The story of an aspiring story-teller, from technology to journalism and beyond.
I have not always liked writing, neither have i always been that good at making cases and telling stories. Or at least, that’s what i used to think. See, my background is in software engineering, and for tech-minded people like i used to be anything other than being on the job and getting it done feels like a waste of time. Ask any software engineer which part of their job they like the least: most will tell you “documentation” and “deliverables”, meaning writing text as opposed to code.
Most engineers are not comfortable dealing with things that are not binary and cannot be put to the test: software either works or it doesn’t, for the most part. But writing any kind of text..that’s a different story. Sure, that’s an over-simplified view: there are non-functional aspects to software, as there are functional aspects to text, and not all engineers are 100% like that. Still, in my experience most come pretty close, and that over-simplification is not much of a stretch.
I was lucky enough to serve in roles that were both client-facing and team-leading from early on in my career. And this is what made me turn to writing – slowly, gently, but apparently unmistakeably. Granted, it started from a utilitarian point of view: faced with the need to document projects and/or software, or respond to RFPs, i quickly came to terms with the fact that having a solid grasp of something and being able to put that across for others to get is not the same thing, and is no easy feat either.
So that’s when the laconic and matter-of-factly style that i inherently adhered to and was under-appreciated in Greek classes came in handy. In technical writing, being concise is a virtue, and i quickly figured that keeping it simple is one too. I was able to pick up on feedback i would get from clients, managers and colleagues and figure out what worked and what didn’t, in my own engineering way. So i somehow came to terms with writing: i was no longer intimidated by it, and was even starting to enjoy the credit i would get for it. But that was about to change.
Going from industry to research was a major departure for many reasons, and my relationship with writing entered a new phase as well. It was not so much about having to adjust to different templates and tools, or to a formal writing process that reflected aspects of research as well as organizational structure. It was mostly about addressing a different audience in a different context: as a researcher, being able to show and tell to convince others about the value of what you’ve been toiling over in the lab is a major part of success.
It was there that i polished the art of writing not only for function, but also for appeal. Moving on from academic to industrial research the emphasis on that became even stronger, and routinely taking on the role of a reviewer also helped in developing empathy and a sense for what works for readers as well. I reached a point where i actually felt like i had developed a flair for writing, and i started receiving and treasuring positive comments on a regular basis.
But it took what at the time seemed like a series of unfortunate events to turn me into a full time writer. Joining Gigaom was half-chance, really. After leaving my job and shutting down my first startup, i turned to them almost on an impulse. Well that, plus the fact that i was impressed by the professionalism and friendliness i had experienced in my interaction with them as a client. So i basically came out of nowhere knocking on their door, asking if they could possibly use someone like me. Yes, they could.
Good timing apparently, as Gigaom was expanding to Europe and was interested in adding EU-based analysts to their lot. We got off to a slow and somewhat clumsy start, neither side being completely sure how this whole thing could work. It took me setting off on my own to write a market landscape for the then nascent agile BI market, and Gigaom getting it sponsored by Tableau. We never looked back after that, landing client after client, and telling story after story.
That’s what it had come down to: telling stories. Not just research or analysis or technical breakthroughs or visions or whatnot – stories. Because in the end of the day, that’s what people want to read. Why it’s important, how did it come to be, what’s it got to do with me, whodunnit. I got sucked up in this, and i guess i got somewhat good at this. Appreciating the challenge in finding and telling a good story in everything. It may look easier when you have big news/names, but the challenge is the same every time really: connecting the dots, finding an angle, making them care.
And now, a new chapter: ZDNet. Different, but then the same. Doing it every week. Keeping it short and sweet. Addressing a bigger audience. But then again: connecting the dots, finding an angle, making them care. We’ve only just begun, but we’re a good team and we’re in it for the ride, so i gotta feeling it’s going to be a good one. Now, if you can believe this, i caught myself identifying with journalists and nodding in sympathy watching His Girl Friday the other day. Yes, i know we’re not exactly getting scoops here..same difference though.
So, how/where does the story go from here? I got some ideas, and i got some plans too. Guess time will tell. But there’s one thing i know. This not-so-small-town boy has gotten to love telling stories..and will probably keep doing that in one way or another.