The Making of BlackBerry Town
Updated: Apr 13
A slow and intermittent jog through the first five years, then a desperate sprint to the
finish line over the final 12 months. That’s a good way to sum up how I wrote BlackBerry Town. From start to finish, it took me almost six years to complete the book. After somewhat reluctantly taking a buyout from the Waterloo Region Record, my home for the previous 34 years, I began working on the project in the fall of 2013. BlackBerry Town was published by Lorimer in September 2019.
In The Beginning
Since entering journalism school at Western University in London, ON, in 1978, I’d always wanted to write a book. Had I penned a book at that time it would have been inspired by a title that jumped off the faculty's supplementary reading list. The
New Journalism, edited by Tom Wolfe, featured articles by Wolfe and other journalism titans of the day including Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne, and Hunter S. Thompson. Carefully selected by Wolfe, the pieces avoided, if not openly rebelled against, the inverted-pyramid, five W’s style of traditional news in favour of dialogue, character-development, narrative-flow and setting. In essence, they were written like non-fiction novels. It was journalism at the highest level—a little too high it turned out for the likes of a mid-sized Canadian daily like The Record which was a decidedly staunch practitioner of the Old Journalism. After graduating from Western in 1979, I bounded into The Record newsroom hoping to produce reportage worthy of my New Journalism heroes only to be restrained and shackled by the daily grind of city hall zone changes, police briefs and school board budgets. Hardly the stuff of gonzo journalism. Fear and Loathing in Kitchener-Waterloo was not to be.
After nine years covering local news, I was desperate for a change and moved onto the Record’s editing desk in 1988. There I stayed for the next 17 years, editing copy and laying
out pages in the wire-news, entertainment and local news sections. As assistant city editor on the night shift, I took pride in assembling the best package of news each day and presenting it in an eye-catching manner in the local news section. My co-editor at that time was Connie Camp, daughter of the esteemed Canadian journalist Dalton Camp. Possessing a razor-sharp eye and keen interest in local news, Camp and I fed off each other’s ideas and functioned as a well-oiled machine. Thoughts of writing a book were the furthest thing from my mind.
Nonetheless, by 2005 my love affair with page design and news presentation was fading. After a decade of pasting up bent-metal car accident shots and fine-tuning tedious tales of NIMBYism, I was ready to open a vein with the rusty X-Acto knife in the bottom of my desk drawer. I needed to get back to what drew me to the profession in the first place—reporting and writing. Told the only opening was on the business beat, I ventured forward timidly as I had never covered business before. It turned out to be a fortuitous move as a new world opened up.
RIM to the Rescue
Telling stories of local entrepreneurs overcoming daunting odds was inspiring stuff and none captured my imagination more than the riveting saga of Research In Motion. Long-buried thoughts of writing a book came to life as I covered the BlackBerry-maker’s slow and excruciating fall from dominance. Stoking the fires were biographies of such business greats as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett and the founders of Silicon Valley, books that I devoured with endless fascination. In 2013 when the Record dangled buyouts to thin the ranks, I knew it was time to pursue my book-writing dream and the topic was right in front of my nose—RIM’s shocking plunge from the pinnacle.
I went at the project backwards. Upon beginning a book, you normally draw up a detailed outline and write several chapters. A pitch to agents and publishers follows to test the waters. If no one bites, you abandon the project, saving yourself a lot of work unless self-publishing is your desire. My biggest fear was being unable to finish a lengthy manuscript of 70,000 to 80,000 words. At the Record I had never written anything longer than 2,500 words. I decided to write the whole damn thing first, then make my pitch. Off I went interviewing as many sources as I could find who had either worked at RIM or had some connection to the company. When not interviewing, I pored over transcripts of old RIM quarterly conference calls and newspaper archives to get a fix on key events in the company’s history. Silence or rejection greeted many of my interview requests. In some cases people agreed to be interviewed, then cancelled before the appointed day. Others would only talk off the record. Paranoia about what went wrong at RIM and who was to blame still reigned supreme. Rejection is never easy. It hurt, but I tried to stay positive and focus on the people who did talk to me. Help came from unexpected sources. There are too many to mention, but they were usually people I had met and written about during my days at the Record. Eventually I was able to amass enough material to begin writing in early 2015.
