Online Strip 'User Friendly'
Interview with J.D. Frazer
by Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P.,
This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an
exclusive interview with the world renowned, J.D. “Illiad” Frazer. J.D. is
the force responsible for the hit Online Strip 'User Friendly', a long
running daily strip that played a significant role in popularizing the
medium. User Friendly is a classic of the Linux genre and is available at http://www.userfriendly.org
Q: J.D., thank you for being with us here today. Your experiences and
insights would be of great interest to our audience.
A: My pleasure. I think what I can offer is a litany of how not to do things
– I learned how to do things the right way by making all the mistakes first!
Q: You have done so many things. How would you describe yourself? Can you
provide a summary of your background?
A: My background is eclectic, as you’ve mentioned. I suppose it has to do
with my interest in so many areas, from science and politics to odd
philosophical tangents. I went to university seeking a degree in Criminology
since I had considered joining the RCMP, and quite probably would’ve ended up
in either their computer crimes division or as a member of the dog squad. I
decided against that career path after a couple of years and tried Geology,
and later Classical Studies. There’s not much you can do with the latter
degree except teach or say “would you like fries with that?” in Latin.
In any case, I left university after several years due mostly to financial
pressures. I had a deep interest in computer technology since I was ten or
eleven years old and learned how to code using punch cards on an old HP
minicomputer. I never liked the feel of the thermal paper.
When I fell into the labour pool, I found that I could pick up work as a
technologist fairly easily. And the funny thing is I never considered myself
a true technologist. I’m good with technology, and I’m not afraid of it, but
I don’t see myself as a coder or sysadmin.
Anyway, after a truly checkered employment history (game designer,
corrections officer, art director, publisher…) I landed back in the tech
market. It turns out that I had the experience and skills necessary to be a
pretty good project manager. I ended up working for Western Canada’s largest
ISP during the halcyon 28.8k days and was in charge of building the company’s
Web Services business unit. It didn’t take long for me to turn it into a
lucrative profit centre.
After some buyouts and mergers and other acquisitions that made my head spin,
I became a partner in a boutique ISP. From that ISP came User Friendly, my
first Web published comic strip.
Like I said: eclectic.
Q: You enjoy SF. What are your favorite authors?
A: By far, Joe Haldeman ranks at the top of my list. His writing is
timelessly relevant, and his stories always make you question the way things
are. Tied for second place I’d have to say Larry Niven, Robert Heinlein and
Jerry Pournelle. A close third would be Frank Herbert. All of these authors
are masters of their craft; they’ve taught me a lot about writing simply by
showing me how it’s done well.
Q: Exploring old bookstores—tell our audience more?
A: The first area I head for is the old book section. Classics from the 19th
to early 20th centuries in leather binding decorated by master bookbinders
are treasures to me. After that I visit the military history section, mostly
because I believe we can learn the most about ourselves by examining the
history of human conflict. Then I lighten up and head to the SF shelves. I
never can walk out of a used bookstore without spending at least twenty
Q: You have made many contributions to the industry. Can you describe your
experiences at an ISP? Share your history in this area, some stories and
lessons you learned?
A: Most of my experiences I think are quite common. The tech industry has a
customer base that is rife with the “hurry up and wait” mentality. As either
a service or knowledge provider, the importance of your schedule ranks far
below the schedule of the clientele or, occasionally, your vendors. Top that
off with conflicting technology “standards,” a corporate culture that
commonly denigrates the technical workers, and a constantly steepening
learning curve, and you wonder why people even bother.
Of course, the answer to that is incredibly simple: techies love technology.
Being able to make a living from doing what you love is a reward in itself.
There’s a distinct psychological high obtained from solving a difficult
technical problem, or discovering a new method or technical process.
My own experiences run the gamut: I’ve faced particularly galling days
providing obstinate customers technical support over the phone as well as
days where I feel like I’m on top of the world because I had such a firm
handle, no matter how briefly, on a project.
The one story from my ISP days that I will never be able to forget has to do
with the much-hated
- Make up your mind
early on whether you want to be a specialist or a generalist. I’m the
latter, and I’m happy with my choice. Twenty years ago, you could be
well-versed in most computing subjects, but these days the depth and
breadth of knowledge in computing are so extensive that you really need
to pick one or the other, or you’ll never have time for sleep.
- Spend time improving
your communication skills. I can’t emphasize this point enough; people
in general, not just geeks, are poor listeners and even worse speakers.
Poor listeners draw snap conclusions founded on often mistaken
preconceptions. Poor speakers forget that the responsibility for clarity
lies with the speaker, not the listener. This is the core of the traditional
rift between technologists and marketers: they don’t make an effort to
speak the same language.
