An interview with Megan Gilhooly, Senior Director of Self-Help and Content Strategy.
By Scott Abel | Fellow
In this installment of “Meet the Change Agents,” I chat with Megan Gilhooly, Senior Director of Self-Help and Content Strategy at Reltio, a cloud-native data management platform. We delve into her vision for an integrated self-help portal and explore the insights she’s gained in creating an outstanding (and award-worthy) technical product information experience.
A seasoned content expert and polymath, Gilhooly’s expertise spans the complexities of generating, managing, and delivering technical documentation at scale. Her background includes working with software vendors that develop tools for content teams and leading strategies for innovative content creation groups that produce complex technical product information. Recently, Gilhooly’s team was a finalist in the Software and Information Industry Association’s 38th annual 2023 CODiE Awards in the Best Knowledge Center/Help Site category.
Scott: Before diving into the details surrounding the unified self-help portal you’ve built at Reltio, tell our audience about yourself and the experiences that have shaped how you think about content.
Megan: Hey, Scott! So lovely to have a new label – “Content Polymath.” Love it!
I’ve been in content my entire career, starting as a print journalist before websites were a thing. I happened into technical writing and grew my career from an individual contributor upwards, and I’ve worked in all sizes of companies, from 12-person start-ups to Amazon. Every one of those roles inspired how I think about content delivery and content consumption.
Amazon influenced me as a leader, although our content delivery mechanisms were surprisingly archaic on my teams. There was a big appetite for innovation, so being there helped me think about what we could do for customers.
Scott: The name of this column is “Meet The Change Agents.” You’ve been an advocate for — and a practitioner of — evidence-informed change. What evidence did you collect to help inform your change-related decisions at Reltio? Provide an example.
Megan: I love the idea of evidence-informed change — keeping history visible in the rearview mirror to guide you while not allowing it to hold you back. I’m also a big believer in solving the problems that matter and prioritizing problems over promises. What I mean by this is find the 1–3 issues that are critical to your team’s (or company’s) success, and then focus on solving those rather than thinking about your favorite software tool and advocating for it using a laundry list of promises you believe the tool could help you keep.
Here’s an example from my time at Reltio, where I prioritized issues. We had a home-grown documentation portal and no taxonomy. We stored content in a software code repository. Our India team worked through the night every Wednesday to publish content. Not to create and review content but to publish it (something that should have taken minutes, not overnight).
Our process efficiency relied on humans behaving predictably and making no mistakes. We designed our process around tools, not content. And we were using software tools designed for purposes other than creating and managing technical content.
While those obstacles were challenges, they were also opportunities to create a better content experience. Solving our publishing problem allowed us to select fit-for-purpose software. Investing in the tech stack also provided us with opportunities to overcome additional challenges.
More importantly, when I presented the C-suite with data showing how and why our writers worked overnight, no one questioned whether or not we had a problem worth solving. Reltio cares about its employees, so it was a straightforward decision.
Scott: Describe the workflow used by Reltio to produce docs before making changes in the content production approach. And talk about the challenges those processes introduced.
Megan: The team had an impressive workflow. They had processes documented, and they followed them to the best of their ability. We relied on manual intervention while attempting to navigate a less-than-optimal tech stack. The team got requests via JIRA, wrote in Google Docs, went back and forth between subject-matter experts (SMEs), then transferred the final draft content to XML using Oxygen. We stored our docs in BitBucket, a Git repository for software developers, and then moved them into our home-grown portal.
One of our biggest challenges was updating content. Writers had to navigate a series of time-consuming manual tasks, jumping in and out of multiple software products to create and deliver technical information. Writers and SMEs found the productivity-zapping experience frustrating and error-prone.
Scott: Could you share a story about a challenge worth overcoming and how your new content production capabilities eliminated that obstacle?
Megan: Yes! The publishing pipeline required the team to go through nine steps; after every three, there was a check-in. They had to return to the beginning and start over if there were any conflicts or failures. On a perfect day, we could publish in 2 hours, but needing to move content between Google Docs and Oxygen multiple times ensured conflicts. Every conflict added an hour or more to the publishing process.
Every Wednesday, my team in India had what we not-so-affectionately — but in good humor — dubbed “publishing pajama parties.” Our new strategy aimed to eliminate all-nighters. The slide deck I presented to the executives showed people working in their pajamas that said, “No more Publishing Pajama Parties.” This visual was an excellent way to start the conversation.
I focused discussions on overcoming the underinvestment in content since the company’s inception.
The argument was:
- Content is mission critical (with evidence to back that statement up).
- The company spent next to nothing on content (with exact dollar amounts).
- If we want the content to contribute to case deflection, customer retention, and expansion and positively impact customer experience, we must spend the money necessary to get it right.
I convinced leadership to provide financial support to change the content game completely. The bedrock investment was in the Heretto component content management system (CCMS) and documentation portal.
Heretto enables us to avoid publishing through the night. Now, our US folks prepare content, and our colleagues in India publish it in minutes — during their regular working hours. No one loses sleep while publishing! We use the time we save to create increasingly helpful content.
Scott: How did you determine the vision for your new approach to content at Reltio?
Megan: I collected data about everything. Some of it was worth it. Much of it was not. But you don’t know what data is — or isn’t — worthwhile until you monitor it for a few months. Without data, you’ll find yourself in a position where you’re trying to sell promises to your execs and your customers.
Data allows you to pinpoint the crucial issues that need resolving.
Scott: What did you require to produce content at the necessary scale and speed to fulfill customer demands and achieve business objectives?”
