Spotlight: Johanna Rothman (Author)

Question-Driven Writing: A Hero’s Journey
with Johanna Rothman @jrothman


When you’re surrounded by challenges and obstacles, you can give up or you can create solutions and workarounds. For Johanna Rothman, it’s a no-brainer.

From her approach to time management to her take on asking the right questions, Johanna’s got a model for success that has something for everybody.


Listen to the complete audio interview here:


We’re giving away one of Johanna’s books to one lucky winner! Simply post a comment or a question in his AMA below, and the Devtalk bot will randomly pick a winner at a time of the author’s choosing … then automatically update this thread with the results!

TRANSCRIPT (abridged)

For those who prefer to read rather than listen, the following are highlights from the interview.

On becoming an author…

Like so many of the best authors, Johanna didn’t initially set out to write books.

Early in her career as a consultant, Johanna read Howard Shenson’s The Complete Guide to Consulting Success, which sold her on the idea that the most successful consultants also write and speak in abundance.

Speaking was no problem for Johanna. As she says, “I am a natural speaker … Give me a microphone, and I’m a very happy woman.”

But, Johanna knew that she could reach a different group of people through the written word than through speaking, so she began writing articles.

While working as an interim manager for one of her consulting clients, Johanna had just six weeks to help find, interview, and hire an entire team. She poured all of her knowledge into a handbook that documented the process, which she says she did “not because I wanted to write it down, but because I was tired of [the client] asking me questions.”

In no time at all that handbook doubled in size and eventually blossomed into Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds.

Before that book was even in print, Johanna connected with Esther Derby to begin writing another book, Behind Closed Doors.

Although Johanna and Esther had to work out the logistics of pair writing back in the days when collaborating over webcams was difficult to impossible, they completed the manuscript and started shopping it around to publishers.

Unfortunately, nobody wanted the book, because, as Johanna explains, “We were not MBAs. We only had practice as managers.”

Luckily for PragProg, Johanna and Esther recognized that their hands-on practical approach might be a good fit for the Pragmatic Bookshelf, and they were right.

With contract in hand, they worked through a round of editorial revisions with Andy Hunt and then it was off to layout and print before landing on the desks of thousands of fans around the globe.

On challenges and rewards…

“I am a natural talker,” explains Johanna, “I am not a natural writer.” And what do you do to improve your writing? Practice. And lots of it.

With over 300 articles to her name, fiction and non-fiction books, short stories, and more, practice isn’t something that Johanna shys away from. In fact, she explains, “The more writing I do — period — the better a writer I am.”

Because Johanna’s non-fiction books rely heavily on storytelling, it makes perfect sense that writing fiction has only helped her hone her craft. But, like every other author, Johanna still faces plenty of challenges whenever she sits down to write.

Johanna starts with a seemingly straightforward question: “How do I organize this non-fiction book so I can attract the right people to read it and I can fulfill what they need with this book?” But getting that right, Johanna says, “is not trivial.”

To overcome this obstacle, Johanna uses story maps. “If you know who you’re writing for and you know the questions that they have or the problems that present to them, you can deliver a solution,” explains Johanna. “It’s not test-driven development,” she says, “it’s question-driven writing.”

Although it’s a lot of hard work, Johanna says the rewards are well worth it.

Because she loves to offer people alternative ways to think about things, one of her favorite responses from readers is, “I didn’t think of it that way.” Interestingly, it’s through writing itself that Johanna learns about a problem at a deep enough level to connect with her readers in this way.

In addition to increasing her own knowledge and offering readers a fresh perspective, Johana notes there is another benefit to writing, “Sometimes people do hire me for what’s in my books.” And that’s not a bad perk either.

In the end, the benefits must outweigh the difficulties for Johanna, because she did to us: “I have the next four books in progress, and I know the order. And I have at least another four after that. This is just non-fiction.”

On career and beyond…

Johanna Rothman’s brand is all about helping people “get stuff out the door,” but she doesn’t mean that in the way you might expect.

For Johanna, it all starts with a single question: “How do we make it so everything that people do is in service of a greater whole?” You can see her answers reflected in her books, in her speaking engagements, and in her consulting work.

Johanna wants people to do their work not only in a way that makes their clients happy but also in a way that makes their whole organization proud.

