Author, speaker, and noted information architect Abby Covert joins Kristina to talk about the IA community and finding your own community of discipline. They also touch on the relationship (and overlap) between content strategy and IA, and what IA looks like at a large company like Etsy where Abby works.
Abby Covert is the senior staff information architect at Etsy. She specializes in delivering a collaborative information architecture process and teaching those that she works with along the way. She speaks and writes under the pseudonym Abby the IA, focusing on sharing information architecture content with those working within the design and technology communities.
Abby is the author of How to Make Sense of Any Mess, a book about information architecture for everybody. She also holds credit for the invention of World IA Day—a global celebration of IA taking place in more than 50 locations around the world every February. Learn more about her work at AbbytheIA.com and follow her on Twitter at @Abby_the_IA.
Jonathan Foster leads Windows & Devices Group’s Content Intelligence team at Microsoft. Their work includes defining content experiences powered by and instantiated in AI, writing conversational interactions for the virtual agent bot on support.microsoft.com, as well as Microsoft’s digital assistant Cortana in the US and international markets. He and his team are responsible for the continued development of Cortana’s personality, crafting fun, personal, and culturally relevant experiences across the globe, as well as building an ML-powered conversational layer to support Cortana interaction. Follow him on Twitter at @jonathanbfoster.
Kristina: Hello, again. Welcome to The Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host, Kristina Halvorson. This podcast is brought to you by ContentStrategy.com and Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy. Find out more about Brain Traffic at BrainTraffic.com.
Hello, thanks a lot for joining us again at The Content Strategy Podcast. I am super excited about today’s guest. Her name is Abby Covert. Did I say that right?
Abby: Yes, you did.
Kristina: Covert. I have a long list of all the amazing things that Abby has done here and I’m just going to read them to you. She’s currently senior staff information architect at Etsy, which we establish were way too many words for one job title, especially when you said you’re the only IA there.
Kristina: Yeah, alright. Good. Well, they just wanted to give you a lot of words to help you feel as important as you are. She is the author of the outstanding Making Sense of Any Mess, she is the former president of the IA Institute, and the inventor of World IA Day. I only knew two out of the four things before we started chatting and now I’m a little starstruck. Abby, thank you for being here today.
Abby: Thanks so much for having me.
Kristina: Yeah, for sure. As I was explaining before we started today’s podcast, usually the format of these is I’m just going to ask you a little bit about your background and we will go from there. Abby, unlike many of my other guests, you and I have never really sat down and had a conversation about your work before so this is going to be the first time I’m hearing about all the sweet behind the scenes details of the amazing stuff you do as well. Why don’t we start by having you tell me all about yourself. Go.
Abby: All about me, let’s see.
Kristina: All about me.
Abby: I grew up on a small Caribbean island.
Kristina: Is that real?
Abby: Yes, that’s real. That’s a real fact.
Kristina: I was like, she’s going to start off by making up something awesome, but no, it’s a real thing.
Abby: No, that’s a real thing. Yeah, I grew up on St. Croix, which is one of the Virgin Islands.
Kristina: Oh, sure.
Abby: I was homeschooled so that tells you a little bit about my predisposition to go nerdy on stuff and be alone. So I have both of those things working for me. When you grow up on a Caribbean island, you pretty much know that you’re not going to live there forever unless you’re interested in a career in tourism, or entertainment, or some sort of restaurant job, or something like that.
Abby: For the most part, I knew that I was going to go somewhere else. I ended up going to Northeastern University. Mostly, no offense to Northeastern, but at the time homeschooling was not as accepted as it is now in post-secondary education so there was something about the list of schools being around 10 that would take homeschooled students at that point.
Kristina: No, are you kidding me?
Kristina: That’s like the dark ages.
Abby: It was. Yeah, it was definitely ... I feel like a pioneer, though, so it’s okay.
Kristina: In so many ways.
