Careers: Interviews
UNIX and Internet Authority

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Dave Taylor, a widely regarded international authority and highly respected expert in the computing field; and a popular writer, teacher, and speaker.

Dave has been working with UNIX and the Internet since 1980. He is founder of The Internet Mall and iTrack.com and created the popular Elm Mail System and Embot mail autoresponder. He has produced software for the official 4.4 release of Berkeley UNIX (BSD); his programming work can be found in all versions of Linux and popular UNIX variants. Previously, he was a research scientist at HP Laboratories and a senior reviews editor of SunWorld magazine.

Dave currently has two startups he’s building, AnswerSquad, a savvy tech support alternative staffed by top computer book authors, and ClickThruStats, an innovative web-based traffic capture and analysis system for Web sites and email newsletter publishers. He also teaches at the University of Colorado and online with the University of Phoenix.

His books include: Learning UNIX for Max OS X, Sams Teach Yourself Unix in 24 Hours, Creating Cool HTML 4.0 Web Pages, Solaris 9 for Dummies, Dynamic HTML Weekend Crash Course, Teach Yourself UNIX System Administration in 24 Hours, and The e-Auction Insider.

Here are Dave’s key addresses:
Home page: http://www.intuitive.com/
Author info list: http://author-news.intuitive.com/
Talk about his books: http://booktalk.intuitive.com/
More about his books: http://books.intuitive.com/

Read his weblog: http://www.intuitive.com/blog/

Discussion:

Q: How does your family view your international reputation?

A: I don’t know if they’re aware that I have one, honestly. I’m just another guy who works in the yard, puts toys away and spends a lot of time on the computer, as far as they’re concerned.

Q: Describe your personal history and what led you to get into computing; the various chapters in your life and the life experiences you found valuable?

A: I never really touched a computer until I got into college, where I was a declared Computer Science major (I went to the University of California, San Diego). By the end of my first year there, I was getting paid as a mentor for compsci students and simultaneously mentoring writers through the English department. Most unusual for a freshman!

When I graduated, I joined Hewlett-Packard in their Colorado Networks Operation, working on PC to Unix networking. But my heart was much more in the Unix side and I continued to get more and more email, so I began writing an email program of my own, ultimately called the Elm Mail System. Through a remarkable sequence of events, HP formally released the Elm software to me and I made it available on the Internet as what we’d now call open source software.

After a year or so, I was invited to join HP’s Research & Development Labs in Palo Alto, California (down the street from Stanford University), where I was one of the few non-PhD people there. It was a terrific venue, except we were quite at the whims of very high level management, so projects were killed and the lab direction “realigned” with some frequency. I ended up spending six months writing an e-mail program in LISP for an AI system that never made it to market.

Finally, I left and began consulting work with clients like the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (the Well), Apple Computer, HP (ironically!), and Sun Microsystems. While working with Sun I got involved with their in-house technical publication, Sun Tech Journal, and when that was sold to IDG, publisher of InfoWorld, PC World, and more, I sort of went along with the mag and ended up working as a senior editor of SunWorld for over a year.

Around that time I met my wife-to-be and the two of us decided to leave Silicon Valley and go to grad school together. We moved to Indiana and I earned a Masters in Educational Computing; my thesis project was the Purdue Online Writing Lab, an award-winning early academic web site. While at Purdue I also began to keep track of online shopping spots for an article for Internet World, and when we graduated and decided to move back to the San Francisco Bay area, I turned the online shopping list into The Internet Mall, the first ecommerce-centric online directory. I sold that company and joined the acquirer for about a year, then spun off a new company, an auction tracking service called iTrack. The premise was straightforward: you entered a search pattern and we looked for it on all the major online auction venues every night, sending you any new results we found. That was sold too (ah, the dotcom explosion was wonderful in some sense!) and somewhere after that, we decided to leave California and emigrated to Colorado.

Now, when I’m not writing books (I have three in the pipeline) and working on my two startups (AnswerSquad and ClickThruStats), I help local startups with management and strategic issues, do some teaching for the University of Colorado and University of Phoenix, and develop custom software solutions for clients. It’s a lot of things to juggle, but it certainly keeps each day interesting and different!

Q: How did you get into writing and what books can we expect in the future?

A: My first book was a direct outgrowth of an article I wrote for Sun Tech Journal: I wrote an article on software internationalization and Springer-Verlag called and asked if I’d be interested in writing a book on the subject. That became the critically appreciated “Global Software," and once I realized I could have the self-discipline to write a book, well, it didn’t take long for other books to flow out.

In terms of the future, I’m finishing up a book on Unix shell script programming called “Wicked Cool Shell Scripts” (NoStarch Press), will be revising “Learning Unix for Mac OS X” for the latest release of Mac OS X, and am planning a complete revision of my “Creating Cool HTML 4 Web Pages” book with the new working title of “Creating Cool Web Sites.” And after that? Well, let’s keep a little bit of mystery here, shall we?

Q: If you could go back in time, what would you change?

A: Everything and nothing. There are a thousand and one world events I’d like to try and change, but all-in-all I am happy with the progression of my life and pleased to be in the position I’m in, with a great wife, wonderful children, and a rewarding and always-entertaining professional life.

Q: Please share stories from your many projects and software contributions? What lessons did you learn and what challenges did you face? What skills were the most valuable to you?

