Meet the Authors
Kathy Sierra and Bert Bates
by Dirk Schreckmann

The tag-team and married authors, Kathy Sierra and Bert Bates, are the creators of the popular "Head First" book series, published by O'Reilly. We managed to pin down the busy duo, and even convinced them to answer a few questions. On June 30th, in San Francisco, both Kathy and Bert will be on hand for further questioning at ExitCertified's Meet the Authors Event.

JavaRanch: Kathy, you founded Why? What were you hoping to do with it? Today, are we anything close to your initial intent?

Kathy: What Paul Wheaton has done with has dramatically exceeded anything I could have imagined. Also, it couldn't have gone in this direction without so many hard-working volunteers, and Paul's really good at getting people involved and somehow working together as a kind of team, despite some pretty dramatic differences among the bartenders and sherrifs. To me, what he's done with it is like magic.

I founded it for one reason only--the one that's still on the main page, to be "A friendly place for Java greenhorns". When I started learning Java in early 1997, it was so awful out there. You were lucky to find three books on Java at your local bookstore, and the only forums were the newsgroups like And they were BRUTAL. Just about *any* question you asked, you felt like you were asking a dumb question, and most of the responses were either harsh, flaming you for being so stupid, or just so cryptic that it didn't really help. Interestingly, the two people I remember most from those days, who were actually helpful and *nice*, are still around, and on javaranch! Bill Brogden and Marcus Greene.

So, I wanted to make it a fun, friendly place where people could learn without feeling stupid. The one thing I never did that I meant to, was to add a lot more campfire stories. But the forums are so much more helpful than anything I could have put up there.

JavaRanch: Could you describe for us the 30,000 feet above overview of just what "Head First" is all about? What is the goal of "Head First"?

Bert: My goal with a Head First book is to write the book that I wish I'd had when I was first learning a topic. More specifically, I hope that when a reader has finished a HF book she has gained a solid foundation in the topic. A foundation from which she has enough tools in her toolkit to be creative and discover what she needs to discover. A HF book is NOT a reference book. HF books will probably be about topics that can't be fully explored in one book, topics like Java. For instance, when a programmer new to Java finishes HF Java, she should be ready to go tackle whatever advanced Java books she needs to tackle... Swing, J2EE, patterns, etc.

Kathy: My main motivation was to take everything we could draw on from learning theory, to cognitive science, to game design, to neurobiology, to advertising and marketing, and create a brain-friendly approach to learning. Then the challenge was how to represent that in a printed book. The goal was to give people a way to *get it* much more quickly. The goal was NOT to entertain them at the same time... it just turned out that the *fun* part is a huge contributor to why it works the way it works. If people actually learned more quickly when subjected to verbal humiliation, we would have found a way to do THAT ;)

I guess the overarching goal is to make people smarter, and to make sure that they FEEL smarter.

Too many books make you feel slow and stupid. It's nearly always the fault of the book, not the learner. But a lot of tech books seem written by people who are concerned that the readers think the *author* is smart. We have no illusions about that ;) , so our goal is make sure that the reader realizes that HE is smart. Who cares what he thinks about us? It's not *about* us. It's about *the readers*. They are who we care about--we hear from people all the time, and it really makes it personal for us. We are not writing for some abstract concept of "readers". We are writing for the real PEOPLE, people like Jeff Cumps,Praveen Kumar, York Davis, Jim Steiner, Adeeb Jarrar, just to name a few of the people who've written to tell us about their experiences with the book. We picture *real* people when we write, and we write for *them*.

We believe that most *traditional* learning works against the way the brain functions. Some of it, no, MOST traditional learning (either classroom or textbook), is the way it is simply because that's the way it's been done for a loooong time. Some of it is because *we* (learning professionals, teachers, authors, etc.) didn't *know* any better--a lot of brain research is still very very new. And some of it is because it's just easier on the teacher to, say, line students up in rows and make them sit and listen for an hour. (Easier for the teachers and the administration, certainly not the learners). I always thought it was interesting that what we do to learners in a classroom, is very close to the way in which children are often punished--we make them SIT in one place and be quiet. And certainly, it's easier to *write* a text book than to *build a learning experience*. It took us twice as long to write the Head First Java book as it did to do the text-based Java 2 certification book.

JavaRanch: How long have you been working on developing "Head First" teaching concepts?

Bert: Kathy's answer is very different than mine. I've been teaching various computer topics, in enemy territory, for maybe 25 years. To avoid being eaten alive I learned a lot of teaching techniques ad hoc; by talking to other teachers, by experimenting, etc. Kathy had taken a more formal approach, and when we got to talking about what she'd discovered, I learned a lot of stuff I wished I'd known, and I also confirmed a lot of stuff I'd learned by the seat of my pants.

Kathy: about 15 years. I started in the late 80's writing what we called then "Intelligent Tutoring Systems", basically CBT with some artificial intelligence (it was still cool to talk about AI in those days) thrown in to make the learning adapt to the learner. I believe that the majority of the important research in learning theory was (and still IS) driven by the work to make computerized learning products (*good ones*, I'm not talking about the 95% of web-based training that's out there). SO much cool research on this has come out of places like PARC, for example... but you have to haunt obscure conference proceedings to find some of it. The idea was, "We want to represent what a really good tutor does, or how learning really happens, but in a computer. So we have to analyze how learning *really* happens." And these folks anaylzed learning in a way that traditional education never did. And they found some very surprising things...

