A matter of degrees

A degree means many things; it typically represents a temperature or an angle. A degree is a measure of education, such as Master’s or Bachelor’s degree. It can even represent the extent of evil intent in a crime. Murder in the first-degree (pre-meditated killing) is considered a greater evil than murder in the second degree (killing with no evil intent).

In all these cases, a degree is a unit of measure. Degrees also describe a change of opinion or course of action. The expression that someone did “a full 180” means that they completely changed their position from their original one. Similarly, someone may do “a full 360”, implying that they’ve returned to their original position or viewpoint.

1Degrees in these instances represent points on a circle. A point that is 180 degrees from another is at the opposite end of the circle. A point that is 360 degrees from its original point occupies the same point, with movement of the point having occurred, but ultimately returning to its original position.

One of the most important areas in life where there can be degrees of change is one’s career. An example of a 180-degree career change is moving from banking into the non-profit sector. A person who moves from law, into teaching another field, then later decides to teach law, has done a full 360 because they are, in a sense, returning to their original field. But can there be an angle between these two extremes?

There are various ways to measure career change: profit versus non-profit, technical versus non-technical, academic versus applied and so on. However, the limitation of these attributes is that they are tied to specific careers. Two high-level attributes that apply to any field are:

  • the depth of tasks (the volume of work required for each task)
  • the breadth of tasks (the total number of separate tasks required for the job)

Previously, I worked several years as a technical writer. While I enjoyed the work, I found it had much depth but less breadth. The work can be represented as:

The blue bar represents the dimensions of the work: I had only a few tasks (working on a few documents) but the depth of work for each document was large because some of these documents were several hundred pages.

I later sought work that had greater breadth instead of great depth. I wanted something that would allow me to use my technical, communication and organizational skills for a much wider variety of tasks, specifically office administration. This type of career could be represented as:

In this career, there are a greater number of tasks required, but the depth of each task is less.

Comparing these two diagrams, you’ll see that the blue bar has rotated 90 degrees. That is, I changed my career not 180 degrees nor 360 degrees, but 90 degrees.

By changing my career this way, I have much greater job satisfaction. As you explore your own career, you need to determine the breadth and depth that match your personality and adjust your career accordingly.

In life, you will change; your abilities, likes and dislikes will change with you. You need to literally re-position your career to match these changes. Your degree of job satisfaction depends on the degrees that you have rotated your career.

Colleges & Universities: Your Number is Up

Related imageIf you’ve ever needed a toilet fixed, a fence built, your car serviced, or any type of home repair or construction done, you’ve used a tradesperson to do it. But there’s a big problem looming: a tremendous shortage of people working in the skilled trades, namely:

  • electricians
  • plumbers
  • carpenters
  • drywallers
  • metalworkers
  • masons
  • machinists
  • glaziers (window & glass installers)
  • tilers
  • auto-mechanics
  • anything to do with home construction

(It’s interesting that these professions are called the skilled trades – is there any profession that isn’t skilled?) In any case, there is a shortage in these fields for two simple reasons:

  1. Older people currently in these professions are retiring or dying.
  2. Fewer young people are choosing to go into these professions.

The reasons that fewer people are going into the trades vary, but it’s generally due to the misconception that these jobs are not as prestigious as the so-called “professional” fields such as the arts, science, medicine, engineering, teaching, business and law.

This labour shortage alone is cause for concern. But when combined with the fact that many graduates are facing a mountain of student debt, the situation becomes near-catastrophic.

Forbes reported in 2017 that the current U.S. student debt is a staggering $1.3 trillion, or just over $36,000 per student. Adding insult to injury, many of these graduates are unable to find work in their chosen field, and therefore unable to pay this debt, which can never be written off, even if the student declares bankruptcy.

The solution to this “trilogy of terror” (lack of skilled tradespeople, high student debt and low graduate employment rates) is obvious: steer students away from programs with a low chance for career success and toward careers such as the skilled trades that have a higher success rate. The “$1.3 trillion” question is,  of course, how?

What’s desperately needed is a standard rating system of career success for all university and college programs. This must be a single number that is easy to understand and which allows a clear and fair comparison.

