By Alyssa Fox | STC President
Following is an interview with Carla Johnson, Opening Keynote Speaker at the 65th annual Technical Communication Summit & Expo, conducted by STC President Alyssa Fox. More information about Carla can be found here. Don't miss her talk, Perpetual Innovation: How the World’s Most Innovative Teams Surface Great Ideas to Deliver Exponential Outcomes at the Opening General Session on Monday, 21 May at 9:00 AM EDT (GMT-4). If you haven't registered for the Summit, there's still time to secure the low Advance Rate before rates go up on 31 March.
Alyssa Fox: Thanks so much for joining us today, Carla. I’m thrilled to be talking with you.
Carla Johnson: Thanks! I’m excited to be here – I have a huge appreciation for the skills of this group.
Alyssa Fox: That's awesome to hear, because that's actually one of the questions I have for you.
Carla Johnson: Oh, yeah? Oh, that's fun.
Alyssa Fox: Yeah. I know we've got about 25 minutes, so I've just got a few questions. I figure we'll probably have a lot in common, because I too have a technical communication background, and I just moved into marketing last year through a content strategy path. So that's one reason I've been so pumped to talk to you.
Carla Johnson: Oh, excellent.
Alyssa Fox: Okay. Cool. We'll get into the STC thing, because that's a little further down, but I want to know a little bit about your company name, Type A Communications, because I'm a very type A person, and I'm wondering if that has something to do with your naming there. Can you tell me about how you came up with that?
Carla Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. I started it in July of 2001. It was end of June, first part of July. I quit my last corporate job in June of 2001, and I worked for Time Warner Telecom here in Denver. When I was going through the naming process of my company, I had lots of things that reflected, I guess, what I like about my personality or something that I thought was relevant to the brand. I have this dear friend who lives in New York City, who's about 10 or 15 years older than me. I had worked with her the last couple of years at Time Warner Telecom. I would run things past her and say, “What do you think of this? What do you think of this?” because she's a very astute businesswoman. Finally, one day, she said, “Just cut the crap. You should call yourself Type A Communications, because all you do is get things done.”
Carla Johnson: One of the reasons I had wanted to quit and start my own company is because I had spent a lot of time and money hiring freelance writers over my career, and I got really tired of paying people a lot of money for stuff that was barely usable, and in many cases, it wasn't usable at all. I said, “I can do better than this.” I always worked in environments that were very deadline driven, PR, communications, things for executives, things for sales people. When she said that, I thought, “Yeah. That does sound like me.” So I vetted it with a couple of people who knew me well and were also in the branding and communications community, and they said, “Yep. That's you.” So that's how the name came about.
Alyssa Fox: That's awesome. I like it, because right away, it gives me insight into how you are and how you work. I don't have to dig into the website any further than the front page to go, “Okay. I like her.”
Carla Johnson: Well, you know, I believe that great work doesn't have to take millions of dollars and years to get done.
Alyssa Fox: Yes. I agree. That's awesome. Okay. Now back to technical communication. I was going to ask you what your knowledge of technical communication was and your experience with that, and then of course, by extension, STC, since it's the STC summit. You started to talk about that a little bit, so can you expand on that? It sounds like you have actually done some technical communication work in your past, right?
Carla Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, I come from a family of engineers and science type people, highly left-brained people. I'm the youngest of five, and I'm fairly right-brained, but didn't figure that out until I was in electrical engineering for a couple of years in college and then finally went, “This clearly is not my thing.” I was great at science and math and everything that was a foundation of engineering, but it just wasn't my passion.
Carla Johnson: What I loved was people, and so I started my career doing marketing and business development for small architecture firms. The reason that they hired me is, first of all, is that I've always been a great writer, so I could communicate things. Then I had that bridge from engineering, and so I worked on proposals. I was able to take what it was that the architects and engineers wanted to say to this sometimes very lay audience, because if it was a community project, like a playhouse or a library or something like that, we had to be able to change how we talked about things so that people could understand it and understand the bigger story, what it is that we were trying to communicate. That's the first 10 years of my career. I worked for architects and engineers. Went from a six-person firm, and I started out drafting there, back in the old days before CAD, because I had taken enough engineering classes that I could do that.
Alyssa Fox: Oh, wow.
Carla Johnson: I did that in addition to marketing. The really great thing about starting my career in this industry is that I took a lot of the principles that architects and engineers use from a technical side and how they come to bringing ideas forward. For example, with architects, they'll start at the end with what is it that we want to create for a space? What do we want people to feel when they come in here? What do we want them to sense? All of the hearing, sights, sounds, smells, those kinds of things. Then they would reverse engineer it back to what it is that they actually designed. So that's how I started with marketing is looking at that and saying, “If what we want at the end of the day is for people to say yes to our proposal, feel great when they interact with our advertising or whatever it is, how do we reverse engineer that and create that as an experience, as a message, or as an idea or something like that?
