The Rage Podcast: Voices All Around Us

Visit ThisIsRage.comAbout three years ago I published my first novel, This Is Rage. It’s been an amazing journey, including creative development and four public readings of my stage adaptation. Now we have something additionally exciting to announce: the first three episodes of a podcast adaptation.

We made it easy for you to find either on iTunes or at the online home that saved Kimo Balthazer from irrelevance and started his movement:

Who is Kimo Balthazer, you may be asking? Well, if you haven’t read the book, I would hate to spoil it for you. Let me say in the form of a teaser that he is a 20th century old-school radio talk show host lost in a world of 21st century digital communications. Although he has lost everything, and that’s largely his own unrestrained shock-jock fault, he still has a few things to say about how the business workplace is no longer the same for the everyday hardworking person.

Kimo’s anger is his listeners’ anger, and when that anger collides with a nasty bit of corporate insider deal-making that is going to eliminate thousands of great jobs for no good reason except increased profits, he takes his tirade to the Internet. Pretty much all hell breaks loose.

I kept notes for this novel for over a decade, wrote it over a two-year period beginning in 2011, and then published it with The Story Plant in 2013. At that time, the social climate of the Occupy Wall Street movement was opening the dialogue around the 1% and the 99%, and the voices around me eerily echoed the voices in my story.

The political reception to my book was as heated as it was overwhelming. I began hearing from readers all over the world who had suffered personal losses similar to the employees of the fictional EnvisionInk Systems and Atom Heart Entertainment. They recognized the roaring rage of the main characters in the book plotting against and outmaneuvering each other, while also empathizing with the quiet rage they felt in themselves as victims of an economic system they no longer recognized. They didn’t recognize Kimo, he was purely fictional, but what he was shouting rang true. They were playing by the rules, and the rules were failing them. Income inequality was becoming much more than a story.

Then something happened that surprised me. The novel was optioned for the professional theater so it’s echoing story could be experienced live and in person. I worked with the producer, Mitchell Maxwell, and my editor/publisher, Lou Aronica, for two years delivering four different drafts, each culminating in a public reading that drew equal laughs and tears. It was an unpredictable experiment that often left me drained, but each time I listened to the audience dialogue following the show, I knew the seeds had been planted for something good to come of this, if only people saw themselves in the mirror of drama and refused to let it stand as the status quo.

Then something else happened that surprised me again. The Story Plant Media team called and asked how I felt about adapting the stage version to a podcast. In facing this challenge, I reminded myself of the daunting task of writing the novel, followed by the daunting task of the four stage drafts. With the podcast, the true voices of the characters could resonate in the listener’s imagination, much as Kimo’s voice resonated with his audience. An old-fashioned radio treatment for an ironic tale of Internet radio seemed like the prefect path to firing up the voices all around us.

Those voices now belong to you.

How about that; old-fashioned serialized radio drama, all new for the digital age? There are twists in this version of the story I am exploring anew, many quite different, and dare I suggest, the romantic elements have come a little forward. Of course since we are talking the immensely flawed Kimo Balthazer, we are talking a dysfunctional romance. Perhaps it’s even hard to call it that. War of the broken-hearted might be closer. It goes to some strangely dark places of the soul.

If you read the book, you might remember the hint at the end that Kimo asked for coffee with corporate attorney Sylvia Normandy? In this adaptation of This Is Rage, Kimo and Sylvia go way back. I mean WAY BACK, as in a personal history together. Sylvia is the narrator of the podcast. She is the storyteller. It’s told through her eyes, her point of view, her play-by-play commentary. I told you it was different.

Why revisit Rage now? If you’ve been following my blog, you won’t be surprised that certain candidates in this year’s elections have stirred raging emotions in me. Throughout the past year, we’ve seen all kinds of signs that Occupy was not an isolated affair, and the People’s Revolt is showing signs of resilience everywhere. We live in difficult times, and sometimes we forget we always have choices.

It’s been said by many that change happens when the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same. The pain around us is not sustainable. Change has to happen. It remains my hope that this story of an amateur kidnapping in corporate America elevated out of control by thundering voices can be part of the narrative that leads us together toward change.

I’d like your voice to be a part of that change. I’d like my characters’ voices to be in your heads, and I think the actors in this podcast have delivered on that front. I want to keep hearing the voices of post-show conversation, and I’d like our collective voice to reach up and grab the attention of those in power not listening. Our shared voices can bring reform, human innovation, and make change happen.

A story is one voice. When we read and listen and hear and react, it can become way more than a manuscript. My voice is meant to be a catalyst. Yours is a conduit. Let’s put them together and share a little podcast drama, shall we?

