What becomes a great leader most?

I keep returning to this meme because it just sounds right. I was reading one of Mark Cuban’s Tweets (or whatever they are now called) last week where he was riffing on qualities he looked for in a great leader. Now, he was talking politics, and I want to remove that context for the moment, because what he is saying has larger implications.

Leadership is something that I am somewhat familiar with: I have run numerous publications over the years, usually as editor-in-chief where I had to hire the staff. Back in 2012, I was selected to a special leadership training program with a cohort of 60 others, drawn from various organizations here in St. Louis. My wife was selected for an earlier cohort and encouraged me to apply, and it was a fantastic experience. I got to meet business, government, and non-profit leaders as they spoke to our class. We tackled some pretty thorny issues and had some amazingly frank discussions, and formed many  enduring friendships.

Cuban’s list gets to the core of what becomes a great leader most. His thesis is that a great leader is someone who he would hire, and understand and appreciate their values. He breaks this down into several categories, with the overriding aspect whether they are lifelong learners, especially in a world that is constantly changing. Being one of these learners, I never really thought that was necessary condition, but as I think about the best leaders that I have known and worked for over the years, I would agree with him on this and the other items on his list:

  • Will the subordinates who worked most closely to this leader come back to work for them in subsequent jobs?

I am proud to say that I have hired several people multiple times over our careers. This is an easy one to spot: the same crew follows a great leader from posting to posting. I wrote about the original crew that I worked with at PC Week back in the mid-1980s when Sam Whitmore, one of the editors, said it was like being in the Beatles. I once wrote about this group of five guys who have started numerous companies over a 20 year span as an extreme example of this.

  • Does this leader take credit or give credit to others?

I have had some really lousy bosses who were credit stealers. And some great bosses who wouldn’t hesitate to give credit where it was due. Another easy one to spot.

  • How a leader treats people who can do nothing for them.

One of the aspects of leadership that I have enjoyed most is developing someone’s skills and having them leave my operation and go on to do great things. I can think of several people that I hired that have blossomed and had amazing careers, and I like to think that I had something to do with that. But that is more a condition of being a great mentor, rather than buying your way into what Tom Wolfe once called “the favor bank.” Wolfe used the concept as a way to build relationships of trust, but it can also go awry if abused.

  • How does a leader handle the criticism that comes with the job?

If you have a thin skin, you aren’t going to last long in any leadership position. You have to roll with the punches.

  • Does a leader hire their staff for loyalty or ability?

This is harder to spot, because sometimes you don’t realize the loyalty connection until it is too late. With one job, I got fired because one of my subordinates was more loyal to my boss than to me. With another job, I eventually quit because this loyalty connection was undermining my ability to lead my team.

  • Does a leader create stress or reduce stress for the people around them?

Another easy one to spot. I wrote about this situation a couple of years ago when I suggested it was time to fire your jerk boss. At one publication where I wasn’t in charge, our leader was really great at creating chaos and pitting one staffer against another, just to see who would triumph. There was always a fire drill, and the fires were always five alarm ones too. It was like everyone had PTSD, it was so stressful. Conversely, a great leader will do the necessary blocking and running interference from their bosses, so the staff is insulated and get the actual work done. This goes hand-in-hand with how a leader handles criticism.

Thanks Mark for such words of wisdom.

SiliconANGLE: This week’s news

Several news developments that I reported on for SiliconANGLE this week:

Should every coder become a manager?

Too often in tech I see this where stellar coders (and other technical types) reach the point where they are offered a job as a manager. Do they take the promotion and get the corresponding raise in pay and responsibility? Or stay put and continue to write code? The choice isn’t an easy one.

My first big promotion came in my mid-30s, when I was working at PC Week. I had made the move to tech journalism from working in various IT departments, and I was given the chance to run about a third of the magazine’s editorial operations. The promotion required a move from LA to Boston. I can tell you the exact date by a photo of a cake that was baked in my honor by the IT department at Coke Foods, which I happened to be visiting that week. The cake was a copy of a typical front page of the publication. (Sorry about the photos, I had no idea that I was taking them for posterity.)

This promotion was exactly right for me — I went on to run other tech pubs (Network Computing, Tom’s Hardware, various EETimes sister websites, and Inside Security) and work with dozens of editors, artists, and other creative types.

But I came across a more typical situation where the promotion brings about more trouble than success. I was listening to this podcast between Avast CISO Jaya Baloo and Troy Hunt. Hunt has run the site Have I Been Pwned for several years, largely through his own interest in exposing the weaknesses with data breaches. (Note: I have worked with Baloo and write numerous blog posts for Avast.) He mentions how the site got its start when he was promoted to engineering manager at Pfizer and was miserable, because it took him out of the day-to-day coding challenge. While he was getting more influence within the organization, he was also missing out on the joys of coding and building something significant. His dissatisfaction was a good thing for all of us because he has done a bang-up job running HIBP, as it is known. (For those of you unfamiliar with hacker lingo, “pwned” is what hackers do when they succeed at compromising your credentials and break into your system.)

