Leanpub Podcast Interview #34: Nicholas Russo
published Jul 20, 2016
Nicholas Russo is a network professional who has earned CCIE certifications in both Routing and Switching and Service Provider. A former Comm Officer in the US Marines Corps, Nick is also the author of the Leanpub book CCIE Service Provider Version 4 Written and Lab Exam Comprehensive Guide. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Nick about his career, the duties of a Comm Officer on deployment in wartime, and about his book and his experience self-publishing on Leanpub.
Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Nick are his own, and do not represent the views of his employer, Cisco.
This interview was recorded on June 29, 2016.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Len: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Leanpub Podcast, I’ll be interviewing Nicholas Russo. Nick is based in the state of Maryland in the United States, and holds a Bachelors of Science in Computer Science and a minor in International relations from the Rochester Institute of Technology. Nick is a former Comm Officer in the Marine Corps, and recently he was one of the first people that passed the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert, or CCIE, Service Provider, Version 4 Lab Examination.
Nick is the author of the Leanpub book, CCIE Service Provider Version 4 Written and Lab Exam Comprehensive Guide. His book is about achieving certification in the CCIE Service Provider track, which has recently been updated by Cisco to reflect changes in standards, techniques and procedures made by networking vendors. The book is meant not only for people interested in passing the related written and lab exams, but also for enterprise architects and other network professionals interested in the core routing concepts for any network.
In this interview, we’re going to talk about Nick’s career, his professional interests, his book, and at the end we’ll talk about his experience writing the book, and self-publishing on Leanpub. So thank you Nick for being on the Leanpub Podcast.
Nick: Thanks Len, I’m happy to be here.
Len: I usually like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story. So, I was wondering if you could tell me how you first became interested in computer science, and eventually made your way to the Marine Corps and on to Cisco.
Nick: They had a relatively new computer science program when I started high school in the year 2000, and they had a bunch of new computers. I didn’t really know what computer science was, but I knew I liked computers as a kid. So I figured, “Okay, well I’ll go check this out”. And then I quickly found out that it wasn’t just putting cards in computers and playing games. It was about learning how to command computers to do things, and to solve real life problems.
I immediately saw value in that as a high school student, and I managed to do those courses for all four years of high school. That led me into the college degree of Computer Science, when I went to RIT to pursue that career. Along the way, in-between college, in between high school and college, I joined the Marine Corps in the Reserves. Partially - mostly for the adventure of it. I didn’t really have a great reason at the time, but it’s something I knew I wanted to do.
So I did the Reserves while I was in college studying Computer Science. While in the Reserves, interestingly, my job had nothing to do with communications at the time. I was simply an infantryman - like the bazooka guy, basically - which was a fun job, but not something you really want to take too far. Once I got done with college, I thought about that, and said, “I’m going in the Marine Corps, I’m getting commissioned as an Officer”.
When I went to training, at that point, I got to decide which way do I want to go. Do I want to continue to be an infantryman, or do I want to actually put my computer science skills, at least to somewhat of a use, and go into telecommunications? So I decided to go that route. On my second deployment to Afghanistan, which was in 2011, I got really interested in networking.
This was mostly the result of one of my fellow Marines. His name was Master Gunnery Seargent John Robertson, who’s one of my best friends, one of the most influential and smartest guys I’ve ever worked with. He could make anything work out of nothing. You see a lot of these stories, it’s kind of a different form of innovation, if you will. A lot of cool stuff comes out of Silicon Valley these days, people solving a lot of real world problems with new ideas.
This was the kind of “guy stuck on an island” innovation, where I have a nail and a shoestring, and I need to communicate 20 miles. It was that kind of stuff. I really enjoyed that, and I could see a lot of the ingenuity that came from the tactical side of communications. But then I became really interested in the large scale routing, switching and service provider technologies that were a little bit related to what we were doing in the tactical space.