You can download or stream the podcast, and it’s free. You can also use the social media buttons to “Forward to a Friend.” That would give Kimo great satisfaction. Me, too.



This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.


It’s All Getting Personal

It’s a bit weird, this Author thing. Let me try to explain.

For as long as I can remember, putting words on paper has been an integral part of my life. It started when I was a kid, with little plays and poems. Then in high school it became short stories and full-length plays. Then in college some more plays, some student films, and the occasional joke for a journeyman standup comic. When I was done with school, I wrote about a dozen screenplays, and then when the Writers Guild strike hit, I wrote an epic story for one of the very first movie-like computer games.

Shortly after that I moved to the business side of the computer software publishing model, only occasionally penning a bit of dialogue here and there for a certain Carmen Sandiego. My life became focused on technology, marketing, sales, finance, and team leadership. As I’ve said before, I really didn’t write much for a couple of decades, other than business plans and PowerPoint decks, which I was later told might have had saleable option rights for media exploitation given my need to always tell a story (if only I then had an agent!).

All through these periods of business creativity and innovation, I never had much trouble calling myself a writer, because I felt pretty good about my ability to form pithy sentences and get other people to take an interest in them. Even when I wasn’t writing per se, people would call me a writer, and I would show up at writerly events and schmooze with writers because I could keep up with the banter and liked most of it. I felt fine about this. It never felt stuffy, arrogant, pretentious, or the least bit weird.

Then I hung up the spreadsheet programs for a while and wrote my first novel, This Is Rage. Suddenly I was an Author—at least that’s what my publisher called me. I fell into silence at that descriptor. That was weird. In that same window, one of my most valued mentors introduced me at lunch as a Novelist. I looked at him in fear and more silence. “No, it’s just me, Ken, the writer.” It was and it wasn’t. That’s when things started to change.

You can go online and look up all the different uses of Writer vs Author vs Novelist vs. Schmuck Who Types and Prays for Good Reviews and Modest Royalties (that last one is harder to find in search, so I think I’ll tag it). Here’s the really hard part, especially for me: Once you decide you want to sell books and do public readings and speak at lunches and conventions, you have made the implicit decision to transform yourself from Writer to Author. What’s hard about that? You now find yourself being public about things you never thought were your job to expose. Take, for example, this blog post. It’s a little different from most of my others, huh? It’s getting personal.

PlatformIn the publishing world, they call this “building your platform.” It’s not a platform you stand on in Hyde Park and it’s not a platform you adopt as a political candidate. It’s the sum total of all your networking outreach, private and public. You gotta go light up Twitter (@CorporateIntel) with clever BRIEF memes your soon to be amassed Followers can follow. You gotta have an Author Page on Facebook that gently steers people toward buying your new book without being too crass about it. You gotta pump up your LinkedIn Profile so your business associates know what you’re doing but don’t think you’ve gone completely rogue. You gotta get busy on Google+ which means you have to figure out how Google+ works and learn to repost everything there to get it scraped into the index.

Why in tarnation do you need to do all this? Can’t you just write the dang book (that’s hard enough!) and toss it over the wall to your publishing team? Well, I suppose you can if your name is Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or Malcolm Gladwell. The rest of us quickly learn our real name is more like P.T. Barnum. When you are deemed an Author, you are also deemed Promoter-in-Chief, because if you won’t get out there and rally people behind your work, why on earth would anyone else? The introverted tendencies of writing reverse themselves into Living Out Loud! If you don’t think you can do it, you can always go back to being a Writer. In this day and age, writing for an audience is putting yourself out there, and no matter how uncomfortable it is to type the word Author after your name as some bizarre form of professional title from The Bloomsbury Group, you really have no choice other than to accept obscurity without a fight.

Okay, two more points and then I’ll wind down. First, if you know me, you know I’m a lousy introvert, and second, if you know me, you know I ain’t going down without a fight. Publisher says build the platform, I’m building the platform. Please don’t leave me out here on the ledge in the clown suit alone. Like me or something.

Here’s how I am reconciling this weirdness, this discomfort, this near unholy demand to say please pay attention to me. I’m going back to my business roots. It’s all about mission statement. It’s all about brand promise. Writer, Author, or Schmuck, that’s my job.

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the easiest to forget, and the ones most worth remembering. Two years ago I wrote a post on the importance of a mission statement in a business. What I emphasized was that it only mattered if it was more than words. At the top of this blog you see the words:

Ideas. Business. Stories.

