The Kathy Sierra Story by Psychotactics

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How To Write An Unlikely Bestseller: The Kathy Sierra Story by Psychotactics

It was the around the year 2000

Technology companies that just months prior were considered extremely, reported huge losses and folded. These losses created an economic cascade which came to be known as the dotcom crash. Stuck in the middle of this seemingly thermonuclear disaster were thousands of programmers.

One of them was a woman called Kathy Sierra.

If you’ve ever dipped your toes into the programming language, JAVA, you’re likely to have heard of Kathy Sierra

Her book series “Headfirst Java” has sold well over a million copies. If you look back at the past ten years or more, there’s Sierra’s book—one of the longest running bestsellers of the decade.

Yet, Sierra isn’t like one of those in-your-face Internet marketers. Her blog is untended. She jumped off social media back in 2007 and only reluctantly got back online in 2013. She speaks at conferences, but it’s a rare treat.

But back to Sierra’s disaster story

According to Sierra, back in the late nineties and in the year 2000, anyone landing a job in a dotcom company could get stock options. And then along came the implosion of the dotcoms, and her shares were worth nothing. And this is what Sierra says: "Anyway, I needed a job. I am probably as old as most of your parents.

If you are trying to get a job as a programmer when you are competing against people who are half your age — and granted, I was not the most awesome programmer. I was very decent. And we needed regular income. I said we because, my husband, also a programmer, also the same age, same problem. And we had two kids and a dog.”

In short, Kathy Sierra was seemingly at a dead end when she wrote her first book, “Headfirst Java”.

Yet, Sierra believes in the concept of consumption. Consumption is when you create a product or service that’s so easy to understand and use, that progress is inevitable. Instead of floundering and flipping back to Page 3 or 6 or having to refer back, the reader is able to move forward confidently.

Today we’re going to dig deep into that concept of consumption from a Sierra-point-of-view

If you’ve followed Psychotactics, you’ll probably be more than aware that consumption has been a driving force of our business since 2006, possibly even earlier. However, I really like Kathy’s work. I really like her passion. I even like the name “a brain-friendly guide”—that’s the title of all her books.

And though I won’t ever bother with Java, there are three concepts of Sierra’s consumption model I’d like to share with you.

Ready? Well, here goes: Why do people/readers get stuck?

Factor 1: Dependence on memory

Factor 2: Not Identifying Confusion

Factor 3: The Perfect Life.

Let’s get cracking with the first element: dependence on memory.

Factor 1: Dependence on Memory

In a BBC documentary, Michel Thomas, master language teacher, looks around a classroom filled with desks. The sunlight is streaming through the windows, but Thomas’ face is slightly grim, as if he’s reaching for a painful memory.

“This reminds me of my own classrooms”, he says. “As a child, as a youngster in high school. And it was (education) always under stress. One had to associate learning with work, with concentration, with paying attention, with homework. Work, it’s all work. But learning shouldn’t be work. It should be excitement.

It should be a pleasure. And one should experience a constant sense of progression with learning. That is learning to me. A teacher is someone who will facilitate and show how to learn.”

Thomas’ classroom looks very different from the traditional classroom

The desks are gone. The students help cart in their own furniture, mostly sofas. Plants show up, so does a carpet and the scene resembles a cozy version of your living room than a classroom.

Yet what Michel Thomas says at the start of every learning session is far more important.

This is what he says: I’m going to set up a very important rule, a very important ground rule, and that rule is for you never to worry about remembering. Never to worry about remembering anything and therefore not to try.

Never “try to remember anything from one moment to the next. This is a method with the responsibility for your remembering and for learning is in the teaching. So if at any point there’s something you don’t remember, this is not your problem. It will be up to me to know why you don’t remember, individually, and what to do about it.”

Kathy Sierra calls this phenomenon “the Page Vaporiser” moment

So what is the Page Vaporiser moment? Sierra describes it this way: “Imagine that you’ve written a book, and when the user turns the page, the previous page vaporises. There is no going back.

No one can ever turn back. It's not even an option. What would you do differently to make this work for them? If you knew they couldn't go back? Or if it was a video, they can’t—there is no rewind. It's just one time. It’s like they're sitting in a theatre, watching a movie. What would you do?

Michel Thomas died in 2005, but the message lingers on: Never “try to remember anything from one moment to the next. That’s almost exactly what Kathy Sierra is saying. That the dependence on memory is a problem. It means that you as a teacher, writer, video creator—you’ve not done your job as well as you should.

Kathy Sierra and her husband weren’t writers

They just loved Java so intimately. It was the one thing they adored and so they decided to write about it. They didn’t know squat about writing or publishing. They even ran headlong into a mountain of rejection slips until finally the publisher, O’Reilly decided to give them a chance.\

But the real magic, or madness, is that they needed the money desperately. With both of them out of a job, they needed to get their revenue from the book sales alone.