Abby: Yeah. I ended up going to Northeastern University and, at the time, I really wanted to be a print designer. I had spent a lot of my teenage years volunteering as a print designer for local organizations. I just was like really artistic my whole life so I really felt like that was the job for me. I didn’t really have any awareness of kind of the digital world at that point. I mean, we had internet, but it was just really slow and I didn’t have a lot of exposure to things like video games or even like popular culture as kids that grew up in the same time frame kind of did if they lived on the main land U.S. Going into college was pretty much a big shock to me and it was my first exposure to like, “Oh, wow. There’s designers who work on the web and that work on digital things.”
Two years into undergraduate, I got tapped for this emerging program called Multimedia Studies, which probably dates me a little bit as well because I’m pretty sure that we don’t use words like “multimedia studies” anymore, but maybe that program is still in existence and still called that. I kind of doubt it. In that program, that was my first time really understanding that the same principles that I had learned in design school from a print design perspective could be equivalated to what is going on in the digital world and I became really interested in that. That all said, I still wanted to be a print designer so when I got out of my undergraduate degree, I started looking for jobs and the first job that I accepted was a freelance gig off of Craigslist and the title of the post was “Design Icons from Home for Banking Software in Bermuda”.
Abby: Yes. I was like, “Well, this sounds shady, but I really need to pay my rent so I’m going to go for it.” The way that it worked was I had one telephone call with the project manager of a software company in New Hampshire that was working with this client in Bermuda and he was like, “Great. You sound great. Your rate’s great,” meaning, I was cheap. He was like, “I’m going to email you a list of words that I want you to make icons for and the size that the software architect wants the icons.” I was like, “Okay.”
Kristina: I can’t believe this was a gig back then.
Abby: Oh my gosh. Yeah, this was a gig. This was definitely a gig.
Kristina: On Craigslist?
Abby: Yeah. Oh my goodness, yeah, Craigslist, that was like the heyday of Craigslist.
Abby: This is also like pre-me knowing that you could get murdered off of Craigslist for accepting things like that.
Kristina: Via a job description for banking icons in Bermuda.
Abby: Exactly. I don’t think my parents would really approve of this story in hindsight, but we’re all glad that I’m still alive and that I made it.
Kristina: Somewhere out there, there’s some really amazing icons in Bermuda.
Abby: Oh my gosh. They were just gorgeous. They were just shiny objects that you just ...
Kristina: I bet they were.
Abby: In a vacuum, they really were. I spent hours on them. More hours than I was getting paid for because I was just like, it was my first gig, I was so excited. Then, it came up that in order to get them the working files, they were too big to email. I had to rent a car with my Jaz drive, drive to New Hampshire from Boston where I lived, and deliver these icons in person, and pick up my check. I did that and while I was talking to the project manager, the software architect put the icons into the software. He turned his laptop around and he showed me what it looked like and I basically gasped and I said, “This is terrible. You can’t put all of those things up at the top of the screen. It’s so confusing.” They just looked at me like, “What? You just designed these things. What do you mean?” I said, “Well, this doesn’t make any sense. They don’t have any labels. They’re really just ambiguous. I just don’t know how anybody will use this software.” They were like, “Well, what would you do instead?” I said, “Well, it’s software. Shouldn’t it have a menu system?” They were like, “What?” Like, mind blown that you would even have like words instead of this icon weird bar.
Kristina: I’m seriously listening to this story with my mouth hanging open. Continue.
Abby: It’s the greatest origin story. This is my Cinderella story of information architecture. The project manager turns to me after I tell him about this menu system and he goes, “Do you know what information architecture is?” And I said, “Yeah. I’m a print designer. Of course I know what information architecture is, like that’s what I do.” He was like, “No, I mean like for software.” I was like, “That’s a thing? That sounds amazing.” He told me about this whole thing—information architecture for the world wide web and for software. He told me about the polar bear book, which was written by Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville. I basically went to the bookstore when I got home, bought the book. Yes, I bought the book at a bookstore, not on the internet. Also dating the story. I just was like, “Oh my gosh. This is what I want to do.” That company ended up hiring me, first as contract, and then full-time as their first junior information architect.
Kristina: I have chills right now.
