Careers: Interviews
Best-selling Author, and Famous, Top-ranking IT Authority Shares His Views

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Paul McFedries.

Paul McFedries is the president of Logophilia Limited, a technical writing company. The word logophilia (loh·goh·FEE·lee·uh), he wants you to know, is a fancy-schmancy Latin term that means "the love of words." This will make more sense when you learn that Paul has written over 40 books (that's a lot of words) that have sold nearly three million copies worldwide. These books include many titles in the Complete Idiot's Guide series, including The Complete Idiot's Guide to Windows and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Creating a Web Page, as well as Special Edition Using JavaScript.

Paul is also the proprietor of Word Spy, a Web site devoted to recently coined words and phrases, and to old words that are being used in new ways. These aren't "stunt words" or "sniglets," but new terms that have appeared multiple times in newspapers, magazines, books, Web sites, and other recorded sources. Word Spy generates over a million page views each month, has won numerous awards, and has been mentioned or featured in such august publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, and the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. You can join in the fun at www.wordspy.com.

Amongst his latest book credits is, Formulas and Functions with Microsoft Excel 2003 (Que), which is garnering favorable reviews.

Discussion:

Q: Paul, with your international reputation fostering a very busy schedule, we are very fortunate to have you with us for this interview. Thank you!

A: Thanks for your interest.

Q: Now primarily a writer, you have worked as a programmer, consultant, spreadsheet developer, and web site developer. How did you get your start in computing? Detail the valuable lessons you have learned from your extensive history of many successes.

A: My computing career began back in 1974, when I took my first programming course in high school. The "coding" consisted of filling in boxes on punch cards that were then batched overnight at some off-site mainframe. The job printouts were waiting for us the next morning, usually with error messages since it was inevitable that you'd have accidentally printed outside of one or two of the boxes, so you'd have to submit the program all over again the next night. It was frustrating, but I loved it and soon became totally hooked on programming. I took lots of programming and hardware courses in university (although math was my major), and I've been coding ever since.

Q: You have sparked our wonder and amazement with Word Spy. Share your experiences…

A: Words to me are endlessly fascinating. They're the fundamental unit of communication, which means they play a big role in everyone's lives, and that universality interests me. This led me to study some linguistics in university, and to read legions of books on words and language.

What I came to realize over the years was that although I have a deep curiosity about language in general, what I get most excited about are new words in particular. It constantly amazes me that the language has this extraordinary capacity to generate neologisms. I view the language not as a solid mountain to be admired from afar, but rather as an active volcano to be studied up close. This volcano is constantly spewing out new words and phrases; some of them are mere ash and smoke that are blown away by the winds; others are linguistic lava that slides down the volcano and eventually hardens as a permanent part of the language. Both types of ejecta are inherently creative, so I'm interested in them equally.  

My Word Spy work grew out of this. Word Spy began as a mailing list where each day I'd send out an interesting word to a collection of friends and readers. The first post to the Word Spy list was back on January 2, 1996. After I'd accumulated a few dozen words, I created the Web site to give people a record of what had been posted and to make it possible for other people to join the list. The list and site have grown by leaps and bounds since then: I get over a million page views each month; the list has over 16,000 subscribers; and Word Spy has been cited or profiled in over 150 newspapers and magazines around the world.

Q: Now Word Spy has been referenced in the “The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin”?

A: Yes, I like to mention that citation has a joke. It was an article in the August, 2003 edition that discussed "air rage" and cited my entry for that phrase:

http://www.wordspy.com/words/airrage.asp

Q: Provide an overview of your latest book credit, Formulas and Functions with Microsoft Excel 2003 (Que), which is garnering favorable reviews. Why should our readers study this book? What differentiates it from other books?

A: The old "80/20" rule for software — that 80 percent of users use only 20 percent of a program's features — doesn't apply to Excel. Instead, this program operates under what could be called the "95/5" rule: 95 percent of Excel users use a mere 5 percent of the program's features. On the other hand, most of those users know that they could be getting more out of Excel by using more of its commands and options. But Excel is big and complex and most of its intermediate-to-advanced features are shrouded in the mysteries of mathematics, finance, and impenetrable spreadsheet jargon.

I realized that Excel users needed a book that demystifies the program's features and presents them in a jargon-free way. I realized that they needed a book that not only takes them through Excel's intermediate and advanced options, but also tells them why these options are useful and shows them how to use them in everyday situations and real-world models. This book aims to do all of this with no-nonsense, step-by-step tutorials and lots of practical, useful examples.

Q: Provide five tips from the book.

A: 1)  Here are a couple of shortcuts that will let you enter dates and times quickly. To enter the current date in a cell, press Ctrl+; (semi-colon). To enter the current time, press Ctrl+: (colon).

2)  If you try to enter an incorrect formula, Excel won't allow you to do anything else until you either fix the problem or cancel the operation (which means you lose your formula). If the formula is complex, you might not be able to see the problem right away. Instead of deleting all your work, place an apostrophe (') at the beginning of the formula to convert it to text. This way, you can save your work while you try to figure out the problem.

3)  When entering function names and defined names, use all lowercase letters. If Excel recognizes a name, it converts the function to all upper case and the defined name to its original case. If no conversion occurs, you misspelled the name, you haven't defined it yet, or you're using a function from an add-in that isn't loaded.

