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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Interview with Michael Lucas *BSD, Unix, IT and other books author

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Michael Lucas is a famous IT book author. Perhaps best know for FreeBSD, OpenBSD, and Unix book series. He worked as a system administrator for many years and has now become a full-time book writer. Lately, I did a quick Q and A with Michael about his journey as a professional book author and his daily workflow for writing books.



Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Michael Lucas. I spent twenty years in systems and network administration, and now write books full time.

How did you first get into IT?

In the late 80s, I got an account on the university Unix system. I mostly used it for email, Usenet, and occasional acts of FTP.

In September 1995, the US’ National Science Foundation fully commercialized the Internet. Dozens of new companies sprung up. There was a massive labor shortage, and if you had any relevant experience you could get a decent job. The learning opportunities were massive. The challenges were huge. Ninety percent of the people we hired didn’t last their first month. I dug in and learned things you can’t learn outside a global network, and leveraged those into positions at smaller places.

Why did you choose to work open-source world, especially OpenBSD and FreeBSD?

They let me sleep. Seriously.

In 1995, I was responsible for a couple of heavily loaded client-facing nameservers. Most operating systems folded under the load. I worked nights. When a nameserver imploded, I got called and had to fix it. This was before virtualization, before remote consoles, before VPNs. My Internet access at home was a 33.6kB dialup, and I could either be on the phone or connected to the network. I tried Linux, SunOS, UnixWare. I even tried a Windows NT nameserver, out of sheer desperation.

The day I installed a FreeBSD nameserver, I got a glorious ten hours of uninterrupted sleep.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a full-time writer? Was there any resistance from the family about a career change?

I was four years old. Seriously. Someone told me that books were written by people, and I knew I wanted to do that.

I only made the shift to writing full time once the business permitted it, however. When my last job evaporated under me, I was making enough to survive.

When did you write your first book, and how old were you?

My mother recently sent me the first book I ever wrote. It is six sheets of paper, folded over and stapled into a book. I don’t know how old I was, but it’s written in crayon.

Fortunately, my work has improved since then.

How many books have you written? Which is your favorite? Which one took the longest time to complete?

I’ve written about forty full-size books, and many more tiny books, and a whole bunch of articles and pieces for collections. The SNMP MIB I wrote for tracking my standalone books says my name is on the cover of 83 books.

I don’t have a favorite. Each of them presented its own unique problems and pleasures. Some of them, like the Networknomicon or Only Footnotes, amuse me more than others—but they were released specifically to amuse me.

I think the one that took the longest was the second edition of Absolute OpenBSD. My wife was in graduate school at the time, and I had a more than full-time job. Words were very slow then.

What is the most challenging part of your artistic process?

Two things. Contextualizing RFCs, and coming up with a way to make the book amuse me.

For my brand-new TLS Mastery, I had to read a couple dozen RFCs on heavy encryption topics. I can understand them, mostly. But putting them into a context, so I can hook everything together, is difficult. I have to rely on experts here.

And some of these topics are very dry. I have to find a way to give them life. Sometimes I do it with attitude, sometimes by using a particular piece of pop culture as a motif.

How long on average does it take you to write a book?

Bwahahahaha! Who knows? Depends entirely on the topic.

I wrote $ git commit murder in three weeks. The sequel took four years. Did I sprain my fingers by using the wrong keyboard layout? Is a construction crew tearing down the building behind my office? Are we living through a global pandemic that’s triggering extra political upheaval and imposing constant cognitive overhead?

I budgeted four months for TLS Mastery. It took twelve.

What does a “day in the life” look like when you work on a book?

The goal is to wake up, practice my martial arts, clean up, and be upstairs writing by ten AM. I try to make words straight through until five or five-thirty PM.

My wife works out of the home, though, so I’m the one who gets to deal with the interruptions. Our parents are aged. When one of them gets ill, I get to take them to the hospital. I rarely get that full seven hours of productivity.

Then there’s days I take to handle all the paperwork and extras. Like this interview. 🙂

What are common traps for striving writers?

Two traps: not understanding copyright, and not understanding business.

Writers do not make their living writing books. We create and license intellectual property. Ignorance of copyright is rife throughout both writing and open source folks. I’ve given up discussing copyright with technology folks, because the misconceptions are so broadly and deeply entrenched. If you’re making your living with words, though, you must understand copyright. For folks in the US, I recommend Nolo Press’ Copyright Handbook. Much of that book is also relevant globally, but there might be local equivalents.

Business is the other place where writers go wrong. Once money starts coming in, they’re managing a business. That’s a whole separate skill from writing. I pay the family bills by writing—I’m sorry, by creating and licensing intellectual property—so I must manage the business. I wrote a small book on how I do this, called Cash Flow For Creators. It’s not that I expect that book to take off, but it was easier writing that than to explain it one more time.

That book’s a great example of “how long does it take to write a book?” being a non-useful question. I put the words on paper in two weeks. I spent forty years gathering the information in it.

