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TidBITS Staffers Recall How They Got Their Starts

TidBITS is a joint effort, and always has been. While Adam Engst sits atop our virtual masthead, we collaborate on nearly everything in groups ranging anywhere from two to ten – such as this article’s introduction. (No, we didn’t! Yes, we did!)

A few of us date back to the pre-history of TidBITS, meeting Adam before the publication came into being. Others were long-time readers and contributors, while fresh faces – Rich Mogull and Doug McLean being the most pink-cheeked – have joined us to beef up coverage and add their own particular voices and specialties.

Herewith, then, are recollections of how and why we’ve arrived here, in order of how long we’ve been associated with TidBITS.

Tonya Engst — When TidBITS began, Adam and I weren’t married. We shared a cat and a Macintosh SE. Adam was working as a computer consultant, helping clients set up backup systems and create databases. I was working for Cornell University’s computer store, helping staff and students choose among Macs, PCs, and NeXTs. Adam and I had recently graduated from Cornell University with a motley collection of majors and minors: Communications (me), the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (me), Classics (Adam), and Hypertextual Fiction (Adam).

One night, we had a long, intertwingled conversation about PageMaker and HyperCard, helping individuals keep up with the tech industry, academic versus commercial writing, and much more. Before we began talking, we were having an entirely unremarkable evening; once we had finished, we had set ourselves on a path that we had not previously anticipated and could not have predicted.

The result of that conversation was TidBITS. Call it a HyperCard stack, call it an email newsletter, call it the inevitable result of a mix of our college majors, call it the first Internet publication ever to accept advertising, call it a community, call it a database-driven and comment-receptive Web site, call it a collaboration between many writers and readers, call it what you will, TidBITS became the focus of our lives.

So, while Adam has been the frontman – writing and editing many of the articles, attending conferences, answering the constant deluge of email, inspiring and collaborating on ever-newer and whizzier ways to publish TidBITS, what exactly have I been doing?

I’ve been writing articles, editing articles, learning and teaching every last thing to know about early versions of Microsoft Word and early versions of HTML, pushing for change, being a passionate advocate for less-experienced readers, acting as a sounding board, inspiring articles, bookkeeping, budgeting, serving as CFO, serving as an ad hoc “human resources” department, being the iron hand of project management and scheduling, getting a “real” job during certain lean years, learning how to be a sane working mother, not minding the many days when working hours are odd, and – since 2003 – devoting the majority of my time to the Take Control ebook series which partly funds TidBITS.

Were working for TidBITS Publishing Inc. a normal job, there’s no way I would have continued. The hours are murderous, the demands are many, and the to-do list endless. Fortunately, the enjoyment of interacting with so many interesting people and participating meaningfully in the technology world balances the downsides. Running TidBITS with Adam and everyone else has become a lifestyle that continues to surprise and delight, and to remind me that we are all connected.

Matt Neuburg — Back in 1980, while completing my PhD studies in Classics at Cornell University, I startled my supervisors by writing, editing, and outputting my PhD thesis on the university’s mainframe computer. This was a natural approach for me (I’d started programming a dozen years before), and it enabled me to complete my thesis efficiently; but personal computers were not yet widespread, and a Humanities scholar with a computing background was a rarity.

Fast-forward to 1987, when I returned to Cornell for a couple of years to teach Classics. By then I was using an Apple II to output complex documents that mixed English, Latin, and Greek, and to store lecture notes in outline form. One of my brighter students noticed this, and I told him about my use of computers, past and present; he, too, was a Humanities scholar with a strong interest in computers, and we struck up a friendship outside the classroom. That was Adam Engst.

In 1989, Adam told me about Storyspace, a pre-release application for making and reading hypertextual documents, which he was using to write his senior honors thesis. He also showed me the Macs in Cornell’s computer labs, but failed to persuade me that the Mac was much more than a toy at that stage.

A few years later, though, I was teaching at Swarthmore College (my undergraduate alma mater), and they gave me a Mac as part of my office furniture. I became a Mac person, and I started creating classware in HyperCard, scholarly documents in Nisus, and educational documents in Storyspace.

In the early 1990s, as an academic, I had desktop access to the Internet, and kept up with Info-Mac, where programmers posted applications for download and users posted Mac questions and answers (for a brief history of Info-Mac, see Adam’s “The Info-Mac Network Retires,” 19 December 2005). Adam was an Info-Mac denizen, and he started posting TidBITS to it. So we remained in touch, and we still had many specific Mac interests in common: HyperCard, Nisus, Storyspace.

I naturally proposed to write about these applications for TidBITS, and Adam was very helpful, letting me write super-detailed reviews spread over many issues, and even volunteering to share authorship with me. Thus he appears as co-author in my review of Storyspace (my first TidBITS article, “Storyspace Introduction,” 18 November 1991), and as guest commentator in my review of Nisus (“Nisus Review Preview,” 6 April 1992).