The podcast covers other topics besides Hunt’s promotion. It is worth listening to because it shows the nuanced approach that Hunt has towards running such an influential site, and how he has to play dodge-the-lawyer when he tries to get confirmation that a breach has actually occurred. Still, this is a reminder that not all promotions are always the best directions for our careers. I wish I could send him a cake in appreciation!

Announcing Inside Security: a new email newsletter

I am excited to announce that beginning today there is a new source of high-quality infosec news, analysis, reviews and trends. I have joined forces with Jason Calacanis’ Inside.com to produce Inside Security. The email newsletter will appear twice a week and contain links to content that I find interesting, useful, and cutting edge for CIOs, CISOs, and other IT professionals that want to stay on top of the latest exploits and defenses.

You can subscribe here and view a sample newsletter to see if this is relevant to your interests. Inside Security joins other newsletters such as Inside Tesla, Inside VR&AR, and a tech-based daily brief.

The death of the editor-in-chief

This piece was written for Sam Whitmore’s MediaSurvey, which is a subscriber-only site. I have reposted it with his permission.

We have come to the end of an era. It is time to retire a professional title that was significant role in my own life, that of the Editor-in-Chief or EIC. It now has little significance for those in online publishing, perhaps because the entire editorial department has collapsed into a single individual. As in, the EIC is also the copy editor, chief illustrator (thanks, clipart), social media promotions manager, and freelance manager. We might as well add the roles of lunchroom monitor and basketball coach too, for all that they matter.

To say that editorial operations have changed from back in the day when I was EIC at Network Computing in the early pre-web 1990s is an understatement. It is a completely different world. Look at some of the magazine mastheads from that era: there are dozens of roles that are historical curiosities now. It is like looking at the Dead Sea Scrolls. “Yes, sonny, back in my day we printed things on dead trees, and put them into the mail. And we walked five miles uphill to school too.” Who uses ordinary mail, and many kids learn online. Is there anything that the Internet can’t do now?

We had a significant editorial staff: some 20 people, some million or so dollars in annual salaries. Oh what fun I had back then. Not everyone wrote for the publication, but all contributed towards creating a solid editorial product every month. Remember art directors? Another job title that is headed for the scrap heap. Since then, I held other EIC titles and have run online publications with varying sized staffs, but never that big and for that much budget. Little did I know that my first EIC job was going to be the best of them.

Today we don’t have that luxury of having an editorial staff. If the EIC still writes their own stuff, they have a pressure to get it posted online within moments of the actual news event: how many posts on the Microsoft/LinkedIn deal did you read Monday morning, barely minutes after the acquisition was announced? You don’t have time to do a copy edit, or even check the facts, before you get something online.

Sure, there are pubs that have huge (by comparison) editorial staffs and probably still have EICs that can lay claim to the title, but they are by far the exception. Look how many publications Techtarget still has: Each one has a miniscule staff, with a lot of shared services. And I mean no disrespect for them; they are just an obvious example. When I was at EETimes back in the mid 2000’s, their print revenue was 10x or 20x their online revenue, and healthy revenue it was. Not so today. No one prints on dead trees anymore. It seems even silly to say so.

Now the current tech publishing model isn’t really about the articles. Instead, it is all about how you can pay the bills with other things: custom publishing and lead generation and conference sales – in other words, with everything but your actual editorial product. Who needs editorial product, anyway? Bring in the copywriters!

When I was last at ReadWrite, I ran a successful editorial effort with several full time editors and numerous freelancers. The company had just been purchased by an online advertising agency called, ironically, Say Media. Their first question: do you intend to still do copywriting for ReadWrite? Ahem, I didn’t realize that the rebel alliance had taken over. Or maybe it was the dark side of the Force, if I want to have the right Star Wars metaphor. Whatever, Say What? I didn’t last long as a “copywriter.”

Regardless of what the job I was doing was called, the problem is those golden words that I have written over the years used to be the crank that turned the cash machine on. It was words that got readers to open the pages, which in turn drove advertisers to plunk down thousands per fullpage ads. Thanks to the web, there are no more printed pages, and ad rates are down. Way down. If you the reader doesn’t click, we the writers don’t get paid.

But the web isn’t only to blame: that just started the process of decline of the EIC. What really killed him or her off was the very nature of the web publication itself has changed. When every article that I write lives or dies based on the clickstream, you are just a Google entry away from obscurity – or fame and becoming a viral meme. Nowadays the time that I spend promoting, tweeting, reposting, commenting, and cajoling and trying to find readers is just as much as the time spent interviewing, testing, researching and writing. Social media is the cart now driving this old workhorse.

