Tag Archives: technology

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?

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Technology for the gray at heart

My hair has long since gone from graying to gray. So I was happy to read Andy Patrizio’s article in CIO magazine debunking the myth that older workers struggle more with technology than their millennial counterparts.

handtech2.jpg

I’m an old hand but I know how to use the technology.

Citing research by cloud storage provider Dropbox and a marketing firm called Ipsos Mori, Patrizio finds that older people are just as likely to use a variety of technologies in their work — and are less likely to be stressed out using them.

For Patrizio, the findings reflect people’s level of frustration with their workplace technologies. And younger workers actually feel more frustrated because, being accustomed to really good technology in their personal lives, the have higher expectations when they come to the workplace.

Maybe that’s true. Another reason, I think, is that older workers tend to take a pragmatic view of technology. For us, technology is a means to an end. We evaluate it simply on how well it helps us get our work done. Not on how elegantly designed and shiny it is.

I applaud Patrizio’s assertion that older workers are just as effective using technology at work as their younger counterparts.

But I’m taken aback by the last thing he says. Quoting Rick Devine of TalentSky, a job-search website, Patrizio writes:

…the burden of keeping people’s technology skills up to date falls on the employer. “Employers need to see where your deficiencies are so they can provide for you. It is the moral obligation of every employer to see the deficiencies of their workforce, so if these older professionals are falling away in skills, shame on their employer for not providing them with the work experience to be employable,” [Devine] says. “And that’s a failing of the system and we all need to come together to right that wrong.”

Is it really up to my employer to make sure my skills stay current? Sorry: I might’ve believed that in 1986 — and then only because I worked for IBM, where the “you have a job for life” culture was still in place. But I’ve known for decades that no one but me cares about keeping my skills current. I’ve counseled countless colleagues and students to take charge of their own skills development. It’s why I encourage people to attend conferences, to get training, and to read up on what’s happening in the profession.

If the onus is on employers to keep their people’s skills up to date, many employers will use that as just one more reason to push out older workers and replace them with younger ones fresh out of college or grad school.

I appreciate it when my employer gives me work that hones my skills. I appreciate it when they train me in new technologies that I’ll need on the job. But I, and I think they, understand that I’m ultimately responsible for maintaining a skill level that makes me valuable to them and to potential future employers.

What do you think? Have you found older workers to be just as skilled as younger workers in using technology at work? Do you agree with Patrizio that employers are responsible for keeping their people’s skills up to date? Why or why not?

We have met the future, and it is us

A lot of bloggers, including yours truly, have spilled a lot of ink (electrons?) pondering the question, What does the future hold for technical communication?

Sarah Maddox, one of the most insightful technical communicators you’ll ever
meet, recently turned the question on its head.

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Image source: Sarah Maddox (ffeathers.wordpress.com)

At her keynote address at the tcworld India conference last month, Sarah asserted that the future is technical communication — and then made a strong case for why that’s so.

The summary of Sarah’s talk, and her accompanying slides, are two of the best things you’ll read all week.

Here’s a paraphrase of what she said. Continue reading

Trying to make things better

Challenger_flight_51-l_crew

The Challenger crew: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik (source: NASA)

Thirty years ago today, with millions watching on live TV, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff. All seven crew members died.

Something else died too, and I’ll get to that in a moment. First, though, let’s remember those seven who “slipped the surly bonds of Earth” and sought to advance humankind’s understanding of space and technology.

Let’s remember also the seven astronauts who died aboard Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 and the three who died in the Apollo 1 spacecraft in 1967. (In an eerie coincidence, the anniversaries of all three events fall within five days of each other.)

I grew up with the space program in the 1960s. I have an early memory of Alan Shepard becoming the first American to travel into space. (My mother, seated next to me at the TV, said “Pray for him.”) I had chills listening to the Apollo 8 astronauts read from the book of Genesis as they orbited the moon. (I still get chills at the memory.) When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon a few months later, it felt like the future was full of possibility.

New_York_World's_Fair

The New York World’s Fair

In the ’60s the world was a mess, just as it is today. But the mood of the time was that science and technology could solve many of our problems. That they could — no, make that would — make things better for everyone. A succession of World’s Fairs, like the one in New York in 1964-65, gave us a glimpse into a future that looked pretty wonderful.

It was an exciting dream. Continue reading

Closing the #techcomm technology gap

The Library of Congress houses more knowledge than any other institution in the world. But is knowledge really knowledge if nobody can read it?

