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 

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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.)

Survey says: DITA’s benefits and challenges

DITA SurveyWhat are DITA‘s biggest benefits? Its greatest challenges?

The Content Wrangler is surveying DITA users, and last week Scott Abel — joined by DITA cognoscenti Rob Hanna,Mark Lewis, and Keith Schengili-Roberts — presented some preliminary results.

I’ve listed the rankings here, along with some thoughts of my own. Each numbered item is from Scott’s presentation; the commentary between the numbered items is mine.

(The survey is still accepting responses. If you haven’t yet weighed in, you can do so right now.)

What benefits does DITA provide?

This section was open to all respondents.

1, Consistency: content reuse/single-sourcing
Yes: when I think of single-sourcing, I think of consistency. But I also think about flexibility — of being able to publish the same content on the web, as integrated help, as PDF, and in other formats. For me that’s a big benefit, just as much as — and probably more than — consistency.

2. Usability: structure provides predictability

3. Translation: savings from reusing translation
The panelists remarked that they expected this one to score higher, and theorized that many of the survey respondents were content creators but were not the people actually responsible for translation. I think they’re probably right — and I’d also point out that a lot of organizations simply don’t translate their content. It would be interesting if the survey asked how many are currently translating DITA content.

4. Customization: segmentation, personalization
Nice to see this one crack the top 4. I think we (the community of DITA content producers) are just beginning to take advantage of features like metadata and keys. There’s so much more we can do to adapt content based on the audience’s geographic location, experience level, and so forth. (Key scopes and branch filtering in DITA 1.3 hold out even more promise.)

Rank the biggest challenges associated with using DITA

This section was open to respondents who said they use DITA.

1. Reuse: determining reuse strategy
Conref or keyref? What taxonomy to use, and where to put the metadata (in topics or in maps)? Who “owns” the library of reusable content? There doesn’t seem to be much consensus on best practices when it comes to developing a reuse strategy. Maybe, like the consultants always say, it depends — on what the writing team is
used to, on which groups are collaborating to produce content, and on what the corporate culture will support.

2. Usage: making DITA do what we want it to do

3. Training: equipping staff with skills needed
DITA logoThere’s a ton of training out there — in the basics of structured authoring, in DITA itself, and in the various tools. So I’m not sure what the problem is, unless it’s that companies don’t want to pay for training and want simply to hire people who already know everything (see #7 below). Even if you could hire fully-capable DITA writers off the street (and that’s a big if), they still need to be trained in how to use your local style, transforms, and so forth.

4. Technology: understanding software

5. Formatting: developing stylesheets and rules for content
This isn’t rocket science, but it is serious, hard work. It’s often not considered when companies plan a transition to DITA — which makes it even harder.

6. Governance: enforcing the rules
See number 5 above.

7. Staffing: finding experienced talent

8. Creation: understanding how to create DITA content

9. Measurement: what to measure, how to decide
Let’s be honest: rather than what to measure, don’t we really mean making the business case? We still struggle to quantify the cost savings and revenue enhancement associated with structured authoring and DITA. Translation savings, of course, are a big part of the story. But increased usability, customization, and brand consistency have value too. We just have a hard time quantifying their value.

10. Translation: issues associated with DITA content

So there you have it. What do you think? Do any of the rankings surprise you? Is anything missing from either list?

Do you agree with my take?

Thanks to Scott Abel for conducting the survey. Like so much of what he does, it’s of great value to the technical writing community. Thanks to Rob, Mark, and Keith for their contributions as well.

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?

Lottie Applewhite: friend, colleague, exemplar

Some of the greatest leaders lead without having Manager or Executive in their job titles. We call them exemplars.

lottieaLottie Applewhite passed away on May 15, 2017, in Chapel Hill, NC. She was a technical editor for many decades. She loved her work, she took it seriously, and she was very good at it.

But that tells only a small part of the story. Lottie set an example with her conscientious and diligent work. She advised and encouraged countless colleagues, from the most distinguished to the least. No matter who you were, Lottie greeted you with a welcoming smile and then gave you her undivided attention.

STC (the Society for Technical Communication) honored Lottie as a Fellow — the highest honor it bestows on a member. In the late ’90s STC chose to honor 10 of its most distinguished Fellows as exemplars — and, fittingly, Lottie was one of them. It was the perfect word to describe her.

Lottie lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay area before moving to Chapel Hill around 1990. A few years later I attended an event hosted by the STC San Francisco chapter. When they found out where I was from, several of them clustered around and asked me to tell Lottie how much they missed her, how much they wished she were still there.

Shortly after coming to North Carolina, Lottie met Diane Feldman, a young editor, and took Diane under her wing. Diane, who went on to have her own exemplary career, always credited Lottie’s friendship and mentoring as big factors in her success.

Writing in Carolina Communiqué, the Carolina chapter newsletter, Diane described their relationship:

When I expressed an interest in her work as an author’s editor of medical manuscripts, she consented to share her extensive expertise with me. And so I joined the ranks of the hundreds of people who have been inspired and invigorated, amused and amazed, motivated and mentored by Lottie Applewhite. I’ll attempt to capture just a few of the qualities that secure her place as a most memorable character in the eyes of nearly everyone she meets.

Intellectual curiosity. When Lottie wraps her mind around something, whether it’s a medical manuscript, a recipe, or the personal problem of a friend, she probes to learn the “why” behind the “what.”

Rigorous professional standards. Lottie will always take the extra step — from making a special trip to the library to asking help from an expert — to ensure that the work she delivers is of the highest quality.

Genuine love and respect for others. If Lottie has a criticism to deliver, she does so in a way that makes you grateful for the attention. If you have done something that she appreciates, she will always let you know — often in the form of a note or a letter.

Generosity of spirit. Even when she has dozens of projects requiring her attention, Lottie will take the time to help and to teach. She does not hold close the expertise she has acquired, but shares it willingly with those who call upon her for information or assistance.

Joie de vivre. This is the most important secret of Lottie’s success. She embraces life fully, with energy and enthusiasm. Whatever the project, you know that if Lottie is involved there are going to be a lot of laughs. I have had the pleasure and privilege to learn much about my trade from Lottie Applewhite. Her professional expertise is uncommonly valuable, but the life lessons she teaches by her example are priceless.

The words are Diane’s, and I can attest to their veracity. Lottie leaves her imprint on hundreds of technical communicators who are better professionals, and better people, for having known her.

If I can leave even a tiny fraction of the legacy that Lottie has left, I’ll have been a success.

Farewell, Lottie. Thanks for brightening every room you were in. Thanks for affirming so many of us. Thanks for showing the way.

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

A parable for our time

Your periodic reminder that true leadership isn’t about exerting power and influence. It’s about having the heart and mind of a servant.

But he, a lawyer, willing to justify himself, said to Jesus, And who is my neighbor?

And Jesus answering said, A certain man went on the road near Washington, D.C., and an old injury suddenly flared up, and he fell down half dead.

379px-Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_033

Rembrandt’s “The Good Samaritan” (source: Wikimedia Commons)

And by chance there came down a certain White House staffer that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

And likewise a Congressman, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

But an immigrant, as she journeyed, came where he was: and when she saw him, she had compassion on him,

And went to him, and bound up his wounds, and helped him into her car, and brought him to a clinic, and took care of him.

And when she departed, she took out her Visa card, and gave it to the doctor, and said to him, Take care of him; and whatever you spend, I will repay you.

Now which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to him who was sick?

And he said, The one who showed mercy on him. Then Jesus said to him, Go, and do likewise.

– Luke 10:29-37 (paraphrase)