CIPS CONNECTIONSINTERVIEWS by STEPHEN IBARAKI, I.S.P.
World-renowned writer, author, journalist, publisher, humorist, Internet and technology expert
This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Randy Cassingham, a world-renowned writer, author, journalist, publisher, humorist, Internet and technology expert.
With more than 200,000 subscribers in over 190 countries, Randy is author and publisher of the highly successful newsletters and websites, This is True (ThisIsTrue.com), the True Stella Awards (StellaAwards.com), Heroic Stories (HeroicStories.com), and The Spam Primer (SpamPrimer.com).
With a degree in journalism from California’s Humboldt State University, Randy has explored a number of careers including photographer, freelance writer (articles, fiction, and screenplays), editor, publisher, paramedic, search and rescue sheriff’s deputy, process engineer, business consultant, software engineer, and speaker.
As an international expert of the Dvorak Keyboard, Randy has served as a technical advisor to the American National Standards Institute’s (ANSI) keyboard standard committee. In addition, he worked for the prestigious NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for ten years starting with the Space Station Project, editing and publishing the satellite communications technical journal SATCOM Quarterly, working with the flight project mission operations office, publishing the Lab’s “strategic vision” for future information systems, working with JPL’s Intelligent Vehicle Highway System, and finishing as a software and process engineer for the JIT material acquisition project.
Q: We are very fortunate that you have taken time from your demanding schedule for this interview—thank you!
A: My pleasure.
Q: You have an incredible and varied history. Please share stories from your many past careers that made an indelible mark on your life. What obstacles did you face and how did you overcome them? What lessons do you have for our audience?
A: I think it’s vital for a writer to have a varied background. I come from a solidly middle-class family, but my paramedic and law enforcement background showed me a lot of other aspects of life, some of which can be pretty uncomfortable to see — on both sides of the social and economic spectrum. By working in a number of diverse fields, I’ve been able to see connections between things that others might not notice. It helps me not only in a business sense, and in the way it enriches my life in general, but also increases the potential for humorous insights, which This is True relies on quite extensively. My work experience has essentially been an extension of a typical university curriculum — there’s intense concentration on a couple of subjects, but a bunch of “general education” courses are also required to round out your education.
It’s beyond simply being “smart” to do: it’s absolutely critical to my success. I not only create the content in True and TSA, but I run the business aspects too. If I had to hire people to do all the things I do myself, especially during the startup years, there wouldn’t have been any money left over for profit — which is exactly the problem so many “dotcoms” had.
Q: Any funny stories?
A: I laugh like crazy about those failed dotcoms. Some of them had great ideas (though not very many of them), but they were destined to fail by focusing only on the short-term payoff that might come from an IPO. They tried to convince people that “it’s different online”. Yeah, some things are different online — I’ve been online since 1982, so I know that very well — but not the fundamentals of what makes a business work. I just rolled my eyes at their claims and got back to work — and watched as they all fell dead at my feet when, at the same time, I had record revenues every year, even the meltdown year of 2001. Those who had realistic business plans, like Best Book Buys (now BestWebBuys.com) come to mind: terrific ideas with long-term strategies. Those are among the few that are still here, still profitable, and still privately owned by their founders.
Q: What was the attraction in becoming a ham radio operator?
A: Pretty much it’s the same thing that attracted the pioneers to the Net: it’s a “free” way to communicate long distances using tons of nerdy technology. Plus, it’s one of the only communications mediums that still work in major disasters, which is why when an earthquake or hurricane strikes somewhere, very often the media has to quote the only ones able to communicate out of the disaster area: local hams. Since I do a lot of volunteering for disaster organizations like the Red Cross, I know first hand that ham radio is still an extremely useful medium.
Q: Describe your work with ANSI and your expertise with keyboards?
