Online Strip 'User Friendly' Author
Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with the world
renowned, J.D. “Illiad” Frazer. J.D. is the force responsible for
the hit Online Strip 'User Friendly', a long running daily strip
that played a significant role in popularizing the medium. User
Friendly is a classic of the Linux genre and is available at
Q: J.D., thank you for being with us here today. Your experiences
and insights would be of great interest to our audience.
A: My pleasure. I think what I can offer is a litany of how not to
do things – I learned how to do things the right way by making all
the mistakes first!
Q: You have done so many things. How would you describe yourself?
Can you provide a summary of your background?
A: My background is eclectic, as you’ve mentioned. I suppose it has
to do with my interest in so many areas, from science and politics
to odd philosophical tangents. I went to university seeking a degree
in Criminology since I had considered joining the RCMP, and quite
probably would’ve ended up in either their computer crimes division
or as a member of the dog squad. I decided against that career path
after a couple of years and tried Geology, and later Classical
Studies. There’s not much you can do with the latter degree except
teach or say “would you like fries with that?” in Latin.
In any case, I left university after several years due mostly to
financial pressures. I had a deep interest in computer technology
since I was ten or eleven years old and learned how to code using
punch cards on an old HP minicomputer. I never liked the feel of the
When I fell into the labour pool, I found that I could pick up work
as a technologist fairly easily. And the funny thing is I never
considered myself a true technologist. I’m good with technology, and
I’m not afraid of it, but I don’t see myself as a coder or sysadmin.
Anyway, after a truly checkered employment history (game designer,
corrections officer, art director, publisher…) I landed back in the
tech market. It turns out that I had the experience and skills
necessary to be a pretty good project manager. I ended up working
for Western Canada’s largest ISP during the halcyon 28.8k days and
was in charge of building the company’s Web Services business unit.
It didn’t take long for me to turn it into a lucrative profit
After some buyouts and mergers and other acquisitions that made my
head spin, I became a partner in a boutique ISP. From that ISP came
User Friendly, my first Web published comic strip.
Like I said: eclectic.
Q: You enjoy SF. What are your favorite authors?
A: By far, Joe Haldeman ranks at the top of my list. His writing is
timelessly relevant, and his stories always make you question the
way things are. Tied for second place I’d have to say Larry Niven,
Robert Heinlein and Jerry Pournelle. A close third would be Frank
Herbert. All of these authors are masters of their craft; they’ve
taught me a lot about writing simply by showing me how it’s done
Q: Exploring old bookstores—tell our audience more?
A: The first area I head for is the old book section. Classics from
the 19th to early 20th centuries in leather binding decorated by
master bookbinders are treasures to me. After that I visit the
military history section, mostly because I believe we can learn the
most about ourselves by examining the history of human conflict.
Then I lighten up and head to the SF shelves. I never can walk out
of a used bookstore without spending at least twenty dollars.
Q: You have made many contributions to the industry. Can you
describe your experiences at an ISP? Share your history in this
area, some stories and lessons you learned?
A: Most of my experiences I think are quite common. The tech
industry has a customer base that is rife with the “hurry up and
wait” mentality. As either a service or knowledge provider, the
importance of your schedule ranks far below the schedule of the
clientele or, occasionally, your vendors. Top that off with
conflicting technology “standards,” a corporate culture that
commonly denigrates the technical workers, and a constantly
steepening learning curve, and you wonder why people even bother.
Of course, the answer to that is incredibly simple: techies love
technology. Being able to make a living from doing what you love is
a reward in itself. There’s a distinct psychological high obtained
from solving a difficult technical problem, or discovering a new
method or technical process.
My own experiences run the gamut: I’ve faced particularly galling
days providing obstinate customers technical support over the phone
as well as days where I feel like I’m on top of the world because I
had such a firm handle, no matter how briefly, on a project.
