Robert Scoble: Just a Geek Who Grew Up in Silicon Valley
This is one of a series of interviews with social media influencers that I am writing for the Social Media Club. The interviews seek to explore how social media influencers around the world became involved in social media, what makes them tick, and where they are going from here.
There is a place, a unique intersection of technologists, investors and social media influencers, where great things happen … like the introduction of the iPhone, the launch of Facebook, the rollout of Flipboard.
It is the rarified world of disruptive startups, where billionaire fortunes are made at speeds that make old-guard semiconductor industry execs dizzy and jealous.
It’s a tight community, almost an ecosystem if it weren’t so highly competitive.
Telling the story of this ecosystem are an elite group of journalists and bloggers who make a pretty good living reporting on every development.
From a social media perspective, one of the most notable of this group is Robert Scoble, one of the most influential bloggers in Silicon Valley – or anywhere else, for that matter.
Robert grew up in and around tech, and he loves to talk about it. Or, more precisely, he loves to video blog about it.
Throughout his life, Robert has nurtured a passion for cameras, journalism and tech, and he’s been second to none at putting all three together to communicate with his audience.
He thrives on being the first know about something, use it, test it, play with it, and talk about it.
He is excited about technology because he always has been.
As he got older, he realized this excitement is his unique calling, his value proposition, his mission. He’s the evangelists’ evangelist. And having embraced this, he has built a wide-ranging community of followers who trust his observations and take his judgments seriously.
“He is a thought leader in social video and he has the best instincts for new products of any person I have ever met,” said Shel Israel, the well-known communications consultant, author and Forbes contributor who teamed with Robert to co-authored the book Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers.
Robert is also extremely transparent. He posts his contact information freely and, while he’s often busy listening to pitches, participating in conferences, videotaping interviews and podcasting, he does his best to make himself quickly and easily accessible.
“Robert is always open and accessible,” said Alastair Goldfisher, Silicon Valley tech editor at Thomson Reuters. “He’s easy to connect with. Even though his Twitter, Facebook and Google feeds are filled with endless posts from people, he does seem to catch up on everything. I think that points to the value in his lists and (Google +) Circle-making.”
In many ways, Robert defines the social media influencer. He has a keen eye for emerging trends, a passion for talking about them, and a gregarious style that makes it easy for others to feel comfortable communicating with him.
He’s also well aware that he is breaking new ground. His Weblog Manifesto, developed when he was a community manager for Microsoft in 2003, is still widely circulated and considered to be one of the defining documents for community and social media managers.
Of course, he’s not always right, and he will be the first to tell you so, which is also part of job description. His quick laughter and sparkling eyes combine with an easygoing style that is singularly Robert Scoble.
Robert was born in January 1965 in New Jersey. His father, Bill Scoble had a Ph.D. in microelectronics and his mother was a housewife who occasionally did contract work for Silicon Valley companies. He has two younger brothers – Ben and Alex, and a sister, Cassie.
When Robert was four years old, his father took a job working at Ampex for the inventor of the VCR, a job which brought the family to Silicon Valley.
“We moved to Cupertino because it was affordable on an engineer’s salary,” said Robert. “Back then Cupertino was all orchards. I remember walking through orchards to the grade school every day.”
Robert grew up “pretty much like every other kid,” but he was already very aware that something special was happening in technology.
“We lived a couple hundred yards from where Apple built its campus in 1977,” said Robert. “It felt like, I don’t know, it was like Cupertino was at the center of the world, there was always something new going on.”
“I wasn’t ever really a programmer like some kids, but in junior high school I was part of our first computer club,” said Robert. “I have always been drawn to new things, I’ve always liked new cars, new technology, new music, photography and cameras.”
Robert recalls that he was at Hyde Junior High School when the class unboxed the school’s first Apple II computers.
“I really wanted to see those!” said Robert. “About the same time, I really can’t remember if it was before or after that, my dad brought an Apple II home.”
