As with all my bloggerviews, I try to talk to interesting people. Up until now, they were from IBM, but I ventured outside for this one as it goes back to my roots. Although we grew up in towns not very far apart in Central Florida, Gina and I met at Core International in Boca Raton, which Gina describes below. We were both young and worked together with some other talented folks who have gone on to many tech companies.
She has gone on to a fantastic career at Ziff Davis, IDG, ABC, MSNBC, CNBC, SF Chronicle, and was the youngest Female CEO of a tech company. Just last week, she released iWoz, the story of Steve Wozniak, inventor of the Apple Computer which she discusses. In one week, it shot to number 20 on Amazon and is still climbing. I recommend that you buy a copy and enjoy both the story and her talent. For more information and updates, check out her blog at http://ginasmith.typepad.com.
Gina was gracious enough to grant this interview and while we covered the questions, we caught up on life since CORE, friends and family and life’s experiences. She has always been down to earth and I’m proud to call her a friend.
Describe your life travel from a hometown girl from Ormond Beach to be a famous Good Morning America (GMA) personality, CEO, and Author?
I grew up in Ormond Beach, FL. Not far from where you grew up in Winter Park, John! I used to sit on the beach as a kid and squint, pretending the hotels were high-rises and that the sand was snow. My dream was to grow up and live in work in a major city like New York, Boston or San Francisco. I wanted out and up. And I’ve been lucky enough to live in all of those places!
How did it happen? Long story, but here’s the gist. Remember how I was working with you at CORE International as a tech writer making 14K a year? Thanks a lot for that great salary. Anyway, one day I wrote a press release and the tech journal PC Week ran almost without a change. I wrote a letter to the editor (on peacock blue paper — I was 23!) and enclosed copies of my press release and the article, saying they should hire me if they wanted a journalist who understood technology. To my total surprise they did hire me about a year later, and I covered the Microsoft beat at PC Week in Boston from 8/8/88 to 1993. (author – here is the actual story from my clipbook)
After that, I just worked non-stop. I covered hardware for PC/Computing in San Francisco, started a magazine for IDG called E2 (which in turn started the tradeshow E3), did a radio show with Leo Laporte (On Computers), wrote a column called Inside Silicon Valley for the SF Chronicle for about a dozen years, a bunch of things. Constant working! Then, one day, a producer asked me to come on a show then called Macneil Lehrer to debate Steve Ballmer about Windows 95, which was about to come out. I argued that Microsoft was not pointing out to people that their 1 MB PCs were not going to be able to run it, that they would need new apps and so on. A talent scout at ABC in New York saw it, and I ended up on Good Morning America, World News Tonight with Peter Jennings and Nightline for the next five years.
When did you know you had a talent for being in the media?
When the talent scout called me! : ) But I’ve always been a ham. And after talking tech to live callers on the radio about technology for so many years, I felt very comfortable with the subject when people like Diane Sawyer and Peter Jennings were throwing me softballs.
What were some of your experiences on GMA?
In the green room, where the celebrities wait before going on, I met such an amazing variety of people. I was able to ask the OJ Simpson trial jurors what they were thinking when they acquitted him. I met Milton Berle and told him a joke he laughed at. (Two atoms are walking down the street. One says, uh, oh, I think I lost an electron. The other says, are you sure? The first, says, I’m positive!) I was privileged to meet Harry Belafonte, whom my mother followed around for a bit as kind of a groupie in the 50s. And he remembered her! I met Bill Clinton, who was so impressive, so articulate and so much imposing and better looking in person than he was on TV. For Nightline, I had the amazing experience of working with Ted Koppel and his incredible producers. What they were doing over there was true broadcasting art. The night that show went off the air, something in journalism died.
What technology stories did you break that you felt were important?
I broke the first story on Windows 3.0 at PC Week, and also the first story about PM Lite (Presentation Manager Lite), which IBM was secretly producing to compete with Windows after Microsoft switched horses on them and started developing its apps for Windows instead of OS/2. I broke the first story about Pixar for the Chronicle. At ABC, I broke the story about those kids who committed suicide in Southern California, thinking they were going to reunite on a spaceship. I was the first to find the website they left. I broke lots of stories. It kind of became my specialty, to get THE story first.
Talk about your time as the youngest female CEO in the Tech industry.
It was tough. I was 33. Larry Ellison, whom I’d interviewed a few times, called me out of the blue and asked me to meet. When I arrived, he offered me the job as co-founder, CEO and president of his second business to build network computers (NCs). I said, “Why me?” He said of all the coverage he’d read on his network computer idea, I was the only one who seemed to understand it. He was right about that – I thought thin clients were the future and I still believe that. Anyway, he gave me a fat check and I restarted the company and renamed it NIC (New Internet Computer Company). We sold lots of computers and broke even – we never lost money – but though the idea was prescient, we were way too early. Lots of fellow journalists took potshots at me – assuming I was either a bitch or involved with Larry – but that is how it goes with women in power, I think. My husband was really hurt about it, but whatever. I used to tell people: If I were involved with (the then richest) man in the world, why would I be putting in 16 hour days? Ha! But in the end, it was the experience of a lifetime. I learned Mandarin (well, business Mandarin), traveled extensively in Asia for contract negotiations, managed a team of 70 people. And these were the brightest and nicest people you’ll ever meet. The NIC team was like no other. But when NIC went down at the dot com crash, an era was over me. That’s when I had my baby – Eric is now 3 – and I started once again doing both what I used to do and what I think I was born to do…. Write.
I finished The Genomics Age – a book that explains DNA sciences in plain English for business people – before Eric was one. That was my fourth book. My fifth is out now! It is the co-written autobiography of Steve Wozniak, iWOZ. (WW Norton 2006)
Where do you get your ideas for books?
When I am interested in something and I go to a bookstore and there are few or no books on the subject, I pitch a book. That’s how The Genomics Age happened. It is selling all over the world now.
You just completed the book iWoz. Talk about that book and Woz himself?
Steve Wozniak is unquestionably among the greatest living inventors today. He invented the personal computer, which so few people know. He was the first to combine a keyboard and screen with a computer – that’s the modern paradigm. To write the book, I met with him 54 times and interviewed him. Then, I took printed transcripts and used his words – he is a hilarious and plain-spoken guy – and wrote the book in his voice exactly. Some of his stories are just priceless. Especially the ones involving the early days with him and Steve Jobs building Blue Boxes, devices to make free phone calls. Also, the book talks about why Steve believes IBM overtook Apple with its IBM PC. Steve thinks the fault lied with the faulty Apple III, which was designed by committee.
What’s your next project?
You can see my series, Tech Tour, right now at www.techtour.msnbc.com. We are going city to city show-casing inventions. My next book is tentatively titled Five Threats to Global Civilization, but I am taking a bit of a break before starting that. I am also doing lots of work with Link TV, a satellite channel, on American Ramadan and other Arab-related issues. Most people don’t know this, but I am a major ethnic mix. My mother was half Muslim, my father was half Jewish and I was raised Catholic. So covering Islamic issues and other topics outside of science and technology is a real treat for me.