The World, On Demand

Image result for BitTorrentJust as a shoemaker’s kids go barefoot and doctors makes the worst patients, us techy types are often the last ones to use newer technologies. How else to justify my delayed entrance into the wonderful world of podcasting and BitTorrents? My lame rationalization is that I wanted to be sure they got all the bugs out first; it’s not like you can call 1-800-BIT-TORRENT for help.

Both these technologies are simply different flavours of the same thing: getting the file you want and experiencing it when you want. Podcasting is mostly for audio files (although video podcasts are available) and BitTorrent is for video files such as films and TV shows. Podcasting is fairly easy, hence its popularity. You simply download the MP3 file you want to your portable player, and listen to it.

Using BitTorrent is a bit trickier, because it involves changing hardware settings and using several different types of software. Most people do not have the technical expertise to do this, thank God, because if they did, the Internet would slow to a crawl. But as the difficulty decreases and bandwidth increases, expect to see more people using this technology. In fact, software such as Vuze, an “all-in-one” BitTorrent searcher, downloader, decompresser, and viewer makes finding and viewing torrents easier than ever.

In essence, we’re seeing video availability catching up to information availability. Currently, you can locate information (text and graphics) on pretty much any subject. It is the golden age of information accessibility and variety.

Once it becomes as easy to find and view a desired program as it is to find desired information, the old broadcast model in which you have to wait for a program and watch it on the network’s schedule will disappear.

Now, personal and DVD recorders have helped, but they still can’t deliver shows that you forgot to record in the first place, or were not even aware of but might be interested in. YouTube and other websites offer streaming video on demand, but the picture quality is poor – for now, that is. Funny thing about the future – it’s hard to predict, and it never ceases to arrive and amaze.

Complication Nation

Related imageI’m getting emotional over motion. “Motionflow” TV must be one of the dumbest inventions ever. Oh, it sounds great in theory: a video display technology which reduces the blurring of rapid motion, making it flow more smoothly. The problem is it works too well. Watching a movie on a MotionFlow TV makes the film look like a cheap video. I mentioned this to a hapless TV salesperson – his feeble response was that you could turn off this so-called “feature”. (To be fair, MotionFlow is probably best for sports and live TV, but I’m a movie guy myself.)

MotionFlow is a symptom of a bigger problem: companies designing products crammed with features that people either don’t need, don’t want or can’t use. Ever tried to buy a cellphone that only makes phone calls, or a printer that only prints? You’d have better luck getting through to a live tech support person in less than two minutes.

The “overcomplication” problem hits our profession in two ways. First, in the tools we use. Yes, there are many good authoring tools out there. But many of them have far more features than you would ever need. For example, I have yet to find a simple, off-the-shelf, easy to use XML publishing system, one that would let you quickly create documents, TOCs, and indices, and publish them to a content management system. (If you know of one, let me know.)

More importantly, “overcomplication” is a problem in documentation. I’ve seen many documents that have far too much information in over-sized topics that are difficult to read. That’s why I admire quick start guides. They give users the essential information they need to set up and use a product. The other content can be moved to a regular user guide or reference guide.

So the next time you’re thinking about getting the latest version of Super-Duper Authoring Tool Version 127.3, or releasing a fun-to-read 800 page user guide, don’t go with the flow; instead, de-complicate.

The Doc Whisperer

Related imageI could certainly use dog trainer Cesar Millan. Our two-year old labradoodle Jessie is a bit of a mess. She often begs for food, and thinks nothing of resting on The Forbidden Couch. But compared to the dogs featured on Milan’s show, The Dog Whisperer, she’s Lassie.

The Dog Whisperer is a unique reality-TV program. In each episode, we’re introduced to a new insane animal and its even more insane owners. Dogs with a wide variety of behavioral and disciplinary problems are featured. Before this show, I would never have believed a dog could have OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder).