This number would be comprised of just three factors. The first is the percentage of students who obtain a position in their chosen field within one year after graduating. This is the Placement rate, or P.

The second number reflects the average current salary of a graduate in their chosen profession. In this case, we would add an additional year after the first year (for a total of two years) to allow sufficient time for the graduate to find and retain a job in their field. This is the Salary factor, or S.

However, salary by itself is not a meaningful number; it needs to be pro-rated to a basic amount. This amount would be the average salary of all workers within a state or province. So the formula for S is:

S = the average salary (after 2 years) of graduates successfully placed in their field divided by the average salary of the state or province

This will generate a percentage which will form part of the final number.

These two numbers alone would be very useful in revealing the relative success rate of each educational program. But a third and final number is also required. It applies to all students before they have even begun their studies: the percentage of students who successfully complete the program.

This number is important because even if a program has a high placement rate and high salary, if only a small fraction of the students can complete the program, its overall success rate is less.

This third and final number is the Completion rate or C. We’ll put this number at the beginning of the formula to keep the numbers in a somewhat chronological order.

Summing up, we have:

  • Completion rate (C): the percentage of students who complete the program
  • Placement rate (P): the percentage of students who find a position in their field within one year after graduation
  • Salary factor (S): the average salary of students who find a position in their field (within two years after graduation) relative to the average state or provincial salary

Multiply these three numbers together, we obtain an overall percentage success rate. This is the Program Success Index or PSI.

We now have the final formula:
PSI = C x P x S

To illustrate the power of this number, let’s look at two extreme examples. (Note these are sample numbers only and assume an average state or provincial salary of $50,000.)

The first is a Bachelor of Arts (BA) program, which typically has both a low placement rate and low starting salary:

  • Completion rate = 95%
  • Placement rate = 10%
  • Salary rate = ($30,000/$50,000) = 60%
  • Program Success Index = .95 x .10 x .60 = 6%

By contrast, a skilled trade such as plumbing has a higher placement rate and starting salary, but may have a lower completion rate:

  • Completion rate = 85%
  • Placement rate = 97%
  • Salary rate = ($70,000/$50,000) = 140%
  • Program Success Index= .85 x .97 x 1.40 = 115%

Summing up, we have:

  • Bachelor of Arts PSI = 6%
  • Plumbing PSI = 115%

That is, the PSI for plumbing is twenty times greater than that of a B.A.

Imagine the impact that these numbers could have a student’s choice of career. Yes, the arts and humanities are important. Yes, we should all know our history and learn how to think critically. But that is not the point.

We are facing a crisis of employment and economics that is threatening to shake our society to the core, potentially impoverishing millions with debt and an education that has little or no value. These facts are more important than whether someone has a good grasp of English literature. Without a strong economy, gainful employment and a basic level of income, few will have the money to buy literature or the means to appreciate it.

The sad fact is that as useful and life-changing as a quotient like this would be, most universities would never implement it, because it would cause enrollment to drop and hurt their profits. Technical colleges might use it because it would be an obvious selling point for their programs.

However, soon universities may not have a choice. The $1.3 trillion student debt bubble, just like the U.S. housing bubble, will eventually collapse from its own weight. There will simply not be enough people who can afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a university degree program that offers no reasonable return on investment.

You don’t need a degree in economics to figure that out.

Image result for student debt

Embedded, etc.

1Embedded journalism is the practice of taking news reporters and placing or “embedding” them within military units so that they can report up-close on a war. In the process, they shift from being independent journalists to dependent, because the very people that the journalists are reporting on have to save them from death, dismemberment, and other career-limiting moves.

All workers are embedded. Doctors are embedded in hospitals, policeman in high-crime areas, teachers in schools, and musicians in concert halls. In our jobs and throughout our lives, we are surrounded by others, embedded among our co-workers, friends and family.

To be an outstanding technical and business communicator, you need to be embedded within a business that completely relies on your skills. Ideally, you should be embedded within a smaller company (one with less than 100 employees) where you are the only person who has these skills; where you are the entire business document development and management department, one that you have developed and nurtured. You will never have a better job than one you created.