“You have to remember what a huge thing this was, because everyone could finally get a personal computer,” said Robert. “It was the Facebook of the day.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is the future, and this is something that I can do after school, too.’ I played a lot of games on it,” he said. “While other kids were taking them apart and figuring out how to make them work, I became someone who was talking about how they were going to be used.”
After graduating in 1983 from Prospect High School, Robert enrolled in computer science courses at nearby West Valley Community College and helped to run a discount camera store in San Jose, where he “learned to sell, to engage with people, and about advertising and inventory and how to run a business.”
And then something really big happened.
After Loma Prieta
“I was in a physics class at West Valley when the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake struck. I was also taking journalism classes at the time but I wasn’t very serious about it. Anyway, when the earthquake struck I ran into the journalism class and just started reporting on it,” said Robert. “That was a really important experience for me, it got me to see the power of journalism and writing. After that I changed my major and started really focusing on journalism.”
The switch couldn’t have come at a better time.
“At about that time, I met Steve Wozniak on the campus and convinced him to donate $40,000 worth of Macs to the journalism department,” said Robert. “Nobody there knew how to set them up, so the teacher assigned me to install them.”
Robert said he learned a lot from that experience. Not just about Macs, but also working deeply with software like Adobe Pagemaker and Illustrator.
Once he realized that he was serious about studying journalism, Robert transferred to San Jose State University.
“Coincidentally, they had just received 100 new Macs and didn’t know what to do with them,” said Robert, again laughing. “The instructor said they would hire a consultant to come in and install them over the summer. I told them, ‘Look, fire the consultant, I’ll do it.’
He spent that summer “learning about Macs on a much deeper level, and about networking and software. I learned quite a bit more about Adobe products like Photoshop and so on. And I began writing about what I was doing with Photoshop and so on in online communities.”
Without even realizing it, Robert had already stumbled into his career.
“What I didn’t know at the time was that I was one of the first users of a lot of Adobe technology. Because I was talking about my experiences, I was being viewed as one of their top beta testers,” said Robert. “It wasn’t really journalism so much. I would write a column here or there but mostly I was writing in online communities.”
Robert’s experiences writing in those communities became so consuming that he dropped out of San Jose State (curiously, his profile on many social sites indicates that he did graduate with a degree in journalism).
“I was one paper away from completing one class that I needed for a degree. But a degree is just a piece of paper, it didn’t matter to me,” said Robert. “It was the education that mattered, the ceremony wasn’t the goal, the education was.”
Robert met his first wife, Charlotte Angin, while he was in college. The two married in 1995 and had a son, Patrick. But the chemistry was somehow wrong and the marriage began to split apart within a few years.
After college, Robert was hired as an editor by Fawcette Technical Publications, where he was also tasked with organizing conferences for CNET magazine. Looking for some help in the fast-growing company, Robert then met and helped to hire the woman who would eventually become is wife for the last 10 years, Maryam Ghaemmaghami Scoble.
Robert’s wife Maryam was born in Tehran, Iran. Her father sent her and her brother to the US in 1986 “to get a good education and then come back, but then the revolution happened and so we weren’t going to come back,” said Maryam. “There was a lot of religious oppression, and especially oppression of women, so my family felt that it was safer and better for us to stay here.”
Maryam’s educational experience in the US began with her sophomore year in high school. She started at Lindberg High School but graduated from Milpitas High, then went on to DeAnza College and UC Berkeley and finally Mills College. She has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in English literature.
“While I was going to graduate school I was supporting myself by working as an events planner at a Catholic retreat center,” said Maryam. “I did that for about four years and enjoyed it so much that when I graduated, I went looking for something similar, like concert planning.”
She worked for a few months as an events planner for a German company and then applied for her second job out of college at Fawcette.
“When I first went to Fawcette in 1999 Robert was one of the people who interviewed me,” laughs Maryam. “We worked together most of the time, planning conferences like CNET Live! and others. We traveled around together a lot.
“At time Robert, was married and after a while, he left to work at UserLand,” said Maryam. Years passed, but the two stayed in touch.
“Then one day he contacted me and said he was separating from his wife and we started going out.”
