Good Data Analysis Means Having an Impact

One of the most striking things about ContentLab IO author Wayne Applebaum is that he can’t separate writing about tech from doing it. It’s just that much a part of what he does. That’s partly because of his training in graduate school, the nature of data collection and analysis, and his own philosophy. Wayne is a storyteller who believes a well-told story can have an impact.

The Person Behind the Role

Tell me about yourself. Where did you grow up, where do you live, where do you work, and what is your role?

I grew up in New Your City. I did my undergraduate work at City College New York, and my graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh. I currently live in Dallas where I am semi-retired, and I’m a technical writer and do some analytics consulting. I’ve lived in Dallas 40+ years.

What got you interested in your technical career?

It’s been an interesting road. When I was at CCNY I was very interested in doing research on education. And, that led me to meet a guy by the name of Prof. Sigmund Tobias. I ended up talking to him a lot, and when I came back following the summer after my senior year, he asked me to run his research lab. I had to take a 5 cent an hour paycut to run his research lab compared to what I was making filing cards at the Alumni Association (I went down from $1.30 to $1.25/hr). But it was worth it because after that, he asked me if I wanted a fellowship. So, I received a fellowship in statistics and research methodology at Pittsburgh, where I got my masters and Ph.D. Then, I worked in the Dallas school district for a while evaluating educational programs. I was hired by EDS to evaluate and improve their corporate education systems. That led me to do a whole lot of other work in the technical sphere as it evolved. At one point I was running and teaching what was called the research systems and development program, where we got 10 of the top college graduates each semester and taught them the advanced technologies. And the way we had to do that in most cases was to learn it ourselves because there were no other people using these things. I got involved with databases when Oracle was a fledgling company.  

Fundamentally, what I do all comes back to determining the answer to the question: “How do you make decisions based on data?” That’s what I did in grad school, and since then as data analytics grew, and data processing grew, and IT grew—it all kind of fits together. It’s kind of a circuitous route. But, it all made sense at the time.

Why did you start writing about your technical work?

I’ve been writing about my work forever. I’ve had to write my results, and class notes, and of course, manuscripts for publication. It’s just the natural outgrowth. You don’t do analytics in a vacuum. Writing is an important part of it.

My senior year in college I was in the midst of publishing my paper with Sig (Professor Tobias), and I’d meet with one of my professors once a week to go over what I had written. He helped my technical writing.

It’s a way to communicate. It’s either talking or writing, and you reach more people through writing.

As you may have guessed, I’m also a nontechnical storyteller. I write and perform my own stories. If the spirit moves you, go to YouTube, type my name and there are a couple of my performances on there.  You can also visit an archive of what I have performed as part of Oral Fixation  in Dallas.

What attracted you to writing for ContentLab IO?

Lisa Sidlow [ContentLab.IO’s vice-president of sales and marketing] is an old friend of Casey Green of Avalon, and Casey is an old friend of mine. Lisa approached Casey’s company to write a paper about Inrule. Casey’s company doesn’t do that, so he suggested they contact me. ContentLab liked what I wrote, so it’s been a good relationship since.

My motivation is having an impact. Whenever I get a piece of technology that they ask me to write about my question is, “Why do I care? Why does anyone care?”

The piece I finished last week is interesting to me because learning how to use that technology will significantly reduce the arduous tasks a developer has to do, so it gives them back their time. Then they can do real work and have an impact, rather than writing and rewriting code to do a repetitive transformation. And making people aware of how they can have that impact is exciting. So it’s not only about the, “ How do I use this?”, but, “Why should I? Why should I care about using it?”

What positive changes in your professional or personal life have you seen since you started writing about developing/IT work?

I’m not sure how to answer that question. I’ve been writing forever because it goes hand-in-hand with what I do. I don’t think the writing has changed me; it’s a part of what I do. The biggest change has been the ease of getting something published. It used to be it had to go to a refereed journal. Now you write it and put it up on LinkedIn, and you’re good.

What written work are you most proud of?