Abby: Yeah. It was really, honestly, like I love that story because it’s so part of me, but I also hate that story because it’s not reproducible for so many people. They call me and they’re like, “How do you get into information architecture?” I tell them this story and they’re like, “That sounds impossible.” I know.
Kristina: Starting with being homeschooled in the Caribbean.
Abby: Yeah, no, it happened to me. I spent the first two years of my Information Architecture career, I worked on Microsoft implementations. Mostly in SharePoint and I learned everything about working with clients and I had to learn how to interact with users, in terms of testing the concepts for the structures that I wanted to put into these pieces of software. I learned about working in an office with people. I learned about technology and the software architect that I worked with on my first project really took me under his wing and taught me all about how software is made and like the underpinnings of it, conceptually. I just fell in love with it. I just really thought, “This is where I want to be.” Print design kind of has remained a hobby for me, but yeah, from there I just have gone on to more and more IA challenges, bigger and bigger projects, different companies, and here I am 14 years later.
Kristina: You’re such an active member of the IA community. When I first figured out, “Oh my god, content strategy is a thing,” the first thing I did because I owned my own company and we were making stuff up for web copywriting as we went along was, “to the internet,” and try to find anything that I could about content strategy. Now, it’s like this large, really active community. You’ve played such an active role in developing and nurturing the IA community. Tell me about when you first started kind of reaching and out and trying to make those connections, and what was behind that?
Abby: Oh man, another Cinderella story. You’re like picking them all out for me. It was about four years into my IA career, so I had been practicing mostly as a team of one or team of one or two on various projects, and I didn’t really know that communities of thought existed. I knew that websites with articles existed, but it never occurred to me that those people were real people, that you could like meet and talk to about things. It just—
Kristina: I think that that is a pretty common thing that people are ... maybe not so much anymore because people “get to know people” via their social media feeds and really see sort of more personable sides of them.
Kristina: I think that idea that like, “What do you mean I could approach this author or this speaker?” Is pretty common still today.
Abby: Yeah, no exactly. This was before social media so this was before the modern forms of social media. You couldn’t just be like, “Oh, I’m going to ‘friend’ Peter Morville on Facebook.” That didn’t occur to me. It was ... I think it was about 2007 maybe, a friend of mine who was another information architect, he was more advanced in his career in IA, he was coming to Chicago where I had moved and there was an information architecture conference. He was like, “You should get your boss to pay for you to go to this conference about IA.” I was like, “Whoa, there’s like conferences that you go to for your job? I get to take two days off of going to the office and go listen to nerdy people speak about nerdy things? That sounds so awesome.” I got permission from my boss, he bought me a ticket, I went to the conference, and I was just like mind-blown, like, “Oh my gosh. There’s a community of people who are challenged by the same things that I’m challenged by every day in my job who are actually like really decent human beings.”
Then, it was just like, “Oh god, how do I actually overcome the introvert in me and talk to any of them?” Because I’m like, I had never met anybody else that I didn’t work with directly who did what I did. I was like, “What do you even talk about? How do you connect?” We went to the after party. This was at the Idea Conference, which was thrown by the IA Institute at the time. We went to the after party and I was just standing around with my free beer and this guy was standing next to me and it was Andrew Hinton, who is a really well-known information architect, which I didn’t know at the time. I started talking to me about like, “I’m Abby, and I just moved to Chicago, and I don’t really know too many people that do IA.” He was like, “Oh, do you know about the IA Institute mentoring program?” I was like, “What? There’s a program? That sounds amazing.” That night, I submitted ... I looked up on the internet, like the IA Institute, which I really didn’t know that much about and I submitted my application to be a part of the mentoring program.
Within a week, they sent me a note with a couple of names. One of the names was the president of the IA Institute himself, Russ Unger, was living in the Chicago, or right outside Chicago, and he was open to taking on a protégé person. I reached out to him and we started an email back and forth of him asking me of what my career goals were. From there, he took me out to lunch one day in Chicago near my office and he was like, “Hey, the best way for you to get involved is to volunteer.” I was like, “I love volunteering. My whole childhood was volunteering because I didn’t go to school.” I was very amped about that. He brought me on as a junior producer on the next year’s conference that they were producing, which was the same conference that had started this whole thing for me. From there, it just kind of snowballed.