Ideally, you will be in charge of:

  • the company’s online content including their website, LinkedIn and Indeed pages, and job postings (and if any of these don’t exist, you must create them)
  • developing and managing their internal business content including: company emails, newsletters, forms, staff lists, training requirements, job guides, signs, policies and procedures, and job descriptions
  • any other documentation or information that the company needs to properly function including: press releases, brochures, signs, online surveys, schedules, questionnaires, feedback forms, etc.

Now, did you see what I did in that last sentence? I ended it with etc., the lazy writer’s way of saying: “I can’t be bothered to properly complete this list so I will just use etc. and let the reader fill in the blanks.” If there is one term that should be banned in all writing, it is etc.

But we can admire etc. for its deeper meaning, which is that it represents the completion of the list or thought that it describes differently for each reader. That is, each person will read the same sentence ending with etc. and fill in with their minds what the etc. represents. Etc. is the ultimate split-personality multi-tasker.

A great embedded technical communicator is an etc. They anticipate your thoughts and needs, and fulfill them. They are flexible and adaptable and know what you want before you knew that you wanted it. They complete you, and document the whole process.

It’s no coincidence that the acronym of Embedded Technical Communicator is ETC.

(Those are my thoughts, etc., etc…)

Sugar, Salt, Fat

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us is remarkable exposé on the food industry written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Moss. The processed food industry is a monster, with over a trillion dollars a year in sales. Sugar, salt and fat are together more addictive than any one of these ingredients alone. Moss describes in great detail how the food industry systematically manipulates these three ingredients to get consumers hooked on their products. As a result, many North Americans are obese and have multiple health problems, including an increase in the occurrence of diabetes in children.

Food scientists use cutting-edge technology to calculate the “bliss point” of their products. This is the precise ratio of sugar, salt and fat that the body is programmed to seek out and is combined in such a way as to make the food very tasty.

Documentation does not contain any food ingredients, but can be sweet, salty, or fat. Sweet documents are ones with much style, but little substance. They are dripping with exotic and unreadable fonts. They have dreadful colour schemes, such as a bright red font on a deep purple background. They may have endless animations or even sound, further distracting the reader from obtaining the pure information they require. They are a sugary and sticky mess, dripping with confusion and disorder.

We all know that salty food makes us thirsty. Salty documents are ones that make the reader thirst for more information. They do not answer the questions that the reader was asking, or only partially answer them. They may answer the question but in an unclear way. They may have the information the reader seeks but are structured in such a way that the reader cannot find it. Salty documents leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth.

Fat documents are bloated. They contain too much information and too many words. They are over-documented, over-engineered and over-worked. They are a 200 page user guide when a 6 page quick-start guide would have sufficed. They are often written by engineers and marketers who have no concept of minimalism. Instead, they practice “maximalism”, the deranged belief that more words are better than fewer. The only cure for this disease is systematic and ruthless editing, along with a healthy dose of self-control.

Sugar. Salt. Fat. What type are your documents?

Unlocking Your Career Combination

Combination locks come in all shapes and sizes, from padlocks to electronic security alarm keypads. But the one thing they have in common is that you must select or enter a series of numbers or letters to unlock them. It is this specific combination of alpha-numeric characters which makes each lock unique.

Technical communication can also be viewed as a unique combination; specifically, a combination of:

  • business writer
  • interviewer
  • editor
  • business analyst
  • information architect
  • technical illustrator
  • product tester
  • instructor and
  • indexer

just to name a few. As with a lock, it is this specific combination of skills and duties that distinguish technical communication from any other profession. No other job is like it.

However, we can further add to this combination by combining technical communication with yet another field, for example:

  • technical communication + medicine = medical writing
  • technical communication + business proposals = proposal writing
  • technical communication + the auto industry = car manual writing
  • technical communication + the legal profession = plain language legal writing

In fact, there’s no profession that could not be combined with technical communication and thereby benefit from the unique skills we offer. By doing so, we supply a very special combination of skills for the industry we work in.

One of my interests is to combine technical communication with a subject that has always fascinated me: personal financial management. I can think of no other area where receiving clear and accurate information is more important than one’s personal finances. The end user quite literally stands to lose or gain thousands of hard-earned dollars.

