Careers: Interviews
Internationally renowned IT expert, and award-winning author, writer, and editor...

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with the internationally renowned IT expert, and award-winning author, writer, and editor, Preston Gralla.


Preston’s 20 book credits include: How Wireless Works, How to Expand and Upgrade PCs, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Protecting Yourself Online, and the recently released, How The Internet Works.


Together with authoring best-selling books, Gralla is an executive editor and columnist for CNet and ZDNet with extensive writing credits for publications such as the Dallas Morning News, USA Today, PC Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Boston Magazine, PC/Computing, Computerworld and FamilyPC. He also writes the free newsletter, Gralla’s Internet Insider. In addition, he has appeared on the CBS Early Show, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, TechTV, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and CNet Radio.


Considered the foremost of computing magazines, Preston was the founding managing editor of PC Week and founding editor of PC/Computing.


His many achievements include the award for best feature article from the Computer Press Association, and as a finalist for General Excellence (for PC/Computing) from the National Magazine Awards.




Q: Preston, thank you for taking the time to do this interview.


A: You’re welcome. Thanks for the time.


Q: You have such an extraordinary history with so many milestones. Please share your most important challenges and how you overcame them.


A: Getting a start in journalism was probably the biggest challenge of all. I had graduated from college with a degree in English (that and a quarter will get you a cup of coffee) in the middle of a recession, and there were no jobs to be had. I set myself a goal of getting meetings with every newspaper editor within a 30-mile radius of where I was living, and coming up with 10 story ideas for each editor, in the hopes of landing freelance work. Ultimately it worked, and led to a full-time job as a reporter at one of the newspapers.


Q: For those considering a writing career, how does one become a columnist, editor and author? What lessons can you share?


A:  First, learn how to write. Everything after that are details. Newspapers are a great place to start out, because you learn to research and write accurately under deadline pressure, and learn how to do it in a very noisy and distracting environment. Once you have that under your belt, you’ll be able to write anywhere and in any circumstances.


Q: Which qualities led to your many writing and editing awards?


A:  Curiosity, honesty, accuracy, and hard work. If you’re constantly curious, you’ll be always on the look-out for things you didn’t know before and that might amaze you – and more often than not, readers will be interested in the same things as well. Readers can also tell when you’re writing from the heart, and when you’re writing for effect, so honesty is important. Accuracy, especially in writing about technology, is all-important, because people need accurate information. And hard work.  


Q: You have authored so many best-selling books. Which four books are your favorites and for what reason?


A:  “How the Internet Works” is a favorite because it explains in clear detail virtually every aspect of the Internet – and does so with beautiful illustrations, and without talking down to the reader, and with in-depth, but easy-to-follow explanations. “How Wireless Works” does the same thing, but for wireless technologies. I’m always fiddling with hardware and customizing my PCs, so “How To Expand and Upgrade PCs” is a favorite — it shows anyone, regardless of expertise, how to do things such as add DVD drives and motherboards. And “How To Get More Out of Your PCs and Add-Ons,” which I co-authored rather than having written alone, I favor for the same reason.


Q: “How the Internet Works,” now in its 7th edition, is a national best-seller. It’s considered the best book of its kind explaining the Internet in crystal-clear language. Can you provide a few insights from the book?


A:  The most amazing thing about the Internet is that it’s based on much the same principles that mothers teach their young children — how to play well with others, and how to share. The very protocols that underlie the Internet are based on cooperation among different types of devices and computers, and the entire structure of the vast Internet are based on these very principles.


Q: From your experiences with this book series, do you have any tips about the writing process?


A:  Set a schedule, follow it, and never allow anything to interfere. Never wait for inspiration to strike; sit down at the keyboard even it feels like the words will never come. Find out your best working conditions — music or silence, morning or night-time — and follow them. Writing is hard work; if it was easy, everyone in the world would be a writer.


Q: Where is it all heading? What do you see as the major technologies in the future? How about predictions about their implementation? Who are the winners and losers?


A:  Grid computing, peer-to-peer technologies, always-on, high-speed wireless access, and Web services will be the future. Wherever you are, that’s where the Internet will be; and wireless access will be built into every consumer device you can imagine, including kitchen appliances. As always with the Internet, the winners will be those willing to make the leap into the unknown; the losers will be those who try to hold back technology because a new technology may eat into their existing “market share.”