“My attraction to him was the same as everybody else who likes him, I guess,” says Maryam. “He’s always happy, energetic, ambitious, honest, just a rather nice guy. He never really seems down or depressed, he always gets up and gets going. He has a lot of energy and he loves technology.”
Maryam recalls that the transition from friendship to marriage began comically.
“When he was going through the divorce, I was lending an ear, being a friend, and then one evening he said, ‘I am going to move out, and I was wondering if I can I come and live with you?’
“I said, ‘Well, I already have a room mate.’
“And he said, ‘No, I mean like a man and a woman living together.’” She laughs out loud at the memory.
“I said, ‘We don’t do that in my country!’ and he said, ‘Well, what do you do?’”
“’Well, first you have to get a big rock,’” I said.
So he said, “’Oh, Ok well let me come back when I get the big rock.’
“After the divorce was complete we kept going out and then he proposed to me in Las Vegas, on New Year’s Eve, with all the fireworks going off all around us.”
Meanwhile, Robert’s career was taking shape.
“I was writing about all kinds of things like Visual Basic Java and XML, Visual Studio, and so on. When I started there the company had like eight people and I watched it grow to 200.”
As his reputation grew, he found himself being asked to do more by the technical communities. He planned the VBITS and VSLive! Converence and in the mid-1990s he was technical chair of the Visual Basic SIG, as well as an avid participant in other user groups.
On the side, Robert worked for Winnov, a maker of webcams, supporting its webcam user group. And he was actively involved in Microsoft’s NetMeeting support newsgroups.
“I had been dabbling in online communities for many years, since about 1985, but I wasn’t really serious about it. At the same time, after work I was running videoconferences for CNET, the magazine company. This was the late 90s,” recalls Robert. “Two of the CNET people were Dave Winer and Joy Smith. They both told me that I should start blogging and I was like, “What is a blog?”
“I searched around and could only find about 200 blogs out there, but a couple of weeks later I was at a SuperBowl party with Winer and Woz and we got to talking. I realized there must be several thousand people reading these things, and that got me hooked.
“Once I started writing about software I caught the attention of Microsoft, which gave me an MVP award for my writing,” said Robert.
Robert then left Fawcette to work for Winer’s UserLand Software, which was a content management and blogging startup with a short life. The company ran out of funds at about the same time that Robert and Maryam were married, so Robert joined NEC’s Mobile Solutions organization as a sales support manager for the TabletPC, where he pioneered the use of blogs in support of telephone and email communications with user support teams.
The success of his Scobleizer blog and strong following caught the eye of Vic Gundotra, who was then general manager of Microsoft’s Platform Evangelism group. He was impressed enough to offer Robert a job.
Microsoft and Beyond
“That was a lot of fun. What was interesting to me was that I was developing a new perspective. I understood how Microsoft employees look at the world, and how third-party companies that are trying to build on Microsoft look at the world, and I was able to write about all of that.
“Microsoft hired me to head up their blogging team just about the time that Microsoft went from being a big company to being one of the most important companies in the world.”
That, in itself would have been a significant career advancement for Robert, but he had the good fortune to be at the front end of something much larger.
“I didn’t realize at the time that blogging was a disruptive technology,” said Robert. “But when I caught on, I rode that elevator all the way up.”
“Blogging is where it’s at,” said Robert. “To me, Facebook and Twitter are just offshoots of blogging.”
Robert quickly became proficient in not just blogging, but video production as well, working with the Channel 9 MSDN video team responsible for showcasing Microsoft employees and products.
Scoble brought his own particular brand of journalism/blogging to Microsoft with his Scobleizer weblog, sometimes touting the company’s products, but also being critical where he felt there were shortcomings. His Microsoft Weblog Manifesto, published in February of 2003, is still regarded as the definitive corporate blogging credo, imploring that writers “tell the truth,” “post fast on good news or bad,””have a thick skin,” “talk to the grassroots first (because the mainstream press is cruising the weblogs),” and “if you screw up, acknowledge it,” among others.