A: I got into journalism because I liked to know about things, and my education taught me how to learn about those things. When I heard there was a better keyboard than the common “Qwerty” layout I was intrigued, but couldn’t find much information about it. That piqued my interest, and I ended up researching it so much that it resulted in my first book, which was published just after I graduated from journalism school. To make it easier for others to get the basics, I created a micro-site on the keyboard (Dvorak-Keyboard.com). The Dvorak layout enables me to type much faster; I had topped out at 55 wpm on Qwerty, but can type at over 100 wpm on Dvorak, and it’s easier on my hands — I have no carpal tunnel problems even after years of working seven 10-12 hour days every week. As a writer, that’s a critical advantage. Anyway, when the ANSI committee needed to update the Dvorak standard, they had some questions about how it’s used in the real world, and by virtue of my having “written the book” on the subject they came to me. I’m also the one who is responsible for the Dvorak layout being added to Microsoft Windows.
Q: How did that come about?
A: A Seattle-based friend of mine who teaches typing, including Dvorak layouts (Linda Lewis of Keytime.com), knew a lot of people at Microsoft, and heard they were working on a huge new rewrite of Windows — version 3.0. Windows was the bane of Dvorak users at the time since it disabled the keyboard filters we used to swap our keys around. I was coming up to Seattle to visit Linda, and she used my presence as an excuse to get a meeting together with the Windows keyboard team. We convinced them they needed to add Dvorak, as well as its one-handed variants for handicapped typists, and to their credit they agreed to do so. I then offered to be a beta tester. They called back later to say that there were so many Dvorak users at Microsoft, including Chief Technologist Nathan Myhrvold, that they didn’t need beta testers for that aspect!
Q: Detail your experiences while at NASA working with the best minds on the planet.
A: It was an incredible experience. I prefer working for myself, but if you have to work for someone else JPL is a terrific place to do it! Some of the most interesting aspects fit into my communications background — I did technical publishing for their satellite communications group for several years. Very nerdy stuff: JPL does a lot of communications research since it’s the NASA center that launches probes to the outer planets. The typical deep space probe has a 60-watt transmitter, and they have to stream back huge amounts of data 3 billion miles back to Earth. What an awesome challenge! As a comparison, the transmitter in a typical police car’s radio is 110 watts so they can talk across town.
JPL enabled me to utilize my preferred working style: I like to dabble in a lot of different things. Among other things I worked on a flight project (space station), pure technology (satellite comms), and I finished up on in-house business processes, doing software engineering for a completely revamped procurement system. Not bad for a guy with a journalism degree, and what a way to learn a lot of different ways of doing things.
Q: Tell me more about your flagship column, This is True.
A: It actually started at JPL! Most people pin up cartoons on their bulletin boards at work. Not me: I pinned up weird articles from the newspaper. But just pinning up articles isn’t enough for me, so I hand-wrote comments on them. It got to the point where I’d pin up a new batch and go back into my office, and within five minutes someone had noticed the new additions and a crowd gathered around to read them. My secretary begged me to write a column and give the items wide distribution. About the same time — this came to a head in 1994 — the Net was starting to take off, and one night I sat bolt upright in bed with the realization that I could connect my interest in weird news with the growing power of the Internet to create a new career. (See what I mean by having a varied background so you can make vital connections?!) I instantly knew that this was my ticket out of Los Angeles, which was a goal since I absolutely hated the smog, traffic, crowds and violence of L.A. My gut told me that it would take me about 2 years to make the transition to working on True full time, which is to say I’d be getting enough income from it that I could leave my Day Job. Almost two years to the day later, I quit JPL and moved to Colorado, and I’ve never looked back. But I do miss a lot of the people there; as you say, some of the best minds on the planet are there.
Essentially, This is True is a compilation of 7-9 very short weird-but-true news items that I’ve rewritten out of newspapers from all over the world, each ending with a brief bit of social, ironic, or humorous commentary. There are two versions people can subscribe to online: a free one, with four of the stories plus some other fun content. And, second, those who really enjoy the content and want to support it can pay $20/year and get all the stories, and without the outside ads.
Q: Please describe your other websites and publications: purpose, content, readership, future objectives, evolution, business model, revenue streams.
