An interview with Brad Sams
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  • December 20th, 2018

Brad Sams, Author of Beneath A Surface: The Story of How Microsoft Overcame a $900 Million Write-Down to Become the Hero of the PC Industry

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1 H 13 MIN
In this Episode

Brad Sams is the author of the Leanpub book Beneath A Surface: The Story of How Microsoft Overcame a $900 Million Write-Down to Become the Hero of the PC Industry. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Brad about his background, his work for the Blue Whale Web Media Group, being a tech journalist, the tricky business of handling leaks and anonymous sources, his book, and the fascinating product and brand story of the Microsoft Surface, and at the end, they talk a little bit about his experience as a self-published book author.

This interview was recorded on December 11, 2018.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to the Frontmatter podcast in iTunes or add the podcast URL directly.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Transcript

Beneath A Surface: The Story of How Microsoft Overcame a $900 Million Write-Down to Become the Hero of the PC Industry by Brad Sams

Len: Hi I'm Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Frontmatter Podcast I'll be interviewing Brad Sams.

Brad is a writer and podcaster and executive editor of both petri.com, one of the world's leading content resources for IT professionals, and thurrott.com, the website for the award winning technology journalist Paul Thurrott. As a tech journalist, he's particularly noted for his knack for breaking stories on Microsoft's upcoming products.

To hear Paul's podcast, you can subscribe to The Sams Report, as well as the First Ring Daily Podcast, in iTunes. You can also subscribe to Brad's popular channel on YouTube.

You can follow Brad on Twitter and Instagram and Snap @bdsams, and check out his author page at thurrott.com.

Brad is the author of the book Beneath A Surface: The Story of How Microsoft Overcame a $900 Million Write-Down to Become the Hero of the PC Industry. Based on years of his own research and dozens of anonymous interviews with Microsoft insiders, in the book Brad tells the fascinating story behind the fall and rise of Microsoft Surface device brand, which had a disastrous launch in 2012, but was turned around. It is now a pretty big success, making its story of particular interest to anyone curious about the business behind building and rebuilding brands.

In this interview, we're going to talk about Brad's background and career, his work as executive editor for popular tech news websites, his book, and at the end we'll talk a little bit about his experience creating the book.

So, thank you Brad for being on the Frontmatter podcast.

Brad: Thanks for the invite. That was quite the intro. You definitely did your background and your research, and you got all the annunciations correct. Not everybody can say that they get that right on the first try. So well done.

Len: Thank you very much. I find that there's a positive correlation between the amount of research that you do for an interview, and the quality of the interview in the end.

Brad: Absolutely.

Len: I always like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about where you grew up, and how you made your way into the world of tech journalism?

Brad: At least to me, it's interesting - I think everybody probably finds some interest in their own journey.

Mine started in college. I was poor, like many other college students - trying to pay the bills, trying to figure out just how I'm going to eat and stay above water. And what I got really good at at doing in college was building up blogs and then selling backlinks. I was one of those people in college that used to sell backlinks for money.

This was before Google did their Panda update - which means that if you had a high page ranked website, you could sell a backlink to somebody for a couple hundred bucks and make some money. During my course of earning a bachelor's degree in accounting, I was running, at some point, dozens of websites. Because you would try to build it all the way up to Google - page rank four would be the holy grail, five would be a home run. And then you'd sell that link, and that would last for three to four months. And then Google would kill the site [unintelligible section]

...and by doing that, I got really good at a couple of things. One - building websites based off of WordPress and hacking that stuff together. And two, more importantly, how to write about almost anything. I mean, I was writing about hot dog stands in Daytona Beach, who wanted better SEO, t Cape Cods for sale in New Jersey, like just anything across the board. [unintelligible section] ...I found another Web site called Neowin.net, and they were writing about Microsoft, and so I started helping them out with some SEO stuff.

That's kind of how I got into the tech journalism world. I was doing it on the side as I was building up another professional career in accounting, and eventually earned my MBA.

At one point I had an option - am I going to run down this tech journalism route, or am I going to go down my CPA route? And fortunately I met Paul Thurrott, who I'd known for a couple of years. I met him and another guy in a bar in New York City. And that individual owned a couple tech websites. He said, "Can you help me come run them? Not only just write, but I need help actually running them?" It was it was the right time and right place, and I've been doing it for many years now.

Len: And what was your first introduction to blogging about tech specifically?

Brad: Well my very first 04:17 ? article was newin.net. Was about a hundred gigabyte laptop hard drive, is the very first thing that I ever wrote about on the internet.

I was in the role at that site of, "Here's a press release. Brad can you turn it around and write something about it so we can publish it?" Because they're trying to get traffic, and they're trying to build things up.

I think my first big event that I ever went to was CES. And that was, and ooh gosh - sometime in the mid-2000's.

[#check to here]

Len: I'm curious - I think a lot of people on the other side of it see people who write about tech as people who both get some insider information, which is something I want to talk to you about in a little bit, but also - and this is just a bit cute - but do you get all kinds of cool products and stuff sent to you before they're released?

Brad: Yes and no. There was definitely a phase where I was all-in on review units. It was great getting laptops and phones and all this stuff. I have a ton hanging around.

Candidly, I've gotten away from that a little bit - on the Microsoft hardware, which is how the book started to come about. At some point I was just jaded with it. Like, "Here's another laptop with the exact same specs - but one's made by Acer, one's made by Dell, and one's made by Lenovo. And there's just a little few things different. I got a little tired of writing about that stuff.

Len: I mentioned petri.com and thurrott.com in the introduction, but you're actually in charge of more than that through the Blue Whale Web Media Group. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what your larger role is?

Brad: Our two larger properties are Petri and Thurrott. Petri is for IT pros, and Thurrott is more of a consumer tech channel. But my role sits with BWW Media Group, which is the parent company of those two sites. There's a lot of other things that we do. We go to events. We've got other kind of sub-brands, if you will? We've got other products.

My role in general is to, one, help define our content strategy, to make sure on the IT pro side, that we're writing about the right things, like Office 365, Azure, AWS, and all that good stuff. And then on the Thurrott side, to make sure that we're staying up with the trends. Because consumer tech is very trend heavy. You have products coming out, there's cycles - and making sure that we're always just kind of in alignment.

I write across both properties, but then at the same time, I also go out and quite literally buy content for the Petri side. We have a team of freelancers who contribute content. If there is a new topic coming out, I will go out and try to find somebody to write about it, and buy content from them.

When it comes to design work, my job in a nutshell is to make sure traffic is coming into the site. Whatever that entails. If that's design, if that's content, if that's SEO work, if that's video strategy, if that's going to events. It all kind of falls under where I reside. And then I dole it out to people as needed, to make sure that the two sites are remaining healthy from a traffic perspective.

Len: And as an influencer - do you find that people try to influence you, specifically companies? There must be an interesting quality to contact you would have with PR people.

Brad: There's this big trend in the industry - I don't know if "trend" is the right word. But one of the things, exactly what you're talking about is - I get emails any time any sort of event happens in the industry, if it's consumer tech or whatever. I will get random PRs from people saying, "Hey, would you like a quote from an executive on the topic?"