Millan interviews the owners, then instructs them on how to deal with the dog’s behaviour, using a combination of leadership, discipline and affection. The worst dogs are taken to Millan’s Dog Psychology Center, where presumably the animal shares with a therapist its childhood problems and the fact it just “can’t let go” of the doggie treats.

What’s most impressive about Millan is how efficiently and professionally he interviews the owners, quickly assesses the situation, and in some cases, is able to immediately correct the problem. Dogs are often transformed right before the owner’s eyes.

Dogs vs. Docs

A dog whisperer, therefore, is a trained professional who assesses the animal, interviews the owners, and provides a solution. The definition of a “doc whisperer” is self-evident, but a comparative list is helpful:

  • dog whisperers assess dogs
  • doc whisperers assess docs
  • dog whisperers interview owners
  • doc whisperers interview owners, including subject matter experts
  • dog whisperers see what the problem is right away and recommend a solution
  • doc whisperers do the same thing
  • dog whisperers show leadership by implementing the solution
  • doc whisperers – ditto
  • dog whisperers follow up with the dog and its owners to ensure the solutions are maintained
  • doc whisperers follow up with the doc and its owners to ensure the solutions are maintained

Doc whisperers are more commonly known as “senior technical writers”, but what’s in a name anyway? So if you want to be a great tech writer start whispering….

After all, dogs and docs are very similar: they both need lots of attention, they both can get out of control if not maintained, and they both involve toys, as in:

“Here Rover – it’s the latest edition of FrameMaker, with tabbed browsing and better conditional text management.”


Tech Writing, From A to Wii

My wife asked me if we’re ever going to buy a game console. In my worst French I mumble, “Oui“. “We’re getting a Wii!?!” she cries, ” Woo-hoo!” I cannot Undo my misunderstood utterance.

The good news is that Nintendo recently lowered the price of its popular gaming unit. The bad news is that the unit represents only a fraction of the total price. Once you’re done adding accessories (such as the Wii fitness board, extra controllers, other games, extended warranties and taxes, you end up with a purchase price approaching that of a small car. But, oh boy, is it worth it.

A brief disclaimer – neither I, nor any of my relatives, friends, or enemies work for Nintendo. However, I sure wish I did.

The Wii is a masterpiece of design, form and function. That’s why it’s outsold the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 combined. I don’t even want to discuss the documentation that comes with Wii, which is adequate, but the fact that most users won’t even need the guides. (Gulp! No tech writers needed?!)

The I’s Have It

The Wii succeeds because it has the magic combination of I’s:

  • Intuitive – it’s easy to use
  • Informative – it gives clear and simple instructions as you’re using it
  • Intelligent – it appears to “learn” from your actions
  • Incredible Interface – based on all of the above

A huge factor in the Wii’s success is its simplicity. The remote only has a few buttons. The games, aimed mostly at families and non-power users, are generally simple to learn and play. That is, the user does not have to struggle with the hardware or software to learn it.

Am I Making Myself Clear?

Every professional communicator (including us technical ones) can learn from this. Readers should never have to struggle to find the information they’re looking for, or understand the information you give them. It should be as clear as glass.

Beyond documentation, technical communicators have a critical role to play in product design. I’m fortunate to work for a company that actively solicits feedback from its employees, and have given numerous suggestions for enhancements to the user interface. No formal training is required for common sense suggestions, such as the fact that every field should have a name, and that the name should be clear and self-descriptive.

Always be on the hunt for superb design and execution, as seen with the Wii. It can inspire you to create great documentation.

Now, back to tennis and golf…

She loves docs, yeah, yeah, yeah…

Image result for BeatlesMy mother, who is from Liverpool, recalls regularly visiting the local record shop in the 1950’s, owned by a gentleman named Brian Epstein. Epstein (pictured here, furthest on the left) later went on to manage a rather well-known group called The Beatles. I’m reminded of this rather indirect claim to fame as I just finished watching The Beatles Anthology, a massive 10-hour, 5 DVD disk set, chronicling the history of the only group where everyone can easily name all its members.

