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Okay, now let’s get on with this episode. Today. I am really excited to talk to Tracey Larvenz. He is my content manager over at LinkedIn Learning and he is so great to work with. Being a content manager at LinkedIn Learning, it’s his job to make sure that there is a steady stream of new course material coming out for members. We’ll talk about how he decides what to put into the production queue. And with me being a LinkedIn Learning instructor, we’ll get into the course creation process a bit. I’m really excited to share this with you because I’ve put out a few courses this year on LinkedIn Learning, so getting a sneak peek into that process is going to be really fun.
But before we get into that, let’s hear a word from our sponsors.
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And now back to the show.
Joe: Hey, everybody, and welcome to another episode of How I Built It, the podcast that asks, how did you build that. Today my guest is Tracey Larvenz. He is a content manager at LinkedIn. Tracey, how are you?
Tracey: I’m doing great today. How about yourself?
Joe: I am wonderful. I’m happy to talk to you today. Tracey happens to be my content manager at LinkedIn. I reached out because in this season as we focus on creating content for different mediums and being consistent, I thought that this would be a really good conversation to have as LinkedIn Learning puts out lots of content, and I’m sure it gets pitched on even more content. So I thought that this would be good to figure out how you decide what content to put out and at what cadence. But before we get into all of that, why don’t you tell us, Tracey, a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Tracey: I actually am one of several content managers at LinkedIn Learning. I think there’s about 10 of us or so and we each cover a number of different content areas. So I happen to cover Python, PHP, WordPress, a number of other frameworks. I came from a nontraditional path. I was actually originally somebody who took computer courses in high school and college. I actually majored in music of all things. I worked in film production for about 20 years or so. But throughout the whole process, I was teaching and I was heavily embedded in technology. So when the offer came up here, I jumped at it.
Joe: Awesome. Awesome. I think so when we met you were in a different role, I believe, right?
Tracey: That’s correct. Yeah. I was actually one of the managers of the producers. At LinkedIn, we have two people who generally work with the authors. One is the content manager who decides what the courses will be about. Then the producer, who is the person who helps the author, creates the course itself once that has been decided.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. In that kind of triad, I guess, I am an author at LinkedIn Learning, a part-time or adjunct or freelance…I don’t know what the official nomenclature is. Is just like a contractor?
Tracey: Yeah, contract/author for us.
Joe: Excellent. And then you do have full-time authors as well, right?
Tracey: We do have some staff authors, yes.
Joe: Staff authors. As the author, I first talked to the content manager. So in this case, Tracy and I would have a conversation. Generally, you have reached out to me saying, “All right, well, you are open for courses—to build courses and these are some of the topics we’re thinking about.” Right?
Joe: Just to close the loop on that, once we figure out the course I’m going to do, I did get passed off to a producer. I have worked with the same one for the last three courses now. Actually, I guess I worked with Abby for the PHP First Look. But the last two courses, I’ve worked with the same person. But as far as figuring out what to do, how do you figure out what courses to bring to the author? And how do you figure out what author to talk to?
Tracey: Well, that’s just a short answer. No, I’m kidding. Actually, there’s quite a bit to it. I’ll start with the first part of it, which is trying to decide what to cover. We have a number of different places where we can go to get some information about what learners are searching for. So that’s always the first thing that I will look at. There’s a hard-fast rule of “give the people what they want”. So searching. If a learner comes up with a lack of hits for courses that are currently in the library, there is a database that we have that can show us these things, and we can figure out what the content areas are that they’re looking for specifically, what they’re hoping to have covered.
But it’s not just that though. I spend a lot of time doing research. I spend a lot of time on message boards. I spend a lot of time going to conferences. I try to understand really what the audiences are looking for. It’s a moving target generally speaking. So, what is relevant in technology right now is not the same thing that was relevant in technology three or four months ago. Particularly with the arrival of COVID and people working remotely. We try to always make sure we’re delivering timely content that people can use at the moment. There’s a lot more to it than that too. But those are kind of the broad strokes about what I’m looking for in terms of the topics.