That has been my brand promise to you, the underlying essence of this whole Author mishigos. You buy that, you buy me. I’m pretty sure the rest is arts and crafts.

Rolling deeper into my non-Author roots, as I was driving to a meeting last week, I heard a snippet of a radio interview with Dane Ban, the CEO of much-beloved Trader Joe’s. He was asked what advice he most often gives emerging entrepreneurs. He replied that a business has to be about a mission. Rather than leave it at that, which already resonated with me, he went on to quote the esteemed Peter Drucker in The Practice of Management:

“There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer.”

Simple. Relevant. Profound. Try to challenge it.  Very, very hard.

So as weird as it feels to me, as uncomfortable as it is being made for me, I am building that platform in advance of the launch of Endless Encores. Its subtitle is not coincidental: “People, Products, Profits—In That Order.” That also appears near the top of this blog in my mission statement. It all comes around. Like I said, it’s all getting personal.

Come along for the ride, will you, please? Don’t force me to come to my senses and claw my way back in. That might make me a writer again. How scary would that be?


This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

My Second Book

As noted by the title, tEE Coverhis post is meant to announce the forthcoming release of my second book, Endless Encores. It will be published by The Story Plant on September 22, 2015 in hardcover and as an eBook. Since that is still several months off and I have at times already mentioned the book is coming, let me come back to that in a moment.

I often get into the discussion of whether corporate mission statements matter.

I also wrestle with people on whether we are blowing hot air when we say we want to hire the very best talent we can.

Then there is the loaded question of whether bringing a true “change agent” into a company suggests an oxymoron.

The answer to all three of these questions for me is quite simple: It depends whether your answer is cursory or heartfelt, pat or authentic, expository or evangelistic.

You’re likely quite familiar with the expression Don’t Be Evil. It was the rallying cry of one of the most successful digital companies of our time in its offering prospectus. Here’s a tangent to that declaration I’d like to offer that can put to rest most questions around an empowering mission statement, talent that matters, and harnessing a change agent: Don’t Be Cynical. Today let’s call that DBC.

If you DBC when you speak to mission, you will find nothing more powerful to inspire people to do the best work of their careers. If you DBC when you speak to the impact of extraordinary talent, you will surround yourself with the real deal and reap the rewards. If you DBC when you identify a human change agent, you will open your doors to innovation and allow change to happen.

Fall back into corporate-speak on any of these borderline-highfalutin ideals, and you will suck all the life out of the room. No question. The spread between demoralization and inspiration is just that wide, but the line separating them is micropixel thin. Walk that line carefully. Fall to the wrong side of the balance beam and you lose; to the correct side, and you win.

That’s why I wrote Endless Encores.

What is cynical? Cynical is a poster in the lobby that reads “Our people are what we value most.” Then earnings are announced and miss expectations. Wall Street punishes your company’s stock. There is a layoff and a thousand people see that poster as they are walking out the door carrying boxes of work mementos.

What is DBC? DBC is the same lobby, same poster, but an announcement that because of a soft quarter, all senior management team members are deferring annual bonuses and taking a voluntary pay cut of 10% to cover the shortfall in earnings until the company regains growth momentum. No one walks out the door. The mementos stay on the desks. The boss holds a pizza party to reset the year’s goals. Everyone recommits to achieve growth together.

DBC can be extremely hard to master, mostly because we usually don’t set out to be cynical; we sadly roll ourselves into the muck tub. It’s great to say galvanizing words, but they inevitably have to be followed by felicity in our actions, and that’s when it becomes the greatest of all possible business challenges: to marry the power of intentions with the expectation of outcomes. Said another way: Can our delivered actions live up to our rousing words?

It’s not Utopian. It happens. It’s what matters. If you say it, mean it. If you mean it, do it.

Let’s make it harder. Can we do it consistently? Can we do it again and again? Can we have careers that span more than a single triumph, encompassing values that become us, delighting customers with outrageous excellence in good times and bad?

To invoke another catch phrase, Yes, We Can.

Speaking of catch phrases, if you’ve been following this blog for any amount of time, or even if this is your first visit, you’ll note in the blog’s description the words “People, Products, Profits—in that order.” Those are the business words I have tried to live by these last three decades, part rallying cry, part personal philosophy, part sanity meter. If you’ve worked with me you’ve heard those words way too many times and possibly even begun to repeat them. When I’m called to look at a creative company and I don’t see those words at play, they flow freely from my lips. There’s a reason. They work.