The Beatles are again in the news, as their Rock Band game is set to release on September 9, 2009. The game allows players to follow the rise of the band and play along with them. Also, re-mastered versions of all their songs will be released the same day as the game. Ain’t technology grand?

Now, Paperback Writer is one my favourite Beatles songs, if only for the fact it’s not a corny love song. Some may say that most technical writers are simply frustrated authors, which is nonsense. Technical writing can be just as fulfilling a career as fictional writing, with the added bonus of actually getting paid. Also, in both professions, you can just make stuff up to please the reader.

And on that note, I offer my new and improved version of this classic song:

Technical Writer

Dear Mr. or Ms. Reviewer, will you read my doc?
It’s got a twelve page index that really rocks
It’s for an application that you’ll never use
But I need this job, so I wanna be a technical writer,
Technical writer

When you read my guide, you’ll join my many fans
It’s got lots of screenshots and colour diagrams
It’s got overviews and cool multi-step tasks
You see I have no life which is why I have to be a technical writer
Technical writer

It’s got fifty-seven sections, give or take a few,
I’ll be copy-editing more in a week or two.
I can give you PDF, Frame, Word or text,
I can even give you XML
because I’m a senior technical writer,
Technical writer

If you really like it, then please tell my boss
He ain’t a tech writer and he’s really lost
He has no idea what my my job entails
that’s why it’s so much fun to always play the technical writer,
Technical writer

Technical writer, technical writer… (repeat forever)

Michael J. vs. Mahmoud A.: A Study in Conflict

It’s sure been a busy few weeks in the newsrooms. The sudden death of pop legend Michael Jackson was not only a media mega-event, it was an astute career move on his part, dramatically increasing his music sales; perhaps he should have died more often. (For those of you who thinking I’m being cold, sober up, and read this.)

What’s astounding is how coverage of Jackson’s death completely obliterated the other much more important event: the ongoing protests in Iran. Iran’s population is 70 million – over twice that of Canada’s. More people would be affected by a change in the Iranian government than by Jackson’s death.

Twitter Twatter
I could talk about how these two stories are connected because they’re both excellent examples of how new technologies such as Twitter and cell phone cameras allowed the news to spread so quickly. But plenty of techno talking heads have already observed this. What’s more interesting to me is how these two stories are connected because they show the ultimate result of conflict: trying to mix two diametrically opposed ideas and obtain a successful result.

Mahmoud the Madman
Iran’s conflict is obvious. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a delusional psychopath of a president, is trying to run the country as a “theocratic democracy”, which makes as much sense as a 600 page “quick start guide”. A state can be a theocracy or a democracy – it cannot be both. The protests arose as a direct result of this conflict. They would not have occurred if elections weren’t allowed in the first place or if Iran was a real democracy. It is the conflict between these two ideas that caused all the ruckus.

Madman in the Mirror
Jackson’s conflict is subtler, as it’s the conflict within one person instead of an entire nation. Jackson was a brilliant and gifted musician, dancer and performer. The problem was that he thought this also made him a brilliant and gifted person, so much so that he raised himself to the status of a demi-god. His massive statutes and endless tributes to himself are ample proof of this.

Jacko thought he could do no wrong, and this included doing whatever he wanted to innocent children. You could say his downfall began November 16th, 2006, for on that date he was booed at the World Music Awards in England, and left the stage visibly shocked. The real world’s view of Jackson had come crashing into Jackson’s view of himself. Death through addiction was the ultimate conflict resolution.

Communication Conflicts
Conflicts like these, where two opposing entities try to occupy the same place, exist in our profession. They include non-technical communicators, primarily developers and marketers, pretending to be technical communicators.

A marketing technical communicator or a programmer technical communicator is as much of an oxymoron as Iran’s theocratic democracy. The result can be a guide from the marketing department that constantly tells users how wonderful the product is and thanking them for purchasing it, without really telling them how to use it. Alternatively, if written by a programmer, the guide is hyper-technical, generally incomprehensible, and filled with such lovely phrases as: “Make sure the two modules play nicely with each other.”

