Authors Darl Kuhn and Tom Kyte: Why Writing is Worth It

Following is an interview with Apress authors Darl Kuhn and Tom Kyte, and conducted by our database editor, Jonathan Gennick. The interview originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of the SELECT Journal that is published quarterly by the Independent Oracle User Group (the IOUG). The IOUG has generously granted permission to run the interview here as well.

The Independent Oracle User Group is the leading voice of Oracle technology and database professionals, and routinely runs events such as the upcoming COLLABORATE16 conference to promote professional growth and engagement in a larger community. The Independent Oracle User Group also collaborates with Apress in the publication of a special series of books on Oracle topics under the banner IOUG Press.

Visit www.ioug.org to learn more about the IOUG. Also visit the COLLABORATE16 page to learn about one of the finest events for professionals working in Oracle Database or any other of Oracle Corporation's many product lines.

Writing a book is a great way to boost your career and have impact in your chosen field. Plus there's what you learn along the way while giving back and helping others to grow. I'm pleased to have two prolific authors – Darl Kuhn and Tom Kyte – to talk about their experience and how writing has made their careers richer and more satisfying.

Darl and Tom, one paragraph each: Has writing made a difference, and what's been the single greatest benefit you've drawn from it?

Darl: Writing has greatly enhanced my technical skills as a DBA and developer. You really learn the internals of a topic when you attempt to explain complex features in an understandable way. And what I've learned has led to better job prospects, opportunities to lead, and teaching positions. Publishing books has opened doors that would not have been there if not for the writing. Writing is a good way to get noticed by management and peers at work.

Tom: For me, it was mostly about the exposure I got. They say you don't get rich from writing technical books – and they are correct. What you do get is a degree of exposure, an introduction to people you otherwise would never have reached. I was fairly well known in the year 2000 due to my interactions on the Usenet news groups. But putting down into book form what I knew about Oracle Database made me much more well-known.

How did you begin? What motivated you to take that first step?

Darl: Many years ago when first implementing RMAN, I struggled with the tool and became frustrated with the standard documentation. So I put together a small document outlining the basics of how to use the tool. Another DBA looked at what I had documented and said "This looks like an RMAN pocket reference guide." That documentation turned into my first book. At the time, it was the first book on RMAN outside the standard Oracle documentation.

Tom: I had been writing for some time on the Usenet newsgroups. My postings were typically long and written in the style many of you know me for, with lots of examples and evidence that what I'm saying is probably true. Then in the year 2000 I was considering going back to school for a technical MBA in the computer area. I actually had the advertisement for the course in my hands and was starting to fill out the paperwork to enroll. That very same weekend I received an unsolicited offer to write a book from Tony Davis at the publisher WROX. Tony had read many of my write-ups on the newsgroups and thought the body of the material would make a great book. I debated internally about writing versus going back to school, and as is now obvious decided on writing. About a year or two later I was asked to come in on a weekend and speak to a University class, a class that met only on the weekends. It was a University class for a technical MBA. It turned out that this class would have been the exact class I would have been in had I signed up for my MBA instead of writing a book! I told them I didn't know if I made the right choice, but one of them put up their hand and said "You definitely made the right choice!"

What are some of the venues you've written for? Books and journals are obvious types, but where else have your writing skills come into play?

Darl: The most obvious are the many books that I've published -- over 14 so far. I've also written articles for the Rocky Mountain Oracle Users Group's SQL>UPDATE newsletter, and for Oracle Magazine.

Tom: I've written now a few, full sized books and hundreds of 4-5 page articles for magazines. I've also worked on technical documentation – my personal favorite being the Oracle Concepts Guide. I've written tens of thousands of answers to individual questions on both AskTom and other forums out there. Developing presentations for conferences is another form of "writing" I've participated in. Most of my seminar material came directly from a book or answer I had authored, or has become a chapter in a book or an answer to a question that's been asked.

What's been your most unexpected benefit from having written?

Darl: The other day a DBA sent me an email out of the blue and thanked me for taking the time to write books. This DBA said that the shared knowledge had made her job easier and had helped her become a better DBA. Receiving that type of feedback is very rewarding.

Tom: It is probably the sense of satisfaction you have when you get the book in your hand for the first time. It takes a lot of time and energy to put a book together, but in the end the satisfaction of knowing "you did it" was an unexpected benefit.

