Interview with Trevor Pott (@cakeis_not_alie), Writer for The Register and Sysadmin ExtraordinaireJanuary 4, 2013
By @Rose_at_O, @Olivia_at_O
Trevor Pott is a systems administrator, consultant and a blogger and writer for The Register, SearchVMware.Techtarget.com and Petri.Co.Il. He also operates an IT consultancy in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada called eGeek Consulting. Check out articles Trevor has written for The Register here. His personal blog is here, and the blog for his company, eGeek Consulting, is here.
Q. Tell us a bit about yourself:
Egads! The trap question, right up front! I am a systems administrator by trade, but have spent the past five years working in CTO-like roles as a consultant. I am a business owner – my consulting work having expanded to the point that it requires some other bodies – as well as a technology blogger with pretentions of real journalism.
I’ve tried to answer “who are you and what do you do” in so many ways over the past year that I have settled on simply calling myself a nerd – it says so on my LinkedIn profile – and letting readers and potential clients place me in whatever box they feel is requisite. I have earned a reputation for thinking orthogonally. I am always interested in the specifics of a given deployment or problem, not writing everything off into these easily classifiable boxes and applying pre-canned solutions or judgments.
My customers pay me to think – to come up with solutions to problems – not to simply implement the same thing everyone else is implementing. It is by doing things differently – hopefully more efficiently and tightly streamlined to existing workflows – that my customers differentiate themselves from their competition.
Given the above is my day job, when I write for various online publications, I tend to look at things from angles that the average techie doesn’t. I am more willing to consider alternative vendors and solutions, if their value can be proven.
Q. Tell us a little bit about the titles you write for and their interest in virtualization.
The Register currently provides the bulk of my publishing bandwidth. In general they prefer to hear about news; the more sensational the better. They like market disruptors and scandals; things that attract a lot of eyeballs. They have a massive audience – officially audited in 2011 as being 6.6 million, and well beyond that now – so the tastes among the readership are diverse. El Reg keeps me around mostly to stir the pot and keep things interesting. It is my job to inject some reviews and interviews with interesting people at the coalface and talk about the practical aspects of implementing technologies in all sorts of different scenarios.
Petri.Co.Il likes “how to” articles. Their business model is completely different from The Register; they are less focused on breaking stories and far more on the “long tail” of people trying to figure out how things a specific technology works. They like detail and a lot of screenshots.
SearchVMware.Techtarget.com likes discussions from “industry experts.” They offer short and sweet 500-600 word analyses of products or particular features. They seem to aim more at those looking for a high-level overview of something that will then be researched in more depth elsewhere.
I also have my own personal blog trevorpott.com as well as my corporate blog on egeek.ca. Both see more traffic than I am comfortable with, considering how rarely I update; something that will be a renewed focus for me in 2013.
Trevorpott.com is a lot more personal; I talk here about my opinions, or go into technical depth and at great length on subjects that I can’t get publishing bandwidth for elsewhere. (Nobody has much interest in providing me space to post 5000 words on how to set up PostFix as an LDAP-authenticated spam filter and then push it out as a virtual appliance on a SaaS basis to your private cloud).
eGeek.ca is where my coworkers and I have begun posting articles we feel are of relevance to our potential customers. They cover a range of topics but controlling the medium we have greater freedom to drill down on aspects of the technologies in question than we can otherwise accomplish on news-focused sites. I expect this to start seeing so much content in 2013 that we’ll have to redesign the site by June.
Q. What’s hot in virtualization this year?
Nothing. Oh, there’s plenty of neat stuff on the fringes, but nobody is taking any risks. Microsoft hasn’t pulled their finger out regarding VDI licensing – kneecapping half the startups in the virtualization and flash storage space – and VMware hasn’t really climbed down on price. Citrix needs a great big technological reveal in the next release or they’ll vanish into complete obscurity, and everyone else is collectively holding their breath to see how things will shake out. 2012 was the year Microsoft went all in and called the cards. 2013 will show who was bluffing and determine the pecking order of the virtualization space for the next decade.
Q. How many events do you attend each year?
Ooooh, junkets! I only attended two in 2012. I saw no benefit in going to more than that per year when I was simply an implementer of technology, and I have only gotten invited to the two events this past year as a tech writer.
My colleague and business partner Josh Folland, however, will probably attend a lot more than me and “report back.” We are seeing a huge interest by companies in the ability to hire representatives to attend conferences on their behalf who are technically skilled but marketing trained. I can’t attend conferences in such a fashion – I work hard to preserve my objectivity – but Josh can. He’s trained in marketing and has worked as a systems administrator.
So while I cannot personally go to a great many conferences, this individual whom I trust implicitly will be going to a great many more than I and bringing back all sorts of interesting information and contacts for me to contemplate. Attending conferences has become such an integral part of the IT world that working out such efficiencies seems to be required if you’re going to get everything done!