A: I think that the two most important lessons I’ve learned are: keep a sense of humor when things are going poorly, and always remember that big journeys start with but a single step. Oh, and TANSTAAFL. (there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch: if you want to be successful, you have to work at it. No kidding).

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

A: I have no idea where I’ll be. I can imagine a future where I’m a professor at a small private college, teaching technology, writing, and who-knows what else. I can also imagine a future where I’m an executive in a successful knowledge management firm with a strong Internet presence. And I can imagine myself sitting on a beach most afternoons, watching my kids play and reading the classics. (alright, maybe not the last one!)

Q: Please make predications about the future of the various technologies you have worked on and about others where you have a deep interest?

A: Linux will come through the SCO nonsense unscathed. WiFi will continue to be a remarkably popular and successful technology because it solves a basic problem of connectivity, spam will continue to be a plague upon us all, and governments will continue to argue about how to stop it, while being buffeted by free market and free speech advocates.

Q: Imagine a new student of computing. What should the student study to ensure their employability in the future? What reasons would you give to the student?

A: I would strongly encourage them to study English, because just about everything is about effective communication in the end, Management, because you can’t be a good employee if you don’t understand how to manage people, and some sort of Liberal Arts, because true narrowly-focused geeks are boring and don’t have as much fun as people who are more well-rounded and have interests away from technology.

Q: The IT industry has undergone considerable turmoil the last few years. What areas of concentration would you recommend to IT professionals who feel limited growth opportunities and want a change?

A: Entrepreneurship-related areas are always good, because you can be successful within a corporate entity, and you can create (or help create!) your own if that’s not working for you. This means management, marketing, communication, and other facets in addition to key technologies.

Q: What lessons, experiences, and stories can you share about your work with Linux?

A: Don’t be discouraged if you get lots of “figure it out yourself!” messages when you ask for help. Learn a few basic commands, like ‘find,’ ‘which,’ ‘man,’ and explore. Read a good book or two on the subject :-) And consider joining a local users group or other networking venue where you can learn from others and help teach them too. It’s a great mix. And, finally, if you’re stuck, you’re always welcome to join AnswerSquad: we have some of the brightest Linux folk around, ready to help you with any and all puzzling questions.

Q: What are your most important “best practices,” tips, and shortcuts regarding installing, configuring and working with Linux?

A: Get a mainstream distribution to learn Linux. I strongly recommend Red Hat, with its excellent combination of the Anaconda installer (which automatically does just about everything you could possibly want) and tightly integrated GNOME environment. Don’t trail-blaze configuration tweaks until you know what you’re doing. There’s nothing as depressing as a system that won’t boot. I know, I’ve had plenty of ‘em.

Q: What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses in Linux? What are the major challenges to working with Linux?

A: What I simultaneously love and hate about Linux is that you never really know what you’re going to get. An upgrade can bring lots of new software and even a new interface to your desktop, and the level of integration and interface consistency across apps is improved quite a bit, but still inferior compared to an elegant and polished jewel like Mac OS X, which has all the best features of Unix (and Linux), including X11 compatibility, the command line, and the entire Unix development environment, but adds the excellent Aqua graphical user environment and the renowned Apple user experience.

Q: Do you foresee a “killer app” coming out of the Linux environment? How about making some predications on what technologies will survive in the long term?

A: I still believe that email is the killer application, honestly. It’s the only tool I use that lets me communicate one-to-one with someone else on the other side of the globe and simultaneously share ideas and thoughts with dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of like-minded compatriots. The challenge is to make Linux email “AOL-level” simple, so that non-techie folk can safely and successfully work within the Linux environment, feeling that they’re still getting the best of the Web and the ease of a simple e-mail environment.

Q: What do you feel are the top five hottest topics of interest to both businesses and IT professionals today?

A: Hmmm.... I think security and privacy are key topics and tightly intertwined. This is important both for individual users as for organizations and nations, but balancing security, privacy and usability is a very tricky task. I also think that accessibility in terms of WiFi and similar potentially “open” technologies is going to become more important. Consider: on my street there are at least six WiFi networks I can detect, and only one of those (mine) that’s even password protected. That’s three. Portability is important too, with more and more powerful laptops (in fact, more people are buying laptops than desktop systems). And, finally, interoperability continues to be a key underlying IT issue for all of these different systems running different operating systems, different versions of operating systems (like Windows), and different kinds of hardware.

Q: If you were doing this interview, what key question would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answer?

A: I’d have to ask “What’s the ground speed of an unlaiden swallow?”

Seriously, though, computers are getting faster, software is getting more sophisticated, and networking is allowing us more and more to distribute resources. What’s the future of IT? My answer would be that IT will continue to be a critical component of any computer interaction, whether it’s getting a laptop to talk WiFi at the local hotspot or whether it’s setting up a backup system that streams updated files to a central server somewhere in the middle of Canada. But smart IT is IT that embraces the future, aggressively moves into new technologies, and objectively assesses possible additions to the organization’s networking and computing infrastructure. It’s not about getting things right and stopping, it’s about the future. And the future’s coming. Fast.

Q: Dave, thank you for sharing your considerable knowledge and experiences with our audience.

A: You’re most welcome. Please do invite people to contact me directly if they’re inclined. I’m a busy fellow, but always happy to get e-mail from CIPS members.

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