My organizational skills and my limitless time from having no life outside of my job kind of allowed me to do a lot for that community in that small way. Then, I got bigger and bigger jobs until I finally ended up, I think it was like six years later, I was the president of the institute. Yeah, it just kind of snowballed from there. I’ve always been really amped about giving my time and talking about IA.
Kristina: That’s ... I’m picturing this cartoon where it’s like panel by panel of important moments in Abby’s life. In each panel, your voice is getting higher, “That’s incredible! That’s amazing! There is? Mentoring?!”
Abby: It was really life changing. It was just like ... It went from me thinking, coming out of college, you know, I came out of college at a time where there was not a lot of jobs, especially in the creative fields, and I kind of thought, “Did I make a mistake? Did I do something to kind of pigeonhole myself into not being able to have a livelihood from what I want to do?” This just completely changed my perspective. All of the sudden it was like, “Wow, these people, not only do they like what they do and they’re good at it, but they’re passionate enough about it that they’re spending their off hours progressing this community of thought.” I just thought that that was like so magical. It aligned so much with my personal values.
Kristina: Do you feel like, with social media, because I actually just saw something unfold on Twitter yesterday where one of our former Confab speakers—our content strategy conference—one of our former speakers was saying, “Oh, I’m really nervous about pitching a talk because I got some bad ratings last year.” There was this overwhelming output of support from other members of the content strategy community, you know, like, “You can do it. Don’t let one bad review … You’re so smart.” I just was really fascinated to see that play out so actively and almost emotionally on social media like that. Do you ... Can you talk to me a little bit about other avenues that the IA community has kind of taken or forged, whether it’s via social media, or group writing projects, or whatever you can think of, where people can get their foot in the door with the community or start volunteering. How do people ... That might seem like a really overwhelming obstacle to overcome if you’re not standing next to this guy at the IA Summit. How do people start to connect with others?
Abby: Honestly, you could not have given me a more perfect segue into why World Information Architecture Day exists. Because World IA Day exists exactly to fill that need. That story that I just told you relied on me being in a major metropolitan area standing next to a very influential speaker who could give me guidance and connect me with another very influential person within the community that immediately launched me into kind of the global level of that community of thought. More often, that’s not something that is able to happen in every person’s kind of existence in their time scale. What World IA Day is, is really a framework of bringing that idea into a local community.
What we’ve seen happen over time is that people who start out by saying, “Hey, I think information architecture is neat. I’m thinking about having a career in it.” We have students all over the world that organize those events, and by organizing the event in their local community for, you know, 10, 20, 30 people, some of these events are as small as a pizza party watching live streams from other locations, they start to meet other people that are interested in it and they start to say, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we had this thing?” Then, they go off and they create a project about it, which gets them visibility for their country, or for that area of the world, or even a global presence.
In some cases, we’ve had those folks then move on to become part of the ranks that are running the global organization that runs that event. I really feel like in-person interaction, like yes, social media is a great way for people to connect. The story that you just related is one of those positives that I hope to see more of because I feel like in the early days of social media it was a little bit more like that. We’ve kind of moved into a lot of self-promotion and arguing in social media, which I’m not a huge fan of.
But, I feel like the in-person connection and even the one-to-one connection, like the mentoring program that the IA Institute has I feel was a huge credit to me. I don’t think that I would have been able to say, “Hey, I want to volunteer for this conference.” It never would have occurred to me to think that I could do that, that I had the permission to stand up and say something like that. If one person who just has a couple years more experience than you is able to sit down and have lunch with you, or coffee with you, or even a Skype call with you, and say like, “Hey, here’s some ideas. Here’s some things you might think of.” I’ve been absolutely amazed by how people kind of have the fire lit under their butt to get involved. Once you give them permission, they want to. I’ve seen those people really grow. I’ve made it a big part of my focus in the last couple years of making sure that I’m paying it forward and mentoring the next generation of folks that are going to have stories like this for podcasts in the future.
