Newsletter of the Association of Library and Information Science Students (ALISS)




 title of the newsletter: The Silverfish


February 2004

Vol VIII Issue II

ischool logo
Information School
University of Washington
About the Silverfish
Editorial Board
Submission Guidelines
Current Issue


Next article >>  

Information Is to be Partied With: A Profile of Bob Boiko

By Carmine Rau, MLIS Day
This interview has been viciously edited for length.

Who are you?
I’m a lecturer here at the iSchool as well as the Associate Chair of the MSIM program.

Where do you come from?
I was born and raised in New York City and that really set me as a person, although I have so little interest in living there, you can barely get me to go there really. I’ve lived lots of places between, I’ve lived in Colorado, Utah, I’ve lived for times in the South, California, I’ve lived abroad.

When you say “set you as a person”, how do you mean?
Well, growing up in NYC… it’s hard to get out of New York with out a lot of chutzpah, without a lot of cutting through the BS and saying what’s on your mind.

How do you like Seattle?
I think Seattle is a great place – there is no other place I’ve lived that I’d rather live with except the possibility of Chile or maybe northern California somewhere. It suits my temperament and it suits my genes. It suits me that it’s still a pretty wild place – you don’t have to go very far and you’re in the woods, as opposed to being in New York where the wilderness seems like it’s about five million miles away. It [Seattle] has the right lack of established traditions, time honored, long standing ways of doing things. I think the further east you go the more you find that and that’s not really an environment that’s conducive to the way I am.

What’s your educational and work background?
I was a science kid, and I was really sort of tracked. When I was growing up…if you were capable of doing that sort of thing, why wouldn’t you? In the sixties, even though it was hippies and lovefest, that’s not really what was going on in the culture. The culture was still people raising their kids to believe in the things they believed in, and they believed a lot in technology and science as the answer to all the questions. I don’t think I’m a scientist by nature, but I do think I’m an engineer by nature. Tinkering and building things – I always had a workshop when I was a kid.

I studied physics and oceanography in college and that’s what I majored in. I got to my last two quarters of college and realized I was about to graduate and had really never taken a single humanities class that wasn’t at the 100 level. And I thought that was not a good thing so I took a minor in Communication, in human, social communication and that sort of thing. I realized that there was a whole huge world out there that I had barely even thought about. Instead of going on to graduate school in science I went on to graduate school in Communication from the University of Utah. While I like the humanities side I’m always drawn back to the science side. I studied jointly communication, psychology and sociology and philosophy, but I also studied neuroscience. The brain is something that’s always really fascinated me.

Just when I was finishing my master’s thesis a friend of mine told me about a job working on a Russian fish boat in the Bering Sea and it just sounded too cool so I applied and took that job. From Utah I went into the Bering Sea for the winter. Gorbechev was still new in the job, then, back when Russia was still closed and part of the communist bloc. It was an amazing opportunity just to be in the Soviet Union, but at the same time my job was to count fish. I would count them and see what species they were and make sure they didn’t take any fish that the Americans wanted. The reason I mention that, is I did it as a lark. It was just for a few months and then I had a place in Berkley where I was going and I was going to finish my degree and go on for my Ph.D. Unfortunately for my education and fortunately for me, I met my wife out on this boat, who was also an American, she was a Russian translator out there. Instead, I came back to Seattle where she lived, thinking well ok, I’ll get back to graduate school one of these days. That was about 15 years ago and instead I went and did a whole other raft of things which took me in many other directions before I landed here at the iSchool.

What brought you here to the iSchool and how long have you been here?
I came in September of 2000. Before that, well, I came here to Seattle and finished up my Master’s degree through the University of Utah in distance mode. So I got a job as a technical writer because I was half in science and half in humanities and could write and on the other hand understand what these guys were talking about. I had always done computer programming. Every scientist did computer programming and I just sort of kept up with it.

I got into the job market right at the moment when print documentation was going away and online documentation was coming in and it was a time when nobody had any idea what to do because we weren’t making books anymore but on the other hand there was absolutely no history behind making information show up on a computer screen. All the things that you do on a computer screen now, when I started they weren’t there. It was just a moment in time when all the possibilities of this huge new world were just laying out there. You could see that right now absolutely nothing is on the computer, no information, it’s all just in the computer programs and data and scientific applications, but before long, nothing is not going to be on the computer. The computer is a completely different world than printed information. It’s there to be figured out, there to be explored and it’s there to be partied with and no one is telling you how to do it. No one has any idea [on] how to do it. You can make it up and try things and whatever you make up is as good as what anyone else is making up so have at it!

The technical writing I was doing was at Microsoft because they were the major hirer in this area for that kind of stuff and they also had a steady stream of projects. Probably one of the more interesting projects from the standpoint of the iSchool was when they first started to digitize their library. They got the idea pretty early on that they wanted to turn this into a digital library. One of the first things they did was try to expose their interface to the library to all the people in the organization so they created a series of applications that were the digital catalog. [They did this] before a lot of that had happened in the rest of the world. I was involved in a number of those projects, not from the standpoint of making the applications but from the standpoint of making it an information thing as opposed to a computer program thing. It was an amazing opportunity. Everything I did, it was sort of the first time it had ever been done, right on the edge. It was intoxicating. I did it more and more and there was more and more need for me to do it. At first, I was working at another company as a technical writer, but…this electronic information started happening and it was just getting really, really interesting. It was getting wild and there was all sorts of creative ways of expressing yourself in that medium that no one was going to tell you not to do it that way. I sort of rode on that and it kept escalating.

