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Nobody reads for information anymore; you can get information in so many other ways.

Charlene Derby

Instructional Designer

The technical name for what I do is “instructional design” and that means that I write instructional materials. That could be for anything where somebody needs to be trained to do something, so most of my projects have been in business. Y2K kind of made my career because everybody was putting in new computer systems to handle the four-digit date versus a two-digit date and that affected all employees in the enterprise. That was a lot of software training, it was a lot of step-by-step procedures, it was apps that employees had never seen before; in many cases, it was a transition from a black and green screen to a Windows color screen… that was a pretty exciting period of time. We did some projects for Federal Express, for UtiliCorp United, which is a power company in Kansas City. That was fun; we got to fly to Kansas City and eat some really good steaks.

I worked in the corporate world for about 15 years. I started with a company called Hancock Laboratories in my early 20s. They manufactured medical devices that were used in open heart surgery. After I was there for about six months, they started a formal training department and I was selected to be a technical instructor. The first thing I said was, “It would be nice if we had some printed procedures, it would be nice if we had some pictures, it would be nice if we had some video.” And people would tell me things like, “Oh, video won’t help,” or “We don’t really need pictures because we’re showing people real product.” As someone with a teaching credential, that kind of drove me crazy. So I started writing up procedures in my free time after work, and they saw the value of it. Then I discovered that there was such a thing as a career in training and development and there was a field called instructional design which had its own disciplines.

I went from Hancock Laboratories to Denny’s where I did waiter/waitress training and bartender training, and then while I was at Denny’s I heard about a position at Taco Bell because one of the individuals there had some friends who were some consultants doing some work at Taco Bell and they said they need people, so I applied at Taco Bell. I wasn’t really that interested in moving from one food service company to another because — taking a look at Denny’s which was a full-service restaurant and then at Taco Bell which was fast food — I thought, “That’s an industry that might be a step down, I might not really like it.” I go for the interview and I noticed employees leaving the lobby while I was waiting to be called for my interview… they were dressed really well. At Denny’s, people were wearing leisure suits. At Taco Bell, they were wearing wool suits and ties and button down collars, and I thought, “There’s something a little different about this place, about the attitude toward work, about the perceived value of the work that’s different from Denny’s, so maybe I’ll be ok with it.” At the time, Taco Bell was owned by PepsiCo, so that was part of the reason they dressed up — they were trying to be PepsiCo. It was a very funny environment. We had people there who would not tell friends and family members that they worked at Taco Bell. They would say, “I work for a division of PepsiCo.” They just didn’t really want to be associated with fast food.

I got the job at Taco Bell and I ended up staying there eight years. I wrote skills training, which is primarily related to food service standards — how to you assemble the product, serve the product, make sure it’s not got food-borne illness in it, stuff like that. We did management seminars, up through the district management level. We’d have people say, “The restaurant manager needs to know ‘this’.” And it was usually something about financial analysis — how to evaluate profitability, how to evaluate the local market, what restaurants are nearby, who are we competing with two blocks down the road. I have never worked that hard since. We had really tight deadlines.


The other career thing about having both partners working is when do you decide to have a child? Or do you decide to have a family at all? At Taco Bell, it was really difficult to decide of there was a window of opportunity to have a child because if you had a child, they sort of wrote you off. Like “Oh, so-and-so’s distracted from their job now, they can’t work 60 hours a week anymore, maybe they can’t make the contribution we really need them to make…” I had kind of decided that if we decided to have a child, I would leave the corporate environment. We had lots of exposure to independent contractors. We would hire people to do our videos, sometimes hire people to do writing for us, hire people to do photography, so I kind of knew how independent contracting worked and that appealed to me as a potential mother, because I thought that’s something I can do and try to balance taking care of a baby at the same time. We did decide to have a child and I left Taco Bell when I was seven months pregnant. I started working for a friend of mine who had her own training consulting company, so that was lucky because I had a place to go, it wasn’t like I had to start recruiting my own clients right away.

Then the recession hit and Richard was laid off from his job at the planning center. He’d been there for eight years but they lost a big contract for Tajon Ranch. It became obvious that it would be nice if one of us was actually employed by an organization where we could get medical insurance and stuff like that. Richard went to the EDD [Employment Development Department] where he met a gal named Deborah and she started sending him leads for stuff. At the time, she was working for Corinthian Colleges as the program manager for their criminal justice program because they did paralegal training. So she gets this lead that they’re looking for instructional designers. I think one of the reasons I got that job was because I had a community college teaching credential.