Johanna believes that expertise is a matter of context, and what’s worked for her may or may not work for somebody else, but that’s exactly the point. She wants people to see both what does and doesn’t work, and she thinks stories provide the perfect means to that end.

Johanna has spent many years developing her brand and platform, and she has worked with traditional publishers and self-published. In other words, she knows the pros and cons of each approach.

If you’re an author who doesn’t already have a platform of your own or if you only ever plan on writing one book, Johanna thinks you owe it to yourself to work with a traditional publisher, because “writing the book is [just] the first part of the project.”

And when it comes to publishers, Johanna says: “You’ll notice that I have only used the Prags since that very first couple of books. So, that’s enough said about all the other publishers.”

Johanna has certainly helped us get exceptional “stuff” to our readers, and we are undoubtedly proud of the work we’ve done with her. We can’t wait to work with her again.

Now that you know her story, complete your collection of Johanna’s PragProg titles today! Don’t forget you can get 35% off with the coupon code!

PragProg Books by Johanna Rothman

Behind Closed Doors

Agile and Lean Program Management

Manage Your Project Portfolio, Second Edition

From Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams

Manage It!

Predicting the Unpredictable

Create Your Successful Agile Project (ebook)

Create Your Successful Agile Project (audio book)

Also by Joahnna Rothman

  • Write a Conference Proposal
  • Modern Management Made Easy (a triad of management books)
  • Diving for Hidden Treasures
  • Project Portfolio Tips
  • Manage Your Job Search
  • Hiring Geeks That Fit
  • Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds
  • Corrective Action for the Software Industry
  • Amplifying Your Effectiveness (Johanna has two essays in this book)

Follow Johanna on Twitter at

Websites (Company Website) (Blog) (Personal Website)


We’re now opening up the thread for your questions! Ask Johanna anything! Please keep it clean and don’t forget by participating you automatically enter the competition to win one of Johanna’s ebooks!


Corresponding tweet for this thread:


Some fantastic info for would-be authors in this interview :+1:

I love @jrothman’s vibe and great to hear she’s written some fiction titles too!

Johanna, you said you already know the next four titles you will be working on… if you can share, I’m curious to know which one you are looking forward to writing the most :nerd_face:

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Aston, so, I’m in the midst of finishing the Modern Management Made Easy books. See for links to all 3.

I’m in the “middle” of a book about how to be a successful consultant. A fellow consultant asked me to run a workshop about how to be a consultant (I have 25 years of experience and I’ve made money every year), so of course, I thought, “I’ll write a book!” I realized just this past week that I need to write a chapter about how to speak truth to power.

That’s the 4 I knew about. I’m also collecting writings/notes/things for these books:

  1. how to write nonfiction. (I have a course available:
  2. how to write a nonfiction book.
  3. How to publish and market a non-fiction book. (You can write the book while you decide about publishing and every writer has to market their work.
  4. a product ownership book: how to plan and replan from strategy to tactics and back. The product people call this discovery and delivery. Those words are good. They’re not enough. I have more words :slight_smile:

I have plenty more: a memoir because I live with permanent vertigo, compilations of my questions of the week (see for those ideas).
And, for fiction, I think I just found a character I want to write about.

So, no problem with writing projects. My only “problem” is the sequencing of these and which ones to start and finish. Hehehehe.


Thanks for replying Johanna :blush:

Ah nice! I know someone who I’ve been encouraging to get into consulting for a while, so I am definitely going to recommend your book!

My inquisitive nature wants to know more :see_no_evil:

I have this problem too - there are so many projects I want to do that I find it hard to decide which ones to do next. I think part of this is because in general I’m not too keen on micro-managing every little decision or outcome, and that’s beginning to spill into some of my bigger decisions. I’m finding that I increasingly prefer letting life take me on a journey, so tend to do things when it ‘feels’ right - sometimes that’s something that I wasn’t even planning. Some of my best decisions have been made like this… :man_shrugging: :joy:

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Thanks in advance for recommending the consulting book. See for the current version.

Sorry, I don’t talk about fiction in progress. I only discuss fiction I’ve sold/published. I don’t let readers into my fiction until it’s done. I don’t want to perturb my fiction writing.

I agree with you about letting life take you. As long as I decide to finish this thing, I definitely let the work take me.