In terms of authors, I’m always looking for people who really care about the topic, who are passionate about it, and people who have an enthusiasm for it. I think we’ve all been in a class where we’ve had an instructor who was teaching a class that you didn’t think you would care about at all. It might have been world history or something like that, that you’re like, “Well, this isn’t one of my favorite topics but I have to take the course.” Then you get in the class, and the instructor is amazing. He brings such life to it, he brings passion to it, and he really makes you care about it, too. So I’m looking for those types of instructors for our content. So you fit that bill perfectly. It’s been wonderful to work with you.
Joe: Thank you.
Tracey: On the flip side of things, I think we’ve all had classes where the instructor wasn’t into the topic, and within a few minutes you find yourself nodding off. So online training is pretty tricky because we have to make sure that we are always engaging the audience. So making sure that we’re finding the people who are passionate, who can convey that enthusiasm, people who really respect their audience, and people who understand that they are talking to an audience, they’re talking to a person, one person at a time. That’s super important.
So getting up and lecturing in front of a class is much different than sitting in front of somebody and talking to them. I think for our types of learning, having the latter is much more important—being able to go and talk to an individual. I think that’s what personalizes people.
Joe: Yeah, for sure. I love that because you’re right. When somebody is watching a video and they’re not in the classroom, to them, it definitely feels like it’s one on one. Because they don’t have anybody to commiserate with.
Joe: As the instructor, I want to make sure that they are absorbing the knowledge or absorbing the information. For sure, I try to approach my classes a lot like…I had a computer science teacher who he had been teaching for 20 or 30 years at that point, but he would always approach the problems as if he was solving them for the first time. I thought that was just like the Dutch national flag problem is a long-established computer science, academic problem. He would stand at the board and really think about how to solve it. I’m like, “You know the answer to this. You must write.” For us, it was super helpful to see him work through the problem. So that really affected my education, and I like to think how I approach teaching.
Tracey: Absolutely, yeah.
Joe: This is interesting. You actually mentioned that a lot has changed, especially in the last four or so months. What have you seen as a content manager as far as searches and COVID-19 and being in a pandemic? What changes have you seen there?
Tracey: Well, that’s a great question. I think that one of the main things that we’ve seen is that people are struggling to go and figure out how to work remotely. There’s a lot of things that are a little bit different when you are coding as an individual versus when you’re coding, say, for enterprise. You know, there’s things like pair programming. When you are remote, that’s a different type of problem. It’s not something you’re used to working through.
So we’ve been trying to do training that is more timely that can help people in the moment. So we’ve been focusing a lot on how to go and prepare our learners for this remote workflow. We’re starting to see some companies open up, of course. However, I think that there’s going to be, particularly in tech, a lot more workers working from home just because it’s safer due to social distancing. Also, I think that a lot of people are finding that it’s an effective way to work for a lot of the types of tasks that we do. I would say that most of our changes are really built around that remote workflow.
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And now back to the show.
Joe: I would agree that this is probably going to be a long term change. I can’t imagine that any bottom-line minded people in San Francisco, for example, would be like, “Hey, you’ve been working exactly the same at home for free to me. Why don’t you come back to our million dollar a month office?”
Tracey: Right. Exactly.
Joe: That might be an exaggeration. I don’t actually know how much office costs.
Tracey: It might not be though.
Joe: It might not be. I think that that’s definitely going to be a long-lasting change. That’s really interesting. I know that we didn’t prepare any of this, so I know you don’t probably have the data right in front of you. But have you seen an uptick in the amount of people interested in learning new skills with their extra time, we’ll say? Somebody actually tagged me in one of their LinkedIn posts about how great it’s been to learn new skills and level up their career. I mean, that was very rewarding, because you really don’t see a lot of that teaching remotely or teaching online. So that was very rewarding. Have you seen that yourself?
