A Collaborator, Not A Critic

The role of a senior technical editor is a funny thing. It does involve handing out some tough love to your authors. But with an attitude like Terry’s, it doesn’t have to come with a slap or a sting. A critical yet supportive editor, Terry’s goal is simple: helping authors write their best. That benefits his practitioner authors and ContentLab IO’s clients. Win, win. And, even better, it’s what Terry loves to do. Win, win, win.

The Person Behind the Role

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

I am originally from the Northern California Bay Area. I went to school in LA, and I started working as a tech writer in San Francisco. Originally I wanted to go to architecture school, so I worked in a CAD company as a tech writer and discovered that I liked that a lot. So I stuck with technical writing and editing, and I’ve been doing it ever since. Work took me across the country when, due to a merger, I had an opportunity to move to the East Coast. I’ve been here ever since, aside from working in Seattle briefly. I’ve now lived and worked out of Vermont 9 years.

Since 1991 I have worked in technical writing for engineers and software developers. I’ve worked as a writer, an editor, at places like MSDN magazine and Microsoft Systems Journal. I worked at smaller shops that became Autodesk’s CEE division, and I worked for Microsoft for 13 years. I also worked for ESPN for 3 years, documenting their backend system for stats and scores. Now I work at ContentLab IO where I am senior technical editor.

Why do you do what you do?

First, the silly answer––when I was a kid I loved to read and write, and thought it would be cool to make a living reading and writing. And here I am. Who knew?  

The more serious answer is difficult to explain. The way I think about it is that often what attracts people to software development is that they like to do it themselves. They like to figure out how things work. I’ve always felt like you could build anything with software, but the hard part is knowing what pieces are needed to get something accomplished. I feel like I am good at stepping back and taking a look at the big picture and showing people what the pieces are good for. Now, my expertise is writing, not programming. I like to think of what I do as taking lots of different people’s expertise and making it more useful for everyone. I like making it easier for smart people to build cool stuff to make all of our lives better.

What attracted you to work for ContentLab IO?

I worked with Chris (Maunder), Sean (Ewington), and Ryan (Peden) previously at CodeProject (CP) for a while (in between Microsoft and ESPN), and one of the interesting things I loved about working at CP was that it created a place where everyone who had enthusiasm about software development came together and shared that spark with other people. And, two, I liked how people shared their expertise and their questions.

One of the hard things about being a writer is that you create something that people criticize, which I don’t love, but that’s part of it. As an editor, I see writers come to me expecting me to tear their work apart. I don’t see my role that way. I see it as a collaboration, and my job is to make their work better. I just like putting better stuff out in the world, and I like to make the author look good.   

As a writer, I don’t like criticism, but I like to think that even the craziest comment has a kernel of truth. All the CP comments were fascinating to me, to get to see the facets of this huge developer community. When David, Lisa, and Chris got in touch with me about the ContentLab project I got excited about bringing my expertise to help companies out, to get their stuff out into the world, and it’s like a version of CodeProject. I know I’m not an expert in everything, but I get to apply my expertise to all these other experts and make their work better, and I get to learn something in the process.

How did you get interested in helping people and companies communicate through content marketing?

I like the puzzle of helping people explain things. There is an element of curation about things that comes down to what is the right direction to take something. I started in this industry writing user manuals old school––on paper. At a certain point I had the realization that what we were doing was as much marketing for the product as it was creating a user guide. At a certain level all technical documentation is an aspect of technical marketing, or should be.

I don’t have a background in marketing, and I don’t think of my work in those terms, except as a collaborator with marketers by providing them with the materials that they need. As we know, developers and engineers are skeptical of marketing, so giving the marketers the best tools to solve those developers’ or engineers’ problems helps connect developers with the tool that they should be using.

How do you think that participating in the ContentLab IO practitioner community helps your practitioners?

In my experience working with developers, I’ve found the most interesting and effective developers are the ones with a great deal of curiosity. The authors that we work with have general knowledge in certain areas and get paid to be up-to-date on the latest thing that pushes the boundaries of their knowledge. And we know that the industry moves so quickly that to be the expert on the latest thing is a huge benefit.   

How do you see your role in that?

One aspect is that because the authors work with me, I can edit their work and help show them how to make their writing better. I want to work with the authors in a collaborative way to help them become better writers.  

Teamwork is what it is all about. None of us knows everything. I can’t do this job without Brigitta—she keeps it all on track. Ryan and Chris and all the authors have far more technical knowledge than I do, and all of us together help to create the best possible product for the customer.

I think we are trying to tell a story that is engaging and helpful. And I think I can look at the bigger picture. We aren’t writing just one article. We are providing a collaborative relationship for the future that includes creating a whole strategy for getting information in front of their customers.

How do you think the content you help produce helps your clients?

I find it useful to create content that helps other people do cool stuff. That’s really what it comes down to. I think the process we’ve established helps our clients publish content that their audience can take in and use to produce something awesome, create a net positive thing for the world. We help them deliver content that is valuable to developers.

How do you see your role in that?

My role is really in helping clients see the trajectory of the technical stories they can tell, and helping through the editing process to create the most useful, valuable, easy to consume content for a technical audience. We help our clients teach their customers how to create software that does something awesome.

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

I have two blog post about writing about code that I think stand the test of time:

And, my advice is to technical authors is to share what you have enthusiasm for. Your perspective is unique and that helps people. Also, the best way to truly know something is to try to teach someone else how to do it.  

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

There’s a bunch of fundamental questions that you need to answer, such as:

  • Who uses this?
  • Who is our customer?
  • Who do we want to be our customer?

Once you answer those questions the strategy, the detailed content topic list, and the outline fall out naturally.

Here’s the thing about creating effective technical content: It’s more complicated than you think it is. Content strategy, understanding your audience and how to write to that audience, the editorial process, organizing content ideas into pieces that can be produced in a timely manner—that’s really our expertise.

Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to share with practitioners or clients?

Sharing the same thing from a different perspective adds value. Here’s an example:

When I worked at ESPN, one of the things ESPN does for friends and family is that you can take a tour. They also do this for new employees. I took the tour 5 times in 3 years. Each time I took the exact same tour, visited the same places, but every tour was slightly different, based on what the guide did.

It got to be fascinating from my point of view as in “look at all the stories layered on the same product.” This made ESPN a multifaceted product.  

That’s what happens when you get different people telling a story about your product or your customer’s pain point or a use case. That’s ContentLab IO and the power of practitioner marketing.

For the Road

Fundamentally, Terry wants to help authors and companies tell a good story to help developers and technologies build cool things that can help us all. This works for authors, works for content marketing clients, and it works for him. Collaborator, not critic, Terry wants to bring his technical editing expertise to make your expertise shine.