4)  When you highlight a range, Excel displays the sum of the numeric values in the status bar. To get another value — such as the cell count, average, maximum, or minimum value — right-click the Sum= indicator in the status bar, and then click the value you want.

5)  You can quickly change the reference format of a cell address by using the F4 key. When editing a formula, place the cursor to the left of the cell address (or between the row and column values), and keep pressing F4. Excel cycles through the various formats. If you want to apply the new reference format to multiple cell addresses, highlight the addresses and then press F4 until you get the format you want.

Q: What prompted you to start writing and then to focus on writing?

A: In a previous life (in the 1980s), I worked for a publishing company that was the Canadian distributor for various computer book lines, including Que and Sams. I managed the computer books division, and had several sales reps working for me. Being a long-time geek, I decided to put together a sales management system for my reps. Using a now-ancient version of the dBase database software, I wrote an application that enabled the reps to count the book inventory in their customer's stores and download this info into a laptop. From there, the rep could calculate sales, take new orders, and perform other high-tech tasks.

I also wrote a manual that explained each of the functions of the system. When I was writing this manual, I was struck by how much I enjoyed translating a complex task into a series of simple steps. Would writing a computer book offer the same level of enjoyment, I wondered? Probably, but the manual was a mere 50 pages, and I figured there was no way I could possibly write a 400-page tome. I just didn't think I had that much to say!

Later, while visiting the publisher's head office in the U.S., I was explaining my sales management system at a meeting and I happened to mention that I now knew so much about dBase that I could probably write a book about it. An editor was there, and, for some inexplicable reason, she took me seriously. "Would you be interested in writing a book," she asked. "Well, sure, I guess." From there it all happened very quickly. I sent down the manual that I'd written, they liked it, and I ended up with a contract to write The 10 Minute Guide to the Norton Utilities.

Another contract followed, and then another, and then they said I could write as many books as I wanted. Since writing books was way more fun than being a cog in the corporate wheel, I immediately quit my job and started writing full-time. (To help make ends meet, I also did some consulting and programming.) That's how it all started.

Q: What are the most compelling issues facing technology professionals today and in the future? How can they be resolved?

A: 1) Making computers easier to use. I hate reading articles (and they're legion) claiming that in the near future we'll all be living in some techno-utopia in which our refrigerators will know when we're running low on milk and we'll be able to repair our cars by downloading the appropriate software patch. Puh-leeze! This kind of claptrap reminds me of those we'll-all-be-flying-around-in-jet-cars-by-2000 "predictions" from the fifties. It has now been 14 -- count 'em, “14” -- years since Windows 3.0 was released, and we've hardly progressed at all. Computers are still way too hard for most people to use, Windows is still too unreliable (although XP is the most reliable yet), and applications are fatter than ever so our powerful computers still limp along.

I “know” when I'm running low on milk, so I don't need some "smart" refrigerator that has to be rebooted every day to tell me. What we need are applications and operating systems that are easy to use, crash-proof, and fast. I'd like to see programmers and engineers focusing on these more mundane aspects of computing.

2) Solving the spam scourge. Spam is quickly making e-mail unusable, but our society has evolved to the point where e-mail is indispensable. One of the two must die, and it had better be spam. Some of the recent ideas from Microsoft and others that attach costs (whether they be monetary costs or computer cycles) to e-mail seem to be on the right track. Right now it's just too cheap (for the spammer) to send out millions of copies of a message.

3) Making computing more secure. Viruses, Trojans, adware, spyware, malware — we're awash in digital pathogens. Eradicating this pestilence will take a number of serious commitments: from software vendors (especially Microsoft) to fix the holes in their products; from ISPs to block and shut down offenders; from IT workers to patch their systems and train their users; and from users to learn about the dangers and how to avoid them. To help that last group, over the past few years I've started putting more and more security-related information in my books. Users can't know too much about practicing safe computing.

4) Shining light on the "invisible Web," the collection of searchable Web sites whose content exists within databases and so can't be indexed by search engines. The Web is an amazing resource as it stands, but there are billions of non-static pages that Google, Yahoo, and others can't "see" because the data resides inside a database. You can go to these sites and search the database, but there are probably thousands of them, so much precious data is just too hard to get at. A number of initiatives are currently under way to index this data, so I'm confident we'll see some real program on this over the next few years.

Q: What future books can we expect from you?

A: I'm going to do more work on Microsoft Office over the coming year, with an emphasis on helping people get the most out of their Office investment. Office is such a complex, intimidating suite and I think there are many opportunities to help people learn the product and use it to make their lives easier and more productive.

Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?

A: My office contains a small LAN that includes my main machine on which I do my writing and research, anywhere from three to five testing machines that run whatever software or technology I'm writing about, and a big server box that ties everything together. We're a Windows shop, but I can't resist playing around on my iMac because the screen is just so gorgeous and the OS is actually fun to use.

Q: If you had to do it all over again….?

A: I'd start sooner!

Q: What drives you to do what you do?

A: I love technology, so being immersed in it every day is great fun. But what really gets me motivated each day is teaching. I truly enjoy crafting books that help other people, whether they're rank beginners or savvy professionals. Computers are still way too hard to use, so I feel good knowing that I'm doing something to alleviate that and to help people focus on more important things.

Q: How do you keep up with all the changes?

A: I read, read, read, and then I read some more.

Q: Paul, thank you again for your time, and consideration in doing this interview.

A: You’re welcome.

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