When Sierra and her husband, sat down and expressed their source of income, they got a hearty laugh in return.

Their editor said: You’re going to have to be in the top two or three selling books for this programming language. So they look up Amazon and there are not 500, or a thousand results. There aren’t even 10,000.

There are a whopping 27,078 results. They decide to filter the search string to two words, “Java Programming”. And there are still 16,348 results.

“Nobody knew us. We weren’t writers. We had no marketing budget. And the whole Internet said it was just mostly luck.”

But Kathy and her husband knew that the book needed to work. They had kids. There was the dog and being middle-aged meant their prospects of work were terribly bleak. They started out the process by looking at the competition and it staggered them how many books were just fabulous.

They couldn’t beat over 16,000 books by making their book slightly better. So they went for a goal that most books—and I mean any books, not just Java Programming books—miss to this day. They set out to write a book where the page would vaporise the moment after you read it.

The problem was that most people weren’t finishing the books.

"They were getting stuck. And everyone accepted that,” says Sierra. Nobody reads programming books all the way through. We thought... How can they actually possibly learn if they don’t keep reading it? It doesn't matter how great the book is. We realised that a lot of these things don’t really matter if people don't keep going.

So now we knew what it was that we’d have to do. We could compete on forward flow. Just getting people to keep going.”

Michel Thomas started training language students in a manner that requires no memorisation.

Kathy Sierra’s book—same thing. No need to memorize anything. It’s all forward movement. Of course, if you’ve been following Psychotactics for a while, you’ll know how this forward movement works.

All of the memorisation problems arise because of intimidation. If I ask you to go down to the store and buy me a bottle of full-fat milk, you don’t have much to remember, do you? There’s zero intimidation involved. But imagine you’re in a foreign country.

Now you have the burden of having to figure out the location of the store and trying to say full fat in German or Italian or Hindi for that matter.

The moment you break down things into small bits, your client moves forward instead of being frozen on the previous page.

When you look at why you seem to fly through reading The Brain Audit, you can see how the seven red bags create an analogy. Do you have to remember the analogy? No, you don’t. But what about the red bags? As you progress through the book, every bag is not only explained in detail but every so often there are graphics and reminders of what you’ve learned.

Not only what you’ve learned but what you’re about to learn

The reason why you find Psychotactics books so easy to read is not because of some great or amazing writing. It’s because of the structure of the book; the way the cartoons remind you about what you’ve learned; the way the summary helps you remember; the way the graphics stick around, not just for decoration but with a perfectly good reason in mind.

That reason is the lack of dependence on memory

It’s not like we haven’t created bad products or training before. We have. When I first started out at Psychotactics, I remember giving a workshop in Auckland. The workshop was two days long and had a barrage of information. One person literally fell asleep after lunch. And yet I plowed on with the training. I felt it was my job to keep the workshop going until the very last minute. I felt that books needed to be 200 pages long.

And now I know better

The goal is not information. It’s skill. If you, as the client read Kathy Sierra’s books and don’t learn how to program in Java, she’s failed in her job. If you take on French or Italian or German and Michel Thomas doesn’t make you feel like a native speaker, he’s failed.

I started out with books that were 200 pages long. And sometimes the book needs that much depth and sometimes it doesn’t. The uniqueness course notes were a little over 90 pages (I think). And the Storytelling course notes were a lot less than that.

“We found people were going backward” says Kathy Sierra. "And they were getting confused. And that takes us to our second point. What causes the confusion? Let’s find out.

Factor 2: Not Identifying Confusion

The moment you bring up the term, “Bermuda Triangle”, many of us think of the word “disappear”.

There’s a reason for why we associate disappearance with the Bermuda Triangle. Back in 1964, writer Vincent Gaddis wrote in the pulp magazine Argosy of the boundaries of the Bermuda Triangle: three vertices, in Miami, Florida peninsula, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and in the mid-Atlantic island of Bermuda. And it was in this “triangle” that planes and ships seemed to mysteriously disappear.

Imagine you’re a captain out at sea in the mid-Atlantic

You probably don’t believe a word about the Bermuda Triangle. You know it’s a myth. There’s no basis for ships or planes disappearing. Yet you know that should your vessel disappear, this would be the place where the crazy stuff happens. You know you’re in crazy waters and you’re expecting the worst and preparing for the best.

Kathy Sierra recognised the Bermuda Triangle of Java Programming

She knew that to-be programmers were getting hopelessly lost at certain points in time. The reason why they lost their way was because they didn’t know they were in rough seas. As you go through a book, for instance, you move ahead progressively.

