Category Archives: Professionalism

Architecting value

A month ago, I got a new job title: Information Architect. I maintain my company’s content infrastructure, training and supporting a writing team that has, through mergers and acquisitions, tripled in size over the last 18 months. I also look to the future, defining strategic goals and figuring out how to achieve them.

In describing my new beat, I told the writing team that I have two priorities:

  • Help the team do their jobs as effectively as possible — by listening to them, by training them in both tools and concepts, and by fixing problems
  • Position our documentation products to provide value to the company and its customers

crane with architectural plansWhat does that look like in real life? Well, the first priority is pretty much what you’d expect. If I’m listening to the team, I know where they need training and guidance. And I try to be responsive when someone has a problem. (I also rely on a couple of colleagues who can also step in and troubleshoot when needed.)

The second priority, for me, is the crux of my job. But, paradoxically, it’s a lot harder to envision. Continue reading

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Into our reader’s world

You’ve parachuted onto a random stretch of road. You could be anywhere in the world. How quickly can you figure out where you are?

That’s the idea behind GeoGuessr, a web game that’s occupied some — ahem, too much — of my time lately. You might find yourself on a muddy road outside an Eastern European village, a lonely highway in West Texas, or a scenic drive on the Isle of Skye. (For that one, I guessed New Zealand — exactly halfway around the world. Zero points!)

Technical writers are used to this. We parachute into our reader’s world, and we do whatever we can to orient ourselves. We try to understand their work environment, their background, and anything else that helps us communicate with them.

geoguessr_screenshot.png

A rocky coastline. A car driving on the right. Are you on Vancouver Island? Almost: you’re on the Olympic Peninsula, and that’s Vancouver Island in the distance. (Screen shot from GeoGuessr)

In GeoGuessr, you use whatever clues you can find. The game is based on Google Street view, so you can move back and forth, explore intersecting roads, and zoom in on your surroundings.

You’re looking for clues in topography, road signs (Do you recognize the language? Place names?), vegetation (Tropical? Subarctic?) — anything that would suggest or disqualify a particular location.

As technical writers, we look for clues to orient ourselves to the reader’s world. Continue reading

Finding the organization’s voice

It was simpler back in the day.

If you were a kid growing up near New York City, your favorite music came with a voice. In the afternoon, after school got out, the voice belonged to the wisecracking Dan Ingram. After dinner, it was the voluble, high-energy Bruce Morrow.

(There were other voices, in the morning and on weekends. But for most of us, Big Dan and Cousin Brucie stood out.)

A simple, effective brand voice

daningram

Dan Ingram held down the 2-to-6 time slot.

Amplified by a microphone that lent a slight echo to every word, those two human voices combined to give WABC a distinctive and recognizable brand voice. The voice told us that WABC was fun, in the know,  up to date.

What was the hottest music? Every Tuesday night, we listened as Cousin Brucie counted down the new Top 20. Where to hang out? Palisades Amusement Park swings all day and after dark.

WABC’s distinctive, instantly recognizable voice, known to millions of people, came from a couple of voices. Simple.

Later: More content, still simple

When I started my technical writing career at IBM, things were still pretty simple. We didn’t produce voice content, but we did print shrink-wrapped technical manuals that all looked the same. Marketing created print ads, white papers, and spec sheets that shared a common design. IBM customers got lots of content, but only a few kinds of content. And with one glance, they could tell it came from IBM.

Today: Many sources, many outlets, jumbled voices

Today, your organization’s voice is delivered through advertisements and social media — and also through product screens, technical manuals, help systems, blogs, chat sessions, datasheets, videos, conference presentations, and probably dozens of other ways.

What do your customers, partners, and employees hear when they interact with all of this content? What messages do they receive? What’s the image of your organization that forms in their minds?

Chances are the image is blurry. Continue reading

A good teammate: Leading from within

David Ross being carried on his teammates' shoulders

Cubs players carry their teammate, David Ross, off the field after the World Series (image source: MLB.com)

With the Chicago Cubs in 2016, backup catcher David Ross played in only 75 games (out of 179). Yet, when the Cubs won the World Series, the other players carried him off the field on their shoulders.

Why?

Because Ross was a good teammate. The oldest player on the team, he was known in the locker room as “Grandpa.” The younger players knew they could have fun with him, but they also knew they had an honest, dependable mentor.

The team’s manager, Joe Maddon, depended on Ross too. As a player working with fellow players, Ross could provide guidance and leadership the manager and coaches couldn’t. The kind of leadership that says, “I’m in this right along with you.”

Lots of leaders lead from up front, like a general riding into battle.

Some leaders lead from behind — providing guidance and removing obstacles, but preferring to cast the limelight on the team rather than on themselves. Leading from behind has much in common with servant leadership.

Then there are leaders, like Ross, who lead from within. Rather than a job title (VP, Director, Manager), their leadership is based on the trust and respect they’ve earned from the team.

Now retired from baseball, Ross has written a book, Teammate, in which he describes the attributes of a good teammate — in baseball, in business, or anywhere. Continue reading

Our “Life in Docs”: building and sustaining a community

Logo for the Life in Docs survey

Image source: David Ryan

David Ryan, cofounder of a company called Corilla, has garnered responses from 333 technical communicators for a “Life in Docs 2018” survey. The respondents answered questions about how we do our work and what we like and dislike about it.

Ryan posted the results in two articles on Medium: first the data, then his interpretations of the data (or insights, to use his term).

I’d include a link to Corilla’s website, but at this writing the site is down.

Overall, the results don’t surprise. We technical writers are happy at our work, we use a variety of tools and processes, and we want to collaborate more effectively.

Today I want to zero in on a section in Ryan’s “insights” post, titled Communities of practice are the cultural engine room.

The survey didn’t have questions about associations or affiliations, so I don’t know how Ryan arrived at this “insight.” Perhaps he tripped over his own bias toward looser-knit, informal communities and against established societies.

That said, it’s a point worth discussing. Continue reading

Stand up and be counted: the technical communication census

It’s not just another survey. If you’re engaged in technical communication — as practitioner, teacher, or student — I encourage you to take part.

census taker in front of house

Take part in the census. And don’t worry: no salesman will call.

A team at Concordia University in Montreal, led by Dr. Saul Carliner, is conducting research called the census of technical communicators. It’s in survey format, but unlike most surveys targeted to technical communicators, this one isn’t about tools or technology. Instead, the research is about you: your background, your job satisfaction, your aspirations, and how you stay current in the profession.

I’m delighted that Concordia is conducting this census. Most data-driven research about our profession centers on the tools we use and the technologies we support. Some of it is geared to providing tools vendors with data so they can better market their products.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But it’s refreshing to see research that’s about us: who we are, and how we perceive our work. Having completed the census questionnaire, I can tell you that it was well designed to yield a complete and accurate portrait of the people in our profession.

I look forward to seeing the results of the census, which will be published later this year in STC’s Intercom magazine. More in-depth analysis of the data might also be submitted to academic journals.

Although STC is helping to publicize it, the research project was developed and is being conducted by the team at Concordia. I’ve known Dr. Carliner, the project lead, for more than 25 years. I very much admire his energy, his dedication, and his insight.

One last thing: No one asked me to promote the census. I’m encouraging you to participate because I have high regard for the research team and because I think the research will greatly enhance our understanding of our profession and its people..