This book is about those words. It’s about how to have a career that matters, how to infuse those around you with passion, how to love your customers, how to innovate and reinvent without fear of failure, and how to avoid the trap of the one-hit wonder. That’s a lot to cover in so few words, and yet, the book is not a very long one (those who might have been concerned another volume like This Is Rage was on the way can breathe easy). Strangely, the book took me just as long to write, because as my wise editor, Lou Aronica, warned me in advance, writing simply about immensely complex ideas of discipline is no small trick. If you want to get people fired up about something that can change their lives without sounding like a soapbox pundit, you have to pick every word carefully, and that takes time.

Why condense a lifetime of highly personal learning into a book and share it with people I may never meet? I want you to succeed, over and over, and I know you can. I want you to understand why it will make you more productive to embrace the notion of DBC. I want you to master this framework, become a mentor, and pass on your good fortune to others. I want People, Products, Profits to be the worst-kept secret on the planet. I want you to take this little business parable, the story of Daphne Lonner and Paul Beckett, read it all the way through, and then keep it near your desk when you need a hit of pure oxygen.

You can repeat. You should repeat.

A few years ago I wrote a post called Dodging the Great Hits Graveyard. I had been at a Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert with my wife, sitting down front surrounded by fans who had come to hear the familiar tunes of their Christmas show. In the middle of the second set they stopped playing familiar tunes and introduced something completely new. There was an awkward pause, and it would have been easy to assume that the band had taken an immense risk and bit off a raw chunk of failure with the lost energy. Three years later, that song became the tent pole of a new album and tour, joyously celebrated by old fans as well as new. Somewhere in that window I knew I had to turn the fear of the new into a story of returning triumph, even if every triumph wouldn’t be a foregone conclusion. That’s when I knew I had to write about DBC. That’s when I knew I had to write Endless Encores.

I hope you’ll follow some of my recurring themes in the months leading up to publication, and once you have the book in your hands, please let me hear from you. Missions matter. Talent matters. Change agents matter. Don’t Be Cynical. Surround yourself with People, Products, Profits—in that order. You too can have a shot at a lifetime of repeat success, letting the moments of failure become learning opportunities, not endpoints.

Come meet Daphne and Paul. If innovation and reinvention are in your sights, their story might be your story. You can pre-order a copy of Endless Encores so it is sent to you on publication date. Below is an excerpt to give a sense of where this tale wants to take you. See you on the winning side of the balance beam.

♫ ♫ ♫

“Do you like music?” asked Daphne. “Contemporary bands, classic rock, pop tunes from various times?”

“Sure, of course,” said Paul. “Who doesn’t have a favorite band or two?”

“Those bands that are your favorites—did they have one or two hits, or a pretty decent run over the years?”

“You mean like the Eagles? The Rolling Stones? The Beatles? Obviously they had a string of hits, sometimes one after another.”

“How hard do you think it was for them to keep trying to top themselves?” asked Daphne.

“Hard,” conveyed Paul. “Very, very hard. In my business, hardly anyone repeats.”

“More like the one-hit wonders on the pop charts from the sixties, seventies, and eighties,” noted Daphne. “‘My Sharona.’ ‘Tainted Love.’ ‘Kung Fu Fighting.’ ‘Video Killed the Radio Star.’”

“You’re dating yourself a little,” chuckled Paul. “But yes, you nailed it. I don’t want to be a one-hit wonder. I don’t want to be like Friendster or Pet Rocks or the Cabbage Patch Kids. I want to make lots of hits, like you said, an endless series of hits. I want to be that guy. How do you make hits time after time after time?”

“A lot of us ask ourselves that question,” shared Daphne. “I wish I could tell you the answer. What I can tell you is that luck is not such a bad thing. It’s okay to embrace it.”

“Yeah, but can you repeat it?” asked Paul. “Can you make it happen again and again, predict it, make it repeatable?”

“From my experience, I think the best you can do is increase your odds. To build a career that allows for Endless Encores, you can never stand on your laurels. You have to be innovating all the time, not just when the clock is ticking against you. You do a little crowd pleasing with what they know, then a little thought leading by showing them something new.”

“It would be difficult to think about Endless Encores with a limited repertoire,” noted Paul.

“The only sure path to a limited repertoire is not to push yourself beyond the familiar. Your range is only gated by your courage to pursue the unknown, despite the doubters who relish the false safety of narrowing your path. You risk, you stretch, you can’t know what’s going to stick. No matter how much you know the familiar will carry you, you navigate the balance of old and new, constantly committing to reinvention. Repeat success is getting comfortable with the uncomfortable, knowing that luck will shine again, but never knowing when or how.”

