Category Archives: Unexpected

Why I’m flipping my work model to writing more, consulting less

Three decades ago, I began my career in the tech industry. But what some don’t know is that working as a tech (or edtech) exec, whether on staff or as a consultant, has been my second career.

So after 30 years I’m returning to my first career: journalism and other writing, with consulting now as the side project.

In late 1987, I left a career in journalism (primarily in radio news, but also some TV and print) and as a budding writer of science fiction to become an early marketing manager for the Apple Programmer’s and Developer’s Association. That was when you still had to educate people about what a “personal computer” was before enticing them to buy one. For a journalist who had won Computer Press Association awards for a radio talk show (yes) about computing, working for APDA and its parent A.P.P.L.E. Co-op was a natural fit.

I went on to marketing management at Egghead Discount Software and became a marketing exec at a number of tech companies. My shift to edtech began with a consulting role as interim vice president of marketing for McGraw-Hill Home Interactive. That led to explaining tech’s potential (and limitations) in the education market. I’ve since held marketing executive staff roles at Pearson Education, Professional Examination Service, and SchoolMessenger (West Corporation), plus consulting senior roles with several more firms.

Always, it’s been with the tenets that tech marketing and branding must focus on what’s unique, believable, and true. It ties back to providing information from which a buyer can make a confident decision. If you’re missing any of these three elements, you may not be marketing in the best interests of the company or the customer. You could just be shilling for that fast buck.

Not coincidentally, those three tenets also are related to good journalism, even if the desired outcomes are very different.

Throughout my career as a tech exec and consultant, I’ve kept my hands — at careful arm’s length — in some form of journalism, usually as an analyst or commentator. I wrote the “Byte Me” column for a Seattle-area alternative news weekly for four years. For another four, I did television commentary about tech.

And for the past lucky seven years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be a founding writer for the tech news site GeekWire, contributing columns, podcasts, and news stories as often as my day job would allow. In between all of this, I co-authored a couple of Dummies books, wrote some long essays, and did a lot of public speaking.

However, there were always things I would not write about because of my concerns about perceived or real conflicts of interest. That hampered topics I was willing to take on.

So now it’s time to flip the model.

Starting, well, already earlier this year, I’m returning to journalism, analysis and commentary as my main job. That work encompasses both tech and — more so than I was able to do in the past — edtech.

GeekWire will remain my home base, allowing me to expand the writing I’ve done about edtech, continue my special monthly podcast interview/story series about pop culture, science fiction, and the arts, and begin a new weekly column about the intersection of media and technology when it comes to creating and consuming “content.” I realize this experimental swap of emphasis won’t be all wonderfulness. It’s risky. And I’ll be trading one set of career annoyances for another. Don’t let anyone tell you journalism and fiction writing aren’t businesses, especially if you expect to get paid.

Will I write for others, beyond GeekWire? Yes. There may again be long essays, short fiction, and books.

Will I still consult? As time, interest and ethical considerations allow. But I doubt much consulting will be on standard marketing. That intellectual challenge, for me, is incremental after three decades.

Besides, unlike when I began, no one today has to explain digital technology to consumers or educators to get them interested in using it. More important, and part of my role now, is helping all of us better understand how to intelligently manage tech’s effects on our everyday lives.

Seattle: A hub for both tech & science fiction

Seattle gets a lot of credit for being a hub for the technology industry. But what may not be as obvious to the masses — and is being surfaced by some tech leaders themselves — is that Seattle (and the broader Pacific Northwest) is a hub for science fiction and fantasy too.

And they’re increasingly linked.

I’ve delved a bit into those connections this year as I’ve stepped up my writing for the tech news site GeekWire. Not only do we now in the Northwest have Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen, and Bill Gates, but we will always have Frank Herbert, Greg Bear, and Ursula K. LeGuin.

(Personal disclosure: I was once an active science-fiction writer and one-time officer of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. So my perception might be skewed, much like yours would be if someone casually mentioned there are lots of yellow Volkswagen cars on the road, and suddenly that’s all you’re seeing, even though you never noticed them before.)

So far, 2018 has provided several very public examples of the ties between the greater Seattle area, speculative fiction, and sometimes tech titans.

Example one: The late Frank Herbert, best known for the ground-breaking Dune series of novels but also a former Seattle journalist, being honored in his home town of Tacoma with a park.

