Category Archives: Professionalism

Finding your own community and security

Last week I described a bygone day of two-way loyalty between companies and their employees. While I doubt that day will ever return, I proposed a few ways in which managers can give their people a healthy, realistic sense of community and security.

Maybe you’re not a manager or a leader. You’re a rank-and-file worker, and you’re not in a position to try out any of those things I talked about.

Today we’ll look at it from your point of view. What can you, as a worker, do to increase your sense of community and security when there seems to be too little of both?

Here are a few ideas. Leave a comment and tell me what you think.

Do new things

Network switches in a rack

Happy ending to the video: the switches are installed in a rack.

Last month I made my first live-action video (as opposed to screen shots). The video shows how to install network switches in a rack. It won’t win an Academy Award, but it’s taught me a lot about writing scripts, planning video and photo shoots, recording audio, and editing the whole package. I know those new skills will serve me well on other projects.

Try doing new things whenever you can. You’ll increase your value to your employer, and you’ll add new skills to your repertoire.

The idea is not to make yourself indispensable (as if you could). The idea is to make yourself flexible so that you’re ready to take on new roles or, if need be, to land a new job.

Don’t be a wallflower

I know. You’re introverted. So am I. You won’t see me in the middle of the action at the next company party. But I’ll be there, and I won’t be hiding behind the potted fern either. I hope you’ll be there too, because you can’t feel like you belong to a community if you don’t act like you belong to the community.

Flowers along a wall

Wallflowers are pretty. But they don’t reflect — or inspire — loyalty.

When I mentioned loyalty, remember that I described it as two-way loyalty. You want to know that your company’s loyal to you, while you’re being loyal to your company.

Loyalty to the company doesn’t just mean following the rules, showing up on time, and always speaking well of Good Old Spacely Sprockets. It also means — it especially means — being loyal to the people who make up the company, the people who work alongside you, the people who might want to feel like they’re part of a community too.

So say hello to them. Chat with them at the water cooler. And for heaven’s sake, don’t pass up the company party.

Know yourself — and trust yourself

Maybe, even though things look the same, your workplace has changed. Your car’s in the same parking space. Your cubicle walls are the same shade of — what color is that? But you know things are different. There was such a great vibe when you hired on, but today — for whatever reason — all the joy is gone.

Maybe the management team changed. Maybe a merger or an acquisition upended the culture. Maybe the company’s slipping in the marketplace and everybody’s stressed out about it.

It’s normal to feel uneasy, even helpless, in the face of changes like these. Yet it’s vital to keep your balance. How? Make sure your center of gravity is secure. Take stock of yourself. Remember what’s really important to you. Decide what you are, and are not, willing to do.

I once joined a company I admired for the high quality of its work and for its generosity of spirit. Over time, through a series of setbacks and managerial changes, I saw those good attributes fade away.

Eventually I saw that I was part of a company that cut corners and tried to squeeze as much money as it could from customers and employees.

How long would it be before I was called on to do something that went against my values? Before I was asked to betray a client’s trust by passing off poor-quality work? I had to decide what mattered to me: which lines I could cross and which ones I couldn’t, even if it meant losing my job.

Fortunately, I never had to make such a drastic choice. But by drawing those lines, by determining that I wouldn’t cross them, I empowered myself. I gained a bit of control over my situation — and with it, a sense of security. I knew that, even if things around me went sideways, I could stand firm and hold onto my integrity.

I also kept my resume up to date and constantly checked job postings, which gave me an additional sense of control — hence, again, a sense of security. I kept in close touch with my professional network, so that they became my community. Eventually it paid off: I found a new job in a much better situation.

This work — this taking stock and drawing boundary lines — is something you have to do for yourself. You can’t delegate it. You can’t get it from reading a book or a blog post. It’s uniquely yours. Don’t neglect it, even if right now you’re happy with your situation.

Things change. Make sure you’re ready.

Recapturing community and security

The vast Roebling Mill, near Trenton, New Jersey, produced thousands of miles of steel cable for huge public-works projects like the George Washington and Golden Gate Bridges. At its peak, around World War II, it employed 5,000 people.

Most of those employees lived in a planned community, also called Roebling, in red-brick houses that had been constructed by the Roebling family expressly for their workers to live in.

The loyalty was palpable

When you were part of Roebling, you walked to work beside your neighbors along the leafy streets, through the gate house and down the hill to the factory site. Afterward you walked back together. Perhaps you stopped at the (subsidized) general store or at one of the taverns before going home to your family.

