Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Jason W. Eckert - Author profile

Jason Eckert is an enigma wrapped up in a riddle. He is easily one of the most brilliant people I have had the pleasure of meeting, and yet he is down to earth, approachable and very outgoing and easy to get along with. I have heard him described as a genius and heard that he was a computer science prodigy in his youth. He knows more about computers than anyone I know. So at Book Reviews and More we thank him for taking a few minutes out of his busy teaching and writing schedule to answer some questions.

1. Jason as a technology writer you have covered wide and varied topics, Exchange, Linux, UNIX, BES and more. What was your favorite technology book to write and why?

I'd have to say Exchange, because it covered a great deal of unchartered territory. No other Microsoft Official Academic Curriculum (MOAC) existed beforehand on that subject and most authors wanted to stay away from Exchange because it was such a large and complex topic. I had fun with it and added lots of extra material, including a chapter on BES/ActiveSync.

2. Who were some of the technology authors who shaped your writing style?

I haven't read many technology books at all - technology is just something that you do and talk about later. That being said, I would say that my writing style is a combination of Kurt Vonnegut, Steven Levy, and Douglas Coupland - comical, informative, and to-the-point. That seems to work for most people who want to learn quickly.

3. I once had a university professor state that the true goal of a university education should be to teach one to learn how to think. What would you state should be the goal of higher education and why?

I've always thought the primary purpose of higher education was to inspire students to learn about themselves, and in the process, learn about the world around them. Since life is shaped by different experiences over time, this allows students to understand what they want to do, and gives them the ability to reach their full potential in those areas (if they wish to do so). I'm a good example of this - before higher education shaped my though processes, I thought that higher education was just about getting laid.

4. What is it like teaching from textbooks that you have written?

It is good and bad. It is good because you don't have to read the textbook before the course, and it is bad because you can't blame any weird sections on the author (What was the author smoking? Actually, I know. Nevermind.).

5. What was the hardest technology book you wrote and why?

My Exchange textbook, because there are literally thousands of different configurations and PowerShell commands that I needed to test in order to fully cover each topic in the textbook. The Linux and UNIX books I wrote have far more commands and concepts than Exchange, but I've been doing UNIX for over 25 years and Linux for almost 20 years - I wrote nearly everything in those books from the top of my head without testing.

6. What does your writing process look like? Takes us through the steps from idea to publishing?

It first involves being asked by a publisher to write a book on a certain topic (the publisher will get requests from colleges/universities and if the demand is high enough, they will pursue it). After you accept the textbook project, you purchase large amounts of Starbucks coffee (your blood-caffeine level should always be above 10mg/dL). Next, you create a conceptual map of the topics within the book using cue cards and stick them on a whiteboard. Then, you organize the cards such that prerequisite concepts are always introduced before others that rely on them, and ensure that each topic flows to the next one (this step takes several days and may require additional caffeine consumption). Once this is done, then you can submit your outline and estimated pages/chapter to the publisher for approval. When it comes to writing, you start writing Ch.1 (called an Author 1st draft or A1) and submit it to your Developmental Editor (DE) who checks it for structure, submits it to 4 reviewers for feedback, as well as a Technical Editor (TE) who verifies all information and a QA team that tests all lab exercise steps. During this time you are already working on the A1 for Ch.2. The DE then collects the feedback from the reviewers, TE, and QA team and sends it to you. You can incorporate this feedback into your A1 and resubmit it to the DE as an Author 2nd draft (A2). By this time you are probably working on the A1 for Ch.3. Next, the DE sends the A2 to a copyeditor (CE) that checks grammar/spelling - the CE will often ask you for clarification when it comes to technical jargon and phrasing. By this time you are probably working on the A1 for Ch.4. Finally, the DE sends the copyedited A2 to the composition group which composites the textbook into its final form (positions notes, figures, tables, and so on using a style guide specific to the publisher). These are called first page proofs (FPPs), and you must go through them to ensure that everything looks good. By this time you are probably working on the A1 for Ch.5. Now can you see why the Starbucks is needed? After the final chapter goes through this process, the book will likely be printed within 2-3 months (called the Book Bound Date or BBD).