As part of my research, I recently attended a financial management workshop. The presenter, while friendly and knowledgeable, was not a technical communicator. Both the handouts and PowerPoint slides were overloaded with information. The presentation itself did not cover many essential topics (such as the importance of paying your credit card bills on time), but did cover many non-essential topics (such as the fact that Canola oil is Canadian oil).

You need to find the unique combination of industries that appeals to you, and make that your specialty. Doing so will enhance your value in the marketplace and make you stand out from all the other generic communicators.

Brand me a surrogate

Surrogate advertising is a fascinating form of marketing. It conveys a specific brand or product but appears to be for an entirely different brand or product. In other words, it’s a form of “guerrilla” or “Trojan horse” communication, because it very carefully hides the intended message within a larger message designed to distract the viewer.

Corporations often engage in surrogate advertising because it’s illegal for them to advertise their product directly.

One example of surrogate advertising is Russian Standard, makers of a popular vodka in that country. They branched out into a completely different industry, banking, to form Russian Standard Bank. The bank was a success because the brand was so well-liked. When they advertise their bank, they’re really advertising their drink.

Here in Canada, President’s Choice supermarkets have branched out into banking, credit cards, cell-phones and even pet insurance. If people like the brand, they will consume it in all its forms.

Technical Writers, The Brand
Here is the perceived “brand” most people have of technical writers:

Technical writers are highly technical, social awkward, introverted, geeky bookworms who write documents all day long.

We must use the principles of surrogate advertising to completely redefine and expand our brand to include everything that we do for our clients. This is especially true if we are contract workers, who are expected to be complete business communication service bureaus.

What’s in a name?
The first challenge is with the name we give ourselves. Most people are familiar with the term technical writer. We must educate people on the more expansive and inclusive term: technical communicator.

After changing our name, we can then completely rebrand it:

Technical communicators are highly observant, objective, practical, and dynamic professionals who create, manage, and enhance all forms of visible communication, both internal and external, including information, documents, and the products themselves.

The bottom line
Although we do not sell products, we increase profits by helping people understand how to use a product or service, thereby lowering calls to technical support.

We also boost profits by giving clear, practical, and objective advice on the design and usability of a product. This not only lowers support costs, but can increase sales by instilling goodwill in customers, and increasing the chances they’ll recommend a product or service to others.

In other words, technical communicators help companies make money.

Our products and services
The types of communication we work with include:

  • any type of guide or document: user guides, installation guides, technical guides, online help, tutorials, training guides, policies and procedures, functional specifications, technical references, legal and medical documents, and so on
  • marketing communications, including Release Notes and press releases
  • websites, wikis, intranets, blogs or any other online document

We also offer the following value-added services for businesses:

  • simplifying and clarifying complex documentation
  • reviewing software, websites, and documents from a usability perspective
  • analyzing a company’s current documentation processes
  • developing corporate style guides
  • content strategy and planning for various media including print, online, and mobile
  • single-sourcing: merging duplicate content into one source
  • rewriting error messages
  • writing practical on-screen instructions
  • creating effective online surveys
  • developing clear names for programming objects, classes, rules, fields, and so on 
  • managing a company’s online social media presence

We may also offer the following services for individuals:

  • creating and editing résumés and cover letters that will ensure you get an interview
  • completely reviewing your online profile, including LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, to ensure your image is professional and consistent
  • helping you develop an effective blog or personal website

From brand to surrogate brands
Therefore, while our main product brand names might be one of:

  • technical writer
  • technical communicator
  • information developer

 our surrogate brand names include:

  • training developer
  • product evaluator
  • usability expert
  • software tester
  • policies and procedures writer
  • content developer or manager
  • marketing communicator
  • content strategist
  • survey developer
  • information simplifier
  • style guide developer
  • UI and error message text developer
  • programming elements ‘namer’
  • documentation project manager
  • website enhancer
  • career documentation specialist
  • social media manager

As with any good brand, we need an effective tagline or slogan.

I suggest:

Technical Communicators: We make things clear, concise, and complete.