How was your experiencing working with a well-established book publishing house like No Starch Press? Did that experience help you with Tilted Windmill Press?

No Starch Press is the only tech publisher I’ll work with these days. They’re highly professional and produce an excellent product.

Mind you, I’ve been working with them for twenty years. If I have a serious problem, I can pick up the phone and call the owner and say “Bill, your people are driving me nuts.” I’ve never had to make that call, but I could.

Their impact on Tilted Windmill Press was mostly one of quality. I must produce a product as good as NSP, but with my own twist. It’s a high bar.

Each time I write a book, I have to decide where to publish it. TWP gets the books that would not be profitable for NSP. NSP gets book s that are too difficult for me to produce.

Describe your computer hardware and software setup. What hardware or software do you use?


I have two desktops, a Windows machine and a FreeBSD one. (There’s also a Mac laptop, but that’s only for dealing with publishing on Apple and running the Vellum ebook software.) I have three monitors, and switch them between desktops as needed.

The hardware is several years old. I updated them both with SSDs, so I see no reason they won’t last several years more.

The critical piece for me is the keyboard. I have broad shoulders. I am over fifty years old, and have written millions of words. Cramming my big hands onto a regular keyboard caused all sorts of strain on my wrists and fingers. A split keyboard made most of my problems go away.

I really liked the Keyboardio Model 01, but the switches went bad too frequently. I’m hoping that their Model 101 will be more reliable. At the moment, I’m content with my Ergodox DX. I set them more than shoulder width apart, relaxing my chest muscles and opening my lungs more.

The FreeBSD desktop is about due to be wiped and replaced with OpenBSD, so I can start writing some small books in preparation for a third Absolute OpenBSD.

Why a Windows machine? I prepare epub and PDF files that get processed at third parties all over the world. These systems are from a variety of vendors, in multiple languages, and they all expect bug-for-bug compatibility with Microsoft and Adobe products. When I use LaTeX, I spend days dealing with customer complaints because a printer on the other side of the world can’t print my books properly.

What open-source apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

Mutt. When you get lots of email, and subscribe to dozens of technical mailing lists, web based email is an abomination. I’ve been running mutt since the previous century, and see no reason to change.

For editing, either emacs or ed, depending on the file and the task. I so wish I could write books in Emacs, but the world doesn’t work that way.

OpenBSD’s cwm is the perfect desktop manager.

Firefox. Chrome was nice, but now it’s surveillance-heavy. Plus, as I learned writing TLS Mastery, Chrome users don’t get access to the full list of revoked X.509 certificates. Google edits the revocation list it pushes to clients.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing your books?

Every book has its surprises. For the new TLS book, I learned that putting hostnames in Common Name was deprecated twenty years ago. That surprised me a bunch.

Do you hide any secrets messages in your books that only a few people will find?

That would be telling.

What’s the best advice you have ever received?

Learn from people who are doing the thing you want to do, in the way you want to do it.

What advice would you give to someone starting fresh with the book-writing career? What advice do you have for writers?

Keep working. Produce as many different things as you can. Writing is a craft exactly like cabinet-making or welding, and you can practice each skill of that craft.

Quick round:

  1. Do you listen to background music while working on IT books?
    Always.
  2. Best time to write code for you? Daytime or nighttime?
    Daytime. I’m old, all-night binges are no longer a thing.
  3. Tea or coffee?
    Tea.
  4. IDE/text editor?
    Emacs.
  5. Favorite Unix shell tip?
    I don’t really hack my shell. Been running tcsh since the late 1980s, I’ve learned to work with the mostly-default environment.
  6. Do you Google yourself?
    It is best I don’t. I share a name with a world famous gay porn star.
  7. Do you read reviews posted by your readers?
    I try not to. Reviews are vital. Reviews convince readers that my books are real, and that they might enjoy my books. But they don’t tell me anything about my craft. A bad review only means “this book is not for this reader.” A praise-filled review is bad for my humility. The moment I start thinking my career is about me and not the reader, I’m done.
  8. ZFS or UFS for storing backups under your desk?
    ZFS. Backed by Tarsnap.

Tell us about your upcoming books.

TLS Mastery just came out, and I released Only Footnotes on 1 April this year. My next novel, $ git sync murder, should be out in a couple months. I’m starting on a badly needed update for DNSSEC Mastery, and then it’s on to some OpenBSD books.

What do you do when you’re not crafting words?

Read. Hang out with friends and family. Read some more. Practice martial arts. Read. Clean the pet rat cage. Oh, and read.

It’s pretty much all words, all the time. I have found the task that my brain is best suited for, and I try to stay on target. I only have a couple more decades of life remaining, after all, and I have so many books left to write!

Editor’s note: You can follow Michael on Twitter for daily adventures of book author. You can directly order books from his official website too. This interview was conducted on April 16, 2021.

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