Technology writers: Your advice sucks

Jason Perlow is the Grinch who stole Christmas. Here's why he's giving technology writers a lump of coal.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Yesterday, in my tale of woe regarding my experiences with Android, I touched a little bit on my good friend and colleague David Gewirtz's piece about why he no longer uses many Microsoft products anymore.


I don't think it's my place to refute David's technology choices or his reasoning for why he made them.

First, I'm not comfortable making statements that could be construed as being made on Microsoft's behalf even though they would strictly be my own opinions, just as they always are.

We've got other writers on ZDNet that cover the company and its products from a technical perspective and they do an excellent job should they find fault with his arguments and choose to refute them.

Second, I've known David for 20 years and he knows that if he needs technical guidance regarding anything -- and David is by far one of the smartest guys I know -- that he can pick up a phone or shoot me an email anytime he wants.

I do know from experience that David, for lack of a better way of describing it, has highly unusual IT needs that are not often filled by out of the box solutions that most SMBs or even casual end-users would easily be addressed by.

Heck, there are vertical industry solutions that wouldn't help him either.

So when David writes opinion editorial, this is often colored by his own unusual blend of technology he uses and is accustomed to. His solutions make sense for him.

For everyone else or for major enterprises? Perhaps not.

David is by no means a special case. I do think technology writers are a unique breed of animal who often are in conflict with not just business reality, but also regular end-user reality.

I feel very strongly that this has been widely overlooked in the technology reporting media -- that often our unique technology requirements as tech industry writers tend to make us edge cases, given that we cover an industry that is impossible for any person to understand in its entirety.

At best, we can comprehend small facets of it, and as a result become highly specialized and outliers in the very industry we are supposed to be writing about, as experts.

In the spirit of Hanukkah, I thought I would deep-fry my fellow writers in the very industry from which I feed.

While this may be something of an oversimplification, there are really two kinds of technology writers who specialize in opinion editorial. Both of which have viewpoints that are flawed in some way.

The first are people like myself -- technology generalists who know a little about a lot of stuff, folks I often refer to as "Big Picture" writers.

Many "Big Picture" writers have worked in IT. The problem that comes into play with these folks is if either they've never worked in a real IT environment, or it's been ages since they've had to solve real business problems with technology.

If their experience in working in actual IT is outdated, and if they haven't been in the trenches for quite a while, they can get stuck in their ways. This factors greatly as to how they opine, and just how relevant their opinions are.

Unfortunately, the technology writing profession is stuffed full of people like this, particularly in new media. They haven't been good enough or successful enough to make a living in IT, so they write about it instead.

Most of the time the opinions of these people as it relates to business reality and their target audience, or at least the intended target audience of the publication is utterly worthless to an IT decision maker.

By the way, just in case you were wondering, ZDNet's core mission and target audience is business IT decision makers in the modern enterprise. And as a group that is the only set of folks I care to address with my own writing.

There is occasionally some overlap with consumers, but that tends to be on the fringe of what I tend to cover.

Your mileage is going to vary with with other writers and on other sites that have different missions.

I asked my ZDNet colleague Ed Bott -- who has never worked in IT professionally but has deep subject matter expertise in things that are important to IT end-users, why it's so hard to find decent written expertise on enterprise computing. Here's what he told me.

The dilemma is that most people who know their stuff about IT can't write. That's not what these folks are paid to do.

Most tech writers are sole proprietors, freelancers who don't have IT experience or even understand why it's necessary. And they don't have much experience (if any at all) building and deploying apps and services on business networks.

As a result, IT pro specialty sites are deadly dull and not well written. Meanwhile, mainstream tech sites, including ZDNet, have an over-representation of writers who work by themselves (that includes me). So much of what a tech writer does is idiosyncratic, so posts based on personal experience, while they can be fun to read and interesting, are not relevant to people who have IT-related responsibilities in medium and large businesses.

That's not to say tech news sites (including ZDNet) are irrelevant, far from it. But they're not optimized for the sort of depth that enterprise IT topics typically demand.

This gets to my next major group which I refer to as the "Specialists". These are people that cover one beat, or a set of similar products. Any technology content network is going to have specialists that write about their area of subject matter expertise, because you can't develop a base of content any other way.

When the specialists stay with what they know, their analysis is often very good. When they stray from their specialty, they frequently come off like idiots.

For example, a specialist might be someone who spends all their time writing about consumer smartphone and tablet devices, who works out of his home office or a Starbucks using non-enterprise equipment.

A specialist of this type that has never had real experience with enterprise device management, who lacks a thorough understanding of corporate security and what workloads and apps are critical to a business environment is probably not the right person to be opining on what tablets and smartphones or applications meet the needs of enterprises.

And for that matter, that person would very off-base in stating that consumer and free cloud services and apps is everything a business needs to get their work done.

By the same token, someone like myself who does understand all those things and has deep enterprise experience may not understand all the nuances between consumer products and every single device on the market like that specialist does.

As I explained in a piece I wrote two years ago, the sum of our experiences as writers as it relates to our usage of technology makes us uniquely qualified to write what we write about, but it also means we have bias.

We have bias because we have been working with and writing about a particular set of technologies, some of us for decades, so we become set in our ways. That in and of itself is dangerous particularly if the writer doesn't wish to adapt to change.

We may also have bias, be it conscious or subconscious, because some of us work for vendors or partners that have intimate relationships with vendors.

Is there something inherently wrong with bias? Does it discount an entire body of work or the opinion of the writer? Of course not. But as the reader you need to know the context of what is being written, and the qualifications of the person writing the article in the first place.

It might not be readily apparent, but technology writing isn't as lucrative as it used to be, so some of us are under much more pressure than others in order to pay the bills. The new media model is overwhelmingly pay-per-view, versus the olden days when we were paid by word, or paid per piece.

How a writer crafts a piece and the messaging itself isn't entirely motivated by a desire to disseminate raw information of value. The best of us try to balance this as best as we can by generating traffic while at the same time being able to encapsulate as much value in that article as possible.

Sadly, most tech writers are simply looking to make a buck.

Then how do you know if the quality of the opinion you are getting is any good? Well, for starters, you may want to take a look at their resume -- LinkedIn is a great place to start if they have a public profile.

For lack of having Topps Tech Writer Trading Cards, or D&D character sheets for every single one of us, that's the best scorecard you're going to get.

But really what should help you determine whether what you are reading is worthwhile or not is to examine a larger sample of the writer's work, particularly if they have written extensively on a subject you are interested in.

The problem is that content on the Internet doesn't necessarily live forever, and for those of us remaining that once worked in print, a lot of that is gone, forever. Most of the print publications have folded, long ago, and never made the transition to web.

Are tech writers perfect? Can we avoid bias? Nope. That's because we're human beings. We have egos, we have biases, we have gaps in our knowledge you can drive a truck through, and we're driven by a never-ending desire to make the next mortgage payment or pay for our health insurance.

What a freakin' mess, right? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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