Tracey: Oh, absolutely. I can’t talk specific numbers. It’s proprietary information. But I can say that, yes, it has been quite a boom for online learning. People indeed are trying to go and really make the best of what could be considered to be a bad situation. We see engagement really picking up. It’s starting to go and flatten out a bit. But we are about two or three months into the general lockdown here in California, and I think across most of the US. But yes, there’s been a huge influx of new learners.
People, I think in general want to go and try to be useful and make themselves useful in a variety of situations, and they’re looking to go and try to find that next skill that can help them get a raise, get a better job, and really try to make things better for themselves and their families. And certainly, online learning has been a venue where they’ve been looking.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. That’s fantastic. So figuring out what to cover in courses, figuring out the authors, now how do you figure out…? Well, I want to ask this but I don’t want to get inundated with pitches. First of all, does LinkedIn Learning accept open pitches? I luckily had a friend connected me to the right people—this is very important—when the time was right. Because I asked them maybe a couple of years before that, and he made the connection when the time was right. But does LinkedIn Learning accept open pitches for courses?
Tracey: I can’t speak for other content managers. But for me, absolutely, yes. There are the obvious ideas. There are ideas about future things that are coming through. I’m one person and I can’t possibly know everything there is to know about all the different technologies. So I’m always happy to go and discuss course ideas for sure. Again they may be something we already have in production, but they may not be. It might be something we just snap right up and say, “Hey, yeah, let’s do that.”
Joe: Nice. When you’re doing that, I know that there’s probably a few things that you want to look for. You want to make sure that the idea jives. But you also want to make sure that the person bringing the idea to you can deliver the content. I won’t tell you to do this in a negative way, but let’s say somebody wants to create a good online course. What are the skills that they should work on, or the skills that they should make sure they have to adequately deliver an online course?
Tracey: Sure. It’s two-sided. There’s the course material itself. So if we start with the course material, first of all, it’s got to be a solid idea. You have to understand who your audience is. If you are going to go and teach an advanced Python course, there are certain assumptions you make for somebody who is going to be watching that course versus programming foundations course, where somebody would have no knowledge going into that, or very basic knowledge. So you really need to go and understand who your audience is and who you’re going to be talking to.
You really, really need to get pretty granular with the material, even at the pitch part of this. We’re going to ask a lot of questions after we typically get a course brief that kind of outlines what the idea is, why you’re the person to go and teach that and why it’s important to be taught now, along with some actionable outcomes for the learning. What can the learners expect to be able to do after they take the course? Those are all things that you really need to spend a lot of time considering, having great answers for.
As you’re getting into that, you might find out that “Okay, well, maybe this isn’t the idea that I thought it was, maybe this really has been covered elsewhere.” Or you might decide, “Okay, yeah, I think this is great. It looks like this is something that’s currently covered in the library” or “at least it’s not a topic that has been covered recently in the library.” Again, for me, one of my overriding themes is I would like to go and make sure that I have timely content. Again, as we’ve mentioned earlier, things change on a very rapid basis. I’m always looking to update courses. Anyways, there’s the content side of things like that.
From an author perspective, an author side, you really have to be able to go and make the content interesting from a…Well, first of all, you have to be interested and passionate about the topic. You just can’t teach something where it sounds like you’re just reading a manual. That’s not going to go and engage viewers, and that’s not going to go and keep them. So you might have them for a minute or two, but if you don’t care about the stuff, people are going to and find out like that immediately. You’re going to lose them if you’re not passionate about it. That’s going to be one of the top things.
Then actually, there’s a few other things like making sure that you are taking care of cutting out the fat. You want to make sure that you aren’t wasting a learner’s time. There’s personalization, which is awesome. And I love that. I always recommend that our authors, instructors go and bring little personalized stories into these things. To go and talk about, like, “Oh, this might have been one of the things that I had trouble with when I was first getting started,” for example. But the flip side of that is, you don’t want to go on a 15-minute diatribe about that kind of thing. You just want to add that little personal bit and just get in, get out, and keep teaching. And making sure that you are being respectful of the learner’s time. So super important.
