Interview with Patrick McKenzie and Keith Perhac
We speak to Patrick McKenzie and Keith Perhac about the Kalzumeus podcast
I am delighted to post the following interview which I conducted over email with Patrick McKenzie and Keith Perhac regarding their new podcast.
You both go through your history on the podcast, but for the benefit of people who haven't listened to it yet could you give us a brief overview of who you are and where you have come from.
Patrick: My name is Patrick McKenzie, and I live in Ogaki, Gifu, Japan. At the moment I run a small software company which does a mix of consulting (http://www.kalzumeus.com -- also has my blog on it) and product development (http://www.bingocardcreator.com is what made me, and I am very tongue in cheek about this, "Internet famous", and http://www.appointmentreminder.org is my present focus). In addition
to working I spend quite a bit of time on Hacker News. My hobbies include reading trashy romance novels. Recently I seem to be doing a lot of speaking gigs, largely related to teaching technical people how to sell more software, a topic concerning which I have a wee bit of expertise and a whole lot of hairbrained ideas.
Keith: My name is Keith Perhac. I'm originally from Memphis, Tennessee in America, and have been a resident of Ogaki, Gifu in Japan for the last 9 years. I generally exist on the internet as Harisenbon, which makes most people think my name is Haris Enbon, but is actually from a children's rhyme about not breaking promises. I live right next door to Patrick and we work together on a number of things including brainstorming conversion strategies and working on Bingo Card Creator and Appointment Reminder.
A few years ago I made a site like BCC for people studying Japanese called JapaneseTesting.com. It's since gone into *heavy* maintenance mode, but was a lot of fun and a huge learning experience. Like BCC was for Patrick, I think that most of my hands-on learning of SEO and conversion strategies came from making that site, which I then applied to solutions that I was building for my day job.
My day job (until recently) was working at a small startup in Japan that focused on digital signage. I've since parted ways with them in order to (at the constant behest of Patrick) to break free of slowing being overworked to death (Karoshi is the Japanese word for working yourself to death. It's one word, which should tell you how common of an occurrence it is) and to focus on doing things that are a) interesting b) profitable and c) don't require me to work until 11pm every night. I've gotten the first two, but old habits die hard, and it's actually still hard to pry myself away from work before 9pm.
Trashy romance novels eh Patrick? What is your favourite?
Patrick: So part of the attraction to the genre (urban fantasy is my poison of choice, distinguished from true romance novels in that the bodices are ripped by retractable claws) is that they're *so* paint-by-numbers that you're very rarely able to remember the specifics after you got done with them. I liked the one that had the wisecracking girl with the normal life that was turned totally upside down roughly contemporaneously with meeting the brooding bad boy who spurns her while being obviously attracted to her. Which one of the last 150 or so on my Kindle was that, again? Seriously, you could write a chic-lit version of Hero With A Thousand Faces and then a madlib generator to fill in the remaining 5% of the details... and I can't stop reading them. It's a disease.OK, OK, so you have to have a specific recommendation? Nice Girls Don't Have Fangs. Her: bookstore clerk (obvious reader/author surrogates are another genre convention). Him: vampire lord (from central casting: old white Southern gentleman whose retrograde moments *only* come out when he needs to be a bad boy to look sexy). Tone: Buffy with less drama and more camp.
Keith, do you think Japanese culture will ever change with regards to software development outside of the cities?
Keith: I think that it has to. As the internet becomes more engrained into our lives, countries that don't put value in the developers who shape that internet culture will find that they will lose their position as a global power. Developers are the ones who are shaping the internet right now, and those countries that aren't represented in that global developer network will find that they have lost their chance to have a voice in how the global internet culture develops.
However, if anything I will say that Japan is a culture that is able to quickly adapt to changing environments. Even the Japanese language has been reformed multiple times throughout history, the most recent being only 150 years ago during the Meiji reformation. Japan as a country has re-imagined and reshaped itself so many times in the past that I'm sure that it has the ability to do it again. Between an aging population and a generation with a server case of ennui, something has to change if we hope to continue our role as a modern, technological nation.
What made you decide to start a podcast?
Patrick: Keith is an avid podcast listener, though I am not. We have recently been getting the opportunity to work more together, so doing a podcast sounded like a good idea. Plus, I have a pre-existing audience who would likely enjoy and benefit from it.
