In this Episode
Dave Kawula is co-author of the Master Powershell Tricks Series and a number of other books on tech. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Dave about his unique background in tech, playing professional hockey, economic resilience in the Canadian province of Alberta, his experience writing for Microsoft, and the profitable way he has incorporated book publishing into his business.
This interview was recorded on February 14, 2018.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Len: Hi I'm Len Epp from Leanpub, nd in this Leanpub Frontmatter Podcast, I'll be interviewing Dave Kawula.
Based in Calgary, Dave is the founder and managing principal consultant at TriCon Elite Consulting, and a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional and Microsoft Evangelist, who has led architecture teams for virtualization, system center exchange, active directory and internet gateways, amongst many other things in his over 20 years of IT industry experience.
He's also a popular conference speaker and organizer, and the co-chair of TechMentor, which has provided professional how-to IT training and education since 1998.
Along with his colleagues, Dave is the co-author of a number of books, including the multi-volume Master PowerShell Tricks series, and a two volume series on Deploying System Center Virtual Machine Manager."
In this interview, we're going to talk about Dave's background and career, professional interests, his books, and at the end, we'll talk a little bit about his experience writing and self-publishing.
So, thank you Dave for being on the Leanpub Frontmatter Podcast.
Dave: It's my pleasure to be here Len. I'm glad to have taken the opportunity to sit down and chat with you today.
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 first became interested in computers and IT?
Dave: I've got an interesting background, especially when it comes to IT.
I grew up in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, a small-town Saskatchewan kid. Believe it or not, my first love was not IT. I wanted to be an NHL hockey player, just like most kids that were growing up in Saskatchewan.
My semi-professional hockey career took me all the way up to playing junior A hockey in Alberta and British Columbia. I played three years there, and unfortunately had to stop because of some health issues and concussions, like most have today. I'm kind of glad I did stop now, especially after all the research that's come out. I fell back on my original roots, which was IT.
Back to those days - my parents actually got started in technology in the early 80s. They opened one of the first computer consulting companies and computer schools, all the way back in, I think it was 1981, called "PC Computer School." They got some grants from the government, set up some computer labs, and we were doing early-day computer training off of IBM mainframes.
So I grew up around this, when I was knee-high, coming into the office, learning all about technology from my parents. They spawned that off into a successful consulting organization. And in 1993 or 1994, my brother and I actually took over that business from them. We ran that in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan until about 2002.
At that point in time, I moved to Calgary, to the oil and gas and the big boom in Alberta - that was in the hey days of the boom.
Where I really got my start was about a year and a half after I moved to Calgary. I got headhunted off of my Monster resume by Microsoft. So I ended up doing a series of national roadshows for Microsoft, talking about technology. And they liked that so much, they actually got me into writing internal content for the Microsoft platform teams.
So myself and my wife and our team that we had, we worked on about 65 different projects, authoring content for Microsoft platform and product teams internally. That's where we got our deep dive in the technology.
Now that that's spawned off, we've started up our own little publishing company for other Microsoft MVPs and community evangelists. Today I think we're up to 11 books or so that we've published. We're so happy to actually have your platform now as our preferred mechanism for getting our content out there.
Len: Thanks for that great story. I'm from Saskatchewan myself. I grew up in Saskatoon and Regina, and went to school in Rosthern for a little while, which is not too far as I recall from Prince Albert.
Dave: Not far at all.
Len: I wanted to ask you just one question about the hockey background, which I didn't know about. What position did you play?
Dave: I was a big power forward.
Len: What was it like? Were you on the road a lot when you were playing, did you stay in small-town hotels with your team, things like that?
Dave: Yeah, absolutely. I played my competitive bantam and midget hockey all over Saskatchewan - bantam triple A and midget triple A. I had a brief stint with the Prince Albert Raiders and the WHL. I played a few exhibition games before I went and stepped into my junior A career.
You got to know and love your bus very well. You had pre-assigned seats. The rule on the bus was, if you were a veteran, and it was after the game, you got to sleep on the floor of the bus. And if you were a rookie, you got the chairs. You needed to somehow wiggle your way in. So the vets would sleep underneath all of the chairs, and the rookies would sit sideways and have to cram themselves in. Some of our road trips were as long as eight hours away for a game. You got used to spending a lot of time on the road.
Len: And was this pre-iPod days?
Dave: This was pre-iPod days. We did have CD players - that was a big benefit. We were just past the Walkman stage, and CDs were just coming out and being mainstream. But we didn't have iPods that were jam packed full of tunes. We actually were cutting our own CDs at the time on the bus. We had our own master mixes.
Len: Yeah, I remember those days, it's why I asked, because it's something that we all take for granted now, the options we have available when we were traveling for entertainment. But back in those days, you might carry around like a backpack full of CDs in specially designed sleeves.
Len: Actually another thing I want to ask you about the hockey is - one of the things that hockey is well-known for, is it's the only sport where fighting is conventionally permitted. One of the things I heard growing up in Saskatchewan is that often at the junior levels, it was encouraged. I just wanted to ask you about that. Did you get in hockey fights?