Then suddenly you find yourself struggling. And the way we work through the struggle is to try and barrel our way through the problem. But then the confusion persists and it’s at this point that we just give up.

When we conduct the Article Writing Course, there’s one point where everyone struggles

It’s called the First Fifty Words. The First Fifty Words are the opening portion of your article. We all know how hard it is to get started on an article, but even so, when you’re on a course, you expect that the guidance will keep you going.

You’ve read the notes; listened to the audio; gone over the assignment. And the assignment isn’t just a hit and run. The assignment stretches over a whole week. Surely, that’s enough to understand and implement the lesson.

But it’s not. It’s rough work

And as a teacher, I should have realized it earlier. But until 2015, a whole nine years after I first offered the Article Writing Course, I didn’t have the insight to spot the problem.

Only in 2015, did I allocate two whole weeks to the First Fifty Words. And only in 2016 did the First Fifty words section move earlier in the course, instead of later. It was the roughest, toughest patch of ocean and I didn’t tell clients it was difficult.

And when I mean “tell”, I mean I did tell them. But it’s not enough to tell. You have to make changes so that the client doesn’t give up.

A book is different from a course

A book doesn’t have a teacher hovering around your assignment. You’re out on your own and you don’t realise that everyone is struggling at Page 45. You think it’s just you.

And if you knew well in advance that Page 45-85 was going to be a Bermuda Triangle, you’d be more watchful, but you’ll so know you’d finally be out of the Triangle. And that would give you the impetus to battle through.

This point—this one point—it’s a real pain for me as a teacher

As a teacher, a trainer, a writer—it’s like a big slap in the face. I know there are points in every course where you run into difficulty. Well, sometimes you know and sometimes you realize it when you see clients struggling.

And yet, you’re not sure what to do. If you were to tell the client that they’re approaching a difficult patch, would it make things a lot harder? Or do you let them sail right into that stretch and get hammered?

And today I tend to agree with Kathy Sierra

I tell clients: this First Fifty Words stuff, it’s hard. It’s going to make you feel like you can never get to the other side. And yet it’s not you. You’re not the one that’s the problem.

The problem is the problem. Of course, the way to get through a difficult learning is to make sure that you break things down into smaller bits. Like my badminton coach did when I was playing badminton back in 2008.

I struggled with overhead shots

The moment the opponent would hit the shuttlecock high in the air, there was a good chance I’d lose the point. Either I’d find the shot to hard to take, or my return was so poor that the opponent would smash it back onto my side of the court. What I didn’t know was that many rookie players struggle with the overhead shot. My coach told me so and proceeded to break up the shot into four stages.

Stage 1: Sight the shuttle and get under it.

Stage 2: Raise left hand up and grip the racquet a bit harder.

Stage 3: Step forward just a little bit, as if to smash (this puts your opponent on the defence).

Stage 4: Smash or just do a tiny drop shot (the opponent would be too far back to get to the drop shot).

In my estimate, we did this routine about 800 times

Not all at once, of course. We’d do it for a while, go back to playing a bit and then it was back to the four stages. At first I was completely foxed with all the four stages, but he’d always get me to do one thing at a time. To make sure I wasn’t distracted by the entire routine, he’d get me to hit an imaginary shuttlecock, over and over again. What you’re noticing here is what Kathy Sierra seems to emphasize upon.

You have to tell the client that what they’re about to embark upon is difficult.

You have to break it up into smaller bits so that the client can manage the routine.

This step of identifying the confusion doesn’t make the learning easier. But the client knows the stage is temporary and typical. And that struggling is appropriate. And it’s not just you, but everyone who struggles.

Confusion is part of the learning process

Kathy Sierra’s book started out as a rank outsider, then moved to a million copies. Today it’s closing in on two million copies. In the last decade, she’s written just one other book—that’s it. That first book alone has helped her live the life she wants, with her kids and dog and from what I hear, horses.

Telling the client that they’re facing a potential Bermuda Triangle seems to be, um, so tiny.

It seems almost insignificant. And yet it’s what we all want, right? That’s the second point that Kathy Sierra figured in her journey to write a book that beat all those 16,000 books on Amazon. Sure we dealt with the Page Vaporiser and making things so simple that the client doesn’t have to remember. And that when things get difficult we need to tell them and use isolation to break down the steps.

But it doesn’t stop there.

There’s a third point and it’s called “the rest of their life”.

What does that mean?

(If you want to continue reading this article online, click here)

Factor 3: The Rest of Their Life

When I bought my fully electric car, the BMW i3, I was excited beyond words.

I'll tell you why.

