Careers: Interviews
Online Strip 'User Friendly' Author

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with the world renowned, J.D. “Illiad” Frazer. J.D. is the force responsible for the hit Online Strip 'User Friendly', a long running daily strip that played a significant role in popularizing the medium. User Friendly is a classic of the Linux genre and is available at http://www.userfriendly.org

Discussion:
Q: J.D., thank you for being with us here today. Your experiences and insights would be of great interest to our audience.

A: My pleasure. I think what I can offer is a litany of how not to do things – I learned how to do things the right way by making all the mistakes first!


Q: You have done so many things. How would you describe yourself? Can you provide a summary of your background?

A: My background is eclectic, as you’ve mentioned. I suppose it has to do with my interest in so many areas, from science and politics to odd philosophical tangents. I went to university seeking a degree in Criminology since I had considered joining the RCMP, and quite probably would’ve ended up in either their computer crimes division or as a member of the dog squad. I decided against that career path after a couple of years and tried Geology, and later Classical Studies. There’s not much you can do with the latter degree except teach or say “would you like fries with that?” in Latin.

In any case, I left university after several years due mostly to financial pressures. I had a deep interest in computer technology since I was ten or eleven years old and learned how to code using punch cards on an old HP minicomputer. I never liked the feel of the thermal paper.

When I fell into the labour pool, I found that I could pick up work as a technologist fairly easily. And the funny thing is I never considered myself a true technologist. I’m good with technology, and I’m not afraid of it, but I don’t see myself as a coder or sysadmin.

Anyway, after a truly checkered employment history (game designer, corrections officer, art director, publisher…) I landed back in the tech market. It turns out that I had the experience and skills necessary to be a pretty good project manager. I ended up working for Western Canada’s largest ISP during the halcyon 28.8k days and was in charge of building the company’s Web Services business unit. It didn’t take long for me to turn it into a lucrative profit centre.

After some buyouts and mergers and other acquisitions that made my head spin, I became a partner in a boutique ISP. From that ISP came User Friendly, my first Web published comic strip.

Like I said: eclectic.


Q: You enjoy SF. What are your favorite authors?

A: By far, Joe Haldeman ranks at the top of my list. His writing is timelessly relevant, and his stories always make you question the way things are. Tied for second place I’d have to say Larry Niven, Robert Heinlein and Jerry Pournelle. A close third would be Frank Herbert. All of these authors are masters of their craft; they’ve taught me a lot about writing simply by showing me how it’s done well.


Q: Exploring old bookstores—tell our audience more?

A: The first area I head for is the old book section. Classics from the 19th to early 20th centuries in leather binding decorated by master bookbinders are treasures to me. After that I visit the military history section, mostly because I believe we can learn the most about ourselves by examining the history of human conflict. Then I lighten up and head to the SF shelves. I never can walk out of a used bookstore without spending at least twenty dollars.


Q: You have made many contributions to the industry. Can you describe your experiences at an ISP? Share your history in this area, some stories and lessons you learned?

A: Most of my experiences I think are quite common. The tech industry has a customer base that is rife with the “hurry up and wait” mentality. As either a service or knowledge provider, the importance of your schedule ranks far below the schedule of the clientele or, occasionally, your vendors. Top that off with conflicting technology “standards,” a corporate culture that commonly denigrates the technical workers, and a constantly steepening learning curve, and you wonder why people even bother.

Of course, the answer to that is incredibly simple: techies love technology. Being able to make a living from doing what you love is a reward in itself. There’s a distinct psychological high obtained from solving a difficult technical problem, or discovering a new method or technical process.

My own experiences run the gamut: I’ve faced particularly galling days providing obstinate customers technical support over the phone as well as days where I feel like I’m on top of the world because I had such a firm handle, no matter how briefly, on a project.

The one story from my ISP days that I will never be able to forget has to do with the much-hated tag that Netscape Navigator propagated during the Web’s early years. A customer phoned me complaining about a Web page that her “friend’s son” built for her. She gave me the URL and I went to the site. Sure enough, the entire page was blinking on and off; I felt a cranial aneurysm coming on and closed the browser window, but not without opening a window showing the source. There were tags scattered everywhere, and I explained this to the customer. She was quiet for a few moments, then thanked me and hung up. I had a funny feeling she was going to be calling back, and soon.