Kristina: Alright. Tell me some of the new kinds of challenges or opportunities that you’re seeing with this new generation of IAs. Because really, we had folks kind of paving the way, connecting the dots between IA for software, architecture, and IA for websites. Now, the even larger sort of technical and content ecosystems across platforms and properties and so on. Tell me about some of the challenges you’re seeing with folks who ... it’s not even folks who kind of have grown up in their careers with social media, but sort of the folks entering the field right now. What obstacles and opportunities are you seeing in sort of a matured disciplined like IA? Or, is it a mature discipline?
Abby: I mean, I think one of the biggest obstacles that I see people facing that want to get into IA right now is there’s a real industry pressure to generalize your practice as opposed to specialize your practice.
Kristina: Oh, interesting.
Abby: There’s a very large kind of contingent of companies who are hiring or programs in existence that will push someone that has interest in IA towards becoming a UX generalist where they’re doing visual design, they’re doing prototyping, they’re doing research, they’re doing content strategy, they’re doing information architecture. All of those things are important, I think, for you to have like a working knowledge of in order to have a career in IA, but when you get into kind of the hiring world, companies want people that are, for a better word, the “unicorns” that can do all of it and do all of it really well at that mid to senior level.
What I see more often than not is people saying like, “I really want to be in IA. I don’t know how to make money just doing that. Companies just aren’t hiring just that.” We have a real chasm of … there’s a bunch of senior people that have IA specific roles, but the role of junior information architect is something that our community really struggles with, whether or not it even exists.
Just because there’s so much ... In terms of information architecture, one of the things you have to be really comfortable with is complexity and to throw someone who has very little experience and only a theoretical knowledge of dealing with complexity at actual complexity, is a risk, and a lot of organizations are not willing to take that risk with hiring completely green juniors into those roles. I’m really seeing a mis-balance of information architecture as a specialty being only those that are in the mid or senior levels of their career, which I think is challenging because it’s kind of like, “Hey kid, I know you really want to be in IA, wait five to seven years as a generalist and maybe you can be.” I don’t know that that’s an easy statement to make.
Kristina: Right. Talk to me a little bit about … because one of the interesting things that we find is that as a content strategy consultancy, Brain Traffic is often sort of straddling this uncomfortable divide slash trying to connect the dots between what is traditionally considered the UX profession. I think UX generalist, or the activities of UX generalist, would do on a project or on an ongoing basis, straddling those activities with really content-focused activities, which we often find include or end up having IA as really that major bridge between the two separate but related disciplines. Can you talk a little bit about how you see that relationship? Is that something that would help sort of more junior positions if they did start seeing IA more as a part of or more closely related to content strategy versus sitting squarely kind of in UX?
I mean, this is a little bit of a ... I’m not trying to force you to carve out territories at all. This is a thing that we’re constantly trying to untangle when people are like, “Okay, UX. You do research and you do personas, and you jump into visual design.” It’s that constant struggle and battle for getting content considered way up front. I just wonder, where do you see that relationship between content strategy and IA working best together? Is there an opportunity for more junior folks to potentially get a foot in the door with content strategies in IA and see their paths go in a slightly different direction?
Abby: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think that, in terms of the relationship that those two things have to one another, I think it’s really important that we talk about those two things as different disciples separate from different jobs. Because I think in a lot of cases, content strategists are doing IA work.
Kristina: That’s correct.
Abby: In a lot of cases, IAs are doing content strategy work.
Kristina: Also correct.
Abby: There’s a ton of overlap amongst people with job titles in those two areas doing both competencies and doing them well. I’ve seen really strong information architecture work come out folks that have a job title of content strategy. I find that more and more as your tribe grows and our tribe grows, I’m seeing a lot of overlap. We have a lot of content strategists that are a part of the IA Institute. We have a lot of content strategists that come to World IA Day or to the Summit. I feel like there is a lot of overlap kind of at the job level, but from a competency perspective, the way that I look at it is that information architecture is the definition of the structure. It’s deciding how the pieces are going to be arranged to relate to one another. Content strategy is making sure that that structure has staying power, is making sure that you actually have the stuff that will bring that structure to life over time and you have it in an organized, governed way that is not going to drive your organization crazy or leave you with tumbleweeds on your website.