I don't know if anybody ever takes that stuff up. Because if I'm going to go out and try to get a quote from somebody on a specific topic, it needs to be somebody that I trust. If it's a security-related issue, if it's a VR/AR, whatever, I want to find somebody who is trusted in that industry, not somebody who randomly emails me and says, "Hey, talk to our executives."

What you really see a lot of - at least in my inbox - is there's a lot of PR companies trying to get their brand heard. Which, granted, is their role. But they go about these things the wrong way, in my opinion.

If you've never talked to me in my life, and then you email me and saying, "Can you cover our company?" - that's not a thing. It's a relationship. I need to understand why I should cover your company.

Granted, everyone's going to say, "Because we have the new hot product," but there's a genuine approach to how stories get written and told, and all that stuff. I can almost guarantee you that it's not from a cold email that comes into somebody's inbox.

Len: It's really interesting you bring that up. There's so many ways that people try to get the word out about what they're doing.

I mean, start-up people tend to probably have more passion than, say, a paid PR person. But establishing that connection with someone is so important.

You remind me, I was at a tech conference in Vancouver not too long ago. There was someone presenting, and he said that every once in a while he gets an email - and he put it up on the screen, hiding the person's name - saying, "Hi, just following up on my last email - would you like to go out for drinks to talk about this?"

He went into a voice as though he was responding: "Oh sure. Just let me call my wife and tell her that I won't be there to pick up the kids tonight. And when she asks why, I'll say, 'Because I'm going for drinks.' And when she asks, 'With who?' I'll say, 'I don't know, it's someone who emailed me.'"

It is a really interesting challenge. I think something that a lot of people who are trying to promote the things, whether they're paid for it or whether they're like genuinely, straightforwardly passionate about it, don't get is that establishing a real connection with someone is actually way more important than an email blast or something like that.

Brad: You're exactly right. I'm going to butcher the statistic here, but I know it was pretty heavy-handed - something like five or six to one, PR people per tech journalist. The quantity on the PR side is way outweighed by the number of people who actually write about this stuff.

Granted, I don't write about everything. I mean I write a lot in the IT pro space and Microsoft space, so it's easier for me to filter things out - if I get something that's like a really Oracle-heavy pitch - it's like, "Guys, you're not even doing your research about what you're -"

To your point, these people get really aggressive too, where they'll just send you random calendar invites, or they'll change the subject line. Which to me, is always straight into the trash. If it's their first time emailing me and it starts out with "Re:" and then colon, to make it look like they responded to an email, that's not a good -

Len: Oh my God.

Brad: That's not a good way to start off a relationship - by lying.

I don't want it to come off as a complaint, but if you're going to pitch someone, do your research and try to be genuine. Because that's the best route to go. You can never go wrong doing that.

Len: It's really interesting, on the on the broader issue of trust - attempting to establish a relationship with a journalist or a writer by lying to them from the very beginning, seems like a bad strategy.

I know that you have had experience in your career with people sending you secret information, or leaks. I'm really curious - as a journalist, how do you establish trust with someone like that? Because you really don't know who they are, or whether what they're sending you is real. I imagine you get a feel for it after a while. But how do you establish trust with someone who's cold-emailing you leaks?

Brad: That's an interesting topic, because to bluntly answer your question, you never know. Somebody will send you something, and they'll be like, "This is what Microsoft is doing next Tuesday." If it's their first time ever contacting you, you have absolutely no idea. So the thing you try to do then is, you try to go find somebody else who might know, and verify the information. That's the absolute easiest way.

But that's so much easier on paper than in reality. Because if somebody sends me something that hasn't been announced, finding somebody else inside of a company like Microsoft, that has 100,000 employees, who also knows about that thing that hasn't been announced, is tricky.

And two, you've got to be careful. Because if that person has that information, you don't know how widespread it is inside the company.

If only five people know about it, there's no way I'm going to write about that. Because that will identify who is passing that information along. You've got to wait till it reaches a certain level, and then you try to write about it. There's many different approaches you can take here.

But to your point of trying to verify that information - that is probably about half of my job, to be honest. I get a lot of different tips and everything else, and what I do is then try to put the puzzle together.

If somebody says, "Something's happening next Tuesday," I don't know what it is, but - let's just say it's talking about Windows, and I go talk to the Windows people. "Okay, what are you guys doing next week?" They might tell me a little bit. It's all just trying to weave these pieces together to understand the narrative that is coming down the pipeline.

Every time I publish a scoop or whatever else, it's a risk. Because Microsoft changes plans. Just like any company - things get delayed, products get cancelled. The trick is knowing about something, and then the other side of that, is knowing when to publish it.

Because if you publish too early, you might shut off your data stream, or your insider info. If you publish it too late, somebody else might get to you. So there's a real sweet spot of, "Okay, I think this is going to happen on X date. I'm pretty confident of it. This person has leaked me things or sent me things five times in a row and they've all been right, so I'm confident in that." Then, it's just trying to align those three pillars to publish a really quality story about what's happening in the world.

Len: Pardon the pun, but for the last couple of years leaks have been used as a subject [in the news] in their own right - thanks to the particular nature of the administration occupying the American White House. I think that people generally have an understanding of why a culture like the one in the White House is a culture of leaks. Because people are jockeying for position, trying to frame the story their own way.

The question I have for you on this topic is - why do people in the tech world leak information? I mean, they might lose their job, they might derail what's going on. Is derailing products partly what they might be trying to do? Are they trying to reposition products and things like that?

Brad: There's a lot of different reasons why things do or do not happen. And there's no way to know why everybody's motive is for what it is.

The one thing I do always point out, because Microsoft asks me all the time, they say, "Why don't you just let us announce it?" And I say, "Here's the thing. Every single iPhone since I think the 3GS has leaked, and I think Apple's doing okay selling iPhones."

What it comes down to is a lot of times that there's engineers who work very hard on a product, and then marketing - Microsoft has a very tough time with communication. They're getting better, but they are still far from good at it.

A lot of times what happens is there's an engineer who's working very passionately on a product, and marketing screws up the announcement. Or marketing doesn't position it as it was intended. So what happens is that those engineers or those people working on the product, they want to get their story out to make it better understood why something is or is not happening, or what's going on.

Other people will know that things are going to leak. One of my bigger scoops in the past, I don't know, four weeks? Is that Microsoft is working on an Xbox console that doesn't have a Blu-ray or DVD drive in it. It's called a disc-less drive. One of the reasons why that information was sent to me, was that these individuals were afraid that someone else was going to uncover it, because it was in the latest Xbox firmware - you could dig this stuff out if you knew what you were doing - and [they were concerned] that it was going to be not positioned correctly. They didn't want the story to come out that, "Hey Microsoft is abandoning Blu-ray and DVD's. They're getting rid of physical media."

These particular people were scared that that narrative was going to run wild, when it is the furthest from the truth. So everybody has their own motive and reasoning.

