-publishing in a way, or whatever, is not such a big deal, because I think with books in particular, the publishing process is not like when you’re writing a journal article, which is peer reviewed. With books, there are peer reviewers, but it’s a much - you have much more control, and it’s much more your thing. And so, it’s much more of a personal statement when you write a book, I think, then if you write a journal article, it’s a research article.

I think with books, what it comes down to is not so much like, “Oh is this publisher good or not?” It’s more about - well it’s a really big commitment of time to write a good book. And if you’re a junior professor, you’re looking to get promoted - you’re going to think, “Oh, what’s the trade-off here? I could spend this amount of time to write this book, or I could spend the same amount of time to write two research articles.” Because there’s a huge commitment of time, and there’s a trade off: “I’ve got to do one or the other, I can’t do both.”

And I think one thing that’s nice about something like Leanpub, and a lot of these other tools out there - is that, it really decreases the amount of time that’s not spent just directly producing content. Because time is the one resource that is the most important resource. If you can minimize the amount of time doing things that are really not that important, like emailing back and forth with the publisher or whatever, and just really focus on writing content and writing your book - Again, that’s one of the beauties of Markdown, right? You’re just focused on writing the content. I think that is a major plus. And that’s what I tell people now too. The tools are developed such that you don’t have to waste time figuring out, how do you format things correctly, or how to get things - how to produce things. You just focus on writing. And I think that’s the kind of thing that I would worry about most in terms of the time trade-off for writing a book versus not writing a book. I think it’s not so much an issue, like, “Oh, should I go with this publisher or that publisher?”

E: Thanks very much for that. I really appreciate you giving us your time today. Unless you have any questions for me, I’d just like to say thanks for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast, and for being a Leanpub author.

P: Well thanks for having me, I’m really enjoying it.

E: Thanks.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

W. Jason Gilmore

W. Jason Gilmore is a Columbus, Ohio-based software developer, writer and consultant. He is the author of eight books on web development, and has published over 300 articles in publications like JSMag, and Linux Magazine. He has published three books on Leanpub, the most recent being Easy E-Commerce Using Laravel and Stripe

This interview was recorded on May 28, 2015.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Len Epp: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Lean Publishing Podcast, I’ll be interviewing Jason Gilmore.

Jason is a Columbus, Ohio-based software developer, writer and consultant. His recent projects include a Linux powered autonomous environmental monitoring buoy, and an e-commerce analytics application for a globally recognized publisher. Jason is the author of eight books on web development, including the best-selling “Beginning PHP and MySQL, Fourth Edition”, “Easy PHP Websites with the Zend Framework, Second Edition”, and three Leanpub books, “Easy Active Record for Rails Developers,” “Easy Laravel 5”, and most recently, “Easy E-Commerce Using Laravel and Stripe,” which he wrote along with his co-author Eric Barnes. Jason has also published over 300 articles in publications such as developer.com, JSMag, and Linux Magazine, and he has instructed hundreds of students in the United States and Europe.

In this interview, we’re going to talk about Jason’s professional interests, his books, his experiences using Leanpub, and ways we could improve Leanpub for him and other authors. So thank you Jason for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast.

Jason Gilmore: Thank you for having me, it’s quite a pleasure and an honor.

E: I’d like to start maybe with a biographical question, going way back. Can you tell us how you first became interested in being a software developer?

G: Sure. I think I’ve spent the majority of my life sitting in front of a computer of varying types. By the time I went to college, it was really a forgone conclusion, that I would wind up in software, just out of a pure interest in the topic that has again really been a lifelong interest. At the time didn’t know where I would end up in the software world, but I just knew I had to find a place somewhere within the industry. And I’ve had a lot of fun ever since.

E: So did you study computer science?

G: I did, I studied computer science at the Ohio State University based right here in Columbus, Ohio, and upon graduation, have since spent the majority of the last 17 years or so working for a wide variety of companies and clientele. I’ve spent the majority of my career working as an independent contractor. And I’ve worked with universities, with startups, small mom-and-pop type businesses, as well as a lot of other larger organizations as well. And I’ve always found it very interesting, because no matter whether it’s a mom-and-pop organization or a large company, there’s always a new and unique angle to the project you’re working on. So I’ve really enjoyed really every minute of it.

E: I imagine working freelance, or maybe “independently” might be a better word, must have a lot of advantages in terms of control over your time and the projects that you’re working on?

G: Absolutely. Especially I think - and this happens to a lot of more experienced developers - over time you begin to have the luxury of choosing more interesting projects. And that has certainly been the case in recent years. I’ve had the opportunity to work on a variety of e-commerce projects, both on the sales side and the analytic side. I’ve worked on some data warehousing projects. And as you mentioned in my bio, I had this really, really fascinating opportunity to work on a Linux-powered environmental monitoring device, which was way out of my general scope of knowledge, so it was quite a challenging project and a lot of fun. So, like I said, it’s great to work in this capacity, because there really always seems to be something interesting going on.

E: It sounds really interesting to have such a wide array of things to work on, and never knowing what’s around the next bend. Perhaps this is related to that, but at what point did you start writing about your work?

G: Interestingly enough, my writing career, if you will, started almost at the very same time that I landed my first professional programming gig. Making a very long story short, I was living overseas at the time, and I was working on a project for a company in Italy, and it just so happened that it was PHP based. At the time of course, PHP - this was 1998 I think - PHP was of course just a few short years old at that time. So I was scouring the web for learning resources, and happened upon a website that is still around today, called devshed.com. I went to the homepage - I remember this like it was yesterday.

I went to the home page, and there was an ad, a banner on the front page that said, “Devshed is looking for authors.” And I thought, “Wow, that sounds like it might be interesting.” So I emailed the individual running the site. And it was a gentleman named Randy Cosby. I sent along a couple article ideas. It was for both PHP- and MySQL-related topics. As I mentioned, they were looking for authors. So Randy was excited that somebody had inquired I guess. And next thing I know, I was writing regular articles for the website. I really enjoyed that, and interestingly, that began what I commonly refer to as my two careers in the software industry. One - hands-on doing development and consulting. And the other, a much more, let’s call it academic career, in which I was at least attempting to educate my fellow developers in some fashion.

And that project led to - now I’m dating myself, this was a long time ago - some early tutorials for the very new mysql.com at the time. Again, they were very happy to receive material, I guess. I wrote for zend.com, for O’Reilly Net when they were actively publishing tutorials, Web Review, and a wide variety of publications that were really popular at the time, I guess. And a lot of those have gone away, but what that did was give me experience, right? I prior to that had really no writing experience, other then that gained at college, writing the occasional essay.

So this was a great way to formulate my thoughts, and I guess prove to myself that I understood whatever that topic was. And again, back then it was primarily PHP and MySQL. And over the years again, that lead to writing for Linux Magazine, for TechTarget - so a wide variety of publications. And it gave me the experience to formulate these thoughts and try and communicate a usually highly technical topic in an understandable way. And I continued doing that very regularly. Certainly on a monthly basis, all the way up through graduating from college when I returned to the United States.

I finished my degree, and I’m not sure, it was two weeks after I had graduated that I received an email from a gentleman named Gary Cornell, who was a founder of Apress, a computer book publisher. And Gary said in the email - I also remember this like it was yesterday - “I really like your PHP articles. Do you want to write a book?” And I had never in a million years considered this idea of writing a book. Again, I had just graduated, and I was doing some contract work, even at that time. I responded and said, “Sure, let’s do this,” and ended up writing a book that was called, “A Programmer’s Introduction to PHP 4.0.” And that published in January of 2001, if I’m not mistaken. I effectively dropped everything and wrote that book over the course of about four and a half months. And I mean, I just - I dropped everything and just wrote full time. Because I was so excited about this interesting opportunity. And that book published, and it did moderately well. But what that did was really give me the writing bug, and really motivated me to devote an increasing amount of time to writing. And that led to the next book, which published in 2004. And the next in ‘05. And here we are, this is hard to believe - 14 years later, and I just published the ninth book through Leanpub.

Along the way, I stepped further into the publishing industry. I spent several years working as Apress’s open source editorial director, acquiring books that fell into the open source genre of all types - Linux, MySQL, Postgres - you name it. Pretty much anything exciting that was open source-related. I worked with authors to publish their books - that was a lot of fun as well. But here we are again 14, 15 years later and I’m still writing away and still having a great time doing it.

E: That’s a really great story. Obviously I have quite a few questions about your opinions about publishing and the industry, and where it’s going and your experience. But before I get to those, I’ve just got a couple of other questions I’d like to ask about. I know that you’re a co-founder of the annual CodeMash Conference, which is the largest multi-day developer event in the mid-west. I was just wondering if you could explain a little bit about what CodeMash is, and why you helped found it?

G: Sure, CodeMash is an annual event that is held here in Northern Ohio, in a town called Sandusky, Ohio, which is also home to Cedar Point, the large amusement park, just for a point of reference. And CodeMash was started, I guess, 11 years ago - give or take. By myself, a gentleman named Brian Prince, and another gentleman named Jim Holmes. CodeMash came out of a series of conversations that a group of us had about the mid-west and the lack of at the time - now this has very much changed - the lack of tech conferences. Given our three respective professions, it just so happened that we traveled on a regular basis to - well really all over the country, but to the east and west coast primarily to attend tech conferences.

I was at the time working for Apress as an editor, and that meant going out and meeting prospective authors all of the time. And one of the best places to do that logically is at conferences. So I would attend all of the conferences, and always marveled over how they were always in California, or always in Portland or Seattle or New York or Boston. And this, despite there being a very large technical community in the mid-west. And we just really concluded that the mid-west, and Ohio in particular wasn’t getting its due in that regards, and had the crazy idea - trust me, very crazy idea - that we would change that and start a conference.

And that conference became CodeMash. And CodeMash is, I think, a very unique event in that, well, it’s held in Sandusky, Ohio, which was not a tech hub for starters. But it also happens to be held in a place called the Kalahari Water Park and Convention Center. The Kalahari is the largest indoor water park in the United States, among other things. Well, we hold this in January, and Sandusky, being in the northern part of Ohio, is a very cold place, very snowy. So we have this interesting scenario where the weather is usually absolutely horrible, but there’s a large group of attendees inside, because the Kalahari is like a small city, it’s a very large complex, wearing shorts and sandals and it’s almost like a tropical environment. It’s really kind of funny. And so we have the water park, and there’s all of the things that you might imagine would come with that water park. There’s a large arcade, there’s all sorts of forms of entertainment. But, at the same time, the conference, which is now four days in duration, hosts - I’ve lost track, somewhere north of 250 sessions over four days.

E: Oh wow.

G: Half day sessions, which are four hours, full day sessions which are eight hours. And then something like 200 one-hour sessions on the Thursday and Friday. We also have something called KidsMash, which is a companion kids’ conference. So because the Kalahari’s a fun place for families to attend, the kids have the opportunity if they’d like to attend KidsMash, and learn about robotics and learn about programming and technology in general. So it’s certainly earned a reputation as being a very family friendly conference. And that’s something that you certainly do not see at other conference venues.

Over the years we’ve hosted a number of different bands. So we’ve had a number of rock bands, if you will, play on Thursday night. We have a water park party, and there’s a game room that goes on I think 18 hours a day, where you can play Settlers of Catan and all kinds of other interesting games. So a lot of fun, a lot of networking goes on. The event has grown to somewhere north of 2,000 attendees. So great networking, a great opportunity to learn.

And over the years, even as the conference has grown, we’ve stayed true to the really central idea that it would be low-cost. If you go to the west coast or the east coast, because the cost of everything is much higher - I mean the cost to rent a conference center in Portland is just astronomical, right? Because it’s so much higher, you wind up paying a pretty hefty price for a conference ticket. CodeMash, for all four days is just a couple of hundred dollars.

E: Wow, that’s amazing.

G: We have a very special hotel rate, yes absolutely. And the conference is, it’s a non profit 506-E3. The committee have certainly stayed true to that tenet of providing this low cost, high quality event. And just to clarify, I say “we” because of course, this goes back more than a decade, and I’m still in many ways very wedded to the conference. But I, and one of the other co-founders, are - we call it “retired” as of last year. So we are consulting members to the board, if you will. Which means we complain about whatever, and are generally useless. But it’s a great event, and if you’re - I was going say anywhere in the mid-west, consider attending. But the reality is, if you’re anywhere in the United States, I would suggest giving it a look. We have people from California, Florida, Georgia, Texas. People come from overseas every year - from England, from Germany. So it’s grown to be quite a sizable event, and I strongly recommend checking it out.

E: Well thanks for that, it sounds like a really great thing to have created, and very innovative in the best sense of the term.

Just switching gears a little bit. I have a question I read in the introduction to Easy Laravel 5, your Leanpub book. You focused on PHP for much of your career, as you’ve been saying in this interview. But then you wandered away from PHP for a while, before coming back to it via Laravel. Can you explain this professional journey, and why you were losing interest more or less in PHP, and why you came back to it?

G: Yeah, absolutely. Back in - let’s say 2008, 2009, I think the sentiment was shared by a number of other programmers at the time. It just felt like maybe the PHP language was being passed by, in a sense, by other emerging technologies. And certainly this is maybe a general characteristic fault of many developers - myself included, that you’re always looking for the next new interesting, shiny object to learn about. And there was quite a bit going on at that time. Node had just come out, in ‘09. I think Angular had just come out. Rails of course was a very, very hot topic at the time. And it just seemed like there was a lot going on in these other areas, that wasn’t necessarily going on in PHP. It almost sounds like an accusation, when in reality, maybe I was part of the problem, right? But being an open source project, if I had felt that, and others had felt that - maybe we should have attempted to inject some excitement into the community. But at any rate, there were a number of individuals who did do that, right? And I think the sentiment was widely held at the time.

And, so I’d stepped away. Not stepped away, I just had gotten caught up in doing a lot of Rails work at the time, frankly. But none the less, having been involved with PHP for so long over the years, of course I just kept an eye on what was going on. And out of nowhere, along comes - for instance, Composer, the package manager, which was and still is a huge improvement to the overall workings of PHP application development. And then of course, a number of frameworks really started to get popular. And we saw a lot of micro frameworks come out of nowhere. Laravel came along. And all of a sudden, there was - PHP went from being an area that, although still in very widespread usage - I mean, there’s no debate about that, it was just not a particularly exciting place to be in, and suddenly it became an incredibly hot topic again. And really it was Laravel in particular that captured my attention. And here we are. I’ve since written 2 books about the topic. But it was really interesting and I think exciting to see this community that has been so prominent for so long, really - it has a second wind right now, or maybe third wind. But I think there’s really no more exciting time than now to be a PHP developer. Which is pretty cool considering the language is, I guess technically, 20 years old, right?

E: Yeah.

G: And you can’t really say that about a lot of programming languages. It’s just a very exciting time for PHP developers, and I’m glad to be part of it.

E: Speaking about your books, I noticed that sometimes you involve the idea of getting the person who’s reading the book involved in the development of a real world project. I found the Arcade Nomad project to be fascinating in particular. After I read it, I lost some time doing retro gaming, specifically Shinobi. I’d forgotten that if you touched someone or something, you just die.

G: That’s right.

E: No health points or anything like that, you’re just gone.

G: I have a Shinobi arcade game in here in my house. It’s one of my favorite video games of all time.

E: Oh yeah, it’s fantastic. Before I move on, I have a question related to that. Can you give a description about what the Arcade Nomad project is, and what inspired it?

G: Sure. I am a very big believer of including companion projects in the book - so, basing the book around some sort of thematic project that would certainly be a viable, real world application that somebody might want to build, and maybe turn into a business. And at the same time, I’m very adamant about only writing about technologies and topics that interest me. Because I think you’re going to write a better book if you’re truly into the topic, and interested in the topic, then I think a better book is going to come out of it. And being a child of the 80’s, I spent a heck of a lot of time playing arcade games inside malls and gas stations and grocery stores, and you name it. Of course as the years have passed, those arcade games have become very few and far between. At least here in Ohio, there’s almost no arcades left.

So I thought it would be interesting to basically build a companion project that would allow fellow interested aficionados of arcade games to add arcade games that they find out in the wild - maybe if they’re at a gas station or a laundromat or whatever. They could add the game to the site and help fellow arcade gamers find those as they’re passing by. That became the theme project for Easy Active Record For Rails Developers. I had a lot of fun building it. Unfortunately, I don’t travel anywhere near as much as I used to, so I don’t exactly contribute to the site. But yeah, you really want a project that captures the attention or the fascination of the reader, and can hold their attention throughout the course of the book. Whether the reader is 20 years old or 50 years old, I think pretty much - I’m stereotyping a bit here - but pretty much everybody in tech can relate to video games at one level or another.

E: On that note, I actually noticed an interesting element to your latest book, Easy E-Commerce using Laravel and Stripe. There’s sort of a gaming element built into it, where there’s this fictitious lawn care company named, “We Do Lawns.”

G: That’s right.

E: And there’s this villain, who’s actually a boss, whom you set up as the surly company owner, Todd McDew. You set up this narrative where you’re actually doing work for this company owner and trying to sort of satisfy him at the end of each chapter…

G: That’s right. “Easy E-Commerce using Laravel and Stripe” was without a doubt the book that I had the most fun writing. And that was with a co-author, Eric Barnes, who’s also the founder of the very popular Laravel News website and newsletter. I had an absolute blast writing this book with Eric. The whole concept of the “We Do Lawns” fictional company and its owner, Todd McDew, and it’s assistant Patti Oregano, came about during the course of a very early conversation that Eric and I had about the book. We knew we wanted to base it around a companion project. I’m pretty sure it was Eric that came up with the idea of the landscaping company, and I think the name as well. And so of course we bought the domain, because of course that’s the first thing you do when you think of any project, right? Rush out and buy the domain before somebody else snaps it up.

And that just very quickly evolved into this story within a story, in which we had the company owner, Todd McDew - he’s a very gruff individual who knows he wants the website, but he doesn’t like tech. And so he begrudgingly basically works with you, the reader, to build the site. So we wanted to inject, even though it’s of course a little melodramatic, we wanted to inject this sense of realism into the book, where not only are you learning about Laravel and Stripe, but you’re additionally getting some sense of the tension that you might encounter when you’re working with a client who might not be entirely rational. He might be making odd requests for certain features and things like that. So we just had fun with it. And I think the book is much better because of it. We have some really - I hope - funny dialogue at the end of each chapter, in which you’re interacting with Mr McDew, and you’re telling him about the features, and he’s asking questions, very valid questions - and offering his opinion.

Not all tech books need to be boring and dry and very academic in nature. I mean the reality is, you can write a book that people enjoy reading, and have fun reading, and hopefully learn something from it that ultimately enriches their careers. I know that’s the type of book I want to write, and I have a hard time believing I’ll ever write a book that does not include some sort of companion project for those very reasons.

E: On that subject, and the subject of your writing and your experience with publishing and the kind of books you want to write - I wanted to ask you, given you’ve had experience writing a successful print book, and your work with Apress - I’d like to know why you decided to switch to Leanpub?

G: How many hours do we have? My interaction with Apress, as I mentioned, goes back 15 years now, and I’m still great friends with many of their employees. Apress is very much a part of me in many, many ways. And you’re right, I did write a very successful book for Apress, that has been in print for 11 years next month - and that’s very hard to believe. The book is called, “Beginning PHP and MySQL,” it’s in its fourth edition. And that was published in June of 2004. So we’re fast approaching it’s 11th year in print. By any measure, that’s a rare, an extraordinarily lucky outcome or result, to have a book that’s been in print that long. I’ve had a royalty stream for 11 years because of that book, and it’s worked out great. I can’t even imagine it could’ve worked out any better, right?

So logically - believe me, I’ve been asked this question many times - logically, why would you not continue working in that fashion? And the answer is, I think, complicated, but it really boils down to several key factors, first and foremost being control. I have complete control over how I write the book, how I go about writing the book, what my schedule is going to be for the book, how I want to market the book. Do I want to sell it just electronically, or do I want to do a print book? Which I have done, I self-published, “Easy PHP Websites with the Zend Framework” back in 2009 and 2010. And I published that as a real-deal print book, through a real, very famous computer book printer up in Michigan, called Malloy, and went through the process of publishing it in a very traditional fashoin. I’ve since moved away from that because the electronic format has become, without a doubt, the predominant way to purchase computer books these days. But certainly control is a big part of it. I control all of those factors now, and I very much like that.

But let’s, I mean, let’s not beat around the bush here. It also comes down to the revenue side. And Apress is, almost becomes, irrelevant when we move onto the revenue side. Because all traditional book publishers generally structure their compensation agreements, their royalty agreements, in the very same way: typically, an author gets an advance, which could be anywhere between - let’s call it three and six or seven thousand dollars these days - and there’s also the royalty stream that comes from it, which typically, this does vary a bit, but typically starts at 10, 12 percent. And what a lot of first time authors do not understand is that that comes from the net sale of the book. So if a book has a price tag of, let’s call it $50, it’s sold into a chain - Amazon, what have you - at a discount, because logically, the retailer needs to make money, so they’re not buying it at list. They’re buying it at discount. And I’m just throwing out a number here, just to keep this straight, let’s say it’s 50%. So a $50 book is sold in at $25. That is the number from which royalties are calculated. And again, just using the number 10% to keep this simple: a $25 sell in gives the author a $2.50 per unit royalty.

And there’s a million different other factors that come into play in regards to that money. That money of course is paid out a quarter in arrears. So you’re looking at 6 months before you see that money. But of course, the advance needs to be recouped, which makes perfect sense. But also a certain percentage of those royalties are held, often up to a year and a half, because of potential returns, which these days is really kind of irrelevant considering almost everything is electronic, or print on demand. So there’s a lot of revenue related factors that come into play as well.

Now granted, this is not - and I want to be very clear about this - this is not imply that a publisher is taking you behind the woodshed in terms of making money, because they have editors, they have marketing, they have printing, they have production, they have offices. They have all of this infrastructure that self-publishers logically do not have. And that’s a great benefit to a lot of first-time authors. Because, well, you get an editor. Which are expensive. You get a marketing team, you get all of these extra things. Right? But that plays a big part in determining what, in terms of the monetary side - what you wind up earning. And I invite everybody to pull out their spreadsheet and do some math to figure out how many copies you have to sell - again, using that $2.50 per book number, to make real, to make a decent amount of money. You have to sell a lot. Especially when you take into consideration the certainly hundreds, if not thousands of hours that you’ve put into writing the book. And that’s a big deal.

Now on the flip side of that, working through a service such as Leanpub: obviously Leanpub has its expenses. Leanpub’s only taking 10% of the sale, meaning the author gets 90%, right? [Editor’s note: Leanpub pays author a royalty of 90% minus 50 cents on every sale]. It completely, quite literally, given the example that we’re using, turns that revenue agreement upside down. The author, the content creator, earns the majority of the money derived from the sale. And again, I invite everybody to run those numbers. They’re completely different. Now, you do not have a marketing team, you do not have editors. There are a lot of things that you do not have. But because that revenue model was flipped on its head, you only have to sell a fraction of the number of books that you would otherwise have to sell through a publisher to earn the same amount of money.

I maybe went on a bit of a tangent there, but it’s very important I think that people who are weighing whether they should use a traditional publisher or a self-publishing service such as Leanpub, I think it’s very important that they understand that dynamic. Although, if you ask the question to any publisher, they’re going to be perfectly clear and explain that very matter to you, I still think it’s lost on a lot of first time authors.

So, there’s the control side of things, and there’s the revenue side of things. And of course, there’s the customer side of things. When working through a publisher, I have no idea who bought my book, unless they email me. I’ve no idea. And using a publishing service such as Leanpub, of course I can email those authors through the Leanpub interface, which I do on a regular basis - I can interact with many, many more readers than I would otherwise be able to, working through a traditional publisher. That’s an aspect of book writing that I absolutely love. It’s really great to find out what other people are working on, and how they’re using my book to accomplish that.

Maybe jumping back to the revenue and control side of things again, another great advantage of self-publishing is the flexibility. When you take a look at the Easy Laravel book for instance: I sell the book. I also sell the book plus three and a half hours of video. I sell the book, plus the videos, plus consulting: if you would like to consult over Skype, maybe I could look at your code, maybe I could explain some of the more complex aspects of Laravel or PHP in general. There’s that option as well. And those options just aren’t - because of the nature of the beast when it comes to traditional publishing - those options really aren’t readily available. You just can’t do that stuff so easily.

E: Thank you very much for that. I really appreciate all the detail. I think you explained everything very well. On that note, when it comes to doing things that maybe couldn’t be done before, and in particular in relation to royalties, that’s one of our big hopes - there’s this sense in which we’re hoping to unlock the creation and the successful publication of books that previously would never have been written. Because let’s say you’re writing, especially in the technical space - let’s say you’re a specialist, and there’s only 1,000 other people out there in the entire world who are sophisticated enough in the area to be interested in reading a book. Conventionally, what publisher is going to take you up on that?

G: That’s right.

E: How much of a commitment are they going to really make to it? And how valuable is it for you as an author to do that? Well now, with something like Leanpub, that pays a 90% royalty, minus 50 cents per transaction, if you can reach 500 of those 1000 people, but sell the book at say $20 or even $50 per book - you’re getting a 90% royalty, and suddenly it actually becomes worth it.

G: Absolutely.

E: And so there’s a whole new space opened up for especially specialists, but anyone to actually write a book. And make enough to get a car or whatever it is you need to do. Or pay some tuition for your kids or something like that. It’s a whole new way of making publishing valuable to authors.

G: That’s right, and you’re - you hit the nail on the head. That book, if the perceived audience were 500 to 1,000 members, that book just would not be signed. And logically, I mean, this makes perfect sense. A traditional publisher’s just not going to look at that. Because it would be in turn, a hard sell for them to get it into the retail chains, right? I mean, what retail chain is going to want to put a pre-order in on a book that has such a small perceived audience? Whereas with Leanpub, that is a - if an author can turn around and reach those 500 members, or the 1,000 members - that, for all involved, is a fantastic outcome.

E: Yeah, I completely agree. One of the interesting things that’s unlocked by this approach as well, including self-publishing, and in-progress publishing that you can do with Leanpub, is that, especially in the technology space where things can move really fast - well, maybe a lot of people had their first or second book published conventionally. But eventually they’re like - the subject of one of the first interviews we did for this podcast series told us that, between starting a book and having it appear in the bookstores - he had a child.

G: Absolutely.

E: And the world moves on from when you start writing to when something gets finished.

G: That’s right.

E: And the timeline of a conventional publisher - you were a thought-leader when you started writing it, but no one knew that, and by the time your book comes out, it looks like just conventional stuff.

G: And this is a very good point. I can draw upon very recent experience with the Easy Laravel 5 book. That book was published on February 4th or 5th of this year. And I tallied it up coincidentally yesterday. I have released 105 updates to that book since February 4th. Bug fixes, new chapter, improvements to sections. You name it. 105 updates, okay? If that book had gone through a traditional publisher, when that February 4th date hit, and the book was released - you’re looking - unless there is a really egregious error, a show-stopper - you’re looking at minimum 6 months for updates to occur. Just because that’s just the way it works. There’s just a process that is necessarily lengthy to do those sorts of updates. Now, contrast that with what I’ve just done here over the last 3 months. I released 105 updates to readers. And it’s so easy through Leanpub. I mean, I manage everything in GitHub, and write the book in Markdown.