A: I think True’s revenue model is quite interesting, if I may say so myself. In addition to the Premium (paid) subscriptions and ads in the free edition, I sell book compilations through my web site; they especially sell very well around Christmas time! Several newspapers also buy the column for their pages (the first one being in Canada, but they dropped it when the exchange rate got too far out of whack). By combining several revenue streams I’m not dependent on any one of them, so when online advertising took a major nosedive in 2001 it didn’t kill me at all — I had plenty of other places to fall back on while I came up with new strategies. Meanwhile, most other online publications failed.
The other main site is the True Stella Awards. Most of us in the online world have heard of the “Stella Awards”: they’re a list of ridiculous lawsuits, purportedly written up to illustrate the abuse of civil litigation. The problem is, all of the cases in that urban legend e-mail that has been going around for years are all fake — completely made up. I thought it was ridiculous to use falsified evidence as a discussion driver for a real problem so, since I was already doing a lot of research for True and sometimes featured stupid lawsuits there, I knew I’d be able to find plenty of actual cases of lawsuit abuse that could drive public discussion. As a result, and because the StellaAwards.com domain was (astoundingly enough!) available, I grabbed the domain and launched TSA last year. It has been getting pretty good growth, even though I never bothered to send out a press release:I registered more than 45,000 subscribers in its first year.
HeroicStories started as a spin-off of my “Honorary Unsubscribe” in True, which is essentially an obituary of someone interesting who died recently. My favorite type is someone who had a big effect on our lives, but we have no idea who they are. A supreme example is Reynold B. Johnson. I'm sure even your readers are saying "Who?", but Johnson, who worked for IBM, not only invented the hard disk, he also invented the method of putting video tape into cassettes (not a mean accomplishment: have you ever seen the path video tape takes through the recording heads?!), and the bubble test forms that you fill out with the ubiquitous #2 pencil. One guy did all of that and more, creating enormous impact on us all, yet hardly anyone has ever heard of him. HS was designed to tell those kinds of stories without having the subject die first. It’s sort of the opposite of True, where you read about stupid people doing stupid things. What an inspiration to read about real people doing cool things! After it was up and running, in 2003 I turned HeroicStories over to another publisher who shared my vision for it so I could devote more time to TSA.
I also have a number of “micro-sites” that make it easier for people to find information when looking for something specific, like the Dvorak Keyboard site I mentioned earlier. Another is “Get Out Of Hell Free” (GOOHF.com), a viral marketing site that also spun off of True. One of my readers told me I was going to hell for a story I wrote, so I responded by coming up with a GOOHF card, a parody of the Monopoly “Get Out Of Jail Free” card. When I told the readers the story, and offered to send them 10 cards for a buck to cover printing and postage, they went wild for them. They didn’t order 10, they ordered 50, 100, 500! And they all have my URL on them, which is why I consider them a form of viral marketing. We added t-shirts and stickers for Christmas 2002, and it’s become a mini-industry in itself. Playboy was so fascinated by the concept they wrote about it, reproducing the card at larger than life size!
The last major micro-site is the Spam Primer (SpamPrimer.com). I publish True by e-mail, and by 1996 I realized that spam would become a big, big problem. So I decided that it was important to educate my readers about it, telling them why it was such a bad development in the online world and giving them some pointers on how to deal with it. A few readers wrote to say I was exaggerating, that it wasn’t such a big problem. I said “just wait”. And it’s still going to get worse, I think, before it gets better.
Q: With so many activities, how do you divide your time?
A: That certainly is a major challenge. I don’t hesitate to take time out whenever I want to relax or do other things, but I do work every day, and I work a lot of hours every day. On the other hand, I really, really enjoy the work I do, so I don’t mind the long hours. Why take time for “recreation” when most of my work tasks are recreation in themselves?!
Q: What makes a story interesting?