When I left the Marine Corps, I worked for a company called Harris RF Communications in Rochester. They had a very large tactical radio program, networking tactical radio. So it actually worked really well. My experience with radios in the military, plus a little bit of my network knowledge, it was a good way of bridging that gap, where I could connect radios to a network, and extend my IP connectivity over a tactical radio net, so a guy driving around in a truck could access different network resources.
I moved on past that a couple of years later. Ultimately I went through a couple of other jobs, and now I work for Cisco as a Network Consulting Engineer - doing a lot of large scale routing designs and support for the Tactical Army, as well as other army garrison posts.
Len: That’s a great story. I think most of the people who listen to the Leanpub Podcast are still currently computer programmers, and I think the kind of work you described as a Comm Officer on deployment is something they might like to hear a little bit more about. Can you give me an example of what a typical day might have been, and what a typical task that you might be assigned to do would be?
Nick: What’s interesting about it is, computer science and networking - they’re different in many ways, but similar in others. The thing about computer science is you’re trying to take a machine that has no brains and give it brains, so that it can do something - solve some problem, generate revenue for a company. Or even something like, “Hey, sort this list of items using some kind of algorithm”.
In the Marine Corps, doing communication stuff, we have a whole bunch of items which are done - these radios have software on them, these routers have software on them. So the software engineering component isn’t really in play. However the systems integration component and the networking piece was really the major challenge there.
And as you can imagine, when you’re in a combat zone, your resources are limited. In addition to human factors, like stress and personnel shortages, you’re asked to do things like, “Hey, we need to communicate to these new sites. We’ve got these new outposts. These guys need connectivity”. That’s an important task, and I don’t have the resources either in people or equipment to do that.
So then you start to be creative with the tactical radio thing I was talking about. Like Harris for example, they had something, “Hey we can drop these small little [Manpack sized radios] out there, and extend IP connectivity to these guys, because we don’t have a giant truck that we can send out there for satellite communications”. So things like that, I think were really interesting.
And of course, you can’t just drop the radio in some guy’s lap and say, “Okay, turn it on”. That’s not going to work. There’s a whole planning detail that goes into that. Both from a spectrum perspective, making sure that you’re allowed to use the frequencies of that radio, as well as the configuration of the network side of it.
So doing that, I would say - on an interesting day, where we got to do something like set up a new site, or deploy some new services to some outposts - we would typically find ourselves trying to solve those kinds of problems. Ultimately, you think about it from a business perspective. That the business value is, we’re enabling a new site. Which is at the edge of our perimeter, ultimately providing security for the rest of the unit.
Len: I imagine that setting up a network so that people can communicate with their families back home, must be a really important part of the job now as well?
Nick: Yeah, that was another interesting part of the job, because typically in a tactical network, when you’re doing these networking things and enabling services for different units, you’re typically focused, number one, on the classified network. Because that’s where you exchange all your fire missions and that’s where you fight your battles. After that comes the unclassified tactical network, where you’re going to do things like logistical coordination and things that aren’t classified, but still protected. And then the last, and lowest priority of course is the morale network.
We were fortunate enough to actually have a pretty decent morale network. Mostly because the first two priorities were pretty solid. So we had a little bit of a morale station if you will. People would come by the main FOB, maybe on a monthly or every couple of months basis. We had a couple of computers set up in the corner where people could - it’s basically an internet cafe for free.
People show up, they hop on to check email, they do a video call, and then they go about the next couple of weeks being without it. So that was a pretty good thing to have as well. Obviously for morale purposes, and also because - it’s another network to maintain, so then you start to get into this habit of, “I have multiple different security enclaves, I need to be able to maintain all those different things”.
Len: You mentioned FOB, which I understand is Forward Operating Base.
Nick: Yeah, that’s right.
Len: Would you actually go yourself to FOBs?
Nick: I did a little bit of that. In my role as a Communications Officer, I was a little bit tethered by some of the leadership. Because they’re like, “Hey, we need you - you’re the bellybutton for us. When we need communications, we come and poke you”. So it was often times a lot of my subordinate leadership again - John Robertson was one of the instrumental people - he personally did a lot of that himself, and also helped me delegate that to some subordinate leadership within my unit that I was in charge of.
