Meet the authors Kathy Sierra & Bert Bates

Java Ranch, May 2003

Java Ranch: When I read a book I often wonder what the author is like "outside" his/her book, the things he/she likes. So to start of I'd like you to tell me what is your favourite:-

Kathy: Sun Certified Programmer for Java 2 Study Guide, oh, and Lord of the Rings
Bert: Hyperion
Kathy & Bert: Most Recent books for both of us (we both read the same books at the same time): Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (Cory Doctorow), Pattern Matching (William Gibson)

Kathy: Fifth Element, Donny Darko, Mind Walk
Bert: Indiana Jones (first one), 2001, A Shot in the Dark Recent favorites: Amelie, About a Boy, The Orchid Thief
Both : X-men 2, and Con-air (yes they actually admit liking Con-air. editor)

Type of music:
Kathy: space age bachelor pad, British indie
Bert: bluegrass, Grateful Dead, Beethoven

Java Ranch: What motivates you both to write a book?, To me as an outsider it seems like a lot of very hard work, for very little financial gain, so why are you punishing yourself.
Kathy & Bert: We like the dress code. That's the main thing. After that, two things motivate us:
A) Freedom and flexibility. We like to be able to work wherever we want, whenever we want. For example, Solveig Haugland (another writer), Bert and I rented a house next to the ski resort so that we could work and ski. We were all on deadlines, but it was just nice to have that flexibility, even if we could ski only 3 or 4 hours a day. Then we'd come back and work at night. Bert and I both want to not be tied down to any particular city (or country), even though we live in one of the most beautiful places (Boulder Colorado).
B) The same reason I started javaranch. Bert and I have both done a lot of teaching, but sending a book out into the world lets you help a LOT more people! With the cert book, we love getting emails from people all over the world telling us they passed the test. And we have a special mail filter that can detect emails from readers who don't like the book. So we don't have to read those.
C) OK, three reasons -- we've planted subliminal messages throughout the book, and we're slowly brainwashing an entire community of techies, one certification candidate at a time. Bending them to our will.

Java Ranch: How did the winning team "Kathy & Bert" get started? What made the two of you decide to write books together?
Kathy & Bert: We both have a background in AI; we both spent a lot of time studying cognitive science, knowledge engineering, learning theory. We both have a passion for trying to make things more understandable. And honestly, we both have been frustrated with how many badly-written programming books are out there. Peter van der Linden, author of the "Just Java" books, calls what so many authors do the "clear only if known syndrome". In other words, the book is technically accurate, and makes sense, but only *after* you've already learned it. How do you get your foot in the door? So Bert and I were always complaining about so many Java books and course materials, so finally we decided we better do it our selves or shut up.

Java Ranch: Most authors have a regular job and write at night and on weekends. Is this the case with you? Tell us a bit about a typical day in your lives. How do the two of you write as a team, together in a room or virtually?
Kathy & Bert: We both left our day jobs shortly before the certification book came out. When O'Reilly offered us a new series, that required a big commitment. So now we are both part-time contractors for Sun, mainly with certification, to help us stay alive. The romance and charm of the whole 'starving writer' thing just doesn't work for us, so we both work on other paid projects about 25% of the time. As I'm writing this, Bert is about 8 feet away, under his desk. I'm sitting in this huge -- and I mean HUGE -- bean-bag chair, which is where I usually work. We both have Apple G4 Titanium laptops (they rock, we even run J2EE on them). Sometimes we work at a cafe, meeting up with Solveig, so we can all share ideas or rip each other's latest chapter to shreds.

Java Ranch: What role does each of you play in your "team"? Who is the creative whiz and who the programming wonder.
Kathy & Bert: Bert is my personal writing slave. So, I actually don't need to *do* anything. But when he breaks out of his restraints, we're pretty much equal. We both do everything: brainstorming ideas, writing content, writing code.

Java Ranch: Your next book, Head First Java, is totally different to anything I've ever seen in a computer book. What made you decide to break new ground with its format / style?
Kathy & Bert: This gets back to our background. We both know too much about how the brain works to be satisfied with a traditional text-based book. We did the best we could with the certification book, but the publisher constrained us to a strict, text-only (almost) format with no control over the page layouts. So with O'Reilly, we said, "What if there were no constraints about what goes inside the book and we could do *anything*?" And that's what happened. We took every scrap of brain/learning research we could find and applied it to the format of a book. Fortunately, Tim O'Reilly was a real fan from the moment we sent him a few sample pages, so he encouraged us to go all the way. The editor was skeptical at first, as a lot of people are, but we gave it to some key people in many fields. The book has an endorsement from Ken Arnold, who co-wrote the "Java Programming Language" (with James Gosling). And we have a few other alpha geeks and learning gurus including the Director of User Experience at IBM, a professor at Standford teaching AI, and a guy who used to run a division of Xerox Parc (the guys who created Smalltalk).

Most text-based books are based on a model of learning that's several hundred years out of date -- the notion that the learner is a passive receiver of words. Some books claim to duplicate the classroom experience, but they don't, and most classroom instruction suffers from the same bad model anyway. The bottom line is that the brain learns and remembers most that which causes you to *feel* something. If a large tiger jumps out at you from behind a rock, it takes just one time for your brain to remember it. Why? Neurobiology. Because your body is pumping out chemicals, and those chemicals are part of what tells your brain, "This is REALLY important!". On the other hand, when you read a dry, dull text book, even if the subject truly interests you, your brain doesn't know that. You register nothing of interest on the emotional scale, so your brain says, "Obviously THIS is NOT important. So I won't bother processing it deeply or storing it since there are more important things out there, like tigers." There are ways to *trick* your brain into thinking that the content IS important, but they're tedious. For example, if you keep \ studying the same thing repeated times, your brain says, "OK, there's no chemistry here, but he keeps reading the same thing again and again, so I guess it must be important." Who has time for that? So we take the other approach, to work with what your brain is tuned for. To turn up the dials enough to keep your brain interested. It's still not the ideal way to learn, but it is far, far better than a traditional dry text book. And we use almost 50% visuals, because humans are also tuned to get information visually, and can understand and process pictures much more quickly and deeply than words alone. The picture is worth a thousand words is really true, as far as your brain is concerned.

Java Ranch: What most people would like to know after they read Head First Java, at least I think they would, is how much more work is a book in the new "Head First" format as apposed to the "normal" format. And where do you guys get the pictures for your book. Heck I'd be very scared if I saw the two of you with a digital camera.
Kathy & Bert: Yes, be afraid. Yes, a Head First book does take more work to produce, because every single page is hand-crafted. No two pages are the same, and there are graphics of some sort on nearly every page. The graphics come from three sources: a) custom art (the hand-painted things for the Java-specific content, kind of like whiteboard drawings on steroids) b) photos that we take, and process in Photoshop c) stock photography and art libraries (where you can purchase art, for commercial use, that is royalty-free)

We are working on bringing other authors up to speed, so that it isn't just US making them. The first book is not even out, and people at O'Reilly are asking where are the other Head First books? They want as many as possible, as quickly as possible, but it is REALLY hard to find people who can -- or even want -- to attempt this. For a Head First book, O'Reilly calls it an "audition" rather than a "proposal" that prospective authors must go through. But if anyone is interested in possibly working on a Head First book, with us or with someone else, write to me and Bert! Right now, we're doing a book for the new EJB Certification that comes out in August (the exam and the book). And at least two others are in the works or being discussed.