Category Archives: Professionalism

The technical writing beat

At a recent STC networking event, the woman across from me said she was a police officer and wanted to find a job in technical writing.

copwriter.pngShe’d come prepared to make her case. As a cop, she said, I write reports all the time. The reports have to be factual and clear. I reckon I’m already doing technical writing.

Good point. What else you got?

I’m always explaining things to people. How the law works, what they can and can’t do, and why. I deal with people from all walks of life. Many of them don’t speak English as a first language. I have to size up each person and tailor my message so they’ll understand.

Sounds to me like you’re pretty good at audience analysis.

She’d sold me on the parallels between police work and technical writing. It was something I hadn’t considered before – even though I’ve told my students for years that the best exemplar for technical writers is a dogged detective who keeps asking questions until the case is solved.

columboI’ve worked in this profession a long time and met colleagues with all kinds of backgrounds. My encounter with the police officer reminded me that, even though people have followed many paths into technical writing, there are more trails yet to be blazed.

Did you follow an unconventional path into technical writing? Are you even now trying to enter the profession with a background that, at first glance, might appear to have little in common? If so, I’d love to hear your story.  Drop me a line or respond in the comments section.

Welcome to your professional home

Close up of a graduation cap and a certificate with a ribbonThis week brought one of my favorite annual events: the celebration at which the students in our Technical Communication program at Duke University receive their certificates.

This year’s group was especially engaged and astute. Their capstone projects reflected their enthusiasm and skill.

Here’s what I told them during our celebration.

A person who aspires to become a doctor passes through a carefully prescribed series of steps: medical school, internship, residency. An aspiring lawyer goes to law school and takes the bar exam.

But people follow all kinds of paths into technical communication. I majored in the humanities and hoped to be the next Bob Woodward, until I discovered that technical writing paid better than writing news. Your other instructors were researchers, software engineers, and trainers. One even went to school to study technical writing. Each of us followed our individual path until we found our professional home.

You too came to this place from a variety of backgrounds. Your cohort includes an academic editor, a user-interface designer, a couple of teachers. You’ve worked in medical research, medical transcription, policies and procedures. We even have an actor and playwright.

Whether technical communication turns out to be your professional home, or you apply the skills and principles you learned in this class in other lines of work, you’ll always be part of the technical communication community.

It’s a diverse community that lives and works all around the world, encompassing many different disciplines in many different industries.

Despite its diversity, its members share a common belief in providing information — relevant, factual, truthful information — to the people who need it, when they need it, where they need it. That belief drives us to make a positive difference in the world.

The members of our community are also creative, and, in our own way, we enjoy having a good time. In fact, right after this we’ll adjourn to the bar and argue about the Oxford comma. Actually, I’m kidding. We don’t argue about the Oxford comma. Every technical communicator knows that the Oxford comma is indispensable.

How many spaces to put after a period. That’s what we argue about.

Read my message to a previous class from the same certificate program: You’re now a technical communicator.

Getting the team to play together

Gettin’ good players is easy. Gettin’ ’em to play together is the hard part.
– Casey Stengel, manager of 7 World Series winning teams

hands_unity.pngOur work group had gathered for a morning of team building: a role-playing game in which we’d need to work together to solve a series of puzzles. At precisely the appointed starting time, the facilitator burst in and announced that he’d locked the door from outside and the game would begin.

“But one of our people isn’t here,” someone said. (In fact, the missing member had been delayed by a work-related call and had let us know that she was about 5 minutes away.)

“It doesn’t matter,” the facilitator said dismissively. “The rules are clear. We begin on time.”

“No,” our manager replied. “We wait for her.”

No one else said a word. But it was clear that everyone in the room — except the badly outnumbered facilitator — stood in complete agreement.

If team building was what we’d come for, then mission accomplished.

The facilitator muttered something about deducting 5 minutes from the time of the game, which elicited a collective shrug, turned on his heel, and huffed out of the room.

Soon the last member arrived and the game proceeded. Each of us learned about our interaction styles and about how we function together. But for me the most meaningful team building occurred at the moment we all agreed, with no words passing between us, that we wouldn’t leave a member behind.