SpiceWorld; I really hope I get asked back in 2013. It is ignored by a lot of vendors and more fools them. The old business model of sitting down the CxO for expensive seafood and overly bitter wine is quickly dying off. Companies like VMware and Microsoft are automating away the role of the Systems, Network and Storage Administrators. These highly technical and skilled individuals are moving up the management chain looking to stay employed, displacing the MBA crowd that used to run their departments.
This poses a massive challenge for marketing and PR folks; techies are allergic to “old school” marketing. They demand that products and companies win the contract on merit and by demonstrating clear value. Traditional conferences – which are really just great big advertising festivals steeped in the misogyny of scantily clad women as attention-grabbers – are an inappropriate venue to engage decision-makers with any technical depth.
SpiceWorld is completely different. At SpiceWorld there are breakout sessions with in-depth technical presentations by vendors, subject matter experts and so forth. The people attending SpiceWorld are those at the coalface; the people implementing the technologies in the real world and who will be going back to their organizations with a strategy in mind for the next two refresh cycles.
The value of a conference has never been the conference itself. It has always been the contacts you made – business cards are currency! – and the information you gained at the after parties. This is why we go. The booths are just to get free swag. SpiceWorld has booths – free swag is still good – but the attending companies send technically competent and knowledgeable PR staff to SpiceWorld. They know they are dealing with sysadmins, not CxOs.
Between the breakout sessions and the ability to pin down company reps that know their technology inside out and backwards, the entire event is like one big, extended, frenetic afterparty: three whole days of raw, educational value for IT professionals.
VMworld can provide you similar value if your sole focus is VMware. BUILD can do the same if you are a Microsoft Developer and monofocused on that world. To my knowledge, SpiceWorld is the only event in the technosphere where you can obtain multidisciplinary deep-dive value from multiple companies in a single go.
For someone who hates travelling – and rarely has the time or money to spare – it is the event to beat.
Q. What types of stories or companies are likely to attract your attention this year?
Companies that have a clear value proposition, so when you contact me in the hopes of getting your clients mentioned on any of the websites I write for – or any of the Deep Web forums I inhabit – you aren’t pitching your typical “journalist that happens to cover technology.” You are pitching a sysadmin. I am cynical and skeptical by training and long experience. I am also a member of generation Y and I am from the internet. For all intents and purposes I am immune to advertisement and typical PR malarkey.
How does the technology in question help solve a specific problem? Who is the target market? How much does it cost and why would I choose that over the competition? Companies that can articulate this to me are companies that I will care about. If I as a systems administrator am intrigued by the offering on the table, then my readers will be too.
Q. How many briefings do you do per week?
Three per week has proven to be too many. I’m not a full-time writer; systems administration still brings home the bacon. I am aiming for one briefing a week in 2013, with exceptional cases bringing that to two. I intend to be picky, and will be publishing a lot more “round-ups” comparing company offerings to one another with fewer monofocused articles. At least until I get more publishing bandwidth.
Q. What’s the best way to pitch a story to you?
Twitter and Instant Messenger Gtalk (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Skype (egeekoperations) are the best way to reach me for real-time communication. Email is great for more in-depth communications after initial contact. Phone is fine if time has been scheduled. Hard copy (like snail mail or fax) is a flashing red beacon that the company in question does not understand the internet and those who dwell there. Never, ever do that. This isn’t the 1980s anymore. We don’t chisel our communications onto stone tablets, either, or scratch crude drawings on walls with burnt sticks.
Q. Who is worth listening to?
Microsoft: Mary Jo Foley. Unlike some others (who will go nameless) this lady isn’t biased or bought. She tells it like it is and has a cult following for a reason. Peter Bright is probably the closest second.
VMware: Bob Plankers is the man with the credibility to beat. I fully intend to steal his crown eventually, but right now he’s top dog.
General IT Reporting: Jon Brodkin is the guy to beat here. I think the closest analogue at The Register is Rik Myslewski, and of course other tech rags have a similar body. Jon is the one with the die-hard fan base and the one every PR body wants to influence. He may also be the single most cynical person on the internet.
Deep Dive IT reporting: I’d say that you have Timothy Prickett Morgan and myself at The Register, Andrew Cunningham and Lee Hutchinson at Ars Technica, the cast and crew of AnandTech and that’s about it. There are some review-specific or very tech-specific bodies out there, but very few people who have the magic combination of broad technical background and ability to write about it.
There are lots of “journalists” trying to do Deep Tech and most of them are pretty bad at it. (TPM excepted). There are precious few sysadmins out there doing journalism for any of the major publications, and they are the folks to keep your eye on.
Q. What’s your favorite blog?
How about Mary Jo Foley’s All About Microsoft? That’s part of ZDnet, but mostly is its own thing; I worship the ground that lady walks on.
Jose Barreto maintains a blog in his capacity as a member of Microsoft’s File Server team, and I couldn’t do my job without it.