Then the other thing is it takes practice too. You have to be able to go and speak. It sounds like a weird thing, but it’s sometimes hard to be able to go and just read a script through if you go with scripts. It’s a skill. It’s something that you can practice, something you can work on. You should record yourself too. I know that for example…I say the word a lot. You’ll hear that throughout the podcast. I’m sorry. I really am. But as we are doing the courses, you’ll find that you can learn to not say those types of things too. And it makes the process much easier for learners, it makes it much easier for the editors who are going to work on the courses. And it’s going to lead to a better product too. There’s things like that that are really going to help make a difference. But overall, you have to be an expert in the topic, you have to know the thing inside and out, be passionate about it, and be able to communicate that effectively.
Joe: The “be passionate part”, that’s something that is echoed. When I went to…I don’t want to name him because I don’t want people to be like, “Hey, can you hook me up too?” But when I went to him first and I was like, “Hey, do you recommend anything?” He said, “You need to be passionate about whatever you pitch.” I think that’s super important because it is. It’s hard to get motivated to write scripts because you do. Like you said, in the pitch process you need to do a course brief and a table of contents. You need to think through everything that you’re doing. Then some of the courses are short but I happen to be working on a course now that is 67 videos last time I checked. And that’s a lot.
Tracey: It is a lot.
Joe: Some of them are short videos. But if I’m not into that topic, it’s going to be a slog.
Tracey: Real slog.
Joe: I really need to dig it. Luckily, I do. I really enjoy teaching, especially beginners. I love teaching beginners how to program. It’s just really fun.
Tracey: It come through in your instruction.
Joe: Thank you very much. It’s right for analogies. I love analogies. I like what you said too, about practice recording. You kind of get your reps in. That is what I tell people. When are thinking about starting a podcast or doing YouTube videos. Because these interviews aren’t scripted. Hopefully you can tell that. There are a few of my episodes that have been scripted, and you could probably tell the difference.
My Courses are not scripted. Well, they are scripted, but I don’t read from them verbatim. They’re basically just I write out the points I want to hit in sentences so that my producer knows what I’m talking about, so I know I know what I’m talking about, and I’m not just kind of like cowboying it. But I don’t read them verbatim. I’ve trained myself not to say, “Um.” I do a little pause if I need to think about something. And those pauses, I suspect are a lot easier to edit out than the word “um,” or “like.”
Joe: Anyway, I’m reiterating your points because I think they are all that’s all great advice. As we continue and move into the next section here, we have figuring out what to cover and how to deliver this material. What about the cadence at which you release content? I know that you have a limit on the number of courses at least a single contract author can develop in a time period. I suspect that’s for budgetary reasons, but also like you want to make sure you’re releasing the right content at the right time, that you’re not flooding your user base with too much. Right?
Joe: What does that look like?
Tracey: The cadence is, like you said, for an individual author, we often won’t do more than one or two courses per quarter. We have yearly quarters just like everybody else. For the author perspective, we want to make sure we aren’t burning out our authors. So we want to make sure that everybody’s nice and fresh. Most of our authors are industry experts, and they are working in the industry, so this is not a full-time job for them. So you can imagine how difficult it would be to go and program a full day and then try to go and spend a couple of hours every day to go and work on a course. It would be really easy to burn out. We want to be very respectful of our author’s time and make sure that we’re getting the best content. Part of that is making sure that they’re fresh.
From the lease side of things on the library as a whole, each content manager basically has a set number of courses that they can release in a quarter. For me, as I am scheduling things, I am looking to make sure that we have good coverage across all of my content categories. I mentioned that I cover things like C# and PHP and Python. So I want to make sure that I’ve got relevant timely information covered throughout that.