Has writing helped you to learn things you might not otherwise have learned?

Darl: Documenting a complex technical tool and explaining features in a coherent and understandable method will force you to learn magnitudes more about a topic than you'll ever get from only using the tool. The subsequent questions and critiques that follow force you to dig deeper and learn even more about the topic. This process allows you to step up your career a notch; you'll be more knowledgeable, and capable of handling more complex assignments.

Tom: Absolutely. I've often said that I've learned everything I know about Oracle from answering questions. If I didn't have such interesting, sometimes deep, hard to answer questions about "how" something works or "why" something works the way it does or "what is the best way" to do something, I would not have the depth of knowledge I do today.

Have you been able to meet any interesting people through your writing?

Darl: In today's interconnected world, once published, your material will generate questions from people located in all parts of the world. You'll develop a large network of new acquaintances and friendships.

Tom: You could say that, yes! I've met pretty much all of the interesting people I've ever met due to writing. The writing gets you out in the community; it gets you invites to seminars, conferences, user group meetings. It can get you invited all over the world. I've met people from as far north as Edmonton Canada, down to Argentina and Chile, over to Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Japan, China, India, Russia – most of Europe, Iceland, bits of the African continent and much more. I feel if I didn't take the offer to write a book a decade and a half ago, I probably wouldn't have met nearly as many interesting people! And I feel fortunate to call many of them friends now.

What has been your scariest assignment? Have you ever undertaken to write something only to later wish that you hadn't promised anything?

Darl: The first book I worked on was a bit overwhelming for me at the time and the editor thought about cancelling the project. The editor worked with me to scale back the scope and this resulted in a very successful book. The lesson learned was that if you're thinking about writing, but aren't sure you're up to the task, then start with smaller projects like blogs, journal articles, and user group presentations.

Tom: No, I've never experienced that. I've had the luxury of being able to pick what I was going to write about – I've never been assigned a topic (short of these interviews that is!). I personally feel you should write about what you know – you'll be doing a ton of research and verification work still, even though you "know" the topic. But you'll be speaking from your experience.

Books. Blogs. Journal articles. User-group newsletters. Where do you recommend people start? Does it even matter?

Darl: Blogs, presentations, and magazine articles are a great way to break into the writing business. These all include developing an idea, documenting and explaining, organizing the material, receiving feedback, revising the content, and repeating the cycle. Also consider being a technical reviewer for a book. Being a technical reviewer exposes you to most facets of publishing a book without you having to do the heavy lifting of writing it. Don't hesitate to contact an editor if you're interested. Reviewing can very well lead to your authoring a book in the future.

Tom: I don't think it matters where to start – it only matters that you do. I'd add to that list "forums" - places where lots of people go to interact. If you are just doing books (push from you to them), blogs (push from you to them), articles (push from you to them), you stand to learn less than if you get into a forum where you not only push your ideas to them - but they will push back on you. I learned a lot from people like Jonathon Lewis, Cary Millsap, and many others based solely on their feedback on things I wrote on forums.

What should readers understand about the business of publishing?

Darl: Writing can take a great deal of time and not pay a lot of money. Also it's painful when you pour your heart and soul into a project and then receive less than favorable feedback (from technical reviewers, editors, readers, and so on). However, those critiques will cause you to do new research and rethink what you've written. You'll come out of the writing process with a much better understanding of the technology. This results in you being more qualified for your job, and a better candidate for future career opportunities.

Tom: It doesn't pay well☺. Don’t get into writing to "get rich quick". Get into writing because you want to share – in a scalable fashion – your experiences, successes, and failures.

Is there money to be made? How should writers think about remuneration?

Darl: There's an old saying in the horse industry: "if you want to make a small fortune with horses, then you'd better start with a large fortune." The point being that you need a motivation other than money to define your success. The same is true with publishing, something other than money should stoke your fire, like gaining knowledge, enhancing your career prospects, or a strong desire to help educate others. There is money to be made, but not enough to buy the big house and boat.

Tom: There is, but you probably aren't going to make a huge living from writing unless you always have five or six books newly out and current. Think instead about furthering yourself in the community, and especially giving back to the community. Writing is sort of a two-way street in that respect. You will get something that is hard to measure in dollars and cents (the exposure), and you will be giving something (your knowledge and experiences) in turn.

