Tech Start-up Entrepreneur

Business, Computers & Technology

Q: Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?

A: My name is Aaron Gotwalt, I am currently heading into my next project, so I don’t have a job title right now. In the past I’ve been a CEO, I’ve been a CTO, I’ve founded several companies. I graduated from college in 2004. 

Q: Great. And could you tell me a little bit about your field in general and the kinds of companies that you’ve started and worked for?

A: Sure. When I was a sophomore in college at Penn State, I founded a company called Elexio, with a friend of mine from high school. Elexio in 2002 I think was, when I think about it in hindsight, was trying to do something interesting. We built a web editor that ran in your web browser, so similar to something like Wix or Squarespace or something like that, and we did it in 2002. The technology was interesting, the people I was working with didn’t understand that possibility, and so though we had something kind of cool, it never lived up to its obvious potentials that you can see in hindsight. Sort of the thing that moved me to San Francisco, I built a company called CoTweet in 2008. CoTweet was an enterprise social media management dashboard for large companies. So our first clients were companies like Ford and Microsoft and JetBlue. And you had this, you know, as social media was gaining steam ten years ago, large brands were suddenly forced to try and figure out how to approach those platforms. And in CoTweet we built them a product that they could take their existing customer service approach to dealing with email and then apply that to social media, and so we built that. You know, it was a classic startup story where I moved home with my parents at 27, and I borrowed money from my grandparents to come out to San Francisco multiple times to try and find funding. We did that and then, probably the most unlikely thing happened, we sold the company about nine months later to ExactTarget, who then subsequently went public and then was acquired by SalesForce. 

Q: Oh interesting, interesting. Wow, okay. That’s fascinating. What a history. 

A: That gets me to eight years ago [chuckle]. And then in the past eight years we built a company called SeeSaw, which was a mobile social network focused on decision making, helping you decide if you know, what to buy, or where to go. And that, that was an interesting learning experience in just how difficult it is to get people to use new applications. And I think we executed really well, but it was a hard, hard lesson. I then built a company called Projector, and Projector was a little bit of a different space, it was a tool for developers, when we were trying to improve push notifications that go to your phone. We thought at the time that most people get far too many, and they sort of reach this noise threshold where you start ignoring them altogether, and so we attempted to build technology to filter those notifications down to the ones you actually want under the hypothesis that it’s good for both you, the user, and good for the company who isn’t necessarily trying to annoy you, but doesn’t have tooling to get more sophisticated at that. So we built that, we ended up shutting it down. I think we learned– Apple in particular does not have a long term vision that supports this, so it was a difficult learning project, but we learned a ton about the space and how complex it is for large organizations to manage those things. 

Q: Oh how interesting. And that’s the project you’ve most recently stepped back from?

A: Yeah.

Q: Great, wonderful. So a lot of these questions are sort of framed in a way that speak to a specific job, but you should feel free obviously to pull from any of these experiences. And just sort of talk more generally, you might be thinking about across the long term how writing has worked, things like that. So whatever way it makes sense for you to think about these questions and answer them is great with us, we’d love to hear about any of these experiences. So first let’s just start with sort of thinking about your role as an entrepreneur, as CEO of an organization, working with these sort of very technical startups, could you estimate in an average week how much writing you do, like percentage wise?

A: You know, I think over time it’s gotten to be higher. When I started, you know, I assumed that my engineering output was how I should measure my own velocity, so you know, I think when you have an engineering skill set, you can look at your output and you can kind of quantify it, and something I’ve learned over the last ten years or so, is that when I don’t know what I’m doing, I will default to just engineering things, even things that aren’t necessary, because they allow me to feel like I’ve accomplished something without necessarily getting anything done. And in truth, my real value is higher when I’m writing and figuring, sort of answering hard questions, than when I’m necessarily just building something. So I would say that my shift has moved towards writing, I think, especially you know I, I’m talking to a couple different companies right now, including one run by a friend of mine, and they’re 70 people right now, and they are in I think six time zones, and only 30 percent of them are in San Francisco. And in order to, you know I think there’s a growing trend toward decentralized organizations, which puts new pressures on the ways that you communicate and sort of build both a company culture and makes sure that everybody knows what’s going on, and that shift goes hand in hand with requiring that everybody’s a good communicator, and has strong writing skills. And I think that even as I’m, you know, whether I build something next or I go work somewhere, I think this shift towards decentralization sort of, it drives this idea that writing skills are really essential and are going to only be more central in how you do your everyday work.

