Mike Drummond is the Editor of Inventors Digest, perhaps the most popular and widely read magazine in the innovation space. While I like to consider myself a commentator who can type, Mike is a bona fide journalist with credentials that most only dream about. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a war correspondent in Iraq and the acclaimed author of a book profiling some of the larger than life personalities inside Microsoft.
Mike is a friend, and a good guy even though I think his preference for Godfather Part II over Godfather Part I is curious if you ask me, but you will have to keep reading for the full story on that topic! So without further ado, here is my interview with Mike Drummond of Inventors Digest.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with me Mike. It looks like you have a lot going on with Inventors Digest, but before we get there let me start with an obvious first question. How did it feel to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize?
What’s that line actors use? It was an honor just being nominated, or in this case being a finalist. I was a member of a team of bright reporters, editors and designers for “Sold a Nightmare,” a series about the housing meltdown. I was pressed into service right after serving my second reporting duty in Iraq. It was a bit surreal knocking on doors of suspected corporate wrongdoers in Atlanta just weeks after I was with troops from a Stryker unit knocking on doors of unsuspecting civilians and suspected al Qaida operatives in Baqubah.
If you could give some advice to would-be journalists and those attempting to rise through the ranks to get recognized, what would it be?
For the truly talented and passionately committed young people, I would say attend the best J-school you can – Columbia and Northwestern come to mind – and kick a$$ on the campus papers and particularly their online organs. Constantly look for freelance gigs. Build impressive clip portfolios. The other thing I’d highly recommend, and this is true for all journalists, is to get comfortable and competent using the latest Web technologies and delivering gripping content (stories) for all manner of digital media.
So what made you decide to move from more general journalism into writing exclusively about innovation?
I was looking for exciting, meaningful work after my last stint in Iraq. I sensed – correctly – the paper I worked for would be going the buy-out, furlough and lay-off route. I’ve been covering innovation almost my entire 20-something years as a business journalist. My book, “Renegades of the Empire” (Crown, 1999) dealt with Microsoft’s computer-game and Internet ambitions. As a senior writer at Business 2.0 magazine, I did nothing but cover technology innovation. So making the leap wasn’t that hard when Louis Foreman, the executive producer of Everyday Edisons, asked if I wanted to be a partner in buying Inventors Digest. Besides, you’ve seen our office. It has a beer tap and keg fridge. Trust me, they don’t have those in corporate media offices.
OK, now that is the second time you mentioned Iraq. I have to confess, I didn’t know you were a war correspondent, so this catches me a bit off guard. I know this is a touchy subject with lots of people having differing views, but I feel like I should ask. Most of us will never get there and see only select photos and TV footage. Can you describe what it was like and how it felt to be there?
The first time I bounced in and saw the wretched condition of Baghdad and the so-called Green Zone, my initial impression was someone at the highest levels of our government should be in jail. So much ruin and despair and near-anarchy and corruption. Weeds growing in the steets of a once-thriving metropolis. Bootleg DVDs for sale on U.S. bases. Haliburton toughies with black knives strapped Rambo-like to their thighs. The justification for the war was built on so much sand. Saddam was a bad guy, to be sure. And I know this puts me at odds with my hawkish friends, but I’m convinced the ends didn’t justify the means on so many levels. I was in shock and awe at the waste in human life, resources and other opportunities lost. Still am.
I grew close to some of the members of the military I embedded with. On one patrol in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, we were hit by a roadside bomb and drove into a firefight between U.S. infantry and insurgents. Everyone in the unit I was with emerged more or less unscathed. But that kind of thing can make a lasting impression. I have profound respect for those who serve our country.
Later, as an interim bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers stationed outside the Green Zone, one of our reporters, a local Sunni named Sahar Issa, told me about some of the tenets of Islam, the stuff you don’t read about in our mainstream press. She told me about the three things you “put in the balance” when you die. You go to your final abode with the catalog of knowledge you have passed on to others, the prayers of good people, and the ‘alms’ or the constant, ongoing gift you leave humanity. There’s real poetry in that. That kind of thing also leaves a lasting impression. I grew very close to Sahar and other local Iraqis. I miss them. I’m grateful I went, and look forward to the day I can return, hopefully with my family, to show them a prosperous and peaceful Iraq.
I see that since you have been the Editor of Inventors Digest you have had the opportunity to speak with some Hollywood stars. I particularly liked the interview with Ben Stiller about his role in Night at the Museum 2. Is Ben as funny and spontaneous behind the scenes as he seems to be in front of the camera?
To be honest, I wouldn’t really know. That ‘interview’ was conducted entirely via e-mail. He’s pretty, um, controlling about how his likeness and comments are used. So from where I sat, he wasn’t very spontaneous … but his answers were hilarious.
How did you manage to land an interview with such a big Hollywood star as Ben? Care to share any trade secrets?
