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Specializing in the Next Big Thing: A Few Lingering Thoughts from Lavacon

by Tom Johnson on Oct 11, 2012
categories: technical-writing

One outcome of any good conference is to make you think critically about your professional role and identity. I just returned from three days in Portland at Lavacon. It was the first time I've attended Lavacon, even though I have been helping out with the website for several years.

I'm from Tacoma, just 120 miles north of Portland, but I hadn't been to Portland much at all. At least, not that I remember. It turns out downtown Portland is full of hipsters. Portland is young, lively, artistic, and reminds me a bit of Seattle.

During one of the breakfasts (by the way, Jack has great food at Lavacon), I sat down at a table and introduced myself to the other attendees. Introducing yourself is what you always do at conferences, and having gotten great sleep the night before, I was full of energy. One person said, “Hi, nice to meet you.” Then she said, “So, what do you specialize in?”

The question, innocent and common, took me a little by surprise. I didn't think much of it at first. It should have been easy to answer. Yet I drew a blank and could only mention something about video before shifting the conversation to another topic.

I do lean towards more visual communication in the form of screencasts. But this question – what do you specialize in – and my lack of an immediate, easy response echoed in the back of my mind throughout the conference. What do I specialize in? Is it really video, or is it something else?

History of Technology

During the conference, several presenters gave a tour through the history of technology, giving the historical background as a preface for questions about change – resisting change, anticipating it, or understanding it, and so on. The “history of technology” theme does get a little overplayed at times. (One person noted that she'd seen a slide of the Gutenberg press three different times in the same day.)

I mention the history of technology theme because it happens to tie in well with my question about specialization.

On another occasion, I heard Clark Gilbert, a Deseret News media CEO, explore the history of technology with a slightly different angle. Gilbert wanted to know why some companies overlook disruptive technology and can't see its potential until it's too late — until the new technology overtakes them and puts them out of business.

He cited the example of the telephone. At the time the first telephones were invented, telephones functioned poorly. You could hardly hear another person 50 feet away. Companies looked at this new technology and scoffed. The telegraph was far superior, allowing people to communicate hundreds of miles away in a quick, efficient manner. They rejected Alexander Graham Bell's telephone and didn't see much use for it.

You know what happens next. Phone technology improves, and improves some more, until it becomes far better than the telegraph. By the time the telegraph companies realized this, it was too late. Bell's telephone dominated the communications market.

You find the same story about a lot of new technology. When the computer was first invented, not many people knew what to do with it. How could it possibly be useful? Who might want such a device? Most companies didn't jump on computer technology. The computer cost way too much, did little, and didn't seem to have any immediate commercial or personal applications.

Once the technology matured, however, it became the dominant technology. Similar stories abound about other technologies. Look at Netflix. Or Amazon. Or Skype. Or tablets. All seemed to so quiet at first – until they suddenly dominated the market.

Gilbert asserted that companies often miss the opportunity to jump on new technology because the new technology isn't fully mature. Because the new technology isn't mature, it doesn't perform at the same level, and so it looks weak. Because there are no immediately observable benefits from adopting the new technology, or even immediate applications of the new technology, companies overlook it and continue with the dominant technology.

But technology improves at a near exponential rate, getting faster and richer and more robust with each passing year. At some point, the emerging technology overtakes the dominant technology and disrupts the market.

The key to winning in the market, then, is to identify potentially disruptive technologies that aren't yet dominant, that are brewing and percolating and getting stronger and stronger in the background. And then to embrace these technologies early, before they mature and disrupt the market.

Extending the Same Argument to Careers

You could make the same argument about careers as you can with technology. If you can anticipate industry trends before they become trends, you have a strong chance of dominating the industry if you're the first one on scene with a mastery of the needed skills.

Malcolm Gladwell describes this phenomenon in Outliers: The Story of Success. The trick is to accrue about 10,000 hours in the right skill a few years before the demand for that skill hits its peak. He mentions Bill Gates as an example. Gates developed an early interest in computers – before anyone knew computers would be the next big thing. He had access to a nearby computing facility where he could study and learn how computers worked as well as how to program.

When computer technology advanced and matured and became the next big thing, Gates was right there, like a surfer who has waited patiently for a swelling wave to finally crest. And now that the wave crests, he's there to ride it.

Timing is key. If you begin to develop the skills too late, you miss out on the right opportunities. The question for any tech comm professional, then, is what technologies are bubbling in the background, waiting to emerge?

Examples of Successful Surfers

A few years ago I talked to Neil Perlin at the STC Summit. He told me he planned to specialize in mobile, because so many trends, he observed, pointed in this direction. Sure enough, for the next few conferences, everything I saw Neil present about had something to do with mobile. He specialized in mobile. Now that smartphones are everywhere, I imagine Neil's skills are relevant as ever.

The same might be said about Joe Welinske. Joe saw the upcoming trend in mobile and studied early. When smartphones and apps started saturating the market, Joe was already a mobile expert. He had already published a book on doing user assistance for mobile apps, and completed many projects involving mobile documentation.