That shared experience affirmed what all of us, I think, already knew: we have a strong team. From long experience, I know that strong teams don’t just happen.

What can you, as a manager or as a team member, do to build strong teams? Continue reading

It’s time to vote, STC

In much of the world, including North America, the Society for Technical Communication (STC) is the leading professional society for technical communicators. It sets the pace for information and networking, providing a forum for exchanging news and information among practitioners and academics. Its body of knowledge contains a rich repository of research and best practices in the field of technical communication.

2017_election_header.pngSTC is also an association run by volunteer members. Today through March 10, STC members can elect the next slate of volunteer leaders: a Vice President, a Treasurer, 2 Directors at Large, and 2 Nominating Committee members.

The successful candidates will lead STC for the next 2 years – or, potentially, for 4 years, because the Treasurer and the Directors at Large will be eligible to run for reelection when their terms expire in 2019.

I’ve made the case before for voting in the STC election – and I’ve bewailed the traditionally low rate of participation. Here’s part of what I wrote then:

I myself have recited the mantra that every candidate is well qualified, and therefore STC stands to gain regardless of who’s elected. By expressing that view, perhaps I’ve unwittingly helped tamp down the voting percentages.

Why vote, if every candidate is equally good? Because every candidate is different. Each one comes to the election with their own set of priorities for STC, and their own set of experiences. Take time to learn which candidates’ views and experiences align most closely with your views about what’s best for STC. Then vote for those candidates.

You might never hold a leadership position in STC. Still, I urge you to exercise your right as a member – and as a participant in our profession – to help decide who’ll lead STC into the next decade. Learn about the candidates. Ask them questions in the candidates’ forum. Look for the email from STC containing instructions. Then vote.

This year I have one more favor to ask. I’m running for a spot on the Nominating Committee. I invite you to read my candidate statement, and I’d very much appreciate having your vote.

Try the knish

It’s a typical New York weekday. The well-dressed businessman, passing a sidewalk lunch cart, says to himself:

Is today the day I'll break down and try a knish? No, not today.

Is today the day I’ll break down and try a knish? No….not today.

A sign of strength

I’m struck by the businessman’s choice of words: break down. Is it really breaking down — is it really an act of weakness — to try new things? Of course not. Changing, and welcoming change, can be a sign of strength.

Professionally, we have to be open to change. While I fully understand the impulse to play it safe, to avoid risk, I can’t imagine where I’d be if I hadn’t welcomed change during my career in technical communication. Well, I can try to imagine: I’d still be writing print manuals for large-systems software, using command-line authoring tools. And I’d be pretty much unemployable.

I knew a programmer who insisted he was a “mainframe guy” and steadfastly refused to learn new operating systems or programming languages. He stayed employed up through the Y2K scare — and I don’t think he’s worked in the field since.

For him, weakness was in not being willing to change.

A sign of even greater strength

If welcoming change is an act of strength, I’ve recently come to appreciate that resisting change, when the change would undermine your values or compromise your principles, is an act of even greater strength.

We now live in a world where people in authority can lie and not be held to account. Where falsehood is presented as truth and truth as falsehood. Where people unabashedly engage in bigoted behavior. In a remarkably short time, the world has changed. These changes, rather than being welcomed, need to be resisted.

Paradoxically, it’s often by refusing to welcome healthy change (a Muslim family moves in next door, for example) that people end up changing in much bigger ways — letting go of their core values, compromising their principles. They become liars, to protect what they believe is being threatened. They become complicit at hiding or distorting the truth. They become bigots, lashing out at anyone who’s different.

The strong person is the one whose moral compass holds steady, who sees change and doesn’t react in fear.

Keeping strong

You’ve probably heard Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

To help me navigate today’s world, I’ve updated it:

God, grant me the enthusiasm to accept  change that will enrich me,
Strength to resist change that will diminish me,
And self-awareness to know the difference.

knish

Go ahead. Try one.

