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9 Questions About IBM Redbooks With Chris Rayns

By Destination Z posted Mon December 23, 2019 03:24 PM


Chris Rayns, IBM Redbooks manager responsible for technical content services, works in IBM Systems, Worldwide Client Experience Center in Research Triangle Park NC . He has been working in the IT industry since 1987 in a variety of roles, such as systems programmer, IT CICS specialist and project leader. Today, he works as the manager of the IBM Redbooks team. Rayns’ main responsibilities include ensuring the successful execution of all Redbooks projects along with business development. This requires establishing good working relationships across all of the brands development managers and executives, specifically close relationships in the area of IBM Z. Rayns continually drives transformation across the IBM Redbooks team and manages utilization and demonstrable ROI of content created.

Rayns has worked in a variety of countries and has been leading global technical teams toward creating high value-add technical content for years. He has taught technical workshops and presented on IBM Z and IBM CICS, in different countries around the world.

To get Rayns’ perspective on the history of IBM Redbooks, why they’re useful, how they’ve evolved and how audiences receive them, I asked him the following questions:

Q: What is the history of IBM Redbooks—when did it start and who started it?

A: The earliest Redbooks recorded in our archives were published in 1976 (all System Z based). It is possible there were even earlier publications that aren’t documented in our database. I don’t know how Redbooks started but it was a time when there were other technical content producers in systems centers around the country producing other documents like so called orange books. The original name for the group was World Trade so I imagine we did similar work but with a global view.

Q: Are IBM Redbooks just about IBM hardware, software and services or is it broader than that? 

A: Those topics are our bread and butter, but where we take it a step further is that we also produce cross brand, cross product solutions—something that is difficult to get from the product documentation. Our value is in the subject matter experts (SMEs) on our team and our residency model to produce technical information based on experience.

Q: Is IBM Redbooks about just books or are there shorter items (like essays or short stories) and different media besides print? 

A: Redbooks obviously originated as books, with the gradual introduction of shorter works as papers. Today, we still produce the bulk of our content as books and papers in PDF form, but we also create videos, including video courses, HTML docs, BLOG posts, demos and more. We can produce content for delivery on any platform supported by our sponsors.

Q: Has there ever been Redbook residencies that produced too much information (like a 2,000 page book) or ones that just came up dry?  

A: I’m sure that over the years that have been instances of that, but typically we have a good response measured in terms of downloads and feedback. Where a publication does fall short, we use that as a learning experience both for ourselves and for the sponsor that requested the title. We have produced some whoppers in terms of size, typically reference type content where product documentation fell short for some reason. Those have historically been very well received.   

Q: Is there such a thing as optimum team size and what help does IBM Redbooks provide to the team like project management and editorial support?

A: The size of the team is tailored to the number and diversity of topics being covered in a project, so there isn’t really an optimum size. The primary contributing factor to the success of a project is the ability to bring SMEs together to work face-to-face in a single location. Bringing the SMEs together provides for a focused, efficient team that produces quality information quickly. These on-site residencies are generally from two to four weeks long.

While we do run residencies remotely—where the residents stay in their home location—we find that there are many distractions that take away from their ability to focus on the project (typically their day job). Publications produced in this way are often those with little time constraint on their delivery. These remote residencies can run for weeks or months.

As for support, we have a professional editing team that ensures the final product meets IBM standards and a residency administrator that assists with residents that are traveling.

Q: Are there a few examples of Redbooks that have sustained long-term interest and support like a book that has had 10 editions?

A: Yes, there are several. For example, the IBM Z Connectivity Handbook is up to 19 editions now. The IBM Tape Library Guide for Open Systems is up to 15 editions. 

Q: We know that the teams are created for a given residency but how many permanent employees support the creation of Redbooks?

A: We have 24 permanent members of the Redbooks team, including project leads, editors, tech writers, IT and admin support, and management. The majority of the team are content producers.

Q: Who picks the topics and technologies for the residencies?

A: Internal groups including development and marketing fund the Redbooks. The sponsor chooses the topic and provides guidance to ensure the focus and message meet their goal.

Q: What is next for IBM Redbooks or is that a naïve question because they are always changing and evolving?

A: We are always looking for ways to improve and to meet the needs of our evolving client base, both in terms of the type of content, how we create it and how we deliver it.