- Don’t assume that your
education (whether self-taught or classroom-taught) is ever enough. The
nature of the industry requires that you keep abreast of new
developments, or you could become as obsolescent as that 486 holding
your door open. Read everything that’s significantly pertinent to your
job, and a few things on the side. It never hurts to learn more.
- Be prepared to pay in
blood. Your first five years in the tech industry will likely be
monotonous. The next five may be as well. Only when you’ve earned decent
credentials and substantial experience should you expect to pull down a
heady salary, and even that can be impacted (as it currently is) by world
- Be absolutely certain
you love working with technology. A tech career demands a very special
kind of person, someone with determination, endless curiosity and a
solid intellect. If you don’t love the work, you’ll be suffering
Q: Can you comment on the open source movement and where it’s heading?
A: I consider Open Source to be one of the most important concepts in the
tech sector ever, but it’s a double-edged sword. When done right, Open Source
encourages excellence, teaches the value of ethical collaboration, and
attracts some of the brightest undiscovered minds in computing. If it’s done
wrong, an Open Source project can collapse faster than you can blink, egos
can clash in an ugly manner, and some of the best ideas can end up corrupted.
Overall, I think Open Source has hit a bit of a plateau. There’s a lot of
room for growth, but the community is still recovering from the crash of a
few years ago. There’s a strange sense of order coming to the Open Source
crowd, which is odd given that it was originally a model for
barely-controlled chaos. Give it a few years and I think we’ll witness some
more significant leaps and bounds, particularly in collaboration methods.
Q: What do your forecast as future hot topic areas or “killer apps” to start
A: I think the two areas that are going to really take off are ubiquitous
computing and, in support of that, content aggregation and delivery. There
already exists a kind of withdrawal syndrome experienced by people who are
denied ‘net access after having grown to regularly rely on it. As WiFi takes
off, I expect a growth spurt in Tablet PCs. As a result of this and other
forces, large media companies that aggregate exclusive content will provide
content and community channels.
Of course, neither will surpass e-mail as the ultimate killer app.
Q: What would be your recommended top ten references for the serious IT
A: I’m back to the number five again. As a generalist, I use the following
I also highly recommend O’Reilly’s and Apress’s technical
Q: You have done extensive research in a number of high-tech areas. Can you
describe the results of your research and tips you can pass onto the
A: As of late I’ve mostly concentrated on online community building, since
social computing is really beginning to mature. Briefly, most online
communities are suffering from an inertia of segregation. Once most communities
are established, the barrier to entry for a new member is fairly high,
largely due to social pressures within the cliques. Having said that, there
exist proven models of online communities that have defeated this segregation
through judicious policies.
What this means is that the online communities that won’t end up drinking
their own bathwater are the ones that are planned and implemented carefully,
rather than ones that are grown organically.
Q: What changes do you see for the future of computing, conducting business,
and the use of the Internet?
A: I think the largest change we’ll see that impacts all three of the above
is a blurring between the real world and the one on the ‘net. This ties in
with ubiquitous computing as relationships (both business and personal)
formed online begin achieving the same, if not greater, importance as the
real world ones. I think it’s fairly obvious that there are significant
dangers as well as synergies in this fusion.
Q: If you were doing this interview, what five questions would you ask of
someone in your position and what would be your answers?
A: I think I’d only ask one: “What’s the one thing you’d change about the
tech sector if you could?” My answer would unequivocally be, “I’d make it
less mystical to the general public.” That alone would, I think, mitigate a
lot of the social consequences tech workers face simply because they’re a
member of an intellectually exclusive club.
Q: It’s a blank slate, what added comments would you like to give to
enterprise corporations and organizations?
A: I’d tell them all to look to the enormous pool of future clientele,
partners and employees they could be harvesting by paying more attention to
the social side of computing. People have a need to reach out to others, and more
than anything in history, the ‘net has given even the most reclusive person
the ability to establish incredibly valuable relationships. A direct conduit
to customers gives you access to unfiltered feedback on your product or
service, by all accounts an incredibly valuable asset, especially to people
in product development. A company’s international reputation can be made or
broken on the ‘net, and being properly plugged in to your own market can help
your firm make informed decisions. An online community is more than just a
social centre; it can also be a compass by which you fine-tune your company’s
Q: Thank you for sharing your valuable insights with us today and we look
forward to following your work far into the future.
A: Once again, my pleasure!
PS: J.D. stands for?
A: Justifiably Dangerous. You should see me with a Nerf gun.