And maybe a reader emails me and says “Hey, this changed.” This just happened last week. “This changed in Laravel, you need to update this path.” No problem. I open up Sublime, make the change, commit the change, go into the Leanpub interface, publish new version. If it’s a big change, I tell the readers. If it’s not, I just do the update and not bother anybody. It’s great. I mean, in terms of writing environments - and I think I’ve used them all over the years. Whether it’s Word or DocBook, LaTeX - you name it. This is the perfect writing environment. I can write the book in my code editor, which also happens to be Sublime. I can use the very same tools that I use every day for other work. Git, namely Github, to manage the book. And then, and maybe most importantly of all, I can use the Leanpub production mechanism. I press the magic button, and the book is formatted.

Having gone through, in 2009, 2010 with my first self-published book, I went out - and this is how insanely stupid I am sometimes - I went out and bought InDesign, spent $700 or whatever it was. Laid out the book myself to printer specifications at the time, because that book was - it was printed as well as in electronic format. I just had a horrible time managing all of that, and making the book look good. I used DocBook in a subsequent book, that was great too. But still quite a process, a chore, right? That’s not my strength. I’m not a production editor. I want to write. I don’t want to make the book look good. I mean, I want it to look good, but I don’t want to invest my time in doing it. And Leanpub does that flawlessly. The book looks professional, it looks great. I mean, I don’t know what else - I could go on and on about how great it is.

E: Well thanks, thanks very much. We really appreciate hearing that. Our customer development is very important - sort of a philosophy at Leanpub, you know the Steve Blank kind of philosophy. It’s been through interacting with people, with authors directly, that we’ve managed to build the Leanpub engine, as it were, into something that has hopefully a more or less automagical book creation button now.

G: That’s right.

E: And again thank you very much for your kind words. I actually have a very kind of “working author” question for you. I noticed that all your Leanpub books have the minimum and suggested prices set to the same amount. And for anyone listening, on Leanpub, authors actually set a suggested price for their book - which is presented to customers on their landing page. But they can also set a minimum price that is lower than that, and Leanpub customers can actually take a slider and slide that down to the minimum price if they want to. Or they can slide it up, and even pay more than the suggested price. So, Jason, I was wondering what led to your decision to make the minimum and suggested prices the same on all your books?

G: This is going to be a very anti-climactic answer. I’ve never given it that much thought. I mean, it’s definitely a cool feature of Leanpub. And you see, I’m always scouring the Leanpub catalog, and just looking at the different books, because it interests me more than anything else, and I see that a lot of authors do set those differently. I just, I don’t know. I just haven’t given it that much thought at that level of detail. Basically, my approach to pricing is really simplistic, and really underscores my general lack of expertise in that side of publishing. I start out by setting a price that I think is reasonable and fair, and reachable by your average readers. Not something too extraordinarily expensive, and which tends to fall around $30 more or less.

And then I will slightly tune it, which is another great aspect of self-publishing. I will start to tune it in the weeks that follow. If the book is not selling as many copies as I had maybe thought, well then logically I’ll drop the price a couple of dollars. And over the weeks, I basically try and find the perfect balance for the book price. But I just haven’t given the whole minimal pricing concept much more thought than that. I’m just trying to find, again, a fair and reasonable price. And I leave it at that, and basically put the majority of my time and effort into continuing to improve the book as quickly as possible, following that initial publication.

E: Thanks for that. I think that’s a great answer. It includes a lot of things including changing the price over time, but also taking into account where your energy and attention ought to be best directed when you’re working on a project. We’ve had some authors who really obsess over pricing. What’s the psychological impact of having a different minimum price from a suggested price? But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll do it one way or the other. And other people are like, “You know what? The pricing is not something that I want to spend a lot of time thinking about.” Obviously people will adjust it and maybe have sales, like a coupon on Twitter every once in a while. But it’s a really interesting thing how, sometimes you can optimize your processes by sticking to the things you really care about, and not trying to be someone you’re not and get involved in a type of customer engagement maybe that isn’t just something you’re really interested in.

G: To the audience, I’m sitting here listening to this, and really smiling ear to ear. Because that in a nutshell describes the transition that I have made as a self-publisher over the last five years, six years. Back in 2009 when I published the Zend Framework book, as I mentioned earlier, I was doing the production myself. I designed the cover myself, and if you’ve ever seen anything I designed, I am horrible at it. Designed the original cover myself. I had an e-commerce site set up through wjgilmore.com. So I was managing the sales myself. Well, I ask everybody - how much time did I have left to write books? Not much, because I was dealing with all of this other stuff, that were not my core competencies. And over time, I learned the hard lessons in regards to understanding what my core competencies are: writing books and hopefully talking to a lot of customers or potential customers about those books. Sticking to those competencies, rather than trying to be a control freak and manage everything else, right?

In the last eight months or so, I published the Active Record book in August on Leanpub. This has without a doubt, from a writing perspective, been the most productive eight months of my career. There is no question. Let’s see, 200 - I’ve written over 500 pages of published material, and have at least another 500 pages in development right now. So, I mean, without a doubt - not dealing with production, not dealing with e-commerce, not dealing with cover design has freed up the time to do that. There’s a very important lesson there to be learned there, because it’s easy to get caught up in pricing and fret over that, and easy to get caught up in all this other stuff that is not part of what - not only what you’re good at, but what you enjoy doing. I never enjoyed that stuff. Right? I mean, I guess the e-commerce stuff was - it’s always been fun but I just never liked that other stuff. I like writing, and that’s all I want to do.

E: It’s interesting that, in the context of technical publishing, that it reminds me of an old colleague of mine, an English professor, who, when his first book of poetry was published, I talked to him about it, he said to me, “Of all the things I had to go through to get my book published, almost none of them had anything to do with writing poetry.”

G: That’s right.

E: So yeah, it’s true across genres, because of the way the industry has always worked.

G: To be frank though, even in self-publishing, the last 20% of the time spent on any book, self-published or otherwise, is by far the most stressful, and the most time consuming, precisely because you have a million little details to wrap up. I’d love to be the fly buzzing around every would-be author’s room, because it’s that time that I believe most book projects wind up dying. The author becomes so tired and frustrated with himself and with the process, that there are probably countless books that have never been published, simply because that last 20% of the project is so rough. So by removing all of these other very important tasks from my stack, I can power through that 20% much, much more effectively than before.

E: On that note actually, I have one last question for you.

G: Sure.

E: Is there anything on Leanpub that you would like us to improve? Or something that you think is missing, or that would just make your workflow even better?

G: I would say the book cover. The dedicated book pages are great, I mean, in that they serve the very obvious purpose of telling would-be customers about the book’s contents. I think those could use some work.

E: Okay.

G: And again, this is coming from - I just told you I have zero design acumen. So I would not be the person to do that. But I think there would be some interesting opportunities to give authors the ability to add even more content to the book, and maybe organize it a little better.

E: Okay.

G: One of the reasons that I have companion websites for each book - easyactiverecord.com, easylaravelbook.com, easyecommercebook.com - is precisely because I can provide even more potential information to readers, even though maintaining them can be teidous.

Now at the same time, I appreciate very much there being a single page for the book, the admin interface. You go in, you can use HTML source if you want. In some cases you can use Markdown. It’s very streamlined, you can input the information, hit update and be done with it.

So there’s two sides to that coin, right? On the one side it’s very streamlined and great. On the other side, I just wonder if there would be the opportunity to add a little bit of additional information. Other than that, I very much enjoy the service. As your colleagues know, I email hello@leanpub probably once every two weeks saying, “Did you know this is broken or whatever?” Little minor things. And I think, “Boy, these guys must really get irritated when they see…”

E: Oh no, no. Quite the opposite. That’s some of the most important work we do, is listening to people. And I’m not saying that in a precious way. It really is. One of the wonderful things about working with authors is that they like to write, and they have long attention spans. So when it’s sort of like the perfect kind of customer to have, for customer development.

G: Sure.

E: They think hard about what they’re doing and are investing a lot of time and thought in what they’re doing. Sometimes their books are very important to them professionally, intellectually and also personally. And so any feedback we get is very good for us, and we really appreciate it. So I just wanted to say thanks for that feedback about how we might be able to improve those initial pages in the book, and also for what you were saying about your websites. I noticed in particular with easyactiverecord.com, you have a “what readers are saying” section. Something like that where people can put testimonials, would probably be really useful -

G: And those sell books. They have very profound impact on book sales. Yeah, I mean stuff like that, right? Stuff to really polish the edges of the page. Because fundamentally the important material is there, right? You guys definitely nailed that. But polishing the edges and adding those - again, optional features. They don’t have to be mandatory but… Maybe now that I guess, now that the gears are turning, it would be interesting to receive a little bit more in terms of customer demographics. For instance, country, or state. Little details like that, because that helps, if I wanted to do a Facebook campaign, which I’m running right now. Or a Twitter campaign, advertising campaign, because you can highly target individuals, and hopefully put your book in front of them, your advertisement. Having that sort of information - and I understand why Leanpub doesn’t divulge, unless the reader allows it.

E: Right.

G: I totally understand that, why Leanpub doesn’t divulge all of the customer details. But having some general information - state, country, city. Or any other optional information - profile information that the customer, again, would like to divulge. That would be pretty useful.

E: Thanks for that, that’s a really good suggestion. We do have some Google Analytics I think that you can use for tracking people who come to your webpage or people who convert.

G: I do use that, yeah.

E: But as you say, obviously for us, there’s always this trade off where we know, obviously the kind of author who’s into it wants to have as much information, and publishers who use Leanpub as well, want to have as much information as they can. But it’s very important to us to protect our readers so that information that’s important to them isn’t being released - basically, we don’t want people to have to opt out. That’s just not very Leanpub.

G: Totally agree with you there. I mean people can opt-in to share email addresses with authors and things like that. For example the feature you were describing earlier, where you can actually email your readers. That’s done through the Leanpub kind of form, so that actually they don’t see your email address, and you don’t see theirs.

E: That’s right, and there’s a certain type of author for whom that is a deal breaker. They’re like, “I want my list.”

G: Absolutely.

E: And they want as much information as I can get about the customers. That’s just always a tradeoff for us, and we’ve got a pretty straightforward position on it. But it’s always something that we can work to improve, and maybe even be just clearer about.

G: Yeah, and my answer to that is a simple one, because I’ve had this very conversation with other Leanpub authors and customers, about that concept, authors who are adamant about collecting other customer information. I get that side of it as well. I understand that. Well, then there are other services out there in which you can do that. If that is what you need, then go there. Or build a list through a newsletter, right? I mean, there are other ways in which I do exactly that. I manage my email list through, in my case, MailChimp, and use Leanpub for a significant part of my sales. Leanpub strikes, in my opinion, an appropriate balance in that regard. Because I put myself in the position of the reader. If I’m the reader, do I necessarily want to divulge my details to a potential author? I don’t know - maybe. But as the customer, I appreciate having that choice.

E: Well thanks very much for that! I think our time is just about up. Thanks very much for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast, and for being a Leanpub author!

G: Oh it’s my pleasure, and thank you very much for your time.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Ryan Bigg

Ryan Bigg is a Melbourne, Australia based software developer, writer and blogger. He is the author of the Leanpub book, Multitenancy with Rails, which helps you build a multi-tenanted forum application. Ryan’s next Leanpub book, Debugging Ruby, examines examples of common debugging pitfalls with Ruby code and Rails applications

This interview was recorded on June 5, 2015.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Len Epp: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Lean Publishing Podcast, I’ll be interviewing Ryan Bigg.

Ryan is a Melbourne, Australia based software developer, writer and blogger. He currently works as a Ruby and Go programmer for Marketplacer, a leading technology and business platform that makes it easier for people to create successful marketplaces. He was named a Ruby Hero in 2011 for his work on the Rails Guides and his contributions to the Ruby on Rails Community. Ryan is also well known on Stack Overflow for his answers to Ruby on Rails questions.

Ryan is the author of the Leanpub book, Multitenancy with Rails, which helps you build a multi-tenanted forum application. He is also the co-author of two Manning books, Rails 3 in Action and Rails 4 in Action. He’s currently working on a new Leanpub book, Debugging Ruby, examining examples of common debugging pitfalls with Ruby code and Rails applications, using cases he’s seen in his day to day work.

In this interview, we’re going to talk about Ryan’s professional interests, his books, his experiences using Leanpub, and ways we can improve Leanpub for him and other authors.

So, thank you Ryan for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast.

Ryan Bigg: No worries, it’s good to be here.

E: Thanks. I usually like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story. Could you tell me a little bit about how you first became interested in software development and how you became a developer?

B: Yeah sure. I’ve always been interested in computers as far back as I can remember. The first computer that I accurately remember I think was a Commodore 64, we played Paperboy on it. You had to insert the cartridge and type “run” or “load,” whatever it was, and then play the game that way. So I’ve always been around computers. And then dad was doing this kind of invoicing system for his work as a photocopier technician, building it in a language called Clipper. And he found this function of Clipper that listed music. So he came to me with this manual, this big binded manual thing, and said, “Look, this lets you play music.” And he showed me if you type “play 70,” it would pay a note. And then you type ”play 75,” and it would play a higher note. And so we just made music. I was into music at the time and made music using Clipper, and that was my first experience with programming. And then I did HTML and CSS probably when I was 9 and 10, and I’ve been doing web really ever since, and I enjoy it. It’s interesting, you’re always learning new things, there’s always new technologies. Like you’ve got Go coming to the fore now, Elixir. Ruby was the cool kid back before, and now it’s kind of getting to the enterprise-y, “Yeah, everyone’s done Ruby,” kind of level. So yeah, that’s my origin story in a nutshell.

E: And how did you come to be so interested in Ruby on Rails?

B: Between doing HTML and CSS, I went and did a Network Engineering degree. And while I was doing that, to pay for all my little extra purchases around the outside of that - like my parents wouldn’t give me pocket money, I had to work for my living - I was working at a supermarket which paid close to minimum wage, which isn’t so bad in Australia admittedly. But I was doing PHP work on the side of that as well. And I was doing all this contracting stuff, getting paid a lot better than what I was getting paid at the supermarket. So I wound back my supermarket hours and started doing more PHP contracting. And then a friend of mine said to me, “Hey, you should check out this Ruby on Rails framework.” And I watched the initial video with DHH, where it goes, “Whoops” a lot, “and look at all the things I’m not doing.”

E: Yeah I’ve seen that too.

B: Oh, it was just fascinating, because I loved it. And I was like, “This is so much better than PHP.” There’s little containers that you can put your things in, whereas PHP was - you’re just going to chuck all the database logic in the file, all your view logic in the file, all your controller logic in the one file. And Rails gives you these little boxes. And there’s a video by Gregg Pollack and - what’ his mate’s name? Jason something. And they did it, they did it exactly like they had little jars of things. And they’re like, “These are your controllers, and these are your models and these are your views.” That just resonated so strongly with me. Over the next couple of months, I stopped being a PHP programmer and became a Ruby on Rails programmer.

E: That’s great. And you’ve spoken at a number of conferences as well?

B: Yeah, I’ve been around the world, speaking at probably too many conferences. I love the Ruby on Ales conference, which just happened in March this year, and the 4 years before that. It’s a fantastic little conference. And I’ve spoken at Spree Conf, Red Dot Ruby Conference. Trying to think all the conferences. A few, yeah.

E: That’s great. You write on your blog at ryanbigg.com about how much you value the community and how good people are generally that you encounter within it.

B: Yeah. The first kind of speaking gig I did was at the Adelaide Ruby Users Group, and talked about creating models and Rails, I think it was - I’m very glad it wasn’t recorded, it would be very embarrassing right now. But since then I’ve talked at - we have these events in Australia called “Rails Camps.” And what we do is we get like 100 nerds, and I think this one is going to be 170 nerds, and we go out to some remote location. There was one in New Zealand a couple of years ago where we went to the top of a mountain which had no radio, no TV, and one phone line. There was no phone, no internet, nothing - just completely disconnected from the world. And so we mirrored Ruby Gems, took it up to the top of the mountain and coded Ruby, Haskell, Javascript, whatever for 4 days.

E: Wow.

B: And so we have those little events, and that’s the kind of community that I really enjoy - going out to these events and spending time with people who are doing very similar work to what I’m doing, and seeing what they’re doing. And seeing how they’re doing it, and learning from that.

E: For people who aren’t maybe familiar with it, what’s the tech community like in Melbourne where you are?

B: Oh it’s very, very - it’s busy, is a good word for it. There’s JavaScript meetups, there’s Ruby meetups, there’s Go meetups, there’s Elixir meetups, there’s Haskell meetups, Functional Programming meetups, PHP web dev. If you’re a web dev in Melbourne and you don’t have work, there is something wrong with you.

E: So there’s a vibrant startup ecosystem happening there?

B: Yeah, yeah. There’s a huge startup ecosystem here. We’ve got AngelCube, which is run by Nathan Semp– I can never say his name right, let’s just call him Nathan S [it’s Nathan Sampimon - Ed.]. And he runs a startup place, I guess you could call it an accelerator. They all have a bunch of startups in a place called Inspire9, it’s a nice office space that I worked out of, two years ago now.

E: I wanted to ask, you have a great post called “Congratulations” where you you tell a story that seems like there might be some biographical elements to it, about how you got into test driven development and behavior driven development. I was just wondering if you could maybe tell us a little story about how that became so important to you.

B: Oh it’s based on a true story. In 2008, I was working for a company and we developed this learning platform. Before learning platforms were cool for people really, that was the original. You know the classroom students, that everyone builds eventually? Those kinds of applications. We were building one of those, and I changed this part of the application, which had a count of - I think it was maths classes. And the count was wrong, so I changed it. And then the client called my boss, and my boss said, “Hey you changed the count, why did you change the count?” I said it was wrong. And he’s like, “No, no, no. It was right, that’s the way the client wanted it.” And without the tests, we had no way of proving that. We had no way for certain that change was exactly correct or wrong or whatever. And there was much more serious issues past that. One day I removed the Hpricot Gem, which is a precursor to nokogiri. And that took down production when somebody else deployed production the next day, because there were no tests asserting that our code was actually working. There was parts of the code depending on Hpricot that I didn’t realize, and we had an angry phone call from the client. I actually ended up getting fired from that job because I wanted to do testing, and I was arguing for testing. And the boss was like, “No, we don’t have time for testing.” And then when I would break things, I would say, “Well if these were tested then things wouldn’t be breaking as often.”

E: Right. And I remember the second part of the story was that you went to another place.

B: Yes.

E: And there you successfully convinced them to use testing, or they already were?

B: They were already using testing. That’s when I was working for Dr Nic, and that’s when I saw the light. Dr Nic, the famous Rubyist from years and years ago - one of the original famous Rubyists. I got to work under him, he’s fantastic. I tell the story all the time. I’d take a feature to him and he’d say, “Does it work?” And I’d say, “Yeah it does, let me show you.” And I’d click “login,” fill in the username, fill in the password, ns click “submit.” And he’d be like, “No, no, no, no,” show me the test. Or he’d ask me to run him through the feature again. He’d pretend like he wasn’t watching or wasn’t paying attention. And so he kind of hammered into me that, “If you’re not testing, you’re doing it wrong.” So I’m just testing all the time now, because I guess it’s kind of like a good form of post-traumatic stress.

E: Right.

B: Being hassled by him and heckled by him all the time has actually improved my craft. So, I guess it’s a net positive.

E: Can you explain, what is behavior driven development for someone who might not be familiar with it?

B: So behavior driven development, my understanding of it is that you want to test that part of your application is working in a specific way. Let’s use the login example again. You want a link that says, “login.” Then you want a form that has a username or an email field and a password field and then a “submit” button at the bottom. You want to make sure that when a person enters a valid username and valid password and hits the “submit” button, they can log in. So that’s the behavior that you’re testing. Before you do any work, you write the test, then you make the test pass, you add the login link, you build the form. And you build all the other associated code around that, and then it passes. And that way if that feature breaks in any way, like if the login link goes missing or the field gets changed, or the underlying authentication logic changes, you have a test that can break if that changes. Also, if you’re building another feature and a bug pops up, you can write another test with that existing framework, and that existing framework provides you that way of writing regression testing. And regression testing I think is the big win of behavior driven development and test driven development, absolutely.

E: I imagine there must be a category of developers who also, in addition to clients and bosses, don’t want to do testing?

B: Yeah there are, there are. And I do try and convert them when I come across them.

E: How would you characterize resistance to testing from the developer’s side?

B: If you asked me this question I think three, four years ago, I would have said, “They’re stupid.” And now I’m just like, “Mmm well, there are merits to it.” There are merits to not testing your code. You can develop the code much quicker, and you can build the prototype. But then I wouldn’t go using that prototype without tests around it. So I’d chuck out the prototype, rebuild it with tests, and assert that it’s actually working correctly. And I try and tell people this, and some of them listen. That’s why I built a book around test and development, I think that’s the only proper way to build an application, is to write the tests. All my books that build applications, so Rails 3, Rails 4 in Action, Multitenancy with Rails - build tests first, and then they build the functionality, because I think that’s the right way of doing this.

E: Speaking of your In Action books, they were published with a traditional publisher. And you have a blog post where you talk about your breakup with them, and how you have great respect for the people there, but it was their tools and workflow that drove you away. I was wondering if you could explain a little bit about what that experience was like, and how important the toolchain must have been for you to make that kind of a decision?

B: They’re bloody muppets. I like the people there. They’re well intentioned, they’re technologically illiterate. That’s how to put it lightly. The tool chain was writing in Docbook, which is XML. And so I was handcrafting XML. So to start a paragraph, or to start a book, you’d have a book tag. And then inside that, you’d have a chapter tag, and inside that, you’d have a section tag. Inside the section tag, you’d have a paragraph tag or you’d have a listing block tag, which contains a - there’s like 3 tags you need for a titlized code example. And writing that was exceptionally painful. But then you had to upload it to their SVN server, which might have had conflicts. So you’d need to pull down the SVN server, which everyone else uses. So you’re pulling down everyone else’s changes at the same time. Then you need to click, you need to login to the Manning website, find your book in the list of all the books they’ve ever published, click on the little book icon, click on the chapter, scroll down to the bottom of lists of revisions that have ever been processed for that chapter. Click on the little radio button at the bottom, and then click on “update.” And that would update it for the editor.

So I got upset with that process I think about two months in, and I built my own review system, which I called “Twist,” because every good book has a twist. And so I built Twist, and I built it overnight. I started about 2 pm that day, and at about 11pm I think it was, I was furiously coding. I was actually angry for the first couple of hours, and then I was just like, “This needs to get done, and wouldn’t it be cool if it did this? And wouldn’t it be cool if it did that?” And I went downstairs at about 11pm and thought, “That’s weird, my housemate’s not here.” He was always forever on the couch, or forever on his dining room table. I’m like, “What’s going on? Like he’s usually here, isn’t it dinner time?” And then I finally see the actual time, I didn’t realize it was 11 pm at that time.

E: Oh wow.

B: I look at the microwave and go, “Holy crap, I’ve been coding for 9 hours.”

E: Wow.

B: And I’ve just been in my own little hole for nine hours, and I’ve built this thing and it works. And now I’m bloody hungry. I’m going to have some food and go to bed. So I built that, and people were very happy with it. And that tool is what helped me write Rails 3 in Action. Not Manning’s review tool chain at all. With Twist, I was able to add my own reviewers. They were able to leave Markdown-based comments, and it was just so beautiful to work with that system. I’d never write a book in Docbook ever again because of it.

E: I imagine the reviewers that you brought into Twist responded positively to it as well, probably in comparison to the other - I mean, review systems are kind of primitive, if they exist at all.

B: Yes that’s right. These other reviewers never got to see Manning’s system. Manning wouldn’t let them in, because it gives them access to all the other books. Only authors who are contractually obliged to not share the other books, are allowed access to that system.

E: I’m not sure if there’s necessarily an answer to this question, but why do you think that conventional publishers are so resistant to improving the way that authors write books, and then work with their publishers to produce books? Because we hear this at Leanpub. I’ve had personal experience with it. Leanpub’s co-founders have had personal experience with it. What’s your opinion about why people who ought to be in the business of making books aren’t motivated to make the process of making books better?

B: It’s worked this way forever, and retraining the people to use new systems is going to take too much effort and too much time. Developing the new systems can come with their own pitfalls. There’s always the thing that the grass is greener on the other side. And if you develop a new system, it’s going to be better than the old system. It’s not going to have the problems that the old system - sure that might be true - you’ll learn the lessons from the old system, and you apply them to the new system. The new system’s going to come with problems though. Same as if you rewrite an application, you’re going to learn from the old application. And the new application’s going to come with its own set of issues. I think that they’re resistant to change because it’s a high risk scenario. It involves them having to cut over from the old system to the new system, and they don’t want to invest the time in that at all, because the current system is working okay - they are pushing out books. But they are not pushing out books as quick as they can, and they’re not making the process as painless as they can - and that is mainly what I have the issue with, is that the tool chain gets in the way, makes the authors unhappy, makes them not want to write books. Steve Klabnik, my co-author actually got burnt out on Manning’s tool chain, and that’s why he didn’t finish Rails 4 in Action. And Rebecca Skinner and I had to finish Rails 4 in Action, because Steve couldn’t because of the tool chain.

E: Wow, that’s incredible. I mean, that’s a much less cynical explanation than some people give for why many different companies. One of the more cynical explanations is there’s somebody who sees this new tool chain, and sees that it doesn’t include the type of work that they’ve been doing, maybe for their entire career. That it’s not necessary anymore. And that in addition to the obvious motivation someone might have to block a new technology because it might take their job away - and that’s something to be very sympathetic to - there’s also the aspect of seeing the activity that you’ve based your career on is just now longer necessary, and there’s just something kind of heartbreaking about that.

B: There’s all this typesetting work that Manning does as well. “Rails 4 in Action,” in my opinion, should have been published already. They’re typesetting it so it can be printed. And the issue with the printed book is it’s going to run out very quickly. I think that printed technology books are dead and there should be no need for them anymore. Manning disagrees.

E: That’s interesting. My next question was going to be, how do you see the computer book market evolving in the next 10 years? In addition to what you’ve said about paper technology books kind of going away, for all sorts of reasons, including they don’t match the timelines of technology development, do you see authors making a decision like you did to essentially go independent?

B: Yeah I do, definitely. The big publishers take too much of a cut for the work that they do, in my opinion. And holding back my cynicism on Manning, and I feel it leaking through at the moment, I’m not sure how much I can say on public record, but I was not pleased with them the last time we talked with them.

E: Okay, okay. I mean it’s up to you - that’s why I’d like to talk about the market more generally.