Carla Johnson: Then along the way, I ended up getting a masters in history, which really, again, helped me with telling a story, particularly a technical story. One of the things that helped me get a job quickly was I could tell a story, and I knew the technical side of the industry. So I could sit down with an engineer, and they would look at me and go, “Okay. You actually get what we're talking about.” Not like most marketing people.
Carla Johnson: Then after two years, I left to start my own company, and just along the way, because I could understand the technical side of things, I did some technical writing, like process documentation and things like that for some of my clients.
Carla Johnson: So for me, who is so right-brained, it's a very thoughtful process. I know there are other people that this just comes so naturally to, and I think it's a blend of the two worlds, of the technical side and the communication side that I think is so great.
Alyssa Fox: Yeah. I actually have a history degree, too. I feel like I'm looking in the mirror here. That's hilarious.
Carla Johnson: Oh, yeah. That's so great. Yeah.
Alyssa Fox: I totally get what you're saying about the blend, because I was laid off in November from my previous company that I was at for 17 years and I’ve seen some of that in my job search.
Carla Johnson: Oh, my gosh.
Alyssa Fox: I was very concerned about getting a new job, because almost my entire career was in technical communication. I was looking for a marketing position, and I was worried people would be like, “You've been in marketing eight months. This isn't going to happen.” But the job I'm currently at, I'm actually running marketing for a start-up because of my technical background. I've just been shocked at what an asset that's been versus a hindrance, because I was very concerned that people were going to be like, “We need the creative marketing, blah, blah, blah.” But the blend of the two is really coming out as something that's an asset. That surprised me.
Carla Johnson: Absolutely. When you look at the world and what's going on and what's changing with AR and AI and all of this stuff, and if you aren't able to speak that technical language, you're really limiting your career. It's not just career advancement. In a lot of cases, it's just being able to keep your job.
Alyssa Fox: Yeah, absolutely. I even talked to one CMO who told me that the technical aspect was an asset because of all the martech stuff that's going on.
Carla Johnson: Absolutely.
Alyssa Fox: You can't hardly be a modern marketer without understanding some bit of the tools and systems that we're using to do what we're doing.
Carla Johnson: That's it. You look at Scott Brinker's map. I don't know if it's out, but I think last year, it was over 5,000 different platforms that you can manage. It feels like an infinite number of channels to connect with somebody. If that's the case, you have to have that technical understanding of things.
Alyssa Fox: Yeah, absolutely. Along those lines, I've read your book, Experiences.
Carla Johnson: Oh, great.
Alyssa Fox: I actually read it last year. You and Robert obviously talk about the importance of content-driven experience. I mentioned earlier that I made my way to marketing through content strategy, so I am whole hog bought into content marketing and driving things around content. Even though that book is primarily aimed at marketers, how do you see technical content creators being part of that sea change and where content is in industries nowadays?
Carla Johnson: I think it's a huge part of it, because if we look at our world, it's a digital world first. If people can't get it on their phone or their tablet or whatever they need or want in the instant that they're in that situation, then you're not in consideration, whether that means it's a purchase decision, whether it's a, “I need my question answered. Who can I trust as a brand?” kind of decision. So we have to look at all of those things and what it is … It goes back to the architect thing. What's the experience we want to create, and then how do we actually get to that? There's so much that happens with being able to communicate that, because we know a lot of marketers aren't comfortable in that world. So technical communicators, they're really the bridge to talk about how do we make this happen? How behind the scenes, when you pull the curtain back, what is it that's happening here that we need to think about that we're not or that we need to see where the ball is being dropped and it's not the experience that it should be?
Alyssa Fox: Yeah, absolutely. I totally agree with that. I'm seeing it more and more, too, as we start to bring the marketing and technical worlds together and try to tell that consistent story. I think one of the biggest problems that technical communicators have had in the past, and this is something that ever since I've been involved with STC, I've been trying to work on this with our members, is that we don't see our place in a new, innovative, changing, digitally-focused, growing world and showing the value that we really do bring to organizations. It's not just about … I use this phrase all the time … writing documentation in the corner anymore.
Carla Johnson: Absolutely. I think that's really where there's the biggest opportunity for technical communicators that they don't see, is because so many companies focus on the buyer's journey. But if you look at the span of the buyer's journey, that's from the point where someone is looking to identify who can help me with my problem, and then clear through to convert to a customer, and then maybe it goes through retention, but a lot of companies don't even look at the journey past that.