Q: That makes perfect sense to me. And I’m wondering, you know, in the roles that you’ve had, there’s this obvious internal communication that you’re talking about now, particularly in these decentralized organizations, and so I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the breakdown between internal written communication versus external communication, what those different types of writing look like to you?

A: Sure. I mean, you know, internally we have tools like Slack. Slack isn’t the first tool that does short group messaging, but in terms of its dominance at least in the tech enterprise, it’s pretty strong right now. I think it’s one thing to text your partner or your mom or something like that, you can send without thinking, but the moment you have a team of three or four people, and you’re sharing sort of text space, even that becomes, there’s this whole art I think of communicating clearly and not having accidental secondary meanings to people when you’re using a chat tool. So I think there is an art to utilizing group texting in a way that’s productive for a team, that allows you to communicate whatever thing you’re trying to communicate without creating secondary problems in the text. I think there’s a common pattern where you will Slacking back and forth with a group of people, and then communication itself will break down to a point where you have to jump onto a video or phone call, and I’ve certainly done that, and been a part of situations where that happens, but that’s like a every hour, every day kind of thing for most teams. And I think it comes down to there are certain limitations to having multiple people typing towards each other at the same time without being able to really process what you’re saying. You know, like, I’ll write an email and then I’ll reread that email before I send it. For the most part in texting you don’t do that. And I think that that can create confusion because you’ll say things before you really realize what you’ve said. And as opposed to just saying it out loud, you know, where we have audio cues, we have vocal tone, we have facial expressions that you might pick up on you know when we’re sitting across from each other, you just, you’re faced with these cold letters. And so you can have really bad consequences in a work environment from people misunderstanding what you’re trying to say. So I think there’s even at that smallest scale, there’s a skill in writing that could be developed further, even though, I don’t suggest that colleges start teaching like, Office Emoji 101 or something. But you know there is this, how do you communicate professionally using tools that feel very much like the tools that you use to talk to your friends? You know, so I think that’s a component. So a lot of internal communication at least in the organizations I’ve been in in the past ten years have shifted from formalized communication via email to more nonformal communication in something like Slack. A trend that I’ve seen over the last five years is that, increasingly organizations are talking to their partner organizations via similar tools including Slack. So now, I used to think of email as sort of like the way a company talks to another company, and texting tools like Slack as a way that companies talked to themselves. And now increasingly that barrier’s being broken, so it’s companies talking to other companies via these texting tools, and I think that creates all sorts of new and probably interesting legal challenges, because you don’t have the sort of review that would normally go into a message where I’m sending an email to the vice president of something in some other company. So I think this shift towards deformalizing company communication probably has some really interesting challenges wrapped into it. And then there’s sort of the, you know, all the way to the other side, which is, you know, writing for public conception about your company, and that’s something that I care a lot about. I know that’s the one that’s probably changed the least. But writing blog posts, writing copy for your website, I think there’s a real art to that. I think something I’ve developed over time is, what am I trying to say? I think that there was this, when I graduated from college, I wanted to impress you with my language, and sort of these complex sentences and interesting styling, and I read some author and I’m trying to take some flavor from them into this blog post about my company. Over time I think I’ve learned that you really do want to write it in the simplest way possible, and that the simplest way and the least, you know putting up the fewest barriers to understanding allows you to communicate your ideas as clearly as they will be. It cuts down on difficulty if you have a reader who’s reading from a second language, or maybe not fully understand the technical concepts involved – with a lot of what I’ve done, there’s sort of technical layer to it – but I really love reducing complicated ideas to really understandable phrases, and I think that’s something that I’m trying to develop personally, and I hope that other people will develop too. It’s not about writing in this, you know, very complex paragraph-long sentence, it’s trying to reduce this to, “This is exactly what this thing is.” And yeah, so that’s another facet of this sort of writing development that I think I’ve done.

