Here’s a list of questions and topics that frequently come up regarding my work, and my MLIS background. I tend to take a tough love perspective when it comes to career advice, so take what I say with a grain of salt. Hopefully these answers will help you find your way.
1. How can I transition into being a content strategist?: First, it’s not about the title its about the skills. “Content Strategy” is just the latest in a long line of professional buzz words used to describe the profession. You can be a copywriter, a taxonomist or an IA and also also be a content strategist. Think of it not as a transition, but finding what kind of work you want to do. Try to find things that you are naturally drawn to. Are you creative and drawn to design? Maybe the design, UX or Information Design path is for you. Are you more of a database nerd? Consider moving toward tech. Don’t bank on professional titles, they come and go like the wind. Bank on skills. In the end it’s about gaining skills to help define you and what industry you want to work in. Not what title you can work toward. It took me 10+ years to get to this exact place in my career, and I didn’t plan it. Plan on that same journey, and follow your heart. To survive you will need to love what you do, not just be in it for the paycheck or lack of a better idea to utilize your MLIS degree.
2. How does the MLIS training relate to my profession?: Getting the MLIS was more of “hoop” to jump through as there is no formal program out there for working with taxonomies and metadata in the digital agency world (although more and more LIS schools are adding coursework related to UX and digital). I wanted a masters and that one seemed the most relevant (at the time there was only one IA program in the whole country and I wasn’t leaving NY). I’ve only ever worked in an actual library once, and even then it was in the archives. Content strategists play with the same toys (metadata and taxonomies) as traditional digital librarians, but the perspective in the application of these couldn’t be more polar. Its a sad truth that most of the traditional librarians that have been imbedded for years on the client side (they are the image librarian or they manage the companies intranet), can sometimes be more of a hinderance than a help during digital projects.
3.What kind of experience do I need to do what you do?: The work I do relies heavily on my formal training as a graphic designer, and my experience in working with digital agencies as a digital asset manager. Working as a digital asset manager helped me to understand the digital space extensively. There are many times in my career that I have gone backward, just to go forward. For example I often would take very low-paying jobs or work as an intern, just to gain the skills, widen my breadth or learn to work in a particular field. Curiosity has always been my true guide. There are many times would I would even juggle 3 or 4 jobs, one that wasn’t relevant to my experience, like bookkeeping or office administration just to pay the bills or get to know a particular industry, and another that was relevant. For example building a database (and metadata to go with it) for a clients CD collection, but the pay was terrible. You have to be willing to take risks to gain skills and experience.
4. What do you think about the MLIS degree?: I didn’t like that I felt as though I was on “Library Island” the whole time. The programs are short sighted, generally run by more traditional library science folks and just aren’t tactical enough to be relevant. I will even say some of the programs aggressively fight change. They are siloed and lack perspective from the wider influence of other technology driven professions. For example, I took a taxonomy course where the instructor had us study the index to the “Joy of Cooking” the entire semester. Yes, the “Joy of Cooking” helped me grasp the concept of working with indexes, and structure. However, we didn’t learn anything about the technologies that enable us to work with and leverage taxonomies, not to mention managing large volumes of information. Curious about the waging battle between academics and practitioners? Read this great blog: I’d Rather Be Writing. It’s a great blog about technical writing, but so much more.
5. What skills do I need?:
* A deep knowledge of relevant applications (how they work and how to use them): graphic design, web design, search engine appliances, recommendations engines, CMS and DAMs. Read this book, TheContent Management Bibleby Bob Boiko.
* Combine that with some high-level understanding of programming and databases, which if you did website development you can easily pickup EAD, XML and other structured content specific syntax’s.
* The other biggie, is information architecture, content structures and semantic web stuff. You will need to be able to concept, design, and implement (generally in partnership with tech) metadata schemas and taxonomies. You will need to create business documentation and explain these abstract concepts to stakeholders that have no prior knowledge fo these things.
* An complete nuts to bolts understanding of the web development process from discovery, to concepting and wireframing, visual design and implementation. You’re going to have to speak everyones language and help everyone understand what language you are speaking.
* Each content strategist brings with them a unique background and skill set, and you will need to do the same. You will need to learn how to be practical, efficient and flexible.
6. I have no digital or technology background, what classes can I take to do what you do?: In short, you can’t just take a class or read a book. A good place (don’t take this the wrong way) to start is to look-up (Wikipedia, Google etc) common industry terms such as “content management”, “structured content”. This is complex stuff and some of these descriptions and acronyms are ambiguous and can sometimes mean more than one thing. Its all really in the application of the terms and the context. Another way is on-the-job. Take an internship that will expose you or at least get you into close proximity to these technologies and most importantly find a mentor worth listening to. You can even join a meetup to learn more and meet real working professionals. Also, it helps to have experience or a background in certain professional areas: Information Science, Technical Writing, Database Management, Digital Imaging, Information architecture, Design, User Experience (Usability) etc. These are the skills sets that make a killer Content Strategist.
7. What kind of experience do I need to do what you do?: You will need to have extensive experience in digital, working on websites or intranets. You will need to be able to create publishing workflows and conduct stakeholder interviews. You will need to support your content solutions with sitemaps, sturdy information architecture, taxonomies, metadata schemas and content models. You will also need to understand how to implement content strategies through CMS workflows, content migrations, governance planning, training. Look at job descriptions for inspiration and guidance: http://hugeinc.com/careers
8. Should I go back to school?: Get a Masters and just stop. Focus on gaining experience and skills. It’s about practical skills and being able to apply your knowledge to the real world. Being stuck in academia will not help you do that. Those programs are built on longevity, not having to change the curriculum much and will drown you in theory. Take some night classes or continuing education. Don’t just go get another degree thinking that’s going to make a difference. If you must enroll in something, take this course by Edward Tufte.
9. What’s your best career advice?: Don’t be an asshole. Don’t step on people to get ahead. Value every discipline as you can learn so much when you are open to it. Make friends not contacts. Karma will follow you everywhere. Its a small industry and I think my success is directly related to WHO I am and not so much about WHAT I know. Don’t sweat the small stuff and if you don’t make mistakes you dont make anything (I cannot claim that one).
Metadata and Taxonomies are my thing. I spend an awful lot of time drinking coffee and having existential dilemmas on how to categorize what the hell I do for a living.