B: Yeah, the market more generally - I think that people are not going to go to the big publishers if they have sense. So I think Leanpub’s going to - Leanpub is amazing for publishing independently, away from publishers. The cut you get is much more reflective of the work you put in. An author, I agree, puts 90% of the work in, and the publisher does 10% of the work - and that’s what the cut should be financially, 90% and 10% plus 50 cents and whatever. I think that’s Leanpub’s cut?

E: Yeah, the author royalty is 90% minus 50 cents.

B: That’s it.

E: And then we’ve got fees and stuff like that, but yeah that’s the royalty rate. We do feel it at least reflects the amount of work that an author puts in, especially if they’re self-publishing and managing all the other processes as well. It’s interesting, I was talking to someone the other day who was saying - he’s an academic, in the sciences, and he went away from academic publishing partly because his academic publisher wouldn’t even do the formatting anymore.

B: What?

E: Yeah, yeah. He was being asked to do the formatting for his own book. I remember I was at this thing called BEA, Book Expo America, a couple of years ago. It’s the big publishing industry jamboree in New York City every year, and Guy Kawasaki was giving a talk. It was this panel on self-publishing that everyone was a little bit trepidatious to go into - not him obviously, and not people who are into self-publishing, but the regular attendees. And he said, “Look, the last time I spoke with a publisher about publishing my book, they said, ‘So how are you going to leverage your Twitter following to maximize sales?’” And he’s like, “Well what, what do you mean? How are you going to market my book should be the question. Not how am I going to market my book.” And then he went off and wrote a book called, “APE,” about self-publishing. So I’m really glad to hear you say that, because I’m also starting to hear that noise coming more - or signal, sorry I should say, coming more from people who aren’t even technical authors, but people who are in sort conventional trade publication kind of stuff, like fiction and biography and things like that. I’m starting to hear that yeah, people are getting more and more frustrated because publishers are reacting to the changes that have been happening in the world - not necessarily in the most productive ways.

B: That’s right.

E: And it’s in that context that I’m just so surprised that every time, even though I know it’s coming, I’m still surprised that a publisher would damage its authors, like the process you’re describing. And even lose them because they just won’t change their system. I mean, there’s just something so deep…

B: Yeah it felt like Manning didn’t want to keep me around. Even when I was writing “Rails 3 in Action.” It’s more that they wanted to get a book published. And that they didn’t want future - I don’t know how to put it in words properly. It’s like they just wanted the book published, and that was it. But then the contract beholds me to - If I want to write future books following a similar topic, like if I wanted to write a new, “Introduction to Rails” book, for 3 years after “Rails 4 in Action” is finally published…. So let’s say it’s published next month. I can’t publish a new Rails introduction book until July 2018. So in a way, they want me to write the book and publish a book. But then they don’t want me to write another book. They’re not doing anything to keep me there. Because it’s in their business’s best interest to keep me on board and to keep me publishing books through their platform - in my opinion. Just like it’s in Leanpub’s best interest to not piss off their authors, right?

E: Yeah.

B: Every publishing platform’s business is to make sure they can keep producing - the authors keep producing books, and bringing in the dosh. If you’re doing things to make the authors unhappy and to push them away from your platform, doesn’t that kind of counteract the whole point of the business existing in the first place? Which is to publish books.

E: Yeah you’d think. And we hear this time and time again from people who are like - they don’t go into it vain. They go into it feeling honored or flattered that a publishing company is going to take them on. But by the end of it they feel often like a used product.

B: Yeah.

E: Or a tool themselves, rather than something that’s respected. And anything you make, that you probably care about in your life - there’s something about a book. It’s a long thing that you care about, probably something that you feel you’re very good at and that matters to you. And then probably something that’s going to fit into your life in a certain way, you’ve been telling everybody that you’re working on this book, and you want to fulfill that claim. Afterwards you can put it in your CV, and it can get you speaking engagements and things like that. To the author, it’s just such an extremely important activity. And then to be - I just think people are surprised that suddenly they’re being treated negatively in that context. Like, “Why would this happen?”

B: It’s like, “I’m trying to help you, and you’re not listening to my advice.”

E: Yeah.

B: “My advice is to build a better publishing tool, and you’re not doing it.” But it is a huge honor. I was so excited, I remember going over to the supermarket, and immediately after seeing the Manning email, and almost skipping there out of excitement, I was just so happy and radiant. And then it went downhill from there and just - and now I really don’t like traditional publishers. It sounds counter-intuitive to their business entirely.

E: Hopefully moving onto happier things, how did you find out about Leanpub, and why did you choose it as your publishing platform?

B: I can’t remember exactly how I found out about it. This always happens with things. I find out about things, and I’m like, “This is a really good tool.” And then I don’t remember the origin story. I believe somebody - I was raging about, “Rails 3 in Action” at the time. And somebody recommended Leanpub. They’re like, “Why don’t you publish a new book on Rails through Leanpub?” And I was like, “No, I can’t do that because I’m beholden to Manning because of this contract.” And then I came up with the idea of “Multitenancy with Rails,” and I was like, “Wait, I remember Leanpub, I’ll go to them and see what I can do.” I was like, “You guys write with Markdown,” and I love Markdown, Markdown is fantastic format for books. It’s not the best format, but we’ll get to that in a moment. It’s good enough for what it does, and the royalty split was nice, the site was great - much better than Manning’s site. The checkout process - if you compare Leanpub’s checkout process and Manning’s checkout process– Oh my goodness, there is like 15 years of software development difference between the two. I’m not kidding, that’s quite a long time in web dev, in web dev land. And it’s just nice. It’s like driving an old 1986 bullshit car and then I’m in this brand new Lamborghini off the lot. I’ve never driven a Lamborghini, and I don’t hope to, because I reckon I’d wreck it. But it’s just - it’s so nice, it’s - it was like being freed from prison.

E: I assume you used the Dropbox workflow?

B: That’s right, yes I did.

E: It’s where you write in your own favorite text editor on your computer, and then sync to Dropbox, and then click “preview,” and “publish” on Leanpub.

B: That’s right, yeah, yeah. So I write all my things in Sublime. And I’ve tried a lot as an editor. It’s brilliant. Enough vim bindings that I can use. And yeah, it’s neat. And then yeah, Dropbox and publish on Leanpub. And it’s - if I want to publish today, I can publish today. With Manning I can’t do that.

E: Right.

B: And I have to go, “Look, I’ve got these updates, they’re in SVN.” And they’ll go, “Okay we’ll typeset them and we’ll publish them.” And like I said, “Rails 4 in Action,” has been content complete - I didn’t say that it’s been content complete, I said it could have been published in April, but it’s been content complete since April. And so it could’ve been published in April. It’s now June, and it hasn’t been published. Because they’ve been typesetting and indexing and all the other stuff that no one really cares about in a tech book.

E: Yeah, okay. And you wanted to talk about Markdown?

B: Yes.

E: Indicating it’s not necessarily the best way in your opinion to write a book?

B: Yeah, my wife’s a lawyer, and she has a great saying that, “three lawyers, four opinions.” And Markdown processing is exactly the same way. You have - Markdown is, you’ve got double, like double pound sign and a heading. And the rest of the content - it can be presented in one way if you use this Markdown parser or another way if you use this other Markdown parser. Or in a completely alien way if you use this other Markdown parser. There’s no really - what do they call it, schema, syntax, reference guide. And I know that Jeff Attwood and his crew were trying to work on one. I have no idea how far that’s gotten. But there is a much better format out there that I found called AsciiDoc, and that is like - it’s like if Markdown was designed not by one guy. It’s like - Markdown was designed using the PHP design technique of - one guy released this library and then everyone used it. AsciiDoc was built with this guy - it was like, “Okay, I’m going to take the good bits from Markdown, and I’m going to put my own stuff on there, and we’re going to work collaboratively, and we’re going to build this format called AsciiDoc. And it presents tables well, does images, and presents these beautiful looking previews with this library called Asciidoctor, which is what I’ve been using for my, “Deep Dive Rails” book, which I’m also publishing through Leanpub. And it’s nicer in ways to work with Markdown and not as nice to work with in other ways with Markdown. It’s kind of a tradeoff. Overall, it’s fantastic to work with.

E: Okay, thanks very much for that and for letting us know. Actually Peter is actually working on a new syntax called Markua.

B: Oh yes.

E: Which is meant to solve some of the limitations of Markdown when it comes to writing books. So it’s basically supposed to be a superset of Markdown, but specifically for writing books.

B: Nice.

E: So yeah, hopefully we’ll get your opinion about that at some point and then see what you think. Hopefully it solves some of those problems. But obviously we’re very respectful of the fact that people have different preferences. And we want to accommodate as many reasonable preferences, because writing is such a personal, time consuming thing. That’s why, so for example the first - well one of the most important workflows we have is working in whatever editor you like in Dropbox on your computer. We do have an online editor and we do have a couple of other workflows. But that’s the most important one for us, that people are as happy as they can be. And we want, it’s just like anything else - like, when a carpenter is hammering away with his hammer, he shouldn’t be thinking about the hammer. The hammer should just be an extension of what he’s trying to do - same thing with writing tools and tool chains. On that note, I noticed that in “Multitenancy with Rails,” you include your personal email address in a section at the beginning for feedback, and you invite people into Twist as well if they want to be a part of it. Is that something that you would like - would you like Leanpub to actually facilitate that process?

B: Yeah, I’d love Leanpub to have a review system, that’d be great.

E: Okay.

B: PragProg has this - I think it was designed back in 2007 - they have an errata page. It looks very old school, and it’s–

E: I’ve seen it.

B: Yeah, it’s not, it’s not the prettiest thing to look at. What I’d like to see is like, “This thing is wrong with the book.” And you click in, you’re like, “Oh what does this thing mean?” So you click on it, and you’re like - okay. this is the section that it’s commented in. So this is like a paragraph or a code block. And underneath it are all the comments related to it. So it’s like, say that the author’s written a very complex piece of code, and then other people underneath it have commented and said, “No, no, you don’t need to write it like that, you can write it like this or like this.” And then the author can see it like, “Okay, this is the - good way to write it.” And you can have a discussion around how to, how to improve that one little section. And that’s why I built Twist, is that you can have discussions around that little section.

E: Oh okay, so it’s discussions rather than sort of logging errors or something like that?

B: It can be both.

E: Yeah okay, okay.

B: Yeah so, I have these run-on sentences all the time in the book where I have too many commas. And people are like, “Well wouldn’t it sound better if it was written like this?” And then I come back and I say, “Well, this is how I say it out loud.” And I put in the commas where I paused if say - If I pause out loud. And they’re liek, “No, no, no, that’s not good.” And then we talk back and forth and we come up with a proper way of saying whatever it was we were trying to say in the book.

E: Okay, okay.

B: It’s nice that way.

E: What would you think about if we added reviews? Because we currently actually don’t have reviews.

B: Reviews in general, like five star reviews?

E: Well both stars and written reviews, like Amazon-style. If people could actually go - if users could go onto Leanpub and write reviews of books, is that something that you would - if we made it opt-in, is that something you think you might opt into?

B: Yeah, yeah. I’d definitely use that, yeah. Because I think that’s a good marketing technique. And we’ve been talking about this - Marketplace are actually - been talking about having product reviews. And that is, according to my sources, that is how to get people to buy your products. If a product has good reviews from other people - say it has four and a half stars, five star reviews from 30, 50 people, people are like, “Wow this must be good.” Like our microphones, right? We bought our microphones because they had awesome reviews. If it was just like, “Buy this Yeti microphone, it’s $200,” Who would buy that? And then they’re like, “Wow, it’s 5 stars. It’s also all these great features and we love it. It’s crystal clear quality and all that.” The reviews on Leanpub would be a good feature, and I would definitely use it.

E: Okay, okay. Is there anything else about Leanpub that you think we could improve? That’s what we’re here for.

B: Not at this point in time, I’m very happy with it. And all of the new design too.

E: Oh well great, thanks very much, we’re really happy to hear that. That was a long time coming, and we’re very happy that it’s finally out. My last question is that - I see “Debugging Ruby,” your next book, is 40% complete. Do you have a timeline for when it’s going to be finished, or does that matter to you?

B: “Debugging Ruby” is a book that I’m writing really whenever I feel like, or whenever I come across an interesting debugging thing in Ruby.

E: Oh I see, okay.

B: I had a debugging session probably a year and a half ago with a friend of mine, where he was entering a valid username, and a valid password into his login form, and Devise was saying it was invalid. And he would go into the console and he would load up the user. He did like, user find, user authenticate, password’s good. So what was going wrong? Well, if you want to find out, you read, “Debugging Ruby,” that little chapter, “The Devise bug.” And it walks you through exactly what was going wrong in that. And any kind of little interesting debugging stuff and debugging tips. And yeah, so when I think of something to put in the book, I just put it in the book.

E: That’s interesting, we actually had - I was doing a little bit of internationalization yesterday. And we had a really funny thing happen where we got a Norwegian translation so an author can have a Norwegian landing page if they want, if they’re writing their book in Norwegian. And you localize in YAML, right? And the 2 letter code for Norwegian is NO, colon. And so everything was blowing up, and it’s because it was reading it as a Boolean value, rather than a string.

B: Yeah.

E: Like it was NO. My first instinct when it was breaking was that that’s probably the problem. I’m not a developer, I just do like little things here and there. And one of my colleagues was like, “No it can’t be that, it can’t be that dumb.”

B: Yep, NO and YES are reserved things in YAML and they mean true and false.

E: Yeah, yeah.

B: And nobody knows that, except people who have been bitten by the bug.

E: Yeah.

B: Maybe I can chuck that in the book?

E: If you wanted to. Anyways, I just wanted to say thank you very much for participating in the Lean Publishing Podcast, we really appreciate it. And thanks for being a Leanpub author.

B: No worries, happy to talk to you today.

E: Thanks.

B: Thanks Len.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Jeff Leek

Jeff Leek is Associate Professor of Biostatistics and Oncology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He’s the author of the popular Leanpub book, The Elements of Data Analytic Style, with over 37,000 readers. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Jeff about his career, the origins of his interest in data science, and the importance and nature of data science generally.

This interview was recorded on June 6, 2015.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Len Epp: Hi I’m Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Lean Publishing Podcast, I’ll be interviewing Jeff Leek. Jeff is Associate Professor of Biostatistics and Oncology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. He is also co-director of the Johns Hopkins Specialization in Data Science, the largest data science program in the world that has enrolled more than 1.76 million people. He writes for the blog “Simply Statistics” and can be found on Twitter @simplystats. Jeff is the author of the Leanpub book, “The Elements of Data Analytic Style.” His book is focused on the details of data analysis that sometimes fall through the cracks in traditional statistics classes and textbooks. In this interview, we’re going to talk about Jeff’s professional interests, his book, his experiences using Leanpub, and ways we can improve Leanpub for him and other authors. So thank you Jeff for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast.

Jeff Leek: No problem, thank you very much for having me.

E: I usually like to start these interviews by asking people for more or less their origin story. Do you think you can tell me how you first became interested in biostatistics and what lead you to where you are?

L: Yeah sure, so at the time that I first got interested in biostatistics, I was an undergraduate at Utah State University out west, and I was studying mathematical ecology. I was studying mountain pine beetle outbreaks - how they’re coordinated and how they attack trees. It’s actually kind of a major problem. You read about it in National Geographic a lot, about how these mountain pine beetles are devastating huge swathes of the forest out in the western United States. And so when I first started working as an undergraduate student, I got a research assistance-ship, where basically I got paid to camp. It was the best job I’ve ever had probably, including the one I have now, and I like my job a lot. I would go out and I would collect this mountain pine beetle outbreak data from - basically we’d count how many beetles hit which trees and which time. And then I started analyzing it a little bit, and got into that. And then, at the time there was a statistician who was on the faculty in the math department where I was working, and he suggested biostatistics. And when I applied to graduate school, I applied to both math departments and biostat departments, and the biostat department seemed like they had happier students, and so that I went into biostat was sort of serendipitous. Then did my graduate work studying genomics, studying human genomes and the data around human genomes. And then did a post doc, and then ended up here as a faculty member. So that was how I got started. So beetles is what sort of led to data.

E: I’ve actually got a question to ask you about that in a minute, but just before we do that, can you explain a little bit about just what biostatistics is for those who might not be familiar with it?

L: Oh sure, absolutely. Biostatistics is a field that applies the ideas of statistics, which is basically statistics you might have heard of, or you might think of as this boring subject. I often hear that when I tell people at parties or whatever. But it’s actually quite a fascinating subject. It’s basically, how do you take a small amount of information, or a large amount of information in the form of data, and turn it into some kind of knowledge you can use, whether that’s through a clinical trial and trying to decide if a drug works, or whether it’s analyzing the human genome and trying to figure out which genetic variants are associated with which diseases. Or now more - in a more modern sense, how do you decide which links will people click on in a website? All of that is data, and so statistics is involved in analyzing that data and trying to figure out answers to questions. Biostatistics mostly applies to - How do you do that in the context of clinical trials? How do you do that in a context of images of, say, your brain or your heart? Or, how do you do that in the context of data we’ve collected about your genome? So it’s, How do you take that information that we collect and turn it into decisions about your health? So that’s what I’ve been working on for a long time.

E: Can you give an example of how biostatistics would be used in oncology?

L: Yeah, so a really common example is - so you might want to detect, for example, there are certain genetic variants that if you have them, certain chemotherapies work better for you. We know that if you have certain variations in your genome, then certain kinds of chemotherapies that target those variations will work better. And so, how did we figure that out? Basically through a statistical analysis. We took a whole bunch of patients, figured out how they responded to chemotherapy, measured stuff about their genomes, tried to associate those two things together, and filter out which are the parts that give us information about, how does that chemotherapy work? That’s one example, there’s a lot of other examples. Every time you hear about - if you ever read in the news that some new drug has been approved by the FDA, that was the result of a biostatistician analyzing the data set. They did a trial, they randomized some people to get the drug, some other people to get a different drug. And then a statistician analyzed that data and tried to detect which one worked better. And so that question, that decision is made by a statistician. That happens a lot, not just in oncology but in every aspect of human health.

E: Thanks, that’s a great answer. Just back to the mountain pine beetle for a moment. When I was an undergrad, my summer job was, for the spring season, tree planting in British Columbia.

L: Oh nice.

E: So I spent a lot of time in camps, and also just loved that very much - being paid to be outside working in the mountains. I just wanted to ask you, I’m sure you still follow it, but what’s the current state of affairs there? And just for anyone listening, it’s been truly devastating to the forests up in the north, northwest you can say of the United States, and the southwest of Western Canada. There’s these beetles that are just sort of going through from west east, devastating forests. One hears stories about areas the size of Germany being devastated. Can you tell me what the current state of affairs is with that?

L: Yeah I mean, I do follow it. Not as a researcher now, but mostly as an interested amateur. But I do know that– So, I grew up in Idaho, I still go back to the northwest a lot to see my family and so forth. And you’ll go into the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, it’s a great place to go. But you’ll go into parts of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area - now all the trees are either grey or red because they’ve been– Huge swathes of the forest have been knocked out, and so I think it’s not going as well as you would hope. It’s going pretty badly I think, in the sense that as temperatures are warming, the beetles get more and more habitat that they can survive in. And so, as that’s happening, you’re seeing them sweep across. It’s moving more and more north into Canada actually. There was already quite a bit of damage in the United States, and now more and more you are seeing it in Canada, actually, because basically the climate is becoming conducive to the pine beetle surviving there. So I think that it’s a pretty serious ecological problem that, as far as I know, there’s no solid answer to how to resolve the mountain pine beetle problem. Because, at least at the time when I was doing the research, basically the only way to prevent the beetles from taking out a tree was to spend quite a bit of money. I think it was maybe a few dollars a tree or something like that - to spray the tree down in order to prevent the beetles from coming there. And that’s not - that gets pretty expensive when you’re talking about areas the size of Germany, right?

E: Yeah.

L: So I don’t know, I mean - again now I’m just an interested amateur, you’d have to ask the researchers in the field. But all the maps I see, and all the times I go visit those areas, it’s pretty grim right now.

E: I’m sorry to hear that. The last thing I’d read had been better news. But I do know that a cold winter is what you need, a really cold winter.

L: Oh and that happened, so I haven’t heard anything this year.

E: Yeah, I just know anecdotally that we had a cold winter up in Western Canada anyway.

L: Oh well, hopefully that’s true. Rhe last I heard about it was like last year, I read a report I think in National Geographic, and it was sounding pretty grim.

E: Oh no.

L: But that could’ve been the way National Geographic was portraying it too, I don’t know.

E: You mentioned you’re a scientist and you’re sort of watching this, just not as a researcher, but just as someone interested. And you had a blog post recently on Simply Statistics about that issue actually. You cited Jon Stewart talking to someone, I think it was a physicist who was asked to comment about climate change or fossil fuels or something like that. Can you explain a little bit what you were getting at in that, because it was a really interesting post.

L: Yeah so, I think Lisa Randall was the physicist that Stewart was talking to. And he asked her basically, “Why haven’t we solved the fossil fuel crisis?” She’s a physicist, quite a theoretical physicist, and she answered the question about as well as you could possibly answer it, by saying that while she knows a lot - she’s clearly very well qualified, that’s not her area of expertise, and she couldn’t answer that question. And so, I think it’s a current problem in society that it’s very hard to tell the credentials of somebody. You hear so and so PhD, but what does that mean? You could get your PhD in a lot of things, right? And just because you have your PhD in literature, doesn’t mean you’re qualified to tell people about their health or– I wouldn’t be qualified to tell anybody anything about history necessarily. And so, I call that residual expertise - where it’s sort of, you get your main expertise, and then you look kind of expert to everybody else just by virtue of the fact that you’re a PhD or an MD or whatever. And I think that sort of residual expertise is being used in lots of different political ways now. I think that’s kind of an interesting - whether it’s, you’ve lined up experts against some idea you don’t like, whether it’s evolution or whether it’s the link between autism and vaccines, or whatever it is. The best way to get experts - quote unquote experts - to talk about your idea in whichever way you want, is to pick people that aren’t necessarily expert in that area. And then you can kind of - they don’t know as much. Their opinions might not be as well formed. So that’s why I hesitate to try to - I try to qualify when I say things that aren’t in my scientific area of expertise, just so that they don’t get interpreted as like– I don’t actually have expertise in the area of mountain pine beetles now. I can tell you only about what I read in National Geographic.

E: Yeah I know, I understand. I really take your point there. And one of the more, I mean from my perspective, one of the more pernicious examples I see of that is people who’ve been successful in business and then claim expertise in the economy.

L: Right.

E: And you know, running a business and understanding the economy are actually completely different things.

L: Right.

E: But nonetheless, because money’s involved in both, people will associate managing a group of people who are doing work, with understanding interest rates and currency valuations, you know?

L: And certainly that’s true. The more that you can draw any kind of a common thread between what you used to do before and what you’re trying to talk about, the more people will believe. Like being a data scientist right now, in the sense that I analyze data, a very particular type of data - but could very easily try to adapt that to a bunch of different– Similarly people that deal with money could. So lots of things deal with money. You may know more or less about some of those things. So yeah, I do think that’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought about the example of business people and the economy, but I think that’s probably true.

E: I used to be an investment banker, and it’s very frustrating to me to see people who are managers play the role of being economists. It’s just not the same thing at all. But yeah, moving on - I wanted to ask you, when it comes to data analysis, in your book you say, “Data analysis is at least as much art as it is science.” I was wondering if you could explain what you meant by that?

L: Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s very interesting to me - when you’d learn about data analysis in school, typically you learn it in the context of say, a statistics class or maybe the end of an econometrics class or something like that, where they start to teach you how to actually work with real data. So usually you learn - it comes kind of from the history of the field, as a field that used statistics, and analyzing data kind of grew out of very mathematical fields. So there’s this idea that you can always write down an equation for how the data are going to behave. And that’s almost never true. Data is, the data that you get out of almost any system is complicated, and there’s all sorts of reasons why it’s messed up. An example would be, from the pine beetle case, there was a day I slept in - don’t tell my old bosses - and missed the counts for that day. And so, you put in - the way you would mark it is you’d just put N/A or whatever. But then somebody going back and analyzing that data has to account for the fact that a graduate student slept in that day. Which is not something you can nicely model with an equation or anything like that. You just have to deal with the fuzziness of the data. And so, whenever those sorts of things happen, you have to make lots of basically arbitrary decisions. Do you skip that day? Do you try to impute the missing values using some information, predict what they were? Do you - what decision you make about that, is basically a human behavioral choice. And it depends a lot on where you were trained. Certain places, like if you went to school at a certain place, they’ll tell you to do one thing. And if you went to school at a different place, you probably got taught to do something else. And also just your own perception. So that’s the art of data analysis. Basically, anything beyond - there’s these beautiful equations that you can use to describe how a linear model fits or– Any of the standard statistical ideas of how to calculate a P value, the central limit theorem and all that. But in real data, most of it is these series of somewhat arbitrary decisions that mostly you only learn how to make them well, after having had experience doing it.

E: It’s interesting, that seems to be a theme. I mean in your book, it’s addressed to trying to find standards for dealing with issues like that. And you have a really interesting section called, “Common Mistakes.” And one of those, in one sub-section, you write about the conflation of inferential and causal analysis, spurious correlations and causation creep. And I was wondering if you could go into a little bit about what causation creep is and why it’s a problem?

L: Yeah, so there’s a few ideas packed in there. They’re all related to each other though. So causation creep is - usually when you’re analyzing a data set, it’s very hard to - even if you find that two variables have related, the data is related… The most common example of this is, if you plot how many ice cream cones people buy and how many murders occur in a city, those two things will be correlated with each other in almost every city in the world. And so, that’s not because ice-cream-eating causes murderous intent or anything like that, right? It’s just because in the hot months, people will eat more ice cream, and also more murders occur in hot months, because people are out and they’re interacting more, or whatever. So that’s an example where there’s a correlation between those two variables, but you can’t say that ice-cream-eating causes murder. Similarly, in almost any analysis you do of data, say in the medical field, if you don’t take very careful steps, you can detect correlations between all sorts of variables. Like, a headline I saw once was, “Facebook causes cancer.” You read a lot of Facebook, so you’ll get cancer. That’s probably not true. They probably just analyzed this gigantic data set that wasn’t carefully curated, and found a correlation and reported it. The way that that that happened likely is the original authors of the study probably were very careful not to say that it was a causal relationship that Facebook causes cancer. They probably said something like, “We observed a correlation between Facebook and cancer in this population.” But then somebody, either them or maybe the editor in an editorial wrote, “Well, it looks like Facebook might cause cancer.” And then somebody says, “Facebook causes cancer.” You can see the progression of the language from, “Oh, we observed an interesting correlation” to “This causes that.” So that’s kind of causal creep, at least as I define it. It’s basically, the creeping of causal language into a description of an analyis that really can’t tell you which one caused which.

E: I was just going to say, I imagine reading the sort of popular science news sections on websites must really be frustrating for you. Those stories seem to be, I mean, half of them seem to be based on that kind of - a journalist just taking the opportunity to say something that they based on some research that they kind of read a summary of.