But what’s interesting is, the chances that I did get to go out there were kind of a real eye opener, because sometimes when you’re sitting behind a desk, you’re like, “Hey, you guys go out and set this system up, and it needs to be up by tomorrow”, and when it’s not up by tomorrow, you start to get upset. You’re like, “Oh come on, I needed that up now”. And when you go out there and do it yourself, it’s like, “Oh, that actually wasn’t so easy”.
That’s where I started to gain the appreciation for networking. It’s like - I sit here, and I think their stuff is easier than it really is, because I’m looking at a diagram with some routers and switches, and I just have to draw a line - and my job is done. Then I realise it’s never like that.
Len: It’s really fascinating. I was thinking as I was going over your book about the routing and switching part of computing. I imagine this might kind of annoy you at some point, but it’s one of those things that everybody who uses computers and communications devices just takes for granted is going to work. It’s the black box underneath it all.
I was wondering, if you were to explain, say to someone non-technical, what it is that you do - just briefly, how would you do that? And explain what the importance is of the technology that you work on? Now at Cisco, I guess.
Nick: Sure. So my job here at Cisco, it’s similar to what we kind of already do. You can think about my old role when I was in the Marine Corps. I was a Communications Officer in an infantry battalion. I supported communications for that battalion. Actually I was the operations guy, in a way - the Marine Corps fielded me all this equipment. They gave me 10 of these com vehicles, we’ll say, and I’ve got to supply reachability to 12 units. Okay, that math doesn’t work out so easily, so then it’s up to you to think of ways to solve that problem uniquely.
The role I’m in now is, I work to support one of the program officers that actually builds those trucks. So I support them in large scale networking. Because from their view, they’re fielding hundreds and thousands of these trucks across the entire US Army. So you can imagine the network that it takes, and time and resources - what it takes to maintain, plan, operate a network like that. It’s pretty substantial. So I work on that quite a bit to help them determine, What kind of architecture do we want done? How can we make this scale? How can we make it manageable?
And then the other important thing - the people running this network are soldiers. And nothing on them - they’re extremely courageous, smart, tough guys and girls. But a lot of them, they’re not professional engineers a lot of the time. So we always have to consider, this has to be real easy. Kind of like smartphones and all these new smart devices we have. Anyone can use them, but the tech inside of that thing is just overwhelmingly awesome I think. It’s crazy, it’s complicated, but it’s awesome. And somebody had the brilliance to take all that tech, and put such a simple interface on it and make it resilient. And that’s one of the biggest challenges that we have in tactical.
Len: I was wondering, on the subject of technology, what would some of the recent developments be that have had to be incorporated into your engineering processes?
Nick: Some of the recent developments - I mean, we try to always keep a thumb on a lot of the recent developments that happen within the industry. So for example you hear terms like SD-WAN and Software-defined networking, and just general terms like that, like cloud computing. We try at a minimum think through how we would want to deploy these things in a tactical environment.
I think there’s a lot of promise for those technologies, specifically things like SD-WAN, where I might have slow satellite links and fast line-of-sight links. Of course, all these things are built on the fly, and change very constantly. So some kind of intelligent system that can route traffic, based on different metrics and other user-defined criteria, would be extremely important. We’ve continued to keep a pulse on things like that.
The other thing that’s always fun in a government environment is, appropriating money to buy these things, field them, test them. That cycle can sometimes be very long. And you think about small startups, a smaller company of a few guys, they can make a couple of decisions and change the direction of their company incredibly over the course of a few hours, where a bigger ship is always harder to turn.
Len: On the subject of technology, drones and UAV’s are obviously on the top of many people’s minds who read tech news. I was wondering if that’s part of the communications infrastructure that you’ve worked on?