Q: Yeah, absolutely. That makes a lot of sense to me. And I think it’s a process a lot of people go through, whether they sort of do that consciously or articulate it, yeah. Could you walk us through, we’re particularly interested in writing process, I was wondering if you could think about a recent writing project, it doesn’t need to be large-scale, but it can be, and just sort of walk us through the steps that you take from the very beginning, sort of thinking about the writing project, all the way through to calling it done and sending wherever it needs to go?

A: Would you like in sort of office collaborative kind of example? 

Q: That would be wonderful. That sounds great.

A: Probably a year ago, after Projector, I was sort of experimenting with a couple different ideas, and one of them was a health privacy project. We did some technical experimentation and then learned, we learned some interesting details about the lack of privacy in healthcare data, and we wanted to write about that as sort of a mechanism for explaining why our company exists, and what it’s all about. I believe my partner in the project actually started the draft, you know, we started with an outline. We had data that we were trying to present, it wasn’t, you know, research-grade data, but it was you know, some observations that we had made while studying some things. 

Q: I’m sorry to interrupt you Aaron, just for context – who is the sort of imagined audience for this document?

A: That document was for health tech professionals.

Q: Perfect, okay, great.

A: It was for health tech professionals, I think that’s perhaps the most interesting thing, is that it was health tech professionals, but it was more importantly to communicate why our company exists to people who aren’t health tech professionals. So you have this multiple audience problem, where we needed to seem reasonable to both audiences.

Q: Yes. And as you were envisioning – sorry, I don’t want to derail you too far – but just for context, so where were you envisioning this landing such that those multiple audiences would access it?

A: Ultimately our corporate blog. 

Q: Great, okay.

A: And the scope of this work was like, we had discovered some data over two weeks, and we were going to put it out within a week, it wasn’t, you know, we weren’t, this was not a stop the presses kind of event, but it was significant. So we started, we had the data, and my partner at the time wrote a draft, I think I just rewrote it altogether. And I think the audience problem was the problem that we ran into. We wrote, I think the first draft of it ended up being very much geared towards people who are trying to understand our company but didn’t cover the technical aspects of it, and so we rewrote it. We brought the engineer who had been responsible for the data side back into this discussion to try and sort of shape the narrative around the data and make sure we understood when we were making representations about the data, that those representations were accurate. You know, so it ended up just being kind of a back and forth, we used Google Docs I think for it, where we would write and then add annotations and then write, and then add annotations. And ultimately then we sent it to an editor to have a clean up and an external set of eyes. I think when you’re writing this kind of a thing, you oftentimes develop blind spots because you assume that the audience will understand the words you’re using. So we sent it to an external editor for some feedback. And then ultimately published it. It wasn’t a long process, it was probably a four or five day process.

Q: No that’s great. That’s really really useful. Especially the collaborative writing aspect is really interesting to me. So you obviously do a lot of different types of writing, some as you mentioned sort of internal, some client-facing, and some more public-facing, and moving between those types of writing is obviously its own sort of challenge. So I’m wondering sort of how do you perceive that you learned how to perform these very varied types of writings?

A: Some of it is that I think I was exposed to great writing teachers. You know, I did not have– so I went to a private Christian school for K-12 and I would say that really their only strong suit from that education in its English department, which was pretty consistent, the rest of it was pretty bad. And then when I got to college I was exposed to some really great writers and writing teachers. A lot of it was creative writing, nontechnical, but that I think got, it triggered something in me, I think I learned something from that. I think some of my development has been because I’ve been annoyed by other people being bad at this, and so my professional development has been to no longer just rewrite it and not tell you. But you know, I think there was a phase where I was embarrassed by the communications leaving my company, and I was just going to take charge of it, you know, because we sounded dumber than we were [chuckle]. I don’t know what to tell you, I think there’s some aspect that’s just sort of like, you have these standards in your head for how you think you would sound, how you think the company should sound, and you’re willing to do whatever you can in order to make that standard the way that it is. 