7. You teach part time and write part time, what does your typical day look like?

If I'm teaching a morning class from 8:00am to noon (which is most of the time), I wake up, prepare a daily quiz from the topics we covered the day before, browse through the topics I need to cover for the day, and assemble a lecture in my head on my way to work. Then I guide people through these topics during the day - this will involve me writing diagrams on the whiteboard, showing students certain items on the projectors in the classroom, walking around the room telling students what to configure on the computers to match what we talked about, and stopping to help the odd student who has a typo/problem. It is a combination of theory and hands-on training throughout the whole four hours. When I get home, I first see what tasks the DE has sent me and I handle those first (since they are often time-sensitive on the publisher's end). Then, I continue writing for the chapter that I am working on. This will often involve playing with different technology and configuration in my lab setup at home and will look radically different from one day to the next, or even one hour to the next. As a result, I fit my personal schedule around the needs of that day. If I must wait to install software in the afternoon, I'll probably just go get groceries and finish the writing later that night. Similarly, there are just some times that I don't feel like writing - during those times, I'll switch to personal-life mode for a while and pick up the slack later in the week or on the weekend. I find that I accomplish much more when I want to write, so by doing this, I'm able to minimize the time it takes to write a book while balancing home and work life.

8. What fiction books or authors do you enjoy or recommend?

There are far too many to mention here. I read about 3-5 books per month - you can find my favorite fiction, sci-fi, non-fiction, and bio reads at http://jasoneckert.net.

9. With how much fiction your read and recommend on your blog, have you ever considered writing fiction? If so is it a project we might see in the near future?

Not a chance. I like reading fiction, but I have no interest in writing it. For me, it is like playing the piano - I like playing for personal pleasure, but I have no desire to make a living from it.

10. What were your favorite books and authors to read as a youth?

When I was a kid, I liked to read anything by Douglas Adams, William Gibson, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, or Kurt Vonnegut. I was a pretty strange kid.

11. Who are some of your favorite authors or books now?

When it comes to authors, I'd have to say Daniel Suarez, Douglas Coupland, Neal Stephenson, and Robert J. Sawyer. When it comes to individual books, there are many that you can find @ http://jasoneckert.net.

12. You mention often that you now read fiction almost exclusively on your Kindle, if Amazon was to make drastic improvements to the Kindle what new features or options would you like to see incorporated?

Time travel, a photon cannon, a Darth Vader voice pack, and 9TB Wi-Fi.

13. Many computer books come with a support CD with supplemental material and often included is the PDF of the book. However with eBooks come the distribution of them through torrents and other illegal means, is this a concern for you an author?

Technically, obtaining any eBooks for personal or research use is not illegal in Canada (Section 29 of the Canadian Copyright Act - the Fair Dealings clause). As an author, I'm not concerned about this at all, and I don't think that publishers should be either. For a $100 textbook, about $20 is for printing/distribution costs, and $80 is intellectual property (editors, compositors, QA, reviewers, authors, organizational costs and profit). If publishers move to digital content, colleges/universities can roll the cost of the eBook ($80) into the tuition of the course like we do at my college. What this does is eliminate the used bookstores at colleges/universities, increase the predictability of the publisher's revenue stream, and allow them to focus on publishing more books for less money (since there are no used bookstores reducing new orders). In short, eBooks can only be good for the academic textbook market.

14. Do you use a playlist when writing? Are certain books written while predominantly listing to the same music?

Nope - I never listen to music while writing. But if I did, I think UNIX/Linux/Mac books should be written while listening to AC/DC, Microsoft books written while listening to Disturbed, and BlackBerry books written while listening to Raffi.

15. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you nurture that dream?

I first got a taste of writing when I helped Dr. Peter Chieh with his Nuclear Chemistry textbook (I was his TA for the course at the University of Waterloo), and I've liked writing ever since.

16. What are your favorite technology books that you have ever read?

There is only one technology book that I've ever liked - "Life with UNIX" by Don Libes and Sandy Ressler (1989).

17. If someone had limited time but wanted to learn a new technology skill set, what would you recommend to them?

Take a course in it at a local college or university. In IT, I'm often required to learn new technologies, and I prefer to sit a course and have an expert explain it to me. Two summers ago, I sat a two week, part time course on Adobe Illustrator because I couldn't figure it out on my own over the previous four months and was getting frustrated. After the two week course, I was a pro.