Dave: I've been in a few, yeah. It was interesting, because when you grow up and you're playing the game, it adds a way different dynamic. You don't really see fighting in the game until you get into the junior levels, because there are some pretty stiff penalties. You'd get a three-game suspension if you took off your helmet in the younger years. So you didn't really see anybody fighting.
It was part of the game. It was part of that lifestyle - you don't touch players on my team. And if you cross that line, then there's a penalty or a price to be paid.
I came thorough my hockey career at the tail end of where a coach would tap you on the shoulder saying, "Hey, you've got to go take care of this."
They actually weren't allowed to do that. So Hockey Canada had actually just come in the year that I'd started with some new rules. It was a little bit of an adjustment and a learning curve for our coaches. So we would get comments like, "Well, I can't tell you what to do, but I'm pretty sure you know what to do."
Len: And do you think that fighting is going to continue to be a part of the sport?
Dave: I think the game has changed a lot, because I think it's a lot faster now. I think a lot of the thugs that were in the game - they're not fast enough to play. So if something happens, and it's just a hockey play... I think that fighting does serve a good purpose in the game. But I don't think it needs to be something where it's showboated around the arena. If it's something that happens and two players get mad at one another, I'd much rather see a fight than them swinging their sticks at one another.
Len: Before we move onto your professional work, one of the privileges of this podcast that I do with people from all around the world, is that I get to ask them about the places that they're from. I haven't interviewed anyone from Calgary for the podcast before, and I wanted to ask you a little bit about the city.
Starting a few years ago, it experienced a pretty significant economic downturn. I've had friends and family of my own who were caught up in it, some directly, some indirectly, and I've heard all sorts of stories about the downtown feeling empty. How would you say things are looking for Calgary these days?
Dave: I think that we're just starting to come out of it right now. You're absolutely right. That feeling of emptiness downtown is definitely there. You can actually find parking downtown, which you had a very difficult time finding in the past. I found that the companies that were able to evolve and adjust were the ones that were able to survive. And the ones that weren't as agile - you take and you lose all your contracts. You're a field services company, and the company that's given you all the contracts goes out of business - well there's deep ramifications through and through.
It came fast. It came quick. I think one of the things that I've found after having lived in Calgary for now over 15 years, is that people in Alberta are very resilient. We're used to this kind of stuff. I think it catches more of the rest of the country off guard. But Alberta's been boom or bust for the last 30, 40 years. So when it's good, it's really good, and the economy's vibrant, and it's humming along. And when it's not - we've just kind of trained ourselves to back off on the spend, and just try to survive.
Len: It's interesting you mention backing off on the spend. One of the things about Calgary that I've always found interesting, is exactly what you're just talking about - that there's actually an explicit self-awareness about managing bad times in the economy. One of the last times I was there, I went into a liquor store and got in a conversation with the woman behind the till, and she said, "Yeah, people are tightening their belts. It's not so busy these days."
People don't panic in the way that you might in other places, where ups and downs are less familiar. People actually talk about it. They talk about how to handle it, how to prepare.
You do also hear stories about guys working on the rig - suddenly there are a lot of used trucks available if people over-extend.
But it's good to hear that things are improving. Do you think that's because of the oil industry, or are people adapting and doing other things now?
Dave: We're primarily an oil-centric province. What's ended up happening is - I like to say that there was a lot of fat in the industry. And what's happened is these organizations have taken the opportunity to trim the fat. They've figured out ways to optimize and maintain their bottom line. Those that stuck around - they had a definite value proposition to those companies, those organizations.
Because you were typically asked to do the work of two to three [people]. So if you don't want to do the work of two to three, then you're going to be looking for a new job. And if you can't do the work of two to three, then you're going to be looking for a new job. So either ramp up your skills, or prepare to come into work and actually work. There was a lot of individuals that would just come in and collect their paycheck, and just kind of roll with it.
Most of that's gone now. That's what I find happens in Alberta. It's going to come back in, you're just going to need bodies to fill chairs, to do projects. That type of thing is going to happen again, especially if oil pops up over $100 again.
But what a lot of people don't realize is that the spend that the oil companies have is actually deferred for a few years. So they're actually budgeting for two years ahead, based on what the oil is now. So even if it goes up to $150, it doesn't change much for them, because they're already set to spend the way that they are.
Len: Going back to your background and your career, that was a really interesting story about your parents. One thing I noticed looking you up on LinkedIn, was I didn't see any reference to sort of formal IT education. Talking about that is actually one of the unofficial themes of this podcast, because I talk to so many people who are in software and computers and from so many different backgrounds. Can you talk a little bit about that? Your training, did it come from working with your parents?
Dave: It did actually. So an interesting story - I learned what I did in the industry from my brother. He as actually the wiz kid with computers. I was the hockey jock. I would just hang out with him as he was coding Microsoft Access databases, or figuring stuff out. I was just kind of learning with him through osmosis. There was only the two of us in the family, so we were very, very close growing up. H showed me the ropes as to how to do a lot of these things. And then I was able to pick up and learn very quickly.