But a lot of times it's just clarification on things that are happening, to make sure the right message goes out, not just a message. Because as a writer, the worst thing that I can do is to get the messaging wrong. If I were to come out and say, "Microsoft is dumping DVDs, and here's the proof," that would have been really bad. Microsoft would've got a lot of backlash, and they're not in a position yet to come out and fully refute that at this time. At least, they typically don't.

So, why people leak things and why people don't - I think it just comes down to, they want to make sure that the right narrative is going out. Not just a narrative, if that makes sense?

Len: It does make sense, and it makes me think of something I hadn't thought of before. There's sort of competing narratives going on at say a tech company like Microsoftm where you have, perhaps, very brilliant, hard-working, dedicated engineers, and for them, their primary audience for the narrative might be other people on the cutting edge of the technology that they're working on. And their interests and the narrative that they are kind of living is very different from the one that say marketing would be inhabiting, where they're thinking about, "How are we going to get this out to consumers?" or, "How are we going to message this for sales into enterprises?"

Whereas the tech guys might be, "You totally missed the story. This little innovation that we made was groundbreaking." I can see that if you know that - not only that it happened, but that it was groundbreaking in a way that no one who's not an expert in the area would know - you'd really want to get that message out.

Brad: And particularly at Microsoft. I know why they do this, but they are very good at not letting engineers anywhere near the press. It's by design. They keep them kind of behind the curtain, if you will? Which is unfortunate. Because those are the guys that have the best stories, and maybe that's why? There's always some awkwardness of how the sausage is made.

But I don't think transparency for a company like Microsoft - especially now that they're supporting open source, and they've kind of turned the corner on being this giant in the industry - they're still a giant, don't get me wrong - but I don't think people look at them like an Amazon or a Google or a Facebook, that's going to come and kill every industry.

These engineers and people behind the curtain have real insight into the industry, and they never are allowed to come forward with it, unless it's in a very particular environment, which doesn't happen often. So, often what you see is that these people just find other ways to communicate to the outside world.

Len: That touches on a subject that I think a lot of people in the tech world can be preoccupied with from time to time - which is Microsoft's culture. I've heard things over the years about Microsoft establishing amongst sort of developers, a very competitive system, where you're sort of in an antagonistic relationship with your colleagues.

And also, in a way that Apple ultimately avoided, given the - I'll call it the legend around Steve Jobs, although there's so much truth to it, that he would actually be involved in the smallest details of how products were developed, in a way that other executives weren't - and then you've got Microsoft, on the other hand with - I mean, when I think of Steve Ballmer, for example, I think of a big red faced loud guy, who's very energetic, Aad more like what I'd call an East Coast executive, than a Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs or Elon Musk type guy.

I guess that's sort of high level, but is that more or less the way that Microsoft was?

Brad: It has definitely changed. They've changed fundamental philosophies, which is why they got rid of some of their - there was always this miscommunication that they got rid of all of their software testers. That's not completely true, but it's definitely changed, and it's changed for the better under Ballmer and Sinofsky.

In the previous regime, it was very quiet and isolated development, and everything was done in silos. Don't get me wrong, Microsoft is not a perfect utopia at this point. Compared to where they were 10 years ago, they are in a much better, much less siloed infrastructure. But there's still some old-school guard that goes on in some silos that are still there.

But from a cross-board perspective, it is much more friendly to be on, let's say, the OneDrive team, and go walk over to the Outlook team and be like, "Hey let's build something awesome together." As opposed to a couple of years ago, where it would've been like, "Why would we do that, because our bonuses are only tied to OneDrive performance - who cares about helping Outlook?" So they have done a good job. They still have ways to go.

The other cultural issue that Microsoft is still dealing with, and they haven't figured this out yet, is Microsoft rewards, like most companies, shipping a new product. They don't do a very good job of rewarding people who fix the bugs and make products stable.

So there's a lot of, "Let's ship this product and get it out the door, because we want the recognition." But then they fall a little flat on saying, "Okay, these are the guys that are maintaining our OneDrive or SharePoint, and they're making it awesome and stable. And you know what? OneDrive hasn't gone down for a year." Those people don't get the recognition that they do, because that's not the culture that Microsoft has developed - or has not fully developed yet.

They're working on it, but that's where we see these awkward Windows 10 builds come out. Because it's, "Hey let's ship this build." Not, "Let's really make it rock solid. Granted, somebody's going to call me out and be like, 'Hey they are working to make it rock solid, because they have to.'" But the reward emphasis is always on shipping, not repairing - if that makes sense?

Len: It does actually. Because so many Leanpub authors work in tech, a lot of the topics that we discuss on this podcast are related to software and development. I've interviewed some software testers before, and so this subject has come up, of how, in I guess one would say, a sort of conventional development environment in a company, the testing is looked down upon as being not the kind of high-level work that the ambitious people are doing.

You mentioned that famously Microsoft has actually had a change with respect to that. So it's still not perfect, as you were saying, but can you talk a little bit about that? About the idea that Microsoft got rid of all their testers.

Brad: So this idea that if you write the code, you should be able to test the code - that is the basics of what happened.

They had Windows 10, and they also had this insider program. The idea was that if you're writing the code to ship in Windows 10, you should also be able to test that code. And then once you're done testing it, it goes to the insider program which Microsoft had. At its peak, it had about seven million users testing the latest build of Windows.

It looked great on paper. Joe A writes the code. Joe A tests the code. He thinks it's good. It goes out to these massive amounts of insiders; just through sheer numbers, that operation or whatever, that feature will get triaged. It will come back to Joe A. He'll fix it, and then it will ship out to everybody.

The big assumption that they made there was that the seven million people would actually be testing that feature, and actually trying to test that feature. The challenge they're running into now is that they have people coding and testing, but they're not getting that second set of eyes in at a high level. They're not getting that second set of eyes on the product at a level that it needs to be.

Because an engineer will triage and test something completely different than a consumer will. A consumer will go "File, Save as." They won't go, "File, Save as," while holding down the caps lock key or page down, or any of those other types of things, or with num lock turned on. Because that's not what they're innately accustomed to doing.

That's been some of the challenge - that they got rid of this testing layer in hopes that just through numbers, that they would get that same quality. They've struggled through that transition.

We've seen Microsoft make a lot of different changes, and and I think we're going to see more changes in 2019. Because the update that came out the second half of this year, was a terrible release. And so Microsoft was in this position where, I don't think they want to admit that they need that extra layer of testing.

But at the same time, Windows, for Microsoft, isn't a growth product anymore. It's very much - legacy might be too strong of a word, but it's very much a product that is just going to kind of be sustained for a while. There's not going to be 10 million - well I should say, 10 billion users of Windows 10 anytime soon. It's there, people use it. It's an appliance like your washing machine, and you just need it to work. And so Microsoft is now dealing in that new reality.

Len: I remember when my mom got a Windows 8 computer I spent an hour trying to do something very simple, that one would take for granted in previous versions of Windows. I forget exactly what it was. I think I was trying to set up a Chromecast or something like that.

It was something about how, I didn't know where something I downloaded went, and couldn't find it. And I'm pretty good with the computer.

I just want to ask you - how did Windows 8 happen?