You were part of a community in every sense of the word.

roebling-aerial2.png

The town of Roebling (foreground) and the steel mill in their heyday (Source: Hagley Digital Archives)

Today the mill buildings are gone, although the town with its brick houses and leafy streets remains. The stories of the mill and its people are told in the Roebling Museum, located in the old gate house.

The stories describe a remarkable esprit de corps, a strong bond between co-workers and neighbors who took great pride in their work, whose families gathered together on front porches, whose children competed together on the town’s sports teams.

When you were part of Roebling, the loyalty — yours to the company, and the company’s to you — was palpable.

Nothing lasts forever

When I visited the Roebling Museum earlier this month, those stories reminded me of my first few years at IBM. There I was steeped in a corporate culture that emphasized longevity and two-way loyalty. I never sang songs from the IBM hymn book, but some of my older colleagues had.

On the annual opinion survey, we were asked whether we agreed with a series of statements — one of which was I am confident that, as long as I do a good job, there will be a place for me at IBM. The hoped-for result was that all of us would mark Strongly Agree.

After a while they quietly took that statement out of the survey. After another while, for many of us, the statement proved to be false.

Nothing lasts forever. The Roebling Mill closed for good in 1974 after years of decline. IBM’s first layoffs (sorry, resource actions) took place in 1993. My pink slip came in 2002.

Trying to recapture a little of the old

I’m not suggesting that we can, or even should, return to those days of unswerving loyalty, of living in the safety of the corporate cocoon.

Still, the pendulum seems to have swung too far in the other direction.

Do you work in a place where you feel really connected with your co-workers, with a shared sense of mission and a shared pride in what you do?

Some of you do work in a place like that. But many of you don’t. Perhaps some of you have never experienced what it’s like.

Do you work in a place where you know that your employer has your back, that they care about you as a person and as a professional?

Again, while some of you do, I’ll wager that many more of you don’t.

Community and security

While it’s foolish and naive for workers to believe that the company will always take care of them, there’s value in identifying yourself with a company and in bonding with co-workers.

And while there are no guarantees, there’s also value in knowing that as long as you do a good job, the company will do its best to ensure that it has a place for you.

Community and security. I’ve worked in situations (like those early days at IBM) where I’ve felt like I had a lot of both. I’ve also worked in situations where I had essentially none.

I can tell you which one is better.

So, as managers and leaders, how can we give our workers a healthy, realistic sense of community and security?

Here are a few ideas. I hope you’ll add more ideas in the comments.

  • Let your people know that you value them for the people they are, not just for the work they do. Recognize that some of them might be hurting, having been betrayed by a previous employer they thought they could trust.
  • Invest in your people’s professional development. When you pay for someone to attend a training course, you’re saying that you can see them contributing in the long term, not just on the present project.
  • Let your people have fun together. Even if their families don’t gather on front porches, you can help create an environment where they feel connected by things other than their day-to-day work.

As workers, how can we increase our sense of community and security when there seems to be too little of both? Perhaps that’s a topic for another blog post.

I’d love to hear your story of community and security: how you’ve coped with losing them, or maybe how you’ve lost them and managed to regain them.

All or nothing

All or nothing. It seems to be the way of the world. But it’s no way to manage your career.

In baseball, a home run is the best thing you can do as a hitter. You take a big swing, you feel the satisfying jolt as you hit the ball, and the crowd stands up to cheer as you trot around the bases.

Babe_Ruth_by_Paul_Thompson,_1920

When Babe Ruth retired, he held the record for most home runs — and the record for most strikeouts.

The worst thing you can do is strike out. You don’t hit the ball. You don’t get to run. You just slink back to the bench, defeated and humiliated.

Home run. Strikeout. All or nothing.

25 years ago, major-league hitters had an all-or-nothing outcome — a home run or a strikeout — about one-sixth of the time.

Last year, it was almost a quarter of the time. That’s an increase of nearly 50 percent, trending toward all-or-nothingness. Toward the extremes.

It’s not just baseball, either. Here in the U.S., and in much of the rest of the world, the political middle is melting away. “Moderates” are becoming an endangered species. More and more, you’re either an avid liberal or a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. It’s hip to be extreme.

Or is it? There’s one area where I hope you’re not an all-or-nothing person.

When I started my career in technical writing, it wasn’t long before I became a specialist: a technical writer for software. In that role I was familiar with the principles of UX (user experience), but there were other professionals who specialized in that.

In my professional network were other technical writers who specialized in writing about pharmaceuticals, policies and procedures, and grant proposals.