My outline was chronological—the rise and fall of BlackBerry from the early 1980s when Mike Lazaridis attended the University of Waterloo to the implosion of the company some 30 years later. Just as I was gaining confidence that I could actually pull this off, another book stopped me in my tracks. Losing The Signal, written by two reporters at the Globe and Mail, hit stores in the spring of 2015. It told the story of RIM’s growth and collapse in compelling fashion, complete with extensive commentary from RIM’s two founding CEOs, Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, neither of whom would grant me an interview. In a strange twist of fate, the Record asked me to review the book. After giving Losing a glowing review, I was asked if I wanted a line attached at the end saying my own book was in the works. “No, please don’t,” I protested. I was in a quandary, and giving serious thought to abandoning my book. I took the summer of 2015 off to consider my options.
As I pondered the situation, something paradoxical dawned on me. On the one hand writing a book can seem like an enormous burden, like hauling a large boulder around on your back. On the other it can be a reassuring presence, a rock to hang on to in stormy seas. With little else to do but choose from a smorgasbord of tedious recreational activities, abandoning my BlackBerry book seemed like a bad idea. It was my rock. But I needed to come at the story from a different angle. More brainstorming followed until I hit upon the idea of a memoir. I had covered RIM on and off
for eight years. I had sat through stiff annual meetings, listened to frenetic quarterly conference calls, plodded through umpteen press releases, interviewed scores of analysts and RIM officials and travelled to splashy BlackBerry conferences in Florida and California. Moreover, I was eager to the tell the story of Matt Walcoff, a fellow Record reporter who had held RIM’s feet to the fire and was blacklisted for his efforts. Sadly, he had died in 2012. Surely out of all this material, backed up with fresh interviews from key sources, I could fashion an interesting memoir.
Back to work I went, describing the nuts and bolts of the RIM story and crafting impressionistic set pieces on RIM conference calls, annual meetings and a U.S. trade show. I had a great fun describing the strange world of business jargon and its glossary of terms such as bootstrapping, scaling up and turnkey solution. I drew from interesting personal experiences such as hearing Mike Lazaridis’s bizarre speech on quantum computing to a Canada Day crowd at the University of Waterloo and appearing on the CBC National News as RIM went into free-fall in 2011.
Writing steadily over the next 16 months, I completed an 80,000-word memoir by the end of 2016. At this point, I needed an editor. Up until then my semi-retired and literate friend, Mike Langevin, had reviewed my manuscript as I wrote it. He polished sections as needed, adding humorous touches to brighten the narrative and provided some much needed moral support. But he had done it without compensation apart from the occasional drink or meal, and I felt that it was time to hire a professional paid editor with a trained and experienced eye. Through the help of Dave Worsley, co-owner of Words Worth Books in Waterloo, I was able to secure the services of freelance editor Kristen Hahn. She suggested some tweaking here and there, including teasers at the end of each chapter to lead the reader into the next one. Her only structural complaint was the way I had described RIM’s rise. I had told it largely in flashback after opening the book in 2005 when I started covering business. She felt it needed a clearer treatment. Kristen even came up with a good title for the book: Reporting In Motion.
Publishing and Perishing
By the fall of 2017 I was ready to pitch to literary agents and publishers. A frustrating four months followed as I contacted as many reputable Canadian publishers and agents as I could find, about 20 in total, laboriously compiling pitch letters and submissions to meet their onerous specs. There were a few tire-kickers who requested the full manuscript, but no takers. A sticking point seemed to be that other RIM book, the annoying Losing The Signal. An editor at Harper Collins, publisher of Losing, told me not to even bother with a submission. I was puzzled. Libraries were filled with books on huge topics like the Vietnam War and World War Two. But only one on RIM’s fall? Old wounds over rejection were re-opened, but I pressed on. Self-publication seemed like the only option until one day I remembered an old friend, Steve Izma, who had worked at Wilfrid Laurier University Press, a publisher of academic books. When I tracked him down, Steve asked me to send him my manuscript. Several weeks later he got back to me with word that my book might work for Lorimer, a Toronto-based publisher of non-fiction books. As it happened, he was doing some contract work for Lorimer and would mention it at an upcoming board meeting. Company founder Jim Lorimer was immediately interested when he heard about my book and I was instructed to send a copy of the manuscript to his personal email address in early 2018.