Not Amused by the Dolled Up Wolf

As I have been out discussing my debut novel, This is Rage, over the past few months in bookstore readings and radio interviews, the question often comes up as to whether it is similar to the latest high-profile motion picture from Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street. My answer is no for three reasons. First, my story is purely fiction, and Wolf is based on a memoir. Second, my story is exaggerated for the literary purpose of satire, and Wolf appears to be exaggerated (or not) for spectacle. Third, my story depicts a cast of amoral characters on a collision course with poetic justice and renders a series of life lessons and impacts offered for discussion, while Wolf has no moral center and crudely celebrates the life of a scumbag. Fair warning, more eye-opening spoilers ahead.

wolf-of-wall-streetI usually quite like Martin Scorsese pictures, but I really despise this one. I don’t think he set out to make a movie that glorified the inexcusable crimes of Jordan Belfort, but that’s what’s on the screen, and now that people are crying out against the film, Scorsese and his cast are left with few options but to defend their work as creative expression. I don’t dispute their right to produce the film or make money from the enterprise, I simply wonder why it was necessary, especially for such an accomplished company of actors led by no less than Leonardo DiCaprio. You see, while some of us see through the veneer of statements proclaiming the indictment of Belfort as a cautionary tale, the literature simply isn’t there to support the defense. An extremely simple fix would have gone a long way to offset the damage caused by this movie in showing the devastation caused to the victims of the penny scam swindling. We never, ever see anyone get hurt by the incessant wave of fraud that takes money from the pockets of innocents and hands it for abuse to criminals. Not once, anywhere in the film, do we see the pain created when a garbage stock is sold to an ignorant or unsuspecting victim at 50% markup. Would it have been that hard to show that white-collar crime is not victimless? Do people still not understand that when sycophants like Belfort (and Bernie Madoff) lie to clients and empty their pockets, entire livelihoods–and futures–are wiped out?

It’s not funny. It’s not the stuff of sardonic humor. It’s too real. Horrific acts need to be condemned without ambiguity, or at the very least illustrated through juxtaposition to depict thought-provoking irony. The justice system failed to cause Belfort to endure fair punishment; he did 22 months soft time and now he is a celebrity. How about that, a bona-fide celebrity for publicly exposing that he lived a putrid life and is now selling his salesmanship skills as legitimate in pay-to-attend seminars, further brought to visibility by a Hollywood movie deemed worthy of frothy awards. The movie shows everything that goes against the grain of humility and equality, but let’s send up flares and say it’s a tour de force.

You know what else isn’t funny?

Sniffing cocaine off the rear end of a hooker, all paid for with piles of your stolen cash. Nyuck nyuck.

Driving a Lamborghini on public streets under the severe influence of quaaludes and endangering the lives of people around you. Nyuck nyuck.

Getting oral sex in a glass elevator from a co-worker while the rest of your company watches from the trading floor. Nyuck nyuck.

Laughing yet? No, apology not accepted. How about when a crowd of Wall Street insiders gathered for a screening of the film in Battery Park and cheered at its most lascivious moments, essentially endorsing the behavior of Belfort and his punk posse, making it clear that generating big money was laudable, and spending it lavishly even more laudable. Yeah, it happened. You remember these guys, they were the ones our federal government bailed out when the great recession was at its worst. Now they are the same guys who think it is time for Washington to back off on regulation, since everything is “back to normal.” Yep, welcome to the new normal.

No, I’m not indicting all of Wall Street; quite the contrary. I believe in the fundamental strength of our economy, and that trust in investment is the backbone of financial advancement. We put our money into stocks and bonds long-term to see our free market assets grow collectively over time–capitalism for the long haul, compounding legitimately for the greater good. It’s not meant to be a con man’s game. It’s not meant to be a fixed casino. So why portray it that way, and why would anyone who makes his or her living off the public trust applaud such despicable behavior? Starting to wonder if the 1% and the 99% are separated by more than just wealth?

Here’s something else that’s not funny, and the core of what caused my emotional reaction to this vile portrayal of a pathetic American life: It’s an open letter from Christina McDowell published in the LA Weekly. Ms. McDowell’s father was one of the pukes that Belfort threw under the bus to arrange for his reduced sentence, and her life in the ashes that followed was emblematic of the very discord that Belfort created. Because her father was also a criminal, she does not make excuses for the suffering brought on her by the loss of her family’s affluence, after which she sank into poverty as a result of her father’s lying and conniving. Instead she writes with immense empathy for the victims of both her father and Belfort, wondering as I do why these victims show up nowhere in the film, instead remaining faceless and invisible, as if nothing tangible was really taken and incinerated. This passage the day after Christmas left me especially disturbed:

So here’s the deal. You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals. We want to get lost in what? These phony financiers’ fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth. This kind of behavior brought America to its knees.