I view specialization as a form of all-or-nothingness. You can do one specific thing. You can become really good at it. With some effort I might’ve become the best software technical writer in the world, hitting a home run every time. But would that have given me the skills and experience to step into a different role?

What about you? Are you trying to become the best in the world in one specialized thing? Or are you broadening your skill set so that you can move from one role to another? Are you learning new skills and making sure that you’re at least conversant, if not expert, in a variety of fields related to your core skills?

If that’s you, then good for you. You’ve found the key to staying current and remaining employable.

Good for you, because you’ll have a much easier time adapting to changing job markets and requirements than someone with a narrow area of specialization.

A baseballGood for you, because even though some hiring managers take the all-or-nothing approach — you have to have exactly this experience and these skills before I’ll consider you — the smart ones understand that your breadth of experience will enable you to fit easily into the job — and grow with the job as it evolves over time.

So, even if the rest of the world is trending toward all-or-nothingness, I hope you’ll overcome the temptation to let your career trend that way.

You can hit lots of home runs but strike out whenever you’re confronted with something unfamiliar or new. Or you can develop diverse skills that enable you to succeed in diverse ways — hitting singles, doubles, and triples, along with the occasional home run, and only rarely striking out.

How have you been able to learn and evolve, avoiding the trap of all-or-nothingness? Share your story in the comments section.

Image by Paul Thompson, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 

Two ideas a month?

Today I learned that, in the view of one pundit on Kinja, all newspaper columnists stink at their jobs. First, because they’re trained to report and not persuade. Second, because no one can come up with a fresh, original idea more than twice in a month. Maybe three times in a good month. Yet the columnist is expected to produce two columns a week.

Waterfall at the Japanese Garden in Portland

Google “image idea” and you get a lot of light bulbs. So instead, here’s a photo of Portland’s Japanese Garden — a good place to get fresh ideas.

The article offered a solution to idea-lorn columnists: use the same ideas again and again. After all, no one except your closest friends reads every column you write. So who’s going to know?

I’m highly suspicious of the finding (that all columnists stink), the explanation (two ideas a month), and the advice (recycle your ideas). Yet I’m prompted to ask, would that apply to bloggers too?

If the likes of George Will, Thomas Friedman, and Dana Milbank are good for only two, maybe three, fresh ideas a month, then surely a blogger like me — even though I try
to publish at least one original post each week — can’t hope to do better.

That would take the pressure off, wouldn’t it? When I struggle to find new ideas, I can just warm up some leftovers, as it were, and dress up an old post as something new. You, dear reader, won’t even notice.

(Insert eyeroll emoji.) If only that were true.

I don’t think columnists are that hard up for new ideas. Bloggers either. Reading Tom Johnson’s blog, for example, I suspect that he has at least two fresh ideas every day before breakfast.

I agree with the pundit about one thing, though: ideas are sometimes hard to come by. But we can still train ourselves to increase the likelihood of having fresh ideas. How? Try these techniques.

Seek other points of view

You’re used to seeing things as you see them. What would they look like from another vantage point? What if you could see them in a larger context?

What would you learn? Would your feelings or your opinions change?

There. Now you have fresh ideas to write about.

To get a different vantage point, maybe you just need to go someplace new, like the Japanese Garden. I like to follow people on social media who aren’t from my family, who aren’t from my home town, who don’t share my religious and political views.

I’m not saying you have to change your mind about anything (although that could be a side benefit). But you’ll get fresh ideas.

Read something new

If I were in my 20s or 30s I might say do something you’ve never done before. And, yes, that’s a good way to get fresh ideas. But when you reach a certain age you already know whether you’re willing to jump out of an airplane (I’m not) or take a trip around the world (love to, but can’t afford it).

I can read, though, and so can you. Those folks on social media who don’t share your comfort zone? They can point you to articles and books that’ll spark fresh ideas. Be careful what you click on, of course. But it’s possible to broaden your horizons without getting mired in internet quicksand.

Read books and articles about topics that are new to you. One of the best history books I ever read was Steven Pressfield’s The Lion’s Gate, about the 1967 Six Day War — a subject about which I’d known virtually nothing.

I also recommend anything by John McPhee for new insights about culture, technology, and environmentalism.

Tell a story

You probably know that I believe in storytelling in all kinds of writing — including business and technical writing.

If you want fresh ideas, start telling a story. You might not know how the story will end. You probably don’t know what insights you’ll draw from it. Start telling the story and see where it takes you.

