Interview with Gina Trapani of Lifehacker

This installment of my interview series is extra special. When Gina Trapani from Lifehacker agreed to participate in my interview series I felt as if the goddess of all blogs agreed to come play at my house. If you spend any time in the blogosphere and have technology leanings, then she needs no introduction to you. If, like Gina Trapani of Lifehackerme you were a little slow in discovering who’s who on the ‘net let me just say that she runs the biggest and most popular blog on the Internet when it comes to technology and simply finding more efficient ways to use technology and gadgets to tackle life’s more geeky challenges.

1) What was your inspiration to start Lifehacker?

Back in 2004, a tech journalist named Danny O’Brien did a presentation called “Life Hacks: The Secrets of Overprolific Alpha Geeks.” His thesis was that “alpha geeks” – and he used that term in a complimentary way, meaning people on the cutting edge of technology – develop secret systems to filter information and get their stuff done.

The idea captured me. Mostly because I’m a computer voyeur – I love to see how people get their jobs done, to pick up little tips and ideas. Also because I loved the idea of re-engineering your workflow to make tech work for you in clever ways, making the interface between human beings and machines something unique and interesting.

2) As someone who is clearly successful as an independent programmer, technology writer, and more… what words of wisdom would you give to women today who want to break out on their own and be independent or self-employed?

For aspiring independent technologists, I’d say don’t put too much weight on degrees, certifications or any piece of paper that says you’re officially an expert. Most technologists, programmers especially, are self-taught because they have insatiable curiosity and are willing to tinker, try, fail, RTFM (Read the Frackin’ Manual) and try again, till it works. You want to learn a new programming language? Roll up your sleeves, find a tutorial online or a book, and get started. Women aren’t socialized or encouraged to “play” with computers for fun or curiosity, but every good technologist I know does just that.

For women in other fields, my simple piece of advice would be: Don’t think for one second that you can’t do it, because you can.

3) How did you first discover technology was a talent and passion for you ?

I was very young, about 9 years old, when my Dad bought our first home computer. It was 1984, and the machine was an IBM PCjr. I was a painfully shy and awkward kid, but I could make that computer do what I wanted, and it thrilled me. I wrote a lot of BASIC.

4) Lifehacker is one of the top blogs out there, period. For people tapping into the blogosphere now, you might seem like an overnight success, yet I know a lot of hard work over time went into your success. How did you break down the process to get from launch to huge success (and build a collaboration with other editors) and keep your motivation along the way?

Post by post, one post at a time. Getting Lifehacker to where it is now has been a long road – over 2 years of posting 6-12 times a day,thousands of words every day. It’s been a labor of love, the perfect combination of writing and software and helping people, and that’s what gets me going every single day. I think every person starting a blog right now should ask themselves right now why they want to do it – for love? money? ego? If the answer’s love, you’ve got the best motivation in the world. I don’t know who said that you should do the thing you can’t NOT do, but it’s the truth.

5) Have you experienced any challenges in your professional life because you are a lesbian?

Besides a couple of your garden-variety internet trolls who’ve called me names, to my knowledge I’ve never been discriminated against professionally for being queer. I’ve been out of the closet since high school, and living in New York City and working in technology put me at an advantage, since people tend to be more liberal in the city and in this industry.

I’ve made it a personal policy to come out to potential employers in the interview process to filter out any that might have a problem with it. None have. In fact, I think that in some cases, my sexuality has worked to my advantage. It differentiates me, removes any potential sexual dynamic with my mostly male colleagues. Also, I’m a tomboy by nature so it’s easy for me to fall into the role of being “one of the guys.” Without, you know, the testosterone silliness and pressure that guys put on themselves to one up each other.

6) What keeps you going on the tough days?

My partner, my friends and my family. I love computers, but it’s people who really matter.

7) What are your top three measures of success?

There are three questions I’d ask to determine whether or not something was a success. Was it good for you? Was it good for me? Was it good for the world?

8) What is the wildest success story you can imagine for Lifehacker’s and your future?

Great question! This isn’t very wild, but it’s still my goal every single day, personally and through Lifehacker: to give people information they didn’t have before that makes their life easier. My wildest Lifehacker fantasy is showing someone how to save enough time working more efficiently so that they can spend more time playing.

9) What are some of the secrets that have worked (and those you discovered didn’t work so well) as you have balanced the demands of running a successful independent business and blog with personal pursuits over the long haul?

I have much to learn in this area. You’re supposed to work to live, not live to work. But it’s still easy for me to get sucked into work and forget to eat, sleep or even go outside. So being mindful of taking care of my body – eating well, getting the right amount of sleep, exercising, going out into the sunshine and breathing fresh air – all these things help you recharge and readjust priorities. I try to have one computer-free day a week – usually Saturday – to avoid screen burnout. Hobbies that don’t involve electricity – like gardening or bodyboarding – are great ways to switch gears and get into a totally different mindset. Travelling, getting out to talk to people also freelancing, or just taking a quick weekend trip can really help you get perspective, too.

When you’re a freelancer, especially a new freelancer, it’s scary. You adopt a hungry, scarcity mindset, worrying about from where and when your next check will come. Everyone does; I did (and sometimes still do!). But one thing I’ve learned doesn’t work is taking on a client or job that you hate just because you’re afraid there won’t be anything else. If you’ve got no love for what you’re doing, if your motivation is fear, it’ll come out in the work, and you’ll just get more of the same. Saying ‘no’ is ok. In fact, sometimes it’s required. Do what you love and more opportunities will come your way.

10) What brings you the most joy personally or professionally?

Helping others. If I weren’t a tech writer I’d be a teacher, or a nurse, or a financial advisor, or a therapist. The best thing that can happen to me is to receive an email that says, “Hey this thing you wrote really helped me! I had no idea you could do that.” What a feeling that is.

About Gina:

Gina Trapani (http://ginatrapani.org) is an independent web programmer and technology writer based in San Diego, California. Relocated from Brooklyn, New York, Gina is the founding editor of Lifehacker.com, a weblog on software and productivity, and the author of Lifehacker: 88 Tech Tricks to Turbocharge Your Day (http://lifehackerbook.com.)

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