Taking Stock of Stocks and Docs

Related imageIt sure has been a memorable last few weeks for the world’s finances. Stock markets worldwide have tanked, and there is talk of a worldwide recession. The whole messed is linked to something called sub-prime mortgages, which really should have been called sub-par mortgages, or better still stinky rotten loans – further proof that terminology is everything.

This whole fiasco has become a litmus test of whether you believe in free will. Many believe the government or the financial institutions who either encouraged or pushed these ridiculous high-risk loans are to blame, because they foisted these loans on unsuspecting, gullible people. Others believe that the people who took on these loans knowing that they really could not afford them are to blame. If you believe the latter, you are a free will advocate. It reminds me of an actual sign I saw for a lawyer’s service: Free Will Review.

Responsibility is everything. When a document is released with incorrect or missing information, who is to blame? The reviewers, including the product manger, business analyst, programmers and QA? Or the technical writer? Who is ultimately responsible? Is everyone responsible?

There are tech writers and then there are great tech writers. The more senior you are, the more responsible you must be. Even when others may share in the blame, you need to have the courage to say: I own this document, so ultimately I am responsible. Now let’s fix it, and move on.

Putting out fire with (pricey) gasoline

Related imageIt’s not a fun time to be a driver, especially if your car is anything larger than a phone booth. Gas is now almost $1.30 a litre. Creative thieves don’t even bother trying to pry open locked gas caps – they simply get underneath your car, drill a hole in the gas tank and collect the liquid gold. Be glad you’re not living in Britain, where the price per litre is an astonishing $2.40, almost double what we pay here.

The really sad part is that the price increases will continue. Within a few years, we’ll match and then exceed Britain’s current prices, and wax nostalgic over the days of $1.40 “cheap” gas. Can anything good come of this?

Hummers for sale

Yes, and it already has. People are forgoing their trucks, SUVs, minivans and other gas-guzzlers in favour of smaller cars. They are carpooling, taking public transit, and thinking twice before driving unnecessarily. High gas prices have become a de facto carbon tax, without all the messy legislation required. They are forcing people to be more environmentally responsible, and as Martha Stewart would say, “that’s a good thing”. High prices will no doubt accelerate the development and acceptance of fully electric cars. In other words, high gas prices are completely changing both society and industry.

Finger lickin’ docs

Corporate change as a result of external factors and customer demand is nothing new. Recently, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) announced changes that would make it more “animal friendly”, as a result of pressure from the animal rights group PETA. (Veggie chicken burger, anyone?) KFC didn’t do this out of the goodness of their heart – do you really think they care about chickens? KFC, like all corporations, cares about one thing – profits. And their profits have been dropping steadily as people try to eat more healthily. The last thing they needed was further criticism, so they gave in to PETA’s demands.

A similar sea change is happening with documentation, but it will accelerate only when, as with gas, the price of the status quo becomes too high. For too long, companies have gotten away with creating documentation in an inefficient, unstructured format. They’ve been able to do this because they could afford to do it, but soon they won’t be.

The ultimate ‘change order’

The changes are already happening. The first companies to change were the ones where the documentation is translated into other languages. Translation costs are extremely high, but in an XML-based content management system, only the specific sections of text that have changed need to be translated. If a text segment is reused, so is its translation. The savings can be astronomical.

Companies with large volumes of documentation, often with different versions, also are changing to the new ways. Development time for new manuals will be shortened from months to weeks, or even days.

After all these international and larger companies have changed, the others will follow. They simply will not be able to compete otherwise.

Organizations have converted their documentation to the new format are reaping the rewards. Organizations that resist this change, that deny it’s happening or that continually stall will end up in the same place as General Motors and Ford. Their documentation will explode more violently than a hundred litres of that pricey gasoline.

The Documentation Deficit

Related imageThere is something that has no mass, yet carries a crushing weight. It is colourless, odourless and tasteless, yet affects many lives every day. It has no form or shape, yet can be more powerful than any army and just as lethal. It is everywhere yet cannot be seen. It exists between individuals, between countries, and everything in between. Without effort, it quickly grows. It is easy to get into but difficult to get out of. The rich lack it and the poor have much of it. With the right amount of it, life can be enjoyable, but with too much of it, life is a misery.

What is this strange substance? It is debt, and Canada, and Canadians, are drowning in it.