That’s sort of how I feel about it. If you try to consider in information architecture without thinking about the content strategy, if you look six, nine, twelve months out from the implementation of that IA, it will probably be very stale versus if you think about IA in connection to content strategy and you’re thinking of them as lock step, then you have much more of a likelihood that you’re going to be looking two, three, four, five years down the line and that structure’s still going to feel like it’s working because you have the governance and the strategic process in place to keep it up and to make sure that the content is influencing the structure. I feel like they’re so close in nature that I find some people want to say, “Oh, I do content strategy. I don’t do information architecture.” I just think that’s a little silly. Unless somebody else is handing you the structure and you’re filling it in with your content strategy, I just don’t know how you wouldn’t be tackling them as sort of two sides of the same coin.
Kristina: Right. You know, we have this little quad that we use at Brain Traffic to kind of describe content strategy. We talk about systems design and IA and structure is part of that and governance is the other side of that coin. Just sort of getting systems in place that ensure that content is being organized and cared for and sort of maintaining its integrity over time with the foundation of these systems. It’s exciting to me to hear you talk about it in that context.
Let’s change topics quickly because I really want to make sure that we talk a little bit about the exciting work that you’re doing at Etsy, which is everyone’s favorite, cool company. Can you just tell me a little bit about your job day-to-day, what you’re focusing on?
Abby: Yeah. I am the only information architect at Etsy. There’s kind of a scary version of that reality, which would be if you assumed that that meant that I do all of that IA work at Etsy and that all IA work had to go through my hands in order to get done, I would be a very overworked and tired person. The way that we’ve really approached information architecture at Etsy is to say that IA is a critical skill, but it’s also a critical skill that needs to be democratized across all different competencies. My job is really a lot of mentorship and also a lot of sort of like connecting the dots across teams that are working in a very agile way.
Our organization is divided into groups. We have a group that’s dedicated to buyers, a group that’s dedicated to sellers, and then we have a cross-functional group dedicated to search and find. Those kind of core parts are all taking on projects that are agile in nature where they’re formulating hypotheses and then following those hypotheses with very quick experimentation and improvements from those based on iteration.
My job is really to keep in contact with all of those different folks and to understand what all of them are working on and how, when you kind of zoom out on the things they’re working on, how they interact with each other and how they might either detract from each other or add to each other, and then making those connections with them. Sometimes that’s in the form of making a controlled vocabulary so that they can communicate more clearly across teams. Sometimes that’s actually going in and doing a little bit more taxonomy development. We have a taxonomy team at Etsy, which I’ve partnered really closely with on things like our main category navigation. Sometimes it’s just straight mentoring and consulting of product designers or product managers that are dealing with complex flows or complex challenges from a user perspective.
I also manage the voice of the customer program at Etsy. A big focus that I’ve had for the last year is taking all of the different channels that we have throughout the organization that allow us to hear from our customers and connecting the dots of those things so that we no longer have kind of different sources of truth throughout the org based on where you’re hearing about some things. Connecting what we see in qualitative data with what we see in survey data with what we hear in our member operations and customer service lines with what we see on social media, and kind of connecting all of those things together and then playing those things out for the teams that are working on those challenges.
Kristina: It seriously sounds like somebody at Etsy read your book How to Make Sense of Any Mess and came to you and was like, “Can you turn this into a job?”
Abby: Yes, that is actually exactly what happened.
Kristina: Are you serious?
Abby: Yeah. I was ... Before I went to Etsy, I was actually independent for five years and they initially ... So, Alex Wright, who is the head of user research at Etsy at the time, he brought me in as a book club speaker and a bunch of product designers and product managers read my book and were really interested in sort of my framing of things. Then, we started to talk about a consulting engagement. Then consulting engagement was basically like, “Take a look at our information architecture and tell us what our challenges are and tell us some opportunities that you see.”
