Careers: Interviews
Noted Communications Expert, IT Authority, and Prolific Author

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Shelley O’Hara.

Shelley is a communications expert with varied experience in writing, editing, designing, teaching, training, and promoting. Her custom publication creations include internal and external newsletters, ghost-written books, and training materials for corporations.

Moreover, Shelley has developed several book series from concept to final product, including design, content, and organization plus she collaborates with and coaches authors. Amongst her more than 100 book credits are several all-time best-selling computer books (such as the Easy series).

Listed amongst her clients are: the Indiana Court of Appeals, Walker Information, Gateway, Que Publishing, International Air Transport Authority, Wiley, Prentice Hall, DDC Publishing, Earthlink, and IUPUI.

She served as Associate Faculty Member for courses at University of Maryland and IUPUI.  Shelley received her BA in English from the University of South Carolina graduating Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa; her MA in English is from the University of Maryland.

Discussion:

Q: Shelley, as a celebrated author and communications expert, we are fortunate to have you do this interview—thank you.

A: You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure.

Q: Describe your journey into computers, writing, and the lessons learned along the way? How has your educational background contributed to your success?

A: Ironically enough, when I was first hired as a tech writer I had never even used a personal computer before. The president liked my writing style and thought it was easier to teach someone about computers than to teach someone how to write. I am still grateful for that opportunity. I quickly became enamored of computers and learned how to use all kinds of programs. What has helped me, I think, is my curiosity. I like to figure things out, and I think that’s one of the lessons I’ve learned—experiment, try new things.

My liberal arts background gave me an interest, again, in lots of things, and I was always a good student. As a freelance writer, meeting deadlines is critical. I’ve never missed a deadline. When you work on your own, managing your time is so important, and I learned that or practiced that in school.

Q: What tips can you pass on for those who want to create a book series?

A: My advice is to think about the readers. What do they need? What will help them? For what purpose do they use (in the case of computer books) the computer? Picture the readers in as much detail as possible. Where do they shop? How do they like to spend their free time? What motivates them? Then design your series with your audience firmly in mind.

Q: What are the most important consideration areas when creating materials for Web content, business plans, brochures, and training exercises?

A: Again, I’d say the audience. What are the needs of the readers of that publication? Also, what is the goal? Do you want to promote something? Teach something? Challenge? Encourage? Explain? By knowing to whom you are “speaking” and to what purpose, you can best plan your materials.

Another point is to say things clearly—it’s easier said than done! Your reader, regardless of the publication medium, should know immediately what he or she will get from reading that work.

Q: You have a love for art—please provide more details?

A: My love of arts (and crafts) is a lot like my love of computers. I like to get in and tinker around, make things. I am working right now on using photography editing software to create collages. And image transfer pictures, although I was surprised to see that the film for this type of image is $100!!! Not what I was expecting. I like to sew, but I have limited skills. I use my grandmother’s old circa 1940 Singer sewing machine. Back then the quality of appliances was different.

BTW, I think because I do not consider myself an “expert” at most things, I can easily play the role of the reader of the beginner. Most of my success comes from addressing beginning users, helping them understand how to make their computers work for them, in a style that suits that audience.

Q: What important lessons can your share on the topic of career and personal coaching?

A: It’s been my experience that most people don’t know what they "really"  like. If you asked most people to make a wish, they’d most likely wish for something generic like “to win the lottery” or “world peace.” If you don’t give a lot of thought to what you like to do and what makes you happy, it’s unlikely you’ll find happiness (or recognize it!) Even if you are busy, you need to take time to think about what you want from life, what excites you, what makes your heart flutter.

Q: Describe your most surprising experience?

A: That’s a tough one. I suppose it’s looking back and seeing how much I’ve done in a fairly short period of time.

Q: Do have any humorous stories to share?

A: Too many! I also have written short stories and a novel (The Marriage Trifecta) and almost all of my fiction writing is (intended to be) funny.

Q: Detail your current work?