Q: That makes sense, that makes perfect sense. So sort of to that end, has there ever been a time in your career that you felt unprepared as a writer? 

A: Huh. I don’t have a good answer for this question. 

Q: That’s okay.

A: Yeah, I mean maybe that’s sort of the danger of being in startup land, is that you’re never really prepared for anything, and you’re just doing it anyway. It’s probably like, you know, a college writing course, you know, you’re in this 413 and the paper’s due on Friday, and whether or not you feel prepared for it, you’re shipping it. I think I’ve gotten better at getting prepared for projects that I’m not that great at, whether that’s bringing in the right people, or getting second opinions, or becoming more confident in the core skill set that I have. 

Q: That’s great, that makes a lot of sense to me. 

A: One key thing is that, you know, I think that most professional writing that I am exposed to, it has some form of collaborative behaviour to it, you’re very rarely writing in a complete vacuum. 

Q: Yeah, that makes sense. Are there challenges that you’ve experienced that are specific to collaborative writing? I mean, there are some that we sort of assume, but does that process typically go smoothly for you? Are there certain things that you do to ensure that it goes well? Are there certain things that present unique challenges for you particularly in collaborative writing?

A: I would say that collaboration just in general depends on a certain maturity to be able to accept that you’re wrong about things and I think that’s something you develop over time if you’re lucky. I’m not sure that there’s some, you know, way to do that other than to just accept it at times. I’m sorry, I lost my train of thought. Could you re-ask the question?

Q: Sure, so the challenges that are unique to collaborative writing, and you said you have to be mature enough to be able to accept that you are wrong [chuckle].

A: Oh, yeah. So I think a core challenge in collaborative writing is that it gets back to that question of the audience. You, when you start writing, have some idea of who the audience is going to be, and if you’re collaborating with somebody else and you’re doing something that’s nontrivial, they may have a very different idea of who that audience is, and so you could both, if you’d set out and tried to write at the same time, could write very different pieces that communicate effectively the same information, and I think unifying that audience view is tricky. I think that even if it’s just you, understanding who your audience is, your first audience in a piece, is oftentimes very difficult in a professional setting, because there’s rarely just one, and sometimes the needs of the audiences that you’re dealing with are really competing with each other. And then when you add another writer into the mix, it can only further muddy it, so I think that’s a core challenge.

Q: That makes a lot of sense, that makes a lot of sense, yeah. You talked about this sort of researched or sort of, the blog project that you collaboratively wrote, and you talked about the timeline there, but could you talk a little bit about how long you typically have to complete a writing project?

A: In startup land, that could be hours or minutes, or it, you know I think, you know, there’s sort of how long you have and then how far ahead of it being due that you actually start it. You know it’s probably like any college paper – you know you have to write the midterm paper when you start the class, but you don’t start writing it until the week before, or the night before if you’re really bad. And I think that’s the crux of it – how much linear time you actually apply to it, you know, I think when you have more complicated things that you’re putting out that require research components or graphics or, you know, those sorts of things, it can take a while. It’s interesting, I just observed a friend of mine – the same friend of mine’s company wrote a very complex blog post about how they developed their product and how they run their organization. That blog post took at least two or three weeks and it had probably eight writers total involved. This is the same decentralized company that I was mentioning earlier. It’s clear that it took a lot of writing and they went so far as to acknowledge that there was no soul voice or soul lead writer to the piece. And I think that represents a really interesting model for how things are going to go eventually. But you know, I think that two to three week, you know, from the time that everyone agrees that something needs to be done towards this end for public consumption to that, you know, that’s about right. You know I think difficult professional communication, one-on-one communication via email is a thing where you know you need to send this email, and because of other distractions, it might take you a day or two to really coalesce your thoughts and make sure that it makes sense. And then all the way down to Slack or something like that, where you typed it before you really thought about it, and then [crosstalk 26:18] about immediately. 

