Interview with a… Software Content Strategist

Ever wanted to go behind the scenes of your ideal job and see what’s involved? In Firehead’s ‘Interview with a…’ series, we are talking to people in content strategy, technical communications and a number of other job titles that we recruit for. We’re also looking for more interviewees, so scroll to the end for an invite.

Here, we asked Ray Gallon, a communications consultant based in Languedoc. France, about what he does, how he got into tech comms and content strategy, what he charges and other highly personal questions.

Gallon_portrait.jpgWhat is your job title?

UTCO (Unidentified Technical Communication Object). I am a self-employed consultant, specialising in content strategy for software development, but that doesn’t even begin to describe it.

So, can you begin to describe it?

Most of the time, my job involves helping people to merge ideas that often have multiple labels, for example:

  • Information architecture
  • Information design
  • User experience
  • Interaction design
  • Content development
  • Content strategy
  • Technical writing
  • User guidance/help

For the most part, these are different facets on a single polyhedron, each of them doorways that lead us to the giant hairball at the centre: content.

What does a typical day look like?

Practically speaking, I spend my time analysing, advising, writing reports, interviewing people in the company such as marketers, product managers, designers, etc, and meeting customers and interviewing them, as well.

It’s varied work, but it always ends up with writing a report. Sometimes, I might also write some of the content for the client; it depends on what they want or need from me.

What kind of background do you need?

I got started as a technical writer from reading manuals and realising, “Hey, I can do better than this.” So I went out and did it. I think there’s a difference between what employers or potential clients say they are looking for and what my role actually involves, though.

For example, human resources people will usually look for tools and skills: in the case of content strategy or information design this might be CMS skills; for a writer it would be tools like Frame Maker or Arbortext Editor. This is because they are mostly looking for something they can quantify.

But what you really need is a fascination with the different technologies we work with; a broad general culture; common sense; acquired methodology; and a passion for making complex information clear.

What is the most difficult challenge you face?

The most difficult thing about this job is selling an idea that may not seem obvious to a client. In my case, that idea is that software has become an information-rich environment.

This means that the content embedded in, created by or transmitted by software needs to be designed, professionally created and curated. It also needs to be governed according to a grand scheme, which ideally should mesh with the rest of an organisation’s communications.

The selling point is that if you’re a software company, your interface – and the information it contains – is where your customers spend the most time with you, and is the primary face you present to them.

If you communicate well, the product is easy to use, information is easy to find, customers are happy, and you get good word of mouth and repeat business.

And what is the best part of the job?

I truly believe that this is the best time to be in the technical communication business. The areas in which we get to dabble our fingers, and the ways in which we get to think, provide such a breadth of different experiences and challenges, you can never get bored. I think this profession is enormously rewarding and huge fun to practise.

What is the pay like?

This is a tough one to answer. To some extent, it depends on your reputation, what the market will bear and which market you’re playing in. I work internationally, for example, and don’t get to charge the same rates in every country.

Also, depending on whether you are executing a project for someone or providing consulting – ie, showing them how to execute it – the rates are different. Interestingly, you can get more for explaining than for executing.

Do you have job mobility and security?

For the moment, I need to combine consultancy work with more traditional technical communication jobs in order to make a living.

The field is growing, however, and as more practitioners enter it, the competition is also growing.

It’s something you can practise anywhere. I work from a home office, but am willing to go on site with clients almost anywhere in the world (now that my kids are grown). I also plan to start giving workshops, preferably in scenic locations not too far from home!

What are the training and development options?

I recommend all the usual books on content strategy. Although most of them are oriented to the web, it is not difficult to adapt them to software. I’ve been doing some conference presentations on just that subject lately.

For practical, how-to information in a clear, succinct form, I especially recommend Richard Sheffield’s book, The Web Content Strategist’s Bible: The Complete Guide To A New And Lucrative Career For Writers Of All Kinds. For software-related content strategy issues, I recommend Rahel Anne Bailie’s site.

What’s your motto/guiding principle when you work?

Tell the users what they need to know, not what I – or the client – want to tell them.

Any final thoughts?

It’s a cliché, but perhaps it still needs to be repeated: we technical communicators do many things that are not in our job descriptions. Our added value goes way beyond our deliverables. For this reason, we need to find ways to put value on these non-expressed attributes, not just intangible value, but provable ROI.

This is a tall order, so if you’ve got ideas, I’m all ears.

Ray Gallon also blogs about technical communication at Humanistnerd.culturecom.net, and can be contacted on Twitter @raygallon, LinkedIn and Google+ as Ray Gallon, and by email at infodesign@culturecom.net.

Looking for talent?

If you are a client in need of a technical author or editor or content strategist, we’d love to talk to you! We have many talented communicators on our books who are available for part-time or fixed-term contracts or full employment positions. Visit our Client Services page to read more about what we do or email recruit@firehead.net.