Fellow technical writer Neal Kaplan recently broke a blogging silence with an appealing story about taking a hike and then taking it again. I think it’s fair to say that the experience rejuvenated his creative thinking process. So be like Neal: go ahead and tell your story.

What are your techniques for increasing the flow of fresh ideas?

Serve the profession. Serve each other. Serve the truth.

These are remarks I made earlier this week at the STC Carolina chapter’s 50th anniversary celebration (with some local color edited out). I offer them as a salute, and an encouragement, to everyone in the technical communication profession.

Fifty years ago our forebears brought forth a new organization, dedicated to promoting and cultivating the profession of technical communication in this area.

It’s a testament to their vision that this idea – cultivating the profession of technical communication – sounds perfectly normal to us today. In 1967 it was crazy talk: technical writers were often an afterthought, subservient to the engineers and scientists they worked with. At universities, technical writing, when it was taught at all, was usually a little enclave within the English department.

The founding members

STC Carolina 50th anniversary logoWhen I got here in 1983, I got to know three of our chapter’s founding members. Dr. Edmund Dandridge, professor of English at NC State University, made a name for himself as a teacher and researcher.

Richard Russell – Dick Russell – retired from IBM just about when I arrived. A whole generation of technical writers regarded Dick Russell as a trailblazer and a mentor.

Austin Farrell without a doubt was the chapter’s father figure. I don’t think he actually smoked, but I can picture him wearing a cardigan sweater, holding a pipe in his hand, offering fatherly advice and wisdom to the people who followed him as leaders in the chapter.

I was privileged to know these founding members, but here’s what I want you to know about them: they were pretty much the same as you. They believed that technical writers, designers, illustrators, and managers should be recognized as professionals – just like the engineers and scientists they worked with. They believed in sharing knowledge and helping people grow in their careers.

The legacy they started

Fifty years later, we look on the legacy they started, the legacy that you all have helped build. I’m grateful and proud that the Carolina chapter has always had strong programs and events, strong competitions, and, of course, strong people.

I keep coming back to the people. If this chapter has a proud history it’s because of its people. Because of all of you who cared. You cared about the profession. You cared about each other. You cared enough to share your skills and knowledge, to mentor, to celebrate each other’s achievements.

You cared. You served.

Even though I said we’re not subservient, our profession really is built on service. We serve our audience – the people who use the information we create. Service is the heart of what we do as technical communicators.

Some of you were active in the chapter many years ago. Some of you are longtime members and have played vital roles. Some of you are relatively new: your hard work, your inspiration, your caring and serving will write the history of our next 50 years.

So, from today onward, how will we serve our profession? Continue reading

A passage particularly fine

I’ve agreed to give a short speech at the STC Carolina chapter’s 50th anniversary celebration next week. It’s a special occasion, so I want the speech to be good.

Right now the speech is about twice as long as it needs to be. Which means that I’m right on schedule. It’s time for me to stop writing and start crossing things out.

I’m guided by this bit of wisdom from the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson (quoted by James Boswell):

Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.

Portrait of Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson: not particularly noted for his sense of humor

I think I first encountered this quotation when I was in my twenties — perhaps even in college. That’s a good joke, I thought. That Dr. Johnson was quite the kidder.

He wasn’t kidding. But I wasn’t listening.

By the time I turned 40 I began to see wisdom in the doctor’s prescription. Stay vigilant, I took it to mean, lest your writing become flowery or overly ornamented. I was quick to deride those attributes in other people’s writing. Scoffing, I’d hand down my judgment: it’s overwritten.

Today, however, I’m a believer. Today when I write something cunningly clever, a phrase especially well turned — anything that’s particularly fine — I regard it with suspicion.

I don’t always strike it out, I confess. At least not right away. But l move it aside. Then I go back and see whether the piece is actually stronger with it gone. Almost every time, the piece is stronger.

It’s stronger because now, instead of pleasing me, it aims to please the people who’ll read (or hear) it.

You’re looking to be informed. It’s not my place to impress you.

Perhaps you’re looking to be amused or entertained. I’m more apt to do that if I write for your benefit rather than mine.

So (on a good day at least) I’ll furl my flowery phrases and instead deploy language that’s clear and direct. I’ll stop putting on a show and I’ll put you in the center of the story.

Many of us writers fell in love in our formative years with creative writing. It’s taken most of my life to understand that solving a puzzle — the puzzle of communicating effectively with my readers while keeping them engaged — is no less creative than making my prose dance on the head of a pin.