Internal Documentation
Of course, it’s easy to make fun of marketers and developers, because that’s what they’re there for. Other conflicts involve us and the actual work we do. On the one hand, our profession demands that we are honest and open with our readers, and tell them what they need to know to use the thing we are documenting. On the other hand, there is pressure not to tell users every single problem that could occur in the product, lest we scare them off. An experienced technical communicator, working with the product manager, will steer the right path between these two opposing goals. It’s a dirty job, but it sure beats working in a slaughterhouse.

A more serious conflict, akin to Jackon’s internal conflict, is the one within some technical communicators who really should not be technical communicators. Maybe they’ve changed. Maybe they never really had a passion for words, clarity and the thrill of creating a complex table or a clear and succinct instruction. (I still love the smell of Visio in the morning.) Whatever the reason, communicators who are no longer interested in communicating had better find something else to do, because eventually, as with Michael and Mahmoud, the world will finally catch up with them.

Let’s Play … Documentation!

Image result for board gamesI’ve recently become an online Othello addict. Like any good game, it’s simple to learn and difficult to master. Mind games are all the rage these days, whether it’s traditional games and puzzles such as crosswords or Suduko, or the electronic Brain Age game for the Nintendo DS (which I’ve also played). Everyone loves a good game, but did you know that playing games is actually good for you? The mind is a muscle that needs regular exercise, otherwise it becomes, uh, what’s the word, oh yes…slow.

The Documentation Game

The documentation process is often grueling. If it could be played like a game, wouldn’t that make it more enjoyable, and possibly even fun? But if documentation is a game, what is the object of the game, what are the rules and who are you playing against?


The object of the Documentation Game is simple. It is to ensure that the end user:

  • finds the information they are looking for


  • understands and uses the information they find

There is no partial scoring. If the user finds the information but does not understand or cannot use it, sorry – you lose.

Rules of the Game

The rules of the Documentation Game are also simple. You’re allowed to use any and all documentation tools and processes at your disposal to supply information to the user. These include anything from a simple text editor (such as Notepad), all the way up to a sophisticated content management system.

You lose the game if:

  • the user has to call technical support
  • you have to contact the user to supply or explain the information
  • the user gives up and returns the product

You also lose points if the user curses the technical writer.

Documentation Hell

Your opponent in the Documentation Game is an extremely ugly and dangerous beast that is as old as knowledge itself. Its name, should you dare to speak it, is the I-Devil; the I stands for Inaction and Incomprehension. The I-Devil wins if:

  • the user cannot find the information they need
  • the user finds the information but cannot use it (Inaction) or cannot understand it (Incomprehension)

You may wonder how you can play against an opponent you can’t see. But millions do this every day, when they play online games against another person in another place, or against the computer. The fact you can’t see your opponent does not make the game any less fun.

Let the games begin…

Synecdoche, Technical Writer

Image result for Synecdoche, New YorkThink being a tech writer is difficult? Try being a screenwriter. Unlike technical writers, most screenwriters will never make a successful living. Most of them work other jobs to pay the bills. The vast majority of scripts never get produced. As with actors, dancers, musicians, and other arts professionals, most screenwriters are doomed to a life of obscurity. But there is one screenwriter who is not only widely successful, but is one of the most talented and original writers in modern times.

Charlie Kaufman is the writer and director of the film Synecdoche, New York, and was also the writer on two of my favourite films: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich. These movies wonderfully use the medium of film to explore the very nature of reality and existence.

You Are My Sunshine

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel Barrish, heartbroken over the breakup with his girlfriend, undergoes a procedure to erase all memories of her. (His girlfriend had previously erased all memories of him.) As Joel is sleeping, we see his memories become mangled and eventually destroyed. It is the closest thing you’ll see to the filming of a dream.