Nick: It is a little bit. We’ve talked about having kind of like an aerial tier in a sense. So you can kind of imagine, I’ve got a bunch of trucks on the ground, and maybe those trucks can’t see one another. But satcom bandwidth can be very expensive, and sometimes prohibitive. So if I can have some kind of aerial drone to serve as almost a re-transmission or a relay point - we’ve considered things like that as well.
Those things are continuously on our radar, because deploying capabilities like that, both obviously from a surveillance perspective, for intel feeds - which has been around for a long time - but also for radio re-transmission systems. Those are highly relevant for tactical.
Len: On the subject of your book, as I understand it, at the time you passed this latest certification, you were one of only 10 people or so in the world to have done so. You can correct me if that’s wrong! I just wanted to ask what some of the changes are that are reflected in the latest version that required a new certification test?
Nick: That number I think is kind of a scientific guess - a wild guess based on what I’ve talked to a couple of other people in the group about. Long story short is, every couple of years, most vendors, when they offer a certification test, they’ll come up with, “Okay, we’ve got all these new features that are relevant in industry. We want to make sure that we certify people on these topics”. But then after three, four, five years some of those things may lose their shelf life, they may not be relevant. So vendors try to do a good job, and cycle those things out.
The CCIE Service Provider version three to version four, at least in my opinion, had a relatively sizeable number of things that were added and only a small number of things that were removed. So ultimately, what you end up with is a very, very large topic domain. And that’s what drove me to write the book.
What’s interesting is, for a test like this, there’s training materials out there, there’s documentation. There’s a lot of information. There’s people to talk to. But a lot of times what’s really hard to find is a consolidated set of labs and technical explanations, to a sufficient level of depth that would allow you to succeed in passing the exam. There are companies that exist out there - very good ones in fact - that base almost their entire business model on the CCIE and passing those exams. And they’ll have professional instructors that do videos, they build labs, they have workbooks, they have training sessions. It’s a massive - I wouldn’t say massive, but it’s a sizable industry.
Obviously my book doesn’t add the human element, per se. I’m not doing boot camps and stuff like that. But I do cover all the topics in the blueprint, and a lot of people have contacted me looking for materials. And of course, now that I’m finally able to offer something, I think that there’s a lot of interest in it.
I think just in general, it’s kind of a human thing - “Hey I really want to achieve this thing, but I don’t have guidance, I don’t have a mentor, I don’t have information. I just don’t know what to do.”
So people typically do one of three things really. Either number one, they wait for it. They wait for someone to do it. Which is fine, and basically all those people are my customers now, and I’m more than happy to support them now that they have my book. They waited a couple of months, they got something.
The other group of people are people who just quit. And that’s totally understandable. “I don’t have materials out there, I know I’m not going to succeed”. Maybe they’ll try to go for a different task, maybe they’ll go back to college instead; maybe they’ll spend that time with their family, instead of studying.
And then the third type, which I think would be me, is the guy who goes and writes his own book on it, in lieu of not having any other materials. And that obviously takes a tremendous amount of work. I know you see the page count is almost 3,000 pages. There’s almost a million words in this book. It took me about seven months and 1,000 hours of continuous dedication to work through, to document these technologies and verify everything several times, so that I had a very clear understanding of what was in it.
Because my logic is, if I’m going to try to market this to my customers, I want to ensure I’m providing them a quality workbook, that’s going to accurately reflect the topics on the blueprint, as well as all the ins and outs of the weirdness. Because of course, when you deploy technology, it never works the way you think it’s going to work. So you always want to have that explanation of how you’re doing things, and especially why you’re doing things.
Len: You mentioned in a blog post that you actually failed the first time you took the test. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you learned from that experience, and helped you pass the next time?
Nick: Yeah, that’s the interesting thing about these exams. I think they say the second attempt is common, because it definitely is. I took another CCIE in 2014, the Routing and Switching test, which I also failed once. I passed that on my second try, like this one. And taking it the first time, I went in there highly confident, my book was already done.