Q: Right, right. So you talked a little bit about the writing that you remember being asked to do as a highschool student, and I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the writing you recall from college, and also sort of how well you think your college writing experiences prepared you for the kind of writing that you have to develop now?

A: So I don’t think my college program was particularly, it wasn’t intentionally shaped to support me professionally. When I left the school of Information, Science, and Technology at Penn State, part of my thinking was that I could learn the technical side of it faster than they could teach me, and so my goal was to learn and to be exposed to things that I couldn’t teach myself. And so I spent a lot of time in the English department, and a lot of it was in creative writing and literature, which has no clear direct path towards this, you know, it’s not in the standard issue prep for being a technical person, but I think that those things actually really did help me a lot. They taught me about nuance in language that I don’t think I would have picked up on otherwise. I think writing, in prep for this I was walking yesterday and I was thinking about how, I suppose that there’s innate skill to writing or to communication, but I think that it’s a practiced skill more than it’s an innate one. You know, on the nature and nurture thing, I think that people can become pretty good writers, maybe not Pulitzer Prize winning authors or something, but you know, you can be a pretty good writer by writing a bunch, you just have to write a bunch. And I think that that, you know, my college process or my college education forced me to write a lot, and so I got to be a at least somewhat better writer, not a great writer by any stretch, as my graduating thesis will attest. Yeah.

Q: Great. That’s really useful and really interesting to hear, and I’m wondering too – are there things looking back that would have sort of given you a more direct application? Are there things that you wish you had been taught that would have helped you to be, maybe make the transition a little bit more quickly or more seamlessly into workplace writing?

A: I think I took one technical writing course and I may have late dropped it because it was really bad, at least really bad relative to thought– like I enjoyed my English classes, you know, and the technical writing one by comparison just felt dead. It was a very mechanical kind of project, and I think that good professional communication is not exactly mechanical. I think I, in college I assumed that like I was writing something that was fun, or I was writing corporate communications, and the modern corporate communication ironically turns out to need fun or people won’t read it. Like you have to have, like I think that good corporate communication may not be telling you hard-hitting jokes, but there’s a sense of humor and a sense of personality to it that isn’t dead, and I don’t think I picked up on that in college. I assume that college writing courses for professional writing have evolved since the time I was there, it’s been a while, but I think that finding something that’s in that middle space would’ve been really helpful. You know I think thinking about the audience is something that I didn’t do a whole lot of when I was in college, and I think that that does really come down to it, it’s almost, it’s like you have this idea that you’re trying to communicate, so that’s your starting point, but then you have, the really hard part is figuring out how to communicate to the people who matter most to you, and that’s different than how do you write a really good piece. In fact sometimes you have to take away the good parts in order to help them understand what you’re saying. So yeah, those are things that I think I wish I would have been exposed to. I’m not sure it was anybody’s fault, I think that when you look at corporate communications from the ‘90’s, it’s pretty dead, you know, it looks like a lawyer wrote it. And there’s still a place, as my lawyers will attest, for communication like a lawyer, but I think that corporate communications has loosened up and you can see that across the whole stack ranging from public communications to you know, tweets from companies, to internal Slack communications, to you know sort of this shift in formality in professional communication.

Q: That’s so interesting, yeah, that makes a lot of sense Aaron. This next question is extremely broad and it will also vary from writing project to writing project, but I wonder if you could talk generally about what you feel is at stake in your writing?