So say farewell to the EICs, may they RIP. Soon we will take our place next to buggy whip operators in history. Please take a moment and honor their memory.

Top ten most annoying things writers do to their editors

I recently got to see “Author Anonymous,” a very funny mockumentary movie about a bunch of writers and how their group dynamics change when one of them (played by Kaley Cuoco of Big Bang fame) experiences success. It reminded me about how badly many fellow members of my fellow writing fraternity are when it comes to pitching potential stories to prospective editors. Here are my top ten mistakes you can make.

  • Make incomplete pitches.

Make it hard for the editor to understand what you are trying to do, why your pitch is important, what is your angle or expertise, or whatever. Put as much information as possible into your pitch

  • Don’t waste an editor’s time with inane queries.

Editors are busy people, make each email count. Try to figure out stuff on your own. Silence is golden.

  • Do follow your editor’s instructions.

Some of my editors have very specific instructions on how to assemble a draft for them. How hotlinks should be represented, or whether they like or hate in-line images, or whether they want subheads or suggested Tweet language or whatnot. Try to obey these instructions and keep them straight so you won’t waste their time in this fashion.

  • Don’t look at the website and understand their target audience.

This one is easy to fix: read and review the site and understand who they expect their readers to be.

  • Don’t know what articles have already been published.
    Make sure what you are pitching already hasn’t been covered on the site.
  • Don’t pitch something that you have already written for some other pub.
    This is a big no-no. Editors want unique content, unless they tell you otherwise.
  • Don’t have any clue on when you can actually finish a draft or hit a self-imposed deadline.
    When you are pitching a story, make sure you have the bandwidth to actually write it and finish it, because usually the next question is going to be when can the editor have it in hand?
  • Do understand the meaning of deadlines in general.
    And respect that deadline too. This isn’t some approximate timeframe. Don’t hold up the rest of the production process because you are late delivering your copy.
  • Don’t submit a story without any accompanying art, suggested Tweets, or other information that the editor requested.
    It isn’t just your text that is important, but the other information that supports your story is critical too.
  • Don’t whine about how much time revisions will take you.
    I know some editors are a major pain with serial revisions. Just don’t work for them again if they offend you or tie you up in knots with all sorts of back-and-forth emails. But your goal should be to finish the assignment at least to your standards. Now, I have worked for editors that like to subtract value, or think of themselves as writers, but that will be for another post.

The Mac and Me: Remembering Quark and AppleTalk, Netware and Gopher

The Apple Mac has played an important part of my professional journalism career for at least 20 of the years that I have been a writer. One Mac or another has been my main writing machine since 1990, and has been in daily use, traveling around the world several times and my more-or-less constant work companion. It is a tool not a religion, yet I have been quite fond of the various machines that I have used.

You can read more of my reflections on using a Mac for nearly 30 years over at Network World where they have put together a nice package of articles commemorating the event.

In tribute to PC Week’s original staffers

pcweekLast week eWeek began its series called PC Week at 30. It wasn’t quite 30 years ago when the venerable publication began chronicling our industry. I spent two and a half years working at the publication, and was there during John Pallatto’s first tenure (John wrote the piece above).

But rather than write another column about the way-back tech, or my first byline, I want to take a moment to pay tribute to the people who made up PC Week. Many of the original PC Weekers went on to bigger and better things in the tech industry, and I am proud to count myself as part of them. Here are just a few of them and where they have been since their tenure.

  • Mike Edelhart was my mentor and the person who originally hired me on at PC Week. Mike went on to run Zinio and a number of other startups and now is working with Bill Lohse, a former Ziffie, on various conferences.
  • Gina Smith was one of our cub reporters who broke many scoops and was a lot of fun to be around. She went on to a startup working with Larry Ellison and working with Steve Wozniak on a book as well as being a tech TV start.
  • Greg Spector, who was the West Coast Bureau chief when I was there and went on to found and run a number of PR firms. When I started at PC Week I was living in LA and spent a lot of time in the Bay Area and got to work with Jane Morrissey and Karyl Scott. Jane is running communications for Virtela now and Karyl, after years of working for Nokia, is back on her own.
  • Dan Lyons was another cub reporter who would go on to write the “Fake Steve Jobs” columns and more recently briefly run the editorial operations of ReadWrite, where I worked in 2011. He is now blogging for HubSpot.
  • Barry Gerber was running the IT department of part of UCLA when I hired him to help me write reviews for PC Week. We would go on to do some ground-breaking testing of network products, and Barry and I would work together on several other publications. He is now running the editorial operations at Tom’s Hardware.com.
  • Peter Coffee was working in aerospace IT when I hired him to come to PC Week, where he had a long and illustrious career writing many insightful analyses of application development tools before the cloud ever existed. He left to work for Salesforce.com, where he is still as pithy and interesting as always.
  • Sam Whitmore was running the news operations for PC Week when I arrived, and he and I had a rocky relationship at the start. He eventually left the pub to start his own business, where he has been quite successful and where we have become friends.
  • Dale Lewallen was working in IT at an LA-based bank when I hired him to be one of our reviews team. He went on to work for several Ziff publications, writing deep technical dives with a thoroughness and zeal that few could match. Sadly, he literally died on the job at an early age.
  • Bob Scheier and I started at PC Week at nearly the same time, and like Sam he left to start his own consulting business and has continued to write about computers and business.
  • Paul Bonner was my partner in crime at PC Week: we had a lot of things in common and we covered a lot of the same topics for our beats on corporate networking. He left the Boston area and moved to Austin, where he now works in software development for the electric utilities industry. Ironically, one of my first jobs in tech — back when PC Week was founded — was developing software for the electric utilities industry.
  • Chris Shipley was a cub reporter back then and went on to run the Demo conferences for many years.

