Quality Reigns

The role of ContentLab director is fundamentally a business role, developing and perfecting product. With Michael Desmond, former Editor-in-Chief of MSDN Magazine, in that role, the message is clear: content quality is job one.

The Person Behind the Role

Tell me about yourself. Where did you grow up, where do you live, and what is your role in ContentLab?

I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, the vacation capital of the Midwest. I went to college in Vermont, at Middlebury College where I was actually a Soviet Studies major, of all things. 

A few years after graduating, I went back to school to get a Master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. Coming out of there is how I got into IT publishing. PC World magazine and PC Magazine were interviewing at the school at the time, and they were the only ones actually offering paying gigs. So, I thought, “Wow, a paid internship. I’ll take one of those.” That got me into IT publishing, and I’ve been doing it ever since. 

I live now in Burlington, VT with my wife and our three children. We’ve been living here since 1997, when my wife and I moved to Vermont after about six years in San Francisco. We love it up here.

[As far as] my role, I’m Director of ContentLab. I essentially have ownership of the business operation. That includes the editorial engine at the heart of it, but it also includes interacting with and helping guide the sales function, the marketing efforts, and managing P & L (profit and loss). It’s a multi-faceted role and an interesting one. What intrigues me is that when the owners, Dave and Chris, went to look for someone to head this thing up, they looked for someone with primarily an editorial background — not only that, [but also] a developer editorial background, as opposed to primarily a business background. It says a lot to me about the priorities they have in producing high-quality editorial content, making sure that the products we’re delivering are maximally effective and reach out to the developer community.

Why do you do what you do?

That’s a great question. When you say, “Why do you do what you do?”, the big picture is how did I get into journalism and the slinging of content. That goes back to me being a kid and just being fascinated at first by languages, and later by the broader aspect of human communication. I’ve always studied languages, and I’ve appreciated what they bring, the way they are interwoven with culture, and all that implies. 

When the internet and personal computing both arose, I found myself immediately drawn to those as tools for communication. I was doing a lot of desktop publishing in the late ’80s and early ’90s. That’s what got me into the journalism program at Northwestern. It’s a very good program, and I probably had no business being there. But I showed personal drive. I was producing newsletters and producing content on my own. And I think they saw that drive in me. That’s always been something that compelled me, and it’s put me in this place. 

Being in the developer space is a unique communication challenge and an especially important one. So for me, during my time with MSDN Magazine for Microsoft, and Redmond Development News (which was a twice-monthly news publication on the Microsoft ecosystem), having opportunities to try to communicate to the developer community has been really gratifying. 

In terms of my role [at ContentLab], one of the things that drew me here was the fact that I had a chance to punch up and out of the editorial role, and to look at things from a new perspective. I’ve been running edit shops for a long time, but I’ve always had those roles above me to guide me. So this is an opportunity to see the world from a publisher’s context, to understand how the editorial process and product interrelate with the priorities you see at that level. That’s a bit of professional curiosity.  In this role, I have a unique opportunity to see that we are properly shaping and curating the content that comes through. So I look forward to that. 

What attracted you to work for ContentLab?

Part of what attracted me to the mission and vision here is that it’s the same one I was serving at MSDN Magazine. One of my jobs was to evangelize technologies by connecting with the developer ecosystem to help them do their jobs better. So it was very similar to what we’re doing at ContentLab. Some of the phrasing we would use at MSDN to describe the content we produced was “actionable,” “code-level how-to” and “tutorials for developers.” It probably sounds familiar because it is exactly what ContentLab is doing. 

When this opportunity came up, I thought, “I know this stuff.” This is something I love and I enjoy doing. I love the value aspect of it. We’re not trying to sling marketing pitches at people. We’re not trying to convince people to make decisions based on soft factors.

What we are doing is providing value to developers. And then the developers will choose what they want to do based on that value. Done correctly, I think it’s pretty clear what happens when you deliver that value. When our clients are developing that value to developers, they earn the respect and the loyalty of the ecosystem that they are communicating to. 

That drew me right away to this opportunity. It was like watching a unicorn cross a field. That’s the job I need to be doing, right there. 

How did you get interested in helping people and companies communicate through content marketing?

I got interested in it because I started doing it. When I was offered the opportunity to take over MSDN Magazine I jumped at the chance. At the time I was editor in chief of Visual Studio Magazine — an independent publication — but I was really attracted to the client management aspect of working with Microsoft. You sort of have to work within the catacombs there, and find all the development teams and find the product teams and forge those relationships. That’s what really got me into it. 

I found that I enjoyed it. And I think there are similarities with ContentLab, in terms of the relationships with clients and especially the core message of the company, which at the end of the day is, “We respect developers.” ContentLab delivers actionable, code-level, how-to and tutorial content for developers. We respect that audience. 