I’d already written the whole book, I knew everything in the book. I was at the top of my game. I walked in, I got through the first couple of sections pretty well. And some things later on in the test, I found extremely difficult. I was pressed on time, I was tired, I was hungry. All those human elements start to eat away at you as you’re trying to accomplish this very difficult task in a very limited amount of time. And at that time, the time I first took the test, I didn’t know a single soul. I’m sure there were some in the world, but I didn’t know a single person that had passed the test.
By the time I passed it the second time, I knew about two or three people [also had]. So it was heating up a little bit. I’m sure to date there might be 20 or 30, but it’s still a relatively small number. And I think the reason for that small number, it’s not so much because of the impossibility or the difficulty of the test. I think it comes back to the fact that people just don’t have the information that they need to pass it. And I’m trying to help break that, so I can bring some more knowledge to people, and ultimately help raise the popularity of people achieving this exam.
I know there’s a lot of people who use these technologies, and use similar technologies in their everyday work. People who work for large service providers, the large tier one carriers in the States. You’d think of Sprint and CenturyLink and AT&T. These guys have massive, massive carrier networks, and a lot of the technologies in this book are very, very specific to that environment - and also for large enterprises as well. In my opinion, having a mastery of those technologies is how you build large scale networks that are scalable and efficient.
Len: I noted that you talk in the book, I think in the introduction, you say that the book is obviously useful not only for people who are taking this specific test, but for people who want to be experts, or are experts in their field, and just need information about this somewhat undocumented subject.
One detail I liked from your blog post was, you mention it’s good to read - and I think this applies not only to the exam the book is about - you talk about how it’s important to read the entire exam, all the questions at the start. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that. Is that so you can prioritize questions? How would you go about prioritizing them if that’s the reason?
Nick: Yeah, that’s a great question. The thing that’s interesting about these tests is, and a lot of people will say this, and I tend to agree with it: a lot of getting through that exam is the strategy and how you go about it. Like I said, when I took my first CCIE, I failed it the first time, but I knew all the technology. I was extremely competent. Same thing when I failed the service provider test the first time - I knew all the technology, the book was done. I was extremely fast on the command line, I knew what I was doing. But it was a strategy thing that I didn’t have nailed down. And the thing about the strategy, as you know - you’re asked to design a network either from scratch, or you have some kind of a brownfield deployment.
For example, you have a network that already exists, and you’re asked to make significant changes to it in an extremely short amount of time. So you have to look at it and say, “What does the network look like now? What are all the things they’re asking me to do, and how can I put these tasks in the proper order?” So it’s both a prioritization thing, like, How can I get the most points as fast as possible? But it’s also a matter of which tasks make sense to do in which order, because sometimes what you might end up with is, in the beginning they have you do some basic routing tasks, and then in the middle of it, they have you do a bunch of value added service stuff. Maybe like IP multicast or quality of service or MPLS Traffic Engineering.
And those things are important. You’ve to do them to get the points. But they might have you come back and do some routing stuff later in the test, when it would’ve made more sense to do that upfront. So you kind have to think about, What is the overall objective? What does the network need to look like when I walk out of this room today? And that’s what I need to focus on from the very beginning.
Len: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about why you chose to self-publish the book, and why you chose Leanpub as your platform?
Nick: The self-publishing thing, it’s - I’ll keep this brief, just in the interest of not boring everyone. But I wrote this book, and I finished it a couple of days before I joined Cisco. And because I did that, I talked to my company, and we worked it out and said, “Hey, I wrote this book before I came here, but now I work here and I’m trying to publish it”.
Typically when you work for a company, what you develop at that company is property of that company. So we went through a little bit of a thing there. Everything was great, they were extremely cooperative. It just took a little bit of time to get through the approval process. And then at that point, I was like - well, it’s June, I wrote this book in January and there are people failing this test around the world.