“Robert was the first to demonstrate how a mid-level employee blog can give an enterprise behemoth a more human face,” said Shel Israel.
His achievements at Microsoft drew notice from The Economist (February, 2005).
“He has become a minor celebrity among geeks worldwide, who read his blog religiously. Impressively, he has also succeeded where small armies of more conventional public relations types have been failing by abjectly for years: he has made Microsoft, with its history of monopolistic bullying, appear marginally but noticeably less evil to the outside world, and especially to the independent software developers that are his core audience.”
After three years, Robert had more or less outgrown his position at Microsoft, joining PodTech as vice president of media development. Within a few months, he created the first episode of “The Scoble Show” which ran for the next two years.
“Robert Scoble is a great example of how to succeed in social media,” said Tom Foremski, journalist at Silicon Valley Watcher. “You have to be relentless about it, always on, and that’s what Robert does best. I remember when we worked together for a while at PodTech, he was in the cube across from me and I was just amazed at how prolific he could be.
“I’ve always thought that Robert’s contribution to social media is like a cable TV channel,” said Foremski. “He is always putting things out there that are interesting and relevant to his world. He is so prolific, you could watch his stuff 24 hours a day and never tire of it.”
In fact, Robert really does enjoy being in front of the camera just as much as behind it. In late 2007, he jumped to FastCompany, where he produced two shows: Fastcompany.tv and ScobleizerTV, as well as publishing regularly via his blog and the FastCompany magazine.
He was operating as a regular guest on the Gillmor Gang when, in early 2009, he announced that he was leaving FastCompany for Rackspace Hosting, where he is the Startup Liason Officer, as well as creating and developing content for the social networking website Building 43.
Throughout this time, Robert’s style, voice and presentation has remained relatively consistent, but his subject matter has evolved. Whereas in early years he was hired to talk about certain products, today he is free to roam wherever he pleases, and given his reputation, he gets lots of offers to review new things.
“I like to be first with technology, like to know what is coming next, to find out what’s new and explore it at deep level,” said Robert.
In that spirit, Robert has gone to great lengths to be sure he’s at the front of the line or in the front row at new product announcements.
When Apple announced its new iPhone and later, the iPad, Robert was among the first in line at a local iPhone store to nab the device and put it through its paces. Still, he takes the opportunity to have fun while he’s there.
“It’s like a big party,” said Robert, lighting up at the recollection. “In some ways, waiting in line was more fun than getting the product. I was hanging out with geeks like Andy Hertzfeld, who was the first one in line. He was the original Mac programmer, told us stories about the development of the original Mac that you’ve just never heard before. To be able to hang with guys like that was just incredible, well worth it.”
“At the iPad launch, there were so many interesting people,” said Robert. “I remember I met the Flipboard people there. That got me the opportunity to come in to see Flipboard, which as you know played a big role in the iPad announcment, Steve Jobs used it live on stage. Anyway, after the launch they sent me a message saying, ‘Hey, we were in line with you, that was great fun.’ That got me some trust, I knew that there was a friendship there. Then they invited me to come in and see what they had, and of course it worked out very well.”
Robert’s passion for new things – new companies, new products, new software – is genuine and unstoppable. And he has the foresight to see how some technologies will make a big difference while others will not.
“The iPhone and the iPad were seismic shifts in our society,” said Robert. “But it’s more often the startups that really change the world. Big companies don’t do that – at least, very rarely. Because it’s difficult for a big company to think like a game changer, to be disruptive.
“I always like to study new things, so if a big company does something that is new and dramatic, you can bet I will be there, but it doesn’t happen often.”
Wherever Robert goes, you can be sure he has a following. Even to people who have never read his blog, it’s clear that he is a major social media influencer. His Facebook Profile alone has over 325,000 subscribers and his Twitter handle has more than 260,000 followers…not superstar status (where followers are measured in millions) but definitely celebrity within the tech sphere.
Whenever he mentions a product or a person on his show or in a social media feed, you can be sure a wave of attention will be drawn their way.
But he doesn’t stop there. Robert uses almost everything he reviews, and often makes himself one of the most prolific users of the technology.