A really funny story back in the early 90s was, my brother and I, it's small town Saskatchewan, so you have to understand - these are different times. It's not like today where you think - I was a 12, 13 year old kid. He was 15. Neither of us could drive. There was a bid for the city of Prince Albert for IT support services. We won the bid for IT support services. We were supporting the payroll, tax roll, billing systems.
I remember that they had a Compaq ProLiant 7000 - this huge server that was in there. It was just a single server, it would run the entire city of Prince Albert. But it was running on an alpha chip set. And what happened was, Microsoft stopped supporting the alpha chip set. So then they had to get the engineers in from Compaq at the time to come swap this server up.
Can you imagine the look on that engineer from Compaq, coming into Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, having a 15 and a 13 year old kid sitting there, and having to show us what he was doing - because we were taking over for him. I always look back on that story. Going and pulling cable, I have no idea how we would've made it past workman's compensation today - a 13 and a 15 year old kid, up on ladders, pulling coaxial cable, showing people that they're actually not terminating ends properly.
That's the kind of thing that we did from a very, very early age. I think if we had grown up in the big city, that wouldn't have been possible, because nobody would've accepted that. But because we were in small town Saskatchewan, there is a little more leniency around it, because there is just nobody else to do the work. You couldn't just go fly somebody in from Toronto to come do this stuff. So when you have local resources, you used them and you supported them.
Now, understand that this was under the very watchful eyes of both my parents, who are chartered accountants by trade. So they knew that mom and dad were always looking out for things. If we would sell PCs or equipment, we weren't able to write checks - we would have to take the invoice into dad, and he'd have to check it and sign it off.
The same thing with ordering from suppliers - we would do all the work up to the point where we'd actually pay for stuff. So they would say, "Okay, make sure it's all set up and done properly." And they would help us, starting to work through getting our books. Although I didn't formally go away to get trained on this, I was kind of formally getting trained.
The other thing that happened with this was, when I was in grade four, going into grade five, my parents made the decision to pull us out of the public school system and home-school us. Now, it wasn't traditional home schooling you think of. We were on the front line. Home schooling wasn't popular and wasn't cool, like what it is right now.
The teachers in the public school system were not real happy that my mom and dad pulled us out. But they just didn't really like what was happening there. So they thought that they could do it better. And where we actually did our schooling was at the office. So we were at their firm. And side by side with their firm was the computer consulting store. So we really quite literally grew up around this.
Len: That's a really great story, thanks for telling that. One of the features I liked so much about it was the theme of - I suppose, scarcity of resources. That's why the city of Prince Albert needed you guys. And that's why - it sounds to me sort of why your parents, they couldn't just take you around to a bunch of different schools, because there probably weren't a bunch of different schools.
The school I went to in Rosthern that I mentioned, the small town of Rosthern, was created by Mennonite farmers, back in the 1910s, because they didn't like the local school systems either - not for particularly religious or ideological reasons; they just didn't think they were good enough.
And so you eventually moved to Calgary, like a lot of other people from Saskatchewan. Were you chasing opportunity, or just there wasn't enough around for you to grow where you were?
Dave: I'd gotten married in 1999. My wife moved to Saskatchewan. We were there for about a year and a half. We decided to head down the road of getting our Microsoft Certification. So instead of having gone away and formally taken the set of typical trainings, we actually flew in the trainers to come in and train us and our employees that we had at the time. Because my brother and I we're running a successful IT consulting company. We had local employees. It was cheaper for us to fly in the trainers, and bring them in to get certified.
So, we flew them in to get us certified. And then when we saw - they were like, "Hey, this would be pretty cool. I think we can teach. I think we can actually do this." And so we looked into the Microsoft Certified Trainer Program, to see what the requirements were. Basically you had to sit a special course, called "Train the Trainer." You could hire a contractor to come in and deliver that for you. Which we did. And so, shortly thereafter, after we had achieved our first set of certifications, we became trainers ourselves.
It was actually my wife that called around into Calgary, and she said, "Hey, I've got this young guy. He's really smart, and he just needs a chance." Because nobody wanted to give the new trainer a chance, especially a 20 year old kid coming in and, "What exactly do you know coming from Saskatchewan, to come talk to these big oil and gas companies?"
Eventually she found one. I think it was a company called Metaphor. And they said, "We're going to give you a shot." And so I thought, "Okay, well we'll do this class." This was adult education. I must've prepped for 80 hours for this 40 hour course, or even more. It must've been three weeks that I was prepping to deliver this one week course.
And when I showed up on the Monday morning, they had 18 people - seasoned IT professionals in this course. It was a big migration - migrating from Windows NT4 to Windows 2000, which was the new Microsoft flagship operating system at the time. I ended up rocking it. They loved it. And the feedback I got from the 17, 18 people - they said, "Hey listen, you know what? We love it. We learned a ton. We got exactly what we needed to out of the course. Please bring them back, we want to have them again."