The one story from my ISP days that I will never be able to forget
has to do with the much-hated tag that Netscape Navigator propagated
during the Web’s early years. A customer phoned me complaining about
a Web page that her “friend’s son” built for her. She gave me the
URL and I went to the site. Sure enough, the entire page was
blinking on and off; I felt a cranial aneurysm coming on and closed
the browser window, but not without opening a window showing the
source. There were tags scattered everywhere, and I explained this
to the customer. She was quiet for a few moments, then thanked me
and hung up. I had a funny feeling she was going to be calling back,
My prescience proved itself and the phone rang again about ten
minutes later. She sounded irritable, and demanded “another
solution.” I was puzzled, because I hadn’t offered her one. I simply
told her that the page was filled with tags and that’s what was
causing her page to behave in that manner. She was quiet for a few
moments again, then she asked in a rather embarrassed tone, “So, you
mean I shouldn’t be trying to read the page by blinking my eyes in
sync with it?”
In a very odd way I kind of miss those days.
Q: What path led you to ‘User Friendly,’ what role do you play with
userfriendly.org, and provide some highlights in this aspect of your
career? You must have many experiences to share?
A: I had always cartooned. I started when I was about twelve years
old, and really enjoyed telling jokes in a visual manner. Wit is one
of those things you need to keep honed or it’ll dull over time, and
constant writing and cartooning served as my whetstone. By high
school, I was drawing a mostly daily strip that played on high
school life. In most of my other occupations I had zinged off a few
dozen cartoons about those particular work sectors. It was only
natural for me to start a cartoon strip set in an ISP; it was an
excellent way to blow off steam.
I was convinced by my partner to throw the strip up on the Web, and
in a matter of months User Friendly had a readership in the tens of
thousands. By the end of 1998 the site was serving millions of page
views a month. This was all done by word of mouth; not one cent was
spent on marketing.
I have had quite a few memorable moments in my five-plus years of
working on User Friendly: I was approached by a very large book
publisher, completely unsolicited; my first cartoon compilation hit
#8 on Amazon.com; I discovered with much surprise that I had readers
on every continent, including Antarctica; I was staggered to
discover that my worldwide readership was greater than a lot of
syndicated strips; I was approached four times by two different
syndicates, a particularly satisfying vindication given that I was
refused by every one of the big syndicates several years prior to UF;
the list goes on, and I continue to be surprised by new developments
that come out of the blue.
I think the finest moments were when I had the opportunity to meet
the fans. I have the good fortune of having readers that are not
only intelligent and discriminating, but outspoken as well.
My role at userfriendly.org is multi-faceted. I produce the daily
cartoon of course, and write regular articles addressed to the
audience at large. Additionally, I have a unique and powerful
connection to the community that has sprung up and continues to grow
around the cartoon strip. The community is made up of people ranging
from C-level executives to frontline technical support, and also
includes a smattering of students and even non-geeks. Perhaps the
most interesting thing is the way the community evolved from being
an online collective into a distributed collective; audience members
reach out to each other and meet in person, forming long-term
friendships and relationships. It’s a staggering thing to think
about, but I personally know of at least a dozen couples who met
through their common interest in the cartoon strip, who ended up
getting married and having children.
Q: You are ranked 9th in the 'Best Online Strip' category by the
British Comics Awards 2002 voting public! Can you tell me more about
KomixWorld and your work here?
A: Ah yes, that award in particular is for Squidbits, a political
cartoon series that I did for a short time for the fine people over
at KomixWorld. I was told that we would’ve ranked a little higher
had I done more than 4 or 5 cartoons; I’ve promised to do more, time
permitting, and I’m hoping to get to that this spring.
Q: Millions worldwide follow your work. Where do see your work
evolving in the future?
A: That’s a tough one to answer. User Friendly is social commentary
about technology and the people surrounding it. Theoretically, I
could continue UF forever, as the world continually provides new
events and trends. Somehow, I don’t at this moment think I’ll do UF
until the day I die – every creation has a lifespan, and when it’s
time to turn off the lights and lock the doors, there isn’t much you
can do to prevent it. Of course, I could be completely wrong here:
Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury) and Charles Schulz (Peanuts) have both
proven that creations can live as long as the author wants it to.
Given that I’m going to be doing UF for at least a few more years, I
think it’s safe to say that I’ll likely continue in the fashion I
have been for the last five. Work like this evolves almost of its
own accord, as the characters establish their behaviours and life
details through their interactions and observations. The stories
simply fall out of that.
Looking a little further, I expect that I’ll always be writing. I
find that I have a lot to say about the world, particularly from a
geek’s vantage. I’ve already done one book of essays, and I have a
few more well on the way.