A: The usual answer to this question is that the reader can relate to it. For the kinds of stories I write, however, I think the answer is a story where the readers say to themselves, “Gee, and here I thought I was screwed up. But I’m certainly not that dumb!” Yet there is still a touch of relating there! While in general I mean for my writing to be entertaining, it’s definitely not always supposed to evoke a laugh. If it prompts a laugh, great, but it’s equally valid for me to evoke outrage, or action, or (best of all) simply make people think and come up with new insights, since otherwise the act of reading is too passive for my tastes.
Q: For aspiring writers, any tips?
A: Besides having massively wide-ranging interests and education, the most important tip is to write, which seems obvious but apparently isn’t. I’ve done writer’s conferences and workshops and have found that most “writers” simply aren’t. They love to talk about writing, but they’re not actually doing it. If they put as much effort into writing as they do talking about it, they’d actually be writers! But they excuse their lack of action by saying they have “writer’s block” or otherwise just can’t write. I don’t believe in writer’s block. To me, that really means “I either have nothing important to say, or I have no clue about how to say it.” Real writers simply don’t have that problem.
Part of it is since we all learned “to write” in school, too many people think it’s easy and they should be able to be writers. Well, we all learned finger painting too, but how many of us can make a living as an artist? I sure can’t. The wanna-bes need to grasp that “knowing how to write” and “being a writer” are hugely different concepts. A word processor is not the most important writing tool!
Q: Can you describe future projects, articles, and books?
A: I am indeed working on a Stella Awards book, but my main goal right now is to slow down a little. I don’t have any plans for new publications, but I’d like to expand on some of my thoughts a bit in books, and enjoy myself more.
Q: Your opinions on the Internet — any predictions about specific technologies, future trends, winners and losers; “killer apps?”
A: Despite the obvious setbacks in the war on spam, e-mail has always been, and will continue to be, the “killer app” online. Yes, spam will get worse before it gets better, but we’re already well beyond the point where something needs to change so that users can take back the control over their own inboxes. Whether that change is strong federal anti-spam legislation or a complete re-work of the mail transfer protocol, e-mail is far too important to give it up to scumbags who steal resources to pitch fraudulent offers at people who have made it clear they’re not interested. Filters are a sorry interim solution, with far too much real e-mail being blocked and far too much garbage getting through. We have lost some battles, but the war against spam is one that users must win.
Q: You are considered the most successful Internet publisher. What allows you to reach such a diverse global audience? Please share your top tips for successful publishing and distribution on the Internet. Which skill sets are required?
A: Again, breadth is not just smart, it’s required, because one word you said is key: publisher. Everyone has heard the adage about the “power of the press”, often said with the caveat that you have to own a press to have the power. In the old days, printing presses were so expensive they were out of the reach of regular people. The Internet, however, is essentially a “free” printing press that any idiot can operate (here we go, talking about spammers again!) But remember that word, “publisher”. Yeah, the Internet gives you the “right” to publish, but way too many people forget about the responsibilities that go with that right: just because you’re an individual publishing from your spare bedroom doesn’t mean you aren’t liable for huge damages if you infringe someone else’s copyright, or libel someone. You can bet that will be a ripe area for future lawsuits, and they’ll rarely be “Stella Award” material since the plaintiffs will usually be right — copyright is valuable, and if you infringe it you have caused damage. And defaming someone? Things published online are forever, and if you truly defame someone you better be ready to face the very real consequences of your actions.
So once you have that in mind, your challenge is then to publish something that people will want to read. Luckily, the Net is big enough that you should be able to find an audience for just about any niche publication if you can write about it well. To do it for a living, though, takes a really top-notch talent — much more than simple writing ability.
Q: You receive hundreds of e-mails daily. What are the common themes? Share some of your most interesting e-mails.
