“When I Started the Book Project, Ulysses Became My Lifesaver”

As a consultant and trainer, Barbara Hoisl helps tech companies to turn innovations for the Internet of Things into successful products. The challenge for these companies isn’t merely technical; they also need to embrace the mindset, strategies and business models from the software world that greatly differ from their own industry. Barbara’s book “Produkte digital-first denken” (“Inventing products digital-first”) is based on her work with decision-makers on this subject. Writing it did not turn out to be as easy as she had hoped.

Please tell us something about you and what you are working on.

Barbara Hoisl
Barbara Hoisl

I’m a computer scientist by training and have been working in the software industry since the early nineties.

In 2010, I started my own consulting business, focused on strategy and business planning for software and Internet companies.

Since 2014, I’ve been doing more and more consulting in the Internet of Things (IoT) space. For example, I’m working with vendors of high-tech industrial products who are developing smart, connected products for the Internet of Things. I help them leverage the mindset, strategies and business models from the software and Internet industry to turn their innovations into successful products.

Your nonfiction book “Produkte digital-first denken” (“Inventing products digital-first”) will soon be published. What is the book about and who should read it?

Digital Transformation is a hot topic these days, and the discourse in Europe is often focused on digitalization of processes: how organizations can use digital technologies and social media to move faster, collaborate and communicate better, and provide better customer experiences.

However, there is another aspect of digital transformation that presents an even bigger challenge for companies: digital technology and software can be used to transform traditional physical products into smart, connected products for the Internet of Things (IoT). This happens in all industries; examples include smart, connected tennis rackets that report metrics to a smartphone app, home automation devices like smart thermostats or connected washing machines, connected cars, or the next generation of equipment for smart and highly flexible factories (“Industry 4.0”).

“Innovating on the technical side is not enough. Success with software-intensive products also requires a different mindset.”

These new products are software-intensive: software is “in” the product, and cloud-based services or apps extend and complement the product. Innovators in that space need to fully leverage the possibilities opened up by software. Software capabilities need to be the starting point for product concepts, not an afterthought or a clumsy bolt-on. That’s what I mean by ”inventing products digital-first.”

As the customer value of digital-first products is determined to a large degree by software, the markets for these new products behave very much like software markets. To succeed in those new markets, “every business needs to become a software business.” This is not purely a technical challenge or a matter of building up software development competence. Companies also need to understand the digital mindset, they must be able to use strategies that are common in the software and Internet industry, and they need to master the art of software-based business models.

They need this to compete successfully against Internet-savvy companies that also enter the IoT space, for example, Google with their home automation products and self-driving car initiative.

My book provides executives and product people from the world of physical products with an introduction to the digital mindset, digital strategies, and software-enabled business models. Based on that, they can invent their products “digital-first” and come up with their own strategies and business models to turn their technical innovations into successful products.

The book is your first one. How did you come up with the idea to write it?

Cover Produkte digital-first denken” (“Inventing products digital-first”)
It was based on experiences in consulting projects, working with product and component vendors that innovate in the IoT space.

I’m based in Stuttgart, Germany, and this area has a strong and thriving industrial base: we have many innovative high-tech companies that are global market leaders, from factory automation to automotive.

For these companies, it is a natural next step to develop innovative IoT products. However, as I mentioned above, innovating on the technical side is not enough. Success with software-intensive products also requires a different mindset and opens up new possibilities for product strategies and business models.

I realized that a lot of things I take for granted as a software person were quite foreign to many of my counterparts in these companies. The mindset and business knowledge required to succeed as an industrial or manufacturing company are very different from what you need to succeed in software and Internet markets.

However, to be successful in the Internet of Things (IoT) you need to master both: you need to be good at developing and manufacturing “things” and you need to master the “Internet” side of it. For example, you need cost-efficient manufacturing at scale, but you also need the ability to continuously evolve the software part of your IoT product, to make software integrations with partners work, or to use elements of software pricing models.

“The Internet of Things opens up a new game, one where innovative vendors of “things” also have the opportunity to grow profitable, large new businesses.”

This is a challenge, but also presents a huge opportunity for companies that approach IoT from the “things” angle. They may be challenged to master the software and Internet aspects of IoT, but they bring the required expertise in the development and manufacturing of physical products. The latter is something that most Internet-savvy companies are struggling with.

It is undeniable that US vendors dominate today’s software and Internet industry. However, the Internet of Things opens up a new game, one where innovative vendors of “things” also have the opportunity to grow profitable, large new businesses. This is a new opportunity for Europe and especially for the region I live in, and I want to help make this happen!

How did you find out about Ulysses?

It was through productivity blogs, for example from Shawn Blanc The Best Writing App for Mac, iPad, and iPhone — The Sweet Setup. I had been browsing around, looking for authoring tools, have tried others but didn’t like them. Then I came across Ulysses and I was hooked.

I first used Ulysses for writing smaller texts, and then, when I started the book project, Ulysses became my lifesaver.

Please describe how you have used Ulysses to write the book.

My book is available as a hardcover as well as in several e-book formats. For the e-book, the publisher not only sells the entire e-book but also offers individual chapters for sale through his website.

Therefore, I had to write each chapter so it could stand on its own. This made it easier for me to write because the task of writing a standalone chapter felt less daunting than writing “a book.”

This also drove how I set up the book in Ulysses. As the screenshot shows, I heavily used nested groups in Ulysses, and I created one group for each chapter. I also used the group icons to visually indicate the number of each chapter. This made it easier for me to keep the overall structure of the book in mind.