One of the opportunities that I saw was that they really could use somebody who was looking across all of these teams that are working agilely from an IA perspective and also to be kind of an in-house mentor. When it came up to do that presentation of my recommendations, they were like, “Hey, could that be you?”
Kristina: How about you?
Abby: Honestly, at that point, I’ll toot my own horn enough to say that it’s not the first client that had offered me a full-time job, but it’s just the first one that I actually considered because I felt like in my ... At that point, I was there for about six months part-time consulting for them and flying to and from Brooklyn. I just really fell in love with their culture and their mission. I just feel like everyone there is really committed to doing the right thing, and being collaborative, and kind, and yeah, I just completely fell in love with them. Almost two years later, I’m still completely in love with them. I feel very blessed.
Kristina: That’s a pretty long honeymoon period.
Abby: Yeah. I’m waiting for it to end, but so far so good.
Kristina: Yeah. That’s great. Tell me about ... Tell me a few things that you’ve learned being a part of this in-house team that have surprised you or that you kind of didn’t expect to either encounter or experience in your way through the door.
Abby: I had some hypotheses going in. Right as I was exploring my opportunity full-time with Etsy, I was really starting to expand my thought leadership content around collaboration in IA. One of the reasons that I kind of put into the pro list of why I might take a job full-time with an in-house team was to kind of test some of these hypotheses and some of this content around like, what does it actually mean to collaborate around information architecture and sort of what are the challenges of that? A couple things that have been proven out to me, one, is the pace of change is just so darn slow, which, to me, it’s interesting because in an agile organization you would almost expect that things would happen very quickly. But, what I see instead is the things that are happening very quickly are still just drops in the bucket towards these larger complexities that we’re working through.
The pace of change is just, in some cases, excruciatingly slow. Also, just kind of figuring out how influence on a product road map is kind of segmented into, what’s a good idea versus what we can get done and what’s going to have the effect that we need it to have in terms of metrics, and value, and return on investment? That’s all been fairly new to me because as a consultant, I was in the business of shipping ideas. It was sort of like, “Hey, company X, here’s what I see. Here’s the opportunities I see. Let me know if you want to talk about any of these in more depth, but other than that, let me know what happens.” You don’t really hear about the conversations that are really going on about how they’re right-sizing things or how they’re discussing the return on investment of certain issues at the business level. I feel really enlightened by that and I feel like that’s because it’s my first job as an “innie” as opposed to an “outie.” I do feel like that’s a whole new world for me, which is really interesting.
Kristina: How has being employed full-time changed your ability to kind of volunteer maintain a leadership role within the IA community, or has it?
Abby: I would say it ... The full-timeness of my job has not really. Changes in my personal life have, so I’m currently six months pregnant. I’ve been definitely taking a step back from the community as I need to focus on my family and my home life. One of the things that when I was coming into Etsy full-time and we were doing kind of the negotiations of what would this mean if I did this, was I just was really clear with them that like I’m not interested in stopping doing any of the things that I do for the IA community or to progress IA in like a thought leadership capacity. They knew that I was going to continue to write about IA, they knew that I was going to continue to speak about IA, they knew that I was going to continue to mentor people and to run events and do all these things. They’ve been really generous and very accommodating in that way because I was just honest and up front about it. I haven’t seen a lot of impact on the full-timeness from that perspective.
Kristina: This is my last question because we’re a little bit out of time. If you ... That topic in particular, I actually was having a conversation with Sara Wachter-Boettcher and Katel LeDu about this, about people who are wanting to contribute more time to their community of discipline, or get on stage, or attend a conference, or write a book, or write articles, and trying to sort of help employers understand that allowing them to devote part of their resources, part of their time to that work is going to make them a better employee versus just the 40 hours of productivity or activity that companies are looking for. What would you ... What advice would you give to someone who is saying, “Look, I want to further my disciple, but I’m so in the weeds all the time that I don’t even know how to make that work.”