My prescience proved itself and the phone rang again about ten minutes later. She sounded irritable, and demanded “another solution.” I was puzzled, because I hadn’t offered her one. I simply told her that the page was filled with tags and that’s what was causing her page to behave in that manner. She was quiet for a few moments again, then she asked in a rather embarrassed tone, “So, you mean I shouldn’t be trying to read the page by blinking my eyes in sync with it?”

In a very odd way I kind of miss those days.


Q: What path led you to ‘User Friendly,’ what role do you play with userfriendly.org, and provide some highlights in this aspect of your career? You must have many experiences to share?

A: I had always cartooned. I started when I was about twelve years old, and really enjoyed telling jokes in a visual manner. Wit is one of those things you need to keep honed or it’ll dull over time, and constant writing and cartooning served as my whetstone. By high school, I was drawing a mostly daily strip that played on high school life. In most of my other occupations I had zinged off a few dozen cartoons about those particular work sectors. It was only natural for me to start a cartoon strip set in an ISP; it was an excellent way to blow off steam.

I was convinced by my partner to throw the strip up on the Web, and in a matter of months User Friendly had a readership in the tens of thousands. By the end of 1998 the site was serving millions of page views a month. This was all done by word of mouth; not one cent was spent on marketing.

I have had quite a few memorable moments in my five-plus years of working on User Friendly: I was approached by a very large book publisher, completely unsolicited; my first cartoon compilation hit #8 on Amazon.com; I discovered with much surprise that I had readers on every continent, including Antarctica; I was staggered to discover that my worldwide readership was greater than a lot of syndicated strips; I was approached four times by two different syndicates, a particularly satisfying vindication given that I was refused by every one of the big syndicates several years prior to UF; the list goes on, and I continue to be surprised by new developments that come out of the blue.

I think the finest moments were when I had the opportunity to meet the fans. I have the good fortune of having readers that are not only intelligent and discriminating, but outspoken as well.

My role at userfriendly.org is multi-faceted. I produce the daily cartoon of course, and write regular articles addressed to the audience at large. Additionally, I have a unique and powerful connection to the community that has sprung up and continues to grow around the cartoon strip. The community is made up of people ranging from C-level executives to frontline technical support, and also includes a smattering of students and even non-geeks. Perhaps the most interesting thing is the way the community evolved from being an online collective into a distributed collective; audience members reach out to each other and meet in person, forming long-term friendships and relationships. It’s a staggering thing to think about, but I personally know of at least a dozen couples who met through their common interest in the cartoon strip, who ended up getting married and having children.


Q: You are ranked 9th in the 'Best Online Strip' category by the British Comics Awards 2002 voting public! Can you tell me more about KomixWorld and your work here?

A: Ah yes, that award in particular is for Squidbits, a political cartoon series that I did for a short time for the fine people over at KomixWorld. I was told that we would’ve ranked a little higher had I done more than 4 or 5 cartoons; I’ve promised to do more, time permitting, and I’m hoping to get to that this spring.


Q: Millions worldwide follow your work. Where do see your work evolving in the future?

A: That’s a tough one to answer. User Friendly is social commentary about technology and the people surrounding it. Theoretically, I could continue UF forever, as the world continually provides new events and trends. Somehow, I don’t at this moment think I’ll do UF until the day I die – every creation has a lifespan, and when it’s time to turn off the lights and lock the doors, there isn’t much you can do to prevent it. Of course, I could be completely wrong here: Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury) and Charles Schulz (Peanuts) have both proven that creations can live as long as the author wants it to.

Given that I’m going to be doing UF for at least a few more years, I think it’s safe to say that I’ll likely continue in the fashion I have been for the last five. Work like this evolves almost of its own accord, as the characters establish their behaviours and life details through their interactions and observations. The stories simply fall out of that.

Looking a little further, I expect that I’ll always be writing. I find that I have a lot to say about the world, particularly from a geek’s vantage. I’ve already done one book of essays, and I have a few more well on the way.