L: Yeah, I think that’s certainly frustrating. And the one thing that’s been really frustrating is - as a parent, I have two young children, and there’s always news about, “If you do this for your kids or do that for your kids they’ll be fine,” or, “They’ll turn into malformed mutants,” or whatever it is. And so, if you don’t know how to look into the details of the study, then you can be snowed by information that clearly isn’t true. One of my favorite pet peeves is this often discussed connection between breast feeding and IQ. If you breastfeed your kids for longer, they’ll have higher IQs. But that’s one of these notoriously hard things to study well, because it’s very hard to randomize women to breastfeed or not breastfeed. And so, you often will see claims about breast feeding that are based on observational data, which is data that makes it very hard to make real causal claims. That introduces a whole set of ideas that make it really hard to understand what’s really happening. But there’s understandably a lot of emotion tied to what that answer might be. So that one comes up a lot.

E: You also have a section on data dredging, where you quote the British economist, Ronald Coase, saying - and I just love this quote - “If you torture the data enough, nature will always confess.” Can you explain what he meant by that?

L: Yeah, so it kind of goes back to that same idea, the art idea of data science or data analysis. Since most of data analysis boils down to a series of decisions that have to be made by a human, if you’re nefarious for example - if you really want the data to say something, you can make all those decisions in such a way that you’ll get the answer you want. Here’s an example: suppose I take all the data for two stocks, and I want them to be correlated with each other, like I want the prices to be correlated with each other. But it turns out, when I take the data and I look at them, they’re not correlated at all. Well, if I take all the observation, all the times where stock #1 is high and stock #2 is low, and I just throw those out, and throw out all the times when stock #2 is high and stock #1 is low. So now, I only have the data points where they’re both high at the same time, or both low at the same time. Then they’ll be very correlated. So there’s ways in which - that’s an extreme example of course, but there’s also subtler ways in which you can - by making a lot of intermediate choices, the final answer you’re trying to get, you can arrive at it. So there is sort of a concern in the scientific community, the data analysis community that we need to be careful about knowing what all the intermediate steps were. Knowing how many times you’d fit a predictive model. Did you try every possible combination of variables until you found one that worked? Or did you, very carefully, hold out a data set to check your predictions on and make sure it worked? So there’s lots of ways in which you can manipulate the data if you’re not - either if you mean to do it, or even by accident. I think the more common reason is not nefarious, it’s just by accident. People try a bunch of things, and then they just stop when it gives them the answer that they want. They weren’t trying to be bad, they just got to the answer they wanted, and so they quit.

E: Yeah it’s really fascinating, especially as you’re bringing up stocks. I mea, the 2000 tech bubble happened to coincide with people having the internet and personal computers and then charts. And if you want to see how creative people can be interpreting data, just give them a stock chart and let them go.

L: Right.

E: It’s just incredible to see what people will do, how they’ll find different charts and put them against each other. And then they’ll bring the knowledge that they have, of what’s going on in the world, and also their interests and their desires to it. And it’s just amazing how, if you just describe something to somebody, they’d be like, “That’s an interesting story, but what are the facts?” But if you put it in a chart, it’s like - oh, and numbers. I mean, nothing confers more validity upon the wildest claims, than just putting numbers to them, right? It almost has a magical effect on people. And actually you have a line in your book as well, I think on your landing page, where you talk about how the dramatic change in the price and accessibility of data demands a new focus on data analytic literacy. I was wondering, is that related to this? That people are exposed to data more than they used to be and have more - again because of computers, they can interact with data in a way they couldn’t even like 30 years ago. Is that what you were getting at, or was it something else.

L: Yeah there’s different - there’s two levels at which I think about that. Problem #1 is exactly what you’re talking about, which is that basically computing, free computing even, has made it really easy for anybody to make charts of two variables and plot them against each other. And once you do that, inevitably you’ll run into some things that will look like there’s a relationship even when there’s not. So, there’s certainly the fact that data analysis training isn’t something that we give most people, right? Only a certain subset of the population gets trained on how to be aware of the fact that two stocks might look correlated even when they’re not, right? We don’t teach people that in grade school. We teach them reading and writing and arithmetic, but then we don’t teach them, “Oh if you make too many charts, eventually you’ll find one that’s a false relationship” - which is something we don’t teach people but maybe should. Even more than that though, I think it’s even more subtly ingrained into everything you do in life, even if you don’t think about it - now, these days, more than it used to be. I wake up in the morning and I look at the weather and what it’s going to be throughout the day and whether I should bring a raincoat or not. And then I have to assign some credibility to the app that tells me what the weather is going to be. I’m making decisions based on that. If you watch any sports games, they’re always talking about, “This is the first person since so and so in 1973 to have this many goals and this many assists at this time half way through the first period.” Basically you’re saturated with people talking about statistics and numbers and trying to, exactly like you said, give themselves an aura of credibility by talking about numbers, especially precise numbers. And we’re not equipped, we haven’t been trained in general as a population to be skeptical or to identify what are the potential flaws with those numbers. I think it allows people to get away with stuff, whether it’s in speeches - politicians giving speeches and making wild claims with numbers that if you just step back and think about the actual claim they’re making, you think “no way that’s true.” But they said, “Oh it’s a 3.2% increase.” You think, “Wow, 3.2%.” You know, he clearly calculated that number, when maybe they even haven’t. So I think that’s what I mean by that. I think everyone has to [learn] - whether it’s from conceptual to making their first charts to whatever. Almost everyone is doing some form of data analysis every day now. But we don’t have it as part of a standard, daily life curriculum of how do you deal with that, is what I think I meant.

E: I know you are engaged in a pretty wide effort to help educate people, I mean more the sort of - people with more specialized or advanced knowledge. But you’re doing this with your colleagues through the specialization in data science on Coursera.

L: Right.

E: Which, as I said in the introduction has 1.76 million people at last count participating in it. That’s obviously extremely popular, and I was wondering if you could explain a little bit about the specialization in data science and maybe why - I mean, what it is. And that it’s free for example, and why it’s been such a success.

L: I’m just as surprised as anyone else that that many people wanted to learn data science. But I remember a very specific conversation with Roger where, when we originally launched our first Coursera classes, we were talking to each other and we said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if like 2,000 people took our stats classes?” Obviously we’re a couple of orders of magnitude bigger than that now. I think what has happened is that there are a lot of– so, the data science classes cover basically how to use the R programming language to do the whole data analyis, data science process: from getting the data, to cleaning it up, to analyzing it and making reports. I think that particular skill is in such high demand right now. It wasn’t in demand, and became in demand over a very short period of time, and there weren’t that many resources available. If you didn’t know how to analyze data, you could’ve gone back to school to learn it. This is one of the first freely available, always available resources for learning how to do that. The classes are free; if you want a certificate that you can put on LinkedIn, you pay a small [fee] - I think it’s like $50 a class or something like that through Coursera, to get the certificate. I think the fact that it was really available, the fact that it was timed well, got people excited about it. It makes me happy that there are lots of people that are interested in learning how to do data analysis and data science right. I think the trend is positive in the sense that you’re seeing people making the decision to learn how to do that.

E: I remember, I was looking at one of your talks online, just some slides. And I think you showed an email exchange between yourself and Roger Peng, your colleague, where you said, “I’ve got 7000 students.” And he replied, in more colorful language, “You’re screwed.”

L: Yeah.

E: I was just wondering, does the fact that there is 1.76 million people affect your workload? Or is the way Coursera’s set up just so efficient that that doesn’t really impact anything? So it could be, you know, n people?

L: No it definitely affects workload, but maybe not as dramatically as it would if they were in person. First of all, Coursera and us have recruited people from the classes communities who are amazing, outstanding folks who answer lots of questions on discussion boards. That helps us answer questions. We answer questions on the discussion boards, but at this point the classes have been running for a long time, so the same questions come up over and over again. So, you can kind of anticipate the usual set of questions that will happen. We have 9 classes in the sequence, they all run every single month. We’re getting a lot of data back on - which are the parts that are hard? Which are the parts that are easy? And we can take advantage of that I think. And then it isn’t quite the same experience. Taking a class online, you definitely don’t get as big a– Imagine that many people going through, each one doesn’t get as big a fraction of my attention as say, when I teach a class here in person for 10 people, it’s much easier for me to give everybody personalized attention. It’s much harder at scale, and so you see that, just by virtue of there being a lot of people taking it, it makes it harder. So people tend to work a little bit more independently on the Coursera platform than I think in person. So it has added a workload in a sense that Roger, Brian and I didn’t think it was going to turn into this huge enterprise, but now that it has, it’s got a life of its own, and its own obligations and responsibilities that are added to our lives. But it’s been such a, kind of a rocket ship and it has been fun to take those on, new challenges.

E: That’s fantastic, congratulations on that. I think it’s just great. I wanted to ask you just a couple of questions about Leanpub. I’m curious how you found out about Leanpub and why you chose to use it for your book?

L: So I think it was Brian Caffo actually who led it. Brian’s a colleague of mine that teaches in the same specialization. He was writing a book, and was looking around for the right place to do it. He’s kind of a tools geek, so he’s always checking out like what’s the latest, coolest, easiest or hardest or whatever way to do something. And he got really into Leanpub. He wrote his book and released it first on Leanpub. And we wrote all of our lectures actually in Markdown, for the specialization. So we were all really comfortable with Markdown.

E: Okay.

L: And he said, “I found this awesome tool, Leanpub. You can write in Markdown, you can even take some of the material from your lecture notes and convert it more easily into the start of a book chapter.” And then he told us about how, I think the system, of how simple it is to write it and turn it into all the different [book] types, and then launch the book without having to go through all the usual… You know, all of us had worked on academic books, and the publishing process - that can be a bit long and tedious and everything. The speed with which we could do things was very exciting for us. And so, he launched his book and it was pretty successful, and we were very excited about it. And then I launched mine and Roger launched his. And we’ve all been just blown away by, we all really like the Leanpub system, we’ve all been - I don’t think any of us will ever go back to publishing any other way. So we’re pretty excited about it, yeah.

E: Well thanks, thanks a lot for that. I wanted to ask you specifically about academic publishing - and I mean publishing about scientific matters and technical matters. It’s obviously a cliche to say the pace of change is accelerating these days, and the speed with which people can communicate their ideas is changing. Do you think that the conventional academic publishing model, which can take - I mean, it can take a year to get an article in a journal, just in a journal - do you think that there’s a fundamental mis-match between those two?

L: Yeah, I do think that right now, the way I’m seeing that manifest in the journal publishing way, is that people are using pre-prints pretty extensively. So basically, it’s very common now - my group does this a lot. You’ll write a paper with a student, when you submit it to the journal, you also post it on a public-facing web server. One of the most famous ones is arXiv and bioRxiv is the biology one. You just post your paper there, and everybody starts reading it while the paper is being peer reviewed. When it’s on those sites, it’s not peer viewed yet, and so everybody knows to take it with a grain of salt. Things might not be totally worked out yet. But you don’t want to put something up there that’s embarrassing either. You have your scientific colleagues, you know they’re all going to read it, so you don’t just post anything. So that’s improved the speed that way. In terms of publishing books, that’s still a pretty slow process and a pretty hard process. It’s not clear that that’s caught up with the internet age either. I think certainly the publishing policies of academics have - they are very slow adopting internet-style communication. It’s starting to accelerate I think over the last– I would say over the last 3 years I’ve seen a lot more posting things online, tweeting about it - that sort of thing. But that seems pretty new. That hasn’t been going on for a long time.

E: It’s interesting, that process that you’re talking about. In a way, the most important part of the process is putting the text out there, and then having the community engage with it, whether it’s in a formal peer review through a journal, or the informal peer review that happens as soon as you post it to arXiv. I hadn’t heard of bioRxiv before but. With your Leanpub book, was that important to you, to have that kind of interaction with people, or was that a different type of project? I mean, obviously not peer-review-style engagement, but just people telling you even something that’s minor - “it’s a typo,” or “I wish you’d written about this or that.”

L: Yeah definitely, I’ve been getting a huge amount of [feedback about] especially typos. Because I - we’re a bit of a - speed has been a hallmark of the things that we’ve done around here, which doesn’t mean we always catch every typo. So I’ve gotten a long list of typos which I’m slowly working my way through. One thing I like about the platform is that once I get through those, I’m going to release a new version of the book, and everybody gets it again. I like that component of the process - the ability to release it quickly, make edits, and not feel like I am hurting the people that paid for it. Because you don’t want to release something too quickly and then it turns out that there are typos and things like that in it. So mostly it’s just typos, so far nobody’s found any errors thank goodness. But it is something where I do think that the iterative nature of it is nice. It makes it a lot easier to feel like you don’t have to put out that perfect product the first time. Which is very hard to do, especially for something the length of a book, I find. You’re almost guaranteed to have a few typos in there. So it’s easier when there’s a thousand people reading it and checking for typos, than if you only have one editor or one person - your friend, looking it over.

E: Yeah that’s great, I mean that’s obviously - that’s our premise, right? A better way to write books than sitting in stealth mode, working alone in a cabin for a couple of years and then releasing something that’s supposed to be finished, is to just get it out there earlier and start interacting with people and getting their feedback and comments. And that actually will improve your book dramatically.

L: Yeah I mean, that’s certainly been true for me. I think we have the advantage - Roger, Bryan and I of already having a built-in, large group of people that might be interested. And given that we teach these good classes and the things that we talk about in our books are related to those classes - we have a built-in big audience. That’s made typo identification a very quick process in the sense that I was very quickly informed of all the typos in the book. I’m the bottleneck. The identification of typos wasn’t the bottleneck, it’s me having time to correct them all and release the new version. I think certainly when you have a built-in audience especially, it’s just so much more efficient to get the typos corrected post-publication than pre-publication.

E: Is there anything about Leanpub that we could improve for you? You can be as blunt as you want. I’m the type of person who shouts at the computer when I’m using things and they don’t work. Was there any kind of “shout at the computer” thing about Leanpub that you encountered?

L: I didn’t have too much, I mean mine is a little bit easier. I think maybe some of the code and equation stuff was a little bit more challenging for my friends Roger and Brian who had to do more code and equations than I did. The one thing I wish Leanpub had was a really easy hard copy publishing approach. Something like CreateSpace-style.

E: Right, yeah.

L: I’ve gotten quite a few requests now for hardcopies of the book, and so far I’ve just been deferring that, because I haven’t had a good approach. I’ve looked into some other hardcopy publishing approaches and they’re not as slick as– The thing I liked about Leanpub was how it made it very easy. Given that we’re running these classes on the side and we’re professors, and we have all the other things in our lives, I don’t have a huge amount of time to devote to getting my publishing software to work the way–

E: Yeah, fair enough.

L: That has been maybe the thing that’s best. But the thing I wish we could copy for everything we’re doing - we’ve made suggestions to Coursera and other places about ways they could make their system more Leanpub-like, in the sense that it would be easier for people to upload things and stuff like that. And I think that’s certainly true, that that is the part that is the killer feature as far as we’re concerned.

E: Okay, thanks a lot for that. I mean we do - we’ve tried to accommodate that need as much as we can, without actually doing it ourselves, by having a print version output option. That’s sort of optimized for - like, you’d just write your Leanpub book the normal way, but you can also export a version that’s optimized for uploading to Lulu and things like that. I think that Leanpub getting into the production of paper books thing is probably a long ways away.

L:: Even if it was just an agreement where, if there was just a push button - you just sent it to one of those organizations instead of us.

E: Oh that’s really interesting.

L: You know what I’m saying–

E: Yeah.

L: Where you don’t even have to build the infrastructure yourself. But there’s a certain amount of stuff and upload, then get a new account on this new system.

E: Right.

L: That’s a bit of a pain.

E: That’s really interesting, thanks, we’ll talk about that. That would actually be - that’s a really great– I mean, obviously behind the magic…

L: Oh, there’s going to be a huge amount of work.

E: Behind the magic “world peace” button, as programmers say. I’ve heard programmers talk about, “The client goes, ‘And now I want a button that causes world peace.’” It’s like, “Well I can make a button with the words ‘world peace’ on it,” but actually, anyway - that’s a really good suggestion, and I’ll take that to the team and we’ll think about it.

L: But honestly, I don’t think, I mean, given that that’s my only suggestion, you can tell, for the most part, I’m very pleased with the platform. Things for me went very smoothly. I really didn’t have any problems. I’m already starting on my second Leanpub book, and so I’m sort of - I find no problems with the platform that’s currently created.

E: Actually, that was going to be my last question was - I see that you have an unpublished book called, “We are all statisticians now.” Is that the book you were referring to?

L: I have that one and then I– Sorry, I’m a person that starts things relentlessly, maybe doesn’t finish all them. The one I’m working on mostly right now - I have two. I don’t know if - it should be up here on the Leanpub site. Maybe it’s not already up there. But the one I’m working on right now is that issue of, “How do you deal with health information in your day to day life?” So, my wife and I are both statisticians.

E: Oh okay.

L: So whenever we talk about health headlines, there’s a language we use about them - how we determine whether we believe. Like, if it says we should be giving our kid more sweet potatoes or whatever - then there’s a series of questions. If I read that headline and I tell my wife, there’s a series of questions she’ll ask me before she’ll believe that it’s true. And so, we’re working on - I’m working on a book, I’m hoping that I can eventually convince her to collaborate with me on. Where we talk about, basically, what are the questions that two statisticians ask each other when reading about health news. How do you evaluate critically whether the study behind the headline is really something you should be paying attention to, or whether you should just ditch it. So that’s the one that we’re working on right now.

E: Okay, that sounds like a really great idea. I just wanted to say, thanks very much for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast, and for being a Leanpub author.

L: Alright, thank you very much, and I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.

E: Thanks.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Paul M. Jones

Paul M.Jones is an internationally recognized PHP expert. Paul is the author of the Leanpub books, Modernizing Legacy Applications In PHP and Solving The N+1 Problem In PHP. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Paul about his career, the origins of his interest in PHP, and his experience self-publishing technical books.

This interview was recorded on July 13, 2015.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Len Epp: Hi I’m Len Epp from Leanub, and in this Lean Publishing podcast, I’ll be interviewing Paul M. Jones. Based in Burns, Tennessee, Paul M. Jones is an internationally recognized PHP expert who has worked for organizations in many different sectors, including medical, non-profit, educational and military organizations. He is the lead developer of the Solar PHP framework, and lead on the Aura for PHP project, and was a founding contributor to the Zend Framework. Paul is a regular speaker at technical conferences worldwide, and blogs at paul-m-jones.com. In a previous career, he was an operations intelligence specialist for the US Air Force.

Paul is the author of the Leanub books, Modernizing legacy applications in PHP, and Solving the N+1 Problem in PHP. In Modernizing legacy applications, Paul explains how to get messy legacy PHP code in order, using a series of specific steps to turn it into an organized, modern, testable application. In Solving The N+1 Problem, Paul explains what the problem is and how to discover and solve it in your app using PHP.

In this interview, we’re going to talk about Paul’s professional interests, his books, his experiences using Leanpub, and ways we can improve Leanpub for him and for other authors. So thank you Paul for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast.

Paul M. Jones: Thank you for having me.

E: I usually like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin stories, so I was wondering if you could tell me how you first became interested in programming?

J: This is actually one of my favourite topics. A lot of people go through life and never find their true calling. I got my true calling very early in life. When I was just shy of 13, my dad brought home a TI-99/4A Texas Instruments computer. If anyone out there knows what one of those is, you know exactly how long ago that was. I sat down with that thing for a couple of weeks, and by the end of that time I knew what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life. I started out programming in TI-BASIC, when you had to save the program to a tape cassette recorder. And then you had to play it back to load it back into memory. So that’s how I got started, and it’s just been - it’s been a wonderful experience since then, learning how to program, learning the craft and the skill that goes along with it, and all the communities that go along with it as well.

E: Was your father a programmer himself?

J: No, my father, first he was an Army Chaplin, then he was a Methodist Minister. And then he became a certified financial planner, which is sort of a minor version of a stock broker. So he himself was not especially technical. I ended up having to help him out a lot with the various computers that we ended up buying for his businesses. I remember we had an Apple III for a long time. And I was in charge of helping him set up a lot of VisiCalc stuff to begin with.

E: It’s interesting, a lot of–

J: For good or bad, I still have to help him out with a lot of computers.

E: It’s interesting, a lot of people I’ve spoken to, their first introduction to computers is playing games. But it sounds like you just dove right in and started messing around with the machine?

J: Oh course there were video games at the time, but they were stand up, coin operated things. You did not download the latest version of whatever it was to your iPhone. If you wanted to play a game on your home computer, most of the time what you had to do is go buy a magazine - a physical paper magazine, look for a code listing in that magazine, and then type it in by hand from the magazine into the computer that you’re working on, and then save it.

E: Wow.

J: And then try to figure out how to debug it from there.

E: Do you remember what the first game was that you played on that computer?

J: Oh wow, that’s a great question. I remember one of the first ones was a text adventure-style game. Again, I don’t remember specifically what it was. I think that was one that worked on both the TI and on an Apple II that I had access to at school. And then after that of course, you ended up buying games. But we were not super wealthy back then, and games were pretty expensive - comparatively speaking. So if you were going to buy a game, you either had to shell out 20 or 30 dollars for it, and wait for it to come in the mail and then put it in. So it was easier to spend the time than it was to spend the money.

E: And how did you end up with a focus on PHP in your career? Can you explain a little bit about your path to that specialty?

J: Yeah, when I was in the Air Force, I did some programming there was well. I worked with databases a lot, worked with FoxPro. And then around 1994, we got a copy of the original Mosaic browser, that we used on internal classified networks. And of course to program that, you would have to write up pages using plain old HTML. So I started doing that, and realized I liked it. When I got out of the Air Force, I continued working with web pages, that kind of thing, and trying to attach databases to them.

One of the first database systems that I worked with, attaching it to the web was Filemaker Pro - again, that should give you an idea of how long ago this was - using, I think they called it CDML, Claris Dynamic Markup Language. That was fun. I did that for one of the colleges that I was that I was working at at the time. And then I heard about this thing called MySQL, which was a real SQL database system - and this language called PHP that you could use to interact with that, and then generate a webpage from it. And that sounded interesting, so I started on that. That was in 1999, and I’ve just kind of kept on doing it since then.

E: You mentioned that you were coding when you were in the military as well. I saw from your bio that you’ve worked for a number of different types of organizations, and I think people might be interested in knowing if there’s any sort of stark difference between, say, coding in a military organization and coding for a - say a company or a non-profit. I guess it would depend what sector they’re in?

J: Yeah exactly. And my programming work in the military was sort of secondary to the work that I was doing. My primary work was as a - it’s called an operations intelligence specialist, as an enlisted guy. But they put me in charge of training other people who were in the organization. And then to keep track of a lot of that, a lot of that training - I ended up with, like I said, FoxPro and a couple of other things. So the programming for that was, again, secondary to the job. It was in support of that job. Programming there did not strike me as especially different than programming for any other client on the outside. But then that’s because it was a - sort of a small, local client compared to the rest of the military. It was just from my organization.

So I have not found any dramatic differences other than the need to make sure that whatever you did in the military stayed in the military. There was no open source, anything like that. So everything you did had to be kept under wraps. Whereas out here, in the civilian world, you’ve got all this open source stuff, which is fantastic to work with. And you can share both your solutions and your problems with everyone else, and have everyone else look at what you’re doing. To tell you what you’re doing wrong, and maybe help other people figure out what they’re doing wrong. So there was that difference.

E: That’s really interesting. There’s obviously been quite a bit of press lately about US personnel hacks and things like that. Do you have an opinion in general about the security of data in the US systems?

J: We’ll we’ve all heard of Murphy’s Law - anything that can go wrong, will. There are military variations on that law. One of them is, “Always remember that your weapon was built by the lowest bidder.” Unfortunately the same thing is true for government data programs - anything that’s related to data, it’s built by the lowest bidder. So I think this is an example of where that comes back to bite you really fast.

E: That’s really interesting. When the ObamaCare website fiasco unfolded, I had this joke that winning a government contract is an entirely different set of skills from actually making a website or doing anything. So I always thought of the problem in terms of just procurement. But that’s pretty straightforward criticism when you say that the lowest bidder wins.

J: Yeah, that’s pretty much it. In fact when you talk about ObamaCare, it doesn’t matter what your political affiliation is, how you felt about it at all. As a project management case study, it is fascinating. It’s almost a list of everything you could possibly do wrong, all combined into one project. There’s a guy named Arnold Kling, who is an economist. He’s blogged about that in the past as well, if you’re interested in an economist’s point of view, from a guy who’s not only an economist, but was also a programmer and built websites during the boom. He’s got a series of very interesting criticisms about it. So does Megan McArdle. I think she works for Bloomberg now, and is also a technical person. She wrote a lot about the ObamaCare fiasco, again from a production point of view. All really good stuff.

E: And do you think that it’s possible that - to put it broadly, the government has learned a lesson from that in the future? Are changes to procurement processes just so difficult to change?

J: It’s my guess that the inertia is not in favour of things getting better. None of the incentives are right. With government, again, this is an economics thing. When you are taking someone else’s money to spend money on something that you yourself are not personally vested in, then you’re not going to be careful with how much money you take. And you’re not necessarily going to be careful how you spend the money. And you’re not necessarily going to hold anyone, or any of the right people accountable for how it gets spent. And that’s regardless of where you stand politically, it’s just a set of economic incentives.

E: Moving back to PHP, I know that it’s gone sort of up and down in terms of reputation in the last ten years or so. What’s your take on that, and how things have changed just in the last couple of years?

J: Depending on how you felt about PHP ten years ago, it had nowhere to go but up in terms of security. There were a lot of security flaws in the language itself. The primary problem was not the language itself, in my opinion. The primary problem was that people who were drawn to PHP were not necessarily professional programmers. They were not people who had security concerns at heart, they just wanted to get something done quick. Get it on the web. Because either it was going to make them money, or they needed to do it for their own internal organizations. Ao they weren’t necessarily thinking about security concerns right off the bat, because they weren’t targets.

And then a couple of years later, suddenly everyone was a target. With cross-site scripting exploits or SQL injections they can take over your machine. That’s the point at which the community started standing up and paying attention to those kinds of things. You started seeing things like the filter extension put in place. I think that was Pierre-Alain Joy who did that, which was a great boon. But in addition to that, there was widespread education, if by no other means, then by word of mouth among developers, that these kinds of security flaws existed and you needed to watch out for them. So I think that security concerns have been addressed by the language, but it’s been primarily addressed by the better education of the people working in the language.

E: Okay great, thanks. You’re the lead developer for something called the Solar PHP framework. Can you explain a little bit about how you got into that and what it is?

J: Solar is actually an older one at this point. Way back when, in 2002 or 2003, I became more aware of a project called PEAR, that’s P-E-A-R, a collection of libraries. And I wrote a small, what I called the foundation, not a framework, because back then the word framework was a bad word to use in PHP communities. So I called it a foundation, and it was a collection of libraries from PEAR, to do all the basic things that you needed to do, like database connection, authentication, caching, logging - stuff like that.