Brad: Windows 8 happened because Windows 7 was so good. That might be a little glossing over some of the underlying details, but Windows 7 came out, and it was rock solid. Pretty quick out of the gate, it was apparent that, "This is going to be a long-term OS. People aren't going to want to migrate away from this." And so what they did was they realized that, "We have a chance to take a risk with Windows, because Windows 7 is so good."

We also know that touch-centric PC's are going to become a thing. They knew that touch interfaces needed to happen, or were going to happen regardless.

So what they were trying to do was, they were trying to build two operating systems in one. They wanted something that was good with mouse and keyboard, and they wanted something that was good to touch with your finger. They took this idea that, "This is what we need to do."

Then Steven Sinofsky basically siloed off the entire Windows team from the outside world and said, "This is how we're going to build it, and it's this way or the highway." And so they didn't get enough feedback, they didn't get enough true testing - and they were pretty much running with their fingers in their ears and saying, "This is how it's going to be, this is the future."

You've got to remember, this is a period of time - granted, at the end of the cycle - when Microsoft just kind of ruled the world. If they wanted to go into a market, they could just walk into it. Their smartphones were still doing pretty well with Windows Mobile. Granted there were these new challengers called IOS and Android. But Windows Mobile was still a thing.

When they wanted to go to the gaming console world, they just walked in with an Xbox, and now they own part of the market.

They kind of had this heads-down approach that, "We can tell the world what it needs, rather than react to it and listen to it."

Put all this together, and you put together some leadership who thought they had all the answers, and that they were the best thing in the world. And out comes Windows 8, and it flops in just dramatic fashion.

It was known very quickly, within weeks, that this was going to be a huge disaster. And then we see a couple of executives leave the company. We see a turning of the ship, and then Microsoft is where it is at today.

Len: I've got a question about that. Sorry to interrupt. But it's something that I think - as just a sort of normal person on the outside, looking at these giant famous companies, you see people who get elevated within them. They appear to have a sense of their own personal importance and sway, and they can be completely on the wrong track and make disastrous decisions. They can be walking on clouds and ordering people around, to put to put it crudely, for years, like they are the greatest thing since sliced bread - and the whole time, they're completely wrong about what they're doing in a very obvious way.

The question I have is - do you think that when people like that create a disaster like Windows 8, where even a sophisticated user is just shouting at it all the time, do they internalize that? Or do they move on to the next thing, or do they just shove it down and repress it?

Brad: In the case of Windows 8, I think they just shoved it down - candidly. I remember in those early days writing feedback, thinking like, "This is a little too aggressive." I mean they removed the start button from Windows, which has been the most iconic and most stable things since '95.

The other massive blunder was, they thought that they had such an intuitive OS that they didn't put in Windows 8 what is called an out-of-box-experience, or OOBE. Which is, you start up Windows, and it kind of tells you how to use it.

When you looked at Windows 8, there was no start button. What you were supposed to do is just move your mouse into a corner and then this thing would appear, and then it would work. But there was no way to educate.

Len: Oh God, I'm getting flashbacks.

Brad: There was no way to educate the user. For the technical people, they could eventually figure it out. But to the person who walks into Best Buy and says, "I'm going to buy that $499 Lenovo laptop," and then they're presented with this thing, and they're looking at it going, "Where's the Start button? Where are all my apps? What is this, the store thing now that doesn't have any apps in it?"

It was a perfect disaster of everything you shouldn't do during software development of an operating system, all just colliding at a time in history where Microsoft was getting pressure from these new smartphone companies like Apple and Google.

I mean, Apple and Google aren't new, but iOS and Android were relatively new. And Microsoft just had this perfect recipe for a disaster of an operating system. It hurt hard, because they were coming off of Vista.

Vista was a technical disaster from an underlying infrastructure perspective, but not from a usability perspective. Windows 8 was the opposite. Underneath the hood, it was actually okay. But from a usability perspective, it was a complete train wreck. And that's what sank it, and ultimately cost Sinofsky - and eventually Steve Ballmer - his job.

Len: I have a couple of selfish questions that I'd like to ask you.

Brad: Sure.

Len: One of which is - I used to work in investment banking, and in my time as an analyst I did a lot of pretty complex stuff in Excel, which is a world-changing product, very amazing.

It's 2018 and I have an iMac Pro, and Excel is still kind of laggy on it, and forces me to enable macros every time I open it. Why does Excel still not really work on Apple products?

Brad: That's a very large question for somebody who works on that team.

Pretty candidly - well, the macro question is easy, because that's a virus thing, that's legacy from Windows. You used to be able to inject things into macros - I guess you still can inject things into macros and just totally corrupt the system. Granted I don't think Windows is going to fall for that anymore, but that's where that "enable macros" functionality comes from. Because you have to enable that core functionality in the OS and all that other fun stuff.

The reason why it's still laggy on Mac OS now is, I believe, it's still a port. I don't know if they've gone the full native app route yet on Mac OS. I could be completely wrong on that. But I knew for a while it was a really laggy piece of junk, mostly because of that.

I fully agree that Excel is kind of the root of the Office suite. If Microsoft ever loses Excel - like if somebody comes out with a better Excel, they will be in some serious trouble. Because that is the stickiest thing that they do. I use Excel all the time - pivot tables and vlookups and all that, every day.

Len: It seems like, from my perspective - having been not just a power user, but like, I did things where like if I made a mistake, that could have repercussions in the tens of millions of dollars - I mean it would never actually result in a kind of loss, but like things could be misrepresented to that extent, let's put it that way, if you're working on a multi-billion dollar transaction.

When you're using Excel, you want it to be a tool like a hammer. You don't want to be thinking about the tool, you want to be thinking about what you're doing. And even the slightest messing around with that, actually is a difference in kind, rather than degree.

I noticed that - this this was a couple of years ago, it's not true of the latest version of Excel - but I think it was Excel 2011 or something like that? I got it for for the Mac OS, and when you would click the right arrow or the left arrow to move from cell to cell, there was a little pause, a little animation, of that movement.

To people listening, this might sound really particular, but that destroyed Excel.

Brad: Yes.

Len: That one little decision actually made it not the product that it was anymore.

I guess the question I would have is, if you have any insight into this - how could a decision like that be made? I mean are the people who are working on this core product not really using it in their own professional lives - is that why?

Brad: It's a very good question. I know the animation you're talking about, it was like a smooth transition animation. I remember when that rolled out, because I wasn't quite doing what I'm doing right now. I remember when that animation rolled out, because I was in the finance world, like yourself - and everyone complaining, because it took just fractions of a second longer to move a cell. But when you have a spreadsheet and you're living in that, that stuff adds up.

To answer your question - are people using the product that they're shipping? They are a lot more now. I don't think you're too far off that - many years ago, you could be building things for Excel, and you could build new features like tables and whatever and functions - and you would use it once, make sure it works and then ship it. I think they rectified a lot of that stuff, and they've gotten much better at listening to feedback - which is why that animation is no longer in that product.

Len: Thank goodness.

