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Long ago I came to see people as the greater challenge to my work as a technical writer more so than the technology I was writing about. It’s not that I don’t like people. I just came to see people in technology organizations

Here are the five types of people you interview as a technical writer (in no particular order):

1. The poseur

Over my career as a technical writer and freelance technology writer, I’ve had the opportunity to interview a lot of whip-smart people — some brilliant — and I’ve learned a lot from them over the years. I’ve grown fascinated by people’s “tells” especially the one type of interviewee I call the Poseur. Here are some of their characteristics:

  • Beats their chest about being a technologist
  • Abides by the rule that he who talks the most must be smart
  • Dismisses questions they can’t answer by changing the subject or lame excuses

Now mind you there’s more than one type of poseur. You might get lucky and find one who defers technical writer interviews to their employees politely. There’s no harm in these people — they can be great connectors — for technical writers. It’s the ones who lack self-actualization that can cause problems on content development projects as they become a blocker to success to save face and fight politically to prove their own relevance.

2. The old school geek/true believer

While so many folks fall for the mythos of snake people as the be all end all technology experts, give me an old-school geek with gray hair any day as a subject matter expert. I’m talking about the person who has been there, seen it, and done it.

While interviewing some old school geeks/true believers can mean having to put up some guard rails for the interview because they do have their war stories. Old school geeks are often the ones who respect technical writers with some domain knowledge about what they are writing about versus a generalist who’s not really vested in technology.

3. The product person

In my travels as a technical writer, I’ve come to see that there are just product people. They may hold the formal title of product manager, sometimes they might just be an accidental product manager — a product-focused person sometimes a developer — who has a vision for the product they are developing.

My favorite type of product person to interview is somebody who’s had a lot of customer contact and are very aware of the competitive landscape. These people can be a treat to me as a technical writer. I especially enjoy interviewing product people for articles I’m writing.

4. The services person

A services person understands the delivery side of the business versus the product. They may or may not be technologists by trade. I commonly encounter the services person in industries such as financial services, government, and telecommunications where security, compliance, and dare I say bureaucracy is the order of the day.

My favorite way to interview a person is in front of a whiteboard where they can break processes and procedures down while they are telling they are dropping some knowledge on me.

5. The evangelist

While I usually don’t see too many of what I call the evangelist when I wrote technical documentation, I do see them when I write articles, blog posts, and white papers. While I like interviewing the evangelist, it can always be a balancing act in my experience. You can encounter a poseur trying to impersonate an evangelist.

Interviewing an evangelist can be challenging. Some come into a media interview with a definite corporate line they want to push even if you are writing a vendor agnostic thought leadership piece. On the bright side, their enthusiasm can be contagious, and that can shine through in their interview answers.

In my experience, natural evangelists are few and far between, but you can cultivate evangelists. I saw that done when I was freelancing for CNET TechRepublic, I saw a corporate CEO go from a very rough interview to one of my go-to sources on a subject in about two years.

Final thoughts

While my passion for technology keeps me going as a technical writer — on the good and bad days — people also keep my interest in projects. It could be the people and personalities I work with on a daily basis or the people I interview for articles.

I’m a technical writer and content development manager living and working in Northern Virginia. Over my career, I’ve written bylined articles for ITSearchOperations, DevOps Agenda, Mobile Business Insights, CNET TechRepublic, and others. My areas of interest include cloud computing, DevOps, enterprise mobility, and collaboration tools. Follow me on Twitter: @willkelly.

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