eTail Gets to Know…Jonathon Colman, Former Principal Experience Architect, REI

Lori Hawthorne, the Events Director of eTail, interviewed Jonathon Colman, former Principal Experience Architect at REI, who recently transitioned to the Content Strategy team at Facebook. In the last six months alone, he completed his Master’s Degree, spoke at a number of industry events, kept a content strategy blog, and still worked full-time at REI. Talk about a busy year! Read the interview below to hear about his career and a few fun facts. jcolman

1. Describe some of the changes you’ve experienced in your career over the last six months.

I’ve been keeping busy! In the past six months, I completed my master’s degree in information management at the University of Washington. I spoke at eight industry events, presenting a total of 536 individual slides. I wrote several long blog posts, including this hand-curated list of 200+ content strategy resources. I also guest-blogged, mentored, and did informal pro bono consulting and Q&As with a number of organizations.

Throughout all of that, I also worked full-time at REI as the company’s Principal Experience Architect. I worked on a mix of information architecture projects, content strategy, systems strategy, and business analysis and planning. And then in July, I joined the Content Strategy team at Facebook – that’s where the fun really started!

2. What made you want to transition out of REI and move to Facebook? What attracted you the most about your new position?

I loved working for REI and felt so lucky to have such good colleagues, a strong leadership team, and an agile culture focused on helping customers succeed at their goals. But after nearly five years with the co-op, I was ready for new challenges and eager to join a different sort of organization.

Over the course of my sixteen years as a technology and communications professional, I’ve worked with several non-profits and universities, the federal government, the nation’s largest consumer cooperative, a huge technology company, and also as a private consultant to brands that are household names.

But I’ve never worked for a startup, let alone the world’s largest online social network. I’ve always been curious about what it would be like to help build a product that’s also a global platform. And I’ve always been eager to help scale up the usefulness of great content for real people as well as its effectiveness for an organization.

At Facebook, I have the opportunity to do all of that while working with one of the smartest, most accomplished content strategy teams in the world. You can learn more about our work and challenges on the Facebook Design blog. And I should mention that we’re hiring!

3. Can you describe a bit about the culture at Facebook?

At Facebook, we have an entrepreneurial culture that moves fast – really fast! – which helps encourage innovative thinking and rewards hard work. Our flat structure and lack of bureaucracy means that everyone feels a strong sense of ownership. Many teams are like startups operating within Facebook; there’s a culture of intrapreneurship.

And with events like our Hackathons, our staff have the ability to make a big impact in areas outside of their direct teams – so we aren’t afraid to be creative, to fail fast, and to try something new. Ultimately, our goal is to build trust and help connect the world.

4. What career advice have you received that has been the most impactful for you?

When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer doing public health work in a remote village in Burkina Faso, West Africa, I was introduced to the concept of servant leadership. It has a profound effect on me and changed my modes of interaction with everyone. The concept – and the ability to practice it every single day in the field – helped me build my listening skills, my awareness of myself and others, and my empathy for those around me.

As it turns out, these are some of the most useful skills for a content strategist (or anyone else, for that matter) to rely on as they work to create positive change within an organization. Many people think that tools and tactics are the hardest parts of our work. I disagree – I think they’re the simplest. The truly hard part of our job is getting the people right, aligning them toward a set of core values and an inspiring vision. The tools and tech are ancillary to our core purpose; the people must come first.

And with their knowledge of an organization’s customers, users, and constituents, content strategists are in an excellent position to lead the business toward its goals through service.

5. What advice would you give a marketer or a content strategist who is just starting out?

Be curious. Be intellectually curious about the grey borderlands that lie between the things you know and those you don’t. That’s where learning comes from, after all. Content strategy, marketing, and e-commerce are all such diverse fields – everyone practicing them comes from a different background and the landscape is always evolving. You’ll never run out of things to learn.

But that can be intimidating because there’s just so much to know. And it’s hard to keep all the details and new knowledge straight sometimes. So here’s how I solve that challenge with a one-two punch: 1) keep breathing, and then 2) ask more questions.

So when you feel the urge to run screaming from content modeling, from persona development, from component-based content management, from editorial workflows, from metadata schema design, or from governance lifecycle development, just take a deep breath (some people prefer counting to five)…and then ask a question. And another. And then another. And then as many more as you need until you’ve got it all figured out.

Reward yourself with a cup of coffee so that you create a virtuous circle. Then rinse and repeat.

6. Can you give us one “fun fact,” something that not everyone knows about you?

I have a background in improvisational comedy and used to perform as part of a touring group. Improv helped me break out of my shell, build relationships with other people, and learn how to tell a good, collaborative story as part of a group. I wouldn’t be speaking at eTail 2014 (nor anywhere else) were it not for my experience performing for rowdy college kids and the bar crowds.

It was within the framework of improv that I first learned about the power of gamification and how simple games can help inspire members of a team to think around corners. Ultimately, this sort of intellectual flexibility is what helps teams to rise above their (often perceived) limitations. In short, good games can help build good teams. And good teams? Well, everyone knows what good teams can accomplish.

Jonathon has tons of insight to share at eTail 2014. In fact, he’ll break down exactly how to make your content stronger, presenting his experience at both REI and Facebook.