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.
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.