This is very much in the weeds, but the work that people are doing using Excel, is often very important and very directly related to money - things where a mistake can lose you your job or lose you that promotion or lose you that sale, or whatever. There's just a really deep question about the the mindset that people have when they're designing things, that I find fascinating.

People will do things to try and make a more delightful experience, and it's like, "I don't need an LED light flashing every time I hit a nail with my hammer. I'm not looking for a delightful experience."

There's a payment service that we use through Leanpub, which I won't name because I like it and in many ways it's very good. But not too long ago, when you went to make a payment - it started serving up circle faces to you randomly.

Brad: Oh.

Len: And I was like, "This product has obviously been redesigned by someone who was never in a situation where if they made a mistake sending 25 bucks, they didn't have another 25 bucks."

Do you see this happening? In preparation for this podcast, I watched a couple of your episodes with Paul. You guys would actually go into details about how like, when you press "escape" to leave a message in Outlook or something like that, it doesn't put you back where you should go.

How can a giant company solve this this problem? Where design trends in the meta-level of design, end up screwing up the actual use of products?

Brad: It's a great question, because if you can solve it, you can make a bunch of money just doing pitches and walking into corporate offices.

I think the thing that Microsoft and any other company needs to understand, is they have to listen to the user. The user is where the bills get paid. And if a user isn't complaining about the UI - granted, I know that there's things that companies like to do, because they want every product to match, they want it all to look the same.

Microsoft's going through this kind of fluent transition design language update. But at the same time - I think Steve Jobsm, there's a famous quote of him saying, he knew what people wanted before they did.

That's a pretty ambitious statement. And that's one thing to do if you're launching a brand new product, like if you're launching an Apple Watch or whatever; you're creating something from scratch.

When you're massaging something that already exists and you have a massive user base, you have to be very careful about making any fundamental changes to how the product works. Not just how it looks - this is how we end up with that Excel awkward transition between cells that slowed everybody down - and Microsoft quickly walked back on it, thankfully. But I think when you get away from listening to your customer, that is when you start potentially heading down the wrong path, when you're updating a product.

Len: Thanks for that great answer, I think that's spot on.

One of the things I like about your writing and podcasts and the things that I've listened to, is you often take into account the larger context - including the internal battles that are being fought at companies - that can actually have a huge impact on what happens.

My second selfish question is not my own. It's from my co-founder Peter. He wants to ask you if you think Microsoft will ever make an Xbox phone, so he can have Halo in his pocket?

For him, this idea of an Xbox phone - that would be, say twice as thick as an iPhone - and with kickass games, with a free mobile version of every Xbox One game you own on it - is that something that you think Microsoft would ever do? Maybe it's something that you've actually written about?

Brad: We have good news for Peter. He will be able to play Halo or any - I shouldn't say "any"- but he will be able to play Xbox games in his pocket. Microsoft is working on this. It's part of the Xbox Scarlet update, which is coming in 2020.

Now, it's not exactly an Xbox phone. What Microsoft is working on is called xCloud. They announced that name publicly a couple of months ago.

What this does, is it allows you to stream games. Microsoft is literally building data centers full of Xbox hardware, or Xbox-like hardware. What it will do is, any device that has a screen, you will be able to stream games and play them on that display.

Microsoft already offers this a little bit if you have an Xbox. In Windows 10, you can stream your Xbox to anywhere you have a Windows 10 PC right now - and you can play on that device.

What they're doing is making this available across the internet. So, will Peter be able to play Halo or other games on his phone? Yes he will

What we don't know yet, and this is what Microsoft's big breakthrough is - is how is latency going to impact performance? Microsoft says they think they've figured it out. And we're waiting to see how that materializes here. We should start to see this actually next year, when they're going to start entering some private testing of it. Eventually in 2020, it'll be more broadly available.

So Peter, you'll eventually get to do it - it's just not going to happen today.

Len: That's fascinating. I hadn't heard anything about that. That's so interesting.

My last question before we go on to talk about your book is - what do you think is the best thing that Satya Nadella has done since he's taken over at Microsoft?

Brad: It depends on who you ask. The best thing he's done - and Amy Hood gets credit for this - is turning around their stock price. It was stuck between roughly $25 and $35 for about a decade. And right now it's somewhere over 100 bucks.

Depending on what side of the coin you're on - quite literally some people might say the stock price, but I think what Satya has done is, he's changed the internal culture. I think that is probably the most important thing.

Before Satya became the CEO, he helped launch Azure, which is Microsoft's Cloud Service. That's how he got popular inside the company. He understands what Microsoft's role in the world is. And once it became clear that Microsoft is a productivity company - granted Xbox is a little out there, but Xbox is doing pretty well, same with Surface - but they are a productivity company.

Once he aligned on that topic and got other people to buy in, he was able to help change the culture. More from this like, "Oh gosh, we're doom and gloom. We're Microsoft, we're just going to eat things and be this big ogre walking through" - to making people actually want to work there again.

If you boil it down to one thing, he's been able to shift how people think about working at Microsoft. I don't want to say he's made the company cool again, because they tried to - quite literally, that's what their marching orders were, "Make Microsoft cool." But he's helped Microsoft find a purpose in the new world of cloud tech and productivity.

Len: That's very convincing. It is amazing looking at Microsoft's stock price and what's happened since Nadella took over, it's quite incredible - as I think you've written about, Wall Street is on his side.

Going back to former Microsoft leaders, and moving on to the subject of your book, Beneath A Surface, you write about how Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer fought over Microsoft moving into hardware. I think that this might be the right place to start, when we're talking about the Surface.

Who was on which side in that argument?

Brad: So moving back even further - when Microsoft was starting to work, and build up an interface that needed a mouse [unintelligible section] ...and Bill Gates didn't think that Microsoft should take that risk, and that they should do is give money ?. And so

Bill Gates didn't want to build this. Steve Ballmer did. The board obviously sided with Steve Ballmer, and they decided to build this thing.

It was a very heated conversation. Because you've got to remember at that point in time, Microsoft was basically the provider of the software, and then their OEMs did everything. Bill Gates' argument was that, "We're going to upset our partners. They are going to leave us and do something else, and then we're going to be out of luck with our dominant position in the market if we start building our own hardware."

Len: That's really interesting. OEM is Original Equipment Manufacturer. That was something that I totally didn't appreciate until I read your book - about how important those relationships are for a company.

So, if Microsoft goes into a certain area that its original equipment manufacturers see themselves in, then it starts to become a competitor. This was actually one of the reasons that Ballmer wanted to insert himself into the launch of the Surface, if I understand it correctly - in order to be reassuring to all these OEMs that Microsoft relied on, and who in turn relied on Microsoft.

And so the Surface itself, can you talk a little bit about what it was? What the idea was for the Surface at the beginning? I believe it began life as a $10,000 table?

Brad: So the Surface brand got started as quite literally, a table. A guy named Stevie Bathiche was working on this thing. It was conceptualized as a product that was going to blend the physical and digital world. It was this really large, expensive table, and it ran a custom OS.