Keith: We had been talking about it for a while. I had a rather long commute to my old day job (1.5 hours each way) so I was always looking for things to do on the train. Someone had posted a link to a Joel Spolsky podcast on HackerNews, and so I started listening to that, and was hooked. If you've never listened to Joel talk before, go download the Stack Exchange podcasts. I have no idea how he stays so interesting, but Joel could talk about fermenting cheese for 3 hours and I would listen to it.
So, Patrick and I tend to go on long winded rants about programming, Japanese society and just random things that are going on in the developer community both here and abroad. They're terribly interesting (to us) and we thought some of the information we talk about might benefit the community at large. So we started recording one.
1 hour 17 is a fairly long recording for a first attempt, do you think you will stay at around that time?
Patrick: We can (and do) talk for hours about this sort of thing, so I guess it depends on what our listeners like most. Feedback has been largely in the "shorter would be a bit more convenient" direction, so perhaps in the future we'll do things a little more focused and in bite-sized quantities. Or if not bite-size than at least meal-size as opposed to feast-size.
Keith: Probably not, if only for the fact that editing a 1hr 17min podcast takes about 3-4 hours. This was our first time, and we covered a lot of stuff, but I think next time we'll try to keep things a little more streamlined and to the point.
I'd like to shoot for around the 30 - 45min mark.
How often do you think you will be releasing the podcast?
Patrick : I would like to make this a regular thing, but probably not a scheduled regular thing. Once a month sounds like reasonable to shoot for for the time being.
Keith: I'd like to do once a week or once every other week, but Patrick and I are crazy busy and horrid procrastinators. It'll probably end up being around once a month if we decide to keep it going. We've gotten some great emails and comments about the podcast, so I'm excited about doing more.
What is your podcasting setup? Are you happy with it?
Patrick: Oh goodness was it inefficient.
Keith: Horrible and no.
So, being new at this, we thought it would be easy to put Skype on one computer and Skype on another computer and just record it through the computer. Unfortunately things didn't work out that way. I have a mac in addition to my main PC, which makes it SUPER easy to do podcasts as long as both people have ichat, which of course does not exist on PC, and is not compatible with googleChat for voice, even though it is compatible for texting. After spending about an hour and a half trying different things, realizing that sound card drivers were not set up how they should be, futzing with extra apps, etc -- we finally just turned on garage band and recorded the audio by talking into the mic on my macbook. That's why you can occasionally hear cars in the background and us drinking soda. Not. Ideal.
This is something that will definitely be fixed before the next podcast.
What other podcasts do you listen to on a regular basis?
My last question about podcasts is, what does 'Kalzumeus' mean?
Keith: That's much better answered by Patrick, as it's his company / website.
I have my own (placeholder) site for my company at delfi-net.com, but like any good front-end designer I have no time to actually build a site, so there is nothing on that page right now. *grin* I should probably set up a blog at some point.
Patrick: That is a bit of a long story. My blog used to be on microisvjournal.wordpress.com, because I didn't know anyone would care to read it and wasn't concerned about branding at that point. (ISV = independent software vendor. Micro-isv = ISV with say one or two people, a term coined by Eric Sink). After the blog got a bit popular I realized I wanted to move it to a .COM but didn't have a company name picked out and couldn't find any .COM domain which really sung to me which was still open. So, getting frustrated, I started throwing out every word I had ever coined personally.
One of these was Kalzumeus, a burrito-eating dragon from a long-forgotten RPG campaign that I was the game master of in high school. The dragon was wisecracking, irreverent, and too smart for his own good. I thought that was hilarious, so I snagged the domain and put my blog on it, even though essentially no one but myself is in on the joke. Some years later I "formalized" the existence of Kalzumeus Software by filing a piece of paper with the tax office.
What else have you been up to?
Patrick: I spend most of my time consulting and working on Appointment Reminder these days. Keith also has a good answer on this one.
Keith: I have no idea what Patrick's talking about.