The exposure has monetary value, but it is very hard to put a fixed amount on it. Would I have had the career I've had so far if I didn't write a book in 2000? And with more to follow? If I didn't work on the AskTom questions and answers for so many years? If I didn't have an ongoing column in a magazine for so long? I seriously doubt it. If you are a consultant and can say "I wrote the book on that", being able to say that has definite value.

Do you ever think of yourself as "a writer?" At what point did you find yourself self-identifying as a writer?

Darl: After publishing the first book, the editor remarked "congratulations, you're an author now!" In reality, I'm a regular DBA just trying to survive, continuously learning from others and developing new skills. Facing and resolving real-world problems at work and then sharing that knowledge is where my material comes from.

Tom: I've tended to do so many things – writing, hour-long presentations, one-, two-, and three-day long seminars, architecture reviews, ad-hoc question and answer sessions with nothing more than a whiteboard – that I do not consider myself just a writer. I rather see mine as an educational role – I feel more akin to an educator than solely a writer. I think all authors of technical materials are educators at heart.

How much time does writing take up? What should new writers be thinking about before committing to deliver a book or an article?

Darl: Most books I've worked on have taken around 10 or so months. That includes initial draft, technical reviews, editor reviews, copy edit, and production edits. Make sure you carve out some time and that people around you know that you're going to be busy on nights and weekends for a while. If you are constrained on time then consider getting co-authors to help; doing so distributes the load and gives you breathing room to make deadlines.

Tom: My AskTom columns took about four hours to write up. They were each about 10 pages in a Word document, and four printed pages in the magazine. The reason they took only four hours is because they were already partially written before I started! I was taking a set of interesting AskTom questions, and their answers, and making them "prettier" for the magazine.

A book on the other hand takes a bit longer! Nine to ten months has been my average per book. And the books were all about working at night and on the weekends. I had my full time job at Oracle during the day. Writing the books was done on my "free" time. I found if I knew a topic very well, that I could generate 15-30 pages in Word on it in a day. If I had to do significant research, creating examples and fact checking, then I might be slowed down to five to ten pages in a day. And of course there were some days I just stood back and said "zero pages today!"

Do authors need groundbreaking content? Is there room for the Nth journal article on window functions in SQL, or on bulk operations in PL/SQL?

Darl: There's always room for somebody to explain a concept in a different way that is understandable. It doesn't matter if it's an old topic or a new topic. Don't be shy about approaching an editor with your ideas. The editor will work with you on the concept to modify and focus the material. Even if the editor doesn't like your initial pitch, just talking to an editor oftentimes leads to other viable ideas.

Tom: There is always room for an Nth article. Everyone has a way of telling a story that is different from the way someone else would tell the story. Not everyone responds to the same written article in the same way. People learn differently, and we need a wide variety of material in a wide variety of forms to satisfy that fact. I myself would never pass up at least a quick glance at an article on windowing functions. I not only might learn something new (a technique of using them that I hadn't thought of myself), but I'll probably have a new example in the back of my head that I can pull out and use later when answering a question or explaining a concept.

Do you have any upcoming projects you'd like our readers to know about?

Darl: Soon to be released: Linux and Solaris Recipes for Oracle DBAs. This is the 2nd edition of this book and includes enhanced Linux and Solaris solutions as well as covering topics like Oracle VM VirtualBox.

Tom: Yes I do, I just made a big change in my work life and have some possible projects in mind. I put it all down in writing not too long ago: http://www.oracle.com/technetwork/issue-archive/2015/15-sep/last-asktom-2650480.html.

Any other, final thoughts?

Darl: If you're thinking about writing, don't be afraid to contribute. You may sputter and experience setbacks, but the rewards far outweigh the pain. Participating and sharing your knowledge will open future doors for you and help others become better technologists as well.

Tom: Sure, I'd like to add one word: participate. What you'll get from participating is a greater sense of what people are doing. You'll see solutions you never would envision otherwise. You'll ask questions. You'll answer questions. You'll debate, you'll engage. You'll win some battles. You'll lose others. In the end, you'll learn and you'll teach.

Darl and Tom, thank you both so much.

Darl: You're welcome!

Tom: It's been a pleasure. 

(by Jonathan Gennick)