Each chapter starts with a new headline level 1, and for each subchapter (headline level 2) I created a new sheet. This helped me visualize the outline structure in Ulysses to some extent. When starting on a new chapter, I usually created sheets with headlines for all planned sub-chapters. This way, it was easier for me to write in a structured way and add the right content to the right sub-chapter.

The publisher required my manuscript to be delivered in Microsoft Word format, one document per chapter. But I didn’t have to use a specific Microsoft Word template. Only two things were relevant for book production. First, the Word document had to use proper headline structure with numbering (chapter 1, 1.1, 1.2, …). This was easily achieved by exporting a Ulysses chapter into Word and then switching on outline numbering in the Word document. This required just one click within the exported Word document.

 

Hoisl’s Ulysses library
Barbara’s Ulysses library

The second requirement was to use a publisher-specific markup to indicate educational elements in the manuscript. For example, to mark up the beginning and the end of a chapter’s summary, or the beginning and end of an example. As the screenshot shows, I used highlighting in Ulysses to indicate that type of markup for the publisher. When exporting from Ulysses to Word, I used an export style that preserved these highlights, for example, Troy worked fine.

Tables required extra treatment: I created them in a separate document while writing my text in Ulysses and later inserted the tables into the generated Word document.

Regarding pictures and figures, the publisher wanted them as separate files anyhow, so I did not drop them into Ulysses.

My high-level process worked like that: For each chapter, I would write the text for a chapter in Ulysses, while keeping tables and figures in separate files. When a chapter draft was finished, I exported the text from Ulysses into Word. Within the Word file, I switched outline numbering on and inserted the tables and placeholders for pictures/figures as required by the publisher. Then, I’d hand over the Word file to my editor who is not a Ulysses user. From that stage on, I collaborated with my editor based on the Word document. Finally, the entire manuscript would be submitted to the publisher as a collection of Word files plus the figures/ pictures in separate files.

After the submittal, I re-imported the final version of the manuscript from Word into Ulysses again. That was easy and worked really well. The tables and picture placeholders look weird in Ulysses, but the rest looks fine and I now have my complete, final manuscript in Ulysses as searchable text. That is invaluable!

Speaking of search: Every text that I deliberately write, I keep in Ulysses, even very short ones. This includes for example abstracts for conference submissions or marketing copy. If possible, I write the text in Ulysses from the beginning. But even when I have to write it in another tool initially, e.g., because I’m filling out a form, I then later drop the text into Ulysses. That gives me the ability to search across all texts that I produced since I started using Ulysses about two years ago. This way, I can re-use text blocks, expand abstracts into articles, etc.

Overall, Ulysses made it much easier for me to write that book – I really believe that the book would not exist, at least not in that quality, without Ulysses.

Some Ulysses features that I found particularly helpful:

  • the distraction-free writing environment with markdown formatting, this helped me to concentrate and to stay “on task,” i.e., crafting text instead of fumbling around with formatting options
  • the ability to structure the contents into sheets and groups and the visualization of the group hierarchy, including the different icons I can use in the hierarchy
  • the fast, targeted search: I used this a lot, for example, to keep terminology consistent when I referred to the same topic in different parts of the book
  • writing goals and statistics: they helped me to track my progress; seeing what I already achieved was a huge motivation booster
“I really believe that the book would not exist, at least not in that quality, without Ulysses.”

Writing goals and statistics had another positive effect: for a while, I also used a separate tool to track my writing times. Combining the time tracking data with Ulysses statistics, I found out that my output per hour was quite consistent and, therefore, predictable. I also realized that I could write only for a couple of hours per day, perhaps four to five hours on a good day. The rest of the time, I had to do something else, for example, admin work or even working on slide presentations, which I still find way easier and less draining than writing.

What is the most challenging thing about writing a book?

I found putting my thoughts into a longer text surprisingly difficult and mentally draining. I am an experienced trainer, and I have no problem structuring a multi-day training class and developing the required materials from scratch. I also have no problem teaching my ideas with the help of my training materials. So I thought writing a book wouldn’t be very difficult for me: just approach it like developing a training and write up what I would say when presenting the material.

I was so wrong …

“So I thought writing a book wouldn’t be very difficult for me. I was so wrong.”

I hadn’t considered that the last time I wrote a longer text was my master thesis at the end of my studies. That was more than 20 years ago. Since then, I mostly communicated content via slide decks, as is common in the IT industry. Occasionally I wrote a white paper, a case study, or a project report, but these were typically not longer than 10-15 printed pages.

However, on the plus side, I got used to writing after some initial pain period, and Ulysses helped me a lot with that.

Which other tools and productivity apps are you using, and how do they help you?

Right now, I use Things 3 as my primary task management tool and also as a kind of idea bank. For example, I have set up a project for writing articles, and whenever I have an idea for an article or blog post, I create it as a task there. Once I start working on it, I create a new group for it in Ulysses.

I use Xmind Zen for Mind Mapping, e.g., for initial brainstorming and structuring of complex tasks, or for documenting information resources when I research a particular topic.

When I need to do time tracking, I use Toggl. I like to use it especially when I’m working on tasks that I’m not very familiar with. Tracking actual effort on such tasks for a while helps me understand the effort required to get results.

For collaboration with some of my business partners, I use Dropbox.

Fur further information about Barbara Hoisl and her work please visit her website.

 

Rebekka Honeit

Blog-curating writing maniac and public relations person. Loves coffee, chocolate cookies and literature. Finds peace in tweaking press copy.