You have to be fearless. I learned that a long time ago serving subpoenas in some of the more dodgy areas of San Diego. If you don’t ask, the answer will always be ‘no.’ So there’s that. I also work for an established magazine – that definitely helps. And I have a long reporting history with some major newspapers and magazines that celebrity handlers can easily Google. Finally, you have to convey your interview request in what it can do for them. In Stiller’s case, it was an easy sell – he gets to pimp his new movie with a friendly publication.
Of all the people you have interviewed or talked to for articles you have written, who was the most interesting and why?
To be sure, Andy Grove of Intel was a great interview – the guy’s a legend. The three main characters in my book where memorable for me in a lot of ways. But generally, it’s typically the last person I interviewed, in this case genius inventor Dean Kamen. The man is a true iconoclast – a rebel with a cause. He’s a hall-of-fame inventor and is still at it. The Segway two-wheeled scooter. The iBOT stair-climbing wheelchair. Home dialysis machines. Water filtration systems for impoverished countries. A new hybrid car for, again, impoverished countries. And he’s super-passionate about FIRST, his contest to get kids pumped up about science, technology, engineering and math for the good of humanity. He’s a compassionate capitalist. I’m not into hero worship, but he’s a hero of mine.
OK, same kind of question, but this time with respect to technologies and innovations. I suspect you have seen some pretty cool stuff. What is the most interesting invention you have come across?
I’m fascinated with the ongoing advances in bio and nano technologies. One of my favorites is using algae and microbes to make clean-burning oil and petroleum products. If companies like LS9 – which recently forged a partnership with Procter & Gamble – and OrignOil can get their product to scale, that changes the narrative when it comes to energy production. My only concern – what happens to incentives to curb consumption? On the mechanical side of things, I recently played with a new type of gearless drive train called the NuVinci that has industry-disruption potential. We write about it in the July issue. As a proof-of-concept it’s being used in some next-generation bicycles. But the applications are endless – wind turbines, light-electric vehicles, new breeds of engines, basically anything that spins.
Shifting gears a bit, being a guest contributor I have some personal knowledge about the new Inventors Digest blog, but can you tell me what prompted you to head in this direction on the web?
Before, we were just repurposing a few selected articles from that month’s issue and calling it a day. We’d see a huge spike in traffic right after we posted, and then it’d drop like a rock until we posted in a month. That’s no way to run a 24/7 online operation. This format – which is still a work in progress, by the way – allows us to post all the content from the magazine throughout the month. You’ll get to see the whole magazine online – it will take the whole month to view it, but it eventually will be there. That gives people an incentive to keep coming back. Moreover, we have content that is solely for the Web – announcements, guest bloggers such as yourself, a new online retail store and much more to come.
Where do you see Inventors Digest in 5 years? Will you still be publishing a real-world, tangible magazine?
I’m old school. I believe there will be a place for dead trees, as we say in the industry. The experience you get from paper just can’t be adequately replicated digitally right now. As another one of my role models, author and futurist Alvin Toffler says, paper is the perfect technology. You can get a story or visually rewarding experience from a display ad in print, but you can’t get that from pushing a button ad online.
We’ll be publishing a thicker magazine, serving more subscribers and advertisers in five years. You may quote me on that.
I have no doubt that you will be doing just that. Now, again, shifting slightly, can you tell me a little about the book you wrote about Microsoft?
Renegades of the Empire is about three brash fellows who become alarmed that Windows 95 would ship without the ability to play video games. At the time, it would be like a phone lacking a camera or text capability today. These guys went on an internal jihad – their word, not mine – to elevate Microsoft’s operating system in the computer-game world, then dominated by Apple. They succeeded. Wildly succeeded. But when they tried to apply their bad-boy, skunk works ethos to building a browser, what some internally called a ‘Netscape killer,’ things eventually took a turn for the worst. The good part, at least for me as a journalist who had carte blanche access to these guys, one of them was called as the final witness in the famous anti-trust case. That was fascinating to watch David Boies of the Justice Department mount his attack against Microsoft using Microsoft software. I’m a big fan of irony.
Its been almost a decade since the book was published. Do you have any plans on writing another about where Microsoft has gone since then, or maybe on another topic altogether?
I’d love to write another book and have had several proposals turned down by some of the greatest publishing houses on the planet. None dealt with Microsoft. I’m undeterred and have some other ideas in the hopper.
Finally, I can’t resist. We have talked about movies in the past and our like and dislikes seem to overlap quite a bit, except with respect to which Godfather movie is best and why. I personally like Part I best, and Part III over Part II, because I don’t like flashbacks so much. Let me give you an opportunity to set me straight about which Godfather movie was best.
I’m still at a loss for words that you find the indulgent, scene-chewing pap of No. 3 superior to the deft filmcraft, poignant and moving performances and ultimately tragic beauty of Godfather Part II. It’s unarguably the finest sequel ever put to celluloid. You should stick to critiquing the USPTO.