Michael Geist is a towering figure in the world of Intellectual Property and I also read a lot of Popehat.
With those few exceptions, I have mostly stopped reading blogs except when I find myself linked to them for specific articles. My daily dose of news basically boils down to the increasingly good content available in the Spiceworks community, The Register for tech news and Ars Technica for science news. I’ve even mostly stopped reading Anandtech, which is a shame. They have good stuff but are the first on the block when I run out of time.
Q. What is your favorite piece of technology?
ASUS Transformer. The tablet’s internal battery combined with the additional battery in the dock can power the tablet itself and my phone (acting as a MiFi device) for 10 continuous hours. That’s “all day computing” on a device with enough power to do things locally if needed, but which I mostly use to RDP into my home or work VMs. I couldn’t live without it.
Q. What do you think is the most important development in virtualization to date?
The price realignment of 2012. VMware’s bringing HA and live VM backups down into the Essentials Plus package for small businesses will change the face of IT. There are way more small businesses out there than there are large companies using full-blown Enterprise Plus-style licensing. This one small move by VMware brings enterprise-class computing to SMBs, finally lowering the barrier to properly managed, highly available IT. SMBs can actually compete with the big guys now, instead of getting steamrollered any time they tried to do anything complex.
Q. What is the best piece of advice for companies to brief you?
Send me demo gear, or at least get a technically competent human being on the phone and show me a sexy Webex. Words are ephemeral and pointless. I don’t believe promises and I only rarely believe demos. I want to test your product under conditions that are not optimal; I want to torture it with real-world workloads and find out what its failure modes are. Don’t talk to me about what your product hopes it can do. Show me what it does do and how it copes with things gone wrong.
Q. What was the best press trip you’ve ever been on? Worst? Why?
The best junket was a VMware junket. They flew me down to Palo Alto to be part of a focus group pre-VMworld. They needed to test their marketing pitch on their intended audience and so they chose highly technical representatives from the blogosphere, the analyst world and sprinkled in some vExperts.
The important part to me was that they let me talk to the suits and ask tough questions. There was hands-on time with the new product – absolutely critical to writing informed and knowledgeable pieces. I learned a lot, and that right there makes it well done.
The worst junket I’ve attended was what I consider to be a very “traditional” junket. I’ll not name and shame on this, but suffice it say that they hauled a few of us into a room to give us a demo of the technology. Nobody was allowed to touch it, and questions to the engineers were pre-vetted by the press officer. Food and wine flowed with lavish abandon and there were far too many scantily clad ladies with lax morals.
The above might be a fun way to spend time, but it doesn’t provide me the information I require to do my job. My job is to find the hard truth about technology products and the companies that make them. The best junkets will be those that help me do this in as efficient a manner as possible. In fact, there’s this internet thing. We have couriers. Why are we flying people across the world for single-vendor, single-product events again?
Q. What’s your favorite restaurant?
The Blue Nile. It’s an Ethiopian restaurant in my home province in Canada with locations in the two major cities.
Q. Are you a social media lover? Which ones are you on?
I am a social media user, but I secretly loathe social media. I have a Facebook account just to shut up the family. I never use Facebook, and neither does the cross-section of my generation that falls into the part of the Venn diagram that covers “makes actual money.” Facebook is a means for family members and friends to share pointless anecdotes and pictures. It serves no business purpose, and is relevant only to those who need to advertise consumer tat to the hoi polloi.
Twitter is – sadly – a bizarre necessity for keeping up with the technorati. That’s changing rapidly, however. My generation left Facebook when our parents discovered the site and it devolved into cute baby pictures. Now that our parents have figured out Twitter, we’re moving over to Google+.
Social media is always thus: Groups of like-minded people want to congregate and meet other groups of like-minded people. Hangers-on and marketers will constantly chase down the high-value groups to advertise at them and cling to the coattails. When the signal-to-noise ratio becomes untenably disruptive, a wholesale move away from the corrupted medium and over to a fresh new one begins. Rinse, repeat.
The exception to this is LinkedIn. LinkedIn isn’t a traditional social media anything. It is a very narrow, very focused entity. People market themselves there on purpose. Robust controls exist to keep the baying hounds to a dull roar. It has the potential to exist long after others have crumbled into dust.
Q. Tell us something no one knows about you.
I keep fish. Freshwater tropical fish. I try to stay away from the really exotic beasties that are harvested unsustainably from wild capture and focus on species that are captive-bred. I currently keep a pair of Epalzeorhynchos bicolor, a pair of Pterophyllum altum, a Betta, several varieties of Corydoras, several dozen Trigonostigma heteromorpha and 7 Ancistrus.
The Ancistrus – known more commonly as the Bristlenose or Bushynose Plecostomus – has become the mascot for my consulting company and features in our logo and on our business cards. It’s a neat little piece of marketing; everyone remembers the weird-looking fish!
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