Corinthian was a for-profit trade school. They did primarily associate degrees and diplomas, although their online school did some bachelors work. They hired me to do design for online programs. We would be given a textbook, a subject matter expert, access to their online system, and we’d build the courses. I worked on criminal justice, business, some health care, some dental assisting — some of that was diploma.

We came under the scrutiny of the California Department of Justice because somebody said that our admissions practices were predatory. And that could have been true — I wasn’t in admissions, I didn’t work at the schools. Sometimes, when you want to make a legal case, you make things sound a little worse than they actually are … but Kamala Harris came up with some statistics about how we were charging tuition and people weren’t getting jobs and she had some, like, really good charts.

When the lawsuit hit from the state of California, they stopped writing new curriculum because the accreditors didn’t want to accredit something that was developed while we were being investigated. I think that hit in June, and slowly we had less and less to do. But we had to be there. We still had to show up. We get in on Monday and it’s business as usual; there’s some executive meeting over at the DoubleTree, and finally at 10:00 we get this distribution list that says everybody’s going to meet in the conference room at 1:00. We get in there, and there’s the vice president and someone from human resources and he’s got this little pile of folders – that’s probably our severance package. I think everyone was suspicious but I don’t think everyone had an exact clue. My boss and I were laid off in the same meeting, it was ridiculous. CCI was one of the first schools to go down, so we made the headlines.


The biggest changes are related to media. Initially, we had slideshows, then there were film strips where it was narrated but it was a strip of still pictures. Then it went from film strips to video, and then there were two technologies that presented themselves about the same time. One was web-based training driven by the computer’s hard drive, and the other was video discs. The video discs were big, like a dinner plate, and they were popular for a very short period of time, I’d say maybe two or three years. But advances in computer technology replaced those pretty quickly. Then the first computer-based courses were on a mainframe and they were used for education, they weren’t used for industry. I did my first computer-based training program with Taco Bell. And then it became known as web-based training, and it incorporates video or still pictures, interactions, animations. There have been several iterations of software for web-based training; it just gets more and more sophisticated. More and more question types are available for quizzes, more media options are available, the files sizes are smaller, and they can be primarily accessed over the internet or on mobile devices.

Even though video is very prevalent, very few people want to pay for it. And the production quality has gone down. I mean, most of the stuff on YouTube is crap. People are accepting lower and lower production quality standards. But even then, corporations don’t want to do it because they don’t want to hire a crew.

For Arbonne, for management training, I sat down and talked to the human resources manager and said “What do you think are the key points, what are the situations that your managers face that you might want to address, so that when we write up the case studies, it sounds like a case that came from your company, not one that came out of a book.” I sourced a lot of videos for them because they didn’t want to make their own videos, so we found stuff on YouTube. There were some scenes from The Office that really worked well as how not to do things. There were some Big Bang Theory, we used some scenes from Inside Out for the emotional intelligence class.


Probably I’d say the core skills are the ability to write the instructional objectives: what is the person supposed to be able to do on the job if they finish the training? Task analysis, which is figuring out all the steps to do the job. Organizing information, telling people what they don’t know. And then writing the materials in whatever form and making sure that they’re logically organized. Because people who have been doing the job for a long time will skip steps or they’ll do it incorrectly or they’ll think that they can do it faster if they don’t meet standards.

In terms of instructional design principals, those are pretty timeless: you still need objectives, you still need an accurate description of the task. But the media has changed drastically. And the most recent request we got from Computer Generated Solutions is that it needs to be available on mobile. I think the more ways you can present information, the more likely you’re going to hit people. Because you have different learning styles: some people prefer to hear stuff, some people prefer to read. The number of people that prefer to read has actually gone down over the decades. Partly because of the de-emphasis on sustained silent reading in the schools. Nobody reads for information anymore; you can get information in so many other ways. Seeing an actual physical demonstration is sometimes better than having it exquisitely described in words.


When you get close to 65, people start disbelieving what you say. I’ll say, “I’m looking for a job that I can make a significant contribution to for the next three to five years.” And they look at you and go, “Nah, she’s probably going to retire.” And I’m going, “No, I said I would make a commitment!”

I’d like to do some more writing. One idea I have is a book for millennials on how to lead. Especially because young people don’t get much respect in the workplace and millennials are getting a bad rap. There’s a whole body of literature out there on how to manage millennials. For some reason, that became a growth industry. Somebody said they’re the “Me Generation.” I go, “Wait a minute, I was the Me Generation!” So I thought it would be funny to flip it around and do a book on how to manage the baby boomers. Then I have ideas for some novels, but they’ll have to be further down the road.

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