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Book-talk with Scott Johnson, Freelance Software Engineer

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The interview you’re going to read next is with Scott Johnson, freelance software engineer based in Indianapolis, with huge amounts of experience in building products in a startup context.

He founded multiple projects, among them: Feedster (world’s first blog search engine), NTERGAID (vendor of publishing and search engine technology), FI Navigator (leading provider of financial information for the banking industry), Net Services Corp (Internet-based business-to-business exchange focused on sharing employees between companies) and many others (you can see a full list here).

Scott’s now working on GameNanny, a subscription service for alerting parents to their kid’s Xbox gaming spending.

He’s also been blogging since 2002 – you can read him at FuzzyBlog, and published the books Blogging Essentials (in 2002) and The Digital Publishing Construction Kit (in 1996).

Read on to find out the unexpected way books impacted his life, but also a reading list for those interested in taking a career path in high tech.

P.S. A big thank you goes to Nick for putting us in contact!


What’s your favorite book and why? Business and non-business, if possible.

Business: Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine. This was the first book that really took a deep dive into the process of creating a high tech product from scratch. Tracy really humanized the engineering process and made me realize that was the type of industry where I wanted to be.

Non Business: American Gods by Neil Gaiman. This is a brilliant thought experiment about what happens to a god when its believers stop believing. My preferred edition is the 10th Anniversary release with expanded text.


Was there a moment, specifically, when something you read in a book helped you? Can you tell me about it?

In the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig covers the process by which technical documentation actually gets written and the level of stupidity that it illustrated thoroughly convinced me that documentation for any product I created needed to actually be good and not subject to this type of process. I read this back in 1988 when I first had to write documentation for a product and 30 years later I still remember it.


What books had the biggest impact on you? (perhaps changed the way you see things, dramatically changed your career path)

I spent a ton of years doing mostly product management as opposed to software engineering (what I do now). Although I had written code and managed engineers, I wasn’t really a hands on software engineer. In the wake of the dot com crisis, when everyone was unemployed, when an unexpected software engineering gig landed on me, the book PHP and MySQL Web Development by Luke Welling and Laura Thompson literally taught me database backed web development. Oddly enough, two years later, I ended up marrying one of the book’s editors. If I hadn’t read that book, I wouldn’t have ended up speaking at the PHP conference where I met my wife and I would not be married to her (or have my kids). That one book took me down the Open Source path and while I’ve changed languages (Ruby / Rails), it literally changed every single aspect of my life.

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What books would you recommend to youngsters interested in your professional path? Why? (no number limit here)

If you’re interested in high tech as a career path then I’d recommend a series of case studies around the development of products / founding of companies. Here are four examples:

* Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder (1981)
* Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure by Jerry Kaplan (1996)
* Show Stopper by G Pascal Zachary (1994)
* The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator by Randall Stross (2013)
* The Everything Store by Brad Stone (2014)

These books all tell the tale of starting a company or building a product and despite covering a time span of 30+ years and multiple generations of technology the remarkable thing is just how very, very similar they are. While the technology changes, the process of creating something from whole cloth doesn’t. That’s a great lesson for people to learn.


I’m interested in finding out more about your reading habits. How often do you read? In what format?

* As often as possible. I tend to read multiple books at the same time by keeping a different book open where ever I have “interstitial” time when I can read a few pages. For example there is always a book open on my sink where I shave in the morning.

* I read every single day.

* My preferred format is a physical book. While I understand the attraction of ebooks, I find the usability of paper books is vastly superior. I also find that paper books, if bought wisely, are dramatically cheaper than ebooks. I shop used book stores and the local library’s clearance sale 4 times per year to minimize my per book cost.


How do you make time for reading?

I make time for reading simply by deciding that it is important. It really isn’t any more complicated than that. I would argue that if learning is important to you then reading, by definition, has to be important to you.


Do you take notes or have any other technique for conquering the torrent of information?

I tend to dog ear the bottom corner of the page where I find something relevant. If it’s particularly important I might blog about it or tweet it but that’s not very common for me.


How do you choose what books to read next?

A lot of it is availability. At any given point I have several hundred books that I haven’t read yet so often it is just “this looks interesting”. Sometimes I’m trying to set a mood and that drives it. For example, if I’m starting on a new coding project, I might pick an entrepreneurial case study on the basis that it might inspire me.


Do you prioritize those recommended by certain people? Is there anyone that you consider a book-recommendations guru?

I prioritize from close friends and my wife. I don’t have anyone I consider a recommendation guru. I do find the podcast Author Stories by Hank Garner to be a brilliant source of insights into the writing process albeit fiction.


Last question: what book are you currently reading and what are you expecting to gain from it?

I’m currently reading a biography of Alan Sugar, a U.K. entrepreneur who created Amstrad from scratch. I’m trying to get my creative juices flowing on launching a new product and this very much sets that tone.

Links where you can follow Scott Johnson or find out more about his projects:

All the books mentioned by Scott in this interview:

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