Two agonizing months dragged by while I awaited his response. When it came, I was thrilled but a little worried at the same time. “There is definitely a strong project here, but the approach needs to be reconsidered,” Jim wrote in an email. Would I be open to that possibility? I was. While Jim wanted changes it soon became apparent he wasn’t sure what he wanted, resulting in a series of meetings over the next seven months. These occurred via Skype as he was at the company’s offices in either Halifax or Toronto and I was in Kitchener. He was cheerful and friendly but tough when he needed to be. Eventually he decided I should scrap the memoir format and broaden the canvas to include the Waterloo tech sector and BlackBerry’s impact on the community. To reflect the new approach, the new title would be BlackBerry Town. At first I balked. This would require scores of new interviews and a bunch of new chapters. In effect, he was asking me to write almost a whole new book. After five years of working on my original manuscript, I was worn out. I seriously considered walking away and self-publishing. I sought advice from close friends and family. Most advised me to stick with Lorimer. Having an established publisher with national reach was better than the limited exposure that came with self-publishing. A turning point came during a conversation with a close friend at our cottage during the summer of 2018. You’ve been working on this for five years, my friend said. Lorimer has been working on it for five months. It may be old to you, but it’s not old to them. It was naïve of me to expect them to accept a turnkey solution. I decided to go along with Jim Lorimer’s plan.
The next shock came when the publishing contract arrived in September. Lorimer wanted the new manuscript by March 31, 2019, just seven months away. At first I tried to negotiate for more time. If you don’t meet the March 31 deadline, the book won’t come out until the spring of 2020, I was told. Clearly there was no choice but to knuckle down and beat that deadline. I quickly drew up a list of 30 to 35 new people to interview. Some were sources I had already talked to years ago. Their information would need to be updated. My plan was to complete all the interviews by Christmas of 2018, leaving three months to write the new book. Working in my favour were sections from my old manuscript—chapters on RIM’s rise, the launch of the University of Waterloo, RIM’s battle with the media— that could be tweaked and dropped into the new book. The months leading up to Christmas were a blur as I scrambled to set up, prepare and interview an average of two to three people a week. Recording the interviews, which I did occasionally at the Record, was out of the question. There was no time to replay them and type up transcripts. Instead I took detailed notes.
Help came in unexpected ways. My original manuscript included a chapter on Wes Graham, the father of computing at the University of Waterloo. In my mind, Waterloo could make a strong claim for the title of Silicon Valley of Canada and UW was its Stanford. Much of my material on Graham had come from a book written by UW history professor Ken McLaughlin on the university’s 50th anniversary. When I went back to the Kitchener public library to check some footnotes in McLaughlin’s book I stumbled upon an earlier book he had written on the founding of UW, including the pivotal role played by its first president Gerald Hagey. My original plan had been to focus primarily on Graham but as I scanned this new material, I realized that Hagey had to be part of the narrative.
Pounding The Beat - Again
Among the people at the top of my interview list was Tom Jenkins, the former CEO of Open Text and current chair of its board. Jim Lorimer felt strongly that Open Text, the region’s largest tech company after RIM’s decline, should be somewhere in the book. I had seen Jenkins speak at local conferences, but as one of the area’s tech superstars he was not easily accessible and I did not have a personal relationship with him, having arrived on the business beat well after his tenure as CEO. I was vaguely aware that the company had been founded out of the UW project to digitize the Oxford English Dictionary but this had happened years ago and I had never paid much attention to it. We did not often cover their quarterly releases as the business editor at the Record at that time, Ron DeRuyter, considered their product-line too technical for the average reader. They had evolved into a business-to-business company, specializing in the management of documents for large corporate clients.