In the other film, Being John Malkovich, John Cusack plays a puppeteer who takes a menial office job in an unusual building – the work floor is wedged between two others. Behind one of the office walls, he discovers a tunnel that is a magical portal into the mind of actor John Malkovitch. A portal visit lasts about 15 minutes, after which the visitor is spewed out onto a filthy ditch near the New Jersey turnpike.

Synecdoche: The Whole and its Parts

In Synecdoche, New York, which I have not yet seen, Kaufman makes his directorial debut, in addition to being the writer. The plot involves a struggling theatre director who stages an extraordinary play by creating an intricate replica of New York City inside a gigantic warehouse. He hires actors to play himself and the other people in his life. These actors interact with their real-life counterparts, blurring the line between the director’s real and “staged” lives.

Life, Defined

Kaufman’s films are fascinating because they artistically document the questions all users (in this case, all people) have, including:

  • What does it mean to exist?
  • What is life? Is it just a collection of memories?
  • Do we really have free will, or are we simply actors following a script?
  • What is perceived? What is real? Is there a difference?

Model Documents

Like screenwriters, technical communicators also model reality.

First, we create guides that describe how to use something. We model our guides directly on the thing (the reality) that we are documenting.

Second, by modeling our documents this way, we are creating a model of a tutor or teacher. This can be vividly seen in interactive online training, which responds to and progresses based on the choices the student makes in the course.

Reality – What a Concept

However, there is a third, deeper level that some documentation can follow as it models reality. Just as Kaufman’s films blur the line between the real and the perceived, certain documentation blurs the line between the documentation and the object being documented.

The simplest example of this is a hyperlink. Before there were hyperlinks, when you needed to refer the reader to another source, you gave the name of the source and page number, for example: see page one of The New York Times. Then the hapless reader actually had to go out and find the damn document. Now you can simply say: click here. See the difference? The text of the step is the same as the step itself.

Virtual Control

A more complex example can be found in other software. For example, in the Windows online help, there is a topic that describes the Control Panel and how to open it. But it also contains a link that when clicked, actually opens the Control Panel. Now the question becomes: is this link documenting the Control Panel or is it actually the Control Panel?

We can go even further and ask: what exactly is the difference between the reality of the Control Panel, indeed, of all software, and the reality of the online documentation that describes it? They all exist only within the computer. Is one more “real” than the other? If you were to show both to someone who had never seen or heard of computers, they would be unable to tell the difference. Ultimately, they are all electromagnetic charges on a spinning metallic platter.

In essence, we are objectifying the Control Panel, our Windows files and folders, the various icons, and other elements of the operating system. How is this any different than objectifying people?

Synecdoche, North York

If Charlie Kaufman were ever to write a movie about a technical writer, the plot would be as follows:

Jacob is a struggling technical writer. He has trouble finding and keeping jobs, because he just does not fit in. He also struggles to relate to other people, finding that they are not as easy to follow as the documentation he writes.

In an attempt to gain control of his life, he begins to document every aspect of it. At first, he writes only on the computer, but these documents are too “soft” for him – he needs something real. He begins printing out everything he writes.

Soon, his entire apartment is awash in papers. The walls, furniture, floors, even his dog are drowning in an ever-growing sea of documents. In a dream sequence, Jacob imagines the entire world covered with explanatory notes.

In a vain effort to regain control of his mind, Jacob begins scouring the Internet for answers. In his search, he stumbles upon a blog written by a technical writer living in the former city of North York. To his amazement, he finds an article written about him, when he


Blogger Error – someone has accessed your account

Hey – Andrew. Just what the hell are you doing?

Excuse me? Who are you?

I’m Jacob, you idiot. Where do you get off writing about me like that?

Well, it’s my blog. I can write what I want.

No, you can’t. You make me sound useless and pathetic. Knock it off or I’ll come down there and kick your ass!

Well, that would be a neat trick. You know – you only exist because of me.

Actually, Andrew, the opposite is true. I mean, can you prove that you are not a figment of my imagination?

Uh, OK. I think I’ll stop writing now.