By now I was emulating Adam’s style of working and writing (the TidBITS ethos, you might say), and the rest, to coin a phrase, is history. I’ll skip other ways in which Adam has affected my subsequent career and conclude by saying that the great thing about writing for TidBITS is trust. I try to adhere to the TidBITS philosophy and live up to its literary and intellectual standards, and in return Adam gives me freedom to write what I want, when I want, to whatever length I think appropriate. What could be better?

Mark H. Anbinder — Adam, Tonya (who then went by her maiden name of Byard), and I were all students at Cornell University in the late 1980s. In addition to enjoying a college campus with a higher-than-most penetration of early Macintosh computers, we were also graced by Steve Jobs himself arriving on campus one winter to show off the NeXT Cube. (This was before his jeans and black turtleneck look, though Tonya did say she was wildly impressed with his shoes.) We had long known some of the same people, but that NeXT presentation was the first time I can remember meeting Adam and Tonya.

We all stayed around Ithaca after graduating, and our paths crossed more and more until the three of us became active participants in and organizers of MUGWUMP, the local Mac user group, whose name was an acronym for “Macintosh User Group for Writers and Users of Macintosh Programs.” MUGWUMP never had a huge membership, but it was a committed group with a software lending library, a well-designed print newsletter in an era of desktop-publishing atrocities, monthly meetings and presentations on the latest software and hardware for Mac users, and regular gatherings of the steering committee. We found ourselves to be three of the most active members in that crew.

When Adam and Tonya decided to combine their affection for HyperCard and hypertext with the joy of sharing knowledge about Macintosh computing, I was there; before long I was involved helping set up their first (UUCP-based) TidBITS email system, occasionally helping publish an issue, and doing an increasing amount of writing. When they moved to Seattle in 1991, I kept TidBITS running for the month of August while Adam looked for a new Internet connection.

As a News Editor, and then a somewhat less-active Contributing Editor, I’ve been on hand for many of TidBITS’s biggest collaborative coverage efforts – helping write about new computers, new operating systems, and the like, hardly ever face-to-face but often feeling as though we’re huddled together around a big table. (There are still a couple of TidBITS regulars I’ve never met in person, though that number continues to shrink.)

Over the course of 20 years we’ve gotten to meet or otherwise interact with so many of our readers, and I think that interaction is a big part of what keeps TidBITS going for all of us. My TidBITS connections have also led to other writing opportunities, for which I consider myself very lucky. As I write these thoughts in a hotel in the Artists’ Quarter of Safed, Israel, I’ll wish a hearty “Mazel Tov!” to the rest of the TidBITS crew.

Geoff Duncan — I first encountered TidBITS in the summer of 1990 (issue #10 caught my eye: HyperCard 2.0 and rumors of a color Mac SE – excitement!) but it was just a curiosity until maybe a year later when the smart lady in the next office idly asked “Hey, do you get TidBITS? You should. Adam and Tonya are great people.” Turned out I was sharing a poorly lit computing center hallway with Linda Iroff, who knew Adam and Tonya from Cornell. When I packed up and headed for Seattle shortly afterwards, Linda said Adam and Tonya had moved there recently too and we should meet. I made a mental note (in my jumble of mental notes), but was surprised a few months later when I answered a knock on the apartment door.
“Hi!” There stood Adam and Tonya, who had stopped by on their way to grocery shopping. I had long nurtured an interest in online publishing, and I eventually wound up signing on as TidBITS’s first kinda-sorta-formal staff member.

I believed then – and believe today – that TidBITS occupies a unique and important position in the Macintosh community, not only because it publishes top-quality information and analysis (for free!) but because TidBITS connects so many dots. TidBITS isn’t just about the when-where-and-how-much of a topic, but has the freedom to delve deeply into the why – and after 20 years in the biz, TidBITS has the knowledge, contacts, and connections to get those answers. It’s a testimony to Adam and Tonya that they have pulled it all off not by sinking into the manipulation, posturing, politicking, and shady deals so common in the industry but by being their genuine, upfront, and warm-hearted selves. TidBITS’s success really is that
simple, and I’m proud to have been associated with it in some small way.

Glenn Fleishman — I remember reading TidBITS in its early days, although I can’t recollect where I first found it – probably in the comp.sys.mac.digest Usenet newsgroup that mirrored Info-Mac.

It wasn’t long after reading TidBITS that I started writing to the Engsts about various things, including this 1991 complaint about an error in describing Multiple Master fonts. My first article (“Apple’s 16-bit Solution,” 19 April 1993) appeared several years later, just before I moved to Seattle. I had a lot of time on my hands after a job ended in Maine and before I drove west.

