A Technical Communication Occupation

The Occupy Movement hurtles towards its expected demise. With the Occupiers (a.k.a. urban campers) now evicted from their various parks, this movement is headed the way of the hippies. As New York City mayor Bloomberg eloquently stated: “Protesters have had two months to occupy the park with tents and sleeping bags. Now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments.” What they shall they do to occupy their time?

Has the Occupy movement had any effect? As the Premier of China said when asked in the 1970s about the effect of the French Revolution 100 years prior: “It is too soon to tell.”

Still, there’s lessons to be learned from this movement for technical communicators:

Lesson #1: No leader, no way

Without a leader, a group cannot succeed. The Occupy movement prided itself on having no leader, thereby laboriously deciding everything by committee. Everyone was a leader, so no one was leading. A group with no leader has no future, because there is no one with the vision, authority and responsibility to move the group toward its goals.

That is why every documentation team must have a leader, someone who can guide, enhance and develop the group. With no leader, there is no place for the group to go but off into the various directions each communicator wants to take it. With no leader, there is no way.

Lesson #2: Pursue clarity

The Occupiers had too many demands, and the ones they had were vague, among others: a redistribution of wealth, the restructuring or elimination of capitalism, world peace, a change in the system of government, and protecting the environment. Exactly what the protestors thought each of these entailed and exactly how they were to be implemented is not clear.

Clarity is the essence of effective technical communication. If your documentation is not clear, then you are not clear. If you cannot explain to a stranger a topic you have written, then you are a stranger to clarity.

Go clear, or, like the occupiers, go home.

Lesson #3: Ask Hard Questions

When evaluating news stories such as this, we must do what technical communicators do best: ask what the real, practical effects are.

Regarding the recent evictions, there were only two possibilities before they occurred:

  1. The occupiers would all be evicted, destroying or least severely weakening the movement. Without a physical presence, there is no mental presence. This is exactly what is happening.
  2. The occupiers would be allowed to stay. If this had happened, then the worst thing that could have happened to the movement would have happened: the public would have become used to it. When people get use to something, they forget it, until the NBT (Next Big Thing) comes along.

Now, when evaluating the contents of the document and the document management process, we must ask the same hard questions:

  • Does this make sense?
  • What is the practical value here?
  • What are the logical outcomes of the various choices we can make?

 When evaluating the contents of a document, we ask:

  • What does this contribute to others?
  • Is there a better way to express this?
  • What is missing here?
  • Is anyone really going to care about this?

Similar tough questions need to be asked when looking at the process by which the documentation is created, reviewed, updated and managed:

  • Is there a better way?
  • How can we manage this document more effectively?
  • What are our options, and what is the potential outcome of each?

Companies often fall into a trap of producing poor documents or having poor documentation processes. Their response is often: “That’s how we’ve always done it,” to which our response should be: “Well then, you have always done it wrong.” Another excuse is: “That’s how other groups do it,” to which we respond: “Those other groups are also wrong.”

To effect change, you need to have COP: Creativity, Objectivity, and Perseverance. Specifically, the only way to bring about change in a document or the documentation development process is to be (in this order):

  • ruthlessly objective of the current state
  • incredibly creative when offering the solution
  • mercilessly persistent in actually fixing it

About one in a hundred technical communicators have these three traits.

Are you one of the 1%?


How do you like them Apples?

Image result for Steve Jobs logo

The world is mourning the death of Steve Jobs, founder of Apple. He has been hailed, quite rightly, as a creative genius, a brilliant and revolutionary designer, and a bold visionary who completely transformed the world of personal technology. (Full disclosure – my first computer was an Apple IIc, way back in 1985. It was also my last.)

As brilliant as Jobs was, he was also stubborn, arrogant, and an extremely demanding perfectionist who was openly abusive towards his employees. In fact, his arrogance and hubris probably killed him. He refused medical treatment for nine months, insisting on treating his cancer with diet, acupuncture, herbal remedies and a psychic. This delay most likely shortened his life.

Jobs was influenced by Buddhism, which explores the connection between mind, body, and soul. Given how cruel he could be to others, and his frequent violent rages, one could say he had a “cancer of the soul”. Buddhism suggests that a disease of the soul can morph into a disease of the body. It’s a medical fact that some diseases have a psychological basis. Whether this was the case for Jobs, we will never know, for he now resides in the iCloud.

(Speaking of life and death, we now know why Apple devices don’t have an on-off switch. Jobs felt that an off switch represented death. It symbolized for him the terrifying prospect that we’re all machines that simply “power off” at the end of our lives.)

These observations are not meant to criticize or judge, but to point out that no-one is perfect, and that there is more to a person than their technical abilities.

An Untechnical Communicator
A technical communicator may be a technical genius, like Jobs. They may have extensive experience managing a wide variety of complex documentation, thorough knowledge of all the major tools, and can speak twelve languages, human and computer. But if that person comes across as arrogant, obnoxious, highly critical of others and emotionally unintelligent, they will not succeed at job interviews. Even if they do land a job, they may have a tough time keeping it. Jobs himself was fired from Apple, and it was a long road back for him to regain control.

I’ve had the misfortune of knowing a few individuals like these. In the end, they either change or they go, or else every who works for them goes!

All of this means that you can win a job in an interview even if you are not the most technically qualified. The truth is that most software apps can be learned in about a week or two. The more difficult skills to acquire are non-technical:

  • interviewing and listening
  • working well with others
  • oral communication/public speaking
  • time and project management
  • negotiating
  • teaching
  • planning
  • objectivity, seeing the “big picture”
  • being open to criticism
  • handling change, conflict and stress
  • creativity, flexibility and adaptability

If you can show that you have these skills, and a genuine passion for the job, this will greatly increase your chances of getting it.