And so it started with one, and then doing a few more like that. Eventually my workload started to shift, where I was on the road about 50% of the time, and I was actually commuting from Prince Albert to Calgary. I would leave on the Sunday afternoon, and I would get to Calgary at probably around nine o'clock. I'd stay at a friend's house, and then work the week, and then leave on Friday, come home on the Saturday, so really only seeing my wife for about 18 hours a week, which is pretty typical for people that work up north. Especially in Fort Mac, you work shift work - it was kind of like that, but put on about 60,000 kilometers on the vehicle that year.
We made the decision that it's time to make a bit of a change. So I sold the company to my brother, which he still runs today. It's called PA Software - it's very successful. I think they actually just had their 20th year anniversary. And then we moved to Calgary, and I haven't looked back since.
Len: I've got a couple of questions about the kind of work you do. Before I ask them though I should mention that Fort Mac is a reference to Fort McMurray.
If you want to learn about that- the best Canadian movie ever made is called Fubar II. Get that movie and watch it, and you'll understand everything you need to know about Fort McMurray and the oil industry, and working up north.
You mentioned getting Microsoft Certification, and I've got a relatively specific question. Which is that - I think in the popular imagination, everybody knows what a programmer is these days. They know from movies like Hackers, that you sit in front of a computer, and you drink a lot of coffee, and you type away. But can you describe the kind of work that you do?
Dave: Absolutely. I never went down that road of the developer side. There's kind of two different worlds that we have in IT. And we're working very hard to bridge these two worlds, because they are very different.
There is a development world, where you have the "coders." They're the ones that are going to take and drink a gallon of coffee a day, and never leave their office.
And then you have the operations side. The operations side is where I come from. We're the ones that will actually architect, design and configure these racks of servers. We provide the infrastructure so that the developers have something to code on. We make sure all the pretty little lights in the data center stay green, and that the businesses stay running, and the developers do all of the optimizations and business processing, coding around those applications that run those businesses.
Len: Are you actually like picking things up and putting them in place and hooking them together? Is that the kind of thing that you do?
Dave: I guess? I don't really do so much of that anymore. But that was a big part of what I did for a very long time. Once you get it - what we call racked and stacked, take it out of the box, put the rails on the server, put it into the rack - somebody needs to deploy the operating system on there, be it Linux or be it Windows. We would take care of that. We would get it to a point that it was viable for the business. And then we would look after all aspects of disaster recovery, upgrades, optimizations and so on. So that's kind of the stuff we would do.
Len: I've talked to a lot of people on the kind of development side, including project leads and things like that about their relationship with management. What's the relationship like between ops and management?
Dave: It's actually very, very close. Because typically what you'll have, is you'll have a head of operations, and you'll have a head of development, and they'll typically report directly up to an IT director, who will then inform the c-suites, where you'll have the Chief Information Officer, security officers, and all of those department heads will kind of roll up.
There has to be a very, very tight relationship there, because if we're not doing our job properly, and we're not able to provide a platform for them that allows them to deploy their code fast enough - they're slowed down, the business is impacted. And nobody wants to be the one that's getting their finger pointed at them, right?
I find that now, the levels of communication between these different departments is so much better than what it was 10, 15 years ago when I was breaking into this. There was a lot of head-butting.
For example, you didn't really go talk to the network team. You asked them what you wanted, you provided them with a list of requirements, and they would just make it sell. It provided some challenges, because if you made any mistakes with that, then stuff just wouldn't work. Whereas nowadays, everybody tries to get together to try to make sure that the projects run a lot more seamlessly.
And now we're into a real world of, the concept of touching a physical server is really going away. Now we're into cloud. Software-defined everything. So we've almost virtualized our job roles. We've virtualized ourselves. Now that networking engineer is really a quasi-developer/slash operations guy/networking guy. That's the big evolution that I've seen, is that you don't have one role anymore. If you're not able to wear those multiple hats, you're kind of useless to that organization, because you need to see the big picture.
For myself, I know that that's where I've had to evolve. Although I say I'm not a developer or coder, I've been training myself in learning PowerShell for the past 10 years or so. I still find that compared to a lot of my friends who are absolute - we'll call it - if you had to pick out of a scale of one to a hundred, they're like 97 out of 100 smart on this particular technology. I feel like when I talk to those guys, I may be at like 30. But I can do an awful lot with 30.
Everybody's got their different specialties that they have that they're really good at. What I always tell people is, find two things that you specialize in, that those are your go-to. What are the two things that you can absolutely know and understand like the back of your hand? And then everything else just becomes additional resources that you can draw upon; but you should also have at least a minimum of two that you're really, really good at.
Len: You talked earlier about flying people in to train you for the Microsoft certification, and I mentioned in the introduction that you're a Microsoft MVP. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what that is? What does it mean to get a Microsoft certification, or what did it mean back in the day when you did it? As you say, things have changed a lot. And what does it mean to be an MVP?
Dave: Two kind of different sides. The training and certification part is available for anybody. I think the only requirement is that you have to be, I believe, a minimum 1eight years of age or more to get certification from Microsoft. Don't quote me on that. I know that you you can't be like a 10 year old kid and go and write the exams. But I could be wrong on that too, maybe they've changed those rules as well.
