The Read Aloud Cloud: An Interview With Forrest Brazeal On His New Book

It's Christmas time and you've been wracking your brain trying to find the perfect gift that will teach your loved ones about the cloud in a simple and entertaining way. What to do?

Fortunately for you, Santa has a new elf this year—Forrest Brazeal—who is part AWS Serverless Hero, part skilled cartoonist, and part cloud guru.

Yes, it's a cartoon book about the cloud!

The Read Aloud Cloud

No, I didn't think it could be done either, but Forrest pulled it off with a twinkle in his eyes and little round belly that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.

One of the many five-star reviews:

The Read Aloud Cloud is a delightful book. It's 165 pages of hand-drawn cartoons, entertaining verse, and hard-won wisdom.
It truly is a load of fun to flip through. I read it to my kids (8 & 6), and they love it. I'll share it with my parents so they can finally understand what I do. I learned a ton about the history of computing and of course all the ways that we as humans stumble through making our computers do what we want.

Here's my email interview with Forrest Brazeal on The Read Aloud Cloud: An Innocent's Guide to the Tech Inside. Enjoy. And happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Please tell us who you are and what you've brought to show and tell today?

I’ve spent the last decade as a cloud architect, writer, and cartoonist, and in 2018 became an AWS Serverless Hero. Presently I work at A Cloud Guru, a cloud education startup known for teaching more than two million people about the cloud through fresh, often unorthodox methods. My first book, “The Read Aloud Cloud”, is now available from Wiley and in bookstores everywhere.

After spending a good chunk of your life writing this book, please summarize it in just a few sentences so people will know why it should matter to them.

“The Read Aloud Cloud” is a friendly introduction to cloud computing for just about anyone - but particularly your non-technical friends and family. More than 160 pages of illustrated explainers will hopefully help you pull off what I struggled to do for years: explaining your job to people who have no frame of reference for what “the cloud” even is.

I tried to be clever and make these questions rhyme. I failed most of the time. I couldn’t do it. How many times did you blew it?

I regretted committing to doing the book in rhyme almost as soon as the contract was signed. It was impossibly hard, and I cheated wherever I could. For example, the chapter on reliability uses the thematic excuse of failing systems to disintegrate into perverse compromises of rhyme and meter. (Fans of doggerel poetry may also recognize this chapter as homage to Ogden Nash.)

That said, it still wasn’t as hard as rhyming 168 AWS services.

You’re infamous for your webcomics. The cartoons in this book really are fabulous. Which idea was the most difficult to draw? I’m guessing the internet section.

Thank you for saying so! This book is a direct spiritual descendant of the “FaaS and Furious” webcomic. I struggled the most with the prehistoric computers in the “Evolution of the Cloud” chapter because I really wanted them to look recognizable, and mainframes in particular are hard to caricature! The forgiving reader will hopefully spot a Control Data 6500, an IBM 401, some sort of DEC thing that could be a PDP-10, and several classic PCs including the Apple 2. The wooly mammoth on page 20 is holding my first computer, a 1992 Apple Powerbook, between his tusks.

You said the cloud is as “filled with wonder and possibility as any field of endeavor mankind has yet created.” Just how drunk were you when you wrote that?

I actually believe this! (Blows into breathalyzer) The cloud, broadly speaking (and including higher-level SaaS offerings) gives anyone the ability to start and scale an online business without any upfront IT costs. We’ve seen the power of that combination with basically every startup of the last decade. Remember, Instagram was serving 30 million users on AWS with a total of 13 employees when Facebook bought them. (And then moved them immediately out of the cloud and into Facebook’s data centers. Yeah yeah, reality is a buzzkill.)

You said after reading The Read Aloud Cloud from your non-techie friends and families were still confused about the cloud, but they were at least asking the right questions. What questions should people be asking about the cloud?

The cloud is challenging to reason about because it touches everyone’s life, and yet it’s so abstract that the layperson doesn’t have much of a frame of reference for comprehending it. At least we have some intuition about why a doctor or a lawyer exists, even if we don’t understand the nuances of their work. But what does a “cloud architect” build, and why does it matter? That’s what I’d like to hear people asking, instead of the question asked by “Your Uncle Mike” at the beginning of Chapter 1. (“Is my data, like, up in the sky, or what?”)

