A “Double-Double” Career: A Conversation with Saul Carliner

By Phylise Banner | Fellow

Over the past 35 years, Saul Carliner has contributed in a variety of ways to the field of technical communication, including co-editing a popular textbook in the field (Techniques for Technical Communicators, edited with Carol Barnum), editing the IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication—one of the major journals in the field—designing STC international and regional conferences, serving as STC President, regularly publishing in Technical Communication (where he has received a record six awards in the Frank R. Smith Outstanding Article Competition) and Intercom, and receiving all of the top career achievement awards from the STC, including Fellow, the President’s Award, two Distinguished Chapter Service Awards, the Kenneth Rainey Award for Excellence in Research, and the Jay R Gould Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Saul describes his career as a double-double career: with stints in industry and academia each in technical communication and instructional design (educational technology). He is currently a Professor of Educational Technology at Concordia University, where he served as Provost’s Fellow for e-Learning for four years, is a member of the Faculty Senate, and has received the Alumni Award for Teaching and been inducted into Provost’s Circle of Distinction. Also an industry consultant, he has provided strategic advice and workshops to organizations throughout the world like Alltel Wireless, Bronx Zoo, Chubb Insurance, IBM, Lowe’s, PwC, Turkish Management Centre and several U.S. and Canadian government agencies.

He has published 10 books, 50 peer-reviewed articles, and over 200 professional articles. He is a Fellow and Chair of the Certification and Education Advisory Committees for the Canadian-based Institute for Performance and Learning and a past Research Fellow of the Association for Talent Development.

I do not recall when or how Saul and I met, but I can tell you that he once saved my life. He was at the wheel of my car driving home from a friend’s wedding talking vehemently about what we can learn from TV, when a car skidded in front of us, spun 180 degrees, and ended up facing us. Saul swerved around the car effortlessly, and never stopped talking. If you know Saul, you know exactly what I mean.

It was an honor to interview my favorite STC rock star, Summit mentor, and life saver, Saul Carliner.

Phylise Banner: Tell us about your education, and let’s start with an overall picture of where you went to school and what you studied.

Saul Carliner: As an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University, I majored in practically everything. Seriously.

When I wasn’t trying to drop out of school between my freshman year and the end of my junior year, I changed majors. Then I started adding them. During those years, academics weren’t particularly important to me. Student activities were, and I served as managing editor of the school paper, editor-in-chief of the yearbook, class representative on the College Council, and as a member of a number of other groups. At first, they were just fun but eventually they influenced my choice of majors and careers. By my senior year, I officially had three majors—Economics, Professional Writing, and Public Policy and Management—as well as a minor in Administration and Management Science. (I was one course shy of a major.)

But when I graduated with my degree, I never intended to return to school and distinctly remember taking one last look at the library and saying, “I never have to set foot inside a classroom again.”

“Never” happened four years later, when I took my first graduate course. By then, I was working as a technical writer for IBM in Rochester, Minnesota, working on computer documentation and began my first stint with volunteering with STC. I delivered my first conference presentation that term, at the STC conference in Seattle. I was now taking my career as seriously as I had not taken my education, and wanted to earn a master’s degree. Rochester did not have a university; Winona State was the nearest school and I expected to get a master’s degree in English. The term I took that course, I transferred into manufacturing training and began developing training programs. That’s when I first learned about instructional design and also learned that the University of Minnesota had a degree program in technical communication. I transferred to that program the following fall and completed a master of agriculture (you read that correctly) in technical communication. For the first half of the program, I commuted from Rochester to St. Paul once a week—about two hours each way. I took an educational leave to complete the degree as a full-time student. While studying, I integrated work and STC projects into class assignments, like a study of participants in the STC Annual Conference and guest editing an issue of Technical Communication (my first).

As I was completing the degree, I decided that I wanted to continue my education. But I also realized I was not the type of person who could be a full-time PhD student, so I returned to IBM, but transferred to Atlanta where I first worked as an instructional designer on the elearning programs for the original IBM PC and its replacement, the PS/2. About a year and a half later, I started a part-time PhD in instructional technology—the academic field underlying instructional design—at Georgia State University. My classmates were primarily academics seeking a credential to further their careers; I was the only practicing professional. As with my master’s studies, I integrated work and STC projects into my studies. Perhaps the most significant was an article in Technical Communication about what students should expect from a professionally oriented master’s degree, which was a class project for a curriculum design course.

Two terms after I started my PhD studies, I changed jobs again; as a marketing programs administrator with a newly formed business unit whose mission was to sell IBM’s customer education programs. Although my responsibilities evolved over the first year of the job, I eventually received responsibility for all marketing communications in the business unit, which gave me another perspective on communication. In addition, I had employee communication responsibilities in all of my jobs, too, producing newsletters, speech writing, and writing policies and procedures guides, depending on the need.