Then I broke away from them and started my own company. I merged with another company and it got bigger and bigger. Eventually, I was at the top of this 80-100 person company building giant web-based information systems. That takes us up to three years ago when I came here. What we were doing was riding the curve. But then the Internet bubble thing came along and we were in a position where we could, like, take over the world like everybody else could take over the world and we were getting bigger and bigger and growing exponentially. Zeros kept getting added to the numbers, so we were going to have this strategy. We were going to be this leading company and we had all these huge clients. Then the axe fell and we went broke in literally two months. Me and all of Seattle.

All along the way for me the most interesting thing was the whole idea of electronic information. I am interested in what that means to put lots and lots of information at people’s disposal through the new technologies we have and what that changes about stuff and what stays the same. How do you organize that whole thing? How do you get a bunch of people together to make that happen? In a way, when that company went down, there was a big relief because I could kind of get back to what it was I was really interested in instead of what the company needed me to do. So I wrote a book, The Content Management Bible, on that subject. It’s the same idea that the bigger it gets the more you got to figure out how to do it, do it well and how to keep it all organized. We were doing that for years and I had all this stuff inside of me about how to make that happen. When the company went away it was the perfect opportunity to stop, think about it and write it all down.

Now the last, maybe year or so of my company, I was actually working with the iSchool, when Mike [Eisenberg] was hired [at] the iSchool. I heard it through a bunch of people that I knew…that there was this whole new department…that’s all about information. It was cool [because] the sort of things that I was trying to do in my company and the kind of things Mike was trying to do in the iSchool were very similar. So, to make a long story short, when my company went away Mike invited me to come on the faculty because I had enough experience with the stuff that I could teach classes like the 540s. Also I had a lot of experience managing, because I had run this company, to where I could help with things like the MSIM program where people have to do management and technology. As well as I had my own area of focus which is content management. So that was enough intellectual fodder to help out at the iSchool and to be able to run a number of courses here and so that is what happened, about three years ago. Out of the ashes of my company I created the largest company I think I’ll ever own from now on, which is two people – me and my wife. I do consulting through that company. In addition to being a faculty here, I also have the consulting business that I try to keep under control.

So what does being co-chair of the MSIM program involve?
Two things, basically. One is dealing with things that come up in the program, [i.e.] someone has petitioned to have a class waved or someone has a particular problem and there are all these forms that need some sort of signature. The part about it that attracts me the most is that we’re in the process of creating and launching a day MSIM program. Right now they come in the evening, Friday nights and Saturday mornings, but in a year and a half we’re going to launch one where they come just like MLIS students, full time in a day-based program. There’s a lot of thinking to be done behind that. There’s creating a curriculum to be done behind that, there’s figuring out how to get people into the program, how to market the program and bring in applicants. Figuring out how many faculty we need. That’s the piece of the job that I’m helping with right now that’s most rewarding. Figuring out who needs to know about information and what do they need to know and what’s going to make them successful in the rest of their lives concerning information.

What programs do you teach for?
I’ll teach a course for Informatics for the first time next year. The certificate program [in Content Management] is interesting. It’s nice to have sort of a small curriculum that’s not a Masters. It draws equally from people outside the university and people who are in the degree program. In my courses, I’ve had people from every degree program in the same room with each other along with people from no degree program who are just interested in the subject from the outside. For me that’s kind of what I think it’s [all] about, people who are looking to master a particular subject. It doesn’t matter so much what degree program they are in; it matters that they are ready to confront that subject. They’re there because they all have a common interest in information.

Do you have a favorite part of your job?
What I like the best is talking to students that have to know something. They don’t have to know it because they are studying for a test or something. They have to know it because until they figure it out they’re bugged. It happens rarely, unfortunately, that someone comes to you and says, “You know, I need to know this because I need to. And maybe you can help me figure out.” Of all the things I do that is the most interesting to me.

What do you do outside the iSchool?
I volunteer for something called the Technology Bill of Rights, ATJ TBoR (Action to Justice Technology Bill of Rights). I sit on a couple committees. One of the committees tried to figure out what the legal system would look like if there were no barriers, no technological barriers to it. We put together a report that is about to be published in the Washington Law Review, some ideas about what our justice system would look like if you were to use technology to level the playing field for all people who are involved. I’m also on another committee that’s trying to figure out if and when this bill of rights is adopted by the supreme court of Washington…in fact, it looks like that’s what’s going to happen, that the supreme court will adopt this thing as a Rule of Law, which is not quite as much as if you were to put it through the legislature. It has less teeth than an actual law. But at any rate, the committee I’m on is trying to figure out if that happens, then what? What will all these people do? What will law schools have to do differently? What will the courts have to do differently? What will public defenders, public legal services and librarians have to do differently? They are a population that is very involved in providing access to the legal system.

What do you do for fun?
I have two little boys at home and they provide lots of fun things. We like to go skiing and snowboarding. I’ve always been an avid outdoor kind of person, camping, hiking, climbing and stuff like that. We travel a tremendous amount. I travel for work a lot but we also like to travel as a family. We play lots of sports. My fun stuff is really family fun stuff.

Any big dream you’d like to accomplish in this lifetime?
As you can guess from the life story I gave you, you can guess that I’d still like to go back to school and get my Ph. D. It’s still there.

In what?
In a field called Cognitive Neuroscience. That’s probably as closest to word definition as I can give you. It’s really thinking about the meeting point between social systems and biological systems. How is it that we’re just these bags of cells but at the same time we’re so not that.

The question on many minds is: What is the story behind the rat tail?
Well, there’s not a whole lot of story behind the tail, all my hair used to be this length at one time. It happened maybe 20 years ago or more… and it just sort of hung around. No mystery unfortunately, no grand story. I probably could [pretend] though, like it’s a secret society that I’m a member of… it’s actually the Jedi…Actually I predate the Jedi, they stole it from me.