Generally, I would say that I’m releasing maybe, let’s see…I don’t know if I can actually say how much courses I release. It’s a pretty manageable number that if there is a student, an individual who wants to learn things, they would be easily able to go and watch all of the new content that becomes available every month without being overwhelmed.
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Now back to the show.
Joe: I used to think that running my own membership site. So I used to think like, I just need to pump out all the content I possibly can. Then I heard quite the contrary. Don’t overwhelm your users. If you release 60 hours of content every month, they’re going to be like, “Why am I paying for this? I can’t possibly consume all of it.”
Joe: And it’s a little bit different because you do have different learning tracks. You have like the web developer track, maybe the WordPress specific track, Python. Then you have completely different skill sets too, right? You have authors for e-commerce and Microsoft products. I have a bunch of courses saved because I want to learn how to do Logic Pro and Final Cut Pro better than I’m doing them now. There’s a lot. But if you look at maybe your avatar, your customer avatar for a particular topic set, that’s where you’re looking at the specific cadence at which you release new content, right?
Tracey: Absolutely. We do have some different considerations for…we cover a large number of industries. So, we have learners who are in universities, we have learners who are for that matter in high school. We also have learners who are in enterprise. We even have some retirees who are interested in picking up coding too. We are releasing a large number of hours in aggregate across a bunch of different libraries and subsections to be able to go and make sure that we are trying to meet all the needs for all those different categories of learners. But yeah, for sure, making sure that you are not overwhelming any particular category is very useful.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. And I should say I picked 60 hours of content. Because I am catering to one type of person in my membership, and 60 hours feels like a lot for them. That’s more than a single workweek in every month. So 60 hours maybe not a lot of content per month for LinkedIn Learning scale because you do cover a wide range of different audiences.
Tracey: We do for sure.
Joe: Awesome. This has been really great. I want to give our listeners some action items here. I think that more people are interested in video contents, maybe in creating their own online courses. A lot of the listeners are small business owners. What are maybe some tips you would give to them if they want to start doing their own video content? This is not necessarily for LinkedIn Learning, just things to think about, since you are a content manager but you are also a producer. I should say I’ll reiterate the question because I want to go on this quick sidebar.
Joe: We’re all remote now at the time of this recording, but I love being in the LinkedIn Learning booth because the producer is…I think Matt put it this way to me or maybe Pat did. The producer is almost like your pitching coach. Like you are a pitcher, and you think, “I can do it. I could throw 120 pitches.” But his job or her job is to make sure that you are staying fresh in the booth. So often we’ll get to like 2:30 in the afternoon, I’ve been doing it for five hours or so and that’s time to go home and rest up. I love that. Because it’s nice to have an extra set of ears, an external set of ears to make sure that you are delivering the best quality content possible.
Joe: So to reiterate, what are some tips you have for people looking to get into video content for their small business?
Tracey: Sure. There’s a few things. Number one is I would say, always deliver something of value to your customer. If you are delivering video, make sure it’s something that’s worth watching, make sure that there is some value to it. That could be entertainment, it could be that you’re teaching a valuable skill. But make sure that you’re delivering something.
Always have respect for the learner’s time, for the viewer’s time. Because if you don’t, people will know that and you will lose them. Really go and take time to really figure out what you want to be doing, what you want to be saying, what you want to be showing because you only have one opportunity to make that first impression. If you go and you’ve missed that opportunity, then it’s really, really hard to go and bring people back for a second viewing.
So, try to always do your best, always understand that you’re talking to individuals. It’s really simple to go and say, “No, I’m talking to an audience.” But when there is somebody who is consuming your video, it’s an individual and you should treat them as such. Care about them, understand who it is that you’re talking to, and what you’re trying to say, and care about them. I would say those are really some of the biggest things. Just make sure you’re always being respectful.
