Interview with Gerald M. Weinberg

Published 2014-01-26.
I was recently asked by my Chinese translator to answer a series of questions for some Chinese students and fans.
Here are the questions and my top-of-the-head answers for your enjoyment: (Smashwords' questions/answers begin when these numbered questions are finished. If you just want those, you can skip the numbered ones.)

1. You have written many technical books in your early years, but now the books you wrote mostly are about human. What is the cause of this transition?

In the early days of computing, we were burdened with so many technical problems that we couldn't afford to think of much else. When I started, in the 1950s, there were probably fewer that 100 people in the United States who could write a serious program. I personally could have exclusive access to one computer (the IBM 704 #1) that had about 10% of the computing problem in the entire world. Today, a typical person carries a thousand times that much computing power in his or her pocket telephone.

In that environment, we desperately needed more people who could program anything, and anything they could program, no matter how poorly designed, was greatly appreciated. Today, however, there must be more than a million people in the United States who write programs every day. (I don't know how many in China, but I'm sure it's even more.)

Back then, our failures all seemed to be programming problems, technical errors in code. So, that's what I wrote about. As time went by, we had more programmers, more and bigger projects, and though the technical problems remained, we could usually find a large number of people who can solve them. But, with bigger and more complex projects, we began to see that human failures were increasingly frequent, and more serious. At the same time, none of us technically trained people had much training or instinct for solving those human problems. So, because I've always tried to write about solutions to the problems we weren't solving, I gradually changed my main focus–though of course I still write about technical problems, too.

2. How to embrace the great ideas in your book? Sometimes though readers appreciated the idea, still they find them too hard to implement.

If problems are easy to solve, we solve them. After we've done that for a while, what we have left are the more difficult problems, so naturally we have more difficulty solving them. But, if they are important problems, it's worth the hard work it takes to learn to solve them.

One thing my readers can depend upon, though, is that every idea I describe in my books is an idea that some other people have used to solve their problems. So, if you are having trouble implementing one of those ideas, support your work by remembering that someone has really done this successfully before you.

Sometimes, though, the reason you have difficulty is that you believe you must solve every problem alone, with no help from anyone else. In the United States, I know that our schools contribute to this attitude–because receiving help in solving a problem is called "cheating." That might be okay in some school situations, but in the world of real work, the people who succeed best are those people who know how to work with others. So, next time you have difficulty implementing an idea that you feel is important, seek and find another person or persons to work with you.

Some of my readers have told me that they use a "virtual Jerry" approach to get the help they need. When they're stuck, or slow, they ask themselves, "How would Jerry approach this difficulty?" A few actually keep a picture of me in their office, so they can talk the problem over with their "virtual Jerry."

I know it sounds silly, but they say it works. I believe them, too, because I use a similar approach with virtual versions of some of my teachers–Virginia Satir, Kenneth Boulding, Ross Ashby, Anatol Rapoport, Bernie Dimsdale, to name a few. (Actually, I learned this virtual technique from Bernie Dimsdale, who used it with his teacher, the great John von Neumann.)
3. When is the right time to go to the consulting firm? (Q triggered by my "The Secrets of Consulting.")
Does this mean when is the right time to seek the help of a consulting firm? Assuming that's what it means, the answer, of course, is "it depends."

But what does it depend on? Perhaps it's easier to talk about when is the right time NOT to seek the help of a consulting firm. If you eliminate those wrong times, your chances of success will be greatly improved. So here are a few tips:

a. Don't seek a consultant when you're really trying to find someone to take the blame for your own failure. You must really want to solve the problem you're describing–NOT just so you can say to your boss, "If this expensive consultant couldn't solve the problem, you can't blame us for not solving it."

b. Don't seek a consultant if that consultant's success will make you look like a failure. For example, if your boss thinks that anybody who needs help is a bad employee, do NOT seek a consultant. Instead, seek a new boss.

c. Do NOT seek the cheapest consultant, but do NOT seek the most expensive one, either. Seek a consultant for whom you can get personal recommendations from people who have actually used that consultant. Just be sure that the advice you seek will, if successful, be worth what you have to pay the consultant.

d. Do NOT seek a consultant if you're not ready to be told that you've actually been working on the wrong problem. About half the time I'm hired as a consultant, my most important advice is showing them a different definition of their problem.

