A Parisian Conversation with Scott Berkun

berkun

Scott Berkun was in Paris for a few days as he was invited to speak at USI 2014. That was a great opportunity to meet him and to discuss about his books, his time at Microsoft and WordPress, how and where he grew up and how it feels to be a writer in the 21st Century. Scott has been kind enough to allow us some of his time, the most important thing he can give as he wisely writes in Mindfire.

A great dinner at the terrace of La Mauvaise Réputation, in Montorgueil neighborhood. And a few drinks as well : Champagne, Armagnac, beers and a bottle of St Estephe 2011 for good measure: a bit young, but we still managed to work it out. It was so inspiring, I’ve still managed to remember just about everything despite the drinks. Yet, if I remember well the ideas, the transcript may not gives good justice to Scott verbal skills and precision in the words he uses.

There are not so many opportunities to meet one of #hypertextual heroes and that evening has been a milestone in the history of this blog. This is how the conversation went … 

***

Scott : I love this city. I have been walking around all day. I’ve spent 4 hours at The Louvres. I have been to Paris a few times before. I remember that time I took the train from Paris to Zürich. There was the sunset, all these different and beautiful landscapes. It’s a great memory.

Tell us about your childhood, it was in New York right ?

Yep. I had a pretty happy childhood. I was raised in the Queens, New York. I was doing a lot of sports, mostly basket ball. I was pretty good at school but at the same time, a rather good athlete. I was the youngest of three and I’ve always been very close to my older brother (was it in Confessions of a Public Speaker or Myths Of Innovations that Scott describes how his brother taught him how to drive cars with manual speeds). You could just walk everywhere there, not a common thing in most American cities where you have to drive all the time.  I now live in the outskirts of Seattle, almost in the woods where my wife Jill and I grow vegetables, have many animals (dog, cats, chicken …). They opened a pub a while back 2.5 miles away from home, which has been a great change for us! My family comes from central Europe. Ukraine, Romania. I have been there a few times and it was strange doing these talks in Ukraine. I somehow felt I was at home.

You then studied and graduated at Carnegie Mellon

Yes, I managed to study in Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. I like this city – winter is veeeeeery cold but in Fall and Spring it really is a nice city, not too big and a great artistic life : music, theaters, etc … I joined Microsoft because they came a whole afternoon in Carnegie and I just registered to meet them. I didn’t have fantastic grades but I didn’t fail and just being a graduate from such university offers many opportunities. I met them, had a couple of interviews and it just worked out. At the beginning I was doing usability work, mostly on MS Office. When they started the work on Internet Explorer I said I really wanted to work on this exciting project. I had support from my managers and this is how I became Project Manager on the Internet Explorer product, from I.E 1 to I.E 5.

So how come you left Microsoft ?

I left because I wanted to have an interesting life. And for me, having an interesting life means being a writer. My first project was a book about the London underground. I went there with a friend of mine taking pictures. We did couch surfing at some friends during 6 months going to the station to observe people. The idea was to stand still and watch people commuting. Unfortunately, this project didn’t get any traction from the publishing industry. This is when I realized that if I wanted to write book, I should start with something that I am an expert on. This is why I started the book about project management. Having been a project manager at Microsoft has really helped in giving credibility to my project and this how I signed with O’Reilly. But something weird happened. I went into some issues with that book and we had to rename it. This is why the second edition name is Making Things Happen.

What are the writers that have influenced you most ?

What are yours ?

For some reason, I love exiled writers. Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie but my favourite one is Vladimir Nabokov. Such a genius. At the age of 14 he had read all great english, french and russian literatures in their original language. And he wrote his best books in a foreign language : english. I also loves the fact he had many passions such as chess and butterfly entomology. I remember in 92 reading Lolita. Never before I had ever been that fascinated by a book. It was some sorts of aha moment for me. His Cornell lectures on literature have been how I studied literature : a wonderful way to understand the nuts and bolts of fiction writing.

Thanks for the recommendation, this sounds fantastic. I’ve only read his autobiography Speak Memory. I’m not used to find people knowing literature in the IT and / or conference world. People are so focused on their specialty. There has not been any such aha moment for me regarding writing. I love Emerson, Voltaire (Candid is one my favorite books, I’ve read it many times). Bertrand Russell has also impressed me with his book Why I am not a Christian. This is so brave to write such book in America. People are so religious. Russell is not such a great writer but I admire his courage to write such a book. I’m not a religious person, I was born Jewish but I am an atheist. Yet, I am fascinated with the history of religions. I love short books. I love when authors are concise, when they are not trying to impress with quantity but rather they go straight to the point. I love the Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway for instance.

