Q&A with Jessica Twentyman, Freelance Technology Writer & Editor

March 19, 2012

By Rose Ross @Rose_at_O

Jessica Twentyman has worked as a writer and editor for some of the UK’s major business and trade titles, including the Financial Times, Sunday Telegraph, Director, Computer Weekly and Personnel Today.

Q.  Tell us a bit about yourself.

I live in a tiny, rural corner of central Portugal in a cottage that my clever husband is renovating for us. It’s a pretty unlikely venue for tech journalism. I’ve been writing about business technology since 1995 and went freelance in 2004. What interests me most is the impact that technology projects have on people. Don’t expect me to get excited about a new piece of software or a new gadget: My job, as I see it, is to translate this stuff for people who need to have some frame of reference in management meetings. Tell me how technology will change how people will work and how their companies will benefit.

Q. Tell us a bit about the titles you write for and their interest in cloud, mobile technology, storage, virtualization and IT security.

I’m a regular contributor to the Financial Times Connected Business section, and the topics you list are all ones that business leaders need to pin down. I work on the basis that, understandably, they’re confused by technology marketing hype and probably need some context on what they’re being told by IT companies. Context is really important to me: What’s the backdrop against which a particular product is launched or a particular claim made? It’s important in all the writing I do, whether I’m writing for HR professionals (Personnel Today), retail managers (Retail Week) or small-business owners (Director).

 Q. What’s “hot” in technology this year? 

In sixteen years of IT journalism, you get to tour an awful lot of data centers, so I’d say cloud computing. Despite all the hype that surrounds the subject, it’s still the best opportunity business leaders have to make all that power and cooling, and all that technical management and know-how, someone else’s responsibility. I think that most business leaders now recognise that they don’t necessarily need to host their own systems at all. Many don’t even want to – why would they? The question is: Who can they trust to do it for them? Other subjects I’m particularly interested in include flexible working and the “consumerisation” (horrible term) of IT and also information management strategies.

Q. How many events do you attend each year? 

I’d say four or five. On the whole, I’m pretty reluctant to leave home. The weather and scenery here are much nicer than anything the inside of a conference centre can offer. What I’m mostly looking for are events that bring me into contact with actual business users of new technologies. I get back to London about four or five times a year and that’s when I get a lot of face-to-face meetings and interviews done.

 Q. Which ones are you most looking forward to? 

Well, obviously IP EXPO – I work year-round as editor on the IP EXPO Online site, so it’s important for me to meet with the companies and customers that make up the community at the show in the autumn. Events run by the larger IT market analyst firms, such a Gartner, can be very useful, too.

Q. What types of stories or companies are likely to attract your attention this year? 

I don’t write news stories at all. I prefer to concentrate on long-form journalism: features, news analysis, that kind of thing. What I’m looking for is anything that gives a bit of life to what might otherwise be a pretty dry subject: anecdotes, real-life examples, controversial opinions.

Q. How many interviews do you do per week? 

Some days, I’ll do six or seven interviews, pretty much back to back. Other days, I’m heads down on writing. I’d say an average of about 15 interviews per week is pretty normal.

Q. What’s the best way to pitch a story to you?

Twitter’s not a great way to pitch, although I do use it from time to time to alert PRs to what I’m working on. I’d prefer to get responses by email. In fact, I’d prefer to get most stuff by email. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I have the phone (or rather, Skype) on “do not disturb” for most of the time.

Q. What is the best piece of advice for companies pitching stories?

My biggest bugbears are PR pitches that say, “My client can talk about that subject”. You get the sense that the PR is just sending you that email so they’ve got something to show the client when the client asks why they weren’t interviewed for a particular feature. I’m not really interested in bland, high-level executive comment. I’m looking for something that really tells a story, something that stands out, something that gives a technology subject a “human interest” angle. Pitches that show a bit of effort and imagination really stand out for me.

Q. Who is worth listening to re: technology?

I love the way that The Economist tackles technology subjects. Of the IT analyst firms, I think Forrester probably does the best blogs. The interviews I enjoy doing most tend to be with CIOs, IT directors and line-of-business managers who implement technology products and use them in their day-to-day lives.

 Q. What’s your favourite blog? Feel free to name a few if you like.

I have loads of favourite blogs that I read outside of work, but there’s not many that I read regularly on technology subjects. That said, I really like Matt Aslett of the 451 Group’s Too Much Information blog.

Q. What is your favourite piece of technology?

My MacBook Pro. My iPad, when I finally get round to buying it.

Q. What do you think is the most important development in technology to date? 

I honestly don’t think I can answer that question. Who knows? I work in an industry where every new start-up and every new product launch is spun as the most important industry development to date. I guess I believe that truly significant developments in this industry tend to happen gradually over time and that their impact on working lives is much clearer in retrospect. When I was an editorial assistant on Computer Business Review in the mid-1990s, only one person on the team of seven or eight people owned a mobile phone. If you wanted to work from home, you took the article you were working on home on a 3.5 inch floppy disk. You got it finished without using the Internet, because very few people had Internet access at home – not even dial-up. (I’ll stop before this descends into the Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen sketch.)

Q. What was the best press trip you’ve ever been on? Worst? Why?

I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been to Israel, Kenya, Brazil, Rwanda, India – places I might never have visited if I didn’t have the opportunity through work.  Worst press trip experience ever? Being forced to watch Starlight Express, performed in German, by Australians who weren’t very good at rollerblading, on an industrial estate in Essen, Germany.

Q. What’s your favourite restaurant or type of food?

When the time comes for my Last Meal, it will definitely be Thai food. In fact, Asian food in general is the thing I miss most since I moved to Portugal. Here, the nearest curry house is a 45-minute drive away, along some of southern Europe’s most dangerous motorways. When I come back to London, my priorities are to eat at The Cinnamon Club, Memories of China and Patara. I also love Pearl restaurant at the Chancery Court Hotel in London.

Q. Are you a social media lover?

I adore Twitter and spend far too much on it. I try to keep Facebook for friends and family rather than work. I barely use LinkedIn at all, but I keep a profile there, just in case. I’ve just started using Pinterest. I found Google+ baffling and have pretty much abandoned hope of ever using it now.

Q. Tell us something no one knows about you. Do you have any unusual or unexpected hobbies or interests? A claim to fame?

Nothing I’m prepared to admit. Just kidding. I was born in Hong Kong and I lived in Silicon Valley as a child, just down the road from Hewlett-Packard’s old Mayfield site in Mountain View. Will that do?

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