Here or There? Remote or Face-to-Face Technical Writing Training & Other Questions

A TechWhirl Interview with Matt Sullivan

Matt Sullivan is the Director of Training for roundpeg, inc, which is a certified Adobe and Web Technology training company.  In addition to his director’s role at roundpeg, Matt often represents Adobe products at conferences throughout the year. He is an Adobe Certified Trainer for their eLearning and Tech Comm Suite products, as well as an avid surfer, volleyball player and skier.  He was kind enough to sit down with TechWhirl a little while ago to discuss training, Adobe and the world of technical writing and communications during an hour-long interview.

TechWhirl (TW): Please tell everyone a little bit about yourself, what happened to get you to this point, right here, right now?

Matt R. Sullivan (MS): I started in digital prepress in 1990, started training Adobe products in 96 or so, and ran my own training company, GRAFIX Training for about 12 years.  I shut down GRAFIX when I took up my current role at roundpeg, inc.  In August I will have been with them for five years.

When I’m not training or representing Adobe, I really enjoy skiing, surfing and being out doors.  But thanks to my travel schedule, I rarely get to do any of those things as much as I’d prefer.

TW: Why did you choose to get into training?

MS: I was effectively a trainer in digital prepress, training both my staff and my client base, so when I decided to give up 60+ hour workweeks, I figured it would be good to put that software experience to work.

TW: Philosophical question: What is the end goal of training?

MS: Gosh, never thought of that…for me, it’s giving the client a clear understanding of the reasons for performing a function or action…teach someone to fish and you’ll feed them for a lifetime

TW: Who are your best students and why?

MS: Those that already have some experience with the interface and basic functions.  These students generally want to know more than just where a feature is located. They look for best practices, and are able to absorb more of the most valuable information I can offer them.

TW: … and the worst?

MS: It’s a toss-up: Other instructors, and many tech writers.

TW: LOL, okay what makes these two groups so difficult?

MS: The instructors know too many ways to twist a class to what they want, regardless of group agenda. The technical writers often spend their time “proofreading” my presentation or spinning off into details beyond the scope of the class.

The good new is that both of these groups appreciate going beyond the functionality, and often want deeper discussion of best practices and theory.

TW: Thanks to all of our new tools, do people learn differently these days?

MS: Hopefully! With video and remote delivery becoming more and more accepted, I see a shift away from live face-to-face training. Reusable content and eLearning options mean that we can offer a better value proposition via remote delivery and recorded content

TW: Video, reusable content and remote training seems to make it easier on the trainer but why is this better for the student?

MS: The biggest benefit for the students is in reduction of travel costs.  We teach products with a smaller market than MS Word. Two-thirds of our in-person students travel to our locations for the training. With online delivery, they do not need to travel, which increases their chances of getting their training approved.

On a more scholarly level, these tools also allow for easy review of the material.  Assuming that the provider gives a student access to the material after the class, that is.  The material is on demand.  Need the point repeated a couple times? With online video this isn’t a problem.

There are a few advantages for live-online delivery too.  In a classroom when a student needs assistance, everyone is normally looking at one projector so the instructor walks over to the student to fix and do one-on-one training on something. Once that is complete, they have to gather the class together and explain to the class what happened and how to fix it before continuing the instruction.  If I’m online class and a student has an issue I can broadcast the screen to everyone.  This allows the instructor to troubleshoot as an interactive activity, show the solution and return to the lesson a lot quicker.  Remote delivery means that there is very little the instructor can do to read body language and eye contact. However, this is balanced by things like sharing a student’s screen across the entire class, or being able to deliver content and text via chat or other methods to speed up student text entry.

I think that overall, it’s an incredible value proposition for out-of-area students.

One other advantage: Online classes are almost always smaller and run with more regularity because the threshold to run the class is much lower.  We can run two 7-person classes with a high margin rather than one 15-person class with a brick and mortar facility.