Q: You are an accomplished guru. Can you comment on the different hardware platforms and competing operating systems? What will be the trends in the next three and five years? What do you see as the main development environments?

A: I’m a guru in the sense that I have a good grasp of technology and the way people use it, just making that clear. I would never claim to be a deep coder or systems analyst. Those roles are for people with far more left-brain potency than myself.

Perhaps the most profiled struggle in software is between Microsoft and Linux. It’s clear that the server market is dominated by Linux and will continue to do so unless Microsoft comes up with a product-marketing scheme that convinces the C-level executives that there is a significantly better return on investment to migrate back to a Microsoft solution. I’m unwilling to discount this possibility because Microsoft not only has deep pockets; they also have some of the most aggressive, intelligent and innovative people in the world working for them.

Microsoft still has a death-grip on the desktop, and they’ll continue to do so while games and production software are mostly released for the Windows platform. There’s no question that significant headway is being made in usability for Linux as a desktop environment, but buy-in from the general consumer will only come when they reliably can pick up shrink-wrapped products compatible for Linux. In the meantime, desktop migration to Linux will be restricted to techies and people who are, for whatever reason, tired of using Windows.

In three years I expect less diversification in hardware platforms. The IT sector is still stinging from the downturn, and that indicates to me that companies that produce marginalized hardware will either die off or will collapse their hardware efforts. In five years I think PDAs will be less popular than Tablet PCs. A big chunk of any hardware platform line will be WiFi capable.

Development environments will likely remain as they are now: .NET will be around in one form or another, but market share will plateau. I think you’ll see more development tools that allow non-programmers to produce software objects and devices for very specific tasks, almost like a click-and-drag macro language.


Q: What computing equipment do you use? Describe your favorite system?

A: At the moment I’m on an old PIII-500, running WindowsXP Professional and SuSE Linux 6.4. Given the choice, I’d rather do everything in Linux, but as a production slave what matters to me is the apps. When the GiMP can handle prepress functions at the same level as Photoshop, the only thing really keeping me in Windows are games, and I could just end up getting an Xbox or Playstation for that.

My absolute dream system at the moment would be an Alienware 2001DV, although I’d want an LCD flatscreen monitor. The Alienware guys know how to build machinery.


Q: What are your personal goals 1, 3, and 5 years into the future?

A: In a year I’d like UF to be completely financially stable so that I can spend more time on creation instead of business; although we do get by, running a site with the kind of traffic it generates and paying several salaries can get expensive, and that’s even with paying the staff a fraction of what they’re worth. I appreciate their loyalty.

In addition, in a year I expect to be doing more online community advising. There are a lot of companies out there that need to develop a real online community presence, and unlike five years ago, you can’t just “build it and they will come.” An experienced online community director can help them with the initiation and development of the community, as well as develop realistic policies.

In three years I think I’ll be doing even more traveling and speaking at conferences than I do now. I’ll also be writing a lot more, and by then I should have four or five new non-UF books finished.

In five years I’d very much like to be in a position to help and advise up and coming creators as well as established media companies. There’s a definite trend on the Web towards paid, exclusive content, and by the middle of this decade subscriptions to content sites will be de rigeur.


Q: What ten career pointers would you provide specifically to people who wish to enter the computing field?

A: I don’t have ten, but I do have five. They’re easier to remember that way.

  1. Make up your mind early on whether you want to be a specialist or a generalist. I’m the latter, and I’m happy with my choice. Twenty years ago, you could be well-versed in most computing subjects, but these days the depth and breadth of knowledge in computing are so extensive that you really need to pick one or the other, or you’ll never have time for sleep.

  2. Spend time improving your communication skills. I can’t emphasize this point enough; people in general, not just geeks, are poor listeners and even worse speakers. Poor listeners draw snap conclusions founded on often mistaken preconceptions. Poor speakers forget that the responsibility for clarity lies with the speaker, not the listener. This is the core of the traditional rift between technologists and marketers: they don’t make an effort to speak the same language.

  3. Don’t assume that your education (whether self-taught or classroom-taught) is ever enough. The nature of the industry requires that you keep abreast of new developments, or you could become as obsolescent as that 486 holding your door open. Read everything that’s significantly pertinent to your job, and a few things on the side. It never hurts to learn more.

