Print media is still viable, despite all pronouncements suggesting otherwise. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert talks about how he uses print media products to identify possible budding technologists.
My apologies. I’d been planning for over a month to publish a column today concerning race relation in the USA. I’ve been drafting a piece centered on the public release of Harper Lee’s new book Go Set a Watchman, the (supposed) sequel to her masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird that re-imagined the noble, unbigoted hero of the first novel as a deplorable, bigoted figure. I thought that there were several darned good arguments worth exploring about whether or not a leader can be fair and just in the workplace when they secretly harbour personal prejudices that are antithetical to their institution’s corporate values. Can you trust a bigot to reliably lead in an unbigoted manner?
I still want to finish that column, but I couldn’t grapple with it this week. I generally write my columns about a week ahead of their publication date. The mass murder event in Chattanooga, Tennessee that took the lives of four US Marines and a Sailor on 16th July has left me feeling sickened, and it’s made it hard for me to concentrate. That’s why I needed to throttle back this week.
I’m sorry if this throws off the general tone that I’ve been working towards this summer. I mean to get back to that for my 3rdAugust column. For now, here’s something a bit less disquieting.
Snide assertions that ‘print media is dead media’ are not only premature, they’re also missing an essential point – print products are good for a few critical things that online media products simply can’t do without running afoul of privacy expectations. Specifically, I mean unmasking undercover nerds. Speaking in my role as an IT sector leader, I have a vested interest in knowing who among my staff and my visitors might quietly harbor that critical spark of intellectual curiosity that signals a potentially great technologist. Print artifacts help me to find those people.
I first ran into Condé Nast’s WIRED magazine back in the early nineties while meandering through a local bookseller. William Gibson’s photo on the cover caught my eye since I’d just finished reading his book Neuromancer. I bought the magazine, took it home, and promptly lost an afternoon devouring it. I subscribed (by conventional mail) the next morning, and have been taking it ever since.
I started a habit of subscribing to various news, business, and technology magazines back before online news became a reliable thing. WIRED wasn’t my first selection, but it did something for me around the office that no other print publication ever did: it caught people’s eyes. I found this out one gloomy morning down at Fort Hood when I brought my latest copy of WIRED to read over lunch and left it on my desk. One of my soldiers picked it up and started leafing through it. At first, the young man simply flipped pages … then an article caught his eye and he started reading. Later that afternoon, he asked me if he could borrow the copy to finish reading it once I’d finished with it.
That encounter stuck with me. It wasn’t terribly original to hypothesize that people were naturally drawn to products that highlighted subjects that interested them; that’s Freshman-level marketing doctrine. What made me curious was how best to overcome the reluctance that people might have to revealing those subjects of interest in a social environment best known for anti-intellectualism. So, I started experimenting.
I didn’t have a private office at Hood; just a 1970s surplus metal desk crammed into the corner of a 1940s era building. I’d made some free space on the outer corner of my desk and placed magazines that I’d finished with on the edge closest to where a standing visitor could casually grab one. That turned out not to work too well – most of the young soldiers that were likely to be interested in tech were subtly intimidated by approaching a lieutenant’s desk – the only time that changed was the short stint that I spent administering a small surgical detachment where our isolation and high esprit de corps broke down most of the usual social barriers between enlisted men and officers.
I tried the small office magazine stack technique again at Dallas Area Rapid Transit in the late 90s when I was consulting at their bus depot on a large maintenance database solution. Trouble was, our little four-person office was located in an inaccessible space, and we didn’t get visitors.
When I was at Lyster Hospital at Fort Rucker, I had a private office for the first time in my working life. Admittedly, it was an old exam room in a wing of the hospital that had been repurposed for administration work (the architects hadn’t planned on needing an IT department when they first built the complex). During my stint at Mother Rucker, I tried the same experiment and learned that people weren’t keen on being seen taking things from anyone’s private office if the occupant wasn’t there – and most people weren’t inclined to ask me directly if they could take my possessions while I was sitting there. People didn’t feel comfortable taking things from a co-worker’s cube whether I was physically present or not.
I had much the same experience at the KPMG office in Clear Lake, Texas back in the late 90s and again in my supervisor’s cubicle at PetroCosm … In both of those locations, I didn’t have a space that I could control – when I tried to ‘leave’ content in semi-public places (like the break room or the copy room), the janitorial staff would usually toss my bait thinking it to be discarded trash. Also, I couldn’t observe people’s reactions, so that didn’t work.
I had a lot more freedom to experiment when I got to Naval Air Station Fort Worth back in the late 90s. Eventually, I got command of my own unit and had more workspace to muck about with. It took several years to fine-tune the delivery system, but I eventually cracked it. I pulled an old metal magazine rack – the kind you’d expect to find in a clinic waiting room – out of the scrapyard and placed it at the entrance to the IT department break area. People could browse it while waiting for their coffee to brew, and could snag a magazine on their way out of the department. Positioning the display just so at the entrance so that people could scan the covers without being obvious that they were doing so helped a great deal.