Was it a matter of principle for my friend to insist he was a “mainframe guy”? It doesn’t look that way to me. It looks like fear, or stubbornness, or a combination of the two. I’ve tried to learn from his experience, because like most people I’m prone to staying with what’s comfortable.

Strong people don’t do that, though.

It boils down to knowing who you are — knowing your core values and your ethical principles.

Then, when you’re tempted to change in a way that compromises your values and your principles, you recognize the temptation and you summon the strength to resist.

And when you’re presented with something new, and you know that it doesn’t compromise your values and your principles, you can try the knish. And become better for having done so.

Postscript: One of the best changes in my life was moving from the Northeast to North Carolina in my mid-twenties. I have one lingering regret, though: it’s darned near impossible to find knishes here.
Cartoon: Warren Miller, The New Yorker

Photo: Mostly Foodstuffs

A tale told in 5 emails

Act I

coffee-cup-images-016From: Larry Kunz
Sent: Tuesday, December 13, 2016 10:31 AM
To: Robin Bateman, Administrative Assistant
Subject: Coffee machine broken

Hi, Robin.

The coffee maker on the first floor is not working – it reports “error 360.” Can you have someone look at it, please?

This is the machine that brews the pouches.

Thanks,
Larry Kunz
Lead Technical Writer

Act II

From: Robin Bateman
Sent: Tuesday, December 13, 2016 11:35 AM
To: Susie Austen, Acme Coffee Co.
cc: Jack Wheeler, Senior Manager, Facilities
Subject: FW: Coffee machine broken

See Below…

Robin Bateman

[quoted text]
From: Larry Kunz
Sent: Tuesday, December 13, 2016 10:31 AM
To: Robin Bateman
Subject: Coffee machine broken

Hi, Robin.

The coffee maker on the first floor is not working – it reports “error 360.” Can you have someone look at it, please?

[end quoted text]

Act III

From: Jack Wheeler
Sent: Tuesday, December 13, 2016 12:13 PM
To: Robin Bateman; Larry Kunz; Susie Austen
Subject: RE: Coffee machine broken

Did you check to see if its just a jam? Code 360 is a Jam! Check when emptying the Container and see if any packets are stuck in the top or hanging in the machine!? Cmon!

Jack Wheeler

Act IV

From: Larry Kunz
Sent: Tuesday, December 13, 2016 12:25 PM
To: Jack Wheeler; Robin Bateman
Subject: RE: Coffee machine broken

It looks like someone down here figured it out – the machine is working OK now.

WIBNI if the display had said “clear the jam” rather than “call operator – error 360.”

Anyway, all’s well that ends well. And now I know what error 360 means.

Larry Kunz
Lead Technical Writer

Act V

From: Jack Wheeler
Sent: Wednesday, December 14, 2016 8:57 AM
To: Robin Bateman
Cc: Larry Kunz
Subject: RE: Coffee machine broken

Robin;
Please make a laminated sign for each of the Acme Barista Coffee Makers (3 total) indicating the following:

“Code 360 = Jammed pouch in the collection tub”!
Remove tub, empty,
Return tub and system will reset.

Thank you.

Jack Wheeler

Epilog

So another poorly-designed user experience was vanquished — papered over with documentation. And the people rejoiced, because they had their coffee again.

Yet darkness remained over the land.

Exeunt omnes

Breaking protocol

The U.S. president-elect has been drawing fire for having conversations with foreign leaders in which he broke protocol. His critics have charged, for example, that he didn’t talk to the right person, or that he didn’t have the right people in the room.

king-and-i-2

Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner in The King and I — a story about (among other things) breaking protocol

In fact, the criticism has focused much more on the president-elect’s alleged disregard for protocol than on the substance of his conversations.

I’m not here today to judge Mr. Trump’s actions or his words. I want to talk about protocol-breaking and how it touches all of us as professionals.

All of us — employees, contractors, consultants — work with organizations that have their own unique ways of doing things.

For example, in various places where I’ve worked I’ve found that:

  • A manager can never be transparent: they must defend every edict from higher up as if it were their own.
  • Email is used for almost all day-to-day communication. It’s considered impolite to pick up the phone and call someone to ask a question.