The Read Aloud Cloud provides examples of jobs in the cloud (security engineer, architect, developer, etc) right along with the technical subjects, and several people have told me that really helps make the cloud feel more “real” to them.

Your subtitle says it's “An Innocent's Guide to the Tech Inside.” Do you think anyone is really innocent enough to read this book?

If I could do this all over again, I would come up with a different title and subtitle, because I think it gives the impression that this is just a book for kids. I mean, the book is appropriate for children (well, except for the chapter about smart devices, that’s pretty scary), and I definitely hope that weird children will find it on their parents’ desks and become lifelong nerds like me. But really it’s a book for adult humans to enjoy, chuckle over, share, and hopefully learn from.

The cloud is always changing. What do you think are the most significant changes in the cloud over the last couple of years?

Two things, flip sides of the same coin:

  1. Azure has become a legitimate option as a preferred cloud provider, not just a bargaining chip at AWS contract negotiating time.
  2. AWS is finally acknowledging that other cloud workloads are valid, and offering high-level tooling to help. They’ll have to, in order to keep their “primary” status in many enterprises.

S3: the best cloud service of all time or the greatest cloud service of all time?

The greatest - ie, the one with the biggest impact for the largest number of people. Only you can answer for yourself what the “best” cloud service is. (It’s also S3.)

You say “The cloud is meant for you to build on.” I thought it was meant for cloud providers to make a ton of money. What do you mean?

Who said those two are mutually exclusive? As long as cloud systems generate more value than they cost, we all win.

As an author, do you regret not self-publishing this book? It doesn’t seem publishers do much for you. I mean, they completely missed that the backhoe on page 93 is technically an excavator.

I went into the traditional publishing process with open eyes, and my experience so far confirms pretty much what I was told:

  • Expect nothing from the publisher in terms of marketing support. In fact, a good nonfiction book proposal is going to spend most of its length explaining to the publisher how you will sell the book for them through your connections and credibility - not the other way around. It's all on you.
  • Don't do it for the money. You're going to make 10-15% of a pretty small pie. If you want to write info products as a moneymaking side gig and you have any following at all, self-publish!

So why go with a traditional publisher? Here was my reasoning:

  • The publisher probably will get your physical book in the hands of a larger absolute number of people, so if you care about maximizing readership and you don't have a stupid-large online following, their network effects through bookstores, library sales, etc will help you sell more copies than you could on your own (though again, you'll see very little of the money!)
  • There's still some social proof involved with traditional publishing, and it's a nice thing to do once - just so you know in the back of your head that you “can".
  • In my case, and most importantly, I was producing a highly graphical book that really doesn't work except in print and in full color, and I needed the resources of a traditional publishing house to make it not look terrible.

The Wiley experience was overall positive for me and I don't regret it, but if I ever produce a text-based info product in future it's hard to look away from the ROI advantages of self-publishing.

You say all software won’t eventually run in the cloud. Why not?

The book covers this a bit, but in brief (and in prose): for greenfield use-cases, there will always be low-latency or intermittent-connectivity applications that need to function client-side, even if they ultimately ship some data to the cloud. For legacy apps, well, all bets are off. I know of a 40-year-old insurance app that will never move off its mainframe because the hardware handles floating point operations differently than modern processors, and nobody knows if they could trust the code anywhere else. In that case, literally speaking, a cloud migration just wouldn’t add up.

Quick Fire Round. What's Your Quick Reaction To:

Lift and shift?

A great start, a dangerous stopping place.

Multi-cloud inevitability?

True at the organizational level, fantasy at the workload level.

Serverless still having servers?How do you pronounce Azure?

Azure told.

Where can we catch The Great Cloudini’s next act?

When he leaves a few GPU instances running and - poof! - makes your budget disappear.

AWS Lambda as a platform?

Opens up more use cases for serverless, and more wallets for AWS.

Will Cloud Comic be one of the future jobs in the cloud?

The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed, he said, pocketing his $2.50 royalty check from Wiley.

Wait for it!