Example two: Amazon has done a lot to raise the profile of science fiction and fantasy on video with its original productions. (Just think of how well Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle has been transformed into a series for Amazon Prime.)

One big reason may be that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos himself is a fan of the genre and is willing to propel adaptations. The latest? Iain M. Banks’ Culture novel series.

Example three: SFWA’s current president, Cat Rambo, lives in Seattle and is a tireless advocate for writers (especially of short fiction and, lately, of games). One of those writers Cat and SFWA have recently highlighted is Peter S. Beagle, who lived in the Seattle area during the 1980s and has a 2016 novel, Summerlong, set here. Beagle will shortly become a SFWA Grand Master.

Finally, it doesn’t all have to be pure science fiction and fantasy. It can be related nerd culture, such as the long-running television sitcom The Big Bang Theory. And Bill Gates is on it. Really.

The guest appearance probably won’t provide any insight into the science fiction Gates prefers. But earlier, he had expressed an appreciation for the work of Neal Stephenson — who happens to live in the Seattle area, too.

What’s happened to edtech industry news?

http://www.sfcenter.ku.edu/sturgeon-campbell-awards.htm#images
Theodore Sturgeon Award trophy “asks the next question.” (Gunn Center Photo)

I don’t do tweet storms much. But recently, I got riled up about the state of K-12 edtech industry news coverage. Ten tweets resulted.

I don’t regret any of what I wrote rapidly that morning. Except maybe misspelling “motivators” in the very first tweet, a typo I introduced as I tried to make “motivations” fit into Twitter’s 280-character limit and had to come up with another word.

I’ll also point out that EdSurge is doing some good reporting in the K-12 edtech area. What EdSurge writes can be selective and uneven as the edtech news and resource site has expanded its coverage  into higher education and adjacent markets.  Yet some of EdSurge’s best work has come from Managing Editor Tony Wan, who provides context and background, and not just the latest press release.

I also didn’t mention Education Week’s EdWeek Market Brief, which arose as the funding boom did (and seems to be tinged with the patina of a subscription market research service, but isn’t quite that). Still, it’s not edtech-specific, and appears to be a bit of a side project to Education Week’s mainstay good work in covering education as a whole.

That leads to one final postscript observation: Perhaps there just isn’t enough, in these days of click-bait and cut-back journalism, of what science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once simply called, “Ask the next question.” He was describing it in terms of good speculation and debate. It’s also a hallmark of good journalism.

Of Pittsburgh, edtech, and science fiction

Duolingo’s Pittsburgh headquarters. (Duolingo photo)

February is coming to an end. And with it, a rather unique initiative of GeekWire’s.

Back when Amazon announced it was accepting proposals from cities to be the location of that company’s “HQ2,” GeekWire’s founders were inspired (admittedly, during a happy hour).

If Amazon can solicit bids for an HQ2, they thought, why not GeekWire?  And thus was born the GeekWire HQ2 project.

GeekWire would only locate a co-headquarters in the winning city for a month, and just bring a handful of transplanted jobs (the RFP stated “up to three”).

Yet several cities responded, and Pittsburgh won.

Even though I didn’t travel to Pittsburgh, I did contribute. I happened to know that Pittsburgh is a hub of education technology activity, and developed a detailed round-up of how edtech is in Pittsburgh’s DNA — going back to Fred Rogers, when “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was airing on the edtech of its era (television).

My contributions took a different tack as the month progressed. Turns out Pittsburgh also is a hub for science-fiction activity — at least in 2017 and 2018. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is presenting its Nebula Awards in Pittsburgh again this May, as the Nebula Conference completes a two-year location rotation.


Plus, this year’s SFWA Grand Master, being honored for a lifetime of achievement, has roots in both Pittsburgh and Seattle. So I highlighted the career of author Peter S. Beagle (best known for the novel The Last Unicorn, but writer of so much more, including a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, film adaptations, and many other books) in the context of SFWA and the two cities.

Catch up on all of GeekWire HQ2 special coverage here. And, if you’re wondering what else I’ve been writing lately, my GeekWire author archive is here. (Spoiler alert: there’s edtech, science fiction, pop culture and a fascinating podcast with author and futurist Ramez Naam.)