It’s no less creative, it’s no less fun, and it’s a lot more considerate of you, my audience.

(Update: Remember the speech I was writing? Here’s how it came out.)

Improving on perfection

This week brings two anniversaries — one you know and one you probably don’t know. They remind me that every new day brings opportunities for improvement, even when things might already seem perfect.

Sgt. Pepper: Nearly perfect

50 years ago today, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, one of the best and most influential albums in the history of pop music. Of all the Beatles’ albums I think Sgt. Pepper is the most nearly perfect. Every track is strong. All of the ingredients, from instruments to vocals to harmonies, blend together just right.

Sgt. Pepper album coverYet Giles Martin just completed a project in which he remixed the entire Sgt. Pepper album. In a brilliant interview by NPR’s Bob Boilen, the first question posed to Martin — the son of George Martin, who produced the Beatles’ original albums — was Why? Why would anyone change one of the greatest records ever?

Martin’s answer: in mixing the original album, his father devoted most of his attention to the mono version, not the stereo version — because stereo was relatively new at the time. In the interview, Martin describes how he took the original studio tapes, along with his father’s meticulous notes, and applied a 21st-century understanding of what works and what doesn’t work in stereo sound.

The result, as evidenced by several samples played during the interview, sounds undeniably better than the original. Giles Martin took perfection and improved on it.

My career: From good to better

This week also marks the anniversary of the day I began my first technical writing job. Though far from perfect, my work was pretty good — as evidenced by feedback from my managers and my peers, and by 3 promotions in my first 5 years.

Yet the work I did then pales in comparison to the work I do today. In the intervening years I’ve learned a tremendous amount about audience analysis, about user experience, about writing for my customers rather than my SMEs, and of course about using software and machines to publish content in different media.

My colleague Vincent Reh, describing his career journey from typewriters to modern tools, emphasizes the constant need to learn new skills: “Tools have become so complex and schedules so compressed that most employers can no longer tolerate any kind of a learning curve. Today’s writers are expected to hit the ground running with single-sourcing tools right out of the gate.”

Vincent is right. And it’s not just tools. In my progress from that good beginning to where I am today, I’ve constantly had to learn new skills and unlearn other things. Just to stay competitive.

I fully concur with the words of Alvin Toffler: The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.

Progress made; progress still to come

It’s nice to observe anniversaries, not least because they remind us of the progress we’ve made. Inspired by the new Sgt. Pepper remix, I’m using this week’s anniversaries to set my sights on progress still to come.

Do you have a professional growth story? How does that story affect the way you view the future? What are you doing to go from good — or from nearly perfect — to something even better?

How’s your leadership? The self audit

My inspiration for this article is a Twitter conversation with Dr. Deepak Malhotra‏ (@HeadHR_Deepak) after last week’s Power-of-Connection chat session. (#PoCChat takes place on Mondays at 15:00 GMT, and I’d love to have you join us.)

Dr. Malhotra encouraged us to perform self-audits to help us become more effective as leaders. He provided the following outline; I’ve filled in each step with my own thoughts.

Man looking at himself in a mirror

Image credit: What Shih Said (WordPress: whatshihsaid.com/)

What leaders do I admire?

Write down the names of four or five leaders you admire. They can be famous or obscure, historical, contemporary, or even fictional. They can be people in charge of large organizations or people who simply lead by example. They can be Abraham Lincoln or your first boss. Warren Buffet or Captain Kirk.

It’s best if at least a couple of your choices are people you know and who have influenced you directly. In any case, all of your choices should be people whose leadership styles you know well.

What attributes do I admire in those leaders?

Now that you know which leaders you admire, it’s time to figure out what it is about them that you admire. It’s like asking What makes these leaders effective? But it’s more personal. Leaders can be effective in ways you appreciate but don’t admire or even approve of.

You’re looking specifically for attributes you hold in high regard, and your list will be yours alone. Maybe you admire charisma, or compassion, or strength of character. You should be able to explain, in a sentence or two, why you admire each of the attributes you pick.

Which of those attributes do I want to emulate?

Narrow it down even further: out of the attributes you admire, which ones do you think you’re capable of pulling off?

I worked with an executive who had military-style self discipline: always dressed impeccably, shoes shined, every hair in place. It gave him an air of authority, and I admired him for it. But it was completely not my style.

Other attributes, no matter how admirable, come with a cost. For example, if you resolve to be honest at all times, no matter what, sooner or later you’ll make somebody mad. You might encounter resistance. Ask yourself if it’s worth the cost.