I realized when putting this together from those other libraries, that none of the libraries really worked the same way; even though they were all part of the same project, they were all from different authors under one banner. So they didn’t look the same way, they didn’t feel the same way, you didn’t call them the same way. So, with that in mind, I decided that I wanted to start another project, where those individual libraries would all look and feel the same way. This was right around the time that PHP 5 came out. So I figured it’d be a good time to make a break with that older system, and start putting together a new set of libraries.

Solar originally stood for Simple Object Library and Application Repository. But it ended up being this monolithic thing, where you downloaded everything all at once, and used all of it whether you wanted to or not. That turned out to be the standard for framework projects at the time. So that was the origin of it, that’s how it got started. A lot of people got interested in that and started contributing as well. It was nowhere near as popular as say the Zend framework or Symphony 1 at the time. But it did have what I would call a small but committed community, and I learned a ton from writing it, and I learned a ton from the people who provided patches and helped to work on it as well.

E: And the Aura for PHP project - that’s a newer thing that you’re working on?

J: That’s exactly right. Aura is essentially Solar version 2. One of the problems that we had with Solar first of all, was the name. It’s S-O-L-A-R. At some time thereafter, the Apache S-O-L-R - SOLR project came out, and people started confusing it with that. So when Solar the PHP project went 1.0, we started discussing how we were going to do the 2.0 project. The first thing we decided was that we needed to change the name. So we settled on Aura as sort of a pun on the name. Au is gold, a sun symbol, and Ra is a sun God, so Aura. And we decided that the new project should be more - should adhere more closely to the original ideas that we had had when we started. That is a series of individual libraries, not something that’s made to deliver, there’s a monolithic framework. So our primary goal was to take the SOLAR stuff and split it off into individual, independent, decoupled components, where they would be independent not only from a particular framework, but also independent of each other.

So those were the driving principles behind starting Aura as version 2 of Solar. I think it’s worked out pretty well. We moved away from a universal service locator to using dependency injection and providing a dependency injection container that you could use if you wanted to, and then the various versions thereafter of the individual libraries, we’ve been able to split those into even smaller components. For example, the Aura SQL component used to be a database connection, a connection manager, an SQL query builder and a gateway and mapper system. We’ve actually split that out so that in version 2, the SQL query builder is its own thing. It’ll work with any database connection at all. You don’t even need one, you can just build the queries at random if you feel like it. And the SQL connection portion just does that. The mapper and gateway then split off in their own components as well. So it’s been a story of reducing the size of the individual packages so they can be recombined in any way you like.

E: Great, thanks, that’s really clear. I was wondering what motivated you to write Modernizing legacy applications in PHP on Leanpub?

J: So the first motivation was, I wrote a talk called, “It was like that when I got here.”, subtitled, “Steps toward modernizing legacy codebases.” The motivation for that talk was that I had been in several organizations where we had these really old codebases - they were tough to work with. And over the course of several years, over several different organizations, I came up with a list of steps and notes for myself on how to reorganize these codebases and make them easier to work with, so that we could add features more quickly, fix bugs more easily and isolate things more easily.

So, the talk came out of a generalized version of a story that I heard over and over again, when you go into an organization and you look at the codebase, and it’s horrible. You ask the people who are already there, “How did it get to be this bad?” And they look at you and they say, “I don’t know how it got to be this bad, it was like that when I got here, and we’ve just dealt with it since then.” Of course that’s a lot of suffering in our daily lives. That’s a lot of pain and anguish. And you end up having this relationship with the codebase that is sort of adversarial. When you walk into work, you’re always kind of scared. “What’s going to break today after I try to fix something?” You spend a lot of hours late at night trying to make sure that things are going to work, because if you touch one piece of code over in one place, then something else somewhere else breaks. And it’s not really your fault, but you’re the programmer, you’re supposed to know what’s going on.

So after writing that talk and going through some of the initial steps of what I had done to modernize these legacy codebases in my own work, I gave the talk the first time, and it was well received. I gave the talk a second time, it was well received. The third time I gave the talk, some people came up to me who had attended the first one, and they said, “Yeah we’ve done it all, we’ve done everything you said, what’s next? Because it’s not really where it needs to be yet.” Well, I had this huge list of notes already, and it turned out that the timing was right for me to sit down and take all of those notes and compile them into hopefully a good “how to” instruction manual on exactly how to follow these steps, follow these principles, and through a series of baby steps, end up on the other side with a codebase that has gone from the spaghetti mess to something that is auto-loaded, dependency-injected, unit-tested, layer-separated and front-controlled. Based on the feedback, I think it’s been a success in those terms.

E: It’s great to hear when things develop from talks like that, and getting feedback from people that they like it, and then wanting to share it with a wider audience over time, and at any time when they want to read it.

J: Right.

E: I was wondering, in the introduction to the book, you define legacy applications, but you make some comments specifically about the nature of PHP legacy applications. I was wondering if you could maybe say a little bit about that?

J: Sure. First of all, the word legacy carries a lot of baggage with it. Normally when we think of legacy code, we think of something that is merely old. It’s five years or ten years old or was developed according to old principles, or it was merely “there before I got here.” And so by definition, every programmer who comes onto a job looks at all the code that was already there as legacy - no matter how good it might actually be. But in the work that I had done that led me to write the book, I discovered certain patterns cropping up over and over again, as to how these applications had been constructed. And some of some of the points in those patterns included things like globals being there, or there being evidence of having attempted to rewrite it using a framework more than once.

So you walk in, and you’ll see a codebase where you can see evidence they’ve tried to apply one framework, and it never really finished, and then another programmer came in later and tried to apply another framework, and that one never really finished. And so you’ve got this codebase with a mess of idioms in it from different systems. Or, there is a poor separation of concerns between what you’ve got; this is especially true in PHP. Where you’ve got a page script that sits in the document root, that has a lot of includes in it to execute logic. And those includes, when you combine them all, end up combining the concerns of the model and the view and the controller all into the same scope. We’re all sharing each other’s variables. So that the typical PHP application in those cases - it ends up looking like what I call an “include oriented” system, rather than class oriented or object oriented, or even procedural. It’s include oriented, and it’s page-based, because you browse to these pages that are sitting directly in the document root, and each page is responsible for setting itself up and tearing itself down. Those and other factors are the terms that I use to determine whether or not something has a legacy application in PHP land, or not.

E: And you talk about how the particular way that people come to PHP in the first place has a specific impact on legacy applications in PHP.

J: That’s exactly right. One of the great things about PHP is that you do not need to be a professional programmer in order to use it. If you’ve got a business idea, or if you’re just working for your organization, you’re not necessarily a technical person to begin with. You hear about this language, PHP. You know that you can type in a few lines of code and get them actually running on a server. And that’s fantastic. It allows you to make money very quickly. So the great thing about PHP is that pretty much anyone can use it.

But the great thing about PHP is also the terrible thing about PHP. And that is that anyone can use it, whether they are professional or not. So the people who write these programs, even if they are junior developers who will end up being professional programmers - PHP allows you to do a lot of stuff that maybe you shouldn’t be doing in the first place, like combining concerns, that kind of thing. But it lets you get up and running so that you can get something productive on the web. And then you turn away and you go to do your next thing. Unfortunately, what’s left behind is something that’s kind of a security and maintenance headache, because you weren’t necessarily thinking about, in advance, good architecture. You weren’t thinking about whether you’d be able to test it automatically or not. Testing, who needs that? I can look at the page, and I can see that it’s working - clearly it’s alright. And that’s great, until your first SQL injection hits, or until your first cross-site scripting problem hits. And then you’re left with this horrible mess. Reading a book called The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, by Alan Cooper, I found what I think is the right analogy for this. When you look at these codebases, it’s like looking at a dancing bear. When you look at a dancing bear - you are not thinking that maybe it’s pirouette is off balance, or that it’s plié is not a full extension. You’re just amazed the thing dances at all in the first place. Looking at codebases is a lot like that. You wonder how this ever worked.

E: That’s a really good image. You also talk about how, when people are faced with the situation where they’ve got this terrible legacy code, that often they have a desire to rewrite the whole thing - which I guess in the context is understandable. And you also write specifically about developers who have the desire to become one’s own customer. I was wondering if you could explain this? I mean I think it’s clear, but I was wondering if you could explain a little bit about that - that image of wanting to be your own customer, and why that’s a problem?

J: So every developer, first of all - no developer ever looks at anyone else’s code and says, “This code is fine the way it is, we’re going to leave it alone.” The first instinct of every developer when they look at someone else’s program, no matter how good it is, is, “This is not the way I would’ve done it, it needs a rewrite.” So because we have that first initial instinct, every time, we need to be suspicious of that. It turns out that that instinct is very self-serving in a lot of ways. We’re not necessarily looking at it to rewrite it, to make things serve the customer better - or for the program to be better. We’re doing it because we want it for ourselves. And if we want it for ourselves, that means that we get to be the customer then - “I get to determine what the needs are for it. And it should be done the way I want it to be done.” So we use ourselves as a reference point, instead of using some external concern as a reference point.

Treating one’s self as the customer includes things like, “Well, I want to use this new framework X. Because that’s the newest, hottest thing. So clearly it should be rewritten in that.” Or, “The way this has been put together is not the way I would have put it together myself, so I am going to be the determinant of what is right in this case - regardless of what any external concern is, and do it the way I would have liked,” rather than looking at it and saying, “Well, it’s serving its purpose pretty well. Other people are paying for it. Maybe we should mostly leave this alone, and only tinker with it around the edges. Or, “Make sure that it keeps working the same way, but just improve the quality of what’s going on under the hood.” The neat thing about being your own customer is that, if you’ll pardon the phrasing, it feels very sexy to do a complete rewrite, because then you get to do it “the right way”. The way it should have been done.

The problem is, that makes you very optimistic as to how well it’s going to go. The joke that I make about rewrites is: You’re going to estimate that it’s going to take a certain amount of time. Of course everyone’s got their favourite estimation techniques - normally it’s, pick some estimate, and then double it - and that’s how long it’ll really take. So you’ve got some buffer. But when it comes to a rewrite, it’s not enough to just double it. You also have to convert it to the next higher units. So that if you think it’s going to be a 6 week rewrite, it’s really maybe about 12 months. That’s because there’s so much going on in the system that you’re blind to, that your optimism blinds you to. And then when you’re most of the way - when you’re 12 weeks into what was going to be 6 week rewrite, you realize how long it’s really going to be. You start cutting corners, you start taking shortcuts again. And you end up with a system that’s just as bad as the old one, just in different ways.

E: And I think you mentioned Netscape as an example in your book. I think that - you say it took them 3 years or something to do their rewrite?

J: Something like that. I don’t recall. I grabbed that one from Joel Spolsky.

E: Right.

J: The idea is that Netscape looked at their codebase and said, “We need to completely redo this.” And maybe that was true. But they went out of business during the rewrite. They’re Mozilla now. They had to completely change everything about their business in order to make that happen. And if you’re in a position where you can afford to do that, maybe a rewrite is for you. But most people that I know do not have either the money or the time to actually go through with that kind of thing. So I hope that this book, if nothing else, will save people from thinking that a rewrite is going to save them. Nuking it from orbit feels great, and refactoring feels a lot like work, and so we don’t want to do that. But it turns out that refactoring, even though it feels like work, has the benefit of actually working. Whereas a rewrite, most of the time, is just going to blow you up.

E: Recently, I think it might have even been just over this past weekend, you held an online boot camp, walking people through the modernizing process. Can you explain the motivation for setting up that boot camp? How you set it up and how it went in the end?

J: I was invited to speak at the Zend conference. I don’t remember if it was last year or the year before, where they wanted a tutorial session on basically working through the book. So I put it together, and it ended up being something like 380 slides worth of information or something like that, for a three hour slot. I presented it to a full room; I was very happy about it. Unfortunately, I had to cut out about a third of the information in it, and I had to skip one entire chapter, because it’s just too much to go over at once. So I figured that if I could present it online to a committed audience over the course of a weekend, rather than in one three hour session, trying to shove everything in there, that that would be a better way of delivering the information. And it turns out to have been true. We worked through, essentially, the same set of information, but I was able to spend a lot more time showing examples and working through - basically, doing limited code examples while doing it. And people could ask questions while I was doing it. It took the full eight hours to get through it, so I really don’t remember quite how I got through any amount of slides in three hours previously. But it was very well received.

E: And do you think it’s something you’ll be doing again?

J: It is something that I would love to do again. This was a good first run, but I saw some mistakes and flaws in how I did the presentation, and there were some things missing, so I had to sort of hem and haw and add those in on the fly. I expect the second version of it to have a lot more to it, and to go a little more smoothly. Again, it was something I very much enjoyed, and I think the people that attended liked it as well.

E: Great, fantastic. I have a question about your second Leanpub book, which is called Solving the N+1 Problem in PHP. I was wondering if you could just explain what that problem is, and why it’s important?

J: Yeah, so the N+1 problem essentially is a “number of queries” problem when you’re putting together your objects. It’s not something that applies just to PHP, this will happen in any language. In fact when I first encountered it, it was happening as a series of stored procedures in Postgres. The idea is this. If you’ve got, say, a blog post or a series of blog posts, and you want to get all the comments for all those blog posts - generally what happens is developers will first get the list of blog posts. So they have to get a list of 10 posts. And then they loop through that list to get the comments on each post, and attach the comments to the post objects. What happens in that case, is you end up making 11 queries. 1 to get the original set of 10 posts, and then 1 query for each of the 10 posts that are in that collection. So you end up with a total of 11 queries. Maybe that by itself is not such a big performance problem, but when you’re putting together a collection of say 20,000 objects with five relations each - you end up with 200,001 queries, and a webpage that doesn’t load for three hours. So that’s a pretty serious performance problem. And it doesn’t even need to be in terms of 10,000 or 20,000 objects. It could be in terms of 20,000 requests being made against your system. If you can reduce by an order of magnitude or more, the number of queries that are being made coming out of an application as scalability concern, then you need a lot fewer machines in order to scale up.

So that’s the basis of the N+1 problem, where the 1 is the initial query, and the N is the multiple number of queries that have to happen to populate those other objects. The book is about how to recognize that that’s going on, why it happens in the first place, and how to solve it - and then some automated ways of solving it after you’ve figured out how to do it by hand.

E: Okay great, thanks, that’s really clear. I was wondering - just switching gears a little bit to your process publishing the books and things like that - I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you found out about Leanpub in the first place, and why you chose to use us to publish your book?

J: So Leanpub was highly recommended by a colleague of mine, a guy named Chis Hartjes, the Grumpy Programmer. He had published once through a traditional publisher, and then again through Leanpub - and had nothing but praises to sing for Leanpub. A joke that I have made, and I think he’s heard this before is that, I figured if Chris Hartjes could write a book on Leanpub, then by God so could I. And so that’s how I’d come to Leanpub in the first place.

E: Okay thanks. If you have more to say, please go ahead.

J: No, no if you’ve got more specific questions, I can answer them.

E: Sure, I actually do have a couple. But before I get a little technical, I would like to ask what your opinion is about the book market and how it’s evolving now? Maybe even specifically the computer book market. Do you see more authors doing what you and Chris chose to do, to self-publish programming books? And are there market- and technology-based reasons for doing that? Or is it something with the publishing industry itself that’s driving those choices?

J: I’m going to take the easy way out and say there’s a series of different concerns all playing back and forth with each other on that one. One of the things that people in general like, is to feel like they have been chosen. So when a publisher comes to you and says, “We have seen you, we like you, we want you to publish a book with us,” it has that aspect of feeling like you’ve been chosen by someone else. It makes you feel good about yourself. So that right there is a very powerful driver that favours the traditional market. Because you get that sense of other people having recognized you. It’s a status symbol if nothing else. So that’s one driver in favour of traditional publishing.

The primary driver that I see in favour of individual publishing or self-publishing is that you get to keep more money. And frankly I am a cheap little man, with a mercenary heart, and I like that idea. It also means that I get to be in control of - for good or bad, in control of everything about the process. I get to choose the art, I get to choose the font. I get to choose everything about the book. I get to choose the process for writing. I get to choose in all but the broadest general sense how it’s going to be published. So for people who have very - I’m not going to call them people who are control freaks, I’m going to call them people who are control enthusiasts - for the control enthusiast, self-publishing is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

E: I’m not sure if this was important to you, but one thing in particular with technology books is that having control over timing seems to be really important to people, especially if they’re talking about something that’s meant to solve a problem that people have right now. I think in particular it’s hard for people who think in a technical way to say, “I’ve got the solution, it’s out there, to solve the problems that exist right now. But now I need to subject myself to an arbitrary process. That means it’s going to take a year or two for my solution to get out there.” It seems like there’s just a certain type of person that finds that to be an unbearable situation.

J: I completely agree, and as a follow on to that, it may be that your solution, when written down, is only 30 or 40 or 50 pages. It’s going to be tough to find a publisher who’s going to find that a profitable concern to follow. Whereas with individual publishing, you can do small one-off pieces that address as narrow or as broad a topic as you like. But if it’s small, it’s probably a relatively narrow topic, but being highly focused, you can spend all your time working on that one thing - get it out, get it out of your brain and have it published. And that’s a fantastic thing, in fact that’s the N+1 book that we talked about before. I think that’s a pretty good example of that kind of thing. It didn’t really fit in the modernizing book, even though we reference it. But it’s not something that would be a full-sized book on its own either. So publishing it as, I think it’s like 60 pages, something like that, publishing it as its own stand-alone thing turned out to be really - I mean, it’s really nice to be able to do that. You just can’t do that with a traditional publisher. Not at a profit anyway.

E: And did you publish either of your books in-progress? That is, publish the first version before all the chapters had been -

J: I did, and that was another real benefit of self-publishing, and specifically with the model that Leanpub presents. I was able to write, I think, the first three chapters, which frankly were the hardest three chapters to write, with one exception, and then put them out there on Leanpub to say, “Hey, this is here, if you’re interested come and get it. If you like, please give me feedback so that I can fix typos and address other concerns.” The feedback was phenomenal, just right off the bat, and it wasn’t even finished yet. So, first of all, being able to publish it in installments in that way was super helpful to me as an author. But it was also super helpful to me as a perfectionist. Because you’ve got to get a lot of feedback from a lot of people who are paying attention, who will all find some small detail that you never noticed, and you can put it in and have it go out on the next iteration. It’s fantastic.

E: And how did you receive feedback? Did you explicitly encourage it in your book or on your landing page?

J: So again, one of the wonderful things about the Leanpub process was, as you publish, as you release iterations, you are able to send an email to everyone who had already bought it and say, “Here’s the next version. If you notice problems, here’s how to contact me.” So people would send me emails. In fact I think it was only by email at the time, or someone would say on Twitter, “Hey I noticed on page X that you’ve got this right here, and that’s not quite right. You should probably say this instead.” That communication mechanism, just from hitting the publish button, was fantastic. In addition to that, there were several people who knew me or already, knew my email address, and so could buy the book or download a sample. And they gave me feedback just prior to –

E: That’s really interesting, I have question related to that. So, just for anyone listening, the way our emailing readers feature works in Leanpub, it’s that when someone publishes a new version of their book, they have the option to send a message to all readers. And that message goes to you by email. But you don’t actually see the author’s email address, and the author doesn’t see your email address either. So, we facilitate communication without revealing email addresses to people, although it is possible for you to share your email address with the author. My question to you Paul is, did you feel that that was a loss that you didn’t have email addresses for all your readers? Or was the sort of - not exactly double blind - but was the sort of blind communication system that we have, did that work just fine for you?

J: It worked just fine for me. But that was mostly because when people would email me, or when they would contact me through the Leanpub system, they recognized that it was essentially a double blind system. So, if they felt like giving their email addresses they would, and if they didn’t feel like it, they wouldn’t. But in every case, I can’t think of a single case where this wasn’t true. Everyone wanted to provide their email address as part of that communication. So I did not feel like I was missing out on anything. If nothing else, it felt more valid that they were not required to put an email address of some sort, that they wanted to actually have this communication back and forth. And that was very satisfying, if that makes sense?

E: Okay thanks, that’s really clear and really good feedback for us, to know that that works that way. I was wondering, as you were saying about control enthusiasts, a lot of authors who use Leanpub are very opinionated about their writing and publishing tools. I was wondering, from your perspective, if there’s anything that stood out that you think we could improve?

J: That’s a really good question. I can’t think of anything offhand in terms of the tooling that goes on. I just use a text editor and I work in Markdown. I use Markdown for everything personally anyway. So that was not such a big deal to me. Having the Markua superset Markdown was also very nice. If there was one thing that I think could be improved in terms of things on Leanpub’s side, and I think I’ve mentioned this to Scott and one of the other guys at Leanpub, is that it would be nice to be able to publish the sample separately from the main book. So that if you want to make a change to the sample or add or remove things from it, it would be very nice to do that independently. I am aware that the backend production process for those two things is probably closely - they’re probably closely tied to each other. And so, decoupling them from each other might be a very difficult thing to do. But even so, as an author and as the person doing the publishing, I personally would find that pretty useful. Having said that, that is the only thing that I’ve run into that’s been even mildly inconvenient. And everything else about the Leanpub publishing process has been very straightforward and very easy to use.

E: Okay thanks very much for that. That’s the way Leanpub works right now - if you want to update your sample book, you have to hit the “publish a new version” button - which, if you haven’t changed your core book, won’t change anything. But it’s an important - there is a distinction obviously between updating your sample and updating your book, whether you do them both at the same time or not. And it certainly would make - there would be a sort of logic to having them be separate processes. Perhaps one day we’ll do that, but right now, yeah, they’re pretty closely intertwined, those two, the generation of those two things.

The only question I have left is, are you planning on writing another book, and is there one in the pipeline right now?

J: There’s nothing in the pipeline right now. I do have some general vague ethereal ideas about what I would like to do next. One of them is to write a book about action domain responder, which is a refinement of the model for your controller pattern that applies more specifically to web applications than it does other kinds of applications. That would likely be a very small book.

Another one that I’ve got in mind is, there is a culture of what are called “preppers,” people who like to be ready for emergencies, that kind of thing. I have considered the idea of writing a book specific to my experiences in putting together my own little stash of stuff, and how I went about doing it in a step-by-step way, so that it didn’t have to be this gigantic expense all at once. It could be this small step-by-step thing, sort of like how the modernizing process works for applications.

E: That’s really interesting to connect those two things, that would be great to see that.

Okay, well, Paul, I’d just like to say thank you very much for your time and for being on the Lean Publishing podcast - and for being a Leanpub author.

J: Thank you very much for having me.

E: Thanks.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Brian Caffo

Brian Caffo is a professor in the Department of Biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. In this interview he talks with Leanpub cofounder Len Epp about the how he first became interested in biostatistics, why it’s such an important and growing field, and about his research interests and initiatives.

This interview was recorded on July 21, 2015.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Len Epp: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Lean Publishing Podcast, I’ll be interviewing Brian Caffo. Brian is a professor at the Department of Biostatistics at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, and director of the graduate program at JHU Biostatistics.

Brian works in the fields of computational statistics and neuroinformatics, and is a co-founder of the SMART Working Group at Johns Hopkis Biostatistics, which specializes in medical, and especially neurological, imaging and biosignals, such as polysomnography and wearable computing. In 2011, he was among the recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, and the first statistician to receive such an award. Brian has also received the Bloomberg School of Public Health, Golden Apple, and Amtra Teaching Awards.

Brian is the author of two Leanpub books, Statistical inference for data science and Regression Models for Data Science in R [note: since we conducted this interview, Brian has published two more books]. Each book offers a brief but rigorous treatment of statistical inference and regression models respectively, and is intended for practicing data scientists. Both books are companions to classes offered as part of the Data Science Specialization on Coursera, a ten-course program offered by Brian and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins, Jeff Leek and Roger Peng.

In this interview, we’re going to talk about Brian’s professional interests - his books, his experiences using Leanpub, and ways we can improve Leanpub for him and other authors.

So thank you, Brian, for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast.

Brian Caffo: Thank you. It’s great to talk with you and meet you.

E: Thanks. So, I usually like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story, to learn how they got to where they are in their careers, and how they developed their interests. So I’m wondering, specifically, how you first became interested in bio statistics and why you decided to pursue a career in academia?

C: Well, the long version of this story is, I was actually a swimmer in college. I wasn’t a terribly good swimmer, but I was on a big team. I was at the University of Florida, which has a great swimming program. And I was an art major at the time, and I was spending so much time training that I didn’t have a ton of time to actually put into being an art major - which is a surprisingly difficult major, especially in terms of time. And I had an aptitude for mathematics. So I kept taking math classes, maybe a little bit lower level than I needed to, but then just kept incrementally doing it to fill out my hours, so that I could have some classes to be able to manage swimming and trying to do the art major.

Finally, after doing this for long enough, I talked to a guidance counselor, and they said, “You know, we typically don’t get too many art majors who are taking differential equations, and linear algebra, and these sorts of subjects.” And she said, “You seem to be actually doing better in those than you are doing in your art classes. You can always do it in your spare time.” So, from there I switched over to become a math major. And from mathematics, I spent some time working with the Children’s Oncology Group, which was then centered in Gainesville, at the University of Florida, where I was at.

From there I just really fell in love with working with data, and the kind of computing and mathematics that goes along with statistics. Just staying in academics for me, was in a lot of ways a no-brainer. I really loved the things that I was doing, and I loved the kind of research that I was doing. I was very fortunate to get a position here at Hopkins, where I have such amazing access to great data, great researchers, great medical research. So that’s the long version of my origin story.

E: Okay, thanks - that’s very good. It’s an interesting path. I was wondering if you could explain some of the reasons you co-founded the SMART Working Group, and what the purpose of the group is?

C: Yeah, so originally this was co-founded with a collaborator here, Ciprian Crainiceanu. We had a lot of similar interests, in terms of how we approach modeling and statistics. We were getting a lot of people coming to us, talking to us about some new kind of measurement that they were collecting. In my case, it was mostly brain imaging measurements. You might think that there’s only a couple of ways that you can measure the brain, and that idea couldn’t possibly be more wrong. Just even with one type of scanner, a magnetic residence imaging scanner, there are so many different ways you can tweak an MRI scanner to give you different kinds of signals in the brain, that you can barely count them.

At any rate, both in terms of brain imaging, but also things like sleep studies and polysomnograms well as other kinds of wearable computing things, we were constantly getting people coming to us and talking to us about, “How do I analyze this kind of data?” Especially because we’re here at a school of public health, we’re here at a medical institution, people wanted to relate these measurements to disease. They wanted to create preventions and prognoses. Being at a school of public health, people wanted to relate it to large populations. And they didn’t know how to do it. It involves a lot of computing mathematics, statistics. And so we noticed a common thread of some biological signals, or biosignals, and we founded the group out of it. Initially it was a “group” with air quotes around it, and then after enough faculty joined in, and enough students joined in, we started having alumni from the group, and postdocs and things like that. It’s now become a rather large entity. When we have a full group meeting - which we don’t have that often anymore because it’s gotten so unwieldy - maybe 35 or 40 people will show up.