Well, that's enough of an answer to this question, though there are many other reasons for not hiring a consultant. Maybe you need to hire a consultant to tell you whether or not you should hire a consultant.

4. There are many consulting firms in the market, and they all have their own strength. How does a company choose the right consulting firm for them?

This is a good example of what I was talking about in the previous question (3)–problem definition.

Your problem is NOT how to choose the right consulting FIRM. Your problem may be how to choose the right CONSULTANT. Consulting firms typically want you to believe that any consultant they send to you is as good as any other in their employ. That is simply not true. It is never true, unless the firm has only one employee.

My own firm has just two consultants–me and Dani, my wife and partner. We are not equal, not the same. For some consulting jobs, I'm the best one for you. For other jobs, she's the best, far better than me. So, you would do wrong to choose our FIRM. Instead, you should choose one of us or the other–or some other consultant entirely.

As far as how to choose that consultant, there's no short answer, but you can read my two books on consulting to learn much more about how to make such a choice.

5. Sometimes, the discontentment towards consulting firms and their solutions only come up during the consulting process, how to avoid this situation?

First, read my answers to question (4). Don't take anyone you haven't chosen–such as when a firm tells you they have to substitute another one of their people for the consultant you've chosen.

Second, realize from the start, and keep realizing, that you can "fire" a consultant at any time you're not satisfied. If you keep that in mind, you'll be more careful when choosing in the first place because you won't be able to blame a failure on anybody but yourself. "If this consultant wasn't good enough, why did you choose him or her?"

In my own business, I have always offered my customers a money-back guarantee. If they are not satisfied with my work for them, the simply need to ask and I will return any or all of what they have paid me. Because I know that, I'm always checking with my customers whether or not they are satisfied with my work. If they are not, we either fix the situation right them, or terminate the relationship right then.

That way, my customers are never surprised to find themselves deeply discontented with the consultant's work. Fundamentally, we are using the principle of addressing problems before they grow too big to solve. At least my clients can never say, "We're not satisfied with his work, but we've spent all our consulting money and don't have enough left to hire someone else.

6. Does psychology play a major role in consultancy? How important is that?

If I had to give a number, I'd say that psychology is about 90% of the consulting job. There's no point giving advice if it's not understood, nor if it's not going to be followed. That's why psychology is such a large element of the consulting role.
7. It is possible that one solution works in one country and fails to succeed in another country. Is culture an important factor in the success of consultancy?
It's not only possible. It happens all the time. That's why my one partner, Dani, is a professional anthropologist. Before she retired from general consulting to work with animal behavior consulting, perhaps half of our assignments were in situations where other consultants had failed because they did not take cultural differences into account.

8. How to find out the real problem behind the superficial?

Again, there's no short answer, but there is a short book that Don Gause and I wrote: Are Your Lights On? or How to Know What the Problem Really Is.

To give you some kind of answer here, I'd say that the most important thing to know about problem definition is this: Most of the time when people repeatedly fail to solve a problem, the reason they fail is that they have the wrong problem definition. So, before plunging into solving, spend some time questioning and refining the definition you've been using.

Perhaps you will be surprised at this, but in most of my consulting assignments, my clients actually know already what the problem is, and even how to solve it. But they don't know they know, or don't like to admit what the problem is. So, if you listen carefully and respectfully, you can usually find out what you need to know from them.

9. It is awesome to save a dying company, but sometimes the company dies no matter what you do. How to evaluate your work? How do you know when to take credits?

First of all, sometimes letting the company die–even helping it to die–is the right thing to do. In that case, keeping it alive means you've failed as a consultant.

In other cases, the company could be saved, but the key people are simply not willing to do what is necessary to save it. For instance, in one assignment, our client was failing because they could never deliver a quality product. They reason for that all could be traced back to one of the founders, who was an abusive alcoholic whose behavior managed to drive out all their best technical people. We demonstrated his destructive role, but he refused to leave the company. (He was  half-owner, but would not even accept an offer to buy his half and leave.) They company failed. Many of the employees then formed a new company, a start-up that succeeded marvelously (without the abusive alcoholic).

10. I believe a great consultant does not only know knowledge of his own domain, but also know much about politics, economy, psychology, society, culture etc. How do you manage to do that?

The question implies that I am a great consultant, and if so, that I know how I got that way. I'm not sure either of those implications is correct, but I can say that I do value my knowledge of many, many fields that others do not think have anything much to do with consulting in the information processing industry.