A piece that I get a chuckle out of is a piece I published on LinkedIn called, “It’s All Very Simple,” that refers to how you go about developing analytics. The premise is that when you look at analytics you have ask yourself:W“what is the question I’m interested in answering?” ; “What’s the data that is acceptable to answer the question?”; and “Where will I get the data?” If you don’t get those 3 questions right, you are wasting your time. It doesn’t matter what technology you have — AI, machine learning — it doesn’t matter. That was a fun article to write. Many of the articles I’ve published for ContentLab IO are not under my byline, but if someone is interested, they can always ask ContentLab IO for an example of my work.

What technical areas do you write about?

Databases, the Internet of Things (IoT), and analytics are the three major areas I write about. Also, anything that falls into decision systems and decisioning.

I’m very platform agnostic. I tend to take a business and analytical approach to things. I’ll find the right tool to answer the questions. I now work with Avalon Consulting, Inc.  In this role, I use a wide variety of tools, especially in the big data sphere, which is another area I write about.

What technical achievement are you most proud of (that you can share)?

There was one company where the work that I did for them analyzing their billing systems processes saved them $80 million a year.

You’ve got to be in the right place and ask the right questions to do something like that. It was looking at what they were dong and realizing they were losing 3 days of billing cycle and with the scale of their customer base, that led to a big financial loss.

A lot of what I do is look at problems that a company has or find inefficiencies in their systems that they can save a lot of money by fixing since systems can affect billing.

You hear a lot about embedded databases in systems. Why embed databases? So you can make decisions faster. Why is that important? If you can reduce latency you can save lives.

Here’s an example. Train systems are improving sensors to prevent crashes. It’s called Positive Train Control (PTC). The success of PTC depends on how fast it can assemble and process data. That affects whether or not that train crashes.

It’s one thing to have a sensor that picks up that a train passing has a bad wheel nut; it’s another thing to make it possible to take action on that data. That’s where the technology meets reality and has an impact. Sometimes it’s in terms of money and sometimes it’s in terms of saving lives.

What interests you about client writing projects?

There’s two things. Being able to have an impact and do a good job for the client is important. But, I also like learning. With each new client I learn about their product and why I should care about it. The most important thing I learned in grad school is that I learned how to learn. And I enjoy learning. Writing projects provide me with a reason to go out and do it, with the added benefit that I have a deadline.

What challenges have you encountered in technical writing that surprised you?

I don’t know. I think over the years very little has surprised me. It’s part of a process. The more you write, the more you understand what you have to do. This includes accepting that every project will throw you curves. So, for me, there are relatively few surprises.

How did you overcome them?

It’s my mindset. I think of them not so much as surprises as opportunities to learn. You accept that you didn’t know something. With technical writing you are going in with a fairly good plan that’s been approved by the client, and if you follow the plan there are relatively few surprises. If the client changes the plan or didn’t tell you something, you go do the revisions. These are not surprises, they’re part of the process.

What words of wisdom would you like to share with other prospective technical authors?

Look carefully at the outline and ask a lot of questions. The more lines of communication you have and the more direct you are with the customer, the better. Also, ask the question “Why does anybody care about what I’m writing?” If you do those things, it becomes part of a normal process. And, it can be exciting and rewarding at the same time.

What words of wisdom would you like to share with prospective clients about the content creation process?

First, express the goal of the piece and communicate that to the author. That goal should reflect the intended audience for the piece because content can’t speak to all people. Then, take a step back and tell the author why you want this written, because that often dictates the what. The who and the why really determines what should be written about.

For the Road

One of the most staggering realizations I have had as I’ve spoken to ContentLab IO authors specifically, and developers and IT professionals in general, is their accomplishments are due as much to their humility as to their technical expertise. Wayne’s ability to roll with a project, technical or writing, is a reflection of his understanding of the creative process. He plans for it, but more than that, he accepts it. He greets change, criticism, and technical challenges with curiosity and equanimity. This attitude inspires his advice to other technical writers. He advises authors,  “Ask questions.” And, for content clients, he advises that they focus on clearly communicating the goal to the writer by helping authors understand the who and why. More questions? Sure. But, in Wayne’s view the right questions get you to better answers. And, better stories.