#16 Bart Eisenberg, Technical Writer
Editor's note: On Software Design's 20th anniversary, we've asked Bart Eisenberg--who has written for the magazine since the beginning--to "interview" himself.
When Bart Eisenberg was a growing up in 1950s Los Angeles, his parents gave him a soroban, the Japanese version of an abacus. The awkwardly translated instructions explained that the four beads on the bottom of each row represented ones; the bead at the top represented fives; and the rows of beads themselves represented number columns. Somewhat like bits, each bead could be turned on and off, enabled or disabled. For its time, the abacus was a simple but powerful machine. And, as it turned, the gift would be Bart's first introduction to two lifelong interests: computational technology and Japanese culture.
Eisenberg graduated with a degree in English and an interest in writing from the University of California at Berkeley. A few years later, he contracted with a San Francisco public relations firm that specialized in technology. One of his first writing assignments was writing press releases for Hewlett Packard, which had just come out with its HP 3000 minicomputer. English majors aren't taught about computers. But luckily, most people who learn about technology aren't taught to write. Back then when the industry was young, if you could do the latter and were interested in the former, you could launch a career. Bart's launched, and he has since written and consulted for a cross-section of technology companies, including Google, Intuit, Sega, Disney Interactive Studios, and Salesforce.
As his career was getting started, his friend Chris Timossi approached him with a proposition. Chris, a programmer at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories, had an expatriate colleague who was looking for Americans to write about American technology.
“Would you like to try it?” Chris asked.
“Sure,” Bart casually replied. When he learned 20 years later he is now the oldest contributor to Software Design magazine, he thought: be careful about the decisions you make in your youth: they may become your life.
Last May, Bart and his wife Susan made their third trip to Japan. Having already visited Kyoto twice, they decided to travel more deeply--as a way to better understand Japan and the Software Design readership. They flew from San Francisco to Kagoshima, took the ferry to Yakushima, then used a GPS to drive to Beppu, took the train to Kanazawa, and then to Tokyo. They hiked in national parks, soaked in onsens, ate many kinds of food they couldn't identify, drank liters of green tea, a few glasses of saki and had countless conversations with Japanese people in English, fractured Japanese, and pantomime. Near the end of their trip, they were honored to join Gihyo colleagues at the Shosen Book Tower in Akihabara. Their last full day was spent at Meiji Jingu Stadium, watching the Saitama Seibu Lions beat the Tokyo Yakult Swallows 6-5.
With Mr. Dan Kogai who talked in the Shosen Book Towe that became the hall of "SD reader's gathering"
- So what did you think of Japan?
I'm constantly amazed by Japan. Every day there were surprises and experiences that seem unique to the county. That was true for us from the very first day. We boarded the huge ferry to Yakushima, and discovered there were no seats, just a rug and blankets. People ate their box lunches, pulled a blanket over their heads, and soon almost the entire room was asleep. For us, that was an exotic experience and part of the fun of travel. And then there's the food, which is far more varied than what you find in the U.
S. When I'm eating pickled seaweed and miso soup for breakfast, I know for sure I'm not in America. I even even saw the differences on the trail. In Kirishima-Yaku National Park, a couple was kind enough to let me come with them on their early morning hike. And it seemed that any time we passed another party, everyone said ohayou gozaimasu to everyone else--as if we were all in a wedding party. That's a level of formality that surpasses anything in America. I liked how some of the guys stretched out the phrase: ohayou gozaimaaaasssssssssss.
- Are those differences important? Aren't the similarities just as important?
Because American culture is so pervasive, it's easy to forget that the U.
S-centric view of the world, our customs, languages, likes and dislikes are not universal. Travel is a good way to keep some perspective. I do think the Japanese have to confront these differences early on. They know more about us than we know about them.
I've thought about this over the years writing for Software Design. I'm an American, interviewing Americans, as well as Canadians and Europeans, for a Japanese audience. But does that audience have the same interests? Does it use technology in the same way? Not always. Japan was famously ahead of us in the use of mobile data services, though I think we've now caught up. I think it's possible that Japanese and Americans will favor different aspects of the iPad and other tablet devices. Even more than the iPhone and Android phones, the tablet's application is wide open, and I wouldn't be surprised if the two countries took it in different directions. On the other hand, the fraternity--and it's mostly guys--of software developers does indeed seem universal. Programming languages have a narrow sphere of meaning, but that meaning does seem to cross borders. So in the end, I can only assume that what American software developers want from their career and their lives at least resembles that of their Japanese colleagues. Even if we eat different breakfasts.
- For years, you wrote an article series for Software Design called Pacific Connection. Then in May 2002, you began this one? How's it going?