But the general streams of training and certification have always been, especially for Microsoft, split into two different sides. There's been a developer stream of training, and then there's been an operations side of training. One was called the Microsoft Certified System Engineer or MCSE. And the other one was called the MCSD, or the Microsoft Certified Solution Developer. That was their realm that they had.
Those have always stuck around. That was what people would attain to try to prove that they knew what it was that they were talking about. And over the years, it changed a little bit, where companies weren't as interested in the fact that you had a Microsoft designation behind your name. They were more interested - can you actually do the work?
Just because you passed an exam doesn't mean that you're going to be proficient sitting at a console. We call them "book-smart engineers," instead of blood and guts support engineers who had actually been there and could actually fix something. Those organizations would change their interviewing policies, saying, "Hey listen, we're looking for somebody that can do x, and we want to know if you're capable of doing this. I don't want to know if you've just gone and read a bunch of interview questions or something like that, we want to actually know if you've done this. So here's a keyboard, do it."
You're going to find out real quick if somebody's fibbing a little bit on their profile if you do that. Because it was a waste of time for everybody, right? If you're going to come in and not be a viable resource inside of there, the HR personnel and head hunters, - they could only do so much in terms of pre-scouting and pre-qualifying that talent that they were bringing in. That was the one side of the certification.
Now it's changed a little bit over the last few years. Microsoft's totally revamped that program. They've come out with a new realm of certifications. There's new certifications now for Azure and AWS and a bunch of the cloud platforms. Those seem to be the really popular ones right now, because everybody is seeming to get a little bit of the taste of the cloud right now.
And then on the other side is the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional, or the MVP. If you go to my blog, www.checkyourlogs.net, you'll see a ton of content up there on technology or experiences in technology. This is stuff that we share freely with the community. It's kind of our gift to the IT community. Our intellectual property that's up there, we're not trying to shield this. We want to share.
That sharing-first mentality gets you noticed by a group at Microsoft, which is their community evangelists. That's how you end up getting that award. You can't actually apply for it. They give it to you as a recognition-based award. Once again, it's available to anybody, but it's a recognition based award, based on your blogs, based on your work in the community, public speaking, user groups, trying to empower and build the knowledge of those around you.
Len: That segues nicely into the next question I wanted to ask you, which was - one thing I think people who are unfamiliar with the lives of IT professionals might not know, is just how important it is in the industry to build communities, and for people to get together. It's also one of the unofficial themes of this podcast.
People often have a view that people in the IT world are very reclusive and anti-social. But that misses an entire, huge dimension of that life.
I wanted to ask you specifically about your work building communities. You founded an organization called MVP Days, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that?
Dave: One of the challenges that we faced - and this was kind of why MVP Days came to be - was Microsoft used to put on community user-based conferences. You wouldn't pay much to go to them. If you paid anything, it'd be like 50 bucks - and you'd go show up, and they'd feed you. But they'd give you two days of amazing content. They'd bring in speakers from all over Canada or the US. They would come to a central location, and it was kind of our community-based conference. It used to be called "Tech Days."
And through different changes in initiatives at Microsoft, and lack of funding for kind of community projects from these larger companies, there was a gap there of about four to five years where we just didn't have any community events coming through anymore. So we decided to get together ourselves, as a group of Microsoft MVP's, and say, "Hey, you know what, I think we can do this. I think we can source a venue. We already have a really great line on speakers. We've got a ton of friends that love to speak, because one of our commitments as an MVP is to get up and do public speaking.
But if you don't have a venue or a vehicle to actually do that, then how do you maintain your commitments to the program? So we were actually providing and creating speaking spots for these local MVPs that we had, so they can continue with the programs for Microsoft.
Because what we get in Western Canada, or Canada in general, is a lot different than what you see in the US - or there might be more opportunities to do that in US, just because of the population density. And so we created that.
The first run that we had was actually in Saskatoon. That was our very first city where we ran our first MVP Days event. It was a Western Canadian roadshow. We rolled through Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. We had a line-up of - I think there was around 20, 25 speakers that followed the roadshow around Western Canada, and over 90 sessions. The first run that we had, we talked to about 5,600 people.
It was so successful that the folks from Microsoft Canada got behind us, and they've supported each of the ones that we've done. They said, "Listen, we would like you to do this, but help us in Eastern Canada. Because there's nothing like this that exists in Eastern Canada either." So we branched out later that year, and we did Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto. That was our first year.
Now we actually run it as a monthly virtual conference, because we found that there were a lot of people that were outside of Canada that wanted to take part in this. And so, as it stands today, we run a monthly virtual conference. And then we splash in a few in-person events here and there. Along those lines, we piloted a few cities like Seattle. We did Atlanta, we did Orlando.
And now our platform and our framework is set up such that if somebody wants us to come in a live, in-person event and they run the local community user group, we can wrap our framework around that, and say, "Listen, you just have to find a little bit of funding for some flights for our speakers, and we can bring them in. We can bring in the platform. You find the venue, you find the people. We'll bring the speakers and the content for you." And that's kind of how we run it today.
Len: You produce a lot of content, you mentioned. I wanted to ask you specifically about when you started publishing books?