Q: You are an accomplished guru. Can you comment on the different
hardware platforms and competing operating systems? What will be the
trends in the next three and five years? What do you see as the main
A: I’m a guru in the sense that I have a good grasp of technology
and the way people use it, just making that clear. I would never
claim to be a deep coder or systems analyst. Those roles are for
people with far more left-brain potency than myself.
Perhaps the most profiled struggle in software is between Microsoft
and Linux. It’s clear that the server market is dominated by Linux
and will continue to do so unless Microsoft comes up with a
product-marketing scheme that convinces the C-level executives that
there is a significantly better return on investment to migrate back
to a Microsoft solution. I’m unwilling to discount this possibility
because Microsoft not only has deep pockets; they also have some of
the most aggressive, intelligent and innovative people in the world
working for them.
Microsoft still has a death-grip on the desktop, and they’ll
continue to do so while games and production software are mostly
released for the Windows platform. There’s no question that
significant headway is being made in usability for Linux as a
desktop environment, but buy-in from the general consumer will only
come when they reliably can pick up shrink-wrapped products
compatible for Linux. In the meantime, desktop migration to Linux
will be restricted to techies and people who are, for whatever
reason, tired of using Windows.
In three years I expect less diversification in hardware platforms.
The IT sector is still stinging from the downturn, and that
indicates to me that companies that produce marginalized hardware
will either die off or will collapse their hardware efforts. In five
years I think PDAs will be less popular than Tablet PCs. A big chunk
of any hardware platform line will be WiFi capable.
Development environments will likely remain as they are now: .NET
will be around in one form or another, but market share will
plateau. I think you’ll see more development tools that allow
non-programmers to produce software objects and devices for very
specific tasks, almost like a click-and-drag macro language.
Q: What computing equipment do you use? Describe your favorite
A: At the moment I’m on an old PIII-500, running WindowsXP
Professional and SuSE Linux 6.4. Given the choice, I’d rather do
everything in Linux, but as a production slave what matters to me is
the apps. When the GiMP can handle prepress functions at the same
level as Photoshop, the only thing really keeping me in Windows are
games, and I could just end up getting an Xbox or Playstation for
My absolute dream system at the moment would be an Alienware 2001DV,
although I’d want an LCD flatscreen monitor. The Alienware guys know
how to build machinery.
Q: What are your personal goals 1, 3, and 5 years into the future?
A: In a year I’d like UF to be completely financially stable so that
I can spend more time on creation instead of business; although we
do get by, running a site with the kind of traffic it generates and
paying several salaries can get expensive, and that’s even with
paying the staff a fraction of what they’re worth. I appreciate
In addition, in a year I expect to be doing more online community
advising. There are a lot of companies out there that need to
develop a real online community presence, and unlike five years ago,
you can’t just “build it and they will come.” An experienced online
community director can help them with the initiation and development
of the community, as well as develop realistic policies.
In three years I think I’ll be doing even more traveling and
speaking at conferences than I do now. I’ll also be writing a lot
more, and by then I should have four or five new non-UF books
In five years I’d very much like to be in a position to help and
advise up and coming creators as well as established media
companies. There’s a definite trend on the Web towards paid,
exclusive content, and by the middle of this decade subscriptions to
content sites will be de rigeur.
Q: What ten career pointers would you provide specifically to people
who wish to enter the computing field?
A: I don’t have ten, but I do have five. They’re easier to remember
Make up your
mind early on whether you want to be a specialist or a
generalist. I’m the latter, and I’m happy with my choice. Twenty
years ago, you could be well-versed in most computing subjects,
but these days the depth and breadth of knowledge in computing
are so extensive that you really need to pick one or the other,
or you’ll never have time for sleep.
improving your communication skills. I can’t emphasize this
point enough; people in general, not just geeks, are poor
listeners and even worse speakers. Poor listeners draw snap
conclusions founded on often mistaken preconceptions. Poor
speakers forget that the responsibility for clarity lies with
the speaker, not the listener. This is the core of the
traditional rift between technologists and marketers: they don’t
make an effort to speak the same language.
that your education (whether self-taught or classroom-taught) is
ever enough. The nature of the industry requires that you keep
abreast of new developments, or you could become as obsolescent
as that 486 holding your door open. Read everything that’s
significantly pertinent to your job, and a few things on the
side. It never hurts to learn more.
to pay in blood. Your first five years in the tech industry will
likely be monotonous. The next five may be as well. Only when
you’ve earned decent credentials and substantial experience
should you expect to pull down a heady salary, and even that can
be impacted (as it currently is) by world events.
certain you love working with technology. A tech career demands
a very special kind of person, someone with determination,
endless curiosity and a solid intellect. If you don’t love the
work, you’ll be suffering needlessly.