Also central to my education were some of the education courses I took on the job. While I was working in the product development lab at IBM, I took several courses on computer science that were equivalent to masters’ level courses, and took additional ones when I was working in Atlanta. I also took some of IBM’s famous sales school (just part, not the entire program) and completed a couple of MBA courses that the company offered through its training.

Although I have been fortunate to complete two graduate degrees, I am also fortunate to have had so many opportunities to learn through formal training and on-the-job; and all have contributed to my career and influenced my interests.

Phylise: You’ve worn quite a few hats over the years. Looking back, can you share how your vocation has evolved to where you are now?

Saul: Although I did not originally design my early career the way it unfolded, I did have an explicit goal of trying to spend my first 10 years experiencing all parts of the corporation—product development, manufacturing, operations, and marketing—which I pretty much did, but did so while working in some sort of communications capacity. Even when I worked as an instructional designer, I saw myself more as a writer rather than an educator, even though instructional design is a sub-discipline of education. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to remain at a large company for the rest of my career.

One of my original thoughts was that I would launch a consulting practice when I finished my PhD. But IBM was downsizing and offering a generous severance package to volunteers, so I decided to move up the schedule a few years.

But my first assignment was teaching a master’s course on online information at Southern Tech (now Kennesaw State). And I really liked teaching. But I also liked industry, and spent the next decade going back and forth between academe and industry, between technical communication and instructional design, and literally bouncing all over the place: moving back to Minnesota (where I worked for a consulting firm then the University of Minnesota in the department where I earned my master’s degree), then to Massachusetts (for another academic position in technical communication) to Hong Kong (where I taught and helped set up a research unit in technical communication) and eventually Montreal (for my current position). In between bouncing back and forth and moving all around, I figured out a lot about myself.

Helping with this discovery were a few pivotal consulting assignments. One was a partnership with what is now Lakewood Media. I was asked to help with the planning of their first Online Learning Conference and write a white paper about online learning that would support the event. The 20-page white paper grew to about 120 but rather than being angry with me, the client loved it, posted it on their site, and it became their top visited item in the early years of online learning. They also invited me to develop a number of workshops for their conferences, and provided me with the opportunity to host their conferences in Singapore and their Training Director’s Forum. A third involved developing an elearning strategy for medical device manufacturer, which taught me about working with stakeholders as well as how to clearly structure and promote a plan.

Also helping with this discovery, were a few pivotal volunteer assignments. One was serving as a volunteer administrator with the Pan African Institute for Development in Buea, Cameroon, where I spent the summer of 1996 while Olympic visitors had rented my home. Another was participating in several community leadership development programs, including one in Atlanta and another in the Twin Cities. But the most significant was my term as STC President, an experience that my predecessor Liz Babcock and I labeled as equivalent to an MBA. I learned about nonprofit management and governance, two areas in which I continue to work to this day.

What I learned through this is that I wanted to work on some long-term projects that might not have commercial potential, a goal that’s better suited to an academic career than an industry one. Those projects straddle the line between corporate communications and corporate training, so I didn’t really have to make a choice between them. But I would have to find a department that would support this dual set of interests, and I found that at my present university, which I joined in 2003. And after 10 years of changing jobs and states or countries about every 18 to 24 months, I’ve had a remarkably stable life for the past decade and a half. The only move I’ve made is to a new office, when my entire department moved last summer.

Phylise: Which projects were your favorites, and why?

Saul: Before I left industry for academe, I worked on a variety of projects: user guides, elearning courses, and marketing communication programs. Many were memorable but three stand out.

One was my first major projects: a troubleshooting guide for a mid-range computer (one in which a central processor would run between 10 and 300 workstations). It was a classic technical communication conundrum: the engineers developed the most complex computer on the market at the time and, between releases 2 and 3, decided that system operators should diagnose problems on their own before calling for service. Unfortunately, the system wasn’t designed to support that. We battled for a year over the presentation strategy, ultimately challenging one another to a usability test. Theirs failed completely while ours generally worked. An article on the resulting product was my first in Technical Communication.

A second was a marketing communications program for IBM Education, which had just been established as a separate business unit. I developed and implemented a corporate identity program, and oversaw all placement regarding advertising and promotion. For the business unit, the effort contributed to our doubling our revenue in the time I worked there. For my career, the project provided a learning experience on whose lessons I continue to draw to this day. I learned about measuring the impact of communications (my first lesson was when I told my boss it wasn’t feasible and he explained how it was—I stood corrected), business strategy, the limits and challenges of complex content management systems (long before others were working with them), and the beauty of the Helvetica and Bodoni fonts (to this day, I think those two are among the classiest looking typefaces out there), among other topics.