A: I get lots of “This is True is fantastic” mails, which I love and never tire of. But it’s a lot more fun to get some idiot ranting over something he or she thinks I said, but probably didn’t. It’s absolutely astounding to watch the babblings of people who truly choose to be offended. For instance, I’ll talk about how I got a bunch of letters from dumb readers, and a bunch of letters on the same subject from intelligent, insightful readers. Invariably, someone will write and say how offended they are that I called them dumb. Well, if they choose to lump themselves into the dumb crowd instead of the intelligent one, who am I to argue? Since True is essentially about stupid people doing stupid things, I consider publishing such letters to be part of the entertainment that the publication offers, and the majority (the smart ones!) just eat it up. A great recent example of the phenomenon is at http://www.thisistrue.com/milbrat.html — I don’t really have to respond to the fools, since my readers will let them have it much more strongly than I ever would. And I just sit back and enjoy it with the rest of them.
Q: How does your family view your international reputation?
A: I know they’re proud of my ability to make a living doing what I want to do, but all in all I’m sure they think of me as a regular guy; I’m just Randy …who happens to have a big worldwide audience and now and then goes on TV or gets interviewed by newspapers and magazines. They do a fine job of making sure my ego doesn’t inflate, which really isn’t a worry anyway — I’ve seen far too much of the “real world” to let things go to my head, and I do realize how privileged I am to have opinions that others find valuable enough not only to read, but to support with their subscription dollars.
Q: If you could go back in time, what would you change?
A: Not much. I’d probably save more money, since I think the economy will be at least somewhat unsettled for years to come, and a financial “cushion” sure lets you relax. I’m not as relaxed as I’d like to be.
Q: Where do you see yourself in two, five, and ten years?
A: I don’t really want to change much. I’ve been doing True for nearly 10 years, and I still love it, and I still have plenty to say through it even though my forum is somewhat constrained by its format. I’m having a hell of a lot of fun, so why change anything? But at the same time, I would like to take more time off, maybe by hiring out some of the work I do, such as my research. I hope to be at that point next year or so.
Q: Describe your computer setup?
A: It’s pretty basic; I just need reliable (and quiet!) Word processors and browsers don’t take a lot of horsepower, but I switched to a flat panel display to get rid of the CRT flicker, and I have the most ergonomic keyboard money can buy since I’m pounding on it so much. I live in a very remote area, so to get broadband I had to go satellite. Since my computer is my lifeblood, I tend to get a new one every three years or so; if it starts getting flaky, it’s outta here!
Q: Any career advice? Where are the jobs in the future?
A: I don’t know where the jobs might be, but I think attention to detail will be the key for most careers. People are getting fed up, and rightly so, by lousy service. Companies who just don’t care, or force you into “voice mail jail”, will suffer at the hands of competitors who go the extra mile to provide good service. When every job opening has 5, or 50, or 500 applicants, companies are able to be much more selective about who they hire. Are they going to hire some uneducated idiot who doesn’t care about their work, or are they going to hire someone who takes initiative and makes customers happy, and thus brings in more value than his salary costs? The people who got signing bonuses and stock options during the heady dotcom days will either have to learn to get over themselves and get back to basics, or they’ll forever be lamenting what coulda been, if only.
Q: What do you feel are the top five hottest topics of interest to both businesses and IT professionals today?
A: Reliability is key, in all its aspects. Security, both of data and resources (think Trojans that hackers use to remotely launch spam or DOS attacks). Identity theft will become a hot button, and companies will have to show they are serious about protecting their customers (and the government will have to strengthen laws and enforcement; identity theft should be a felony, pure and simple). Customer service. In short: a simple return to basic values, since people are getting tired of being ignored and treated badly.
Q: In your work, which top ten resources do you use most often and why?
A: Google, Google, Google, Google, Google, Google, Google, Google, Google and Google. Seriously. Talk about getting it right! When a reader says they heard a great story on the radio that would be perfect in True, I can usually find it using Google News. When I need to learn more about some specific topic so I can write about it intelligently, I use Google. It’s an awesome tool for any writer.
Q: If you were doing this interview, what three questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answer?
A: Q1: What resource do you wish you had when you got started?
Q2: What makes True so popular?
Q3: What are you most proud of?
Q: Randy, we will continue to follow you work with interest. Thank you for sharing your considerable knowledge and experiences with our audience.
A: You had some great questions; you made me think. From me, that’s a very high compliment indeed.