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Two world famous authors share their insights into IT and MS Office...
Interview by Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P.

 

This week, Stephen Ibaraki I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with the internationally known, and world famous writers/authors, Ed Bott and Woody Leonhard.

 

With two decades of trusted experience as a writer and editor, including at leading publications such as PC World, PC Computing, and Smart Business, Ed is one of the world’s most respected voices in computing. His coverage has included every version of Windows and Office. Ed won an international award of merit from the Society for Technical Communication for his book on security. He is a three-time winner of the Computer Press Association Award. And, for two consecutive years, he and Woody won the prestigious, Jesse H. Neal Award (the “Pulitzer-prize” equivalent for business writing) for their work on PC Computing’s Windows SuperGuide.

 

Woody has more than 20 book credits and is publisher of the very successful Woody’s Office Watch (WOW) e-newsletter. More than 500,000 readers subscribe to WOW and Woody’s Windows Watch e-zines. Woody has won eight Computer Press Association Awards, and the two Jesse H. Neal Awards with Ed. In addition, his team of cohorts are responsible for the top add-on to Office, “Woody’s Office POWER Pack.”

 

Ed and Woody have considerable influence and reach millions through their web sites, edbott.com and wopr.com. Amongst their most recent books is the readers’ choice, Special Edition Using Microsoft Office 2003.

 

Discussion:

 

Q: Ed/Woody, it’s a real pleasure interviewing you two. You both bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to our audience—thank you!

 

W: Thanks for the opportunity, Stephen.

 

E: Good to be here.

 

 

Q: Please provide a profile of your careers leading to the present. What motivated you to get into computing and writing? What challenges and lessons can you share with our audience?

 

W: I picked up a master’s degree in computer science in the late 1970s, spent five years in computer planning and security in Saudi Arabia, then moved back to Colorado and wrote a novel using this new-fangled computer program called Word for Windows 1.0. I had so many problems with WinWord (as we knew it back then) that I published a 280-page electronic book of bugs and workarounds. Many other writers were having problems, and several downloaded the book. One of the people who read that original Hacker’s Guide to the Universe asked if I would write a computer book for him – and that became my first meatspace book, Windows 3.1 Programming For Mere Mortals. I’ve written a couple dozen books since then, mostly covering Office, Windows, and programming.

E: I've been addicted to writing since I was a small child, and I've worked in publishing in one fashion or another since my days at UCLA in the early 1970s. Back then, programming a computer meant carrying a box of punch cards from one building to another, so I stayed far away from the science and engineering folks, preferring to focus on political science, debate, and communications. I bought my first IBM PC clone in 1983 and was immediately hooked on programming. Several years of editing consumer and technical magazines earned me the job at PC World as managing editor in 1987. I moved to the late, lamented PC Computing in 1991 and was named editor, but found after a few years that I still preferred writing. I wrote my first two books for Que's User Friendly Using series in 1995, on Office 4 and Windows 95. Today, it's pretty much all I do. Because I typically write books about new products, the biggest challenge is compressing an incredible amount of work into the short time between when a product first becomes available and when it is ready to be released to the public. That usually means a lot of long days and at least a few sleepless nights!

 

 

Q: What unique processes and qualities make for award-winning writing?

 

W: You have to understand the technology, and be able to explain what’s really happening without putting people to sleep. Much easier said than done.

 

E: That's right. It also helps if you can figure out where the reader is likely to make a wrong turn when trying to use a program. Any hack can write a book about how the software is supposed to work; the hard part is knowing where people are likely to get lost and helping them get back on track, quickly and without making them feel like a dummy.

 

 

Q: You must share your most interesting (often humorous) stories?

 

E: When I was writing my first book, I wasn't prepared for the intensity of the schedule and the deadlines, so I wound up working very late. Once, I fell asleep while working on a chapter, but apparently my eyes were open, my brain was still working, and my fingers continued typing. The result was a bizarre stream-of-consciousness narrative that my editor gently suggested I might want to rewrite!

 

 

Q: Who should read your latest book? Why would someone want to carefully study this book—what makes this book particularly unique and special?

 

W: I think Ed and I have put together the most complete, totally independent, guide to Office 2003 on the market. It’s geared to the intermediate to advanced user, and it explores many specific problems that are often neglected or glossed over in other books and the official documentation.

 

E: We figure someone who buys our book is smart enough to figure out the obvious stuff and to learn from the Help files how major features work. We enjoy finding the really cool and useful tips, tricks, and techniques that most people don't think of. We also try to explain the basic concepts underlying the programs in Office 2003, which aren't always obvious to a non-technical user!

 

 

Q: How have your experiences contributed to the writing of this book?

 

W: Ed and I have been using Office since... well, since before Office was Office. We’ve both contributed an enormous amount of school-of-hard-knocks practical advice, both on using features in general, and on solving specific problems that we’ve encountered.

 

E: After 4 million or so published words on Windows and Office, I think I've got the mechanics down. As Woody says, it helps that we use this software, day in and day out. When Microsoft releases the software to the public, we've usually been using it for our daily work – "dog-fooding it," in Microsoft-speak – for close to a year.

 

 

Q: What unique and useful features (in essence upgrades) are there in the 2003 versions of Outlook, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and FrontPage?

 

W: Outlook 2003 runs rings around any version of Outlook that has come before, with dozens of key improvements.

 

E: The spam-filtering and message sorting features in Outlook 2003 are absolutely amazing.

 

W: Excel and PowerPoint, in particular, benefit from the new collaboration environment.

 

E: The new Excel is particularly good at managing lists.

 

W: Access hasn’t changed much.

 

E: Where you particularly notice the differences with all the programs is on a business network with Windows 2003 Server. The ability to create SharePoint document libraries in that environment really makes it much easier to cooperate on shared projects.