A: I just finished 2 books on a totally untech topic, Kierkegaard Within Your Grasp and Nietzsche Within Your Grasp (published by CliffNotes). I enjoyed these projects immensely because it gave me the opportunity to learn about something new.

I’m also looking to teach some classes at IUPUI (Indiana University and Purdue University in Indianapolis) on writing as well as developing some business courses for an adult learning college.

Q: Can you share your most valuable guidelines on using Google from your book, “Easy Google”?

A: 1) Pick your search word carefully. Use something unique or you’ll have too many matches.
2) Use Google’s advanced search options to limit your search.
3) A good way to limit the results if you have too many matches is (using the advanced search options) to tell Google to "not" include certain words in the match. For instance, if you were searching for surfing information and got all kinds of matches on Web surfing, exclude words like “Web” or “Internet.”
4) Google’s newsgroup feature includes an archive of messages going way back. Even the tech editor on the book didn’t realize this.
5) If you are looking for an illustration for a document, use Google’s feature for searching for images.
6) Add the Google toolbar to your Web page to make accessing Google quickly.
7) Or make Google your home page.
8) Check out www.google.com/press/zeitgeist.html to see trends in what people are searching for.

Q: What future books, columns, and articles can we expect from you?

A: I’m working on a new book (possibly series) that covers the Top 50 Things you need to know. The book is organized by what you get from the features/tasks—the benefits. For instance, there are chapters on saving time, being safe, working smarter, and so on, and each chapter then covers the best features for that topic.

Q: Where do you see yourself in five years?

A: You’d make a good coach! This is exactly the kind of question I’d ask a coaching client. I’ll go “big” and say that I’m writing all kinds of different things (novels, screenplays, computer books) and traveling, especially to Italy. I love Italy. 

Q: What are the most important trends to watch, and please provide some detailed recommendations?

A: 1) The low cost of computers. If you are in the market for a new computer, shop around.
2) Paying for support. I really "disagree" with this trend. If you are buying something new, check out the support policies. It’s frustrating because say you have a problem getting your new scanner to work. The scanner company will say it’s a Windows problem; the Windows people will say it’s a scanner problem. No one wants to take responsibility. I was shopping for a new computer, and the least expensive ones come with little or limited support. To get the support you need, you have to purchase a longer plan.
3) Along the same theme as #2, more and more components are designed to work together, but getting them to work together isn’t that easy. I sometimes feel pressured to keep upgrading to get the newest add-on to work. Also, I’d recommend buying “mainstream” products because they are more likely to work. That makes it harder for someone new and innovative to break into the market (in my opinion).
4) Security. With all kinds of connectivity, security is more and more important. You need a kit of armor tools—spyware software, virus program, ad blocker, etc. Take the time to secure your computer.
5) The totally digital home. It’s not just the computer stuff that works together, but now your phone and your TV. The same issues of support (who do you call with question?) are important.
6) As well as which standard will prevail. Newer movie rentals aren’t always on VHS now; some are only on DVD. And if you don’t have a DVD… Compatibility is just one more thing on a list of things to consider.
7) Customer service. I’d like to see the company that has the best customer service, that goes beyond just their little niche, win out.
8) More customer service. I’d like to actually talk to someone when I have a problem. I love it when they say to check the Web site, especially if you are having a Web problem! Most companies don’t make it easy to get support. Try even
"finding" a phone number to call! On top of it, you may have to even pay to get an answer. I "wish" this trend would change, but…
9) Kids being tech savvy. They know so much, but you need to set guidelines.
10) A new diet craze and the outlaw of using the words “low carb.” (A wish.)

Q: List the best resources for technology and business professionals.

I deal mostly with the novice group, so that’s my focus. I’m sure there are other more high-tech resources, but I’ll stick to some of the basic ones.