I quit my day job last October with the simple, but ambitious, goal of bringing data-driven development practices to Japan. Patrick and I live near Nagoya, which has a very old and very strict tradition of manufacturing, embodied today by T-Corp. But honestly there are more manufacturing corporations here than I can even count. This leads to a very top-down approach to development (which is important in manufacturing), which unfortunately puts software at the bottom of the rung. I'm not quite sure why this is, but I think that after such a long tradition of manufacturing that anything that isn't made from physical goods (for example, software) is seen as not being as valuable. Programmers here are treated like cogs, and it feels sometimes that even senior engineers are treated with less respect than their counter-parts in other disciplines.
This is not the case in other cities, especially places like Fukuoka (which is trying to become Japan's Silicon Valley), Osaka and Tokyo which are much amenable to programming and development as a discipline, and I think will fare much better in dealing with the rapidly changing development eco-system that is progressing in much of the west.
I hate that every answer is prefaced by a huge explanation about Japanese culture, but just saying that I want to bring modern development techniques to Japan doesn't sound like anything that should take more than a month until you realize that this is a culture where you have to fight to get Source Control implemented, and that 90% of tech companies would probably fail the Joel Test right off the bat.
Other than that, I work a lot with various clients both Japanese and American, and currently am tinkering with my own web solutions that I hope to get out the door before the next Ice Age. Patrick keeps mentioning something about co's and founderings, so that will probably go somewhere in the future, but nothing has been decided as of yet. If anything, being able to collaborate on projects with my best friend is one of the more enjoyable parts of working for myself.
How do you attempt to keep on top of tech / development news?
Patrick: I'm on HN like its my job. More tech news is absolutely not a high priority in my life right now.
Keith: I used to read a number of productivity / designer / tech blogs and just pick out all the cool stuff from there. However, as the amount of time I have available decreases so does my ability to keep up with all the new information going around.
I still read HackerNews at least once a day, and try to read up on SmashingMagazine and LifeHacker at least once a week. I also try to read ITMedia (Japanese Tech News) fairly often, but most of the stuff they post about is Galapagos hardware or services that are more geared towards the mainstream than the cutting edge. My clients are always sending me neat blogs and "swipes" as they call them of cool tech they want me to investigate, so I get to see a lot of new tech stuff through that.
What is exciting you at the moment in tech?
Patrick: Twilio specifically. It undergrids Appointment Reminder and is the coolest API I have ever heard of. All you developers out there should have a Twilio app. Make peoples' phone rings, it makes you look like a bloody wizard.
More broadly, we're living in interesting times, where for not a whole lot of time invested you can cause computers to solve Really Important Problems for people. I don't mean mobifotosocialgames for poor white twenty somethings, I mean everything from "helping to treat TB outbreaks in Uganda" through "shave tens of thousands of dollars of dead-weight costs off of multiple small businesses for a few hundred bucks a month." It is a great time to be alive and to be developing software.
Keith: I think that data acquisition and user-testing really have to be the big hotspot for me right now. The analytic tools that we have now to measure user interaction and response compared to just 5 years ago blows my mind every time I think about it.
I used to work in advertising, and I remember doing catalogue and brochure variations (old-school split-testing), organizing print runs, organizing the coupon codes and then waiting the 2 weeks for any results which we then had to tally by hand. Compare that to something like KissMetrics, where I can see who is visiting my site, and what they are buying *at the very moment* they are buying it. Because I use these tools every day, I feel as if they are the natural way to analyze user interaction, but to think that 10 years ago none of these tools even existed is amazing.
As for tech in general, I think I'm most interested in computer-based data analysis. For one of the first times in human history we have more ways to collect data and more data available to us than we have capabilities to parse and understand it. Huge datasets like the human genome, radioactive space emissions, or even more mundane datasets such as the hundreds of medical research papers that are released every day, all add to the information collective that we have created as a society. There's a great amount of value in the data that we have so far, but without methods in which to parse and understand this data in a timely and efficient manner, all this data amounts to just noise. With the advent of computers and systems that are finally able to analyze this data in a timely and automated manner, I think we are standing on the brink of what Patrick calls "Solving Really Big Problems."
Is there anything else you want to talk about or plug?
Keith: Lots of stuff I would love to plug, but nothing that's able to be put out there.
I guess the only thing I have to plug is my services. ;)
##End of interview
I want to thank both Patrick and Keith again for doing this, and thanks for reading the whole way through. If you want to give this interview some link love;