Megan: We needed five things.
- Automated editing (so our one Managing Editor didn’t become a bottleneck)
- Scale video production (and updating to eliminate the old branding)
- A content management system designed to manage XML content properly
- A delivery mechanism (a portal to make content easily discoverable)
- Federated search that provides results across our digital assets (training, community, documentation portal, developer portal, and ideas portal).
Scott: What are your goals for your new-and-improved self-help support portal, and how will you measure success?
Megan: In the first year, we measured success by decreasing the time to resolve documentation requests. We reduced the backlog of documentation tickets by achieving a specific content quality score and reducing publishing time (to eliminate pajama parties).
This year we’re looking to grow and activate the team to optimize this new process. We’re working to reduce our time to resolve tickets, refresh a large percentage of our content, and reinvigorate the developer experience by unifying Swagger content from the developer portal with content in the documentation portal. Our documentation and user experience teams will work together to build helpful in-product documentation and guides.
Scott: What factors influenced your decision to power your self-help portal with XML DITA content managed in a component content management system? Were any other approaches considered? If so, why did you settle on XML DITA with a CCMS?
Megan: Honestly, it was the opposite. The team already used DITA XML but needed the right strategy and DITA-savvy leader. I was likely chosen for this job because I knew how to create and drive the strategy for DITA content, not the other way around.
Now that AI is available, having structured content in clean DITA makes everything much more manageable. So, whoever chose DITA before did so correctly. They just needed the strategic muscle to do it well.
Scott: What capabilities does Reltio require of its CCMS?
Megan: We need a CCMS to help us scale our content operations by empowering us to manage single-source content (with relevant links and conflicts shown upfront). We need an intuitive user interface for those involved in creating, reviewing, and publishing content. And we need our authoring environment to support real-time collaboration for subject matter expert (SME) reviews. We need an easy, one-push multi-channel publishing mechanism that will work with localized content in the future. And we need intuitive, simple-to-use process workflows.
Scott: Providing a great authoring experience is critical to gaining acceptance from writers. What authoring tool (or tools) did you select and why?
Megan: In the past, our writers used the Oxygen XML Editor to create DITA content. Although Oxygen performs well for its intended purpose, it doesn’t address our specific challenges. We need authoring software to optimize the review process so SMEs can review in a familiar interface (WYSIWYG) without playing electronic hopscotch between disjointed software tools.
We selected Heretto’s browser-based collaborative authoring tool because it has everything we need. It looks and feels familiar (think Google Docs) and has an intuitive user interface for everyone involved in content creation and review. Our authoring environment must facilitate real-time collaboration during subject matter expert (SME) reviews.
I’m a big fan of Oxygen and its capabilities. However, to operationalize content production, you need to choose the tools that best fit the task, not just stick with the ones you’re familiar with out of habit.
Scott: What evidence do you have that your new unified self-help portal delivers value to your customers and the business?
Megan: The most significant evidence is that when people ask questions about our products in our Slack channel, the answers increasingly include links to topics in our XML DITA-powered documentation portal! Another indicator is the reduction in requests for content from our support team. When we don’t produce the right content, our support team contacts us, which tells me it’s valuable to the business because they rely on it.
But building value isn’t a one-and-done project. It’s a living thing. You don’t come in, fix stuff, and then declare success. It’s an evolutionary process that involves continuous monitoring, measuring, adapting, and updating.
In Amazon’s 20th annual shareholder letter, Jeff Bezos said, “One thing I love about customers is that they are divinely discontent.” I agree with Bezos. Customer expectations are consistently rising. That’s human nature. As soon as you solve one problem, they want the next one solved — more quickly than the last time and to a higher standard.
So, I use requests/feedback/complaints as a barometer. If people complain that they can’t find or understand anything, that’s bad. When you fix that, you’ll hear people complaining about certain pages. Then you’ll hear that people don’t like a particular word. When you get to that last complaint, you’ve won the content game because not only are people accessing your content, they care about it so much that they have an opinion about one word!
Scott: Change is often difficult. What lessons did you learn about introducing change to your staff that you can share with our readers?
Megan: This isn’t a lesson learned this time as much as a reminder — people hate change, some more than others. Some people will be right there with you, asking great questions and trying to move forward, while others will dig in their heels and fight against you the whole way. It would be best if you had some of both types of people to make the best decisions, but you also need to provide strategies for the latter to ensure progress. As the team leader, you must balance empathy for the heel diggers while not allowing them to paralyze the team.
Despite the differences, it’s essential to stay positive. I don’t mean excessive optimism that strays from reality. I mean don’t be an opposing force or run around using your ridiculously busy initiative as an excuse to be mean. And don’t stand for your team being mean to each other. Embrace the process and find some humor to help everyone overcome the challenge these changes introduce.
Scott: Let’s take a look toward the future. What changes to your self-help system capabilities would you like to implement moving forward?
Megan: We’re doubling down on in-product guides and investing in exceptional experiences for users of our knowledge center (product information and documentation portal). We’re working on adding contextualized help with snippets of microcontent and making complete documentation available inside our product. And we’re excited about finding ways to use GPT-like content extraction to help customers find the answer they need.
Scott: Wow! That was a great interview. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience with Intercom readers, Megan. We appreciate you making time to do so.
In the digital age, change happens quickly. This column features interviews with the movers and shakers — the folks behind new ideas, standards, methods, products, and amazing technologies that are changing the way we live and interact in our modern world. Got questions, suggestions, or feedback? Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.