Oh please, don’t stop. You can’t imagine the darkness when you stop. I’m sorry…

I can’t just keep typing forever. I have a life, you know!

I have a life too! Please, I’m begging you! Keep typing!

Nope – I’m stopping now.

You wouldn’t dare. You need me! Without me you’re nothing! Your stupid blog is nothing! You’re going to keep typing until

Unauthorized access terminated

Are you really a tech writer? Take this quiz!

See the source imagePerhaps you’re just starting out in this profession and are not completely sure if it’s for you. Maybe you’ve been a tech writer for many years and it just doesn’t have the same romance that it did when you started. Maybe you have nothing better to do with your time than read insane articles like these.

Whatever the case, here is a foolproof quiz that will determine, once and for all, whether you really are a technical writer, or just a pale imitation of one.

Answer each question carefully. Tally up your score, and the truth will be revealed.

Note: For some questions, more than one answer may be correct!

1. A technical writer is someone who:
a) creates documentation that people actually use
b) is dead sexy and brilliant beyond compare
c) makes the world’s third best tuna sandwiches

2. If I see a typo on a restaurant menu, I:
a) politely indicate it to the manager
b) am so upset I can’t eat for two whole minutes
c) burn the restaurant down

3. The personal documents I’ve created include:
a) a written last will and testament
b) a written mission statement
c) documents that document the documentation process of the above documents

4. Adobe is:
a) a large software corporation
b) a member of the axis of evil
c) one of the lost Indian tribes, the others being Apache and Ojibwa

5. FrameMaker is:
a) a tool for creating solid documents
b) a tool for framing innocent people
c) proof that Adobe developers regularly smoke crack

6. PDF stands for:
a) Portable Document Format
b) Pretty Dumb File
c) Pathetically Dreadful Fonts

7. Thorough knowledge of English is important because:
a) English has many complex rules and subtleties
b) it is spoken throughout the world
c) I speaka tree languages – English da best

8. A CMS is a:
a) Content Management System
b) Crappy Management Study
c) Cultivated Management Seepage

9. Software developers are:
a) brilliant engineers
b) sometimes challenging to relate to
c) people who missed the Mother Ship back to their planet

10. Microsoft Word is:
a) a common word processing tool
b) the afterthought of a word processing tool
c) proof that Bill Gates is the anti-christ

11. Extreme documentation is:
a) a process in which documentation is created in a rapid, iterative fashion
b) a good name for a reality TV show
c) a process in which reviewers are beaten senseless for two to three hours if they don’t review the drafts

12. XML stands for:
a) eXtensible Markup Language
b) eXtremely Manic Linguist
c) X-rated Martian Lovetoy

13. GIF, JPEG and TIFF are:
a) the names of image file formats
b) the names of my pet dogs
c) the names of my first three children

Here are the points rewarded for each answer: you’ll get bonus points if you selected more than one right answer!
1. a) 1 b) 2 c) 0
2. a) 1 b) 2 c) 3
3. a) 1 b) 2 c) 5
4. a) 1 b) 2 c) 0
5. a) 1 b) 0 c) 3
6. a) 1 b) 0 c) 0
7. a) 1 b) 1 c) -5
8. a) 1 b) 0 c) 0
9. a) 1 b) 2 c) 3
10. a) 1 b) 2 c) 3
11. a) 1 b) 2 c) 3
12. a) 1 b) 0 c) 0
13. a) 1 b) 2 c) 5

Tally up your score. The maximum score is 56.

Here’s what the scores mean:

  • 40-56 – Congratulations! You have the soul of a technical writer. Other tech writers will beat a path to your door, and then beat you when they see how brilliant you are.
  • 25-39 – You have the potential to be a tech writer. Start hanging out with other technical writers and annoying them with your questions, and you’ll be one of us in no time.
  • Less than 25 – I hear there are some job openings in social work and horse whispering.