A: 1) The actual users of the product—that’s why I teach training so that I can see what people are doing and what they are struggling with.
2) PC World—I like the top ten lists. There are all kinds of computer publications, making it possible to find one with content and style that suits your needs.
3) Magazines/information outside the tech world. For instance, I like to see what computer topics are covered in “women’s” magazines. This information helps me see what non-computer experts are interested in (and how that information is presented to them).
4) Good reference books on your favorite products—beyond the manuals. (A little plug here for my books!)
5) Your local newspaper for what’s going on in the business world.
6) Your local magazine for the same—what’s going on in your part of the world.
7) The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron (or any book by her, really)

Q: Who/what do you think are the winners and losers in IT in next five years and why?

A: I see the winners as those that can make products work together seamlessly and those that provide support for the entire system—not just parts. I see the losers as those that promote closed systems—that don’t like to share and don’t want others to “play with their toys in their playground.”

Also, I see a widening gap between what’s available and the understanding of how to make that technology work. I sometimes feel overwhelmed when I read the latest computer magazines because there’s so much new technology. And I’m in the industry. I can’t imagine what “ordinary” users think. I’m guessing they just want it to work and then are frustrated when it doesn’t (like programming a VCR in the “old” days). This makes security and support key, I think.

Q: You pick five topic areas and then provide us with those valuable rare “gems” that only you know.

A: 1) Area 1: Italian Cooking
The secret to good lasagna is fennel.

2) Area 2: Creativity
Everyone is creative in some way, whether it be writing, dancing, cooking, gardening, playing some sport, or any number of activities.

3) Area 3: Time Management
Break down big tasks into smaller, surmountable ones. In a book I read recently, the author advised to break tasks down into the minutest thing that you could do, that you’d say “OK, I can do at least that.” If you take at least a small step every day, you’ll make progress.

4) Area 4: Having Your Own Business
You have to stay on top of all kinds of things, not just the work itself, but also have you paid your taxes in the right amount? Are you making the most of your time? What activities would bring you more success? What activities are “losing” you time/money/whatever? You’re flying by yourself, for the most part, and it’s a lot to manage at times. But! the freedom in working for yourself more than makes up for it.

5) Area 5: Surviving as a Writer
Keep at it. Stay on top of what’s out in the market. If writing is your dream, don’t let a few rejections deter you. You have to deal with "a lot" of rejection, and it isn’t always a reflection of your work.

Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?

A: 2 desktop computers, cable Internet hookup, one laptop

Q: If you were doing this interview, what five questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?

A: Q1: How do you sit down and write a book?
A1: You can’t start by thinking I have 500 pages to fill (one of my longest books 600+ pages). Instead, break it down into manageable parts and start with a good plan.

Q2: What’s the hardest part about creating a computer book?
A2: The figures! I strive to make the figures show examples that help clarify the point rather than just any ol’ thing. Coming up with good examples and getting everything set up for one figure—in a book with tons of figures—is time consuming.
 
Q3: What’s your favorite “addiction?”
A3: eBay! I just bid on and won 3 old cameras so that I can practice this art technique of transferring images from old-style instamatic cameras. 

Q4: What are the stupid things you do/learn from?
A4: Back to that eBay, I don’t always read the information carefully enough. I’ll purchase something that looks to be wall-size only to get a tiny envelope in the mail with a teeny-tiny charm. Or the camera deal. I purchased the cameras without worrying about the film, only to find out that the film is very, very expensive.

Q5: What’s the best/worst thing about working as a freelancer?
A5: The best is being in charge of how you spend your time. I like being able to help out at school activities for my son Michael and being home with my big Doberman Xie.

The worst is not having control over the flow of your work; it’s usually feast or famine for me. I’ve either got a bunch of projects going all at once or none. When you aren’t working, it’s scary wondering what if nothing ever comes up again. Even though I’ve been on my own 11+ years and have experienced lots of ups and downs, I still am anxious every time I’m not working on something.

Q: Shelley, thank you again for your time, and consideration in doing this interview.

A: You’re welcome. I appreciate your interest.  

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