Dave: When we were talking earlier, in the introduction, I was talking a little bit about all of the work that we did for Microsoft internally. Those were the coolest projects that one could do, that sucked the absolute most. Because we were under strict NDA. None of the content could actually get released externally, but they were all books.
Yhe framework of this was actually training manuals, in the form of technical deep-dive books with access to internal, confidential Microsoft information that they would train their support engineers with. That would be probably 500 to 1,000 pages thick each.
We were part of teams that would put these together. So every time they would come out with a new operating system, they have to train their support teams, right? That goes on and on through all their different product suites. That's how we really got started.
It was really funny, because the team that we worked with at Microsoft the most was called the "Performance Platform Team." That was kind of a catch-all bucket - where nobody knew how to fix stuff, the performance team took it. And so trying to write content for them was a little bit of a challenge, but it was really good content that a lot of other teams liked.
So our first experience getting published externally, and not getting any credit for, because we signed our names away, was - we were at a Chapters, which is like a Barnes & Noble in the US, depending on where our viewership is from - and we saw this resource kit. It was, The Windows Vista Resource Kit. And it was so thick, it must have been 4,000 pages long. I was flipping through there, and I'm finding chapters that we'd written, like word-for-word inside there. And on the front it said, "And special thanks to the Performance Team at Microsoft." So that was our kind of our first real taste of seeing what it would be like to get published in book format.
Yhen we kind of dropped the whole book writing side of our business for probably a good six, seven years, and then we just recently picked it up within about the last two years or so. We found an independent publisher that helped us publish a book about two years ago. It was a little bit of a process to get that done, especially working through their editors. We didn't have priority with them. We had the content finished for six months. By the time the book was finished, it was another three months after that.
So now I've got technical content that's time dated by nine months. By the time that book launched, the entire thing was absolutely useless. We sold probably about 40 copies of it, because it was totally irrelevant. At that point in time, we were pretty defeated. There was a lot of work that went into that book, because we wanted it to be absolutely perfect. And to be able to not sell it, and not kind of get the credit due for it, it really hurt. It stung.
So we dropped writing books again for about another year. And then it was December of 2016. I decided that - no, let's pick this up but let's do it ourselves. So I did some research and I found CreateSpace with Amazon, and Kindle Direct publishing. That's kind of where we got our kick start. So in 2016 and 2017, I think we ended up publishing - one, two, three, four, five - six books on Amazon. And they were incredibly successful.
We moved close to 30,000 copies of our books. But the problem that we found once again, in working with Amazon, was we had absolutely no experience in Kindle format. So, understanding that a Kindle book is actually a glorified HTML web page that you're viewing. So formatting your book properly is actually kind of a really big deal. That was a huge learning curve for us. We've since figured out ways to outsource some of those components. But once again, it really slowed down our process.
And now with the Leanpub platform, we're able to publish our early stage PDF copies of our books for the content that we want to get out there right away, as we're working on building them into an ebook format; we're not slowed down. As soon as the content is ready -
I'll give you a really great case in point. There's new versions of Microsoft Systems Center that just released February 7th. We are already in the process of updating all of our books to the latest version.
We will quite literally be the first people in the world with books out on that particular product suite. And we'll probably be three, four months ahead of everybody. That's huge for us, because then what we do, is we take those books and we use them for consulting in our professional services practice.
Where somebody wants to take a look at our body of work that we can do, now what we do is we just point them straight at our Leanpub page, and we say, "Hey listen - that's your shopping cart. What do you want us to do? And we can give you something similar to that."
Len: Thanks for that great answer. That leads me to my next question - this is the part of the interview where we get a little bit into the weeds, where people who are really interested in self-publishing can learn important things about the different approaches that people have taken. And I wanted to ask you about your process.
One thing we noticed that's relatively unique in your approach, is that you'll do what we call a book writing purchase, where you pay to create a new book, and then bam, you add the data, like "About the Book" and the title and the authors and things like that. And then bam, you publish it. That's not the way most people do it.
You mentioned you outsource part of this process. I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about your strategy, and how it actually works?
Dave: I've got a team of guys. We're a small team with our organization, where we've got about probably four to six core members that we have. Two of them have worked with me for over 11 years. One's going on 15 years. So we've worked together for a long time.
Now as we do projects, what we do is we are smart about it. A lot of the books are driven out of our consulting practice. We've had to go flesh out a bunch of these technical details, and now we're getting a lot smarter in the way that we produce our content. To say, "Listen, if we take this format that we have that's viable for the book, and we generalize the content enough that we can kind of have two parallel versions - one for the client with their technical specifics, and one for the public to consume," it's a lot faster for us to go through and build these.
The second thing that we do is, our lab guides that we have are completely automated by PowerShell and powered by Microsoft Azure. So anybody can actually follow along with the books that we produce. But those are scripts that we probably have - I don't know? 3,000 man-hours into, trying to figure out a bunch of the working parts to automate. And so what that allows us to do is very quickly spin up an environment that we can now showcase a product that we can show and install, build, configure, deployment guide - that we don't have to go repeat a bunch of those steps again.