Tech Writer Confidential

Image result for top secretWhat do a doctor, lawyer, and priest have in common? A very special arrangement with their users which ensures total confidentially. It goes by different names, depending on the profession.

For doctors, it’s doctor-patient confidentiality; for lawyers, attorney-client privilege; for priests, priest-penitent privilege or clergy privilege.

Whatever its name, the principle is the same: that all communication between the professional and the client is strictly confidential. It’s an important principle because it helps ensure full, open, and honest communication.

A similar principle applies to our profession: communicator-reviewer privilege. When we review a document with someone, there’s an implicit understanding that everything the reviewer says is private. However, we also need to make reviewers aware that if they make a comment on a draft, it could be shared with others. Also, if they raise issues that require us to do further research with others, we need to make the reviewer aware of this.

If reviewers can’t trust that what we discuss with them will remain private, they won’t make very good reviewers. An informational wall will be built up, and it’s a very hard wall to tear down.

An even more important principle of confidentially we follow is communicator-client privilege, where the client is the customer or company you work for. It’s an important and legally-binding rule that we don’t divulge inside information to public end users. Clients must know and trust that we will keep internal information private, otherwise they won’t us with their documentation.

Now, this can lead to awkward situations and moral dilemmas. What if you discover that one of the features you’re documenting does not function as it described? It would not be advisable to start tweeting this fact or posting the problem on Facebook. Your obligation is make the owners of the product (the product manager, the development manager, or both) aware of the problem in writing, via email. If a higher-level manager ever inquires about it, you can show them the email you sent. Now it is no longer your problem – it is their problem.

Confidentiality, therefore, is one of the cornerstones of our profession (along with other c-words such as clarity and conciseness.) Without it, the technical communication process simply won’t work. Confidentiality can only occur if there is trust from the person or entity giving the information to the one receiving it. The person giving us this information is “lending” it to us, with the understanding that we won’t share it unless given permission to. The information lender must be confident that we will keep what they say private.

And that is why the first word in confidentiality is confident.

Paying some interest to your docs

With the release of the Ontario and the federal Canadian budgets, debts and interest rates are again in the news. Both budgets continue to run deficits; this is especially frustrating in Ontario, whose government recently commissioned a document (the Drummond report) that recommended major spending cuts; yet another effective user guide that has been promptly ignored.

Interest rates are the lowest they’ve even been in years. This keeps borrowing costs low, but creates another problem: if rates rise even a small amount (as they inevitably will), borrowing costs increase tremendously.

Canada’s debt is currently about $566 billion. Even a tiny .1% rise in interest rates (that’s one-tenth of one percent) would increase borrowing costs a staggering $566 million a year, or over a one and half million dollars per day.

Interest rates are also important on a personal level. For example, if you have a $375,000 mortgage, a 1% rise in rates adds about another $3,750 a year in interest, or over $300 per month. If you’re already treading water and living paycheque to paycheque, this could be enough to push you into bankruptcy, and out of your house – exactly what’s been happening in the United States.

We see then, that the following formula is life-altering:

debt X interest rate = interest payment

Even a small change in rates can greatly increase the interest payment, if the debt is large.

All this got me wondering: What is the interest payment of a document?

To find this out, we need to determine:

  • the debt of a document
  • the interest rate of a document

The debt of a document, like financial debt, represents the total value of the document. This is comprised of the size of the document, including the total number of words, graphics, index entries, cross-references and other information elements.

The interest rate of a document includes:

  • the volatility of the document – the degree to which the document needs to be updated because of changes in the product or thing being document; in other words, how much and how frequently the document must be maintained
  • the importance of the document – a document that is not used or is considered irrelevant or unimportant has little value; the users or the organization that owns the document literally has little interest in it

A document’s interest payment is the amount of effort a technical communicator must exert to ensure that the document is properly maintained. It is the size of the document multiplied by its interest rate.

Larger documents generally have higher interest payments than smaller ones, because greater effort is required to maintain them. However, a large document may have a lower interest payment if its interest rate is sufficiently low, for example:

Large document: 5,000 x 1% = 50
Small document: 3,000 x 2% = 60

The first figure in each equation (the debt or size of the document) is arbitrary and is simply there to indicate relative sizes.