I corresponded a bit with the Engsts before I arrived in Seattle, and soon received invitations to attend the monthly soirees at their near-lakeside home in Renton. (Okay, it was a tiny bungalow a few blocks from a less-popular portion of Lake Washington – near a Boeing plant – within commuting distance of Tonya’s Microsoft job.)

My first significant article for TidBITS was likely “The Experiment is Over” (1 May 1995), which explained how the Internet’s then-backbone, run by the National Science Foundation as NSFNet, was in its final days of a transition to commercially operated backbone service. The article got a lot of traction in 1995 and was picked up and distributed all over.

Writing for TidBITS seemed like a big deal then, and it still does today. TidBITS was the voice of the user, in contrast to the huge trade journals of the day, which focused more on companies with lots of money to spend, partly because the publications were pumped full of advertising dollars as the information technology and personal technology markets were exploding.

I can draw a direct line from the confidence I got from writing for TidBITS to my later freelance career. While I started writing for money in 1995, it wasn’t until 1998 that I began working with national publications like the New York Times, and later Wired, Business 2.0, Fortune, and others during the dot-com bubble.

I’ve been working hard for and with TidBITS (including a short stint trying to launch an Internet-focused offshoot called NetBITS in 1997-1998) for over 12 years.

The Engsts and I became friends after being colleagues, and I recall a lot of laughs in Renton, and then in their mountaintop mad scientist lair at the end of a road in Issaquah, WA. When they moved back to Ithaca, I shed a few tears, but our virtual contact became even stronger.

Jeff Carlson — In 1994, inspired by the possibilities dangled in front of us by Wired magazine, I bought a modem for my Mac Classic II. To be honest, I didn’t quite know what to do with it at first, but I could tell that “getting online” was going to be a big deal. I located a couple of local bulletin board systems, including one for writers. It was there I met Geoff Duncan, the TidBITS Managing Editor at the time, who pointed out that if I liked using BBSes, I really needed to get on the Internet. (Geoff was the virtual dealer tantalizing me with a gateway drug.)

Of course, the way to gain access to the Internet at the time was Adam’s book “Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh,” which gave me not only the knowledge but also the software needed to get connected (MacTCP on a floppy disk attached to the inside back cover.) In addition to getting me on the Internet, “Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh” was instrumental because it taught me that a “computer book” could be entertaining as well as informative – I read it cover to cover.

By 1996 (thanks to a referral from Geoff), I was working as Managing Editor for Open House Books, an imprint in Seattle that wrote and packaged titles such as “Real World FreeHand” by Olav Martin Kvern and “Real World Adobe Photoshop” by David Blatner, Bruce Fraser, and the owner of the company, Steve Roth. Steve also co-ran Thunder Lizard Productions, a technology conference business that was taking off. In the nicest possible way, Steve told me that he was going to dissolve Open House Books and let me go.

Fortunately, I had started writing articles for publications like Adobe Magazine and still had a few books in the editing pipeline, so I was ready to test the freelance waters. My first appearance in TidBITS, appropriately enough, was a short April Fools article, “Netscape Sleep Plug-In” (1 April 1996).

Later that year, while attending a lunch with several Seattle technology writers (at the original café), I finally met Adam and Tonya in person. After lunch, Tonya came up to me and said, “So, tell me more about being a managing editor!” (That exclamation point is deliberate: for as long as I’ve known her, Tonya is unfailingly chipper, especially when meeting someone new.) I didn’t realize right away that I was in the middle of a job interview, but I must have answered well enough. They soon offered me the part-time position and I accepted, thereby monopolizing almost every Monday (when we build the email issue) for the next 15 years.

Joe Kissell — I started using Macs in 1991 while in graduate school studying linguistics at the University of Texas at Arlington. Within a couple of years I had read Adam’s “Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh” and started subscribing to TidBITS – I can’t recall which happened first. But by the time I began working for Nisus Software in 1994, I had read quite a bit of Adam’s stuff and regarded him as nothing short of a celebrity.

The following January I attended Macworld Expo in San Francisco for the first time, and when a colleague offered to introduce me to Adam, who was a Nisus Writer fan, I was star-struck. He was a famous author who seemed to know everything about my favorite computer, and relatively speaking I was a newbie.

A year later, I’d written my own first book, “The Nisus Way,” and that was what I talked about with Tonya when I met her at the next Macworld Expo. She blew my mind by telling me about this new Web site called where, if I referred people to buy my book, I would somehow mysteriously get extra money for it. A couple of months later, Tonya reviewed my book in TidBITS (“I Am Joe’s Book,” 18 March 1996). I made a point of telling her that my own mother couldn’t have written a more complimentary review, and that I would be happy to buy her a milkshake to say thanks. (Tonya, I believe I still owe you that milkshake!)