Q: Can you comment on the open source movement and where it’s
A: I consider Open Source to be one of the most important concepts
in the tech sector ever, but it’s a double-edged sword. When done
right, Open Source encourages excellence, teaches the value of
ethical collaboration, and attracts some of the brightest
undiscovered minds in computing. If it’s done wrong, an Open Source
project can collapse faster than you can blink, egos can clash in an
ugly manner, and some of the best ideas can end up corrupted.
Overall, I think Open Source has hit a bit of a plateau. There’s a
lot of room for growth, but the community is still recovering from
the crash of a few years ago. There’s a strange sense of order
coming to the Open Source crowd, which is odd given that it was
originally a model for barely-controlled chaos. Give it a few years
and I think we’ll witness some more significant leaps and bounds,
particularly in collaboration methods.
Q: What do your forecast as future hot topic areas or “killer apps”
to start researching now?
A: I think the two areas that are going to really take off are
ubiquitous computing and, in support of that, content aggregation
and delivery. There already exists a kind of withdrawal syndrome
experienced by people who are denied ‘net access after having grown
to regularly rely on it. As WiFi takes off, I expect a growth spurt
in Tablet PCs. As a result of this and other forces, large media
companies that aggregate exclusive content will provide content and
Of course, neither will surpass e-mail as the ultimate killer app.
Q: What would be your recommended top ten references for the serious
A: I’m back to the number five again. As a generalist, I use the
following fairly regularly:
I also highly recommend O’Reilly’s and
Apress’s technical books.
Q: You have done extensive research in a number of high-tech areas.
Can you describe the results of your research and tips you can pass
onto the audience?
A: As of late I’ve mostly concentrated on online community building,
since social computing is really beginning to mature. Briefly, most
online communities are suffering from an inertia of segregation.
Once most communities are established, the barrier to entry for a
new member is fairly high, largely due to social pressures within
the cliques. Having said that, there exist proven models of online
communities that have defeated this segregation through judicious
What this means is that the online communities that won’t end up
drinking their own bathwater are the ones that are planned and
implemented carefully, rather than ones that are grown organically.
Q: What changes do you see for the future of computing, conducting
business, and the use of the Internet?
A: I think the largest change we’ll see that impacts all three of
the above is a blurring between the real world and the one on the
‘net. This ties in with ubiquitous computing as relationships (both
business and personal) formed online begin achieving the same, if
not greater, importance as the real world ones. I think it’s fairly
obvious that there are significant dangers as well as synergies in
Q: If you were doing this interview, what five questions would you
ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?
A: I think I’d only ask one: “What’s the one thing you’d change
about the tech sector if you could?” My answer would unequivocally
be, “I’d make it less mystical to the general public.” That alone
would, I think, mitigate a lot of the social consequences tech
workers face simply because they’re a member of an intellectually
Q: It’s a blank slate, what added comments would you like to give to
enterprise corporations and organizations?
A: I’d tell them all to look to the enormous pool of future
clientele, partners and employees they could be harvesting by paying
more attention to the social side of computing. People have a need
to reach out to others, and more than anything in history, the ‘net
has given even the most reclusive person the ability to establish
incredibly valuable relationships. A direct conduit to customers
gives you access to unfiltered feedback on your product or service,
by all accounts an incredibly valuable asset, especially to people
in product development. A company’s international reputation can be
made or broken on the ‘net, and being properly plugged in to your
own market can help your firm make informed decisions. An online
community is more than just a social centre; it can also be a
compass by which you fine-tune your company’s direction.
Q: Thank you for sharing your valuable insights with us today and we
look forward to following your work far into the future.
A: Once again, my pleasure!
PS: J.D. stands for?
A: Justifiably Dangerous. You should see me with a Nerf gun.