You know, the idea of Software Developers is so simple: talk to developers, find out what they are thinking about, what they do in their jobs, how they look on their profession, and what they do for fun. But as it turns out, not many reporters ask those questions--at least that's what many subjects have told me. And I think what those questions reveal is that the term “geek” is unfairly limiting. These "geeks" are among the smartest, creative, versatile, and obsessed people I've had the pleasure of talking to. Some of them work for themselves; others for large companies: but all of them are entrepreneurial, both at work and beyond. Andrew Stone, the developer of the iPhone app Twitterlator, spoke to me from his vegetable garden on his ranch in New Mexico. Sasha Verhage, a lead designer at Google, is a part-time wine-maker. Jon Bentley, distinguished member of Avaya Labs Research, climbs mountains and admires Haiku. And Steve Lord, who heads environmental modeling for the U.
S. National Weather Service, told me how he was first inspired while racing sailboats as a teenager. Sometimes, you learn something completely unexpected. Gianugo Rabellino, an entrepreneur specializing in open source, told me that no Italian would ever think of drinking an espresso after 11AM. I had no idea.
- You seldom ask tough questions.
I think "tough" questions are overrated. If you put people on the defensive, they'll just clam up and tell you very little. If you become known as a hard line reporter, you may get an interview with a company's professional spokespeople, but probably not the hands-on software developers that I'm trying to profile for the article series--because developers aren't used to talking with reporters. It's not part of their job description, and if they're headed into a hostile interview, their PR people will protect them. Besides, most companies these days prepare internal FAQs that guide spokespeople on how to answer tough questions without actually saying anything substantial. I think the better approach is to listen closely, so that if the conversation takes an interesting, unexpected turn, I can follow the thread. Those unexpected twists often become the most interesting, and revealing, part of the conversation, but you can't plan for them and you certainly can't force them.
- What's your work day like?
We live in an A-frame house in Forest Knolls, a tiny hamlet, about an hour's drive north of downtown San Francisco, and about 90 minutes to 2 hours from the Silicon Valley. My commute is 14 stairs and a walk down a hall to my office. And as the name suggests, there really is a forest outside my office window: ferns, California Bay Laurel trees, even a small creek. I've always been a "morning person," so when my brain is operating properly, I'm writing by 7:30AM--but that means I'm pretty fried by early afternoon. I used to feel guilty about that, until David Heinemeier Hansson, inventor of Ruby on Rails, told me that most creative people, including himself, have only four-to-five hours of truly productive time each day. In my very limited programming experience, writing is somewhat like programming: it's inherently a solo occupation, so there are days when I'm just living in my brain. But I do get out from time to time to see clients. And of course I'm often on the phone.
- What about after work?
I'm a GPS fanatic. As for hobbies, for the past couple of years, I've been working on a digital map of the hiking trails around here, of which there are many. It's a device that pretty much requires that I get off my butt and do something active. On weekends, I really try to rejoin the human race. On Sunday mornings, Sue and I meet regularly for coffee with a group of friends--and I often hike with some of them after that. We go out to eat or invite friends over. I love live theater and art exhibits. We go regularly to San Francisco Giants games. I thought I saw a lot of our lives reflected in a walk we took our last day in Tokyo. It was a Sunday morning, and we went through Hibiya Park, where people were enjoying the spring morning and a group of hikers were meeting, fully outfitted and carrying poles. We passed the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, where people were lined up to see a Manet exhibit. We had gone to the ballgame the day before. I knew of course that all of this represents a narrow slice of Japanese life. But it was a slice I understood, because I live something like it at home. At least I thought I understood it until we came across all the women waiting with such ritualistic grace at the Takarazuka Theater. Whatever that's about, it seems very culturally specific.
- Do you have any advice for readers?
I'm always hoping they will advise me. But after 20 years of Software Design writing, I've come to this perhaps obvious conclusion: technology should improve your life, not be your life. Twitter is a great medium, but it's no substitute for face-to-face. Facebook is not a substitute for coffee with friends. No Apple product, however sleek, is as beautifully designed or engaging as a woman. My GPS guided us well through Kyushu. But when we couldn't figure out where to return the rental car in Beppu, it was the kindness of a young couple in a big Nissan pickup truck that lead us to our destination.
I think Japan has something to teach the U.
S. about the value of face-to-face. On every trip, I've been struck by the number of kids on classroom field trips. Our hotel in the Aso caldera, for example, was almost entirely occupied by students. Travel around America and you won't see anything like it. We don't invest enough in education, and, frankly, most groups of American kids would require far more adult supervision. This strikes me as a cultural value: Japanese people are taught the importance of being able to function in a group. The social networking technologies can help foster those connections, but they aren't a substitute. When I see two people sitting at the same table at a restaurant each staring at their iPhones, I think they might as well have stayed home. So my advice is: don't let technology get in the way of essential face-to-face encounters. From what I observed traveling in Japan, those encounters seem to go deep into the heart of what it means to be not just Japanese, but human.