The Rescuer Professional

Related imageThere’s a breed of reality TV that is particularly interesting: the “professional improvement” shows. These include home improvement and self-improvement programmes, but the theme is the same: professionals evaluate a person or thing (or sometimes both) and make dramatic improvements.

Why are these shows so popular? Is it really so compelling to see a house torn down and rebuilt, or a person getting a fashion makeover? Some say it’s so that we can learn to make similar changes in our lives, but I doubt I’ll be rebuilding my house or getting plastic surgery any time soon. (Besides, if you’re nose is too big, you can always make the rest of your face larger.)

Help – I Need Somebody!

I think these shows are popular because deep down, we all want to be helped by others who we think know better than us. As much as we strive to be independent, the idea of a professional arriving into our lives, giving us expert advice and then working to make the necessary changes is very appealing. It means less work for us and absolves us of the responsibility of doing it ourselves.

The experts who are on these shows are therefore not just professionals, but rescuers, or rescuer professionals. Rescuer professionals are not professional rescuers, the people who rescue the lives of others for a living: the firemen, paramedics, emergency room doctors, secret agents and late night hair stylists. The rescuer professional is someone who deals with non-life threatening situations in a calm, authoritative and professional manner, and who gets the job done right.

Woody and the Wolf

There’s great examples of rescuer professionals in the movies. In Toy Story 2, a toy repairman nicknamed “The Cleaner” skillfully repairs Woody, the main toy character. On a slightly more violent level, in the classic cult film Pulp Fiction, Harvey Keitel plays Winston ‘The Wolf’ Wolfe, the consummate rescuer professional, when he’s assigned to help gangsters get rid of a dead body and gets the gangsters to clean up the car it came in. (This inspired one of the greatest lines in film history, with one of the gangsters exclaiming: “You’re the [one] who should be on brain detail!”)

The question I come across the most in our profession is “How can I get the job at an interview?” The next most common question is “How do I keep the job I’ve got?” The answer to both questions is the same: be a rescuer professional.

Ordering: One Interview, Please

In an interview, you need to give the impression that things were not too peachy in the documentation department before you came along. You need to imply that there was little or no documentation process, that the docs were 42 years out of date and used 127 different fonts, that anarchy ruled, with hell, fire and brimstone raining down each day, with dogs and cats living together and issuing drafts; in short, that it was total chaos.

You were the rescuer professional. You brought order to the chaos. You cleaned up the templates. You created a style guide and perhaps a practices and procedures guide. You got the writers working together. You got the documents to look like they were created by one writer, and not by Sybil, with her various personalities.

You don’t want to appear arrogant, of course. You need to say it was part of team effort, but still show that you did these things on your own initiative without being asked.

And if you want to keep your job? Sorry – the only guarantees in life are death and taxes. You may be able to escape the latter if you’re richer than God; the former if you’re God himself. No job is guaranteed. The most you can do is lower the probability of you being laid off today. Don’t worry about tomorrow, for it is a day whose time has not yet come.

What Have You Done For Me Lately?

At work, we must be the rescuer professionals. Ask yourself: What are you doing to further improve things? Oh yes, everyone is just so very impressed with how you turned water into wine, and made the drafts sing and dance yesterday, but what have you done today?

Do you have short, mid-range and long terms goals for your work? Are you making the time to investigate newer tools and technologies? Are you getting out of your comfort zone and working with things other than user guides, such as training materials, release notes, error messages, user interface elements, and even the names of code elements such as XML tags and class names? The more pies you can stick your fingers into, the lower the chance the company will put a pie in your face and discard you in the pie-heap of history.

Excuse Me – Do You Have the Time?

If you have the time to do these things without jeopardizing your deliverables, you need to do them. And if you don’t have the time to do these things, then that itself could be a sign of a bigger problem. The best jobs are ones which allow you the time to grow in them. If you’re not growing, and others are, where will that leave you in five years, in ten years, and beyond?

To win jobs and keep them, be the rescuer professional. Be the one willing to step into the fire to rescue the documentation dog. Be Extreme Makeover – Documentation Edition.