How do you think that leading the ContentLab practitioner community (authors) helps the practitioners?  

First and foremost, when Chris and Dave hired me, they knew they were hiring an editor-in-chief. Not a business manager — an editor. That says everything I need to know about the core identity of ContentLab — that it is focused on ensuring that the quality of content produced is as high as possible. It’s not about paying lip service. It’s about respecting the process and ensuring that what we deliver to our clients, and what they deliver to their audience, is good quality and useful. 

One of the things I really loved about working at MSDN Magazine is that the profile of the magazine meant that people really wanted to write for you. They were anxious to be part of what we were doing there. 

I’d like to see that happen here at ContentLab. I know that’s not going to be a 1:1 translation. But what I hope is that authors who work for ContentLab understand that they are respected. 

I mean, the people that work here, what a team! People like Terry Dorsey and Brigitta Navodarszky, man — Folks like that are why. The core team is there, so I know that our authors are going to have a good experience. The guidance they will get from our editors is going to be refined and thoughtful. It’s expert. It will enhance their craft. So when I look at the authors that engage with us, I expect these authors will go on to have successful career arcs evangelizing technical content. Our role in that now is to help them do better as authors. 

How do you see your role in that?

[That’s] a multifaceted answer. My initial, knee-jerk response is that I need to stay out of the way of Terry and Brigitta and others so they can do their jobs because they are so good at them. 

Part of that is getting them help, editorial help, to take the load off of individual editors. So that’s part of my role. We already have the right people. We just need more of them. ContentLab is growing, so my role is key there. Like Roy Scheider in Jaws said, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” How we outfit that boat and who we put on it is going to be important. 

Role one is managing growth. The second is managing and improving quality. That’s always something we will need to do. That fight for growth and quality at the same time, that’s key. 

How do you think the content you help produce helps your clients?

I think it does an enormous amount to help the client. What you see so often is that companies struggle to communicate authentically with their developers. It’s not because they can’t. They have all the tools they need to communicate effectively. The problem is that those people are busy doing their jobs. To have to pull a senior engineer off a product to write a blog post or to write something supporting a product effort, that’s hard. It’s disruptive and has huge costs. It ripples through the team. 

From that standpoint, our service helps [by allowing] companies to keep their resources where they are most effective and most efficient. 

The way we do that is to communicate. We meet up with our client, we sit down and discuss the plan, we do our information discovery, and then we put our veteran developers on the task for them. We do it quickly –– within 30 days. And we do it more cost-effectively than they can, because they don’t have to pull an engineer off a product to write something. 

How do you see your role in that?

I’m working the entire waterfront, trying to make sure that I have a full grasp of the editorial process at ContentLab, and putting some introspection in that. Right now, I want to read and react. I’m going to be quiet. Listen to what people say. What do people do?  How do things work? I’m trying to keep my eyes open and discover. Then, it’s about bringing in the right people, trying to keep people clear so they can do their jobs. 

Ultimately, the bigger role is going to be a leadership one. Once I get out of this quiet phase, it’s bringing in more of the right people and working to drive the continuous improvement of our process. 

What words of wisdom would you like to share with prospective technical authors?

First, respect the deadline. As an editor, there’s nothing worse than an author who is late, other than one who is late and doesn’t communicate. So respect the deadline and communicate. 

It starts from the very beginning of any project. Be honest about what you can do within the time frame. Don’t create a cascade of woe. Respect the deadline up front. Try to be realistic about that. That’s not just for us — If you are known for turning in material on time and on target, you are going to get a lot of work. Editors will turn to you, and say, “I can rely on this person.” You’ll get work and start forging durable relationships with editors who will keep you as busy as you want to be. At that point, you are picking and choosing. 

“Respect the deadline” is the most important piece of advice, because from an editor’s standpoint, that drives so much.

What words of wisdom would you like to share with prospective clients about the content creation process?

For clients, I feel like success in a content marketing effort in an ecosystem for developers comes down to two things. First, be authentic and provide real value to your audience. And second, make a sustained effort. Publishing one or two blogs or articles won’t move the needle, but making yourself present for that community over the longer term gets you there. You have to commit to the long tail, because that will amplify over time. But the key words are “over time.” Sustained commitment is something I would urge for all our clients. 

I look at Microsoft as proof of that. When Microsoft finally closed MSDN Magazine, it was after 33 years — 33 years! You talk about sustained effort — It was there for MSDN Magazine, and it produced incredible respect and loyalty, which reflected back on the brand of Microsoft. 

For the Road

I look at Michael and see him as a content catalyst — His presence optimizes the efficiency and quality of the content production engine. But as a leader, he remains unchanged. Committed to quality from the people to the process to the product, you may not see Michael, but you will witness the effect of his presence.  It’s not rocket science. But it is content science.

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