In addition to traditional communication and training assignments, I’ve also worked on a variety of memorable projects through my roles in professional associations and as a faculty member. One of the things that I appreciate most about these projects is that some have a significant impact on people’s work and lives.

One such project has been my work on STC conferences. I served as program manager of the 1989 conference in Chicago and introduced a number of programming changes that STC continued to use, including progressions and post-session evaluations. Soon after, I became general manager of the 1992 conference for Atlanta (where I lived at the time). The then-STC President asked me to draft a broader plan for STC education that included both the conference and a broader education effort. Leveraging what I knew about the conferences and educational programs offered by other associations, I proposed a renamed and reworked STC Conference—the STC Summit (the first of which you and I worked on together)—as well as the certificate programs we offer online and at the conference.

A third project of which I am proud is my term as Editor-in-Chief of the IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication. It was a terrific experience and I had the great opportunity to work with Helen Grady, who’s one of the most low-key and supportive people I’ve met, and receive advice from, among others, George Hayhoe, who previously served as Editor-in-Chief of Technical Communication and succeeded me on the Transactions. As Transactions editor, I was able to do two things that were important to me. One was establishing a format for reporting research. It was a response to a theme that emerged in all of the peer reviews I received: every review asked authors to share one or another piece of technical information about their research. In most cases, authors had actually neglected to share the information because they didn’t realize it was necessary. In others, the authors actually had reported it but not where reviewers were looking for it. Ultimately, reporting research is a rhetorical genre with specific expectations—and our reporting format merely made those expectations explicit and ensured that like information was consistently reported in the same part of an article, regardless of the type of research. This, in turn, would address concerns that one research camp had with another, because it would make all research more transparent and the researcher’s choices clearer. Most significantly, this would facilitate the learning of researcher, because readers who became familiar with the format would be able to read across articles and observe how researchers working in different research traditions—critical, qualitative or quantitative—handled the same types of research choices.

This format also helped me to advise authors by providing them with more pointed advice rather than just saying “Hey, here are the reviews. Now go figure it out,” which is the typical response of editors. I always found that frustrating as an author. And, for the most part, the authors appreciated the extra step.

Phylise: What advice would you give to someone just starting out in the industry?

Saul: I’ve got two pieces of advice.

First, take the plunge, especially when opportunity knocks. It may be a new project, it may be a new job, or a volunteer opportunity. One of the best jobs I ever had I earned because of my volunteer experience. As I noted to the hiring manager, if he looked at the “experience” section of my resume, I didn’t have much that was relevant to the job. But if he looked at the “volunteer experiences” section, he’d find all of the relevant experience he sought, as well as the results to demonstrate that I had performed effectively in these positions.

But also take the plunge when it comes to advocating for yourself and taking initiative. In terms of advocating for yourself, don’t be afraid to politely address issues like promotions, raises, and performance appraisals. After all, it’s your career—and who else cares about it as much as you do. In terms of taking initiative, take initiative on projects. Don’t wait for technical experts to provide material for you—dig it up yourself and you’ll probably get more material from a greater variety of perspectives, which will allow you to prepare stronger content.

Similarly, take the initiative in networking and furthering your career. Go by yourself to an STC meeting or similar professional meet-up and introduce yourself to the people there. They might be strangers now, they could end up being your closest colleagues in the future.

The second piece of advice is to think about your whole life, not just a single career or life event. Most people starting their careers in their early to mid-twenties will be in the workforce for a minimum of 40 years and probably 50. Most career development books focus on the fact that you’ll be switching careers at least once and switching jobs even more than that.

With that in mind, look at people who are older than you; who are 40, 50, 60, and even 70. Who has a career that you admire? What do you admire about that? Could you integrate that characteristic into your career?

Just as importantly, think about people who have careers that you don’t admire. What is it that you don’t like about their careers? How did they end up there (to the best of your ability to figure that out)? How can you avoid this pit fall?

Also think about what you’d like to accomplish outside of your career, because life is about much more than work. Most of us want some sort of family and social life, some of us want to have an impact on the community, and some of us harbor “novelistic ambitions” (a term a co-worker of mine coined years ago). In fact, when I’m in a bookstore and going through the authors who contributed to a short story collection, I frequently find that some of the contributors work as technical writers.

PHYLISE BANNER is an online teaching and learning consultant with extensive experience in planning, designing, developing, delivering, and evaluating online courses, programs, and faculty development initiatives. Her work focuses on aligning institution-wide approaches to program, course, and professional development with teaching and learning effective practices and the Community of Inquiry framework. She is an Adobe Education Leader, STC Fellow, performance storyteller, avid angler, aviation enthusiast, and the proud owner of a 1967 Amphicar.

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