The test was introduced in 2015, and I figure the test has about three more years of shelf life on it. If I spend another six months working with a professional editor, it’s going to cost me a lot of time and a lot of money. And quite frankly, a book with a million words, it’s going to have some grammatical errors, it’s going to have some spelling errors. But it’s a technical book, and all the content is accurate. I think that’s what’s really going to matter for my customers, and those who have put their testimonials up on the website will certainly agree that the content is certainly there.
I figured I would rather push this out now, get it published quickly on a place that I think is reputable, and people are familiar with. And especially Leanpub, I think a lot of the information - I look at a lot of the books on Leanpub, they’re written by people who are coming up with new ideas about software and APIs and things like that. And it seemed like a very - I guess, for lack of a better term - a very tech-friendly environment, where I could post something that I came up with, and it would get viewed by people with similar views, and people who would potentially be interested in it - even if they’ve never heard of it before.
Len: Thanks very much for that, and for choosing Leanpub. Your case is one of the reasons we built Leanpub - so that people who are, say, on the cutting edge of something, and an expert in something, who’ve made something that has a kind of time sensitivity to it. Also, something that’s so useful to the people who need it, that the occasional grammatical error, or lack formatting finesse is actually irrelevant to them.
This is actually an example I’ve often used, just sort of in general. If you approach a publisher and say, “There are a thousand people in the world who are expert enough to understand my content, or to be interested in it in the first place”, You’re pretty unlikely to get a publisher unless you’re an academic, or you’re going to an academic press or something like that.
But in your case, you can publish a book, and provide a lot of value to your customers, but also get something back yourself. And because we pay a 90% royalty [minus 50 cents per transaction - eds.], then it can be worth it, even if you in the end you don’t reach a great number of readers.
Your book is really interesting in a very specific way, because, as you say, it’s nearly 3,000 pages, nearly a million words, and so you’ve set the minimum price at $200 and the suggested price at $300. I just want to explain to everyone listening, one of the reasons this is so interesting, is that Leanpub books have no digital rights management or DRM on them, which means technically you can make as many copies of them as you want and distribute them. And you can also get a refund with just a couple of clicks, no questions asked.
Your book so far I think has one return or something like that. So people are voluntarily paying, obviously, is my point, and I was wondering how did you decide to set the minimum price to $200? Was it based on instinct or some research?
Nick: The thing that’s interesting is I checked a couple of competitors out there. And just to be clear, I looked at some of the competitors who were offering workbooks and despite some of those other workbooks being much, much, shorter - like on the order of 600 to 800 pages, and being relatively incomplete, those books cost about $200. So I figured for my book to be a little bit more expensive, that’s appropriate. But for them to be the same price, there’s no contest. At least that’s the message that I’m trying to put out there. You can buy a 3,000 page book that’s known to be complete for price X. Or you can buy another book that is a quarter of the length for the same price. And you can choose based on that.
The $300 price was my initial idea for it, but I figured if I’m going to launch this book - at least for me personally, I think getting the exposure as an expert in this field, and this is my first book that I’ve ever published - being able to do that, and to call myself a professional writer with a publication, and to put it out there - in my eyes was more important than making that extra 50% on the royalties by selling it for 100 bucks more.
I think what’s interesting is, I didn’t really expect to see a whole lot of people voluntarily paying more. But there actually have been several, which is very cool. People I think that have said, “Hey this book is 3,000 pages, and if I spend 300 bucks, that’s 10 cents a page”. And you can imagine the amount of technical detail you’re getting for just that one 10 cents. You’re getting a whole page worth of extremely detailed stuff and explanations. Entire topics on here might be anywhere from 10 to 100 pages. So for a dollar to $10, you’re getting an entire topic that describes a technology that may not be documented sufficiently in any other study guide.
Len: You mentioned in an email the other day that your book is already up on torrent sites. Every author loves their books and puts a lot of work into them, but yours in particular is special in that regard. Given that you’re a first-time author, I was wondering just how it feels to have your book put up on torrent sites, and how you’re choosing to mentally, or even procedurally, deal with that?