Buddy, Can You Spare a Trillion?
The Canadian federal government’s total debt is currently over $480 billion, costing $93 million in interest payments every day. But this debt is only part of the picture. The combined federal, provincial and municipal debts total $800 billion, or just over $26,600 per Canadian.

But wait, there’s more! In addition to government debt, Canadians have their own, individual debts, called personal debt. As of the end of 2004, total personal debt in Canada was at a record level of $752 billion, not much less than the total government debt. With relatively low interest rates, it’s easy to see why Canadians are racking up huge debts in the form of mortgages, credits cards, bank loans and lines of credit. It’s amazing to read about families earning six-figure salaries and yet being unable to make ends meet because their expenses exceed their income. (Gotta have the BMW, the private schools for the kids, the cottage and, of course, trips to the Bahamas!)

Now, when you add the government debt of $800 billion to the personal debt of $752 billion, you get a whopping $1.55 trillion dollars of total debt. That’s 1.55 million million dollars.

Big Numbers, Bigger Problems
It’s almost impossible to imagine how large 1.55 trillion is. A rope 1.55 trillion centimeters long would circle the Earth 387 times. (It would also be cut into pieces fairly quickly because everyone needs rope now and then.) If you had $1.55 trillion dollars, you could give each person on Earth $236 dollars. (Think of all the rope that could buy). Finally, 1.55 trillion seconds is almost 50,000 years, which is about how long it would take to make all that rope. It is truly a huge number. If it’s any consolation, the United States federal government alone is over $8 ½ trillion in debt. (U.S. dollars, of course.)

At this point, we haven’t even discussed corporate debt, nor the debts of other countries throughout the world. If you were to add up all the government, personal, and corporate debt for the entire planet, you would obtain a number approaching infinity. It’s a miracle God hasn’t repossessed our planet.

Daffy Debt Definitions
Debt is such a monster that we actually need two words to describe it:

  • deficit: the amount of debt accumulated in a specific time period, usually a year
  • debt: the total of all deficits

To further depress you, financial debt is really only one kind of debt. In fact, debt (or deficit) can be applied to others areas, for example:

  • If you consume more calories than you expend, or if you never exercise, then you have a health deficit.
  • If you do not continually update your work skills, then you have a career deficit.
  • If you do not get enough sleep, then you have a sleep deficit.
  • If you only focus on the physical, and never explore the meta-physical, then you have a spiritual deficit.

Dealing with Debt
All these areas share common principles and characteristics. To achieve something worthwhile, work and effort are required. If you do not make the effort, the debt begins and grows until it can be impossible to fix, resulting in a state of bankruptcy. Conversely, if you make a continuous effort, the debt can shrink and be held to a manageable level or eliminated altogether.

Tragically, many people don’t realize they have a debt until it becomes critical. Some of them max out their credit cards and borrow money just to make the interest payments. Others eat junk food, drink, smoke, never exercise and then have a heart attack. Still others work at one place for many years, never update their skills or network with others, and then, to their complete shock, are laid off and are so traumatized they find it impossible to look for work. All of these are examples of debts left unchecked. And so it is with documentation.

The Documentation Deficit
The “documentation deficit” formula is simple:

[work hours required to update documentation to a proper level]
[work hours actually expended updating the documentation]
the documentation deficit or surplus

Although it has never been formally measured, the documentation deficit in many companies is enormous. Many establishments have tens or even hundreds of thousands of printed or electronic pages of information throughout their manuals, their websites and their internal documentation. When was the last time it was all properly reviewed and updated? Things change constantly, especially in software. The energy required to keep the information relevant, correct and complete is often so great that many companies don’t even bother trying. They triage, they prioritize and fix the more obvious or public areas. The result? Documentation that is in one of the “in” states – incomplete, inaccurate or simply insane.

Paying Your Debt to Society
The good news is that a few companies have begun to realize they have a problem. Just as the federal government is now expected not to run deficits and pay down their debt, corporations are slowly beginning to realize the extent of their documentation deficits and are making the necessary payments.

They are hiring information developers and information managers. They are upgrading their documentation tools and implementing content management systems. Yes, there is much more that can and should be done. But it’s a start. And perhaps one day, companies will announce that they have eliminated their documentation deficit as proudly as they would their financial deficit.