Abby: I think that it’s honestly a conversation that probably needs to start with your manager. Most people do have those kind of annual or bi-annual conversations about career path or just about like job performance. I think that when you set goals for yourself, like at Etsy we’re very strongly encouraged to set goals about our personal development. I do see folks setting goals that are about things outside of the building, the metaphoric building in my case since I work remotely. I think that that’s an important thing to let your manager know and also to frame it in ways that it’s really beneficial to the company. I remember when I was about to have the conversation with Etsy about wanting to continue to do the things that I do, I was really concerned that they were going to be like, “Well, you’re going to have to take vacation time for it or it will be limited to a number of days.”
Honestly, the response that I got back was sort of shocking to me, which is it’s good for the company to have you out there talking about this stuff. I think that sometimes people don’t look at it that way. As much as you can kind of frame what you’re going to be going out to the world with as being about your job and about your contribution in your individual industry or your company, I think that that can really help the company with things like recruitment and even getting new clients if you’re in an “outie” kind of company. I think there’s something to that conversation with management of like, “Hey, this is something I see as I move from a junior position to a mid position or a mid to a senior. One of the things I really want to focus on is personal development and professional development in these realms. Will you support that?” If they don’t, I think you need to make a major decision about whether you’re at the company you want to be at. That’s going to continue to be a wall that you’re going to hit up against if it’s something you really want to do and putting your nights and weekends on this stuff doesn’t always get you the results that you’re after.
Kristina: Especially after you have babies.
Abby: Oh my gosh. I mean, I’m terrified because I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen as a result of this. I had this one really epic Sunday morning at six a.m. when I was about three months pregnant where I was just like, “I just need to go in my Gmail and say ‘no’ to every single thing,” and I did. I sat there for an hour just typing over and over again, like, “I’m sorry, but I can’t take this. I’m pregnant.” People were so nice about it, but how far does that extend into the life of a child and will I still feel the same way? It’s all to be determined.
Kristina: It’s all so different for every parent. I think that’s something that has always made me crazy is the idea that there’s a best practice for how to balance career and family. There’s not. Different things work for different people. It will unfold as it should.
Abby: It’s going to be an exciting ride whatever happens next.
Kristina: It is. I can’t wait to hear what comes next and to see a baby.
Abby: Oh my gosh. He’s going to be so cute.
Kristina: He’s going to be so cute. It’s a girl!
Abby: It’s a boy. He.
Kristina: Oh, it’s a boy. He. Alright. It’s a boy!
Kristina: Yeah, that’s great. Well, congratulations.
Abby: Thank you.
Kristina: Abby, we didn’t even get to talk about your book and so I’m hoping maybe you will come on the podcast again sometime in the future because I really do kind of want to dig into some of the ideas and concepts and frameworks that you introduce there that I think are so incredibly useful to the content strategy community.
Kristina: Can I see you again?
Abby: Yeah. I love a two-part podcast. Why the heck not?
Kristina: Why not? Alright. Let’s do it. Abby, where can our kind listeners find out more about you and your work?
Abby: They can find my writing at AbbytheIA.com. You can follow me on Twitter, also @Abby_the_IA, or also I’m very open to emailing with people about their interest in Information Architecture so firstname.lastname@example.org. It might take me a while, especially these days, but I will get back to you eventually.
Kristina: You’re a superstar. Thank you so much for being here today.
Abby: Yeah. Thanks for having me.
Kristina: You’ve been listening to The Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host, Kristina Halvorson. This podcast is brought to you by ContentStrategy.com and Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy. Find out more about Brain Traffic at, of course, BrainTraffic.com. Thanks and we’ll see you next time.
The Content Strategy Podcast is a show for people who care about content. Join host Kristina Halvorson and guests for a show dedicated to the practice (and occasional art form) of content strategy. Listen in as they discuss hot topics in digital content and share their expert insight on making content work. Brought to you by Brain Traffic, the world’s leading content strategy agency.