By now you should have a fairly short list of attributes, maybe three or four, that you admire and are willing to develop. If you’re list of attributes is longer, you’ll find it hard to stay focused as you seek to grow as a leader.

How am I doing?

Now that you have a list, measure your performance in each area. Don’t compare yourself to the leaders you admire — that’s an awfully high bar. Instead, decide what level you’re capable of reaching, and measure yourself against that standard.

If honesty is one of the attributes you chose to develop, think back over the last few weeks. Was there a time when honesty was called for, and you demurred? What happened? What thoughts and emotions led you to react the way you did?

If I’m falling short in any area, why? What can I do to improve?

You’ll probably find that you’re already strong in some of the areas you’ve decided to emulate. Many of us admire in others the same characteristics we see in ourselves.

There’ll be other areas, however, where you’re falling short. When you needed to be honest but you weren’t, how could you have handled the situation better? When a similar situation arises again, what might you try doing differently — or what can you say to yourself — to bring about a better result?

Going forward

I’m looking forward to diving more deeply into this. I think it’s going to be fun: recalling leaders who’ve changed my life for the better, and finding attributes in them that I can aspire to.

Dr. Malhotra, if you’re reading this, I hope I’ve faithfully captured the essence of what you meant when you described the self audit.

Everyone: Do you perform self audits of your leadership? If so, what techniques have you found helpful?

Will you still need me? STC at 64

Today, the first full day of the annual STC Summit, marks the 64th year that STC (the Society for Technical Communication) has been in business.

Sgt. Pepper's album cover with STC logo

Hmm…What if I Photoshop all of the STC staff and directors’ faces into this image?


Which brings to mind a Beatles lyric:

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four?

The “Will you still need me?” question is especially relevant as STC — a 20th century organization — copes with flat membership numbers and attempts to navigate the changing professional landscape of the 21st.

As I’ve said before, I think the technical communication profession — and the people in it — still do need STC. But the reasons are changing, and have been changing for some time. As a result it’s not a sure bet that STC will remain relevant over the next few years. Continue reading

Making a difference, forever

Be careful what you post on the internet, they say, because once you do it’s out there forever.

I suppose that’s true. In fact, it’s been true since before we had an internet.

In the beginning….

In September 1980, about a year after I hired on at IBM in Kington, New York, a colleague and I started producing a little newsletter to help the technical writing staff master the intricacies of our computer system.

In those days before personal computers, even though we were writing books for datacenter professionals, most of the writers had received only rudimentary training in the practical aspects of using computers to do their work. Our system, the same one the engineers and programmers used, was complicated and not especially user-friendly. (The term user-friendly itself was shiny and new in 1980.)

I think it was my colleague, Susan, who came up with the idea of a newsletter. I eagerly agreed to help. I don’t remember who came up with the name, VM Voice. VM, then as now, stood for Virtual Machine and was the name of that intimidating computer system.

vmvoice

Our maiden issue: Starting with the basics

We started with the basics, gently introducing our readers to VM and its components. Over time we evolved to more complex and specialized topics, always targeting the technical writing staff and its particular needs. Each weekly issue ran to two or three pages — printed and then placed into everyone’s mailbox.

We did about 50 or 60 issues before the well of ideas dried up. Then time passed.

Fast forward to the present….

In March 2017 a longtime IBMer, preparing to retire, was cleaning out his desk. He found a stack of old papers and spotted a familiar name on the top sheet: the same last name as another guy in his office. “Know who this is?” he asked.

“Well, my mother worked at IBM. I’ll ask her.”

Soon the stack of papers was in the mail to Susan, herself long retired. She reached me through a common LinkedIn friend and asked if I remember VM Voice.

Of course I remember. It’s a wondeful memory.

I consider VM Voice to be one of my career’s biggest success stories.

  • We saw a need and we met it.
  • We had fun, especially trying to present complex, even daunting, subject matter in a way that our audience would find comfortable and reassuring.
  • We got instant feedback, and it was almost always positive.
  • We made a difference: the information in VM Voice — homespun as it was — made people better at their jobs.

Seeing those scanned copies of VM Voice reminded me that when you plant a seed, you never know precisely what will happen. When you publish something, either online or in the old-fashioned paper-and-ink way, you never know when and where you might see it again, or who might be affected by it.

The first moral of the story: In technical writing you have lots of chances to make a difference. Never lose sight of that, even when the work seems like drudgery.

The second moral: Before you publish something, make sure it’s good.

Because the internet has a long memory.

And because some people never clean out their desks.