What you could do is, you could take your phone and put it on there, and then it would recognize that it was a phone, and you could transfer photos and you could put your keys down there on it, and it would recognize it was a set of keys, and then it would say, "Okay, Brad's home. That means I can turn the lights on and unlock the doors," do whatever.

That's how the product - I should say, "the brand," got started. Microsoft ended up killing that product line. They built two iterations of these tables. It was during that second iteration of the table that they said, "We're going to start building tablets," and they needed a brand name. They already had the brand name, "Surface," which made things a lot easier, because they don't have to go after trademarks and create all that paperwork. And so they went from table to tablet essentially.

And then the brand just kind of - I don't want to say "caught fire," because it definitely didn't at first. But the rest is history there.

Len: And if I understand correctly, the name, "Surface," came from an observation Bill Gates made about how every surface in the future was essentially going to be a kind of computer?

Brad: Yes, you're exactly right. Bill Gates used to create these things - he still does, I think he calls them "Gates Notes," but he now does it from a philanthropic perspective. But inside the company, he used to write these notes about where he thought computing was going. And in one of them he said, "Everything you touch will eventually be a computer or a surface where you can compute." That's how they started to come up with this name. They floated around a couple ideas way back then. But, "Surface," because it was available, made perfect sense, and it was already in this note, and they had the ability to trademark it - and so they ran with it.

Len: And so they decided to build this new type of product, with the intention of changing the way we interact with things, or at least being ahead of their competitors and understanding that this is where the future was going to go. And it was an incredibly secret project internally. And they had a "tenting" process for getting into the Surface hardware project. I was wondering if you could explain to people a little bit about that? How do you guard secrets within your own company from other people?

Brad: So tenting at Microsoft kind of refers to paperwork, if you will? When they were trying to build out these products, it was under complete secrecy. The employees who were working on it weren't allowed to talk about it. And so what Microsoft would do is, if you wanted to work on the product, or if you were allowed to work on it - whatever terminology you want to use - they would put you through a process that they called "tenting," which is where you go through some interviews, you talk to people about how to keep things secure and private, and the responsibility you had for working on the project, and had to sign a bunch of documents.

There was an urban myth, if you will, on the Microsoft campus that at some point you if you reached like the highest or the lowest level of tenting to be able to see everything - you had to talk to a former CIA guy. Although, nobody could ever confirm that. The whole idea was to essentially scare the individual from talking about these products outside the confines of work.

Len: When I was reading that section of your book, it reminded me - I had some corporate secrecy training back in my days in finance. The story they used to scare us was a guy was in a bar in London once and he said, "I'm going to Copenhagen tomorrow," to his friend. And the next day in like the FT or whatever, it said, "Macquarie's buying the airport in Denmark."

That story worked really well. It conveyed to you the fact that it could be a journalist sitting next to you at the bar who knows exactly who you are, and exactly what division you work in. And it can be the most minor of things - to someone who's knowledgeable, it can it can get the secret out.

The more specific question I have is, internally, why would it be so important to keep this secret? Let's bracket leaks for a bit. Why would it be so important that some Microsoft employees know what's going on and others don’t?

Brad: The biggest challenge was at first keeping the message to OEMs correct. They didn't want this thing to come out that Microsoft was building a tablet. They didn't want OEM partners to like pick up the phone and call Ballmer at the time, like, "What do you mean you're building a tablet? That's our space, you can't do that." And so they wanted to keep - one, the message correct - and make sure that when it was ready and announced that they had all their ducks in a row, and that everything went perfectly and that nobody would walk away angry with the idea.

The other side of it was that this was a brand new project for a brand new operating system, and they weren't quite sure what they were doing. They had a lot of different ideas. They didn't know what was going to make it. They didn't want people on the outside world finding out about it, because Sinofsky was so convinced that he had the perfect idea, that he didn't need the outside support. So he created this silo, he locked everyone in, and people just became real secretive.

This was one of the primary problems with Microsoft - at least at the time - was that everyone was thinking about me, rather than us.

That's what led to this disaster of hardware mostly being ready, and software not being ready. And then you have software that's not only not ready, but then it's a terrible experience, necause everybody was so focused on their particular job, and not the overall mission - primarily because of these lock-ins, people only working on specific projects.

Why they felt the overall need to lock everyone in like this? There's varying theories, but I really think it just comes down to Sinofsky thinking that he had the right idea. He didn't want anyone else to get credit for it. And he's going to build this thing in absolute secrecy and surprise the world.

Len: And who is Sinofsky, and how did he get into this position, where he could do something like that within a company like Microsoft?

Brad: Steven Sinofsky started in - before then, he came to notoriety working on Office. If you remember the ribbon, it was a big deal when Microsoft changed the UI of Office.

I think it was '07 or sometime around then. He was part of the team that created the ribbon. He was real controlling over that experience, and it went pretty well - once people got adopted to it.

After working on that, he was in charge of Windows 7, essentially. Vista was all screwed up and he was on the team to help fix Windows, and to his credit, he did do a good job there. And so, I think because he did such a good job with 7, he had this, "Okay, I absolutely know how the market works now," mentality. And then he just went all in on Windows 8.

Unfortunately for him, his legacy involves Windows 8. Most people don't think about the things he did before then that were good. But it really does end up with Windows 8, and that's how he got into that role.

Len: Boy it's so easy to shit on things that other people do, but I fucking hate the ribbon. It's one of those things, it's like that little animation. You would never invent that if you actually used it the way people use it to do serious work. Sorry.

Anyway I guess I've got to say - that guy ruined a lot of people's "productivity experiences," as Microsoft describes them, by building that ribbon, so I'm glad he got a little bit of a kick.

Anyway, so we've been sort of dancing around it a little bit, but then - the first version of the Surface tablet bombed. Why did it bomb?

Brad: It bombed because it wasn't ready. The OS wasn't ready. The hardware was okay, I mean, there were definitely early teething issues, but nothing like later that happened with like the Surface Book or anything.

The OS just was not ready. It ran a version called Windows RT, the first version. Granted, Microsoft wanted to ship both products in October of that year, but they had to delay the more classic Surface Pro that we know now, by three months.

So the first version they launched with Surface RT ran a version of Windows, that looked like Windows, it acted like Windows - but the problem was is that it couldn't run applications downloaded from the web. It could only run applications from the store.

And at that time - anaemic is probably not even doing justice that the app selection in the store. It was terrible. So consumers would go to the store, and employees wouldn't quite understand it. They'd be like, "Yeah, this is running Windows, you can grab it." So they grab this tablet and they go home, and they would they would type "Chrome" into their search browser. They'd download Chrome, and then it would say, "Hey this can't run Chrome." And so then the user would be confused, and they can only run apps basically blessed by Microsoft at that point. That's primarily why it bombed, is the OS just came up so short and was so confusing.

You can imagine opening this thing up and not seeing a start button. You're thinking, "Okay, maybe I can get through this? I'll figure it out." And then you can't install Chrome. And then you're like, "What do you mean? Like, the two things that I know about Windows, I can't do."

So people were very frustrated with it, and it had a very high return rate. Microsoft ended up having three million of these things in inventory when they did a 900 million dollar write-down in June the following year.