I have a rule I've always followed–two rules, actually–that may be part of the answer to your question:

a. Sometimes I find myself thinking "subject X has absolutely nothing to do with my consulting. Instead of concluding that "therefore, I don't have to learn anything about subject X," I conclude that "I obviously don't know enough about subject X, because everything connects with everything else."

b. Whenever I decide that I don't know anything about a subject, I set myself the high-priority task of learning about that subject. In my younger years, I would then try to take a course in the subject. Later, I found that I could learn faster and more deeply by reading one or more of the best books in that subject.

Even later, I learned that the very best way for me to learn about something I knew nothing about was to write a book about it. I told myself, "If I write something ignorant or stupid about this subject, then I'll make a fool of myself for all to see. Therefore, I'd better study deep and hard to prepare myself to write the book."

I don't always actually write the book, but I always prepare as if I'm going to write it. That fear of writing a dumb book motivates my learning more than anything else could do. (If I actually wrote all the books I've prepared for, I would have written about a thousand books, rather than the hundred or so that I've actually written so far.)

11. Are there any advices for young consultant or the ones who are interested in this career?

I wrote my book, The Secrets of Consulting, in response to hearning this same question three times in one day from young students of mine. So, of course I think that reading that book and its sequel, More Secrets of Consulting, would be a good starting point.

Then, for me, an important reason for my success is my number one criterion for accepting a certain job and/or remaining on a job: "Am satisfied with what I'm learning on this job, and also with the rate of that learning?" If you follow that criterion throughout your career, you have a good chance of being a good consultant. Never stay where you're not learning. That's the most important advice I could give.
(FIRST SMASHWORDS QUESTION) Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
I don't remember if it was the first book I ever read, but it's the first one I remember. It was called "Peanut Butter's Slide." it was about a pet (a goat? called Peanut Butter) who scratched up Daddy's new car by sliding from the roof down the back. (In the late 1930s, the first cars with sloping backs began to appear.) I remember the book because it was the first book I ever owned. Why? Because my dog chewed it up, so I had to pay the library for it, thus I owned it.

The first book whose contents made a real impression on me was a Dr. Spock book (I think maybe his first) called "To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street." It's about a boy whose imagination was too great for the adults in his life. I really spoke to me.
Now for some Smashwords questions. Like, what do you read for pleasure? What are your 5 favorite books?
Everything I read is for pleasure, or I wouldn't read it. Learning gives me pleasure. See the answers to questions 10 and 11 above.

Does the next question mean 5 favorites among the books I've written? That would be like asking which is my favorite child.

5 favorites that I've read? I own several thousand books, and I've read them all. They were all my favorites at one time or another, or I wouldn't have saved them. Then there are books I borrowed that were favorites but I couldn't keep. To ask me to choose just five among them all is like asking which are my 5 favorite stars in the universe. But I do love Lewis Carroll's Alice books, and have for about 75 years. And I love the Gutenberg Bible. Of course, I don't own one, nor have I even touched one. But I did see one in a glass case in the Huntington-Hartford Library in San Marino, California. I'll never forget it. Ghandi's autobiography is a favorite of mine because reading it changed my life. I can say the same for Bertrand Russell's Autobiography. That makes four I've named. I'll leave number 5 open for "the book I'm currently reading."
What book marketing techniques have been most effective for you?
My most effective technique of marketing (and by and large my only technique) is writing a book that people find fun, interesting, and useful. When I succeed at that, people tell other people about such a book, the word spreads, and I sell hundreds of thousands of them. I trust my readers to let me know which books those are.
Describe your desk
Which one? I have three desks in my Corrales office, forming a U surrounding me. My office in Pecos Canyon is smaller, so has only one desk. One of my desks is a butcher block table that used to be our dining room table. One is a folding steel table with a wooden top covered with fake wood veneer. The third (in Corrales) is a gorgeous Italian rosewood desk. It's my only true desk. My Pecos desk is a very old, solid wood table, painted (badly) red so I don't know what the wood is. I think it was a dining table in an earlier incarnation. My Italian desk is the only one of the four that has drawers, but it is so artfully made that the drawers still work perfectly without hardware, even though it is probably 50 years old.

In any case, it doesn't much matter what my desks are made of, because I can never see the tops.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I haven't grown up yet. If I ever do, I'll edit this interview and tell when it happened.