A: Um well, I mean, let’s start you know sort of Slack, which I know doesn’t count as writing in the traditional sense, but you have a team that you’re working with – let’s imagine you’re working with ten people – and you have this transcript of everything you’ve said to these people that stays for forever, and so any offhanded, unintentionally in-bad-taste joke lives for forever, and it lives for forever in this digital system, and it lives for forever in people’s memories to some degree or another. So there’s this reputational stake for making sure that you don’t do something really dumb. It’s sort of like digital photos on the internet, like you know, don’t take photos that you don’t want people to see of you ever, because they will somehow find their way into the public space. And I think the same thing is sort of true reputationally for writing, like you know, you don’t have a secret conversation off to the side anymore. So I think that getting good at writing, getting good at communicating your ideas, even in those really little things, is surprisingly essential. And sort of on the positive side, those little things allow you to build trust with people that you may not see face to face. I think this decentralized thing, decentralized organization means that increasingly, you’re building trusted relationships with people you work with, you know, 24/7, who you might see a couple times a year if you’re lucky. And so these asynchronous text communications turn out to be essential to that relationship, they are the relationship that you’ve got. So figuring out how to communicate your ideas and to sound level-headed even when you’re frustrated in communicating these things is really difficult. Um, you sound like you were going to interrupt.

Q: No, no, please. 

A: And I think the same thing is true for anything that goes publicly, you know, blog posts have a tendency to live for forever thanks to the internet archive, so you, you know, your words stick around for a while. At the same time I think, especially in the public space, there’s a higher volume of communication probably than ever, so in some ways maybe the stakes are lower, you do a lot more writing, at least I do a lot more writing than I used to. And I think that there is this general trend towards writing in this professional space being a really key component of it. I also think it’s interesting is, in a technical organization, the further up you go from being sort of a first line engineer, the more writing the less engineering you’re doing, because the writing becomes the, you know, the engineering is sort of the last step, but the writing is the coordination towards those goals. I’ve been reading up on, I’ve developed a fascination with Roman history, and sort of when you start thinking about military strategy and how you’re going to attack some town, or fight some battle, you think about the soldiers who are out there swinging their swords, but more broadly you think about this unit and this unit needs to move over here, and then you think about the person who’s responsible for that, you know, it’s this person is responsible for all of these units and you’re going to attack from this direction. And in an engineering organization, as it scales it becomes more and more like that as well, and the communication really is the work, there isn’t even a second thing that you’re doing, you’re communicating, you’re taking input from people, you’re developing a strategy, and you’re directing what happens.

Q: That’s a fascinating comparison. Yeah that’s really really interesting. In many ways you may have already touched on this, or you may just point me back to something that you’ve already said, but I’m curious what you would identify as the most difficult thing about writing in the types of positions that you’ve held?

A: I think the most difficult things I’ve dealt with actually come back to sort of group text communication. Unintentional consequences, misunderstandings over choices in words, accidental things that I didn’t intend as offensive that were read as offensive. And luckily I don’t have any truly cataclysmic stories about that, but I think that you, you know, if you work in an environment that communicates via that, you know, over the course of a month, you will end up apologizing to at least a handful of people within, that were accidentally communicated. But I think that those are really the hardest ones, because you have more a traditional process, the more external your communication is, the more formalized your communication is, the more checks and balances you have to your writings, you might catch that you said something horrible. It’s those places where it’s written but it’s impulsive that you can really get yourself into trouble, and you can, you know, it can also, it’s like a double edged sword, it can be very powerful, it allows to cut through the process and get things communicated very quickly, but then you can accidentally communicate the wrong thing very easily. So I, yeah, I think that the most difficult sort of day to day writing thing turns out to maintaining an even keel and dealing, you know, especially when you’re under stress or you know, frustrated with your team, or something like that, to be able to communicate in an even way that doesn’t create side effects via group texting turns out to be very difficult.

Q: That’s really interesting and I think that’s one of those things that our students really don’t get much of. You know, you talked about that you assume professional writing at the university level has improved since you were there, and while I’m sure in some ways it has, I think that it has not caught up–

A: I was being kind.

