Tips For Publishing Technologists #1-10: The Zen of Technology

In Digital by Nick Ruffilo

Learning more about technology and how it interacts with publishing is the best way to future-proof yourself.

By Nick Ruffilo

I was once told, that if you want someone to understand something, tell them, then tell them again.  In fact, scientifically the magic number is three. There are gains with a 4th, 5th, and 6th re-iteration, but the incremental gains die quickly after the 3rd. In this post, I’m going to link and quickly recap the first 10 lessons. I will try to provide further context as to how the lessons relate to different positions within the publishing industry.

There was a fairly well-read book titled Zen of Art of Motorcycle Maintenance who’s title is a great way of thinking about technology. Being a technologists is a very Zen or Alice in Wonderland experience in that the more you know, the more that opens up. Also, the more you learn, the more you automatically know — as so much of technology is mashing one thing together with something different.

Tips for Technologists #1: Everything is quicker with keystrokes

Nick Ruffilo promises to teach you to be a better publishing technologist.

I heard a few comments that this was very basic — especially for a series for technologists. While it may seem basic, it is extremely important to lay the right foundation. For years I thought I was good with my keyboard shortcuts until I had a programmer who worked for me who rarely used his mouse. When he called me over to help him work through a problem, he skipped through windows, tabs, and everything with such speed. He bound opening applications to keystrokes, so he could quickly call up photoshop, make a quick fix, close photoshop, insert the new image into code, then reload our development server in seconds without ever having his fingers leave the keyboard. It is like that magical moment when you first saw someone using an iPhone and seeing the beauty of a touch interface. So, even if this seems basic to you — you can still do it better. Unless you’re my old employee, in which case, I send a thank you.

Tips for Technologists #2: Setting up your workspace.

Having a proper digital and physical workspace is important.  It effects your mood, changes your efficiency, and can greatly effect your general health. In this article I talked more about the actual setup than things like how to sit well, how to type without getting wrist fatigue, etc, but there are plenty of resources that will discuss that. If you use a computer as part of your job, there is a good chance you can optimize the way you work by simply changing your physical or digital desktop.

I follow up this with #3 – My desk setup.

Tips for Technologists #4: Understanding XML/HTML/CSS

HTML/CSS is the fabric of the visual web. While the future is far from set in stone, I’d also venture to say that it will remain so and become a dominant visual programing language. For this reason, I believe it becomes a core skill to understand, such as math or literacy. While school may not have taught you HTML, understanding what it is and what it is capable of is paramount in understanding the digital landscape. Whomever holds the knowledge, holds the power. As a thought leader, business developer, or product manager, if you don’t understand the basics of HTML/CSS (and javascript) as well as its limitations, you are greatly hamstrung in your job. Imagine having to come up with a set of product requirements only to find out that many of them are just not technically feasible — or to ignore an idea that may seem too difficult in your head, but is actually technically simple.  I try to also touch upon fundamental structuring that is important for technologists of all levels.

Tips for Technologists #5: Using HTML Well

A direct follow up to #4, this talks about how to structure HTML in a logical fashion that adds the greatest value.  The same way you can use wood to build a house in multiple ways (a log cabin or a standard frame approach) there are more efficient and intelligent ways to create HTML that look the same to the user. What is important for technologists, business people, marketers, and pretty much anyone in the publishing industry is the value that comes with well structured code. If you can see and understand the value, then you can properly determine the investment in time and resources to make that value a reality.

Tips for Technologists #6: There Are Multiple Solutions to Any Question

I feel this is the most important tip that I can share. The learning phases of being a technologist is often copy-paste of existing code or commands from the internet. A common search query is “how do I compress a folder on linux” which results in a few very nice pages that simply tell you to run: “tar -zcvf archive.tar.gz /path/to/folder”. In this case, that happens to be the most efficient way to do it.  But, for more complex questions such as “how do I vertically center text in CSS” there are about 10 different solutions in the first 10 results. Some of them work in some browsers, but not others, some of them don’t work at all, and some of them don’t actually center text. Ultimately it all boils down to not stopping at the first solution for any repeatable process (or code that will be run multiple times).

A great story that was relayed to me (and ultimately changed my life ever so slightly) is the story about adding sugar to coffee. An efficiency expert asked a room of people how many people put more than one sugar packet into their coffee. Half the room raised their hands. He then asked how many opened the packets one at a time. About 40% of people (including me) kept their hands raised. I never thought about taking two or three packets and opening them at once. I now do this every time I have coffee and packets are an option. It saves me 5-10 seconds every time I have coffee, so over my lifetime I’ll gain a few days of time back.

Tips for Technologists #7: Excel with Excel

If you work with data in any way, Microsoft Excel is a wonderful way to analyze it quickly and visually. I often do a database query then throw the results in Excel to do my analysis. Understanding its basics and PivotTables is key.

Tips for Technologists #8: Know Your Boolean Math

Until quantum computing reaches a level where it has a high level programming language — our technology is inherently boolean. IF this THEN do something ELSE do something else. The business world is hardly that black and white. While technologists are not robots, the tools they use and world they live in is boolean. While I touch upon some technicalities of explaining the concepts of boolean, I also talk about the bridge between business and technology discussion.

Tips for Technologists #9: SQL – Unleash the Power of Your Data

Databases are the everywhere and they are powering your blog, your website, your sales reports, and pretty much any data-driven application you interact with. The problem with data analysis is that unless you know how to filter/limit your data, you’re at the mercy of your analysis team or your analysis application. SQL is a very simple data-gathering language that allows you to specify the data that you want out of your database. Coupled with “Excel with Excel” knowing SQL can truly help you make informed, data-driven decisions.

Tips for Technologists #10: Learning a Programming Language

A wise man reminded me of the movie Tron (the original one) which drew the distinction between the user and the programmer. A user is at the mercy of the applications and the programmer has the power to shape the world around them. Even basic programming language such as HTML/Javascript can enable you to create beautiful and wonderful things. As with learning any skill, there are right and wrong ways to learning a programming language. I discuss the right way (for me at least) for learning new programming languages. This is valuable for everyone as it allows you to realize the potential that technology can have.

DISCUSS: Up Next is PHP, Java, SQL, HTM5, CSS. Now You Suggest a Topic

About the Author

Nick Ruffilo

Nick Ruffilo is currently the CIO/CTO of He was previously Product Manager at Vook and CTO of BookSwim.