I look at writing books as a modular component. Because especially when we look at Microsoft publishing, most Microsoft products require a Microsoft SQL server. Well, if I get the module that shows you how to deploy the SQL server, I don't have to rewrite that module over and over again. It is relevant in the next book, but I can basically just plug in. I can take chapter two. Chapter two with deploying Microsoft SQL server is now universal. So now I can just plug that into the next book.
Well, that could be 60 pages of content. But it's completely relevant for somebody that's reading that book from start to finish, because they want to get the complete picture. They don't want to say, "Oh well, I showed you how to install SQL server in version one of my book, so please go buy version one of my book and I'll give you the complete picture." We don't believe in that at all. We want to give somebody a start to finish process.
Because the other thing that we've been doing with our books that we've been publishing, is we hand them to our customers at the start of the project and say, "Listen, we want you to be operationalized in this technology. Please follow along with our guide as we deploy this." So now, step-by-step as we're deploying things, does the general guidance that we would follow with our customers as well - they can actually pen through the book as we're going through and doing the deployment, saying, "Okay, yeah I get it." And they can actually be a little bit ahead of us, saying, "Listen, I checked page 47, I don't really understand that. What's going to happen when we do this?" And we can really fill in the blanks with them.
So publishing for us is a twofold exercise. Number one, it's getting the content to the community. Number two, it's a vehicle for our consulting practice as well. Because any consulting engagement, I need to train them on a technology that we've just put in. Now we're getting to training them on the fly.
Len: And what tools do you use in this process? You mention the PDF - you produce the PDF first. What tools are people using to do that and to collaborate in this way?
Dave: So in a sense of just creating the PDFs?
Dave: We've got Word document templates that we work backwards from. We've got a common template that everybody's very familiar with, the writing styles and things like that. Once you've done enough technical writing, there's a certain feel that you have for building technical content. And that's what we'll traditionally do.
The other thing that we do is we're not scared to pre-publish a book at 75% either. Because it might take us a little while to finish the other 25%. So that's another thing that we love about the Leanpub platform that you have, is you allow us to put a slider in there saying, "We're 75% complete." And we can update new versions as they come out to our subscriber base. Saying, "Hey listen, we just went through a big editorial pass, and we've cleaned this up. Please download your new PDF."
The awesome part about that is, we get a touch point back continually with our subscriber base. So that it's not just, publish a book, read it, okay, forget about the author, two years later come back to them. Now we have a constant point of contact with them. And we've picked up projects all over the world because of this.
One of my most recent projects that I have, is we're actually helping out a good size university in Saudi Arabia that was directly based off of them reading our book. They had some problems deploying their set of Microsoft technologies. They contacted us on Twitter, of all places. And they said, "Hey listen, we're stuck, we can't get this working. We read through your book. It looks like it'll fix some of our problems, but we're not comfortable doing it. We'd like to use some of your consulting services, time to fix this."
For me, that's the real utopia of writing books. We're not going to get - I would love to say I'm going to get rich off of writing books. But writing technical books - it's difficult to make a lot of money of them. The utopia for me is that we're able to help people - number one. Number two is - if I can pick up a couple of consulting services engagements out of it, then it's totally worth it, because it's free marketing for me.
Len: Thanks for that really great story that. In many ways, you're the kind of perfect Leanpub author with that description.
One of the origin stories of Leanpub is that when you're writing technical books, the people who want them, want them; they don't care if the book is complete, and they don't care if the book is perfect. They have a profound need, like you were describing with this organization in Saudi Arabia asking for your help.
And so if a book is 75% done, that's like, "Wow, 75%, let's get going. If this is going to help us solve problems or get over an impasse, we want the information as soon as possible."
And especially when things in the technology world evolve rapidly, the ability to get information without sitting behind a kind of - I would call it a print publishing legacy process, is really important.
Dave: Well and to that point, that process is horrible. That traditional process - trying to work with a publisher that's set in their ways. "Write your book chapter by chapter. Give us all the screenshot copies that you have in a separate file format. Now we're going to go through a technical editorial pass. But our technical editors aren't available till the next week. Then they'll spend a week editing that chapter. Then three weeks later you'll get it back. Then you have to get it turned around in a certain amount of time."
It's a really, really, really painful process. It's not like we're taking and authoring a novel where the chapter's done, and we'll go edit it. No - because by the time we circle all the way back around, you have to get your head back into the head space of chapter one to even write in that framework again. And it's really hard to pick stuff up over and over again. And it just slows things down.
Now, I understand that when you're writing a book and it's supposed to be fit and finished, and all the polish is supposed to be there, because it's going to sit on a book shelf, and Barnes & Noble or Chapters or your favorite library or wherever it is - there's a lot more work that goes into getting that finished in that sense. And so for us, what we do is we start with our books, and we're looking at Leanpub as the front wave.
You want our content right away? Here you go. If you want a print copy of our book, then within a certain amount of time after we get things to 100% completion with it, then what we'll do is we'll take that and we'll go to something like a CreateSpace at Amazon. CreateSpace at Amazon gives us an amazing vehicle to sell those print copies of the book as a self-publisher.