Nope, not funny. Not entertaining. No moral center. No poetic justice. So as the actors and technicians and storytellers and creative journeyman who crafted this epic adaptation make their way to the stage to accept their trophies this season and deliver all sorts of silly speeches about the role of art in society, think about what they did and what they could have done. Art and entertainment can be a stylized mirror, or a refracting lens, or a pastiche of temporal mores, or a slice life that causes us to interpret the actions of characters and ideas of creators. Or it can just sit there like a lump and take our money for nothing, no different from the scoundrels depicted. Two stacked wrongs don’t make this right. Don’t get fooled again. Hold the Oscars, hose this one down with a power-steam cleaning and let it dribble down the gutter where it best can dissolve from future memory.

Wings: Remastered and Revisited

Wings_coverA few decades back, before I became a software and media executive and long before I returned to writing, I wrote the “screenplay” for a succesful computer game called Wings.  That “interactive movie” — as it was marketed — was a World War I flight simulation that followed the lives of the very first fighter pilots, trying to make combat sense of fragile biplanes curiously equipped with machine guns.  It was published by an early innovator in gaming known as Cinemaware, which set out to make games look, feel, and tell stories more like movies.  Recently the Cinemaware brand was resurrected via a Kickstarter campaign to fund a mobile version of Wings, that if successful will contain the entirety of the many pages of story and dialogue, plus a lot of new material.  I have no financial interest in the new Wings, but it does bring back fantastic memories, a slice of life from an earlier time.  The new team asked me to do a text interview to support their campaign, which I decided for nostalgia to publish here as well.  Enjoy!

Please provide a brief bio of yourself.

At the moment I’m a first time novelist, my book This is Rage: A Novel of Silicon Valley and Other Madness just released last month to good reviews.  I’m also an investor, a start-up board member, an executive coach instructor, a blogger, and former corporate executive.  I was CEO of SHOP.COM, Executive VP of Disney Online, and VP Entertainment and Education at Broderbund Software.  I read a lot, follow the L.A. Dodgers, study wine, and am active in children’s welfare issues as well as local government.  If that’s not brief enough, cut everything except the part about reading and the Dodgers.

How did you originally join Cinemaware and get to work on Wings?

I met some of the Cinemaware team at a UCLA conference called The Future of Television in the late 1980s.  They told me they were creating interactive movies.  I had just written a spec screenplay called Miniatures about radio controlled model aircraft that sort of predicted the U.S. drone program.  It was the first thing I had written on a computer, a monochrome XT.  They asked me if I ever thought about working on a computer game.  I said No.  They showed me Rocket Ranger and It Came from the Desert on the Amiga.  Then I said Yes.  Quickly.

How was it working with the Wings team on the Amiga?  What do you remember most about that time?

It was a magical time, a time of possibilities.  I had experienced five years in traditional media of hearing why we couldn’t do certain things, how everything had to be done a rigid way, and how little respect there seemed to be for the writer.  Everything at Cinemaware was, yeah, let’s try that and see if we can make it work, why not?  I also remember writing on a Mac SE/30 for the first time, and I couldn’t believe why anyone would use anything other than that — so much for my XT.  And I remember when our competitor, Origin Systems, leaked a demo of their outer space saga Wing Commander, and our team was like, hmm, that’s a pretty compelling 3D engine, but our story is way better, so back to the drawing board, and they completely rewrote our flight simulator in about 2 weeks to be more state of the art.  Oh, and I remember when someone brought in the first Amiga with a 20MB hard drive and we could install both floppy disks without having to play with disk swapping or a slow seeking second external floppy drive, and that just seemed like the best possible gaming experience you could ever have — until we heard rumor about something coming called a CD-ROM.

How did you go about doing research for the game?

John Cutter, the game’s visionary designer, and I got ourselves invited backstage at the Air & Space Archives in San Diego, where we discovered a lot of the old U.S. Army Air Corp files were stashed.  We were blown away by how welcomed we were there, the military librarians spent hours with us digging out old files, it was a smorgasbord of history, and they couldn’t have been more helpful.  They kept bringing out boxes and boxes of dusty old papers and black & white photographs and let us have at it.  It was a super find and let us dig deep into a very special time of innovation, courage, and pain.  We devoured stacks of books on World War I (we even included a bibliography in the Aviator’s Briefing Manual, I’m guessing the first bibliography for a computer game).  We watched the 1927 silent movie Wings — winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture — and The Dawn Patrol (1930) so many times on VHS by our QA release date I think we could recite the storylines in realtime without anything on the monitor — then we chose to borrow only the atmosphere: the title, the sets, the costumes, font styles from the text cards, but none of the stories or characters.