TW: You’re currently a certified trainer and Adobe Systems representative.  How did you get involved with Adobe products and have you ever-considered alternatives?

MS: I first used a product called Illustrator ’88 (yeah, as in 1988…) and then shortly thereafter had a somewhat questionable version of the original Photoshop beta. They were and still are the best of breed in their respective categories.

I also got involved with FrameMaker at that time, because we had to publish FM files for commercial presses and short-run print on demand. I wasn’t a FrameMaker fan until years later when I saw how much it helped the actual writing process in terms of numbering, referencing and consistency of formatting. That led me to a ton of work with FrameMaker+SGML (what’s now referred to as Structured FrameMaker) in the 90’s. Aviation and other regulated industries were scrambling to get the benefits of structured authoring, something that in my opinion has only started to pay dividends in the last few years.

Once the Technical Communications Suite came out, I leveraged what I knew about FrameMaker and got involved with RoboHelp and Captivate.  That’s been a great place to be, and I think it’ll be a phenomenal place to be as we move into more sophistication in ePub and mobile web formats.

As far as alternatives, I’ve never really considered any. Everything else I could use would still require PhotoShop, Acrobat, and other Adobe tools, so I appreciate the higher degree of integration I get when I stick to Adobe products. Plus, the overall cost of my Adobe licensing is much lower than competitors’. In the past month I renewed my upgrade plan for the Technical Communications Suite software for 2 more years. It cost me $250, or an average of $125/year… a great deal when you consider the cost of individual licenses or individual upgrades to FrameMaker, RoboHelp, Acrobat, Captivate and Illustrator!

TW: You say that the overall cost of Adobe Software is much lower than competitors, but that’s not what we hear and see in our email discussion group. Doesn’t that first bill really create a barrier to entry though especially in the age of open source?

MS: I know it’s difficult for people to ask for these products, because the last thing your office controller wants to hear when approving an $1800+ invoice is “oh by the way I need another $250” to make this cheaper, but over the long run this is a business investment.   The software only equates to the money you make out of it.  It’s not about Adobe being better or worse than any other company—when I look at the money I make out of using these professional level tools then it’s just a cost of doing business and being able to deliver a great service.

Great software isn’t much different than paying for great hardware.  iPhones cost more than other smart phones, and certainly more than a regular cell phone because they do so much more, and deliver a better user experience.  If those extra benefits give you value then go for it. If not, then that’s okay but the decision is theirs.   Personally, I feel like I get more than enough value out of my Adobe products.

TW: Nearly done… it seems to be a universal rule that technical communications is one of the first areas in a project to get cut if there is a problem with the budget—why do you think that is and what can we as technical communications professionals say to change “management’s” mind?

MS: Absolutely! I used to say I could predict a stock downturn about six weeks before all the earnings reports, because I saw who had budget, and who did not. Similarly, my phone would start to ring about six weeks before I would hear optimistic news related to the economy.

I have always recommended to clients that they treat their training as they would any other expenditure…clearly define the costs involved, including expected lost productivity if there is a conversion or change in workflow involved. Then clearly outline the return on investment that will result from the training. If you can’t clearly define a benefit, then don’t expect your boss to sign off on the expenditure.

TW: If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?

MS: Thanks for the marketing slow-pitch! :) If I wasn’t training, I think I’d be writing short books about the things I present and speak on. I’m constantly amazed by the repetition of content in user forums, and think that there is room for quick inexpensive books that address narrow vertical markets. Speaking of which, I plan on having a long-overdue FrameMaker reference book out later this year, so look for it somewhere near the third quarter!

TW: Thank you so much for your time to chat with us.  We really appreciate it and we look forward to reading some of those short books someday.

You can learn more about Matt on his website, and can follow him on Twitter @MattRSullivan.  He’s currently the Director of Training for roundpeg, inc and a Certified Expert and Certified Instructor for Adobe Technical Communication Suite and Adobe Creative Suite.

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