Dan Schawbel, a columnist and founder of Millenial Branding in Boston, Mass., said he’s been watching Robert’s progress through the years and is impressed with his ability to build a consistent personal brand.
“When you say Robert Scoble I think ‘technology leader, influencer and extremely transparent,’” said Schawbel. “It’s because of him that I put my cell phone number on my website. His audience is the early adopter tech crowd. He’s really good at taking breaking tech news and explaining it for the average person. But he also focuses on emerging technologies, not just Facebook and Twitter, which is important because that puts him on the leading edge.
“He had a lot of courage when he was at Microsoft, taking the company on for its missteps, and that got him visibility that stays with him today. He’s interesting because he has the social media skills and he has a tremendous following, which makes him very attractive. This is something I think we will see more of in the future. Things may not have worked out for him at FastCompany, but Rackspace was smart to hire him.”
Robert Scoble has secured his legacy among the startup, social media, and investor community elite. In many ways, he has helped define all three.
For a recent interview of Robert regarding his work in social media, check out this interview with Robert at BlogWorld in New York City.
Even if he wanted to get away from this rare opportunity, or from the many speaking engagements such as this one at TEDxSanJoseCA, he would not.
He spends private moments with his wife Maryam and their two sons, Milan (who is autistic and requires special therapy) and Ryan. Robert’s older son Patrick, who recently graduated from high school, is a frequent visitor to the Scoble family house. In fact the Scobles recently attended a graduation party thrown for Patrick by his mother in Los Altos.
“Robert has a great relationship with his ex-wife, we all get along really well,” said Maryam.
When he’s not busy – which is extremely rare – Robert does his best to take time out for the family.
“Robert works a lot, and he’s gone a lot, so when he is home we make the most of it,” said Maryam. “We take family walks together on the beach, go swimming, we just try to do as much as possible. In the summer we try to schedule a week or 10 days to go to Southern California to visit Disneyland and so forth.”
Robert said he also likes to take the kids to train museums and other touristy places, and he’s never far from an iPhone to share an Instagram moment.
“It’s hard to get away completely,” laughs Robert. “I am addicted to the world of technology, it’s hard to shut it off.”
The addiction, it seems, is contagious. Maryam Scoble fondly recalls their time planning events and podcasts together and is frequently called upon to help out even today. She was a fixture at the recent SXSW Conference and expressed a strong desire to get back to her previous work now that her children are in kindergarten and grade school.
“I miss the events life,” said Maryam. “When Robert and I are working together and hanging out together, that’s where it’s at. People come together and we have great converstions. It’s where we discover each others’ interests and passions. It’s a lot of fun.”
The Corporate Weblog Manifesto.
Thinking of doing a weblog about your product or your company? Here’s my ideas of things to consider before you start.
1) Tell the truth. The whole truth. Nothing but the truth. If your competitor has a product that’s better than yours, link to it. You might as well. We’ll find it anyway.
2) Post fast on good news or bad. Someone say something bad about your product? Link to it — before the second or third site does — and answer its claims as best you can. Same if something good comes out about you. It’s all about building long-term trust. The trick to building trust is to show up! If people are saying things about your product and you don’t answer them, that distrust builds. Plus, if people are saying good things about your product, why not help Google find those pages as well?
3) Use a human voice. Don’t get corporate lawyers and PR professionals to cleanse your speech. We can tell, believe me. Plus, you’ll be too slow. If you’re the last one to post, the joke is on you!
4) Make sure you support the latest software/web/human standards. If you don’t know what the W3C is, find out. If you don’t know what RSS feeds are, find out. If you don’t know what weblogs.com is, find out. If you don’t know how Google works, find out.
5) Have a thick skin. Even if you have Bill Gates’ favorite product people will say bad things about it. That’s part of the process. Don’t try to write a corporate weblog unless you can answer all questions — good and bad — professionally, quickly, and nicely.
6) Don’t ignore Slashdot.