But then I went to work as a game developer for many years, and that led me to design and teach courses at UCLA's IBM New Media Lab, on how to combine the domains of learning, game design, and advertising to create interactive experiences. That's where most of this stuff ultimately came from. But it was interesting that Bert, who *also* came from an artificial intelligence background, had reached most of these same conclusions on his own, based on his experience both as a knowledge engineer and a teacher. So he was doing all the right things, he just didn't know or have all of the research and formal support to explain what he was doing.

Some of what we do is just common sense and obvious, but some is counter-intuitive, and a LOT of pepole were against Head First at the beginning. It caused a little rift inside O'Reilly even, because some editors just couldn't imagine that anyone would ever like this, let alone buy it. :) But Head First Java came out as THE number one best-selling Java book in the US, and it has remained that way for very nearly a year. It isn't the top-selling Java book on Amazon (that spot goes to our *other* book ;) ), but Head First Java is the top seller when both Amazon and bricks and mortar stores are combined. Then everyone said it would never work with a more advanced topic, so we took that as a challenge to do the EJB book...

JavaRanch: Where can folks learn more about "Head First"?

Kathy: They can learn some things from the O'Reilly site, and some things from our book site at

There's not much up there now, just emergency info and a few downloads--but our plan for the summer is to *really* build out that site, putting up a LOT of content on learning theory, especially. It won't be the place to come for Java info (because that place is HERE); but we do want it to be a site about learning, and books, and training, and fun. Oh yeah, before I forget--the point of wickedlysmart is not that *we* are smart--it's that we help craft learning materials that make YOU wickedlysmart.

JavaRanch: What books have you written so far using these "Head First" techniques?

Bert: HF Java, HF EJB, and we're 95% done with HF Servlets and JSP. (It will be out in early July.) Several books are in progress, with the help of incredibly talented co-authors who are taking the lead; Patterns, Movie making using Final Cut, Flash. And we're deciding what to take on next as lead authors. We'll probably update HF Java for Tiger.

Kathy: No, we're DEFINITELY doing HFJava for Tiger! :) There will be a lot more HF books coming up on different aspects of software development, including as Bert said, Design Patterns (that will be the next one to come out), and also UML.

JavaRanch: You two work together, and you're married! Any secrets?

Bert: Kathy does all the final edits :D

Kathy: Bert lets me do all the final edits.

Then there's the sex thing... ;) We always say that to really work well with your co-author, you need to be sleeping together.

JavaRanch: Any advice for aspiring technical authors? Have you suffered any experiences you'd like to educate others about? What were they?

Bert: I'd say focus. There are lots of directions a technical book can go; reference material, teaching, cookbook style, almanac style... Pick one style for your book and stick with it. And don't think you can do everything at once! We certainly had a few lucky breaks, but one thing we did was to really, really, polish the samples we sent to publishers. We didn't write the whole book first, we created the absolutely best sample we could and sent that out. We also followed the publisher's instructions as closely as we could. We did everything we could to make it easy on the publisher. The other thing is to really understand everything about your proposed book contract. There a some subtle concepts to look out for in book contracts.

Kathy: Anyone who seriously wants to do a book can probably get a book contract. You can't be in it for the money, but that doesn't mean you *won't* make money from the book. It's true that this is a really *dark* time for book sales and especially tech books, but there's still a lot going on. The important thing is to find a topic that you're *passionate* about! That matters a lot. You have to consider a lot of factors, especially the marketplace. You can't, for example, think- "I have this cool idea for a book" and take that to a publisher unless you have thought through who (and how big) the target audience is. Also, what can your book do that makes it significantly better than the others? (And unless it's a brand new and very hot topic, it should be SIGNIFICANTLY better, or at least different, in a way that will be obvious to prospective buyers.) Why should someone choose yours over so many others? These are the key questions a publisher wants to know -- and wants to know that YOU know.

But if you have some ideas and you have a compelling desire to communicate this to other people, through a book, then you should go for it! There is NO reason not to put together a proposal. But I think it's a *really* bad idea to write a book in advance, and *then* try to get a publisher. That's how you get your first novel out, but that is NOT how it works with computer books. You might get lucky, but your best bet is to just start with a good proposal, that includes a couple of sample chapters. There's a lot of good info on the O'Reilly site about how to submit a proposal. We followed it *exactly*.

The publisher wants to influence the direction of the book and most of the time, they know best. Plus, the publisher may have a specific series format in mind for the topic you propose, and if you've already written it, you can count on a HUGE rewrite. I see no advantage to writing a book in advance, and lots of disadvantages. If you work from a proposal, then you can collect advance money *while* you're working on it, rather than waiting until it's complete.