I know that for a fact because I positioned the magazine rack and the entrance to the break area where I could watch them both from just inside my office. I’d regularly observe people come and go, and would take note when they’d take or return a magazine from the collection. Some techs were so surreptitious about their borrowing that you’d think they were collecting prophylactics for the weekend. They didn’t want to be seen taking an interest in advanced technology journalism even if they worked in the IT department. I found that fascinating.
I tried ordering subscriptions through official channels and quickly learned that the USAF was dead-set against it. In order to make a $10 publication subscription purchase using official appropriated funds, I had to submit a business case and justification package up through the Contracting Office, and get written authorization from the Group and Wing command suites. I needed a separate justification narrative for each product, and discovered that it had to be regenerated every fiscal year. It quickly became so burdensome that I abandoned the endeavour – I just bought the damned things myself and donated them to the unit without telling anyone.
Once I’d fine-tuned the acquisition, positioning, and tracking of the ‘bait,’ I started capitalizing on my observations. After I’d watch a person ‘raid’ the magazine rack for something that interested them, I’d follow up with the reader in a week (or so, mission-permitting) for a one-on-one conversation. I’d casually refer to either a subject or to an article that I knew had been in the particular issue that the guy or gal had run off with. If I saw a spark of recognition – an admission that they’d read it, for example – I’d probe gently to learn what it was about the subject or article that interested them. Then, once I knew something more about their inclinations, I’d follow up with opportunities to join projects or to take classes that dovetailed with their interests.
I ran a bunch of variations on this theme over the decade that I spent in that office building. I tried introducing different magazine, tried introducing broadsheet newspapers, tried adding a complete technical library, sent ‘round scans of specific magazine articles, etc. I learned that books are too intimidating for the vast majority of visitors and time-sensitive products (like daily newspapers and weekly magazines) are too quick to ‘spoil’ to be picked up. Monthly magazines still work in the iPhone age just as well as they did when text pagers were cutting edge. There’s something about their size, portability, solidity, over-bright colour schemes, and ability to go into great length on an interesting subject that makes them highly attractive to many curious readers.
For disclosure’s sake, my experiments probably wouldn’t stand up to formal scientific scrutiny. I’m not submitting my findings to a peer-reviewed journal because I know they’d get discarded immediately. I wasn’t consistent about methodology, didn’t have constant control of variables, didn’t keep detailed written records, and never brought a separate observer into the process to mitigate my biases. This was entirely about me pursuing my amateur anthropological curiosity. I love exploring how people think, and find it endlessly fascinating trying to understand how and why people act on their purported beliefs. That’s all this could be: an anecdote-fueled suggestion that might well be relevant to your unique workplace. 
That being said, I feel that my points probably have some potential utility for other IT sector leaders:
First, there are probably more people in your company who have the interest in becoming technologists than would be willing to admit such an interest in public. Cultural pressures in some workplaces make it disadvantageous to act nerdy. These people often feel the need to hide some of their internal self from their co-workers, like a resistance fighter living in an occupied territory. 
Second, it’s in everyone’s best interests to encourage continued education and professional development for all employees – theirs, and others’ alike.
Third, it’s in our best interests as IT leaders to find these people and to nurture their inclinations. Even if we never convince a young lad or lass to transfer into the IT department to pursue their dreams, we can still encourage them to learn and appreciate what-all we do. That cultivates allies out in the lines-of-business, which may well reduce tensions between IT and line in the future.
Lastly, this technique (i.e., making physical magazines available for people to take if they’re so inclined) is very cheap, doesn’t require much effort, and even facilitates recycling.
The bottom line – for me – is that IT leaders have an obligation to make life better for the people we serve. As leaders, we’re responsible for creating a work environment where our employees can grow and prosper. We’re equally responsible for offering a helping hand to every employee that will accept our assistance. Our organizational domain isn’t just a communication utility – it’s also a powerful tool for liberating new professional and personal hope in anyone willing and able to leverage technology to improve themselves and their company function. We have (I believe) a moral responsibility to actively seek out opportunities to improve people’s lives. Print products like WIRED  are just one weapon in our arsenal. What’s important here isn’t to rekindle people’s interest in dead-tree media; it’s to rekindle our interest in people.
 Professional driver on a closed track, your mileage may vary, see your doctor, offer void in Luxembourg, etc.
 Ergo, the title of the column. It’s also a tip o’ the hat to Dian Fossey’s anthropological research into mountain gorillas in Africa.
 … and Fortune, and BusinessWeek, and The Economist, and dozens of other publications. Go nuts!
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.