On the other hand, not growing up has influenced my writing, because I never follow "grown-up" advice. Instead, I write what I want, when I want, in the way I want.

In this regard, I think it's significant that out of about 100 books, only 5 got an editor response that I shouldn't have bothered writing it because it would never sell. Even more significant is that those are by far my 5 best-selling books of all time (so far), each having sold hundreds of thousands of copies. So much for grown-up advice.
When did you first start writing?
I have no idea. I suppose I didn't start until I was born, but as far as I can remember, there was never a time when I didn't write.

I do remember that when I was three (I know because of where we lived at the time), I used to play a game with my father. While he read his paper in the evening, he would choose ten words out of what he read and test me to see if I know what each meant. Those I didn't know, I had to look up in our dictionary. Then I had to write a story for him, a story that contained each of the ten words. I LOVED that game, and I still play it myself, with ten words I pick up most every day. Sometimes, I just incorporate those words into a chapter I'm currently writing. Yesterday, for example, I learned the word "earworm." (I can't get it out of my mind until I write it!!!)
What's the story behind your latest book?
Well, I always work on more than one book at a time, at least one fiction and one non-fiction, so I don't know what is meant by "latest." I guess that doesn't matter, because the story behind almost all of my books is the same. I have something running around in my head like an earworm, so I write it down so I can get it out of my head.

I guess there's a bit more too it for my non-fiction books. A book idea is running around in my head because people keep asking me questions on a certain topic. "How can I succeed as a consultant?" "Why don't we do a better job of [testing/developing] software?" "How can I succeed as a writer?" "How can I improve my thinking?"

Once in my life (a long time ago now) I wrote a book because some major publisher's editor told me I just had to write it because it would sell millions of copies. It wasn't a bad book, but it's been my worst-selling book of all time.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
Ignorant publishers.
How has Smashwords contributed to your success?
By being an intelligent publisher, run by a really fine human being.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
Hearing from a reader that something I wrote has contributed to their happiness. Whatever is in second place is so far behind it's not worth mentioning, but everything about writing contributes to my joyful life.
What do your fans mean to you?
Everything. I will write something for a single fan, but without even one fan, I wouldn't write anything.
What are you working on next?
My health.

I suppose the question was intended to evoke some hint about my current writing projects, but I wouldn't use the word "working" for any of them. For me, writing is play. If it's not fun to write, I don't write it. If I'm writing something and it ceases to be fun, I cease writing it (though I might pick it up again if I discover a way to make it fun again).

As far as the projects that are currently started but not yet finished, I have somewhere between 40 and 50 of them, addsing and subtracting from the list pretty much every month, at least.
Who are your favorite authors?
Anyone who can write something that I enjoy or something I learn from (which is protty much the same thing). They're all great. I love them all.

Even if the writing isn't so great or informative, I appreciate the amount of dedication it takes to write a book, or a story, or an article, or a poem. I also appreciate the courage it take to put one's writing out where other people can read it. So the only writers who are not my favorite are those who are not really dedicated to their work and/or those who hide their writing from the world. But, then, such people are not what I would call writers. They are something else, but I won't put a name to it. They're not worthy of a name, even a nasty one. I don't waste my time on them, when there are so many real writers who appreciate my teaching and my fandom.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
Nothing. I don't require inspiration to get out of bed. When I wake up, I get out of bed. Why would I need to be inspired to do that?
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
How do you discover the ebooks you read?
When three of my trusted friends recommend a book, I read it.

Whdn I bumble into a book that looks interesting, I read it.

When a good friend sends me a book, I read it. (My best friend is my wife, Dani. I read many books she recommends. Cerrtainly, if she writes a book, I read it whether she recommends it or not.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
What is your writing process?
If you really want to know that, read my book, "Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldsone Method."

I also have three short videos on U-Tube about aspects of my writing process.

And those two things cover abut 2% of my writing process. The rest can't be described, by me, but that's not important. If you're looking for me to tell you how to write, you're going about it in the wrong way. Each writer has to experiment and discover a process that works for them.
How do you approach cover design?
I just do it.

In the past, I used professional designers. Mostly, they produced designs that I didn't like. I don't know if their designs sold a book, but I don't know that about my own cover designs either.
What are your five favorite books, and why?
I think I answered that one already.
What do you read for pleasure?
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author or publisher.

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