Len: And what happened to them?

Brad: They did sell them, surprisingly. They sold every single one. Now, they did not sell them for the original price point. Some of them went for as cheap as 99 bucks. But the biggest day that Microsoft sold these things was a year later, on Black Friday at Best Buy. They sold I think 40,000 of them in a single day. But I believe it was for a $199 price point. So they did sell them, they didn't dump any of them in bins by any means.

But it was a very big learning lesson. There's a quote by Steve Ballmer that, when somebody asked about how many they should build, he said, "We either built enough or not enough, or maybe it was too many." And obviously we know the answer now is that they built too many.

Len: And so in spite of this disaster the Surface still had internal supporters who won a battle to keep it. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Brad: Yes. So, you launch this product. And fortunately Microsoft isolated Surface a bit from the rest of the company. Not fully, but the idea was that Surface could exist and fail on its own and not sink Microsoft.

[lenepp]

And so when they set out to build this stuff, Panos Panay - who is the leader of the Surface hardware team, he wanted to build three iterations. He thought that it would take three iterations to build something that consumers would love and use every day. And so that was the marching orders.

When they shipped the first Surface RT, they were already about six months of development into Surface RT 2 - which means that they were going to build a second generation, no matter what happened to the first. That was the struggle - like, "Oh my God you guys did a 900 million dollar write-down." But they're Microsoft, they can't throw in the towel. They weren't sure where their place in the market was yet. And so they couldn't give up.

They just put their head down and kept charging forward, and they took a lot of flak, took a couple black eyes. But by the time they got to the third iteration when their back was against the wall, they finally shipped a product that did pretty dang well for the company - in retrospective comparison.

Len: How would you characterize the Surface's position in the market now for tablets? I know you've written recently about how the company behind the LSAT test has recently chosen the Surface as its delivery mechanism for its test going forward.

Brad: What Microsoft set out to do from day one was to build the premium brand in the PC industry. Up until the Surface release, if you wanted to buy a high end PC, a high end laptop - from whatever company, the problem was that company would make a $3,000 laptop, and they were also selling a $400 laptop. There was no truly premium brand. They wanted to be the Apple of the PC world. And it took them a long time. You could argue that they're not fully there yet. But I do think that a lot of people now cross shop say a MacBook Pro with a Surface Book. They may not buy the Surface Book, but they're at least looking at them in the same light.

That was what Microsoft was trying to do, was to build the premium brand. Which is why you always see that their price points are a little bit higher than their OEM partners, which is by design. Microsoft will go into a market and make the top end - that is their goal, is to make the most expensive product in that category. We've seen it with the laptops, we've seen it with tablets, we've seen with their all in one that starts at like 3,200 bucks now.

That is where they want to be. It took them three years to get there and a couple of massive incidents along the way, but that is what they want to be seen as.

This LSAT was a massive, a massive win for the company. I believe they sold 40,000 of them, or I should say are going to sell 40,000 of them over the term of the contract to LSAT.

Len: That's just amazing. Someone's going to have a good Christmas bonus.

Brad: Oh yeah.

Len: It's just so fascinating to see how these huge developments happen within companies, the momentum they get and where they go.

Brad: Yes, it was a lot of fun to write.

Len: I've got a question about that, just before we move on to the next part of the podcast, when I'll talk to you about the process of writing the book.

You had about a couple of dozen contacts that all gave you information anonymously. How did you develop that network of people?

Brad: That network was developed over about 10 years. Some of the people had moved on. Some of the people were still at Microsoft. I'm a big believer that you shouldn't burn a bridge. I'm a very outgoing, positive person - I try to be a generally nice human.

I had the idea to write this book - let's say in March, sometime around then. And one of the first things I had to do was make sure I had enough understanding of the content - which I felt like I did, and I organized some notes and whatnot.

Then what I started doing was just firing out messages to people who had talked to me over the years. There were people I had not talked to in eight-plus years. And they were all very happy to try to help me - obviously anonymously, because it could impact their career if their names were tied to this stuff. So that was a big step, saying, "Okay, this is anonymous. I promise to keep your information private."

But there were a lot of people who said, "No." Steven Sinofsky did not want to talk to me. I thought maybe he would [unintelligble section], but he was very much against the idea of talking to me. That's fine - that's his prerogative.

It was just calling on old friends and current friends and being like, "Look. I want to tell this story. Can you help me make sure it's right?" A lot of people were very forthcoming and very candid. I did my best to try to craft the narrative in a way that showed what was actually happening. Which, if you had a bent against Microsoft, you very easily could have turned this into, "They just got lucky." But I don't think it's - they had luck on their side. I would say it was probably about 30% luck, 70% just ambition to get to where they are today.

Len: And why did you decide to self-publish this book?

Brad: There was a lot of thought and challenges with this. One - Blue Whale Web Media Group is a publishing company. At the end of the day we publish things - not in book form, but we wanted to explore this idea like, "Okay, can we actually create a book?" And candidly, it was pretty much all me.

I mean, it's not a big surprise, I'm a very self-motivated upstart person, just kind of cut my own way through the forest type. I did approach a couple brokers, and the deals that we were getting or being offered - or even just loosely talked about - weren't all that great.

Typically what happens is they want to buy the rights to the book for some amount of money, and then you get a royalty for each book sold. Some of the royalties were a dollar per book sold. And they give you up to ten thousand bucks up front, or whatever the deal may be.

Knowing the reach that my company has - Blue Whale Web Media Group - and knowing how much personal reach I have - because I have a lot of friends in the industry - I had lunch with a friend who had written a book before, and he looked at me and candidly, he's like, "The Holy Grail of book sales, physical book sales, is getting into an airport. That is where you want your book to be. Because a lot of people will just grab them to read on a plane." And he goes, "When was the last time you walked into a bookstore?"

And that just resonated. It's like, "Okay, I don't go into Barnes & Noble's anymore. I read a lot of books, but a lot of them are in Kindle or through Leanpub or whatever. They're in a lot of digital formats."

And so the idea to self-publish just fell into my lap. Of course we had to do the physical side, so figuring out those logistics was a challenge. But so far , I think it's been the right decision. The book is selling pretty well across the different venues that it's out and available in. We had some really strong days, the first couple days, with the physical side as well. And the physical book's only been available for about a week, maybe a little bit longer.

In the world that we live in today, digital distribution is pretty easy. You can figure that stuff out. When I figured that most people will buy it digitally, I was like, "Well what am I paying a traditional publisher for?"

You're paying for distribution and you're paying for PR. I didn't need help with the PR side. I can do all that and I very much believe I successfully did it very well on the day of availability. The distribution side, I could have used some help with. But we figured it out. I think we're doing okay.

I wouldn't hesitate - anyone else who thinks they have a good idea, and as long as you have the ability to do the marketing side - to take a stab at trying to self-publish. Because it's not as scary - and this is easy to say being on the backside of it now - it's not as scary as you would think. It takes time, and you're going to have some late nights - but it's definitely possible.

Len: And why did you choose Leanpub to write the book and produce the ebook, and then - presumably the print-ready PDF output that you would use to get it into print on Amazon?