With some trepidation, I contacted Open Text through official channels and requested an interview with Jenkins. A day or two later I was shocked to receive a reply from his personal secretary, wondering if a phone interview the following Monday afternoon would do. Does Tom Jenkins know something about business strategy? Of course it would.
It was one of the most productive one-hour phone conversations I have ever had. I didn’t get far into my questions about the history of Open Text when Jenkins said, “Hey, we have a multi-volume corporate history on that. I’ll send you an electronic version.” Further questions elicited similar responses. “Guess what? I covered that in a speech last year. I’ll send you that as well. And while you’re at it, you should read this too.” Within a day or two I had 10 items in my in-box, all from Jenkins. Bam, bam, bam! I did manage to get a few fresh quotes out of him on Open Text’s current growth strategy, but they paled in comparison to this deluge of data. When I had a chance to burrow into it, I was astonished. Far from boring, Open Text’s early history had more drama than a John Le Carre novel. Building one of the first engines on the internet out of technology used to search the electronic version of the Oxford English Dictionary was riveting stuff, as was Jenkins’s decision to kill the company’s public search engine some years later, a move than nearly scuttled the company. Later, I learned that the Jenkins interview might not have happened without the help of Communitech CEO Iain Klugman, whom I knew from covering business at the Record. When I first contacted Open Text, Jenkins asked Klugman about my credentials. “You should talk to him,” was Iain’s reply.
A fresh approach to the RIM story came together by happenstance as well. Prior to signing with Lorimer, I had done some research on self-publishing and learned that it was good idea to have six or eight “beta” or test readers go over my manuscript. Like a focus group, they provide feedback on the book from an ordinary reader’s perspective. My daughter had been urging me to talk to Lindsay Gibson, a friend of hers who had worked at RIM, but I had my own list of “more important” sources and never got around to her. When the time came to enlist some beta readers, Lindsay’s name came to mind. When we met, I was blown away by her professionalism and insight into what had happened at RIM during her 16 years at the company. She had risen from a lowly call-centre employee to vice-president of manufacturing and supply chain. I was cursing myself for not having talked to her before finishing my original manuscript, but then Lorimer’s call for a massive rewrite gave me another chance to place her in the story. When we met for an interview, Lindsay also connected me to two other key sources in marketing and sales, Pete Gould and Paul Lucier. The three of them helped inject new vigor into the story of RIM’s rise. Time had also healed some wounds and sources were more willing to talk about their experiences at BlackBerry.
I got an early start on writing the book as interviews were winding down in December 2018. I did more writing than I had ever done in my life. There’s nothing like a deadline to add urgency to the situation. My problem before was no deadline. Parkinson’s law kicked in big time. If someone invited me to play golf or go cycling, or my wife wanted to drive to the cottage, I went. If we wanted to take a trip, we did. My rock, the book, was always there when I got back. I never wrote on weekends. It was a 9 to 5 job, Monday to Friday with no boss to reprimand me for taking time off. Working on the book was something I did in my spare time and I had a lot of it, so the manuscript eventually got done. That changed with the Lorimer contract. BlackBerry Town became job-one. I wrote seven days a week, at any time of day or evening, whenever I felt well-rested. That was key. There were no marathon, 12-hour or overnight writing sessions. Fatigue is the enemy of clear thinking. Holed up in my basement office working on my trusty iMac computer, a routine that hadn’t changed since I started the book in 2013, my writing spurts typically lasted two to three hours, with breaks in between to go shopping for groceries, walk the dog or eat dinner, breaks that recharged my batteries and often generated new ideas on how to reshape an awkward piece of writing. And there was plenty of rewriting and revising. Years ago I read somewhere that good writing is like making chili. It always tastes better reheated. Whenever possible I tried to adopt a narrative format and focus on character and setting. Like my heroes Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and more recently, writers like Tracy Kidder, Jon Krakauer and James B. Stewart, the emphasis was on good story-telling.
I knocked off BlackBerry Town in chunks, finishing the first five chapters around the end of January, the next five by the end of February and the final four by the March 31 deadline. I don’t recall a huge celebration when the final sprint came to an end. Just quiet satisfaction and relief that I had actually pulled it off, that after six long years BlackBerry Town was a reality.