Q: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I think this sort of informal writing that happens is the piece that’s still missing though. It really isn’t addressed as much as it should be when the bulk of the communication, and like you said, in many situations, the most complicated sort of communications is going to happen that way. Shifting just a little bit, I’m curious whether anyone has helped you formally or informally since the start of your career, sort of post college, with your writing?

A: I have a handful of friends who are better writers than me, who for, whether it’s personal blog posts or professional work that I think really matters, that I don’t want to screw up, that I will send to review confidentially before I send it out. That’s about it. I would imagine there probably could’ve been more support, it would have been nice, but that’s sort of the limit to the support that I have.

Q: Okay. And when you think about, typically this question would be about the organization you’re currently with, but I think sort of looking more broadly at the world of technical startups would be useful – could you speak a little bit about how you feel writing is valued in that world?

A: Yeah, I’m going to focus on external writing for this answer. I think that it’s highly valued, but it’s under invested in. You know, I in a past project worked with a CEO, I was the CTO at the time, and the CEO very much wanted to do some really interesting writing projects, but he was not a good writer, and wasn’t really willing to invest in making that writing better. What ultimately ended up happening was I took over the writing project, because we had these deadlines that had been at one point set very reasonably, but getting to a consistent product turned out to be very difficult. So I think there is this understanding, at least in tech startups, I can’t speak to a broader audience, but I think that companies are aware and teams are aware that writing and communication is really essential. And yeah, there’s real value there. I was looking, I have a friend of mine who’s hiring for a project manager position at a larger company, and the job recs are essentially just writing skills, and some vague idea of the technical spaces they’re working in. I think that communication skills in larger companies are really the skills. Technology is assumed to be learnable more than communication is. 

Q: Yeah, I think that that’s really true but it is really interesting. I’m wondering how would you have defined successful writing as a student versus successful writing now?

A: I think now the end product is a lot, simpler isn’t the right word, right? It’s more like it’s, what’s the word I’m looking for? The writing is effective now, not just loquacious, or something, you know, like you have these words and syntax and structure that you read growing up, and so you’re trying to match that, or to sound very smart in how you’re writing. I think the real power and magic is saying a very complicated thing in a very simple way, and maybe in a much shorter way than college – like I think college writing was like, “Well it must be at least 15 pages, so stretch it out, and up the margins,” [chuckle]. It’s sort of the wrongest possible metric for being done and being successful. I think taking a complicated idea and communicating it really clearly in the simplest way possible is the success now. Nobody really wants to read a ten page blog post, you know, they want to read three, four pages and then like some breakout if they want more information. But that blog post may summarize what you’ve been working on for two years, you know, so you have to really edit the mess out of that in order to get to that point. And in that situation you have to edit out a lot of things that are really interesting, so it, you know, I think part of that success is getting comfortable ignoring or you know, reducing a month of your effort to a single word in the middle of a sentence in the middle of a paragraph, you know, it’s tricky.

Q: Absolutely, absolutely. And yeah, it could represent so much work, but also it could represent what you think is the most important or interesting thing, and knowing your audience means sometimes that goes, yeah.

A: Yeah, that’s really hard.

Q: Yeah, absolutely. And I actually just have one last question. Would you say that you are a successful professional writer?

A: I am a learning professional writer. It’s funny, I’m in the middle of, I’ve had some time off the last couple weeks and I’m in the middle of writing some personal stuff, and my partner is, she’s a writer, and she’s a better writer than I am, and so based off of her feedback, I am not a successful writer yet [chuckle], which I accept. You know, I think that this process, you know, I’ve been doing this now since 2002, which says I’ve been doing it for a little while, 17 years, 18 years, something like that? I’m clearly more of an English person than a math person. But I think I’ve gotten better over time. I think that some of these things probably are more, you could probably teach them better at college and saved me some time and effort, and some of them you only learn because you practice and you fail, and I’ve mostly done it the hard way, but I’ve gotten better at it, I’d like to think so.

Q: Beautiful, thank you so much!

Click here to read full transcript
Tags: , , , , ,