What should you specialize in? If you want to be strategic, specialize in something that's not dominant at the moment but will be in the near future. Learn everything you can about it. Accrue 10,000 hours of practice with that skill. Once the technology and skill becomes mainstream, you'll be in high demand for your talents.

Aligning Interests with Upcoming Trends

Having thought about the specialty question a bit, I decided to see how others would respond. During one of the Lavacon dinners, I had a conversation with Marcia Johnston, author of a new book Word Up. In fact, she just published her book through Powell's bookstore at the time of the conference. If you don't know, Powell's is a bookstore that spans an entire city block.

Marcia and I talked about disruptive technologies and the importance of anticipating trends early rather than reacting to them too late. So I said, “Marcia, what do you specialize in?”

Marcia explained that she took a somewhat different approach to specialization. Although lots of tech comm people specialize in mobile or XML, video, business analysis, content management systems, or some other technology, she wanted to specialize in content itself.

For all the talk about the importance of content, you would think there would be more focus on improving content. But there isn't. Marcia's book explores ways to improve your content – by implementing better style, grammar, clarity, and other writing techniques.

(By the way, her book is very good – it's clever, witty, and fun to read. I read an early draft copy. It's a compilation of short little essays on dozens of different writing techniques. If you want to improve your writing, definitely check out Word Up.)

The problem, Marcia said, is that many people don't feel writing is sexy enough to specialize in. In the field of technical communication, everyone is already a writer. So to say you specialize in writing is a bit redundant. Writing skills are nothing special – at least that's the perception, even if it may be wrong.

Marcia added that although she could specialize in some other technology, her real passion is writing, so all of these other focuses seem secondary to her real interest.

I agree with Marcia. I may do video. I may present on voiceover techniques for multimedia. (In fact, my presentation on this subject turned out pretty well, I think.) But where is my passion? What keeps me up at night? What do I excel the most in? Writing.

If writing is your passion too, you may find yourself in the same boat. How can you make writing sexy enough so that you can assert, without embarrassment, that it's your specialty? Most of the time, consultants, vendors, and industry experts say, without much resistance from the audience, that writing has become a commodity. As a commodity, writing isn't a skill that you can count on to secure your place in the tech writing profession.

Anticipating Trends

Since writing is as old as Mesopotamia, it's certainly not an anticipation of a new trend, right? If you want to be strategic, and specialize ahead of time in the next big thing, writing would probably be the last thing you chose to specialize in. (Okay, maybe fire building from flint might be a little worse.)

Marcia acknowledged these concerns. As a way to make writing more sexy, she said writing for mobile might be one angle. Learning how to compress your writing into half the size and still communicate the same information is certainly relevant to mobile trends. And shaving off ten percent of your copy can save thousands in translation, which ties in with globalization trends.

Another presenter did say that minimalism enjoyed a lot of popularity as a tech comm session. Still, rather than a celebration of writing, minimalism seems to celebrate the reduction of writing. If designers could compress an entire paragraph into one word, all the better. And if they can design the UI to discard that word altogether, that's the goal.

Is there space for a writer in the technical communication field? One of Jack Molisani's constant encouragements for career success is to make your career a hybrid. You're not just a writer. You're a writer/project manager, or a writer/usability expert, a writer/instructional designer, a writer/marketer, or in the case of Jack, a writer/conference organizer.

I had a conversation with Don Day at Lavacon that epitomized this dual role. Don, I learned, has been programming his own wiki powered by DITA. I asked if he was doing the actual programming, or if he was just directing the programming. Yep, it turns out Don has programming skills. He's one of the few tech comm people who isn't at the mercy of tool vendors and other engineers to provide software solutions. As a writer/programmer/DITA expert, Don knows how to do this himself.

Getting Lost in Powell's

At the end of the conference, I still mulled over the question of specialization. I walked with Fer O'Neil, another presenter, down to Powell's Books. Powell's Books is a series of multi-level buildings that have been converted into a gargantuan, endless bookstore. I believe it's the largest bookstore in the nation, mixing new and used books together in a surprisingly organized fashion. You can even download an app to navigate inside the bookstore – it's that big.

After browsing the children's books, looking for gifts for my kids, I followed Fer to the German section. Apparently Fer reads German. He said it's really hard to find novels in German. Powell's had a whole aisle of German books (but at really high prices, like $30 for a German Dr. Seuss, which only makes sense because how the heck do you translate Dr. Seuss?).

Fer soon left for the airport, and since I had a several more hours before my plane departed, I started to get lost in Powell's. “I got lost in the city of books” is actually one of the T-shirts or mugs you can buy, so it's somewhat cliché. But whether intentional or not, I slipped down one aisle after another into various sections.

I soon found my way to the essays. My background, what I got a master's degree in at Columbia's School of the Arts about ten years ago, is literary nonfiction, and I love the personal essay.

I browsed all the anthologies on essays. So many interesting collections, but all so old – writers writing about topics current and relevant in their day, but now not so much. For example, Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays are classics, but who wants to read about nineteenth century topics?