Seattle Symphony: Stepping boldly (& carefully) into digital

 

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets rehearsal. (Seattle Symphony photo)

How do you bring a venerated arts organization into the digital world? Often in non-public-facing ways. And with the support of audiences and leadership.

The Seattle Symphony is considered one of the top orchestras for doing “multi-sensory” performances — everything from accompanying films live, on-stage, to playing alongside “kinetic instruments” while the conductor uses a Microsoft Kinect.

I take a look behind the scenes at both (including what happened during a rehearsal for a live orchestra-enhanced performance of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) in both my podcast and related article for GeekWire.

But a few details about digital risk-taking didn’t make it into the GeekWire story.

Seattle Symphony’s Joe Kaufman and Kelly Woodhouse Boston. (Frank Catalano photo)

One is the role of leadership. Director of Operations Kelly Woodhouse Boston credits Music Director Ludovic Morlot and President and CEO Simon Woods with being, “key to the experimentation we’ve been able to do in the last five or six years,” she says. “Both Ludovic and Simon are very open to new ideas, experimenting, openness, innovation, and they have really set us up so that when their departure occurs we’re in a really strong position to move forward.”

Departure? Yes. Morlot and Woods, who have both been with the Symphony since 2011, are leaving (for different reasons and opportunities).  That means a transition.

Joseph Kaufman, the Symphony’s assistant principal bass, is also optimistic: “They were such strong leaders (and that) has set the tone for us as we search for a new executive director, to find someone who’s going to fit that mold, who’s going to continue that trend.” Woodhouse Boston also notes that Thomas Dausgaard, the incoming music director, “will be continuing that tradition.”

Seattle Symphony post-concert kinetic instruments installation. (Frank Catalano photo)

The acceptance of digital and multi-sensory experiences also relies largely on the audience. Seattle, Woodhouse Boston notes, has audiences that are “sophisticated and adventurous.” It also doesn’t hurt that the greater Seattle area is a technology hub.

Is there anything new that the Symphony hasn’t done, but would like to try? Kaufman would like to go beyond accompanying well-known films, to doing a live score with the premiere of a brand new movie. “I think it could be something that people would clamor to see especially if it was in partnership with the film festival or some other institution,” he says.

To find out more about how the Seattle Symphony earned its reputation for taking risks with technology, both overtly and subtly, read, “From Harry Potter to Star Trek Beyond, behind the scenes with Seattle Symphony’s multi-sensory tech” at GeekWire, or listen to the podcast.

Public media’s digital transition & future

I’ve often thought that digital technology is one of the best things that has ever happened to radio … and one of the worst.

NPR’s DC HQ.

It dramatically increases radio’s global reach (in a way mailed cassette tapes of “airchecks” never did) and the ability to consume its audio in bite-size chunks, such as in podcasts. Yet it provides an existential threat to terrestrial broadcasters who assume radio waves, not audio content, is what sets them apart.

Both extremes of thought are well known in public radio. And discussed in the latest interview in my special GeekWire series of podcasts and articles about the arts, popular culture and science fiction. This time, I speak with representatives of two Seattle-area public radio stations, Matt Martinez from jazz/news/blues format KNKX, and Bryan Lowe of classical format KING-FM.

Martinez has an additional perspective, having come to Seattle two years ago after 15 years with NPR. It was while on a vacation visit to NPR studios in DC in September that I got the idea for this podcast, seeing the floors of studios, the two-level newsroom, and even the glassed-in control center for program distribution (with an odd, unexplained egg-shaped chair in the center — sadly, no photos).

Lowe from KING-FM and Martinez of KNKX. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The conversation with Martinez and Lowe was fascinating, and the podcast goes far beyond what’s in the summarized GeekWire story. We also delve into tech fads vs. trends for public radio, how radio content gets from their studios to your (non-radio) devices, and even some backstory about The Bryant Park Project, an NPR morning show initiative that Martinez worked on a decade ago and was, in the telling, a bit ahead of its digital time.

My NPR vacation souvenir.

And for those who don’t know, the “aircheck” I mentioned earlier was a tape that radio personalities used to make either for critique sessions with management or to look for work at other stations. Yeah. I spent a dozen years on the air, for a brief time as a disc jockey and then, for much longer, in news as an anchor/reporter and also a news director.