E: Wow, that’s great. Can you explain a little bit about what a biosignal is, and maybe give an example of one?

C: A biosignal, basically, is any biological or medical signal that is used to create a diagnosis, or to create a measurement that is then used for research purposes. That’s a very broad definition. An important class of biosignals that we don’t really delve into too much in our work is the field of computational genomics and high throughput bioinformatics. So we don’t do too much of that. There’s a lot of different interesting kinds of measurements that go on there, but we broadly classify it. We did it that way because around here, and around Hopkins, there were large developed bioinformatics groups, because there was so much excitement over the sequencing of the human genome. But a lot of these other technological revolutions were getting left behind, in terms of analysis skills. So we sort of lumped them all together. And so yeah, I agree that things like biosignals are kind of a vague term. But now that we’ve gotten big enough, we maybe need to make them more precise, and define ourselves a little better.

E: Oh, no, fair enough. I was just wondering. So, for example it’s like something people might be familiar with, like rapid eye movement? Does that count as a biosignal? Or like measuring eye movements?

C: Yeah, so there you’re talking about in sleep. Sleep is typically measured - if you get a rigorous sleep study, that’s called a polysomnogram. The collection of biosignals that they would collect in that case would be an electroencephalogram - they’d put electrodes on your head; that collects brain activity. They have things like a myogram, that they would put for example on your chest - that would detect breathing, and that’s detecting motion a little bit. They might have some motion sensor that they’re putting on your leg for restless leg syndrome. They might have something that measures oxygen that they would put on your finger, and they might put an EKG on. In most of the sleep studies we were looking at, they were very interested in cardiac outcomes associated with different kinds of sleep disorders, and so they might have an EKG on.

So, specifically when you talk about REM, what you’re talking about is the collection of measurements. For a diagnostic sleep study, they have things that are going to measure things about your breathing. REM is specific classification of a sleep state. And that arises from subsets of these biosignals, that they use to then classify different kinds of deep sleep - different stages of sleep in REM. That’s an important aspect of the measurement. Usually they have to take them and pass them through a human to get the staging like that.

As an example, we have several papers on analyzing the percent of the time that you spend in REM over the course of an evening; they call things like that “sleep architecture”. So we often think about how, if you’re tired for several days straight, you might think you can catch up on sleep or something like that. That relates to things like sleep efficiency, and sleep architecture, and the sorts of things that we get out of those signals. So, going from those signals, to these measurements, and relating them to diseases in the population is really what we try to do.

E: And you’ve done work with signals that come directly from the brain, where you’ve implanted electrodes directly on the brain, as well. Is that correct?

C: Yeah, the one kind of measurement like that that I’ve dealt with is called electrocorticography. That’s something they do for people with pretty severe epilepsy, where different medications and other kinds of treatments have failed, and they’re left with nothing, other than brain surgery. They’d saw off the top of their head, and as a measure to help inform the surgery, they’d place this electrode sheet directly on the cortex. Then, usually there’s some time between the early parts of the surgery, and then the actual brain surgery part, so people often let some amount of experimentation go on - in terms of maybe playing sounds, or having them do things, and then recording the brain activity while that’s going on.

So yeah, in some rare cases you can actually collect human measurements from otherwise healthy humans who have some severe disorder, like epilepsy, where the measurements are directly implanted on the brain. I don’t personally do this, but there’s also a lot of people around here who study mice, and monkeys, and other things where they actually implant the electrodes. So these aren’t implanted, they just rest on top of the cortex. There are other people who do things - there’s a fascinating field called machine-brain interface, where people are implanting electrodes in monkey brains, and they’re getting the monkeys to feed themselves with a robotic arm - just the robotic arm being controlled with the electrodes directly implanted in the brain. There’s tons of neat areas where there’s actually a direct implantation of the electrodes, but that only occurs in these more invasive things that people do on animals. I almost exclusively work on human data.

E: I’ve read also that the SMART Working Group uses brain imaging for prediction, and I was wondering if you could explain a little bit about what brain imaging is, and how it can be used to predict behaviors?

C: So, the kind of brain imaging that I work on is called functional magnetic resonance imaging. In that, you don’t get a static image, you get a dynamic image that represents, hopefully, brain activity–localized brain activity–over time. There’s a lot of different ways that people might use both this kind of measurement, and other kinds of brain measurements for prediction.

As an example, a colleague that I’m working with right now wants to use brain activity as measured by fMRI, plus some structural measurements in people who are in comas, to try and predict when they’ll come out of it, or if they’ll come out of it and the prognosis. So that’s an example of using brain imaging as a biomarker to predict some outcome.

A colleague of mine in the SMART Working Group - someone we managed to successfully recruit to the university - an extremely well-known fMRI researcher, Martin Lindquist, works on actually trying to predict what’s going on in your head, with the information from the scanner, at that moment. In particular, he works on pain. So he tries to predict, they have people in the scanner, and they actually deliver pain to them by a hot plate or something that’s resting on their wrist. It actually stings a little bit, and he tries to predict how hot it was on the plate, just based exactly on the brain signal and things like that.

That has implications for trying to understand how we can get a better measurement of pain, right? When people just say, “Oh something hurts,” a physician doesn’t know what that means, but if they can calibrate it…. So, he’s working toward the idea of actual prediction of pain. That’s another way that you could use these kinds of measurements for prediction - and there’s quite a few.

I tend to more focus on the public health-y type prediction-type things, where we try to predict whether or not a person has a disease; whether or not they’ll come out of the coma is another example - these sorts of things, where the image is just a collection, a part of the measurement. A really big one that everyone’s working on right now is trying to predict who will get Alzheimer’s disease, the reason being that, if you can detect Alzheimer’s disease early, then you have a much better chance of being able to develop an effective treatment.

E: Generally on the subject of gathering data, I was wondering if you had any comments about the impact that wearable computing is going to have on public health generally, and perhaps on your field specifically?

C: It’s going to be huge; it’s going to be huge. The SMART Group does a lot of wearable computing work. Personally, I don’t do too much. But my colleague Ciprian who co-founded the group with me, along with some others in the group, have really dove into wearable computing in a big way.

There’s so many different types. When you think of wearable computing, people tend to think of things like Fitbit and stuff like that. But for research purposes, there’s a million different kinds of sensors and measurements that people can take, that are now small enough and portable enough, and it is just amazing.

I think it’s going to revolutionize public health, in terms of our ability to get accurate measurements for lots of different things. The key bottleneck is having enough people who know how to analyze this stuff, where our ability to collect data is just so vastly outstripping our ability to analyze it. So we see that actually the bigger problem is not the development of the sensors and stuff like that, beccause lots of smart people are working on that, and they’re developing great stuff; but then so much data gets produced, and the real bottleneck now is people to analyze the data. So I would say to anyone who’s an aspiring young machine learner, or computer statistician, or biostatistician - or anything like that, it’s a great field to get into.

E: I was going to ask on that subject - generally speaking, statistics seems to be sort of enjoying a cultural moment. With the popularity of sports and election statistics, most commonly associated in North America with people like Nate Silver, I was wondering if you think that this specifically is going to inspire more people to get into things like data science? And if data literacy generally will improve, as we go forward - say if we’re all wearing Fitbits, or things like that?

C: Well, I think this cultural revolution for sure is helping. Moneyball, the book, is a great example - yeah like Nate Silver, that cultural revolution is great, and is really going to help out our field in this closely-related field.

But I think the bigger impetus for drawing people into the field is the demand for jobs in the field. I think the fact that there are so - it’s one of the relatively few sectors where there’s an enormous amount of job growth, and that there’s way more demand than supply. There’s no apparent harvesting that’s happening. There’s no leveling off that seems to be eventually the case. And new data oriented companies seem to be popping up every day, and giant companies - all your Googles, and Facebooks, and Twitters, and everyone, they’re ostensibly data companies at some level.

And so, I think the major draw for people into this field will be the fact that it is going to be one of the principal jobs of the future. Which, when I got into it, when I was a lowly art major trying to figure out what to do - there weren’t all the different kinds of options. It’s interesting now, we see our students - the amount of options that our students have now is truly remarkable. Some of them go into finance, some of them go into technology and move off to Silicon Valley - and some of them stay in academics. Some of them do biostatistics, some of them go to mathematics. The number of options they have now is remarkable.

E: I read on your website that you have a particular interest in large scale open access education. And I know, of course, that you’ve been successful with the data specialization course on Coursera. I was wondering what inspired your interest in open access education, and what plans you might have going forward?

C: Well, Leanpub fits really, really well into our vision, and I’ll get to that in a second.

So, initially it was really just kind of fortuitous. I had wanted to flip my classroom, which is the process where students watch videos of the lecture at home. During the class period, they actually get more of my time and the TA’s time, actually doing problems. There’s a lot of work so far that’s showing that that’s a more effective way to teach people, and that the old sage on the stage lecture model is not the optimal way to do things.

So, when I contacted some people to do some recording in our school, they mentioned that we had just struck a deal with this open access open education company called Coursera and asked whether I’d like to be one of the people on the launch. And so I agreed. I was really enthusiastic about it, snd I happily went and talked to Roger and Jeff, who are my two colleagues here, who were very interested in it as well. I think my class was okay; their classes were just blockbusters.

From then on, our interest was really piqued, and for a variety of reasons, one being, this idea of delivering low cost or free education is very appealing to people in academics. So, I think that the books, Leanpub in particular, has really helped us in terms of really fitting into that model. Our Coursera model for all of our courses is: everything’s free. The lecture notes are all posted on GitHub, and you can see the full development process.

The videos are all free, both on Coursera, and you can get them off of YouTube from most of us as well. And it just makes sense too, that the textbook - if there is a textbook that existed for these classes - that that should also have a free option, or a variable - or something that, some new way for doing the pricing so that it conformed to this new model. And it conforms great, Leanpub for a textbook, especially - especially because we can give the students edition updates, and things like that, and a lot of things that people would complain about in university textbooks, just get all solved all at once.

So that fit actually pretty well with our open education mission. I don’t know specifically how I got interested into it, other than the series of events. In that it kind of always kind of fell well within my kind of personal ethic. And I think the same with Roger and Jeff. I would also mention that school was a very early pioneer for open education. Well before Coursera, and before Khan Academy, and things like that - there was MIT Open Courseware, and our school was a participant in MIT Open Courseware. I was in on some of those meetings where they were deciding to do it, and I was super enthusiastic about it at that time, as well. This was quite a while ago. So I think the School of Public Health here has really been on the vanguard of open education, and being part of that culture kind of seeps in as well.

E: It’s really interesting, I know there are some voices out there that respond relatively conservatively to the idea of open education. And in particular, they’ll invoke the possibility that it might be a competitor or a threat to conventional university education, and I was wondering what your response might be to that criticism?

C: For sure, well it’s possible it might be a threat to certain financial models, for certain departments, for certain topics. But by and large, the question is whether or not these are coming up with new markets, or they’re poaching existing markets. I think the vast majority of the ways in which the students take these classes are new markets. They might be university students - but, a student might sign up for a machine learning class that they may not have taken at their university otherwise. I think the majority of the student engagement at Coursera, edX, Udemy, these other sites, is probably new users.

But for sure there is a certain amount of poaching that also has to occur. That student that was going to take that elective class elects to just take it on Coursera, or something like that. I’m sure to some extent that is happening a little bit. But it’s not all that dissimilar from the correspondence courses, and other historic attempts over time to broaden access to education in different ways for people who have different circumstances.

I think a lot of that focus on how online education is going to disrupt universities is a laser-beamed focus on 18 to 22 year olds in undergraduate education. But the people who take these classes exist well into their work life, well beyond their university life. And so I think it’s a lot more complex than that. I think there is a certain amount of disruption that’s occurring because of it. But I think that it’s - in a lot of ways, good disruption.

I think that one way which the kind of disruption that you’re talking about might occur, is any place that really has a revenue model where they use large introductory classes as a revenue generating component - with adjuncts to generate the revenue that they use for other things. If they don’t have a very diverse kind of financial model, that might get disrupted. But even that, I don’t see that much. People like in-person classes, so I just see how much – I do think most of it is new users and new content. But I am a university professor at some level and dependent on brick-and-mortar learning. Not on some level, on exactly every level.

E: On the subject of generating revenue and textbooks in academia, and also journal articles, I was wondering how you see academic publishing evolving say over the next few years, and if there’s going to be a shift perhaps along the lines of what’s happening towards open access education with video tutorials and things like that?

C: I feel a little bit more confident that something like Leanpub is going to disrupt traditional book publishing, than I am about what will happen with traditional universities with respect to online teaching. Because our experience with Leanpub has just shown that if you have your own channels to get your book out there, then it is really an ideal circumstance.

If you’re willing to publish something purely as an ebook, or mostly as an ebook, then you can do all sorts of interesting things with embedded video. In my stat inference book, not all, but most of the homework problems have links to YouTube videos that actually give the solutions, with me working them out; I have a little tablet here that I hand write out the solutions on as I record myself doing them. That kind of disruption seems pretty inevitable to me at this point.

For journal publishing, I’m less and less certain about it. I don’t know a lot about the journal publishing business. I guess I don’t really know much about the book publishing business either. From my experience as an author, I can’t even imagine contacting a traditional publisher at this point. But for journal publishing, that’s - I mean I still submit my best articles to what I think are the best journals that’ll take them. And I don’t know about disruption… There’s a lot of discussion in academics right now about disruption of academic publishing, and there’s a lot of new models that are coming out. I must say many of them are really impressive - Frontiers is an example of one that I’ve worked with, that I think is quite impressive. And PLOS is another example that’s quite impressive. But it’s less clear in my mind how that will shake out.

E: I know that in both of your books on Leanpub, you mention that people are invited to send you errata with pull requests on GitHub and things like that, and I was wondering if engaging directly with people who’ve already bought your book is important to you? And if there’s anything we could do at LeanPub to help you engage better with your readers online?

C: I like the fact that if I decide to add an extra section or chapter or new set of problems or something like that, that Leanpub allows me to contact everyone who’s bought the book, and tell them. So, sometimes I’ll republish the book, and I’ll send out an email to everyone that just says, “I’m republishing the book, this is my minor stuff, don’t bother reloading, re-downloading and putting on your devices for this.” But then sometimes I’ll put a whole new section or chapter in, and I’ll be like, “This is probably worth re-downloading if you’re still actively engaged in the book.”

So the ability to contact people, I think, is quite useful. And people who have bought the inference book might want to get the regression one. So the ability to email them out and say to do that is great. So yeah, I think that’s a nice aspect of having direct access to the customer.

And the GitHub integration… So, the students submit pull requests on GitHub, then I’ll correct that error. So it’s not like they’re emailing me errata, they’re submitting it as a pull request. I’ll accept the pull requests. I have one of the switches on GitHub that - whenever I check something in, it automatically re-compiles it on Leanpub. So they’ll submit a pull request, I’ll accept the pull request when I recommit the repository, repush the repository, then it automatically gets recompiled on Leanpub.

Then I have to republish the book, which I’ll only do every now and then when it’s big enough, a big enough set of changes. But that’s actually really great, because it’s not like I’m getting a ton of emails. I’m getting and working through on GitHub, which is fantastic.

E: And specifically with respect to you emailing readers, we actually do a kind of, a sort of double blind, where we don’t reveal the reader’s email address to the author, or the author’s email address to the reader.

C: That’s right, yeah.

E: We’re kind of a middleman. Do you see that as a good thing, or does it bother you that you can’t see the emails - the actual email addresses unless they opt into that?

C: I think it’s sort of irrelevant to me. I mean if I had a list of emails, I wouldn’t do anything with it. If I actually had to manage the emails, that would be kind of an annoyance. So it’s kind of useful. But then also as a - from the consumer side, it seems like a nice protection of their identity and their information.

E: Okay.

C: So that seems pretty reasonable.

E: Okay.

C: And I don’t have any need for their email otherwise. So yeah, it seems like the right way to do it.

E: Okay, great. I was wondering if there’s anything specific that you think we could improve in your workflow, or for the way you like to write, and to contact readers, for example, if there’s anything specifically that’s come up?

C: Well so, for the data science specialization, we actually wrote all the lecture notes in Markdown. So the ability to convert the lecture notes into kind of a… well, I think of the stuff I’m doing as more kind of like lecture text, right? So it’s sort of like lecture text, it’s highly connected to the class, right? It’s sort of a standalone book, but it’s mostly connected to the class. But the ability to kind of create that kind of entity in Markdown - because with Leanpub, the authoring is in Markdown - it was very seamless. And that helped a lot.

One instance where I think things could be improved is if you could author directly in LaTeX. I noticed that Leanpub apparently does Markdown and then probably does Pandoc to create the LaTeX file, which is then - I’m pretty confident I’m seeing in the log file, standard LaTeX compiling. So if there’s some way you could actually author in LaTeX, for the maths, science, computer science, stat crowd. LaTeX is the lingua franca of the community. People already know it. That’s one thing.

The other thing would be access to the log files after it gets compiled. That would be very useful. Because when it comes in an email - that’s just a timing thing.

I think another useful thing would be an offline compiler, or something that was close enough to where you could compile it offline. So a combination of like a Pandoc - a collection of Pandoc commands or something like that. That said, “Oh yeah, take this, do this to your Markdown file” - and this will approximate pretty well whether or not you’ll get an error. I think that - so that you can kind of write and rapidly debug.

I’ve noticed the only time I ever get an error while compiling is with equations. That’s it. So for certain subjects, that’s no problem. But for like - for inference it was a little - that part was a little hard. Fortunately I already knew the math was already typeset without errors for LaTeX to begin with. So that was helpful. But for writing a de novo book, something that would allow you kind of a quicker ability to debug errors in the math - math typesetting, that would be helpful.

E: Okay well thanks very much for that. We’re actually going to be working on an author app, and hopefully a lot of that will be incorporated into it when we do that. Because we want to make it easier for people to work on their own, on their own machines.

C: Sure, and the other thing - I’ve never tried it, but another solution in my particular case would just be to convert it to EPUB myself, and then upload it as an EPUB file.

E: Oh okay.

C: I noticed you guys just accept an EPUB file by itself.

E: Yes that’s correct.

C: Yeah, so I could author it in LaTeX, Pandoc it to an EPUB file, and then just submit the EPUB file. I’ve never tried that solution.

E: I just have one last question. Are you working on any other books right now that you plan on publishing?

C: I don’t know how often you look in people’s accounts, I’ve got about seven queued up. I teach three classes as part of the specialization. I’ve done two of them - inference and regression. I’ve got to finish up regression. I think on the slider of Leanpub, it says maybe 70%, I’d like to get it up to 100%. And then, after I’ve finished with regression, I teach a third class in specialization called, “Developing Data Products.” I’d like to finish that one. Because it’s a computer-oriented book, that will be really ideal for the Leanpub authoring and setting. And then after that, I have two Coursera classes that are coming out that I hope to create.

My new strategy is to write the Leanpub book, then record the videos, and then release the class. The reason being is that the Leanpub book will almost then serve as a script for the videos and then for the class. So we’re thinking of that in terms of the workflow.

E: That’s just really interesting. I’m so glad to hear that you’re using Leanpub that way. I mean it’s one of the things we always hoped it would be used for.

I’d just like to say, before we go, thank you very much Brian for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast and for being a Leanpub author.

C: Thank you. We’ve had a blast. It’s been really fun working with the platform, and I really - I’m a big proselytizer for Leanpub at this point. Our experience has been great, so thank you guys for creating such a great product.

E: Thanks very much.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Thomas Davis

Thomas Davis is a full stack developer and CTO based in Brisbane, Australia. Thomas is the author of a bestselling Leanpub book, Backbone Tutorials, with over 27,000 readers. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Thomas about his career, his projects, and his experience using Leanpub.

This interview was recorded on July 30, 2015.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Len Epp: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Lean Publishing podcast, I’ll be interviewing Thomas Davis. Thomas is a full stack developer based in Brisbane, Australia. He’s currently the CTO of FPV Racing, a new sport that combines hi-tech drones with high speed racing, which sounds pretty awesome. He has led and been involved in many projects over the years including CDNJS, JSON Resume, and he has a particular interest in building and organizing large open source groups. He’s also currently doing development work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, building an action center in Ruby on Rails to lower the barrier to entry when contacting the United States Congress.

Thomas has also helped millions of website visitors learn Backbone.js through his popular tutorials, and he’s the author of the Leanpub book, Backbone Tutorials, which has reached over 27,000 readers on Leanpub. In the book, he aims to get developers up to speed with single page web application development, using Backbone.js as a foundation. In addition to being available on Leanpub, as I said the book is also available for free at backbonetutorials.com.

In this interview, we’re going to talk about Thomas’ professional interests, his books, his experience using Leanpub, and ways we can maybe improve Leanpub for him and other authors. So thank you Thomas for sitting through that intro.

Thomas Davis: Thanks for having me.

E: I usually like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story. Can you tell me a little bit about how you first became interested in being a developer?

D: Yeah. So I have a sort of weird history with computers, I guess. I think when I was going to primary school, computers in Australia were just starting to be brought into the classrooms. So my first experience with a computer would have been probably Grade three or Grade four. Whoever used to finish their math exercises the fastest got to use the computer. So that was like an extra incentive for me to be good at math, and also get time with the computer. That was my first introduction. And then over the years, I just used the computer at school, and it wasn’t until about maybe junior high school, I got my first computer. And it was actually a funny story, because my first computer was built out of parts from like the dump, essentially. I used to go look for spare parts for computers - I looked out for them. My uncle helped me put it together. And then from that day on, I don’t think I’ve spent any less than 16 hours a day on a computer. So…

E: Wow.

D: So, I’m a computer addict since then, constantly working on things. It doesn’t matter what it is. As soon as I have any spare time, I like to start a new project. I’m hoping to stop that eventually. And I guess I just followed - I tried to go to university, but I dropped out after a year, and I just started freelancing in web development. And that sort of worked out for me pretty well.

E: That’s great. That’s really interesting to start that way. Do you feel like maybe you’ve maybe missed out on anything, or have missed out on nothing at all and only gained a few years of life by not finishing up with say a conventional university degree?

D: Yeah, I mean a lot of people say that you don’t need university to work in IT, and I guess I would say the same thing.

E: OK.

D: It’s not that I didn’t need it, but I’m perfectly happy with my career path at the moment, so that’s been fine.

E: Great, great.

D: I guess at the time, they were offering software engineering degrees, not web development. I had been doing web development for about 5 or 6 years before going to university, so I sort of knew more web development than they were willing to teach anyway. It wasn’t exactly what I was trying to do at the time, so I didn’t really see it as necessary. Plus I’m extremely lazy and I didn’t like going to class.

E: Fair enough. I was wondering how you got interested in Backbone eventually?

D: I was programming in ActionScript up to version two in Flash, and I remember one of my high school assignments was first to build a ASP database and a service - just an app, essentially. And I was like, to the teacher, “Oh, I already know how to do this. Can I build the whole application in Flash, so it can look better?” And that was actually more complicated than [what was] taught in the class, because you had to connect to the database from Flash and make a whole app inside there. I guess that was me. I didn’t realize until five years later that I was already building single page apps in Flash, a lot earlier, and just because I follow that front end trajectory, it just made sense with the advent of AJAX - well the popularity of it, that apps would go down that route. So I just ended up in doing that.

I’m not quite sure how I ended up writing Backbone. It was actually one of my first experiences with the Hacker News community, I was first there about 6, 7 years ago. Should I use SproutCore – which was the framework before Ember, so Ember evolved from SproutCore – should I use SproutCore or Backbone.js? So that was like my first little post that made it to the front page of Hacker News, and I got lots of advice - and I was like, “Screw it, Backbone’s a lot more minimal. I don’t want to learn everything about SproutCore.” So we went with Backbone at the time. And then as I was learning it, I couldn’t find any learning materials, so I thought I’d just write - I think the tutorial I wrote was called “Backbone.js for Noobs by a Noob.”

E: That’s a great title.

D: Yeah. All I was doing was essentially documenting the steps it took me to get up to a working application with Backbone. So I didn’t actually know anything about Backbone. I was just documenting what I was doing in particular, and then I think I posted that on Hacker News. That had relatively large success, which then said, “Well, I might as well turn this into a tutorial site, or something like that.”

E: Awesome.

D: Eventually I turned it into my mobile format.

E: That’s awesome that your book on Leanpub has been one of our most downloaded books of all time. So it’s obviously really, really useful to people.

D: I haven’t had the time to update it as much as I’d like. Just because the front end framework scene, it just moves so fast, and it’s really hard to keep up a lot of the time.

E: Speaking of moving fast, FPV Racing sounds pretty awesome. Can you explain a little bit about what it is and where it’s going?

D: Sure. So I got into drones - well, we call them UAVs - in the community, people like to call it UAS or UAV, “unmanned aerial vehicles” as opposed to drone because it’s not quite what a drone is, but what has happened - the popular world has said that now anything that looks like a quadcopter is a drone, and I’m OK with that because I’m from the software world. We call everything the wrong name. And I got into that because my housemate is an electronics engineer, Donald Hills, and he’s become my co-founder.

We actually started another website first which is Dronehire.org, which was sort of like a Yelp for drone services. So we had like 500 businesses, and if you need aerial photography in a certain state of the world, you can just search our directory and find all the operators who offer that. About a year into that, Donald’s like, “Oh man, FPV Racing’s going to storm the world! It’s going to be this new sport.” And I was like, “Yeah. Everyone’s tried inventing a sport before.” And then another six months later, I saw his traffic picking up, I was like, “Holy …, eh? You might be on to something here.”

So I’ve joined in on the project now, and yeah - it’s a pretty cool sport where you essentially put a camera on the front of a drone, that’s optimized for speed, you put the goggles on your head, and you get like a super-immersive experience. I think pilots have described it as being like Superman, or like a bird, or an eagle, because yeah - like virtual reality, it sort of tricks your human cognition into thinking you’re actually moving. Not like incredibly animate - to a certain degree, it tricks you into thinking that.

Now I’ve seen other pilots - one used to be an ex-, he’s called Metal Danny, he used to be an ex-motocross rider. And he’s called Metal Danny because after too many crashes, he has metal in every part of his body. What he decided was that he needs something that he can still get the adrenaline from, but without all the metal in his bones. So he quit that, and he said that drone racing actually gives him this adrenaline rush like extreme sports. But obviously, he can do it from an armchair.

E: Yeah, that’s fantastic. It sounds really interesting. I was wondering actually, when I was reading about it, what’s the state of affairs with drone and / or unmanned vehicle regulation in Australia? Beause I think probably a lot of people listening will be familiar with the problems that the industry has had with regulation in the United States.

D: Yeah. Obviously it depends, depending on the country. Australia, we actually have a much more relaxed sort of setup than America at the moment. And I think the Australian government definitely realized the commercial aspects, probably because we have a lot of agriculture here, and precision drone agriculture is probably going to be one of the largest industries in the next 10 years. But for drone racing, the quads are so light that they don’t really even qualify for regulation, to a certain degree.

E: Oh, OK.