Carla Johnson: If you look at the entire customer journey from “here's what goes on in their everyday.” What happens that triggers a sense that something isn't right? Either I have a problem or something could be better. Then they go through that discovery journey that leads them to the buyer's journey to the conversion to a customer, and then what happens after they become a customer? I think that there's so much that people, that technical communicators don't realize that they have as the huge opportunity really as that linchpin that connects everything within that customer journey. They're able to ask the questions about what happens before this? What goes on in the customer's mind, in the customer's space, that triggers the question that we can be the people to answer it? Then how does that actually get delivered?
Carla Johnson: Especially if you're looking at products. There's a big opportunity, because products are created because they solve a problem. So if you can back up the conversation and say, “Let's help identify their problem sooner, more quickly,” or maybe even identify the potential of a problem so they won't have a problem first, then you become that go to person, that trusted adviser. That's when salespeople love you, because you're shortening that time between, “Oh, do I have a problem,” and, “Let me talk to a salesperson.” Marketing people love you, because now they have a clear understanding of what they should be speaking to if they're looking to move toward a more customer-centric organization. So there's a huge opportunity for technical communicators to be that value hub that connects all these different groups within an organization that they don't realize.
Alyssa Fox: I love what you said there about the value hub. I love the way that's put, because I think it's just because of the nature of the type of people typically that are technical communicators, very introverted for the most part, a little bit often mistreated in organizations, frankly. I think they don't realize that they can rise above that and contribute in those ways.
Carla Johnson: Yeah. I think that's the thing. If you always feel like your idea is going to get stomped on, you're just not going to bring your idea forward. That's the whole thing behind perpetual innovation that I'll talk about at the conference: how to be able to articulate the idea journey and then actually pitch it so that these people, all the technical communicators, can finally feel really confident in bringing an idea forward, how they express it, and then asking for feedback that will refine the idea, because a lot of people, especially when they look at extroverts, they think, “Wow. These things just come from divine inspiration all the time.” Really, the best ideas aren't divine. They're refined over time. That's what perpetual innovation helps people understand how to do. Really, how technical communicators can become those innovation factories for ideas.
Alyssa Fox: Yeah. That was actually my next question. We are so in sync, it's funny … technical communicators aren't often considered to be innovative. They're either doing the documentation thing in the corner or if they are contributing in more valuable ways, they're not big tooters of their own horns, whereas I would see somebody in sales and marketing, who tend to be a little more extroverted and a little more vocal, out there talking about what they're doing and trying to get people to buy in. So I'm really excited about your talk, because I think the more that we try to … My platform as President of STC this year has been about solving business problems. The value that we bring helps solve business problems.
Carla Johnson: Fabulous.
Alyssa Fox: We don't do enough of it. We're so worried that we're in this spot in our company, and we're not business people. We write documentation, but we don't recognize that our foundational skills, like you said, the connection that we bring across the different functions, the innovation that we can bring—we don't even realize that all helps solve business problems.
Carla Johnson: Nice. When people hear things over and over and over from their same community, sometimes it turns into white noise. So if somebody else can come in and jolt it, that's great.
Alyssa Fox: Yeah. I think it's going to be fantastic. Then hopefully at least give everybody one or two ideas that they can take back and go, “You know what? I know that I can do this,” because of what you're going to talk about at the conference in your keynote, “And here's some ways that I can articulate those ideas,” because I think you're right about the extrovert thing. We talk aloud a lot. Our thinking … What seems like great ideas is really just us thinking out loud.
Carla Johnson: Oh, that's a great way to phrase it.
Alyssa Fox: The introverts tend to stew on their ideas longer, and then they may not bring anything out that then can be refined or collaborated on by other people. So I'm really pumped about hearing more from you on that, because that is a tendency for technical communicators.
Carla Johnson: I'm super excited about this group. Yeah.
Alyssa Fox: Yeah, I can't wait! I get really excited when we have somebody outside of our usual, “We are technical communicators. We do this,” comes in to really make us think. I think your mind and the way you think about things is going to just be fantastic. So I'm really looking forward to meeting you in May.
Carla Johnson: That's what my goal is, is to inspire people and get them excited. And then have them walk out of the room and go, “Okay. Here's what I can do right now.”
Alyssa Fox: Absolutely. That would be perfect. I'm looking forward to it, and I hope you have a great next couple of months. We'll see you in May.
Carla Johnson: This has been good. If you have any other questions or anything, let me know. You know how to get ahold of me. Thanks!