7) Talk to the grassroots first. Why? Because the main-stream press is cruising weblogs looking for stories and looking for people to use in quotes. If a mainstream reporter can’t find anyone who knows anything about a story, he/she will write a story that looks like a press release instead of something trustworthy. People trust stories that have quotes from many sources. They don’t trust press releases.
8) If you screw up, acknowledge it. Fast. And give us a plan for how you’ll unscrew things. Then deliver on your promises.
9) Underpromise and over deliver. If you’re going to ship on March 1, say you won’t ship until March 15. Folks will start to trust you if you behave this way. Look at Disneyland. When you’re standing in line you trust their signs. Why? Because the line always goes faster than its says it will (their signs are engineered to say that a line will take about 15% longer than it really will).
10) If Doc Searls says it or writes it, believe it. Live it. Enough said.
11) Know the information gatekeepers. If you don’t realize that Sue Mosher reaches more Outlook users than nearly everyone else, you shouldn’t be on the PR team for Outlook. If you don’t know all of her phone numbers and IM addresses, you should be fired. If you can’t call on the gatekeepers during a crisis, you shouldn’t try to keep a corporate weblog (oh, and they better know how to get ahold of you since they know when you’re under attack before you do — for instance, why hasn’t anyone from the Hotmail team called me yet to tell me what’s going on with Hotmail and why it’s unreachable as I write this?).
12) Never change the URL of your weblog. I’ve done it once and I lost much of my readership and it took several months to build up the same reader patterns and trust.
13) If your life is in turmoil and/or you’re unhappy, don’t write. When I was going through my divorce, it affected my writing in subtle ways. Lately I’ve been feeling a lot better, and I notice my writing and readership quality has been going up too.
14) If you don’t have the answers, say so. Not having the answers is human. But, get them and exceed expectations. If you say you’ll know by tomorrow afternoon, make sure you know in the morning.
15) Never lie. You’ll get caught and you’ll lose credibility that you’ll never get back.
16) Never hide information. Just like the space shuttle engineers, your information will get out and then you’ll lose credibility.
17) If you have information that might get you in a lawsuit, see a lawyer before posting, but do it fast. Speed is key here. If it takes you two weeks to answer what’s going on in the marketplace because you’re scared of what your legal hit will be, then you’re screwed anyway. Your competitors will figure it out and outmaneuver you.
18) Link to your competitors and say nice things about them. Remember, you’re part of an industry and if the entire industry gets bigger, you’ll probably win more than your fair share of business and you’ll get bigger too. Be better than your competitors — people remember that. I remember sending lots of customers over to the camera shop that competed with me and many of those folks came back to me and said “I’d rather buy it from you, can you get me that?” Remember how Bill Gates got DOS? He sent IBM to get it from DRI Research. They weren’t all that helpful, so IBM said “hey, why don’t you get us an OS?”
19) BOGU. This means “Bend Over and Grease Up.” I believe the term originated at Microsoft. It means that when a big fish comes over (like IBM, or Bill Gates) you do whatever you have to do to keep him happy. Personally, I believe in BOGU’ing for EVERYONE, not just the big fish. You never know when the janitor will go to school, get an MBA, and start a company. I’ve seen it happen. Translation for weblog world: treat Gnome-Girl as good as you’d treat Dave Winer or Glenn Reynolds. You never know who’ll get promoted. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way over the years.
20) Be the authority on your product/company. You should know more about your product than anyone else alive, if you’re writing a weblog about it. If there’s someone alive who knows more, you damn well better have links to them (and you should send some goodies to them to thank them for being such great advocates).
Any others? Disagree with any of these? Sorry my comments are down. Now Hotmail is down too. Grr. Where’s the “Hotmail weblog” where I can read about what’s going on at Hotmail? So, write about this and link to it from your weblog. I watch my referer links like a hawk. Oh, is that #21? Yes it is. Know who is talking about you.
Scoble with Sergey Brin and google glasses photo by Thomas Hawk
Scoble family taken by Charlotte Angin
Scoble with Mark Zuckerberg by Brian Solis
Scoble with Sharel Omer courtesy of Sharel Omer