What do you think makes Wings such a special gaming experience?

I think it really was the first computer game to try to tell an epic story that was more theater than shoot ’em up, but we kept plenty of shoot ’em up.  We tried extremely hard to make the character role-playing real, to get inside the head of a 19-year-old kid who probably had about as much chance coming home alive as he did surviving enough sorties to live long enough to become squadron commander.  We obsessed on details of the period, used every pixel wisely, created a true sense of responsiveness in the story, something that would set off endless discussions about the true nature of interactivity.  We also kept the game controls immensely simple.  It wasn’t a super complex gravity based simulation where you had to be an engineer to takeoff and land the plane or fight virtual physics to keep the contraption airborne.  We simply “cut to” you in the air and said Just Fly and Shoot.  We brought in a lot of non-gamers with that simplicity, but funny enough, the hard-core gamers praised us for it as well.

Can you tell us what the team wanted to implement in the game, but didn’t have the time or resources to do?  Any special hidden gems or trivia for Cinemaware fans?

First you have to remember what we were dealing with getting the game to ship on two 512K floppy disks, as if any big blockbuster developer today could comprehend how little data that is.  Our programmers were masters of compression, and kept squeezing and squeezing.  The music  was astonishingly intelligent, but the short redundant loops made our composers crazy, so I’m sure they will be delighted with the enhanced score on the remastered version.  Every screen shot was a big hit to storage, and I remember the artists begging to include more storyboards, but that wasn’t possible.  Luckily for me text was as economical to store then as it is now, so I didn’t feel the same thrashing.  I do remember the branching tree logic making me nuts and having to write multiple outcomes for every mission, wondering if it was humanly possible to cover every fork in the story and how many people would care that on a given pass through the game they would only see fractions of the screenplay (we positioned this as a customer benefit, creating replay value).  I remember when the marketing folks “requested” we cut from three floppy disks in beta down to two in order to improve gross margin on wholesale, which almost created a revolution in the hallways.  Our indefatigable producer, Jerry Albright, reminded us it was OK for them to ask, and that we had to respect them for trying, then emphatically told them not a chance.  Then somehow our miracle programmers pulled it off and we shipped the master on Reel 1 and Reel 2.  I also remember a few brainstorms we had after we realized what a unique product we had developed, one for a CD-ROM version with recorded spoken dialogue that of course never happened, and one for a Wings sequel that would have been set in WWII, and who knows where that would have taken us.

If Cinemaware had a chance to expand on Wings, what do you think could be better developed or explored?

That’s sort of like asking the creative team who made the original movie version of Wings how they would have made it a talkie.  The remastered version being funded on Kickstarter is doing all the right things — improved graphics, enhanced music, more missions, improved physics in the engine — all of that brings out the best in what we did so long ago.  The important thing is that we gave the game heart, layered grounding in reality staying true to the source material, emotional resonance woven through a role-playing experience.  As long as you remain true to heart, the polished production values will fully bring out the best.

Ken, you also pledged for this campaign, thank you so much for the support.  What made you do it?

It is a very small sum of money to let an entirely new generation of gamers see where we started as an industry, and maybe a few grown-up parents will get to share the experience with their kids.  Really, it’s not much money for a lot of game, and it is a fun game, part of what got us here.  It’s kind of like the silent movie version of Wings we watched over and over — what if someone hadn’t bothered to preserve it, can you imagine having lost a gem like that?  I can’t, no way.  We all come from somewhere, it’s important to remember that and even more important to share the memories.

Pilot Shot

On a Mission or Just Staying Awake

One of the themes I explore in my forthcoming debut novel, This is Rage, is the notion of motivation.  This is a subject I hold dear, and one I focus on a great deal in the executive coaching workshop I co-lead with John Vercelli.

mission-statement-vs-vision-statementIf all a mission statement is meant to do is fill a half page in your human resources handbook, it is probably not worth the time to write it down.  One of my former teachers and board members used to say he had a vision of all the great mission statements in the world collected in a single volume, and there could be no possible better bedtime sleeping remedy than trying to force oneself through those pages with one’s eyelids open.  Again I agree, if a mission is just a string of words — Buzzword Bingo without a juicy prize — it will not motivate, but let’s consider a few potential examples of applying a personal leadership mission in attempting to inspire a team.

Here are three choices I offer participants in the workshop, all of which we’ve heard in some variation, from the absurdly failing to the boldly aspirational:

Choice 1:

To make this department much more efficient and profitable!