Nick: It’s one of the things to be expected in the certification world. This is one of the the warts on certifications in general. With enough Googling and with enough searching on the net, you can find answers to probably any automated test out there. And that’s just really unfortunate. Typically when you meet guys that kind of cheat their way through these tests, you can see through them like glass. But nonetheless, I like sharing information. I’m certainly willing to do that. I feel like I’ve set a fair price for the book.
And the thing that I also believe, and this is actually, I kind of stole this from one of Cisco’s values - one of the things we say in Cisco is, “Intensely focus on your customers”. I do that at work with my Cisco customers of course, but I also decided to make that kind of the flagship of my publishing career. I get personal emails from a lot of my customers who use the email link on Leanpub, after they bought the book, to ask me a question about, “Hey on page 2,000, I have a question about this command. How does it work?” And I make every effort to answer that question within a couple of hours. I’ve already taken on to try and mentor - some people have asked me to help me mentor them through their study journey. I’m willing to do all that for anyone who wants to get on board with the book, ask questions about it.
I think that’s extremely important to being successful, basically in whatever you do. I’ve heard a really great saying, “When you focus on making money, you ultimately fail. But when you focus on your customers, you ultimately make money”. So even though making money’s not really the goal here, I just - getting the exposure, becoming a professional writer, publishing a book and knowing that I had the spine to go through and write this thing and publish it and take it from cradle to grave - I think brings me a lot more benefit than the money.
Regarding the torrent-site stuff. I’m kind of half-hearted chasing that down, in terms of infringement, things like that. I don’t want to make that the cornerstone of what I do every morning when I wake up and I roll out of bed, and I start searching torrent sites. I’ve got better things to do with my life. I’ve got more books I want to write. I’ve got customers that I want to help get through this test, and I think that’s the most important thing to stay focused on.
Len: That’s great, both of those answers I would say are also textbook Leanpub principles, but expressed probably much better than we’ve ever managed to express them ourselves in the past. And we like trying to do that. So thanks very much for that. I mean, engaging with customers, and focusing on the kind of work that you as an author ought to be doing, are two things that are central to what we’re trying to deliver for people as well.
One specific question I have regarding engaging with readers and feedback through email and things like that is, Do you plan to incorporate any changes that people suggest to you, or corrections that they find into your book, and publish new versions?
Nick: That’s a very interesting question. I want to say yes, but I must say no. And the reason I must say no is - as I mentioned, I [finished] this book about a week before I joined Cisco, and anything I do now today would be a Cisco thing. However, I’m working very closely with the service provider program manager for the CCIE. She and I talk probably on a weekly basis, and I told her, any errata to the book, if people want to see other technologies, maybe something I’ve missed or - if there’s any corrections or supplements to do, I’m going to try to work with her and just publish official white papers from Cisco that try to cover those gaps, while at the same time, improving the product that the PM is offering, additional full scale practice labs and other things that Cisco is going to be able to use to help people get through this exam.
Because now that I wrote this book outside of Cisco, and I can collect that money not related to Cisco, at the same time, the real goal is to continue to keep people interested in this track, and assist Cisco in doing that as well. So now I’ve transitioned from, “Hey, I’ve published my own book, I’m running that on the side, but I also want to transition to assisting the Cisco Program Management Office, who runs the CCIE service provider program, providing them ideas for labs, and simply helping them actually build the labs - as property of Cisco. And it’s something that they can either market or give away, or build in their own study group.
So I would definitely encourage any feedback and corrections. Please send those to me, I’m happy to consider those kinds of changes for any kind of future documents that we publish for Cisco.
But the thing that’s interesting though is, the one thing that’s a little bit orthogonal to the way Leanpub works - “Publish Early, Publish Often” - well for me, it’s “Publish Once”. Which is a little bit odd. Ideally I would go back and fix the problems, but changing a - if I change a period to a comma, then I kind of enter a gray zone with legal stuff. And at this point, it’s probably not worth doing.