Joe: I think that’s such great advice. It’s easy to be like, “I’m talking to a lot of people.” But I think something that you often hear with marketing and even with previous guests on the show is, “Create your ideal customer avatar. Make that a single person, name them, and talk to them.” Because the more specific you get, the better your content will be, the more taken care of your audience will feel. So I think that’s absolutely great.
Tracey: Yeah. For example, I will tell you, one of the tricks that we used to use for my television days, when we would have trouble getting a presenter to smile and keep that type of attitude going, we would go and take a picture of somebody that they cared about that they loved, and we would literally tape it to the side of the camera so they would see that person and smile. So it was not uncommon to see somebody’s son or daughter. It’s somebody who could always make them smile and somebody who they cared about.
I’ve told authors, when I was a producer, to make sure that you know, they are keeping somebody in mind, and if it helped, to go and bring a picture into the booth with them. Or as they record their sample movie, to go and have a picture very close by, that they could always go and refer back to. So, as you’re envisioning your audience too, if there’s a friend or a family member or somebody who wants to learn these types of things that you are talking about, absolutely talk to them. You can use a picture.
Some people even have their husband or wife or sister brother sit behind the camera so they can still actually talk to that person. I’ve had authors in the booth who will go and just stare at me the entire time and tell me and talk to me. I love it. I enjoy it. It’s just absolutely fascinating. But you can tell the difference in the delivery.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. I should say like, it’s an acquired skill to be able to…If you’ve seen any of my YouTube videos, you know I talked to the camera and I’m very animated. But it’s something that you really need to get used to. I think that even when I’m not on camera or when I’m in the booth, I really tried to act like I’m talking to somebody because you smile more. And you may not think so but people can tell. People can tell if it’s not the exactly…know that you’re smiling, they’ll know that your delivery will be different. Definitely great. I love the idea of keeping a picture of somebody that will make you smile and just have somebody to talk to you. Staring into the lens of a camera is weird sometimes.
Tracey: Yeah, totally.
Joe: Amazing. Tracey, thanks so much for your time. I do need to ask you one more question and is the question I asked all of my guests. And that is, do you have any trade secrets for us? I feel like you just gave us one with the picture thing. Do you have any trade secrets for us?
Tracey: Always be learning.
Joe: Always be learning. I love it. Always be learning. Nothing more to say about that. Tracey, thanks so much.
Joe: Nothing more to say.
Tracey: That’s all I got.
Joe: Thank you for coming on the show. Where can people find you?
Tracey: Oh, people can find me on LinkedIn. Easy enough. But I am at traceylarvenz at LinkedIn. You can also reach me @tlarvenz on Twitter, and on a lot of different social media platforms. But you could definitely find me on LinkedIn.
Joe: Perfect. I will link to those and everything that we talked about in the show notes, which you’ll be able to find over at howibuilt.it. Tracey, thanks so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it.
Tracey: Thanks so much for having me.
Outro: Thanks so much to Tracey for joining us today. I really appreciate that we got to talk about a little behind the scenes stuff over at LinkedIn Learning. I personally love working for LinkedIn Learning and making courses for them. I’ve learned a lot in how to create good courses and I hope that they like my work. They seem to. So thank you again, Tracey.
His tips are really worthwhile. Always deliver something of value, make it worth watching, and respect the viewer’s time. So that’s all great. Of course, his trade secret, always be learning, I think that’s super important. I try to take at least a few online course modules a week when I have the time. So definitely always be learning.
Thanks to our sponsors. They are Yes Plz Coffee, iThemes, and TextExpander, all tools that helped me have a productive workday from my very first sip of coffee in the morning to keeping my site secure through the night. If you want to learn more about Tracey and our sponsors, you can head over to howibuilt.it/185. That’s howibuilt.it/185. Again, if you want to get good, really good weekly content and insights, you can sign up for our newsletter over at howibuilt.it/subscribe. Thanks so much for listening. Until next time, get out there and build something.