D: It depends on weight divisions. And depending on the countries. So it’s only past a certain weight division. And you can’t fly something above a certain height, or if it’s obviously commercial. Commercial is what is big in the States. You can’t really do it commercially. The weight classes are fine.

E: What do you think about the possibility of goods being delivered that way in the future, Amazon-style as it were? Do you think that’s something that’s going to happen?

D: Sure, sure. I’m a web developer, and not the engineer of the team. So I’m not as so well-versed in physics or logistics to know what the best things for that is.

E: Fair enough. I just -

D: Yeah, you know - I mean Amazon’s probably got a lot of smart people working there. I’m sure they think it’s possible. I would say it probably is, but I don’t know if it’ll be that efficient, personally. It seems like they’ve got van delivery pretty down pat. You can take multiple parcels and you just deliver it all in one big run. It’s pretty quick. And we’ll see. And obviously - yeah, regulation and safety. You can’t fly drones on rainy days. There’s lots of problems like that, so I’d like to see how they do.

E: Actually moving on to the topic of regulation, on your website you explain your position on internet regulation by saying that, quoting here, “Without the input of developers we can expect that backward laws and regulations will be created.” I’m really interested to know what your position is right now on the state of affairs with internet regulation generally, and where you see them going in the short term.

D: Yup. So I think it’s like - the internet is relatively new. I think, you know, the World Wide Web is as old as I am, born in 1989. So it’s sort of interesting to grow up with it. And it is just like, if you look at the state of affairs of Reddit for example, it’s this monster that nobody can understand. And I do think that regulations will be put on things we don’t understand, unless the experts in the field are willing to take their time and explain things, or what-not.

So I always urge developers who do have spare time to take interest in internet policy. Because there’s obviously a lot of apathy towards politics all the time, and that’s understandable. But again, for something so new, if we don’t have people out there - right or wrong to a certain degree - we just have people out there experimenting in that territory, and trying to force change, for the internet I think we’ll end up in a dark place.

E: Yeah, it’s interesting you bring up the newness of the internet, and also generational perspectives, because for a lot of people, especially people like us who spend a lot of time in front of computers using the internet, it’s an important part of everything we do with our professional lives. We just see it as a utility, like the electricity being on. But I know there are a lot of people out there who actually still treat it almost like something that’s an annoyance that’s going to go away. I remember reading an article by I think - I think it was quoting the head of the Ontario Provincial Police, for the province of Ontario in Canada, and he was saying, “You know, well of course what we really want - what would be ideal would be for people not to be able to get onto the internet without signing on and showing some kind of ID.”

D: Yeah.

E: And he meant every time they go on the internet. That’s what he would prefer. And I think the same character was in another interview and he was asked about Uber in Toronto, and he said, “You know, I don’t know anything about this kind of stuff. I’ve got younger people who can - who are into that.” And it’s like this guy’s the head of an entire province’s police force, and he’s got a deliberately dismissive attitude towards like, “the computer”. So I’m very sympathetic to your - when I was reading your description of your position on this, because it’s - it really is scary when you see that people like that are actually in positions of power over the law. And it’s not just that they’re kind of anti-internet, it’s that they’re purposefully unaware of how much of our life is actually driven by that.

D: Yeah.

E: Sorry, go ahead.

D: Yeah, I don’t think there’s any lack of motivational quotes from senators, and motivation on the sense where you have to do something because they sound so inane. We have an Australian senator who said that, “The internet is the biggest existential threat to mankind ever.” So, we’re all, “Hmm…” I don’t know how to take that. It could - maybe he’s right. Maybe he’s thinking like Skynet. Maybe he’s like really forward-thinking.

E: Yeah, unfortunately that’s probably not true. But certainly an interesting - interesting comment. And yes, speaking of politics, your Action Center project for the EFF sounds really interesting. I was wondering if you could explain a little bit about that?

D: Yeah so, well one correction - that was mostly last year.

E: Oh okay.

D: So I was just contracting, I was working on a few of the campaigns against mass surveillance for the States - even though I’m Australian, so I know it’s a bit weird. And I was helping out a lot there with a bunch of the orgs, and eventually the EFF. We were just volunteering at the time and EFF needed a bit of help sort of rebuilding their CMS for activism campaigns. So my good friend Sina Khanifar brought me onto the project to help out. And it’s just a Rails project to help email legislators in America.

That project has now spawned another project, which I didn’t work on, called democracy.io. I recommend checking it out. What it does, and it seems pretty simple, is that it lets you put in your postcode, and then send an email to all of your legislators in your area. You can choose a topic and send a message. Now that sounds like super simple. That sounds like something everyone should have. I mean we have it sort of in Australia, built by the state. But the funny thing is that that’s not actually possible in the States. Because first of all, senators don’t have email addresses.

E: Wow.

D: So how we actually did the project was, we used something called headless browser, which is like running Chrome inside Terminal. So it’s like running Chrome programmatically. And what we do is, when you want to email a legislator, we actually load up their contact form on their website. And then we have a form. You put your information in that form, we load up their contact form, submit it for you and then return it. So if you want to email three legislators, we load up three different browser sessions, put the data in there automatically, and then email it for you.

Actually, we had to get volunteers to help us populate the contact form database. And we had about 150 developers in 48 hours, submit about 5,000 pull requests on GitHub to make this possible. And it was this huge organized project between all of the internet orgs. It was quite fun. It was incredibly hard, so that project took probably a year to even mature it enough to get to democracy.io. So that’s a hard project.

E: That’s really amazing that you guys did that and pulled it off, and that it’s so difficult just to contact politicians.

D: Yeah, I mean if you’d asked me to do it originally, I would have said, “That’s stupid,” because it would take so long to figure out how to get - because all 500 contact forms of the legislators are unique. So you have to describe in YAML, in a code format - what each form looks like. That’s the only way we can do it programmatically. So it’s a huge project, but we actually pulled it off, which was impressive.

E: Yeah that’s great, that’s great. You’re also involved with a group called Taskforce, I think?

D: So again that was - that’s how I got into digital politics. And that was posted on Hacker News, again - I’m an avid Hacker News reader - by Sina Khanifar. And he was just looking for a group of web developers who have some spare time to react to - so what happens in the political realm is that bills trying to get rushed through the house. So a party might put out this bill and say, “That’s right, get it signed in the next week.” And if you try to build a website traditionally, to try and like combat that, it takes you like two months to launch the thing. So you want to put together a team of people who can do it in 24 hours. How fast can you just jump on, build the website, and combat that, raise awareness about a bill that might be passing too quickly.

E: That sounds amazing. Yeah I was reading on your website too that you’re really into studying politics and philosophy in literature. And I was just wondering if there’s something you’re reading right now that you would recommend? Maybe on this kind of subject that people would be interested in?

D: Not one on digital politics sorry, no. No I don’t have an answer for that.

E: Fair enough, fair enough - it was kind of blindside I’m sure. Moving onto Leanpub, I was wondering if you remember how you found out about us - you’ve had your book on Leanpub for quite a while now - and if there was any particular reason why you chose to use us for your publishing platform?

D: So I cannot remember for the life of me, why I started at Leanpub. I think, I guess I was Google searching for a - I was going to write a book, sort of. And I saw that all the solutions around were just the most mundane and complex things in the world, i.e. writing LaTeX and all that. Sorry, I just insulted all the LaTeX guys. They’re like a very - they’re a very, very vocal minority group. But it was incredibly hard to use LaTeX. I didn’t want to go down that route. And actually, I think I know why I stumbled across Leanpub. I wanted to create mobile - sort of mobile editions of everything. I wanted to convert it to Kindle - all the devices, like there’s so many now I can’t remember them. And that would’ve probably been my search originally. And my tutorial’s already written in Markdown. Leanpub was like, “We support markdown.” I was like, “Cool.”

So then I copied some of my content over, put it in Dropbox, and my book was delivered in like 30 seconds. And I was like, “What the hell, that’s just the most beautiful system.” It’s got all the formats in my Dropbox, it’s converted everything. It was a really great experience. And I think I was trying to evangelize for Leanpub at the time. I was quite happy with what they had done.

E: Oh well, that’s great to hear. I was wondering, speaking of that - sort of evangelizing - through your tutorials, was engaging directly with the people that were using them an important part of your process? Were you getting feedback from people and then responding to them in order to improve it over time?

D: I guess not quite, not through the Leanpub platform, because I already had all the other avenues open. Most people went through GitHub to talk to me. I don’t know if they came from Leanpub, but a lot of my feedback came through GitHub and Twitter.

E: Okay, okay. I have, I guess I have a question. If there’s anything that you remember from the experience that you think we might improve, or if there’s anything that you’ve come across lately that you would really like to see in a service like this, that just isn’t out there or isn’t being fulfilled well by anyone?

D: So to be honest, Leanpub’s one of those services where I just think it’s perfect. I think they do - I think you guys do everything really well. And if there isn’t something there, I think you guys know what it is already. So I would rarely bother to say anything. That being said, if I were to - no I really don’t have any sort of constructive feedback. You guys do a fantastic job.

E: Okay well thanks. That’s the best non-constructive feedback I’ve ever heard, so thank you very much for that - we really appreciate it. I guess the last question I have is - what’s your next project that you’re working on? If you have any time in-between being CTO and all the other projects that you’re doing now. Is there anything coming down the pipeline that you’re just getting ready to do?

D: I guess well, just stay in the vein of - to talk about Leanpub. I guess I’ve always idealized writing another book, but this one being more of a novel. And I’ll probably end up doing it through Leanpub. I want to write a novel about the life - not about the life of a web developer, but the web developer as a new type of person or like a new - a new protagonist, I guess, to a certain degree. You read books all the time about someone who might work in accounting, and he goes through this life experience. But we never hear of books in the perspective of like a coder or a developer. Like a D.H. Lawrence style. It’s actually a really well written novel - not to say that I can do that. But written from the - the main characters in the programming world. And I haven’t seen too much like that.

E: Yeah that sounds like a really interesting idea. I personally haven’t thought about that before, but obviously you know the figure of the hacker - is something that people have a concept of.

D: Yeah.

E: But usually they’re kind of like wearing leather and involved in international spy rings or something like that. And then I guess the other stereotype people might have would be like, I guess now from Silicon Valley, that series - I don’t know if you’ve watched any of those episodes.

D: Yeah.

E: But that sounds like a really great idea. Because, I mean, software is eating the world, right? And this is going to be -

D: Oh there’s quite a large audience. I mean, a lot of people would read it. I love watching Silicon Valley, because it’s like this TV series about my daily life to a certain degree. So it’d be nice to read a novel or something - a piece of literature that describes this new archetype.

E: Yeah it’s a great point too, that we’re at the point now when it’s sort of being defined in the public mind maybe for the first time. And to be there at the beginning of that would be really exciting as a writer.

D: Yeah, so I’ll probably end up publishing that through Leanpub, because I’m a fanboy.

E: Okay, great. Well thanks very much for being interviewed for the Lean Publishing podcast, we really appreciate it. And thanks also for being a Leanpub author.

D: Yeah no worries. Sorry for anyone listening to the podcast, I know a lot of Americans have trouble understanding my pronunciation, my Australian slurs.

E: Oh well, I think they’ll understand you just fine. Actually we interviewed Ryan Bigg recently as well. So Leanpub Podcast listeners will be getting warmed up in advance for you.

D: Yeah. I think he’s from the South though. They have a better accent. I’m from the North.

E: Fair enough. Thanks very much.

D: Alright, thanks for that.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Patrick Kua

Patrick Kua is a technical leader and agile coach for ThoughtWorks, and the author of two Leanpub books, The Retrospective Handbook and Talking with Tech Leads. Patrick is also a blogger and frequent conference speaker. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Patrick about how he began his career, his thoughts about the importance of retrospectives, and the various challenges tech leads meet in the course of their work.

This interview was recorded on August 10, 2015.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://leanpub.com/podcast.xml.


Len Epp: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Lean Publishing Podcast, I’ll be interviewing Patrick Kua.

Patrick works mainly as a technical leader and agile coach for ThoughtWorks, bridging the technical and non-technical realms, leading teams and writing software with a particular focus on helping teams improve through the practice of retrospectives. He blogs on various topics at THEKUA.COM@WORK, and you can follow him at @patkua on Twitter. Patrick often speaks at conferences, and you can find a number of his talks on YouTube, including The Geek’s Guide to Leading Teams, where he discusses the idea that the most challenging aspects to software development are always the people issues.

Patrick is the author of the Leanpub books, The Retrospective Handbook: A Guide for Agile Teams and Talking with Tech Leads: From Novices to Practitioners. The Retrospective Handbook draws on Patrick’s 10 years of experience running retrospectives to unlock their potential for your team, while Talking with Tech Leads lets you discover how more than 35 tech leads have learned to balance the technical and non-technical worlds.

In this interview, we’re going to talk about Patrick’s professional interests, his books, his experiences using Leanpub, and ways we can improve Leanpub for him and other authors. So thank you, Patrick, for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast.

Patrick Kua: Thanks for having me.

E: I usually like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story. I was wondering if you could tell me how you first became interested in becoming a developer, and eventually became a tech lead?

K: Sure, absolutely. I guess I count myself lucky, because I fell into the industry relatively early. I mean, I’d played around with some Commodore 64-type stuff as a kid, but I never really got into the whole geek developer from very young. And then when I was in high school, we got introduced to sort of computers pretty early on. I had a really great teacher who was teaching us about software development, and I really got sort of, I guess my mind blown around the stuff that you could create from nothing. We were asked to develop a sort of film rental sort of system, using - back then - Microsoft Access, of all things – things I would never, ever recommend right now, and I kind of fell in love with the things that you could actually create.

That led onto a natural path of me wanting to study more about this at university, and I did a double degree in commerce and I.T. Double degrees are really popular in Australia, which is where I studied. So I ended up doing a commerce and I.T. degree - partly interested in the business side, as well as the technical side. So it’s already an interesting sort of balance out.

After university I went to start work for Flight Centre, whose headquarters are in Brisbane, and then joined shortly after, Oracle - who had an R&D center in Brisbane. There I was really lucky, because the team that I was working with, they were very early adopters of extreme programming. This is in the very early days of XP, which was - I guess - the early 2000’s, where we were playing around with the first continuous integration server, CruiseControl, which was actually built off of CVS, where we were introducing unit testing and JUnit.

For me, it was just such a really interesting contrast, because Oracle is kind of a behemoth, and there’s probably a lot of very traditional software practices - and we were a very small part of it, trying to change the way that we were doing software. This kind of naturally led on to where I ended up joining ThoughtWorks, whose Chief Scientist is Martin Fowler, one of the agile manifesto signatories. I’ve traveled around, and worked with ThoughtWorks for quite some time now. I think this year is actually the 11th year with ThoughtWorks.

E: That’s a long time. And have you been working with them in London the whole time?

K: I started with them in Brisbane, in Australia. We actually have, I think now - four offices. And, yeah, I transferred over to London - I think it was about 2005, where I’ve been based in London for probably the last 9 years. But being a global consultancy, we ended up - we were pretty good at actually shipping people around the world if they want, because it keeps our culture very consistent. It’s a way for us to sort of build our own network, and get exposed to new sort of experiences.

So, I’ve spent the tail end of winter in Calgary once - and summer, which was a beautiful city. I’ve spent about four months in India, amazing country - sub-continent. And I’ve spent, I don’t know? Probably on and off, probably a whole year in total with ThoughtWorks in Germany.

E: I read a blog post on your website about your year in Germany, and becoming fluent in a year. It was quite impressive, I thought, and I was wondering if you could maybe say a little bit about how you approached that year long project, and what the results were?

K: Absolutely. I guess I was kind of lucky in that - with ThoughtWorks, after 10 years, we have a sabbatical period. So, you get paid the equivalent of about three months’ worth of time, where you can choose what you want to do. When you’re presented with an opportunity to take three months off of work and do what you like - I was kind of like, “Oh, it’s really tempting. I never took that gap year that a lot of people take after university, maybe this is the time to do it?” So I actually had the year off, which was a fantastic opportunity, and I have so many great memories from that time.

I think, if you live in Europe and you come from an English-speaking background - like Australia or the U.S - it’s amazing how many people that you meet in Europe who are at least bilingual, if not more. For me it was kind of, like I don’t know - I would have always loved to learn another language fluently, and so for me this was a really great opportunity to do that.

Because I’d spent a little bit of time there for work, I’d learned some German. But it was what you might use as a tourist. So, I could order a beer, I could order for the bill, I could read some things off menu. But it’s really far different from actually living there and being there. So I made the choice to live in Berlin, which, to be honest, is not the best place to learn German. It’s so heavy with so many tourists, and I think Germany’s level of English is actually pretty high, so you can get away with actually not speaking any German if you really don’t want to. I know a few expat people who lived there for maybe three or four years, and their level of German is still sort of rudimentary, I guess tourist-level.

But knowing this helped me prepare. Because my motto going in was, it would be very easy to fall into this expat community and only speak English. So I really forced myself to sort of to pretend that I was in a small, little German village somewhere, where I was surrounded by only German speaking people. All the opportunities for the first, at least, three months, I would make sure that I’d be forced to speak German.

I had a really great flatmate, who knew that I was learning German, and was patient enough with me to only speak German to me - even though it was a very tough few weeks when I first moved in, and couldn’t communicate. I kind of felt like, I could now imagine how a baby would feel. In that, a baby who’s trying to get across a message - can’t, because they just don’t have the vocabulary, the words. And just that frustration, it’s phenomenal.

I think I remember breaking down one evening in dark winter in Berlin, saying, “Can’t we just speak English? I’ve just got to get this out of my system.” And my flatmate was actually really good with me, and said, “Nein!” in German. That was exactly what I needed, was the soft hand approach, but really firm that I was going to keep doing this.

I signed up for immersive German lessons, which was really important. So, I think we did classes from about 8:30 to about 1:00, every day. And then normally there would be homework and field trips afterwards. I think that really helps provide structure, and a really good learning ground to get the basics.

I think one of the benefits of actually going through an experience like that is, you also meet people at a similar level. So I think everyone’s patient with each other, because they understand, they’re also learning - and you’re just as patient giving other people space, because you know that they know the words in English, but you’re struggling to find and remember what the words are. That was really important.

I definitely recommend people get a tandem partner. There’s a concept that’s really popular in Germany - I don’t know how that translates and how popular that is overseas as well. But it’s basically somebody who’s learning the language that you’d like to learn, or who’s native in that language - and who’d like to learn English, or another language that you can speak. We would meet maybe once a week, for a couple of hours, and we would speak an hour of German, and then we’d switch to an hour of English, so that we both had time to practice. It was really helpful, because the language school that I went to helped connect us around personal interests. We spent a lot of time visiting different areas of Berlin, going to different events. It was just a really great way of meeting a new friend, having an opportunity to practice and focus, and get better at that.

E: It sounds like a really interesting idea, also because usually the teacher-student relationship, especially with language, has this kind of dominance on one side, and humiliation on the other. So, actually combining two people who each know that the other one is fluent in the language that they’re trying to learn, really balances that out.

K: Yeah absolutely. That’s such a key thing, and I think you hit on a point which is - I think there is that different relationship with a teacher and the students.

I guess another tip that I would give people is: it’s really worthwhile, if you’re going to learn something, to learn from lots of different people. It’s interesting, because everyone has their own bias about preferred learning style. And I think teachers have their sort of bias about how they believe that people learn best. It doesn’t always work.

So, I think we went through about four different teachers, over the course of three months. Just because of the level shifts, and different timings of classes. It was interesting for me to watch how one style of teacher didn’t really work for me, but it worked for other people. And then, another teacher who worked for me, didn’t really work for other people in that class. That’s where I think it’s really useful, to get exposed to lots of different teachers.

It’s something that I picked up from software development as well. Which is, you have so many different people who you can learn from, and each one has something very different to teach you. I think that’s a really important thing - when you’re progressing in any skill development, is that you get exposed to lots of different ideas. You may not necessarily take away everything that that person has to offer, but it does give you a different perspective.

E: Yeah, that reminds me of a line from your website where you’re talking about programming, but obviously it can apply to other areas as well - where you say that you believe strongly in self-empowered teams and individuals, having seen many talented people beaten down by the systems that they work in. The idea of empowerment, but also the element of individuality that’s inevitable in empowered teams, is also very important.

I was wondering if that came from - that particular feeling - maybe came from a personal experience you had with being beaten down in a big system, or was it something that you were fortunate to avoid yourself and just saw in other people?

K: I guess I consider myself pretty lucky, because I haven’t worked in a - I mean, I’ve worked with Oracle, but not in a large system where I felt beaten down, at least for a long time. I think that’s maybe one of the benefits of a consultant, is that you see lots of different environments.

What I really love is actually helping people get over these systemic things that have beaten the motivation out of people, where they’re just getting on with their tasks that they’ve been told to do, and helping them connect with the things that they really like. I’m a big believer in sort of Dan Pink’s Drive book - autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In that, if you can give people a reason to engage with the work that they do, and they can develop themselves at the same time, and they have an ability to choose the things that they think will help get them to that purpose – everyone benefits. Like, the people who are working on that sort of tasks are a lot happier - I think the job will be done a lot better.

And so, whoever that is for - be it the end customers or the business, everyone wins. I just wish that more people had that approach of, how can everyone find the solutions that work well for everyone? It won’t always be optimal, but trying to at least have that conversation with people around - “What drives you? What are you interested in? And how can we make that work for you in this environment?” I guess that’s what led me to be a very independent person, which I think helped me when I was learning my German language skills, is that I was just doing things that I felt interested me, that helped me - and then I’d find people to help me keep engaged, so I still had that purpose.

E: Yeah, it’s really interesting that you brought up the idea of a system. I’ve noticed this in your writing in a couple of places where you talk about why expert developers can sometimes make the worst tech leads. You talk about how someone can be extremely talented at a certain kind of system, like programming, but then the system that sits on top of it, where, what are you doing, and how does it fit into the larger scope of things, and the other people that you’re working with? Those talents are not - it’s not that they’re necessarily incompatible, but they’re not the same. I was wondering if you could explain a little bit about that.

K: Yeah, it’s really funny actually, beause I’ve done a lot of reading around systems thinking. The Fifth Discipline is a really great book, as is - I think it’s Thinking in Systems, I forget which one it is. I think what’s really interesting is just trying to - I think we’re taught in a certain way - though the way our education system runs, about being very scientific about things, boiling things down to singular causes and effects.

I think systems thinking teaches you to see things in a different perspective. Depending on where you draw the boundaries of a system, there are different perspectives and therefore different motivators, and different characteristics. For me, I think, when we work in a software environment, you have the local system of either your software system that you’re building, or your team that’s working on that software system. But there’s the broader organizational system in which it’s working, and I think for me, one of the challenges working as consultant is, you’re often brought in to try to shake up a system. You want to create an empowered environment. So you want to carve out a safe space for people to experiment, to gain their autonomy and confidence - and also then, deliver.

There’s a bit of a challenge there, because what’s good for individuals doesn’t always work for the whole system. There’s a trick in synchronizing the rate of change. One interesting thing that I see a lot with teams that really adopt a fully extreme approach to agile development - and the organization is a very big, lumbering behemoth - is that people won’t necessarily change the system, or they won’t fight to get the surrounding system around them changed.

We have this saying which is, “Change the system or change the system.” What that means is that people will get frustrated without any change in their own system. So they’ll choose to move to another company. They change their environment, and that’s another way of them changing the system. Which I think definitely is a consequence for companies that are thinking about moving in a very different cultural way from what their current system is. But at the same time for me, it’s - you’ve helped people connect with purpose and something good for them as well. It’s quite hard, because we’re trying to also appease the people that we work with, as well as our customers who may be quite different - or in different circles.

E: That’s really interesting. I really like the observation about how we often try to take reductive causal frameworks, and then apply them to the complexities of systems, like human systems for example, that they don’t quite apply to.

I’ve got a joke which is, it was an apple that fell on Newton’s head, not a person. If an apple had fallen on his head, then he would have the insight that he did about how these simple formulas can explain the motion of the planets very far away. But if a person had fallen on his head - he would have freaked out, and jumped up and had all sorts of different thoughts - none of which had anything to do with this simple explanation of how things move in the universe. And that, actually since the Enlightenment, there’s been a problem where people have often tried to take the successes of the sciences, and then apply them to areas where the systems are actually different. There was actually a German philosopher, Husserl, who wrote a book about that - over 100 years ago [sic], so it’s a longstanding problem.

But I had a specific question. Your book, “The Retrospective Handbook,” is about retrospectives. This is in particular a way of managing people within these systems, and helping them to improve and maybe find their own place. I was wondering if you could maybe explain to people listening what a retrospective is, and why it’s so important?

K: Absolutely. What’s really interesting is that I think in most businesses, the pace of change is really rapid, and people expect things to happen. I think often there is the assumption that everyone is doing the best that they can, which I also believe. People are given goals, and they’re all working towards that.

But it’s hard to improve in that sort of work environment. And for me, the retrospective is sort of a time out from your normal day-to-day work environment of - all these things going on, all these priorities. All these things that are changing. And creating a bit of space to actually reflect. For me, the power of retrospective is this meeting where you bring people who are working perhaps on the same sort of goal together, where they can talk in a bit of a safe environment, to talk about what things that they could change or improve.

For me, the key outcome of a retrospective is really about the small actions that they might take. To slightly experiment or to improve something. I don’t think you necessarily need to change everything. But for me, the idea of a retrospective is about change, and that safe environment to talk about what’s gone less well in our environment, and what are the things that have gone well - and maybe can we amplify them? It creates that space for a whole team or a group of people to come together, which, a lot of businesses don’t really make time for. And so, they never really take the opportunity to understand what improvements they might have.

E: Is a retrospective something that happens continually throughout - let’s say a project? Or is it something you do at the end? You know there’s this terrible term “post-mortem”. It just sounds like it’s different from that, right?

K: Yeah absolutely, and you’re spot on - a post-mortem is after everything is dead. So you can’t really do anything to change it. The idea for a retrospective is to keep these short, to do them regularly. I encourage groups of people to do them maybe once a week or maybe once a fortnight, and to try to take small steps towards something.

For me, I’m a big believer that small steps can lead to huge change. Therefore, the small experiments that people can take give people an opportunity to review them the following week - and maybe change them back if they didn’t go so well. I think it’s a really easy way to introduce new things, because it’s low risk for people, right? It’s like, if they know that there’s a way back, people are more likely to sort of try something out. So yeah, you’re spot on in that it is a bit more of a regular sort of cadence of how you run retrospectives.

E: You write in your book about the retrospective prime directive. I was particularly interested in how important it was, in your experience, that actually this is read out explicitly at the beginning of a retrospective - or when people are being introduced to the retrospective process. And I’d like to actually read the sentence.

K: Sure.

E: And have you explain why in your experience it is so important that it’s read out. So here it goes.

K: Sure.

E: The retrospective prime directive: “Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job he or she could, given what was known at the time, his or her skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

K: Yeah, so firstly, I won’t take credit for this, because I’m standing on the shoulder of giants. This actually comes from Norm Kerth’s original book about project retrospectives, which were also considered more at the end of a project, that you might do something. For me, I think this statement is a really good example of that difference between a retrospective and a postmortem.