When you arrive in an organization like that, is it OK to break protocol? Under what circumstances? If you choose to break protocol should you do it quietly or openly?

Here are the guidelines I follow. Continue reading

Showing the way in a surprisingly different world

leadwolfThe recent surprise election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has occasioned a lot of writing that I can sum up like this: Suddenly the world is very different than I thought it was. How do I (or we) deal with that?

One particularly poignant article came from technical communication blogger Danielle Villegas — TechCommGeekMom. Danielle pondered what the election results, and the conditions leading up to them, mean for technical communicators. Are we seeing the end of the trend toward globalization? How easy will it be to find work if you live in a rural area, away from a city?

Toward the end of her article, Danielle issued a call to action:

The proclivity of technical communicators, from my observations, is that they have big hearts. They have strong ideas, they are organized, and they know how to take action. They are generally open-minded, they think “outside the box” for solutions, and they understand the importance of reaching out and embracing the world because the proliferation of the internet has warranted it. We can make a difference in how we approach our work, both domestically and internationally, to set an example of best practices of being decent human beings trying to help each other progress and survive in this world.

How can technical communicators show the way, or “set an example,” in the way Danielle describes? How can we use our “big hearts” to bring progress, and perhaps bring reconciliation, to the fractured world in which we live?

Here’s my stab at an answer. I hope all of you will chime in with your comments. Continue reading

Your opportunity at last

Imagine this:

After years of toiling in obscurity you find yourself in a position of power and influence. After years of never being heard you’re now being sought out.

You waited a long time for your day in the sun. Now that it’s arrived, how do you handle your change in fortune?

Practice humility

spotlight

When the limelight shines on you, don’t let it blind you.

Even though the limelight is now shining on you, remember that only recently you were in darkness. When you were struggling, you probably worked hard to keep things in perspective and to maintain healthy self-respect. Lacking power and authority didn’t mean you were less valuable than other people.

Now you need to work just as hard to hold onto that sense of perspective. You’re still the same person. Having power and authority doesn’t make you better than everyone else. If you try to act like you are better, you’ll likely lose people’s respect — and with it, you’ll lose your power and authority.

Finally, it’s not for nothing that there are so many quotations and proverbs about the need for humility: For pryde goeth before and shame commeth after (John Heywood). Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 18:14).

Be a servant leader

Having been down in the trenches for so long, you have a unique perspective. What did you wish your managers had done for you? What did you wish they knew about you?

Now you can put into practice the things you wanted from your old managers. Now is your chance to become, in the words of Robert K. Greenleaf, a servant leader: a servant first, a leader second.

Say things that are worth hearing

At long last, people are listening to you. It wasn’t easy to get their attention; it’s even harder to hold onto it. Don’t waste your opportunity by saying things that are self-serving, manipulative, or deceptive.


These thoughts were prompted by two baseball teams — the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians — who’ve just qualified for the World Series and who’ve gone a very long time since winning their last championships (1908 and 1948, respectively).

Over the next few days the Cubs and the Indians will try to make the most of the opportunity they have. After decades in the darkness, they’re in the limelight. I can’t wait to see how they’ll respond.

What about you? Did you ever find yourself in the limelight after years in darkness? What did you do with your opportunity?

I love the challenge of describing things

I enjoy turning the spotlight on people who are great communicators. One of the best is about to retire.

scully.png

Vin Scully at work. Man, I wish my office had a view like this. (Image source: ESPN)

This weekend, Los Angeles Dodgers play-by-play announcer Vin Scully will call his last game. Since 1950 (that’s not a typo) baseball fans — not just Dodger fans, but all of us — have fallen under the spell of Scully’s warm baritone voice.

During a celebration in his honor, Scully said, “I really love baseball. The guys and the game, and I love the challenge of describing things.”

Describing things. Isn’t that what all of us — anyone who has written a user guide or tutorial, anyone who has created technical art or instructional videos — try to do? No one does it better than Vin Scully.

In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that he’s a model for technical communicators.

Pull up a chair, and let me explain what I mean. Continue reading