A few years later, while on our first vacation to Paris, I told my then-girlfriend Morgen about my goal to one day write an article for TidBITS – and maybe even, eventually, if I was lucky, one for Macworld. Even though I’d had a couple of books published by then, writing for TidBITS seemed like a stretch, something I wasn’t sure I was qualified to do. After a five-year stint at Kensington, I wrote my third book, which was published in early 2003 and for which Adam generously contributed a foreword. That interaction finally led to my first TidBITS article (“Salling Clicker in Action,” 25 August 2003), and then, a few months later, to the beginning of my involvement with Take Control
Books. That, in turn, prompted an invitation to write an article for Macworld. In the years since, both publishers have kept asking me to write things and have given me titles with the word “senior” in them, so I’ve kept writing – still a bit mystified at my good fortune at being sucked into the TidBITS vortex, merely (so it seems) by standing too close.

Rich Mogull — I may be one of the most recent additions to the TidBITS staff, but I believe I’m the only member whose association started with a secret identity.

I’m a bit of a geek. My tech and programming days started in the early 1980s with the Commodore PET in our elementary school. I was also lucky to have a friend with somewhat wealthy parents who owned an Apple II (I can’t remember which model) upon which we spent countless hours playing Wizardry, Olympic Decathlon, and occasionally programming.

Flash forward to 2005. I was working as an analyst on the security team at Gartner and still didn’t own a Mac, despite years of drooling over everything from the first PowerBooks to the first iMac. Chris Pepper, a childhood friend and long-time Apple user, constantly pushed me to take the plunge and switch, which I finally did with the release of the Mac mini since the price made it a low-risk investment. On Chris’s suggestion I subscribed to TidBITS and bought a few Take Control books to learn Mac OS X.

Within a matter of weeks I realized that Mac mini had become my primary computer. I even started programming in AppleScript, relying on a rapidly dog-eared copy of Matt Neuburg’s AppleScript: The Definitive Guide. When Apple announced the transition to CPUs from Intel, I was able to virtualize Windows on a Mac and continue my conversion.

As an industry analyst I did a fair bit of writing on technology, but it was all impersonal. By this point Chris had contributed some articles to TidBITS, and I asked if he could quietly approach Adam with a story idea about my “switcher’s tale.” The only problem was that, due to my day job, I would have to write under a pseudonym and my real identity would need to be kept secret.

Adam liked the idea, and thus I wrote my first ever TidBITS article (“From iPod to MacBook Pro: A Switcher’s Tale,” 13 March 2006). Over the course of the next year I wrote three more TidBITS articles under the name “Robert Movin.” In August of 2007 I left my job, founded my own firm, and started writing the occasional TidBITS article under my real name.

As Macworld Expo approached I asked Adam in email if it would be okay if I used TidBITS as a reference to apply for a press pass. I didn’t hear back right away – which is unlike Adam – leading me to assume I had offended him. When I gently inquired again, I was shocked when he offered me a staff position. I hadn’t offended him; he was just bouncing the idea off the rest of the team.

It’s been almost three years now, and I am still completely humbled and honored to be a part of this group.

Doug McLean — My first knowledge of TidBITS came in an unexpected way for one of the world’s longest-running electronic publications: by shuffling through the Jobs section in an actual newspaper! I had just returned to Ithaca with my girlfriend, who was beginning her master’s degree at Cornell. The ad said something about a part-time opportunity for writing and editing about computers with a focus on Apple. Having just left a job managing a Mac-based network for a small art college near Boston, the job sounded perfect.

After a cheery phone interview with Tonya and a writing sample submitted, I found myself face-to-face with Tonya and Adam at a local coffee shop. It was one of the best job interviews I’ve had – not because I thought I nailed it, but because we actually had a fun and engaging conversation. An hour flew by talking about Facebook versus Twitter, Steve Jobs’s performance and personality, and even a little about art (Adam and Tonya both have a keen interest, and I studied art in college and continue to maintain a studio).

Well, I lucked out, and got the job. Joining the TidBITS staff has been an enormously enjoyable learning experience. I can remember early on asking Adam if he could suggest some general reading on the history of the Apple, being invited over to the Engsts’ home, and coming away with a heavy stack of books including everything from Guy Kawasaki’s seminal “The Macintosh Way” to David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” (a helpful book for those learning to work from home!) – as well as some of the many peaches produced by their overzealous fruit trees. I was also astonished by my first time collaborating in real time on coverage of a big Apple event. It was amazing to see the characters in the article appear, disappear, and change before my
eyes as five other editors worked on it – like some kind of digital ant hill.

While I’ve been a part of TidBITS for only a tiny fraction of its existence, working alongside the rest of the TidBITS crew is a daily pleasure, and one for which I’m enormously grateful.

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