The car I drove before the i3 was a Toyota Corolla. Dark blue; never given us a day of trouble in close to ten years, but yes a Corolla. A Corolla with a CD player, no fancy bits, and pieces and yes, not even a USB. Which is why I felt like Neil Armstrong going to the moon when I first got into the i3. All these whiz-bang buttons, automated parking, and yes, the USB—and Bluetooth.

Then my head went for a swim. Overwhelm filled my brain. And I had to read the manual.

This is precisely what Kathy Sierra has been railing against in the past 10 years or so

When you buy a camera, you get all these glossy representations of what the camera can do. Then you pick up that big juicy DSLR camera and you're stuck in auto mode.

So why won't you go from auto mode to taking pictures like all those great photographers.

It's because of the camera makers and car makers —and we the book writers and course creators. We pretend that the rest of our clients life doesn't exist. We somehow expect that a client will buy our book, and that the dishes will get washed. While the client reads our book, the plants will get watered and a perfect three-course meal will be set so we can pick at our food—while reading that book.

We create products and services for unreal people

Instead of seeing them as readers, we need to see our clients as users. When I buy a car, I need to use it, not read a manual. When I bought your amazing camera, I was already in auto mode, I didn't need a fancy DSLR auto mode. I need to be thought of as a user, not a buyer, not a client, not a reader. I need to be able to use what I just bought.

But no, we run into stupid manuals (and I can assure you the BMW manual is a real downer)

So then we turn to the Internet. To access the fun features of my car on an app, I had to find the VIN number. That's the Vehicle Identification Number (no I didn't know what it meant). So I did a search on Google and guess what? I ran into a bunch of forums.

And I don't know about you, but there are some real creeps on forums. A newbie like me was asking where to find the VIN number on the car. And these guys on the forums were mocking him. No one seemed to want to answer the question. They simply said, "it's everywhere".

Don't get me wrong: I love my i3

I found how to use it with an amazing video on Youtube (made by BMW themselves). But I wish they'd have treated me more like a user than a buyer. And this is what you've got to realize when you create a product or service; a book or course; and yes, even a presentation or webinar.

I should be able to use your advice right after I experience your product or service. I don't have time to go through yet another manual, because the garbage has to be taken out and dishes are waiting to be washed.

Kathy Sierra goes on and on about this user experience

So does Michel Thomas.

And this idea of "the responsibility of the learning" is important. It lies with the teacher, not the student. When they buy your book or do your course and they can't get to the end, it's because they have a life and you didn't consider that life. You just created something that suits your needs and ego. When you consider that the clients have a life beyond your product, you design it differently.

You stop writing your books like they were a manual

You start writing it as you were talking to a friend at a cafe.

Of all the three points, Kathy Sierra covers, this one, about the "rest of their lives" is the most conceptual. It seems almost like it needs more breathing space and growing space.

But there's a germ of an idea which is why it's here in this article. The idea that if your product isn't sort of self-explanatory, then the rest of my life takes over. And I, as the buyer of your product, don't get to enjoy it as much as I should or could.

Considering that users have a life makes you a more compassionate creator of products; courses; webinars and presentations. That you somehow need to write or create things in a way that bestow a superpower—just one superpower if needed—so that the client can use that power to get another power and another power. And this is despite life sneaking in.

Yes, this last point is a bit shaky. But it's something we need to think about, because even if we were to ignore this last point, the entire message is strong.

So let's review what we've just learned, shall we?


Factor 1: Get yourself a page vaporizer.

Can I remember what you just said? If I have to go back several times, your message was probably too complex. To sort out the problem of memory, you can use graphics, cartoons, captions, and yes, a summary like this one.

Factor 2: The second point is remarkably simple: Tell the clients when they’re headed to dangerous waters.

Clients feel like they’re the only ones who are not getting it when in fact everyone doesn’t get it. If something is difficult, tell them it’s difficult. Like for instance, this last point about “having a life”, yes, the third point. I get the point conceptually, but it’s hard to understand what to do. So I have to let you know that it’s a difficult point and that it’s not just you.

Factor 3: Of course we get to the last point: the one I had the most trouble with. The distinction is between a user and client.

Your client needs to be seen as a user so they can use that camera, use that software and not have to wade through a manual. They have a life and if your product or service is not easy, that life takes over.

Of all the three points above, there’s one point you can use right away: Telling your client when things are going to be difficult and then telling them when the all clear has been sounded. That is the simplest, most effective thing you can do today.


The responsibility for the learning lies with the teacher.

If you don’t understand something, it’s not your fault. It’s mine.

So said Michel Thomas.

As a parent, trainer, presenter, coach or writer, it’s easy to blame the student. Michel Thomas would disagree. I’d recommend you watch some of the videos on YouTube by Michel Thomas and also read Kathy Sierra’s non-Java book called “Badass: Making Users Awesome”.

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