You’ve just started a new kick-start project for a book on your father : The Ghost of my Father. This is a very risky and personal project. It is surprising to see you getting out of the business books world. 

Well, when I decided to be a writer, I knew that at some point I would write non business book. Maybe I was not ready with the London Underground project, I now feel like I am. Basically, my dad is 70 and he had an affair in some very awkward way. He went to Australia and when he was back, he has somehow changed. My mother confronted him in front of me and he eventually admitted. He already had one when I was a kid and I had been discussing this a lot with my brother – that was our only way to try to make sense of this.

Why didn’t you chose to write a full fiction based on that story instead, so that you can avoid the risk of hurting directly your family members ?

I obviously had asked my family about it : my brother, my mother, even my dad whom I have interviewed for the book. My father is very smart but he has not be lucky enough to study and go to university so he is somehow ignorant. He is rather selfish and don’t really understand what happens around him. This is very strange. Yet I remember having great conversations with him when I was a kid. This is our Jewish culture, we have argument about words, ideas, we would go and check in the dictionary – that was fun. That’s probably what has given me the interest in rhetoric. This is probably why Jews are rather good at rhetoric.

Tell us more about the web2.0 founders and thought leaders you have met. Have you ever met Kathy Sierra, 37 Signals or the like of Mark Zukerberg

I’ve never met Zuckerberg. I met Kathy Sierra she works with O’Reilly. Her Head First Series is so great and this has been so successful, she is so smart. But she is a bit weird. Some may say she has overreacted aft what happened in 2007 but what happened was just awful. She has been back on twitter with the SeriousPony handle. She talks half about horses, I think she breeds some very specific type of horses (icelandic). The other half of her tweets are related to what she used to blog about. I believe she tries to write a book with the contents of Creating Passionate Users but for some reason she has trouble finishing this project. I’ve met Jason from 37Signals. Yet another very smart guy. I really enjoyed their Getting Real book. I like Remote as well I see it as a good additional perspective to Year Without Pants on the topic.

Totally agree I’ve actually discussed both books in the same review. I see more Remote as a practical guide to convince managers in an organisation to try working Remote and give some tips to succeed. I see more Year Without Pants as a book about how to survive in a completely different culture. The image of the paratrooper is quite telling in that respect.

Yeah, that’s also how I see it. I think the main difference between me and Jason and David from 37Signals is that they really are provocative, sometimes openly critical and negative.

Yep but maybe they are so bored with the complete dominance of the corporate culture that they decided to give it a go.

Yeah you’re right but still I believe it is better to be positive. I’ve also met Paul Graham. He also is quite weird, he would never look you in the eye. But yet again he is very smart and literate. I really like Tim O’Reilly. I loved his foo camp, 3 days everybody in a tent, that was a great way to eliminate any hierarchy or signs of status or power. I have been there 3 years in a row and I had a great time with very smart people.

Tell us about your experience at WordPress and about Matt Mullenweg. How does it feel to work with such a young, successful and innovative a CEO ? 

Man can you believe he is just 30 ? And he thinks he is tool old. Compared to Tumblr or Box founders who are in their early 20s he sees himself old. We’ve met before and we were exchanging some mails on a regular basis. Then he asked me to work with him. Matt is a great leader. I have been somehow tough on him in the book. But he definitely is a great leader. He always makes sure that everyone is comfortable, he really shows a lot of hospitality. And this is a sign of a great leader. He also has this vision : making publishing available to anyone. How could I not join such a company ? There is a very friendly culture in WordPress. It is not confrontational at all and I think that may be a problem in the long run. There are very good at tweaking and improving their solution but they are not so keen on more radical changes. The guys in my team I told them I was writing a book and I was submitting some excerpts for review and they just would say “that’s okay”.

It was dead cool to discover how it worked out behind the scenes to implement features such as the left column we get after publishing a new blog post or the mail we get after someone subscribed to our blog.  

Yeah, well, I’m not so sure the team was crazy about it and I wouldn’t be surprised it does not last so long. This another great thing about Matt : he was not really keen on the feature yet he left it because he fully empowers the team. I loved it so much to work for WordPress. I was supposed to work there for only a year and I extended for another six months. But then again, I had to quit because I want to be a writer.

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