For me, I think this statement is actually really important, particularly for people who’ve never done a retrospective before. I’ve worked with teams that have been working a couple of years, and they’ve been doing whatever they do. Nobody’s ever really asked them about what could they change? How could they improve things? And that ability to influence their working environment.

For me, this is a really great way of sort of introducing the concept of safety. Of, we aren’t here in a retrospective to point fingers and hang people up to dry. We are here to really believe that everyone was doing the best that they could, and to put our mind on the system that we can influence, rather than pointing fingers and blaming people, because that doesn’t really improve the system.

I think for people who’ve been part of retrospectives for a while, they understand this. But I think, particularly for new organizations, what I would say is - maybe more conservative sort of teams or cultures, where change doesn’t happen a lot, and they’re not used to it - I think it’s a really powerful statement to open a retrospective and create that safety. My rule of thumb is that people should try to use this the first time, if they’ve never run a retrospective with their team before.

E: It’s interesting, you talk about safety and in your book, you also talk about bias. I was wondering if that’s related to the importance that you place on independent facilitators for retrospectives?

K: Yeah absolutely. I have a very strong memory of going to a client where a retrospective was run by a very, I would probably describe, controlling project manager. I think it was my second week with the client, and so I sat in the retrospective - I didn’t have that much to offer, because it was the second week. I just watched how that project manager would take the white board marker, point at somebody and say, “Okay, what went well last week?” Point at another person and say, “What didn’t go so well?” And it was really interesting, because the responses from those people were pretty much one word answers. There was no elaboration about story. There was no context given to those points. For me, it was such a contrast when I’ve seen independent facilitators who don’t have any other agenda - who have no power relationship with the participants. It does really create a good, safe environment that people can talk a lot better in. So I think it’s a really powerful concept to have an independent facilitator. I think it really increases safety.

E: Yeah, it’s really interesting too how when you’re talking about, in Talking With Tech Leads - your second Leanpub book I think? - you write that the experience you gained as a developer does not prepare you for the responsibilities of a role of a tech lead. Even though it’s important that as a tech lead - which you define as someone who is actually still coding usually, right? And participating in the creation of the code for the project, but also now has been moved into a space in where they’re steering the ship, and all the skills that you’re talking about now - not pointing and kind of demanding one word answers. It’s effectively demanding one word answers.

I was wondering if you could explain a little bit about your experience interviewing all the people for Talking With Tech Leads - what insights you might have about people who’ve newly moved into that role, or might be a little bit worried about being pushed into that role, and how they can shift from being a developer to being a tech lead?

K: Absolutely. It was really interesting talking to so many different people, because when I set out to do the book, I didn’t really have an idea what responses I might get. The book was intentionally structured so that I posed the same sorts of questions to people. And what emerged was interesting things that people had different - I guess when they had different perspectives on or different times of their career. As they were maybe, earlier in their phase or later in their phase, about what areas that they focused on. So there were some natural themes that developed.

I think for people who are very new to it, who I call the sort of novices, there is a huge shift from what you do as a developer, to suddenly leading a team. As a developer, you’re normally very focused on how well your code is structured and how nicely everything runs. You don’t really need to worry too much about sort of the people in your team - that’s somebody else’s problems, and you don’t necessarily need to worry about where work comes from and managing business people. And then when you’re suddenly thrust into this role of being a tech lead, you’re trying to also write a little bit of code, but at the same time you’re pulled in lots of different directions.

That’s quite a natural state, and I think my first word of advice for people in that role is to not panic, because it can be really overwhelming. Time management skills are quite useful, trying to prioritize through some of this stuff. I think also the big difference, a big jump is - as a developer, you feel like you have a lot of control over the code that you’ll end up writing. And I think as a lead, it’s difficult to give up that control.

So, back to that project manager who’s really restricting what people say: letting go is really hard. As a developer, you’re really opinionated about how something might be written. And as a lead, you still have to have some guiding principles - you have some sort of say. But you have to be okay that the method or the structure won’t be written exactly how you would’ve done it. In fact, it may actually be better for it, because somebody has a different approach from you for actually solving things. So, there’s a big shift mentally I think, that developers have when they move into this role of suddenly realizing that it’s okay that problems get solved - but in a different way, and that’s okay.

E: I was just fascinated reading the stories from different people about their different experiences. It was really interesting how in the book, you ask people the same set of questions, right? But they came back with these unsolicited themes that grouped together.

K: Yeah, that was very fascinating.

E: I was wondering actually, on the subject of publishing - you actually turned Talking With Tech Leads into a print book.

K: Yeah.

E: And it’s for sale in 3 different regions on Amazon.

K: Yes.

E: I was wondering if you could explain a little bit about that experience, of turning it into a print book from an ebook.

K: Absolutely. I’ve been a fairly early adopter of Leanpub. I think it was actually with he Retrospective Handbook, that I was trying to turn into a printed book as well. I was asking after a print-ready, PDF version. I used the CreateSpace publishing platform, which is sort of a part of Amazon. And then, they self-publish on demand a printed book.

But they require a whole bunch of preparation, like a PDF version that is printable. And it’s quite an interesting process about moving from an ebook format to a PDF that is print ready. Because there’s lots of little formatting differences that make a big difference when you’re in a print version. A simple example is the alternating page numbers from left to right. You want them to be on the outside of the book, which, when you’re on a single screen, it doesn’t really matter. The same thing with margins is that, when it’s printed, you want the margins that are going to be bound together a little bit deeper, because you want it to look equal - so when somebody opens the book, it looks nice.

Leanpub has been really awesome at actually picking up feedback. I was generating lots of feature requests for understanding what a print-ready PDF could look like. And then I would do a test run with Amazon and give feedback, saying, “Okay, well the test copy, now that I see it in real life, needs some adjustment.” I’ve been a huge fan of Leanpub from the very beginning, because it was a really great example of lean flow in action. Which was - I was creating a demand, and your platform was responding to that as I was getting feedback from it. I wasn’t quite sure what I really wanted either. It was really useful to have those really fast feedback cycles.

E: Yeah I remember seeing all the interaction between you and Scott, one of Leanub’s co-founders. During that process, you really - one of the reasons I’m asking you is because you’ve really pulled a lot of that out of us, and we were so glad when someone arrived on the scene and was like, “I want to have good output to make a good print book.” Are you happy with where it is right now? The print output and everything kind of works more or less the way you need it to, to get it on Amazon and things like that?

K: Yeah absolutely. I mean, what was really interesting was that - I guess a comparison between the first draft of The Retrospective Handbook, and then preparing for the Talking With Tech Leads print version. I don’t think there was any feature request that I had to change at all. In fact, I think for me, the difficult part was actually the wraparound cover - which is something that you don’t necessarily need to worry about in an ebook world. It is something that is exclusively to do with print layout. You need to think about what goes on the back, what goes on the spine, and try to get the formatting right based on the thickness of the book - it’s kind of one of those tricky - you have to print it, really, to see what the end result is. But from a platform perspective, it was exactly what I needed - and I didn’t have to do any extra changes to it.

E: Oh that’s great to hear, I’m really glad. I’m really glad that it’s at that stage. I was wondering, I read that you used a copy editor, and it might have been the same person for both of your books. Can you say a little bit about what that experience was like, and how you found a copy editor?

K: Yeah absolutely. I found a copy editor through a colleague of mine actually. I think for one of the very early drafts of The Retrospective Handbook, I’d asked some people to give me some feedback on it. I think one of the early bits of feedback is that, “You’re really too close to your writing.” I think this is probably one of the dangers of self-publishing: you decide to go down the, “I can take care of everything” route. “I can do all the grammar and checking.” But actually that’s not my strength, and that’s - I would actually say that’s probably one of my weaknesses, is that, I tend to speed read, so I tend to skip over things that other people would notice.

I think there’s a lot of value in working with an editor. So I worked with Angela from Virtual Editor, Angela Potts. She was really - she’s based in Cambridge. I guess one of the really great things is that, we still physically haven’t actually met. We actually met over email, and then we did some Skype sessions - and so she works very virtually as well. I think the Leanpub process was actually really useful, because I could just share simple text files with her. With enough simple syntax, she understood how to sort of start editing some of those files and we could actually just simply trigger draft copies really rapidly. That was a really useful process, of actually sharing the book and getting fast iterations over the copy.

E: So did you actually share, like give her access to the Dropbox folder that you would have been working in and direct access to the files?

K: Yeah absolutely.

E: Okay.

K: Yeah, and that worked really well. For the first book, it was just a bit more copy editing. I already had the structure in place. And then our relationship evolved a little bit more, and she helped me with a little bit more of the structure for the second book - how to make it a bit more interesting, rather than just a whole series of interviews.

E: I noticed that both of your books have really good covers, and I was wondering if you made them yourself, or did you use an external service to do that? That’s one of the questions we get all the time from people, because a great cover really does make a big difference, particularly in confidence that people have in a book, especially if it’s self-published, or maybe even in-progress.

K: Yeah, it’s a great question. I designed them myself. I wasn’t sure about this actually to begin with. I was also thinking about going out to, I guess the market - what some other authors have done about trying to get somebody to pitch different ideas towards a cover. But for me, it was actually kind of like a fun, creative experiment. My goal was to create something that was a little bit eye-inducing. It could be a lot better, but it’s also the skills that I had.

I ended up studying actually, probably about - there’s a couple of websites that show really great book cover design. I looked around at I think a site that showed like 50 or 100 of them, and then I was looking at some of those things, thinking about what sort of themes and colors and - I guess - patterns that I might take, that I could reproduce in open source tools. So I used GIMP for the actual file creation.

E: Okay.

K: And then I just ended up coming up with a couple of different designs. I also did the whole sort of lean testing as well. I actually generated quite a lot of different variants, and then I tested it against some of my colleagues and close friends to see, “Do you like A or B better? What do you think about this color? How’s these patterns?” I ended up settling on the style that you see on The Retrospective Handbook.

Then I wanted to continue that theme with the second book. That was a little bit more interesting, because I was actually - it was really important for me in Talking With Tech Leads, to get a diverse sample of people in there. So what might be surprising, which I haven’t really written a lot about, is that, I’ve managed to probably get about a third of the people in the book - I think - to be female tech leads. It’s really hard to get female developers, let alone people in leadership roles. And so, when I designed the cover, I also was very conscious about making sure it wasn’t a male or a female looking tech lead. I’ve tried a sort of gender-neutral-looking icon, which is what my design intentions were. I don’t know if it’s come through, but yeah - I guess that was the sort of - So, have some sort of theme that comes along from the first book, but have something that’s representative about that sort of topic, yeah.

E: That’s really interesting. I mean, obviously you’re very hands on with the scope of the entire project now. I was wondering if you’d ever - for both books, I was wondering if you’d ever considered going with a conventional publishing process or conventional publisher to begin with? Or was that just something that never occurred to you, and publishing it yourself just seemed like the way to go?

K: I think for the first book, I had thought about going to a publisher. But I was just really surprised at how rapidly it had gone through. I mean there’s - I know a lot of people who’ve written books for the Prags and O’Reilly and things like that, and I think there’s trade-offs. I wanted to go down the whole self-publishing route to see how easy or hard it was going to be. And I’ve been really happy with the reach of the platform and the ease with which Leanpub makes it easy for people to buy and distribute the books all over the world.

I mean, I might go through that process, but for me I think the editor is probably the biggest value that one of those traditional platforms can bring - and that they have a strong network. And probably around the consistent theme. So if it fits in with an existing series like the Martin Fowler signature series, or something like that, that probably makes sense. But I’ve been very happy with the whole self-publishing route.

I guess the only thing that I’m thinking about, is how better to market the book. But I think that’s part of the self-publishing process, right? Which is, what can you do to get the book out there?

E: Yeah definitely, definitely. And that’s kind of the - writing’s the hard part, but so’s the marketing.

K: Absolutely.

E: I was wondering actually, I guess my last question would be - if there was one dream feature that you could have us build for you, what would it be? If there was one thing that was either missing or that you now - looking back, or even looking forward - which we could give to you as part of our process, what might that be?

K: It’s a really great question. And to be honest, I don’t have a good answer. I mean, one of the things I really like about you guys is that - if I want something, I feel that I can post something on the forums and get a response, and have somebody either say, “It’s on the road map,” or, “We’ll work on it.” I think that’s such an amazing opportunity of the platform. And so, I can’t really think of another feature that I’d really like - otherwise I would have asked for it by now.

E: Well thanks - if you ever do, please come back and ask again. A big part of our process is having people approach us and tell us what they need, and then us delivering it. I mean after - obviously with deliberation!

So anyway, Patrick, thank you very much for your time and for being on the Lean Publishing Podcast, and for being a Leanpub author.

K: Thank you for having me.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Obie Fernandez is an author, consultant, traveler and photographer. Currently the Senior Vice President of Engineering at 2U, Obie is the bestselling author of Ruby on Rails books, and he has been involved in a number of successful startups and other projects. He recently launched his latest book, Serverless: Patterns of Modern Application Design Using Microservices (Amazon Web Services Edition), on Leanpub. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Obie about his career, his books, and the inspiration behind Serverless.

This interview was recorded on December 28, 2015.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: http://leanpub.com/podcast.xml.

The audio for this podcast has some blips in it and you’ll see these reflected in the occasional “…” in the transcription.

Obie Fernandez

Len Epp: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Leanpub podcast, I’ll be interviewing Obie Fernandez. Obie is a New York City and Atlanta, Georgia-based author, consultant, traveler and photographer. He has been involved in professional software development and consulting for over 20 years, and most recently he’s been involved in the startup world with a variety of projects. Obie is currently Senior Vice President of Engineering at 2U, a New York City-based platform for delivering quality online degree programs. Obie is a serial entrepreneur, and in the past he has been the CTO and co-founder of a number of companies, including Andela and Lean Startup Machine. He’s also Series Editor for Addison-Wesley’s professional Ruby series and an avid EDM DJ.

Obie is probably most famous as the bestselling author of Ruby on Rails books. He’s also the author of a number of books that have been published in various states of completion on Leanpub, including The Rails 4 Way, The Lean Enterprise, and How to Eat Nachos and Influence People. He’s also currently working on a new book called Serverless. Patterns of Modern Application Design Using Amazon Web Services, which will be launching very soon, and which we’ll be talking about later in the interview.

In this interview, we’re going to talk about Obie’s professional interests, his books, his experiences using Leanpub, and ways we can improve Leanpub for him and other authors. So, thank you Obie for being on the Leanpub podcast.

Obie Fernandez: Thank you Len.

Len: I usually like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story. I was wondering if you could tell us how you first became interested in software development, writing, and eventually in consulting in startups?

Obie: Sure. Well, I think I’ve been really lucky, like a lot of technologists of my generation. I’m 41, almost 42, and grew up in an era where it was cool to tinker with electronics and take things apart. At school, we got taught programming as early as third grade. So I was working on an Apple 2E and learned BASIC and learned Logo, and I think that that’s a real advantage, because the concepts of programming at such a young age, it just - I think has an amazing effect. Because - I don’t know, it just feels like I can’t even remember when I started programming, right? It’s like something that’s been with me for a long time.

I did eventually start getting into commercial software development with my friend Nate. He is my same age, he’s been my best friend my whole life. He started a TV and VCR repair business at a young age - always entrepreneurial - and he had a storefront selling beepers, which were like the pager things that people wore on their belts and whatnot which are not really used anymore, but at the time they were all the rage. Being responsible for the billing, and since we were both kind of hackers and whatnot, we wrote a software package that ran on his PC and used his modem to page his customers when it was time for them to pay their bill. They’d call back and they’d hit a message that said that their account was due and whatnot. We expanded that into kind of an account management system for beepers, called Beeper Pro. Unfortunately never went anywhere. We could have been like software magnates of the beeper world, or whatever.

But the little startup that we put together with a friend of his kind of leveraged that. It didn’t pan out, mostly because I think we didn’t have the attention for it. We ended up doing some early web hosting, and I learned some Smalltalk and I learned Java. We got involved in a whole bunch of other things. I was DJ’ing at the time, so I was having friends from New York come over and record sets for me to stream in 22K WAVs at danceradio.com. A lot of interesting little projects.

Eventually, I was able to get a job at a professional business. This was back in 1995. I claimed expertise with Java, which I’ll admit now was a little more fake than the interviewer [would have gathered]. But I had basically read, Java in 21 Days, which had just come out, or something like that. I think it was my first lucky break. It was a professional job doing programming when I didn’t have a computer science degree and I didn’t really have any sort of formal credentials to get a job doing so. But I was able to turn that into a series of jobs in professional consulting and over the years have had a number of lucky breaks which - together with hard work, got me to where I am today.

Consulting in general, I think is a great place if you really want to keep your skills from stagnating. Especially if you’re good and ambitious. I did a lot of consulting, then I was at a startup for 4 years in the early 2000’s, that was good, because I rode out the dotcom bust, the original dotcom bust. And then I ended up at ThoughtWorks. ThoughtWorks, during the early to mid-2000’s was the place to be. I got to work with Martin Fowler, Neal Ford and a bunch of other notable people - Fred George, who has influenced me a lot on microservices. It’s amazing what you can do.

Actually one of the common themes throughout, especially since the early 2000’s, has been kind of constant self-promotion and blogging and that sort of thing. Maybe it’s common with some of the other Leanpub authors. But in the things that I point to when I’m coaching people or advising my friends. Like, “Hey, if you really want to get ahead, pay attention to the way that you present yourself. Pay attention to the way that you credentialize yourself online. And I’ve done that. I’ve had a blog since the early 2000’s. First I was talking about Java.

I had some, a little bit of notoriety in open source Java. I worked on some dependency injection framework stuff in open source. That was kind of my first real dip into open source. And it just set me up to be in a position to talk about Ruby on Rails in a significant way in 2005, and I was one of the loudmouths that was saying, “Hey, this gives 10x productivity gains over Java. Java sucks.” and all this stuff, and being really controversial and brash and attracting attention.

That got me my first book deal with Addison-Wesley, to write, The Rails Way. Later on that led to getting the series editorship, and then being involved in all the other great books in that series. So it all points back to always being active about wanting to share the knowledge that I’ve got. Wanting to credentialize, wanting to blog, wanting to write. I mean, the first book was mostly due to something that a lot of us had or have, which is, “I’d like to write a book someday. It’d be nice to see my name on the cover of a book.” And then afterwards it turned into like, “Wow this can be a really important fuel for building your career. Because the more that you credentialize, the more that people view you as an authority, and the easier it is to get the kinds of jobs that you want, To work with the kind of people that you want. To attract other people who are also very talented and ambitious and going places.

Len: That’s a really great story. Especially the way you emphasize your own activity when it comes to gaining notoriety and getting attention. I was wondering, did Addison-Wesley approach you, or did you approach them with the idea for your first book?

Obie: Deborah approached Curt Hibbs who was an early figure in the Ruby blogging community, and who I think wrote some of the early … that were popular. He worked at Boeing and I haven’t heard from him in years, I hope he’s okay. But Deborah Willings is an editor at Addison-Wesley, who I adore. I owe her a lot. She approached him, and then he recommended me, because he just knew me from my blog. So she walked up to me and just cold-presented me with an offer to get involved in writing a book at a conference in San Diego.

Len: I’m curious, it’s something you mentioned about starting to learn programming when you were in grade three. I think this is something we’ll probably return to later, because I know that education is something that’s been an important part of many of the projects that you’ve been involved in. I’m wondering, I think there are probably people listening who wish they’d had the opportunity to start learning programming at school at grade three. Were you at a special kind of school in some way, or was it just a kind of unique circumstance?

Obie: I don’t think it was that unique for its era. I mean it was elementary school in New Jersey in Hackensack, which is the county seat of Bergen County, which is a somewhat well-to-do county - I guess. I mean, I didn’t grow up in a well to do area, I was in a working class neighborhood and working class parents. I once saw that, that particular era, there was a population dip. I guess it was kind of like an after-the-boomers sort of thing. The schools were relatively well funded in relation to the amount [of students], because the population dips, which kind of gives you a little bit of insight into how macro trends kind of play out in people’s lives. It’s kind of amazing to think about.

Len: Yeah, yeah, that’s really interesting. One of the companies you’ve been involved with is Andela - am I pronouncing that correctly?

Obie: Yeah, Andela.

Len: Yeah, Andela. I was looking at it, and on its website it says it “integrates full time genius level remote software developers into your team”. And I remember, I read a little bit about your involvement. It says it works with Fortune 500 companies to find untapped talent from around the world. I was wondering if you could explain a little bit about what your contribution was to the company when you got there? Beause I read that you sort of changed things a little bit.

Obie: For sure, happily. I joined very early on as CTO, and brought kind of that real-world experience in running a consultancy. The business model is to find very, very intelligent - I don’t know about genius level, but certainly top five to ten percentile in terms of problem solving capability, in Africa. So we operate in Kenya and Nigeria. I’m still involved as an adviser, I’m very close to the CEO Jeremy Johnson. What we did there was to find a way to put some of these young Nigerians, and now Kenyans to work, giving them opportunities that they clearly do not have on their own. It’s very hard without access to stable power, stable internet.

And then I think, one of my significant contributions there that I’m most proud of is that we realized early on that it was wasn’t just the structure concerns, right? It’s not just safety and electricity and internet. Once you have the access it’s easy to figure out the technology on your own, there’s so much wealth of information online that you can get. I mean it’s a dirty word to authors and media in general, but I mean, with piracy and whatever, where I can get a complete library of pretty much any classic book that you want to get in the field - it might be an outdated version or what not, but the access is there if you have the internet.

What you don’t have, and this is what I started figuring out about six months in, in a very vivid way, is a lot of “common sense”, what we would consider common sense - about business environment, how to deal with Western clients. What expectations are around creativity and problem solving? What kind of push back you can give if someone’s telling you to do something that you think is not the right thing? Or if you are not capable of doing what they’re asking you to do.

So that changed my whole pedagogical approach. I pretty much flipped it on it’s head, where we were putting a lot of emphasis on basic technology training and basic computer science concepts in the beginning. I started realizing now we need to really put a lot of emphasis on “soft skills” - communication skills, how to build trust, how to keep trust. How to learn, how to function on a team. How to apply creative problem solving. How to trust your own intellect when it’s appropriate, or lean on others. That sort of thing.

The mechanism for doing so was a very, very heavy curriculum of improv training, actually. A lot of people are familiar with comedic improv - the show, Whose Line Is It Anyway? with Drew Carey was very popular in the United States, and whatnot. What less people know about is a field called applied improv - implied, applied improvisation probably has a couple of thousand practitioners around the world. Consultants who come, a lot of times from the comedic improv background, but they do business consulting, and they go to companies and they do these improv kinds of activities, improv games. Some are very basic, but the idea is to get people to open up, come out of their shells.

In Nigeria, that was especially important, because the young people, and in particular young women, are just kind of culturally trained to be very quiet and shy, especially around any sort of authority figure or anyone that they look up to. It’s very hard to get them to come out of their shell. So we did a lot of work - five to six hours a day for 30 days, a program called “Month One”, where we went over, everything starting with the basic “yes, and” principle of improv. Which is that you - being constructive. So finding a way to build on what someone else is adding, trusting their intentions and then finding a way to build on the tearing down. All the way through these opening up exercises that I’m talking about, all the way towards things that we kind of learn naturally here in the States, even around some tough topics like sexual harassment and what’s appropriate and what’s not, things like that. And just basically not taking anything for granted.

The results have been remarkable. I think that the - our Andelan consultants that are now remote team members to about 50 companies here in the States and in Europe, they fit in very naturally. The way that other remote team members would fit in. It’s not the experience that people may be used to with working with offshore teams.

Len: And how does Andela find people?

Obie: Actually, the population dynamics are such that it’s not hard to find people. They have less than a 1% acceptance rate. So it’s just the combination of social marketing and whatnot. And now there’s a lot of word of mouth, because the opportunity is so awesome. You don’t have to have any sort of formal education in computing. You don’t have to have any particular family connections. You don’t have to have money. You don’t have to have anything. If you pass a battery of tests, then there’s an interview process. That knocks the pool down significantly. And then those people are invited to come to one of our facilities and do a two week workshop, where they get very intensive and fast-paced training in JavaScript or Ruby or now Python.

The idea there is not so much training, as to see what their grit and determination is. Because you push them really, really hard, and the vast majority of them don’t have real programming experience that they’re bringing to the table. So you push them really hard, and then you see who comes out the end. So out of a class of 20 in the boot camp, we may hire five to ten. But at that point, we give you a four-year contract. And you have a job paying a middle-class salary. You get subsidized food, subsidized housing. A lot of them get to live on our campus. The audacious goal is within ten years to train 100,000 of these young Africans and inject them into the global workforce. If we achieve that, or even a fraction of that, it would make a pretty big social impact in Africa. So it’s really one of those startup situations that was very exciting and rewarding, personally, not just in a monetary sense, but also in terms of purpose, that’s what we’re doing.

Len: That’s fantastic, I didn’t know that the goals were so ambitious and positive. That’s great. And that leads me to ask you about 2U where you’re Senior Vice President of Engineering now. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about what 2U is doing, and what your role is there?

Obie: Yeah sure. So, as I was starting to get kind of exhausted with the travel and the intensity of working with Andela, I needed to take a little bit of a break. And I got married, I moved to New York from Atlanta. I had a bunch of life changes. My daughter Taylor went to college. So 2U is kind of a sister company to Andela, a lot of the same early investors. The CEO, Jeremy Johnson, was one of the founders of 2U. So the CTO of 2U made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. To come, help, really take their engineering department to the next level over there.

2U’s a successful startup. It’s a successful New York startup story. IPO’d I think about 18 months ago. So about 8 years old. Lots of market traction, a lot of credibility. A lot of really good brands associated with us - Yale, NYU, UNC. We have a good thing going on. We have a platform, along with the services that we provide to these schools so that they can get their graduate programs online. And what’s amazing about what’s happening there, is that … of graduate education. The best graduate program is one that has some real world experience, that one has gone out and gotten some maturity and … their career and their life to the next level.

But at that point, a lot of them have lives already. They have budding careers, or maybe established careers for a lot of the executives and professionals. They may have kids. They may not be able to move and do school full time in a particular geographic region. So what we give them is the ability to just work on it from home, remotely - while still getting the full experience, in a lot of cases, with better outcomes that they would get in person, on campus.

We now have programs that have been going on for over five years, and we can start to track the outcomes, and we see people actually having better outcomes. So the challenge there for me personally, what keeps it interesting is that it is a startup that went big and has done well. And we now have a technology department with over 100 people. The vast majority of whom are really great, really talented, really energetic. And then it’s just a question, how do you harness that talent to take us to the next level? We have a certain amount of partnership programs now, but how do we increase that by multiples?

And that - scaling technology is always kind of a fun challenge. And for me, coming back to an environment where there’s bigger teams, there’s bigger coordination and orchestration of effort, where there’s more room for applying enterprise techno