Careers: Interviews
Adam C. Engst - Macintosh Luminary and Noted Authority, Best-selling Author, Much-admired Contributing Editor/Writer, and Venerated Publisher

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Adam C. Engst. 

Adam, consistently ranked worldwide as one of the most influential Macintosh authorities, is the celebrated publisher of the multi-award winning TidBITS, one of the oldest and most-respected Internet-based newsletters, distributed weekly to tens of thousands of readers.

He has written numerous technical books, including the best-selling Internet Starter Kit series; his most recent, “iPhoto for Mac OS X: Visual QuickStart Guide”. Too many to count, his magazine articles have appeared with MacUser, MacWeek, MacWorld, MacAddict, and Australian MacWorld, and he has held Contributing Editor positions at MacUser, MacWEEK, and now Macworld.

His innovations include the creation of the first advertising program to support an Internet publication in 1992, the first flat-rate accounts for graphical Internet access in 1993 (with Northwest Nexus for Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh), and the highly successful Take Control electronic book series. In addition, he has collaborated on several Internet educational videos and has appeared on a variety of internationally broadcast television and radio programs.

His indefatigable support of the Macintosh community and commitment to helping individuals has resulted in numerous awards and recognition at the highest levels. In the annual MDJ Power 25 survey of industry insiders, he ranked as the second (2000), third (2001, 2002), fourth (2003), and fifth (2004) most influential person in the Macintosh industry, and he was named one of MacDirectory's top ten visionaries. And how many industry figures can boast of being turned into an action figure?

Discussion:

Q: Adam, with your unparalleled accomplishments and long career of notable firsts, we are very fortunate to have you with us sharing your deep insights. Thank you.

A: Thanks for the opportunity to talk with you. It's always a pleasure to share.

Q: From which milestones throughout your life did you learn the greatest lessons and what are those lessons? How do they continue to impact on you today?

A:  Here are a few that come to mind:

In fifth grade, there was a reading contest. I read about 250 books in a month, which was not only more than any other student; it was more than any of the classes (save one, since the teacher specifically asked me to stop before the contest was over). As much as my childhood ego reveled in the accomplishment, I later realized the importance of quality over quantity. You can read too many Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, even if they are fast reads.

Shortly after starting college at Cornell University as a biology major in 1985, I realized they weren't going to let me use an electron microscope for several years. So, I dropped biology and applied to the College Scholar Program, where I designed my own major in Hypertextual Fiction. The moral of that story was that impatience is sometimes the mother of innovation.

My junior year at Cornell I took three key classes: Matt Neuburg's Greek Composition (did I mention I was double-majoring in Classics?), Gail Fine's Aristotle, and Carl Sagan's Seminar in Critical Thinking. With Matt, who now works with me on TidBITS and Take Control, I learned how to tease out the meaning of words and sentences in English, which is necessary to render them into Ancient Greek. From Gail, I learned that you don't open your mouth to make an argument unless you can defend what you're about to say. And from Carl Sagan, I learned that there are always at least two sides to every argument, and often many more. (As an aside, Carl Sagan took a lot of flak over the years, but he was a great teacher and an extremely thoughtful person, and it was a joy to be in his class.)

In starting TidBITS in 1990 and keeping it going every week over the last 15 years, I've learned just how important it is to pick something that's the right thing to do and to stick with it.

Q:  Can you tell us about a significant challenge you faced in your successful career and how you overcame it?

A:  I'm not a big believer in adversity - life is just life and you do what you need to do to get the job done.

Probably the main challenge I've always faced is funding. I was raised never to spend money I didn't have, so I've always needed to figure out ways of making do with what I did have and what I could do on my own. We've never had the luxury of being able to hire designers and programmers and writers and all those other people who filled the ranks of the dot-com companies before the crash. Instead, we've kept our business small, hired a few highly skilled people on a contract basis, and done a great deal of the work ourselves. We've also depended for years on the kindness of others; everything we do is proof that you can never have too many friends.

All that said, I'd probably be uncomfortable receiving investment capital, particularly if there was some loss of control associated with it. I prefer to build things based on brains and hard work rather than by throwing money at the problem.

Q: Which obstacles do you see ahead and how will you deal with them?

A: I'm very concerned about this hard limit of 24 hours in a day that I keep running into. I've been trying to come up with a solution, but so far all of them have violated the laws of physics, and I'm a law-abiding citizen.

Seriously though, the real obstacle is having enough time to accomplish the things I want to do for work, while making time for the things I do in the rest of my life. I enjoy work tremendously, but there comes a point when you just have to walk away for the day.

Another major obstacle I'll face is with growing Take Control. I don't have much experience in managing people, and my years of actually doing the work make it hard for me to delegate tasks that I'm perfectly capable of doing (and probably feel as though I can do better). Of course, that presumes that growth beyond a certain point is desirable, and I'm not sure of that yet.

Q: In 1989, you graduated [with Honors] from Cornell with a BA in Hypertextual Fiction and Classics. From that time, can you describe your experiences, thoughts, and vision for the future? Have events unfolded in the ways you expected and in what ways are they different?