Now, what happens if you fail to make the interest payments? The debt of the document increases as it becomes more outdated and chaotic. It may even reach a point where the owner must declare bankruptcy and create an entirely new document.

Who knew documentation could be so…interesting?

Single Sourcing Greece’s Default

Related imageGreece is now dangerously close to defaulting on its national debt. Despite the recent bailouts, many financial experts believe that the situation is unsustainable. Greece simply cannot afford to pay its bills. Its debt to GDP ratio is a staggering 140%, meaning it owes almost one and half times the value of all its goods and services. It could only be a matter of time before Greece defaults.

Defaulting, while certainly undesirable, does not necessarily mean the end of a country. Argentina, Russia, Ukraine and many other countries have also defaulted, and have gone on to have healthy and vibrant economies.

Still, the European Union is desperate to save Greece from default because they believe that if Greece defaults, it could plunge the entire region into financial chaos and destroy the value of the euro. Therefore, you could say that the decision to unite the currencies of Europe caused this problem in the first place. If Greece had never joined the euro, they still would be in a mess, but it would have been their own mess.

Single-sourcing in technical communication refers to the process of storing a piece of information once and then reusing it as needed. The euro is a political and economic example of single-sourcing. Seventeen different European nations use it, instead of maintaining separate currencies.

When the euro was first introduced, Europeans were hopeful that by single-sourcing their currencies, they would eliminate the disadvantages of multiple currencies, namely the inefficiencies of currency conversion. But as we’ve now seen, these advantages have been decimated by the Greek fiasco, costing billions of euros to fix.

It is very easy to make the object to be single-sourced too large. For example, you may have a complex procedure containing ten steps that appears in three separate guides. As long as the procedure does not vary, there is no problem. However, what if later you need add a new step to only one of the guides? You could add the step and then conditionalize it so that it is hidden in some of the guides but appears in the necessary guides.

But what if later the situation becomes even more complex? What if you need to hide or add certain steps to certain guides? By choosing to single source the entire procedure, you have essentially backed yourself into a corner, much like Europe with Greece.

The only effective long-term solution is to store each step as a separate object, then assemble each step in each document as needed. This gives you the full flexibility to include or omit steps as needed.

In essence, you need to “default” on your original documentation architecture, declare informational bankruptcy, restructure and begin anew.

To choose not to would be a Greek tragedy.

iHate unclear product names

1Apple finally launched its latest iPad. Because it comes after the iPad 2, most everyone expected it to be named the iPad 3, following the naming conventions of the iPhone. Instead, Apple gave it a name that only a marketer could have developed:

The New iPad

If a technical communicator had been asked to name this product, this name would never have entered their mind.

Where to start?

First, how long is this iPad going to be new? One month? Three months? Six months? Major product releases are often a year apart or more. Can you imagine walking into an Apple store a year from now and asking for a “New iPad”? I guess some things have more “new” than others.

Next, what will they call this iPad once the next one is released, assuming it will still be for sale? The Not So New iPad? The iPad Between the New iPad and the Even Newer iPad?

Finally, the iPad 2 is still available, at a reduced price. I can just picture the conversation:

MacHead 1: Hey, I just bought a new iPad!

MacHead 2: You mean the new iPad?

MacHead 1: No, silly, I mean a new iPad 2!

MacHead 2:  So it’s not a new iPad?

MacHead 1: It is a new iPad, it’s just not the new iPad. Geez…what’s so hard to understand?

Why can’t companies stick with clear, self-descriptive names? I admit the traditional naming sequence is boring: Product name 1, Product name 2, Product name 3, and so on. But at least it’s comprehensible.

Maybe I’m being picky. Maybe, like the old Apple slogan use to say, I need to “think different”. To that end, here are my suggested names for the next iPad:

  • The Newerest iPad
  • The Much More Newer iPad
  • The Newer iPad That’s Way Newer Than The New iPad
  • The iPad with New All Over It
  • The Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious iPad, Now With Even More New!

Or maybe we could combine both the marketing approach and the clear communication approach:

  • The iPad 4 – “Who New?”

Apple. Think different. Name stupidly.