And now they're really nice for us when we go away and we do in-person conferences, because now somebody that's downloaded my Leanpub book - for example, in the PDF format - I can have now a print copy with the nice glossy cover that looks amazing. And I can say, "Here you go." You want something - we can sign it for you, we can give them away, we can sell them, we can do whatever at that point in time.
But the pressure's off us at that point in time. Because, once again, we treat the process of authoring books as not our main line of revenue. It's a channel of marketing and awareness and brand development. Because that is one of the biggest challenges that individuals will have when they start to work with communities. You have to build your personal brand. And the way that you're going to build your personal brand is having a tangible asset that somebody wants.
You want them to keep coming back. You don't want to just get them to download something once. You want them to do create a relationship with you, where they feel that, "Wow, I've got version one of his book, version two, version three - and now they're spawned off in these other things." That's a big part of it. Our goal with MVP Days Publishing was to try to teach other Microsoft MVPs how to author books.
And so in 2017, I think we had 10 first-time authors. So, 10 first-time authors that we helped publish their first books. And the smile that they had on their face when they got their proof copy from Amazon CreateSpace of their books, with their name on it - was pretty cool. Even if they only did a couple of chapters in it, they were helping with the process. And that's what that Master PowerShell Tricks series is, is there's a handful of us that are out in the field that just -
Let's say we've got ten great ideas? Well, take those ten great ideas. It doesn't make a book on its own. But five from you, ten from you, three from you, six from you - that can be compiled into something that's great. And that's actually been our most popular series that we've had to date, that Master PowerShell Tricks series. If I go back and check the numbers on Amazon - because we just started publishing that with you guys - I'm pretty sure we're well north of 20,000 copies that have either been sold or given away to the community.
We did one promotion. Amazon lets you do a few promotions a quarter. So we did one promotion where we gave away the entire series for free. We gave away 15,000 copies in two days. That was pretty cool, just to see it go viral. You just watch your sales numbers go [woosh]. And you see the bestsellers list on Amazon, and you're number one. You're number one, you're number one. Our books were one, two, three on Amazon inside of our category for Windows administration. Which was pretty cool, because there are some pretty big time authors in there.
Len: That's an amazing story, and congratulations on your success.
As I think people listening could gather from the strategy and years of work and experience behind it, it's not easier to get there most of the time. But when you do get there, it can be very rewarding.
My next question is usually my last question, but I'm going to save a special one for the end. If there was one thing about Leanpub that we could build for you, or one thing we could fix for you, what would you ask us to do?
Dave: We're pretty new with Leanpub right now, so I don't really have any complaints about the format. I think maybe having the ability to take and have multiple streams of videos on the book page would be handy. Because right now we can link in a single source of media from YouTube in there. But there might be different references to different chapters in the book that might be handy, and to be able to cascade those into maybe a frame-based view, where you could show maybe four videos in a different cross-hair view, saying, "Okay, you want to check out, let's say, let's hear one of my authors Thomas Rayner talk about this chapter in PowerShell. But I have a second author, and he'll tell you about this." For a multi-author segue, that would be pretty cool.
I don't really think that that would be a major development change. But that would be pretty neat to be able to have that, because sometimes there's more content that we want to get out there.
For myself personally, when I go to buy something, I want to watch a video on it first. I'm of that generation that I want to check it out, I want to do my research. And if there's a video there, I will click on the video link to see what it's about. I like that ability right now, but that's one thing that I would ask for in the future.
Len: Thanks for that really specific recommendation, I'll pass that along to the team. We're pretty small ourselves, and we've got a lot on our plate. But what we find is, the more information and the more content that you can provide before someone buys it - the more it helps you convert someone into buying it.
Even if they don't watch it, just knowing that you put in the effort to make a video or multiple videos, can really help drive sales and build confidence, and, as you were talking about, branding. Every piece of content you put out there helps build that brand, which is one of the very important things about both self-publishing and consulting as well.
My last question is - one of the things about growing up in Saskatchewan and liking hockey, is that you don't have a team locally to cheer for. I know you moved to Calgary, but a lot of people in Saskatchewan are fans of teams from across the country because of that experience growing up team-less. I've been a Habs fan my whole life. What team do you support?
Dave: So when I was in Saskatchewan, I was a huge Gretzky fan. I was a big time Edmonton Oilers fan. Then Gretzky got traded to LA. So then I became an LA Kings fan. And wherever he went, were my teams that I would really like. And now I'm a heart and soul Calgary Flames fan. Nothing makes me happier when the Vancouver Canucks come in, and Calgary could beat them at home, or Edmonton comes into town, and we can beat them at home.
Len: Thanks very much Dave. Our best wishes to the Flames for the rest of the season or next season.
And thanks very much again, for taking the time to do this interview. I learned a lot. I really enjoyed hearing about your process, and your background, which is an unusual and very interesting one. And thanks also very much for using Leanpub, and for being a Leanpub author.
Dave: Thank you very much for having me. It's my absolute pleasure to sit down with you today.