A:  Ironically, I don't look into the future much, or much beyond the next 6 to 12 months. Back when I was in my 20s, I suspect that was as much due to a lack of experience as anything else – without understanding how things had gotten to be the way they were, it was clearly impossible to predict what would happen in the future. And now, even though I have a great deal more perspective and can offer an opinion on any specific future possibility, the main thing I've learned is that the future will almost always, for most people in most situations, be a lot like the past.  

All that is a way of saying that I don't really know how to answer your question. I've never been one of those people who has dreams about being in a certain position someday, or who has worked toward an extremely long-term goal. I operate highly effectively in the near-term, and my experience tells me that if you do what you consider to be cool work for the right reasons now, things will continue to work out well in the future.

Q: You have taken on interesting projects, such as your technical evaluation for Canada Post, writing a PSAT Writing Skills study guide, and your work for Kee Nethery at Kagi. Can you comment on these projects? What are the triggers for you to take on new projects?

A:  I can't say a lot about the projects; mostly that they were truly unusual departures from my normal work and it was nice to change gears a bit. Honestly, because of the added work of the Take Control project on top of everything I do with TidBITS and writing for other publications, I simply don't have time to do much other work these days.

Q: What are your top tips for Internet information design, electronic publishing, and Internet communication techniques based upon your 16 years of extensive experiences in this area?

A: 1)  Be human and respond to your readers. Too many writers and publications view readers as some sort of mass consumer and don't realize at a gut level that every reader is an individual. We keep that in mind at all times, and we try to respond to every piece of email we get. It's a lot of work of course, but it always pays off in the end.  

2)  Give people what they want. I'm not so much talking about content here as format. In fact, in terms of content, we give people what we're interested in, and luckily we seem to have sufficiently varied interests that tens of thousands of people have stuck with us. My point here is that publications shouldn't force readers into reading in a particular way. Everyone wants to read in a different way, in email, on the Web, on a Palm, and so on, and it behooves the intelligent publisher to support as many of those channels as possible.

3)  Keep it simple. It's really tempting to design everything to the hilt, with fancy graphics and animations and all that jazz. But if you look at the companies that have succeeded on the Internet, it's the ones that have focused on clean, simple design like Google and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Yahoo. For instance, we've always used a highly readable text format for our email newsletter, and when we started offering a HTML-formatted version, we put quite a bit of effort into designing a look that was clean, elegant, and would render well in any email program that supported HTML. It doesn't have graphics or tables or anything fancy, but it's easy on the eyes, and people like it a lot.  

4)  Make friends whenever possible. Fairy tales abound with tales of kindness to strangers being rewarded, but they're more true than many people think. We've saved a vast amount of money over the years thanks to the donated services and efforts of people who felt as though they were repaying us for our years of providing them with TidBITS for free.

Q: Your award-winning, electronic newsletter is widely regarded and a staple for the Macintosh Community. How will TidBITS evolve in the future?  

A:  Right now, we're in the long and drawn-out process of completely rethinking and re-engineering our publication process and Internet presence. A lot of things will stay the same, but many others will change. In particular, we're planning to refocus the look of the main page more along the lines of a weblog, since that's a structure that many people have come to expect. We're also planning to break up our publication times somewhat, so articles appear more throughout the week on the Web, but are collected into an issue and mailed out to subscribers on Monday as always. I think that will also relieve some of the pressure on Mondays, which are generally spent editing and filling any necessary content holes. It's more sane to spread the work out throughout the entire week.  

The key to all of this is Web Crossing, the integrated server software and object-oriented database we're using now. It has all the building blocks for what we want to do, and in the very near future we're going to start stacking them up. It's taken longer than I would have liked to get to this point, but when you're a small organization, even the best-laid plans often fall by the wayside when reality hits.  

Q:  Which new books can we expect from you?  

A:  I must admit that although I have plenty of ideas for entirely new books, it's hard to find the time right now. I did just finish “iPhoto 5 for Mac OS X: Visual QuickStart Guide” for Peachpit Press, and I'm thinking about a significant update to my “Take Control of Buying a Mac” ebook as well.  

Q: How did you get involved with the Info-Mac Network and FreePPP? How do you see your role evolving in the future?  

A:  The FreePPP project is defunct, since the software was necessary only in very old versions of Mac OS. And Info-Mac too is on the downhill side of life, since it grew up in a very different Internet. Back in those days, there were no commercial services for cataloging freely distributable software as there are today, and there were very few discussion groups for Macintosh users. With the rise of services like VersionTracker and MacUpdate, and the proliferation of a vast number of discussion groups on every imaginable sub-topic in the Macintosh world, Info-Mac's role has significantly diminished. Given that it's an entirely volunteer organization, I can't see much more happening with it in the future.  

This shouldn't be seen as bad. Organizations, like organisms, have lifespans, and sometimes they appear, meet a need for some years, and then quietly disappear after achieving their goals.

Q: Adam, you are in an ideal position to make predictions. So make your top predictions in any areas of your choosing and provide specific time frames?  

