All Things Digital editor and writer Kara Swisher writes about the digital landscape and technology innovations with sharp analysis of the companies involved. Writing several posts a day for the AllThingsD.com site, which is owned by Dow Jones, the former Wall Street Journal and Washington Post reporter is also the author of two books, AOL.com: How Steve Case Beat Bill Gates, Nailed the Netheads and Made Millions in the War for the Web in 1998 and There Must Be a Pony in Here Somewhere: The AOL Time Warner Debacle and the Quest for the Digital Future in 2003.
With WSJ tech reviewer Walt Mossberg, Swisher co-founded the All Things Digital conference, which is considered the most influential in the tech and media industry. In 2012, Time Magazine included Swisher as one of the “Ten Most Influential Women in Tech” and Vanity Fair called her the “scoop meister,” listing her as one of the most influential people in the “New Establishment.”
Nob Hill Gazette: Why is the All Things Digital conference important for the world of technology?
Kara Swisher: When we started, there were a lot of tech conferences that were either corrupt or boring, or both. People who paid to be sponsors would often be on stage. We programmed our conference like a journalistic event with no prepared speeches, no Power Points, and doing really tough interviews. We brought tech stars onstage because we realized that people want to see those stars up close, as we did as reporters. We got Steve Jobs and Bill Gates early, which was important. In what has been acknowledged to be an historic interview in 2007, they were both on stage together. Then George Lucas, Mark Zuckerberg, James Cameron, just to name a few, followed the lineup. They do not have control or knowledge of the questions. It is fun for people to watch.
NHG: What is it you really want out of the people you interview?
KS: What you forget when you read about all these powerful companies is that they are made up of people; people with narratives, ideas, and characters that matter. Humans are what businesses are about, humans acting in an environment. People want to see people. Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs are not just iconic figures; they are [were] real people. It is critical for our interview to get the genuine person out there, for good or bad. Some don’t do well being under the microscope. We are not a “got you” kind of conference—but, at the same time, people really need to answer the questions we ask them. If they are intelligent, they will do a great job; if they try to obfuscate, they fail.
NHG: Do you ever have people ask you to go easy on them?
KS: [Laughs] Yes, I do. I joke: “I’m just this little girl, why are you afraid of me?”
NHG: What makes you so tough?
KS: I’m not really tough. I ask smart questions that the audience wants answers to. I don’t treat interviewees with a kid glove. These are very wealthy and powerful people. They can handle themselves because really smart people like to answer smart and tough questions. People who are weak and have a flaw in their personality don’t like it. But Steve Jobs wouldn’t have come to our conference seven or eight times if he didn’t like it. We want people to answer the question asked and tell the truth, tell us the genuine thing. We are not happy when they just talk in platitudes, and don’t tell us what’s going on.
NHG: Of your many interviews, is there one that stands out?
KS: All Steve Jobs’s interviews. He was the most interesting character.
NHG: You got Mark Zuckerberg to do the unthinkable—remove his signature hoodie on stage. What happened?
KS: The hoodie incident got major media attention. Mark got into a lot of distress and just started sweating, when we were asking questions regarding privacy issues. We were interested in his illuminating us as to what he was doing. He was upset by the questions, I guess, and sweated more and more. I do think we got him out of his predicament by asking him to take off the hoodie.
NHG: Do you still have role models in business, now that you are as successful as you are?
KS: I look at leaders from all over. I have a lot of admiration for Hillary Clinton and admire some things Arianna Huffington has done. I look at different aspects from different people. My partner, Walt Mossberg, is someone whom I have great respect for.
NHG: At your recent All Things Digital conference in Hong Kong you suffered a stroke and were hospitalized. Were you scared?
KS: No. Actually, the stroke only lasted an hour and a half. There were no physical repercussions. I had some speech problems, but wasn’t incapacitated. I was typing and having breakfast. It was interesting to see that something like that could happen at any time. I have always been someone who is very aware of mortality, not surprised by it or shocked by it, because of my dad’s death (when Kara was only five years old). I think I have a better coping mechanism; I expect death, more than not expect it.
NHG: How do you feel now?
KS: I am fine now; I just had an MRI that was clear.
NHG: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
KS: Everyone should be a feminist, because women’s issues are everybody’s issues. Everyone has a mother, a sister, and is born of a woman. Women’s issues are human issues. Every person on the planet should care about women’s issues.
NHG: Is diversity prevalent in the tech industry?
KS: Yes. It is the only industry that is head and shoulders above all others in embracing tolerance and diversity. Talent is what’s most important. Nothing other than talent matters, which is the number one reason why tech is so successful. They do not care what you look like—your color, your size—all they care about is that the product gets made. “Talentism” is global, the hallmark of the tech world. Apple was one of the first companies in the world to battle gay bias. This was two decades ago. And IBM was one of the early companies that pushed for women’s, racial, and gay equality.
NHG: Before the computer and the Internet, what was the most important invention?
KS: Electricity. Without electricity, we are nothing.
NHG: And today? What’s the most important invention of the 20th and 21st centuries?
KS: Every communications medium grows on the other—theater to radio to TV to Internet. The Internet is hugely important because it allows global communication.
NHG: What’s next? Anything left for you to do?
KS: I’ve completed a feature story on Randi Zuckerberg for Harper’s Bazaar and am working on articles for Vanity Fair. We’re also thinking of more video, TV, and multimedia. Tech changes every minute, so it is never boring.
NHG: What is the one thing that you would like people to remember about you when you are gone?
KS: That I was truthful—that I told the truth the best I could.
Heide Betz is an art historian specializing in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome—with a focus on Russian and Greek icons. Earlier in her career, she taught modern art history. Also a photographer, Heide exhibited her collection, The Doors of San Miguel de Allende, at the Winckelmann Museum near Berlin, Germany.