Category Archives: Professionalism

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.

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.