18. If someone what to write certification books or training materials how would you recommend they go about starting?

That is a difficult one to answer since publishers usually give you a call because they heard you were an expert on some topic through trusted IT circles (that is how I started). It is also a small world when it comes to academic publishers, and publishers are more likely to ask an existing academic publisher to write a book in almost all cases. So the best advice I would give people is to build connections within the college/university market, network with publishers where possible, and perhaps even send publishers a sample of your technical work.

19. If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have 10 books to read again and again, what books would you want with you?

That's an easy one: How to build and sail small boats by Tony Read Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft by Thor Heyerdahl The Complete Guide to Edible Wild Plants, Mushrooms, Fruits, and Nuts : How to Find, Identify, and Cook Them by Katie Letcher Lyle The Bounty of the Earth Cookbook/the Practical Classic on How to Cook Fish, Game, and Other Wild Things by Sylvia G. Bashline Seawater Desalination: Conventional and Renewable Energy Processes (Green Energy and Technology) by Andrea Cipollina, Giorgio Micale, and Lucio Rizzuti SAS Survival Handbook: How to Survive in the Wild, in Any Climate, on Land or at Sea by John Wiseman Survive!: Essential Skills and Tactics to Get You Out of Anywhere - Alive by Les Stroud How to Survive in a Jungle: Without Being Savaged by Wild Animals, Poisoned by Plants, Attacked by Hunters, Biten by Snakes or Starving to Death by Anita Ganeri and Rob Shone Bushcraft Skills and How to Survive in the Wild: A Step-by-Step Practical Guide: A complete handbook to wilderness survival--all the knowledge you need ... illustrated with over 300 color photographs by Anthonio Akkermans Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

20. What advice would you give to young aspiring authors and artists?

Deadlines are never absolute, apply Starbucks liberally, and have fun!

Thanks for shedding some light on your process of writing technology books and your advice for reading and life.

Books by Jason W. Eckert:
Guide to Linux+ (ISBN: 0-619-13004-0)
Guide to UNIX Administration (ISBN: 0-619-13041-5)
Linux+ In Depth (ISBN: 1-59200-062-2).
Guide to Managing a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Network (ISBN: 0-619-12029-0).
Guide to Linux+ - 2nd Edition (ISBN: 0-619-21621-2).
Linux+ In Depth 2005 (ISBN: 1-59200-728-7).
Novell's Guide to CompTIA's Linux+ (Course 3060) (ISBN: 1-4188-3730-X).
SUSE Linux Administration (Course 3037) (ISBN: 1-4188-3731-8).
SUSE Linux Advanced Administration (Course 3038) (ISBN: 1-4188-3732-6).
Microsoft Windows Vista Guide (ISBN: 1-4188-3757-1).
SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop Administration (ISBN: 1-4283-2227-2).
SUSE Linux Enterprise Server Security (ISBN: 1-4283-2223-X).
RIM Academic Textbook BCP-211: Supporting BlackBerry Devices in a Microsoft Exchange Environment
RIM Academic Textbook BCP-213: Supporting BlackBerry Enterprise Server in a Microsoft Exchange Environment
RIM Academic Textbook BCP-410: Managing BlackBerry Enterprise Server in a Microsoft Exchange Environment
Microsoft Official Academic Course (MOAC): Exchange Server 2007 Exam 70-236 (ISBN: 978-0-470-31227-8).
Guide to Linux+ - 3rd Edition (ISBN: 978-1-418-83721-1) - published in January 2011.

Books Contributed To:
Advanced Guide to Linux Networking and Security (ISBN: 1-4188-3539-0) by Ed Sawicki - 2005
70-290: MCSE Guide to Managing a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Environment, Enhanced ISBN: 0-619-21752-9) by Brian McCann, Dan DiNicolo - 2005
70-293: MCSE Guide to Planning a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Network, Enhanced (ISBN: 0-619-21754-5) by Brian McCann, Byron Wright - 2005
Microsoft Official Academic Course (MOAC): Windows Vista Configuration (ISBN: 978-0-470-06958-5)

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