 

 

Q: Which features don’t you like in Office 2003?

 

W: I’m still a fundamentalist. I don’t think Microsoft has done enough work on improving the fundamental features that we use every day. For example, it’s still deucedly difficult to send a message or letter to a specific subset of your Contacts – a Christmas card list, say.

 

E: I think Word is an amazingly powerful program that is still too complicated for most people to understand without technical training. The interrelationship of styles, templates, outline levels and formatting is incredibly confusing, and I wish Microsoft could do a better job of helping people "get" that. 

 

 

Q: Can you comment on working with the Internet using Office 2003?

 

W: Microsoft has woven the Internet so tightly into Office 2003 that if you aren’t connected, you’re working at a significant disadvantage.

 

E: I agree. The ability to download new templates and clip art is built right into every program. If you have a Web site or a SharePoint server, you can open, edit, and save files directly from the server, without having to go through transformations on your own computer first.

 

 

Q: Any predications about the future of Microsoft Office and new features we will see?

 

W: One predication’s for sure: Microsoft will continue to leverage its monopoly on the desktop back to the server – sell more server software as an adjunct to Office - and offer more “value added” services inside Office to maximize its income.

 

E: Fortunately, they're doing an awfully good job of making those two sides work together, so the results should be pretty attractive to anyone in business.

 

 

Q: Do you have a few particular “little known secrets” to share?

 

W: If you start Outlook with Word as your email editor, then start Excel, press Alt+F12, click the File menu and hold your breath until it hurts... oh, I guess that one’s pretty well known already, isn’t it?

 

E: Well, the Office 2003 Student and Teacher Edition costs $149 (US) or less, includes the four key Office programs, and allows you to install it on three computers in your home. And you don't have to prove that there's a student or teacher anywhere in your household to install it. Pretty great deal!

 

 

Q: Can you describe future projects, books, and articles?

 

W: The free Woody’s Watch ezines are expanding as our readership’s needs change. We have half a million subscribers now, and their concerns are quite different than they were just a couple of years ago. Keeping up with their demands – and holding Microsoft’s feet to the fire – continue to be my primary pre-occupation.

 

E: I'm just getting ready to begin working with the next version of Windows, code-named "Longhorn," which is still more than two years away from release!

 

 

Q: Any predictions about specific technologies, future trends, winners and losers; “killer apps?”

 

W: It pains me to see a great application like OneNote tied to a boat anchor technology like tablet PCs. Tablets still have a long way to go. I hope that OneNote is still around.

 

E: Here's one place where Woody and I just plain disagree. I have a Toshiba Portege 3500 Tablet PC, and I absolutely love it. Sure, the technology needs a little refinement, but it's been a major productivity enhancer for me. OneNote is great on a Tablet PC.

 

 

Q: What are the hottest areas in IT? Which skills and knowledge sets must businesses and IT professionals have to remain competitive? How will these evolve over time?

 

W: IT fads come and go, but the ability to understand and explain complex technologies, and the willingness to tell the plain truth are traits that will never go out of style. IT professionals need to learn to tell their bosses what they need to hear – not what they want to hear.

 

E: I've got one word for you: Security. If you can keep bad guys out of a network, you can write your own ticket.

 

 

Q: What are your top ten recommended references and resources for business people and IT professionals?

 

W: Top on my list is the free Woody’s Watch ezines, of course www.woodyswatch.com. Time spent learning how to use the Knowledge Base and Google (particularly Google Groups, which is overlooked far too often) is time well spent.

 

E: I don't think there are 10 general-purpose reference sources anymore. The ability to use tools that can aggregate content from a variety of sources into convenient summaries is more important than anything else.

 

 

Q: Where do you see yourself in two, five, and ten years?

 

W: Right where I am now – on the beach in Phuket, Thailand.

 

E: Writing about Windows and Office and computer security.

 

 

Q: Describe your computer setup?

 

W: Windows XP peer-to-peer network with six machines, 802.11g wireless hub, and (heavens be praised!) 256K ADSL.

 

E: I build most of my own computers. My main machine is a 2GHz P4 with 2 gigabytes of RAM (no, that's not a typo!) and four hard disks. I also have a test machine that I install stuff on and wipe clean every so often so I can start over, a big Dell server running Windows 2003, and an amazing program called VMWare that allows me to create "virtual machines" that can simulate a computer for testing purposes. I've got a pair of 19-inch flat-screen monitors on my desktop so that I can always see what I'm working on and what I'm writing about without having to switch away. I'm connected to the Internet via a zippy cable modem with a router and firewall keeping everything secure.

 

 

Q: If you were to do it all over again?

 

W: I’d move to Thailand sooner.

 

E: I would have tried to meet my wife Judy 10 years earlier.

 

 

Q: If you were doing this interview, what three questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?

 

W: Here are the three questions I hear most often: Why do you work so hard? (A: I have this thing about survival.) Is Microsoft really as bad as people say? (A: No. Except in a few cases.) What do I need to do in order to become a computer book writer? (A: I don’t really know, but… are you really sure you want to?)

 

E: Do you know Bill Gates? (A: We've met, but he's never invited us over for dinner, darn it.) Why are Windows and Office so hard to use? (A: Want to try Windows 1.0, circa 1986? We've come a long way, baby!) How many cats do you have? (A: Two. Katy and Bianca are amazingly smart and affectionate, and I make sure that both of them get into every book I write. You can see for yourself how hard Katy works by looking on page 132 of Special Edition Using Office 2003!) 

 

 

Q: Ed/Woody, thank you for sharing your many hard-won insights, considerable knowledge, in-depth wisdom, and fine humor with our audience.

 

W: You betcha.

 

E: My pleasure.

 

 

 


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