  4. Be prepared to pay in blood. Your first five years in the tech industry will likely be monotonous. The next five may be as well. Only when you’ve earned decent credentials and substantial experience should you expect to pull down a heady salary, and even that can be impacted (as it currently is) by world events.

  5. Be absolutely certain you love working with technology. A tech career demands a very special kind of person, someone with determination, endless curiosity and a solid intellect. If you don’t love the work, you’ll be suffering needlessly.


Q: Can you comment on the open source movement and where it’s heading?

A: I consider Open Source to be one of the most important concepts in the tech sector ever, but it’s a double-edged sword. When done right, Open Source encourages excellence, teaches the value of ethical collaboration, and attracts some of the brightest undiscovered minds in computing. If it’s done wrong, an Open Source project can collapse faster than you can blink, egos can clash in an ugly manner, and some of the best ideas can end up corrupted.

Overall, I think Open Source has hit a bit of a plateau. There’s a lot of room for growth, but the community is still recovering from the crash of a few years ago. There’s a strange sense of order coming to the Open Source crowd, which is odd given that it was originally a model for barely-controlled chaos. Give it a few years and I think we’ll witness some more significant leaps and bounds, particularly in collaboration methods.


Q: What do your forecast as future hot topic areas or “killer apps” to start researching now?

A: I think the two areas that are going to really take off are ubiquitous computing and, in support of that, content aggregation and delivery. There already exists a kind of withdrawal syndrome experienced by people who are denied ‘net access after having grown to regularly rely on it. As WiFi takes off, I expect a growth spurt in Tablet PCs. As a result of this and other forces, large media companies that aggregate exclusive content will provide content and community channels.

Of course, neither will surpass e-mail as the ultimate killer app.


Q: What would be your recommended top ten references for the serious IT professional?

A: I’m back to the number five again. As a generalist, I use the following fairly regularly:

I also highly recommend O’Reilly’s and Apress’s technical books.


Q: You have done extensive research in a number of high-tech areas. Can you describe the results of your research and tips you can pass onto the audience?

A: As of late I’ve mostly concentrated on online community building, since social computing is really beginning to mature. Briefly, most online communities are suffering from an inertia of segregation. Once most communities are established, the barrier to entry for a new member is fairly high, largely due to social pressures within the cliques. Having said that, there exist proven models of online communities that have defeated this segregation through judicious policies.

What this means is that the online communities that won’t end up drinking their own bathwater are the ones that are planned and implemented carefully, rather than ones that are grown organically.


Q: What changes do you see for the future of computing, conducting business, and the use of the Internet?

A: I think the largest change we’ll see that impacts all three of the above is a blurring between the real world and the one on the ‘net. This ties in with ubiquitous computing as relationships (both business and personal) formed online begin achieving the same, if not greater, importance as the real world ones. I think it’s fairly obvious that there are significant dangers as well as synergies in this fusion.


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

A: I think I’d only ask one: “What’s the one thing you’d change about the tech sector if you could?” My answer would unequivocally be, “I’d make it less mystical to the general public.” That alone would, I think, mitigate a lot of the social consequences tech workers face simply because they’re a member of an intellectually exclusive club.


Q: It’s a blank slate, what added comments would you like to give to enterprise corporations and organizations?

A: I’d tell them all to look to the enormous pool of future clientele, partners and employees they could be harvesting by paying more attention to the social side of computing. People have a need to reach out to others, and more than anything in history, the ‘net has given even the most reclusive person the ability to establish incredibly valuable relationships. A direct conduit to customers gives you access to unfiltered feedback on your product or service, by all accounts an incredibly valuable asset, especially to people in product development. A company’s international reputation can be made or broken on the ‘net, and being properly plugged in to your own market can help your firm make informed decisions. An online community is more than just a social centre; it can also be a compass by which you fine-tune your company’s direction.


Q: Thank you for sharing your valuable insights with us today and we look forward to following your work far into the future.

A: Once again, my pleasure!


PS: J.D. stands for?

A: Justifiably Dangerous. You should see me with a Nerf gun.

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