As you can see, it is quite an impressive group. Back then we had a staff of more than 50 people, and that included a full copy desk and art department too. Looking over some of my preserved back issues, I am proud of what the team accomplished. Happy birthday PC Week!

Happy 40th birthday, Ethernet!

aaaCan it be 40 years ago that Bob Metcalfe and his PARC colleagues began their work on what would become Ethernet? Yes, happy birthday. While the worldwide celebration continues, you might want to read one of his columns that he wrote for me when I was running Network Computing magazine in the early 1990s. Here is one written in July 1991 about his early days at 3Com and betting against Novell.

met1 metp2

That breakout job

In my work as a mentor for startups and as an informal career coach for others, I often tell people about the moment in time when I made a major career change. Many of you might enjoy this story as well, and use it to think about how you have gotten to where you are today.

The Internet has made it easier to stay in touch with people from our past: just this week I met with someone that attended my undergraduate college (whom I never met when I was there) and got an email from a co-worker from my past. It put me in a mood.

This job change was a big moment for me: it turned me towards my path of tech journalism and changed the nature of what I do every day.

I can remember it precisely: it was the winter of 1986, and I was working as an IT analyst for a large insurance company in downtown Los Angeles.

It was a fun job. Back then, end user computing was on the rise. Budgets and staff were big. We had, I think, somewhere north of 20 people working in various capacities, and we were installing PCs by the truck load across our three building “campus” (although no one called it that back then). I was good at my job, and enjoyed working with end users and helping them to learn about the few apps (by today’s standards) that we supported on their PCs.

I was an avid reader of PC Week, which (along with Infoworld) was the leading trade pub for IT workers. All work would stop when the internal mail delivered our copies Monday afternoon, as we tried to scan its pages before our users (who also were subscribers) would start calling us with questions about the tech they were reading about in the latest issue.

PC Week was starting a special edition that was going to be called Connectivity. It would be a supplement that would go to a subset of its readership, what publishers call a “demographic.” And they were looking for writers and stories.

I found out who was going to be running the publication and sent him what I now know is a query letter. At the time, I was just an interested reader of the pub and didn’t think anyone would be even interested in hiring me, let alone want to know what I thought was important and interesting. I mean, I was just this little cog in a big machine. I had zero professional writing experience. I didn’t know who the CEOs were of the major tech vendors by name. I was in the process of installing my company’s first LAN, so was interested in PC communications.

I was dead wrong. They were more than interested.

That query letter led to flying me out to Comdex in Vegas, the biggest tech show back then, and meeting the newly minted Connectivity staff, and eventually a job offer to join their ranks as a staff writer. I began working for them almost immediately, and the rest, as they say, is history.

That first year I wrote more than 300 individual stories for the publication. They were stories about how LANs were connecting to mainframes, and how PCs were changing the nature of American business. They were heady times: we had the ear of every major tech company around. I got to work with some of the most creative and interesting people of my career, some of whom I still am in touch with today. Many of the original PC Weekers went on to bigger and better things in the tech industry, and I am proud to count myself as part of them.

I went from installing my first LAN to telling thousands of people how to do it themselves. Back then, we could talk to anyone, including Bill Gates, just by calling them on the phone. Email was still a bright and shiny object, and the Internet was yet to be invented, by Al Gore or Vint Cerf or anyone else.

What motivated me to write that letter? I really don’t know. But it was a transformative moment for my career, to say the least. And I tell this story to you today in the hopes that you may share your own moment when your career went in a new and exciting direction, and you have the perspective to acknowledge and celebrate it. Please share your stories here if you feel so moved.