Choice 2:

To overcome market forces and prevail over our competition!

Choice 3:

To provide my team with the support and resources they need, to the very best of my ability, to collaborate and do the very best work of their careers.

My response to Choice 1:

Not gonna inspire, management by fear is so not cool.

My response to Choice 2:

You’re starting to get my attention, through an occasional yawn.

My response to Choice 3:

I’d build you a log cabin in the arctic if you asked me.

Call me an optimist; people like to be inspired.  It’s not a sleight of hand.  Real leadership means rallying people around a cause, to subordinate their own personal quirks to the shared agenda adopted.  The leader’s job is to create the environment for sharing.

Is it the business leader’s job to make her or his department more efficient and profitable?  Do we really need to ask?  It goes without saying, so don’t seek glory in the obvious.  Is it the business leader’s job to respond to market forces and win market share from the competition?  Once more I ask, where’s the question?  Any answer to this presupposes a complete lack of faith in the common sense of why we are employed by our company and not another.  Is it the business leader’s job to rally, help, support, test, and muster the collective wisdom of those assembled to form a team and work together?  That should be just as obvious, but try saying it aloud and look at the surprised gazing around you.  That’s what people want to hear.  Uttering the manifesto is the first step toward building trust and accomplishing the impossible.  True, it’s just the first step, and trust is easily shattered when actions upend words.  Yet it’s an important step, and it does fire up hearts and minds much in advance of a spreadsheet.

It also connotes vulnerability — to the very best of my ability — which again is all in fact you can ever do.  Not proclaiming more makes you human, perhaps a form of life other people are more willing to follow.  Be honest, not only about what you can do, but in admitting that you are not de facto possessive of superpowers.  Try it out, it just might give you superpowers.

In my novel, a few clever and powerful people are trying to make a whole lot of money.  That is not a bad thing, until they forget that how you make the money is the difference between taking along a deserving set of others and leaving almost all of them behind.  Most of the people in the story just want to do their jobs, to find a way to love their jobs, to shake off the demoralization that has come from the illogical separation between task and income.  When a job is a paycheck, you don’t need a mission statement or real leadership, you just keep your head low and get through the day.  When a job is about something more, it’s still a paycheck — we all need a paycheck — but the purpose of the work is a much more substantial driver, creating better outcomes and better paydays.  Improved business comes from more engaged employees, and getting those employees engaged is a soft skill that in the hands of a master can conquer most obstacles.  That’s when work is fun, when we believe in something, when we believe in the leaders and their values and their rallying cries and we choose to be a part of innovation’s path.

The promise of the start-up is to build something new with heartfelt values at its core, and in closely held companies at modest scale it is much easier for founders to maintain the kind of personal mission and creative culture that reflects this entrepreneurial DNA.  When an exceptional start-up enters a period of hyper growth, hands on sustenance of idealized culture becomes considerably more difficult.  Should the start-up go public, it too easily can take on the shape and form of the goliaths it sought not to be, and then the challenge of maintaining a mission grounded in shared values is often put on trial.  The disconnect between what was innocently envisioned and what inertia morphs can be terribly upsetting to the grasping loyals, who hold their idealism in longing, hoping at length for the pledge to retake honest meaning.

Still it is important to remember than the personal leadership mission can endure.  Indeed it might be less than a grand corporate mission statement, but I believe conviction is almost always within a business leader’s reach at all levels of an organization.  Committing to a personal leadership mission is a choice — a brave choice with its own risk — and while rare, a good one in the spirit of Choice 3 has a decent shot at creating significantly more employee engagement and long-term value than the other two slug lines.  It’s all a matter of executive style, setting a tone for the broadest possible positive, tangible outcomes.

It is too easy to check out, and once people check out, try getting them to check back in.  As my story compounds, an awful lot of people check out — because they don’t feel valued, because they don’t feel inspired, because they see what they do each day as separate and divorced from the actual process that creates income for the business and value for the shareholders.  Tie those pieces back together and real innovation comes a good deal more naturally.

Leadership is not so much a word as a behavior, a walking example of what it means to be intertwined with the enterprise.  It does begin with words, words that are grounded, words that do something.  Choose those words carefully, lead by example, motivate by inclusion, dole out support without reservation.

You want to keep things humming, make it a little less comfortable and a little more complicated — for yourself, not those you guide.  In the book, I take you to the extremes of this world view, heroic and cowardly and all that binds the spectrum.  The words did not come easily to me, but I committed myself to resilience and found them over time.  You can, too.