There are some serious gotchas on book contracts, so you need either an agent (we don't have one), or an attorney, or a very experienced author look over the contract and help you figure out what you can negotiate on. Do NOT sign the first thing they hand you (although if it's O'Reilly, you're probably safe). These contract issues can haunt you for a very long time, so you should be very careful. Also, I would ask about (and make a big deal about) how the publisher plans to market your book. You might write a great book, that *could* sell, but doesn't see the light of day because the publisher doesn't push it.

JavaRanch: How long have each of you been writing technical training materials?

Bert: Ad hoc, for a long time, we've been writing official books for a little over two years now.

Kathy: I wrote computer-based training courses for several years, then I wrote courseware for my own courses at UCLA, then I also worked for a while as a Sun course developer, working on Java courses. That was my toughest job, though, because their guidelines are SO strict, and *they* (the folks in charge at the time) did NOT consider it appropriate to include anything that might be seen as *fun* :) I was always in trouble for trying to sneak stuff in. I think I got *written up* in my performance eval for using the word "cool" in a document, after being told not to ;)

JavaRanch: What are your favorite subjects to write about? Why?

Bert: Any technology that's interesting and challenging, and that we believe in. For instance I'll never write about .net. We've talked about topics like calculus, physics...

Kathy: What Bert said... it has to be something we can be passionate about, and it has to be technically difficult. Tim O'Reilly believes that a Head First book should be on topics that have a pretty high pain factor. If the topic is easy, then you don't really NEED all of these learning techniques, anyway. We have at least twenty books on our list right now! We are always looking for ways to speed up our own process, and also for other co-authors and subject-matter experts who can help us do more Head First books. Right now, Bert and I are the bottlenecks.

JavaRanch: Have you noticed any other folks in the industry that are doing great, interesting or new things in the realm of adult (or child) technical educating that might be worth paying attention to? In brief, what are they doing and what interests you about it?

Bert: Kathy can give you a whole list of authors we continue to learn from. Richard Wurman, Donald Norman, and David Gelernter come to mind. We are both really interested in 'metacognition', or thinking about thinking. So my 'meta' goal is creating learning materials that pay attention to how human brains (of every age), really work.

Kathy: Roger Schank! He's really out there doing all the right stuff. We're trying to be a really poor man's version of what Roger Schank does--his stuff has pretty huge development budgets. I've been following his AI work and books for many years, and was so thrilled to see him come into the learning world so strongly. Some of the good work has been around a long time, Maria Montessori was way ahead of the curve in a lot of areas. There are some very good and interesting things under the banner of "accelerated learning", although we don't subscribe to *all* of it. Multiple Intelligences. My favorite books are by Roger Schank, Don Norman, and also "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience". We pay attention to what some of the top game designers have to say. Chris Crawford.

We also pay attention to what storytellers have to say... people who write novels, screenplays, etc. have a lot to teach us about getting and keeping someone's attention, and because storytelling has been the number one method of learning for thousands of years. Natural selection favored those who could learn well from stories, so I believe that's a hugely underestimated approach to teaching. Joseph Campbell has something to say. Steven King probably has much more to say about keeping people engaged than most teachers.

There's a guy who is absolutely brilliant at this stuff, and has authored many academic papers and books on intelligent tutoring and learning--Dan Russell. He used to head one of the two Apple Advanced Technology Groups, and was also a leader at Xerox Parc. Now he is the head of the User Experience group at IBM. When I first got into this, he was mentoring me about learning theory, etc. and he sent me a bunch of Prarie Home Companion tapes. That was NOT what I was expecting... I figured he'd send me another cognitive science book. He said, "Work on your storytelling".

We find most of the work that's really helpful happens *outside* of the education/academic world. Madison Avenue spends far more money researching the brain than learning institutions do. Advertisers have to get inside your head and make a difference in an extremely short period of time. They are concerned with retention, recall, and emotional impact. Isn't that the goal of any teacher? So we look at what they're doing in the world of advertising and marketing and positioning. If you want to find books that can help you with learning theory, go to the business and psychology sections. There's a lot of very new and exciting research on memory, too--the neurochemists are unlocking more and more of the mysteries there.

JavaRanch: Is "Head First" strictly geared towards adult education, or can the techniques be applied well in adolescent education? Any plans for a "Head First" introductory computer science book for teenagers, or even pre-teens?

Kathy: The brain is the brain. Most of the real differences in the brain (with respect to learning) happen at a much earlier age. Some of the approach might be slightly different for teens, but more from a style perspective. A 10-year old's brain is tuned for novelty just as an adult brain is. The main differences are not in the *age* of the brain in question (until you're about age 50), but about the *preferences* and *visual sensitivity* that come from growing up in a particular point in history. A brain raised on MTV is different from a brain raised on Lawrence Welk. Not so much because the latter brain is *older*, but because the MTV brain was wired differently. The cultural context in which that brain developed has a larger impact on learning preference than the number of years that brain has been around (assuming the older brain is in good shape).

We've heard from a lot of high schools that are using Head First Java. We didn't expect that, even though we *do* write these books skewed toward a younger audience. We consider our target audience to be 20-35, but we hear from people of all ages.

For *pre*-teens, we'd probably take out any of the mildly suggestive sexual references :)

JavaRanch: Thank You. We'll be looking for you at JavaOne.