A:  1)  I think electronic books have started to turn the corner into mainstream acceptance. I've been thinking about this ever since working on hypertextual fiction at Cornell, and although I can't imagine how far out you'd need to go to see the demise of print books, electronic books are now far more commonplace than even just a few years ago. The next key breakthrough will be the widespread availability of electronic paper technology, since that will enable the creation of various reading devices that will be far more successful than those we've seen so far. I give it three to five years, since the technology is in labs now.  

2)  Electronic devices will continue to shrink in size to the point where user interfaces will have to change to make them usable. For instance, we can make a cell phone so small now that it would be impossible to enter numbers on a keypad easily. The problem here is that alternative interfaces are still tricky - voice recognition may never happen at the level suggested by science fiction (people have a hard enough time doing it reliably, and we expect computers to do as well?) and very little has changed from the basic key input and pointing device approach from Douglas Englebart's work from the 1960s. Just look at how Apple designed the iPod shuffle without a visual interface; you simply can't get that small and maintain a usable one. So, we'll see a five-year trend toward smaller devices, and then a plateau in size until some sort of alternative interface becomes commonplace.  

Q: What are your favorite information links, tools, and other resources? Why?  

A: 1)  Google: I've liked them from well before they became the household word they are today, and I remain impressed with the new initiatives they continually introduce.  

2)  OmniWeb: Web browsers don't have to be generic, and the folks at the Omni Group have created a Web browser that actually does work for you; remembering where you've been, which pages were loaded the last time you launched the browser, and far, far more.  

3)  Eudora: It may be showing its age, but for those of us who receive hundreds of email messages a day and who have gigabytes of stored email, Eudora remains the email client of choice.

Q: Here is an audience favorite. Imagine you are doing the interview. What three questions would you ask and then what would be your answers?

A:  Q1: Can you name a few areas in which you think you've figured things out pretty well?

A1: Ah yes! I'm pretty sure that strenuous exercise in the outdoors is an essential part of staying healthy. I run competitively, and it's clear that the combination of the break from work, the interaction with the natural world, and pushing my body makes me stronger, smarter, and more aware of my surroundings.

I'm also comfortable with my opinion that the best way for most people to be productive with a computer is to use a Mac. The basic actions may be the same in other operating systems, but the attention to detail and integration that Apple provides makes a huge difference in eliminating wasted time and effort. The main counter-argument to that is when specific software or hardware compatibility is required.  

Along those lines, from what I've been able to determine, it's almost always worth paying a bit more up front for higher quality products. So many people shop entirely on price, but the old saying of "You get what you pay for" is far too apt. What's worse is that when price becomes the primary distinguishing factor, quality (in whatever dimension), disappears and everyone suffers in some small way.  

Lastly, I've recently realized the problem with television. It's not that there aren't great TV programs that are absolutely worth watching. The problem is that there are so few great TV programs and so many truly awful ones that you spend far more time sorting through the chaff, wasting hours upon hours per week, just hoping that you'll run across some piece of truly fine film-making. I thought I'd figured out TV by getting a TiVo a few years back, and it certainly helped by replacing the need to record shows to videotape so we weren't constrained by silly network TV schedules. But even the TiVo couldn't identify only the good shows, and watching TV, which felt like it should be a reward at the end of a hard day of work, ended up being disappointing most nights. So we dropped television entirely, and until we can figure out a better way of seeing only worthwhile shows (perhaps Netflix), we're watching essentially nothing.

Q2:  And how about some areas in which you find yourself utterly confused and flabbergasted?

A2:  I find most of what happens in politics extremely confusing and depressing. It's not that hard to see why politicians so often act as they do. The basic aspects of human nature, (greed, arrogance, vanity, lust for power, and so on), account for the behavior of far too many politicians.  What I simply can't get through my head is why most people seem to put up with such nonsense. Do fact and reason play such a small role in their view of the world that they don't mind making nonsensical decisions?

Similarly, I'm amazed at the level to which our culture is being driven by the marketing of corporate behemoths. It's all about money of course, but why do people allow themselves to be manipulated so completely? What has changed such that, for instance, people can be so easily convinced that infant formula is better than breast milk, given that one was designed clumsily by chemists in pharmaceutical companies whose goal is to make money, whereas the other was designed by millions of years of evolution with the blind goal of survival of the species. Are we really so clueless?

I also cannot figure out why so many people put up with astonishingly long and bad commutes to work. Cars are a fact of life, but anyone spending more than 10 percent of their waking hours driving from point A to point B and back to point A should have their head examined. It's a bit like saying to someone, "You can have this job, but you'll need to spend 2 hours a day in a small box being poked with sticks. You won't mind that, do you?" The social and economic costs of relying so heavily on the automobile will come home to roost, and anyone who can break the pattern earlier will find themselves better off when it does happen.  

Q3:  Have you ever thought of running for office?

A3:  Sure, who hasn't? But realistically, I'd probably be a lousy politician because I don't like making compromises on important points, and I don't like sucking up to people in power, and I don't like pandering to irrational points of view for votes. I think I'd be a pretty good benevolent dictator, but there aren't a lot of those job openings these days.

Q: Adam, thank you for taking the time to do this interview and sharing your incredible insights and experiences with our audience.

A:  You're very welcome, and I hope my experiences can be of use to others!

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