Library of Congress, circa 1890

The Library of Congress, circa 1890. Apparently, even then it had trouble cataloging all of its content.

This week James Billington, the Librarian of Congress since 1987, announced that he plans to retire on January 1.

The story behind Billington’s resignation, as often happens when someone is on the job for so long, is complicated. In recent years Billington has come under fire from critics for several aspects of his leadership. The biggest complaint, however, is this: the Library suffers from a serious technology gap.

According to the news report about Billington’s resignation, “just a small fraction of [the Library’s] 24 million books are available to read online.” The article also hints at a cataloging problem: millions of printed pieces – some dating to the 1980s – are piled in warehouses, waiting to be shelved. It’s a problem that might be alleviated with the right application of technology.

Billington and his defenders argue that he’s started the Library on the path toward modernization. Of course he has: he’s been on the job since 1987. So even if the Library is using 1990s technology he can take credit for it. But when all’s said and done, it’s clear that the Library is late to the technology game.

Like the Library of Congress, we technical communicators are in the business of making knowledge available to people who need it. Continue reading

Honoring scientists, honoring science

Statue of Jöns Jacob Berzelius in Stockholm, SwedenOn a recent visit to Stockholm, Sweden, I encountered this fellow presiding over a pleasant city park that bears his name.

I’m ashamed to say that I had to look him up in the encyclopedia. Jöns Jacob Berzelius is considered a pioneer in chemistry, having developed the modern notation for chemical formulas in the early nineteenth century. In Sweden he’s so highly regarded that he not only has a park named after him, but his birthday (August 20) is observed as Berzelius Day.

What is it about the Swedes – who also created the Nobel Prize – that they so gladly celebrate the great scientists in their midst? More to the point, what is it about us Americans that we don’t? Oh, we love our inventors, because we love their technology and we love the economic benefits that come from their technology. But we rarely celebrate pure science. Where are the statues of great researchers and great theoreticians?

Sad to say, many Americans are skeptical of science. They’d rather mock science — for example, by throwing a snowball in the U.S. Senate chamber — than take it seriously. They don’t want to know the earth is getting warmer, because that might mean they can’t drive their beloved SUVs.

We love our freedom and we always have. But lately that freedom has turned into a license to live whatever lifestyle we like — with no ivory-tower, pointy-headed scientist telling us what to do.

It’s a damn shame. It’s an attitude that will hurt our country severely in the long run. And because our country is so big and so influential, it’s going to hurt the whole world. Already is hurting it.

We should take a lesson from Sweden – a country that knows how to honor its great scientists and a country that, not coincidentally, earns high marks for sustainability and for its use of renewable energy sources.

IBM Verse: A new way to work, or just solving an old problem?

Have you heard? IBM is giving us a “new way to work.” It’s turned up its marketing fluff machine full blast, on behalf of software called IBM Verse.

According to the fluff, IBM wanted to create a technology platform that would make workers more efficient, by finding and connecting the myriad pieces of information they had at their disposal. To build this platform, they say, they decided to start with email.

Screen image of IBM Verse user interface

IBM Verse user interface

 

 

 

Email?

Yep. Email. If you listen to the fluff, email is the bane of every office worker’s existence. IBM’s webinars and YouTube videos describe the demoralizing and productivity-draining experience of starting each day with an overflowing inbox and never being able to catch up.

Maybe that’s how it is at IBM. But here in the rest of the world, that sales pitch is outdated.
Continue reading

New technologies and their stories

Machines that tell stories. What potential do they hold — both commercially and otherwise? How might they affect the professions of journalism and technical communication?

Robot reading a book

Will “robots” soon write stories and then read them to us? (Image source: Matanya Horowitz)

I came upon a fascinating article this week, titled New technologies and their stories. The article’s contents were curated by design researcher Hanna Zoon at the Fontys University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands.

I greatly enjoyed the article, despite a couple of hindrances in reading it. First, Zoon often refers to herself in the third person. Second, the article is in German. (My rusty high-school German, buttressed by Google Translate, rode to the rescue.)

Zoon starts by saying “Computers can do different things than people.” Then she describes some of those things.
Continue reading

Technology doesn’t make it Tech Comm

A colleague of mine is creating a training course for new technical communicators. In it, she includes the definition of technical communication from the STC website. (It’s easy to find: right at the top of the About pull-down.)

“Technical communication,” STC says, “is a broad field and includes any form of communication that exhibits one or more of the following characteristics [emphasis STC’s]:”

  • Communicating about technical or specialized topics, such as computer applications, medical procedures, or environmental regulations.
  • Communicating by using technology, such as web pages, help files, or social media sites.
  • Providing instructions about how to do something, regardless of how technical the task is or even if technology is used to create or distribute that communication.