The printed essay form is somewhat dead, I'm convinced. I'm not sure it ever took off. Essays always occupy a tiny little section in any bookstore, if at all. In school, I wanted to write essays, perhaps for a magazine. But that idea never panned out. Financial reality set in, and I became a copywriter and later a technical writer instead.

Like Marcia, my interest in tech comm – why I earned a BA in English, why I earned an MFA in nonfiction, and why I pursued jobs teaching composition, copy editing, and doing technical writing – isn't because I wanted to pursue some hybrid aspect of the career, such as video. If I had loved video, I would have gone to film school. It's not because I love project management, or I would have gotten my PMP. It's not because I love XML, or I would have become a document engineer.

I became a writer because I love writing. And what kind of writing? Story. Not the fantasy or fiction stories so much, though I do like fiction. I like story in any form, and frequently in nonfiction form. I love to see the mind in action, thinking through a problem, crawling toward a resolution. The essay may have died as a print form, but it's enjoyed a glorious rebirth in blogs — at least for those bloggers who follow an essayistic form.

Story, of course, is even older than writing. As an oral tradition, story predates writing by thousands of years. Would it be a backwards step — no, a leap backwards — to specialize in something so ancient and archaic, so unrelated to tech and unrelated to tech comm, as story?

Browsing down the aisles, I spotted a book at the end called Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, by Lisa Cron. Cron writes:

We think in story. It's hardwired in our brain. It's how we make strategic sense of the otherwise overwhelming world around us. Simply put, the brain constantly seeks meaning from all the input thrown at it, yanks out what's important for our survival on a need-to-know basis, and tells us a story about it, based on what it knows of our past experience with it, how we feel about it, and how it might affect us (p.8).

In a world of information explosion and glut, with so many real-time facts and notes and statements and news items and studies and reports and tweets and blog posts thrown at us with such relentless and unending intensity, we need story to make sense of it all. Story shapes the bits of data and information into meaning. In a world of too much information, could anything be more relevant than a form that allows people to "make strategic sense of the otherwise overwhelming world around us"?

I get inundated with so much information, in fact, that during one Lavacon session on webinars that Sharon Burton was presenting, the session was about half way over, and I noticed in my Twitter stream that Chuck Martin, a prolific note taker and journalist, already posted a live blog of Sharon's session. I strated reading a summary of an ongoing session while listening to the session. This is strange, I thought.

But more information isn't always what we want. I would have traded Chuck's entire summary for a few analytic insights and opinions. We are searching for information, sure, but we don't just input this information into our brains, like lifeless robots downloading data. We need story to make sense of it all. Story organizes and shapes the information into intelligible and actionable meaning.

What Is Story

My definition of story encompasses any effort to overcome increasingly difficult obstacles to achieve a goal. Many times these obstacles are mental hurdles to an abstract goal -- this is more often the case with an essay. The ability to tell a story, to see a story, to shape a story, and ultimately to write a story applies to a lot of different efforts, from presentations to e-learning to leadership to marketing and more.

Telling the story of your product, stories about how customers are using your product, and stories about how your product interacts with other products, is an art. If you master it, then you are, to quote Cron in another chapter, “among the most powerful people in the world” (p.2).

With information doubling, tripling, and quadrupling in shorter and shorter time periods on the web, can you imagine what life will be like in 10 to 20 years, when the web is much larger than it is now? When any information you could possibly want to know exists in seventeen different posts on the first results of Google? Then what?

At that point, all the information will be noise. What will matter the most at the end of the day -- what will align people to your company and product – is story.

I don't know if I will really specialize in story, but it's something that fascinates me. Story easily ties in with other end goals. Increased focus on story will raise your visibility. Raised visibility increases search engine optimization. Raised visibility fulfills goals of marketing as well.

You could lump this into content marketing, content strategy, or some other larger and more professionally sounding umbrella. In that sense, specializing in story is a sub-specialization of content strategy/marketing/optimization. But whatever the formal title, stories are still the pistons driving the engine.


One of my favorite conversations at Lavacon was with Mark Baker. After everyone else headed to the bar, we talked a bit about blogging. I asked Mark why he started blogging. He said a few years ago, his contract with a company ended, and he wanted to increase his visibility in the marketplace. So he started a blog: Every Page Is Page One.

Mark said that when he first started out, he had trouble figuring out the format. The blog format? I asked. What was it that you found difficult?

Getting the form right, he said. It wasn't until Tina Klein Walsh pointed me to your blog that I finally got a sense of how it worked. Your “blog as essay” approach made sense to me, and that's what I followed, he said.

The “blog as essay” approach is essentially the “blog as story” approach. To “essay” means to attempt. An essayist makes an attempt at some usually abstract goal. Similarly, in a story, a protagonist attempts some goal as well. Both find a resolution that changes the state of things. The two forms are similar enough that a good essay has all the elements of a good story.

Mark's blog is now one of the top blogs in technical communication. And the contracts? I asked. Has the blog led to more contracts and leads? He nodded his head – Oh yes, he said. Definitely.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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