Len: I just have one more question, which is, we take customer development very seriously at Leanpub, and now that I’ve got you here, I wanted to ask, If there was any one feature we could add, or one problem we could solve for you, what would you ask for?
Nick: I was thinking about this yesterday. This kind of goes back to that one return. Again, I don’t think one return out of 35 sales is anything to be concerned about. However, the thing I think is interesting - the two-click return policy, I think is great. I think what would be potentially beneficial is two clicks and a mandatory drop down that maybe just says, “Hey, pick a reason. You don’t have to comment, but just give me one out of these five reasons - I over-drafted my account or the book wasn’t what I thought it was”. Or, “I bought the book, but I couldn’t download it for four hours and I got frustrated and I want my money back.” Just a basic reason. You don’t have to justify it, Leanpub isn’t going to grill you on it. The author’s not going to grill you on it. Just something for a record.
I think that’s valuable, because if the number of returns starts to become significant - for example if I see 10 returns in a week, and they all have the reason of, “I couldn’t download the book”, that might point towards a technical problem. Or it might be something like, “Hey, we all bought this book, and it wasn’t what we thought it was”.
Well, maybe those 10 people are part of the same organisation, and they were briefed by someone - maybe a friend of mine - a third party, “Hey you guys need to check out this book, it’s great”. Maybe he misspoke, and set expectations incorrectly. And now we ended up with a bunch of returns.
So just having that reason I think would be beneficial. And then of course a comments box, so that people could expand on that if they want to. That would help authors I think, just to understand what are the big muscle movements that justified the return. I think there could be some value in that.
Len: Thanks very much for that suggestion. Just for our listeners, what Nick is referring to is our two-click, 100% Happiness Guarantee return policy, which lets people easily get returns on Leanpub purchases. When they do that, they’re prompted to optionally leave a comment. We don’t ask for feedback in any other way. And we don’t require a comment either.
And that means that sometimes authors like Nick end up with mystery returns, where someone returns the book without saying why. And that can be unsettling. I’ll talk to my co-founder Peter about your suggestion, because I think it’s very good and could really help authors a lot, and maybe even help readers feel like they’re participating in a process at a deeper level as well.
One comment I would make in my experience watching Leanpub books and authors and returns over the years, is that usually if there is a problem with content, one or two people might return it without commenting, but if there is a real problem, someone will eventually comment. And often what they’ll do, if they understand how Leanpub works - I mean in your case this wouldn’t be the case, because you can’t change the book - but instead of returning it, they’ll contact the author through our “Email the Author” form, or on Twitter, and say, “Hey, can you fix this problem on page five?” Or something like that. And then the author will do it, and update the book and let the reader know. And then the reader feels like they’re part of the process, and it’s all a very happy thing…
Just before we go, is there anything else you wanted to say or an issue you’d like to address?
Nick: No, I just want to, I’ll just thank Jeremy Filliben. He’s a Cisco Certified Design Expert, or a CCDE trainer. He’s out of Delaware in the United States. He was actually the one who introduced me to Leanpub.
He and I were chatting on Slack one day. This was about a month and a half ago. I was complaining to all my friends I was having issues with publishing, I was having issues with the book. After writing this big book, I was right at the finish line, just trying to crawl across and get my book out there. And I was having a lot of different non-technical personal related issues with people and process and things like that.
He says, “Hey you should check out Leanpub”. I’d never even heard of it. I went to the website, I read through how does it work. And I read the FAQ page. And I was like, “Yeah, these guys look pretty cool”. And then, when I was approved to do the book and I was ready to go, I had the book in hand, and I said, “Okay, I’ve got multiple different self-publishing options here”. I kind of weighed those out, I talked to Jeremy again, and ultimately went with Leanpub for my publishing.
Len: Okay, well thanks very much Nick, good luck with the book! Thanks for being on the Leanpub Podcast, and for being a Leanpub author.
Nick: Alright, my pleasure. Thanks Len, I appreciate it.