STC logoI’m good with items 1 and 3. It’s the second item that stops me in my tracks.

According to item 2, this blog post is technical communication. It communicates (at least I flatter myself that it does). And it’s published using a social-media platform.

According to item 2, every article in The Onion is technical communication. And every tweet by @A_single_bear.

It gets worse. A telephone is technology. So every obscene phone call — no matter what vile and/or creepy things it communicates — is technical communication.

STC, by assuming that technology implies technical, has given us a ridiculously broad definition for our profession.

My request is a simple one: Would someone at STC headquarters please fix that definition? Deleting the one bullet would probably do the trick — although you’re welcome to any of the ideas I shared in my first-ever post on this blog: What is technical communication?

That’s all. I don’t think I’m asking for too much. I’d just like to know that “the world’s leading organization dedicated to advancing the field of technical communication” (again, quoting from the website) actually knows what technical communication is.

Hot Lead to Hot Technology: Whither Technical Communication?

This month I was called in to assist on a technical-writing project that uses old technology. Really old technology. Which got me to thinking: the variety of output formats for our content, the number of tools for developing that content, and the range of skills needed to master all of the above, have never been greater. What does that mean for the people in our profession?

I began working in technical communication around the time that disco died (thank heaven) and Jimmy Carter was wearing cardigan sweaters. Everything we produced took the form of printed documents. At IBM we used a relatively new markup language called SCRIPT/VS, with which we could control indentation and vertical spacing. The U.S. Government, then as now one of the most prolific publishers on the planet, had embraced MilSpecs (military specifications).

Most technical communicators at that time were still in the “hot lead” world, composing on a typewriter (usually) and than handing their content over to be typeset and printed on a literal printing press.

1980: A gently-sloped pyramid showing a limited set of tools and formats

1980: Print, print, print

I’ve drawn a pyramid to represent the output formats and tools we worked with then. There weren’t very many of them, and the distance from the bottom of the pyramid to the top — in terms of training and skill set — was pretty small.

1995: Taller pyramid showing new tools like HTML and PageMaker

1995: Brave new online world

By the time I’d settled into mid-career, desktop publishing was all the rage. Microsoft Word (introduced in the mid ’80s) was already a staple of most Tech Comm departments. The World Wide Web, as it was then known, introduced many technical communicators to a new kind of writing: semantic-based tagging, in the form of HTML. We were excited to see our content displayed on computer screens and not just on printed pages.

The old formats and tools were still in place — although “hot lead” was fast fading from the scene. But the pyramid had become more crowded. The distance had increased from the top, where the cool kids got to play, to the bottom.

2014: Still taller pyramid, showing older tools at bottom and new ones, like HTML5, at the top

2014: Publishing everywhere

Nearly 20 years later, the pyramid has grown again. Many Tech Comm projects are still done in Word — probably more than with any other single tool. MilSpecs are still in common use. Hard-copy (or at least PDF) still predominates.

I used to tell my students they could do practically any job if they knew an authoring tool (besides Word), a help-authoring tool, and a graphics tool. But today’s jobs increasingly require new skills like structured authoring and mobile-app development.

But we’re also creating content that’s integrated with the technology, and content that displays on tablets and smartphones, using new tools that are both text-based and graphical. Today, there’s a sizable leap from the skills needed to work with the old technology to those needed to work with the new.

2020: The steepest pyramid of all, with new technologies (like wearable technology) included

2020: To infinity and beyond

In the not-so-distant future, I see us making use of even more new formats and tools. Augmented reality. Wearable technology. Things we don’t yet have a name for. Yet the demand for Word, for PDF, for the older technologies, won’t go away. The pyramid continues to go higher.

So what will our profession look like?

  1. Are we evolving to a place where everyone is a specialist and no one is a generalist? After all, while anyone can master a few technologies, it’s impossible to be proficient in them all.
  2. In light of #1, how will we buck the trend toward recruiters who seek candidates based on the tools they know?
  3. Will certain parts of the Tech Comm business — particularly the parts that rely on the older technology — become commoditized? (For that matter, there’s significant support for the idea that the whole profession is becoming commoditized, and I can’t say for sure that it isn’t.)
  4. What’s the best way to train people who are entering the profession? People who are already in the profession and who want to burnish their skills?

I very much want to hear what you think. So please drop me a line (or several lines) in the comments area.