Q: What are the major problems and successes with Open Source?


A:  A major success is the process itself; some thought it would lead to chaos, but instead it has led to superior and more secure technologies. The major problem is commercial — how do companies make money on it, because without commercial success, Open Source will remain a niche.


Q: Can you make future predictions about specific products and services coming from the Open Source movement?


A:  Linux will continue to thrive and grow and increasingly grab market share from Microsoft. Open Source, through efforts like the Globus Project, will play a major role in Grid computing, and become part of mainstream, enterprise computing.


Q: Do you have comments about Web services, its impact on traditional business models, current trends in business models for Web services, creating a successful long-term Web services business model, and its impact on ROI?


A:  Web services is clearly the future for enterprises, and most likely for consumer-level Web sites at some point as well. Currently, it’s primarily being used for application integration within companies, and has a substantial ROI. There’s no better way to integrate disparate systems, including legacy systems. Ultimately, it will become the glue that holds together all enterprise applications because of the ability to re-use modules. It’s unclear how it will affect desktop applications, if at all, but for corporations, it’s the way to go.


Q:  Do you have differing recommendations for small, medium and large enterprise organizations?


A:  Smaller companies should look closely at outsourcing as much technology as possible, since it’s tough to have the right-sized IT staff when you’re a company with not many employees. Medium-sized companies need to look at a mix of outsourcing and in-house resources, while large companies need to be careful that they don’t fall into the trap of thinking they can do everything by themselves. All, however, should be looking toward pay-as-you-go computing models, in which they only pay for the actual computing resources they use, much like you only pay a utility company for the actual amount of water or electricity you use.


Q: Can you provide your list of the ten most important issues facing corporations and IT professionals today? How can these issues be resolved?


A:  Ten is tough, so I won’t be able to name that many. Balancing future technology needs versus maintaining existing technology is a constant problem. How to decide on which technologies to develop for is always an issue. Aligning the vision of IT folks with the vision of businesspeople in a company is a constant battle, and one that’s often lost. Version control on the desktop is a constant problem. Balancing allowing individuals to customize their computing resources versus requiring standardization because of support needs is almost impossible. Security, of course, is top of the list for many IT folks, and there are books and books that we could talk about there.


Q: You must have both interesting and funny stories to tell from your many rich experiences—please share a few.


A:  Well, I’ve had someone from Iran email me asking if they could translate and sell “How the Internet Works,” but without actually paying licensing or royalty fees.  (I of course answered no.) And I received a very moving letter from an 18-year-old in Lebanon who after reading “How the Internet Works” told me how he thought the use of the Internet may end up solving many of the world’s problems --- and he even asked if he could name his pet rabbit after my daughter’s pet rabbit! (I of course answered yes.) And I’ve received all kinds of odd comments related to my books, including a lengthy dissertation on the difference between the various kinds of Alaskan malamutes, huskies, and related canines, because a screenshot in one of my books called a group of canines huskies, when in fact they were wolves.


Q: Which ten resources do you find the most useful?


A:  Google, Google, Google, Google…seriously, though, Google is the top one. In no particular order, others are : instant messaging technology; email, of course; ftp; Amazon;;; Microsoft Knowledge Base; the online catalog of my local library and its associated network of libraries; and TweakXP.Com.


Q: Why do you do what you do?


A: I get a chance to follow my curiosity wherever it leads me, play around with hardware and software, learn something new every day (and sometimes every hour), and then write about it all — I can’t imagine a better way to make a living.


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


A: I’d ask whether you ever get tired of having to constantly be on the lookout for new technology, and the answer would be “No, that’s what gets me up in the morning.” I’d ask what kind of computer setup you have, and the answer would be “A combination wired/wireless network at home, connecting four desktop PCs, three laptops, and four printers.” I’d ask, with all the work you do, how many hours do you sleep at night, and I’d answer, “In the words of the unfortunately recently departed Warren Zevon, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”


Q: Do you have any more comments to add?


A:  No, that covers it.


Q: It was a pleasure interviewing you. Thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge with our audience.


A:  Thanks for interviewing me. I hope your readers are helped by what I have to say.


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