Brad: Here's the problem I was looking to solve. I knew how to write. I'm a writer. I understand how to write. I don't understand how to make an ebook. I didn't understand at that time how you take text and turn it into a digestible EPUB format.

And so it was, "Okay, what tools are available?" There are a lot of tools out there that allow you to do this, and everyone should do their own research and approach it your own way. But for me it was, "Okay, Leanpub is there." I had known other people who had used it.

It was relatively simple. You just go and sign up, and then you guys present a series of options - such as writing in the browser, Dropbox - what else is there? Google Docs, now. And so it was just kind of - okay, here's a turnkey solution that I think that I can work with. And so I just went down that route, because it seemed to be the product that fit my needs for getting an EPUB file that I could then distribute on my own or through your store or through Amazon.

It was a relatively easy process in the end. There were definitely some teething issues along the way. I think I emailed Peter probably two dozen times.

But it, the end product has been - perfect's probably an inaccurate word, mostly because I know there's some grammar issues, and I've still got to fix them. But it got me into a place where I can sell this thing and feel good about it. And I wouldn't hesitate to tell other people to approach Leanpub, candidly. There are some caveats that I think everyone should be aware of, but there's also some great features - such as that export to print - saved me so much time that I can't really imagine how I would have done it any other way, and got the book shipped on time.

Len: It's really interesting you mention the two dozen emails. Just by coincidence, the last interview I did for this podcast was the first with an author who used Leanpub to create online courses - which you can do on Leanpub now. And you're actually the first author I've ever interviewed for this podcast who used our Google Docs workflow.

It's very new. But you were a great first customer to have. Partly because obviously you're a writer, and you know that side of things. But all those emails helped us get the Google Docs workflow in shape for everyone else - for you, and for everyone else going forward.

Len: So, thanks very much for every single one of those emails. They helped us a lot. And now it's actually pretty solid.

Brad: I was going to say - what I started to do, was I wrote it in the browser. Then I emailed Peter and said, 'Hey," I think it was Peter. Maybe it might have just been your generic help desk. And they said, "Go use Google Docs," and so I transformed it all over. And you're right. The early days were very rough.

But I mean I have a background - I used to do some C++ programming, and I had some time on my side. So I tried, to the best of my ability - I know some of them were probably me late at night and getting a little frustrated with just life in general. Like, "Why isn't this working?" But through the stages of it - where it's at today, I would feel reasonably comfortable saying, "Okay, go use Google Docs." Because now it's a pretty good workflow. It was a little challenging to get there at times. But by the end of the book, there's no major hurdles - I think at this point, anymore.

Len: Actually one question I have is - I'm sorry, this is a very in-the-weeds, customer development kind of question, but, do you use Google Docs?

Brad: No - that's one of the things that kind of pushed me towards it. Mostly because, this book is about Microsoft, a lot of things we do is about Microsoft. And I know that there are people out there that love Google Docs. When I saw that you guys had this option, I figured, "What better way to familiarize myself with Google Docs and the workflow, than to actually do a large scale project inside of Google Docs?" It's not quite as good as Office 365. There's some features that are missing that that I was looking for. But at the same time it was good enough that I totally understand why people use it every day, and don't see a need to switch.

Len: I didn't know that - so we were new to our Google Docs feature, and you were new to Google Docs itself. Which is actually probably the perfect combination for solving all these problems right away. Because from both ends we didn't really know how it was going to work.

One of the things we were most excited about when we decided to go ahead and build our Google Docs book writing workflow, was the ability that authors would then have to use the collaboration features that Google Docs has. Did you use that?

Brad: Oh yes, that's one of the things that was very helpful. I wish Google Docs did better. But that's what we did.

There's 26 chapters in the book. Not all of them are super long, but there's 26 chapters. Which means there's 26 different documents. What we did was use the Google version of track changes.

Paul Thurrott edited the book. So he'd go through - read chapter one, make all his edits. And then I would follow up and make the corrections or reject them as needed. We used that heavily. And that's, again, one of the reasons why we went down that Google Docs route, was because it was supposed to have such a good collaborative experience for that editing process, that I knew would be on the horizon.

Len: My last question is - I mean, you've sent the 24 emails. But if there was one more thing we could fix for you or build for you, what would you ask us to do?

Brad: Ooh, if there's one thing - there is still one minor bug, but I haven't quite figured out exactly how to replicate it. As soon as I do, I'll send you guys an email. There's a bug with image location, currently with the plug in. When you hit "preview," and then you export a file to PDF, it seems like the first time I do it on any given edit, the images are swapped - like they're out of place. But then if I do it a second time, it's perfect. So basically what I've gotten into the habit of is, I just export it twice. The second one's always good, and then I just run with it. But other than that, there's not a whole lot.

The only thing I could think of, candidly, is maybe better documentation on just how to use the plug in. Much like anybody else, I was just clicking stuff and dragging things. I didn't realize for the longest time that you could drag the chapters around in that right rail. I was actually renaming files and dragging and copying and pasting content. Well, I had no idea. I was just like, "Okay, there's Chapter 23 and there's Chapter 26. Well crap, I need to swap them." So I would just copy and paste the text into the right chapter, rather than dragging it around.

And then one day - I don't know if I accidentally clicked or whatever, and I was like, "Oh God - you can just drag chapters around, that's great. I wish I would've known this a month ago."

Len: Thanks very much for that. We're actually going to be deploying a redesign of what we call the author app, the way you navigate around pages and do things. And the next task is going to be making videos, and I will 100% make sure to show in the Google Docs workflow video that you can do that. Because it's so interesting to hear that you were doing that copying and pasting. I mean, it's exactly the kind of thing that I do with all kinds of products all the time. But it's also the kind of thing that users don't often tell you about. so that's really great to know that we've actually built a solution for a problem that people are finding ways to solve, without doing it the way that we've already built for them to do.

The last thing I'm going to say is, this is totally out of order, in the sense of sequence, but I wish I'd said this story earlier when you talked about being in college and trying to make money.

By coincidence, we have a former colleague named Mike Rowe, who got a little bit internet famous when he was a teenager, because he created a little consulting company called MikeRoweSoft.

Brad: Wait - I know him. Well I don't know him, but I know the story. Didn't he get sued by Microsoft, o they approached him?

Len: He got in, he got in trouble. I don't know the exact story. It's actually on Wikipedia. But yeah, he got he got in some heat. And then Microsoft got in some reverse heat for going after just some Canadian teenager, and I think he got like an Xbox or something out of it. I think he wishes he'd got more.

Brad: Oh man. That is nuts.

Len: Just a funny coincidence.

Well, thank you very much Brad, for taking the time to do this interview, it was a really fun conversation. And thanks for taking the time to talk a little bit about your experience making a book and using Leanpub. And thanks for being a Leanpub author.

Brad: Well thank you. This was a lot of fun.

Len: Thanks.

Podcast info & credits
  • Published on December 20th, 2018
  • Interview by Len Epp on December 11th, 2018
  • Transcribed by Alys McDonough