Never in public radio, though. I was once offered the news director position at public KUOW Seattle after what I thought was a disastrous group interview with news department staff.  (Them: “What makes you think you, as a commercial newscaster, could handle public broadcasting?” Me: “It worked for Daniel Schorr, didn’t it?”) The interview had gone so badly, in my mind, that I’d already taken my first position in tech before the KUOW offer was made. Not only did I wind up leaving radio behind, I discovered I wasn’t always a great judge of how I did in interviews.

Off-air musings aside, check out the GeekWire story, “Public radio’s digital moment: Smartphones, streaming, and the future of listening.” And listen to the 43-minute podcast, too. It’s got some great voices.

A note about GeekWire & work-work balance

Team GeekWire at the GeekWire Summit 2017. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

Last week, I attended the GeekWire Summit. One year ago, I was certain I was done with GeekWire.

I’d joined as an outside columnist at its inception in 2011. Four years later, I’d run out of column ideas, and limped along as an occasional contributor. Finally, I decided I was done. I even ended it on my LinkedIn and Facebook profiles.

It was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made. Because I wasn’t thinking about balance. Not work-life balance. Work-work balance.

Many of us have more than one professional activity that we are good at and love doing. But we can only take one full-time job at a time.

Once we land in one professional field, we may think we have to give up other professional interests. We may bank them for some far-off retirement.

That is a false choice.

If you love doing something, don’t give it up. Better to tuck that professional love in around the edges of your main gig. Both will benefit. When you move between the two, you’ll be mentally refreshed. And you may have fresh ideas from one that cross-pollinate to the other.

Now I devote some weekend time to a new series of GeekWire podcasts and articles on science fiction, pop culture, and the arts. While it’s not a lot of activity, it’s enough.

And I remain proud to be part of Team GeekWire.

Sourcing, conserving, displaying: Behind the scenes at MoPOP

Three years ago, I decided to clean out some of my science-fiction collectibles. Among them, I had dozens of top-condition lobby cards — the small rectangular cardboard cards with large photos and the names of films that movie theaters used to display in their lobbies beneath large movie posters.

One of the many lobby cards donated to MoPOP by this writer.

Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture agreed to accept them as a donation, back when MoPOP was known as EMP Museum. And that led me to wonder how museums that focus on music, science fiction, and other aspects of popular culture actually get, conserve, and display these sometimes very ephemeral objects.

My GeekWire pop culture podcast (and two accompanying articles) digs into that with MoPOP Curator Brooks Peck and Collections Manager Melinda Simms. How do they find stuff? How to they keep it from deteriorating (more)? And, ultimately, how do they tell a story with sometimes very different objects?

Museum of Pop Culture Curator Brooks Peck and Collections Manager Melinda Simms. (GeekWire photo / Clare McGrane)

The questions — and answers — led to a very lively and anecdote-filled conversation that definitely upends any misperception that museum collecting and curating are dusty and dry occupations. Especially when there’s a pig lizard involved.

Bring me the head of … never mind. I’ve got it.

Read the overview on what the MoPOP collection is like in, “Preserving the future: How MoPOP protects and presents our ever-changing popular culture.” Move on to how MoPOP leverages fans for, “Hey, obsessed pop culture fan: You may have something museums want.”

Or just listen to the entire popcast, “Preserving Pop Culture.” And don’t miss earlier installments in this special series on science fiction, pop culture, and the arts.

TWIEtR: Chrome beats all others … combined

More analysis of Chromebooks as the tool of choice in classrooms today, in what otherwise is a light week in edtech reports.

Looking for real-time updates? Follow @FrankCatalano on Twitter. Or avoid having to check the blog for new posts by entering your email address above “NOTIFY ME” in the left website navigation.

Education Week continues to slice and dice the information in its fascinating survey of school administrators and teachers that pits four major tech companies (Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft) against four major education companies (Scholastic, Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

The latest? Google Chromebooks are used “more frequently in day-to-day instruction than all PC and Apple desktop and laptop computers combined.”

It’s that last phrase that is telling, that Chromebooks are used more frequently than all others combined.

Another interesting, but not surprising, tidbit: going forward, district staff plan to invest more in tablets and laptops than in desktop computers for classrooms.

Quick diversion to my day job: West Corporation (which provides SchoolMessenger communications solutions to districts) is starting to release results of a national survey that will be officially issued in a webinar and white paper on June 1.

The survey examines what communications technologies districts use to engage parents, which channels they find the most effective, and where they plan to invest their time and resources in the next one-to-three years.

Key findings are that, “school districts increasingly rely on social media, turn more to mobile apps, and, ultimately, recognize that they must use multiple communications channels. ”

Tech & Learning had a nice summary of three of the initial data points, summed up as:

  • 86% of district leaders surveyed use social media to communicate with parents today.
  • 65% of district leaders surveyed already use 5 or more channels to communicate with parents.
  • 33% of district leaders surveyed plan to focus on district mobile apps in the next 1-3 years (an increase of 44% from today’s use).

A fourth initial data point — that 45% of district leaders cite parent internet access as a significant obstacle to engaging parents with communications technology.

I’ll be joined on the June 1 webinar by Elisabeth O’Bryon, PhD., co-founder and head of research of the non-profit Family Engagement Lab, which itself has done some interesting research on what families want to hear from schools, and how they hear about it.

Webinar registration is open now. And I’ll likely summarize more results here after the white paper is released.

And one more thing:

I was reminded on May 18, 2017, where I was and what I was doing on May 18, 1980. I was interviewing for a broadcast news position in the Seattle market. I’d flown out for the weekend from my current station, WNFL Green Bay, where I was news director.

That Sunday morning, as the person interviewing me and I headed out for brunch, we heard — and felt — a muffled “boom.” We drove straight to the station, where it was confirmed that nearby Mt. St. Helens had erupted.

I immediately went to work filing reports for the local station as well as the network with which WNFL was affiliated.

Much later, after catching a red eye flight home, I walked into the newsroom and was greeting by the Green Bay station manager. “Great reports about Mt. St. Helens on the network,” he said. “What the hell were you doing in Seattle?”

Fortunately, I was offered the Seattle job. And remained on good terms with WNFL and its management. But it just goes to show that when an opportunity presents itself, it’s important to act. Even if there is both the potential of reward and risk.

Oh, and the 1980s-era photo I posted with the 140 characters on Twitter? It’s now out there, for good or ill. You can’t un-chirp a tweet.

(Note: This Week in Edtech Reports will take a Memorial Day weekend break and return, refreshed and re-snarked, in early June.)

Once upon the end of 2016

Once upon a time, there was a writer who didn’t write.

He knew how to write. He had written. He just had stopped.

And not stopped in the dramatic way one assumes writers of melodramas must punctuate their prose (“I am so DONE with this CHAPTER!”). It had more simply quietly slipped away, first as a pause when his mother died the previous May, then was logically extended when he took a new full-time job a month later, and then … well, it just continued. Through the end of the old year, and into the start of the new.

He did take a brief break from not-writing in the spring, but only to review three new Amazon initiatives (and write an impassioned, well-reasoned plea to save a local public radio station for its digital media efforts) at the request of his former column home. It later turned out that those four essays were the end of it — of five years as a columnist and contributor to the tech news site GeekWire, and shorter parallel periods as a columnist for education technology news sites like EdSurge and NPR/KQED’s MindShift.

He finally realized it wasn’t because he couldn’t write. He actually still had quite a bit researched and even drafted. It’s just that he felt he had nothing new to say, and no one wants to become known as the author equivalent of the old guy who repeatedly yells, “Get off my lawn!”

The extended pause carried over to his other public activities, too. As the year came to a close, he realized his last public speaking engagement had been shortly after he stopped writing regularly.

He’d go into 2017 with an 18-month stretch nearly devoid of public writing and speaking.

And for this, he was verified on Twitter as a figure of public interest? No wonder Twitter had issues.

It wasn’t that 2016 was uneventful. He continued as vice president of marketing strategy for West Corporation’s Education group. His father passed away in September after a dramatic incident in January made it clear he had dementia, and he’d been able to fly to California monthly to visit and help as his dad moved from hospital to memory care home to hospital to rehab facility. He and his wife had a wonderful week-long hiking vacation in Palm Springs over Thanksgiving, appropriately punctuated with mid-century cocktails.

But 2016 ended with a one-time public figure not being quite as public. Was it an ending and redirection? Or a long cleansing of the palate?

As the new year brought a new chapter, he’d look forward to finding out if he was its protagonist, author, or both.