Research? We don’t need no stinkin’ research!
It’s interesting to note that Apple conducted no market research – no focus groups, no interviewing, no surveys – nothing. They simply designed products that they thought were cool and useful, then unleashed them on the public.

This seems to contradict to one of the tenets of our profession: to actively design with the end user in mind based on their needs and wants. Presumably, this involves working directly with our readers and having them test our documentation to see if it’s useful.

The problem is that we often don’t have the resources to do this. The good news is that we don’t have to, for reasons that are similar to those at Apple.

Users ‘R Us
The fact is – we are users. We should have a good idea of the kinds of information our users want, and the way it should be presented.

When you need information, you want it to be clear, understandable, and easy to find and use. That is precisely what our users want.

Jobs believed it was meaningless to ask customers what they wanted because they didn’t know what they wanted! This was true because the products Apple created were so different from anything that the users had previously experienced. How could users be asked about something for which they had no form of reference?

In many cases, our customers may not know exactly what information they are looking for. The example I always like to give involves the mail merge process.

That Mail Merge Thingamabob
If you were documenting the mail merge process for a novice user who had never even heard of it, you couldn’t simply create a topic called Mail Merging, with a corresponding mail merging index entry. Instead, you’d need to think about all the ways a user could refer to what they want to do, and then frame the topic accordingly.

For example, you might title the topic: Creating Multiple Personalized Copies of Letters and Other Documents or Personalizing a Document that is Sent to Several People. Your index entries could include:

  • addressing one document to several people
  • copies of one document, customizing
  • customizing a document to be sent to several people
  • different names, entering on a document for several people
  • documents, individually addressing to several people
  • mailings, sending customized documents to several people
  • mass mailings, performing
  • multiple copies of a document, personalizing for each person
  • names, changing each on several copies of one document
  • personalizing one document sent to several people
  • sending one document to several people
  • single documents, changing the name on several copies of
  • specifying different names on several copies of one document

You should be able to develop an extensive list of index entries like this without having to ask the user first.

But take great care with each entry – because one bad Apple can ruin the whole bunch.

An Echo from History

Related imageOne of Sting’s finest songs is Children’s Crusade – his haunting lament on the follies of war, specifically, the First World War.

Here are the relevant lyrics:

Young men, and soldiers, Nineteen Fourteen
Marching through countries they’d never seen
Virgins with rifles, a game of charades
All for a Children’s Crusade

Pawns in the game are not victims of chance
Strewn on the fields of Belgium and France
Poppies for young men, death’s bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed

The children of England would never be slaves
They’re trapped on the wire and dying in waves
The flower of England face down in the mud
And stained in the blood of a whole generation

Corpulent generals safe behind lines
History’s lessons drowned in red wine
Poppies for young men, death’s bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed
All for a Children’s Crusade

This wonderful and majestic piece sounds as fresh today as it did when it was released in 1985.

Although more people died in the Second World War than the first, in many ways, the First World War was more horrible because of the sheer senselessness in the way it was fought. Thousands of men were lost just to gain a few feet of ground, which would often be lost the next day. There was no concept of modern warfare – it was organized chaos.

One of the Canadian soldiers who fought in the First World War was Fred Albright, a prominent young lawyer from Calgary, Alberta. He met a woman named Evelyn and they began writing each other quite frequently. They married in 1914; three years later Fred was killed at the battle of Passchendaele.

Their correspondence both before and during their marriage represents an enormous volume of personal documentation. Together, they wrote over 550 letters covering a wide range of topics. Even after Fred died, Evelyn continued to write him in a effort to deal with her grief.

This incredible glimpse into history would have been lost forever but for the efforts of a library assistant who discovered the letters while working at the Archives and Research Collections Centre in the D.B. Weldon Library at the University of Western Ontario. Fascinated by the letters, she painstakingly transcribed and edited their contents so that they could be posted to a website entitled: An Echo in My Heart.

By the way, the assistant is my mother.

You may go back in time here….

Remembering The Wall

Image result for berline WallTwenty years ago, the wall came a-tumblin’ down in Berlin. Bewildered East Berliners flowed into the west, marvelled at the material delights, then returned to their drab homes. About a year later, in the greatest act of single-sourcing in history, East and West Germany were merged into a single entity.

I was lucky enough to have seen the wall only three years earlier, in 1986. Berlin was one of the many stops of my grand tour of Europe: 22 countries in 60 days. I remember scrambling to the top of an observational platform near the wall. I, along with about 20 other insane college students, crammed together at the top, where we could easily see over to the other side. We saw the wall on our side, a “no-man’s land” strip about 300 feet wide, and finally the wall on the East German side, where East German soldiers laughed at our packed-together motley crew.

If you had told me that three years later these walls would be gone, I would have said: “Yeah, right. And someday all the world’s computers will be magically connected, everyone will have their own portable phone, and you’ll be able to buy TVs 3″ thick and 52″ in diameter. Like that’s ever gonna happen…”

Many people don’t realize the two walls ran not only through a city but through the entire country. I wonder what happened to all the concrete? It would have been tough to recycle it.

Off the Wall

We must be thankful to live a country that has no walls to imprison its people. (Except for the ones in jail, of course.) However, there all walls of other sorts. The walls that wreak havoc in our profession are the ones blocking the free flow of information. Companies build virtual walls (or silos) around their various departments, resulting in misinformation, disinformation, inconsistent information, little information or no information being circulated amongst the employees.

In software companies, a business unit for a specific product can be comprised of developers, QA testers, marketers, salespeople, trainers, technical writers and product managers. How often do these people communicate with each other and share information? If they’re not communicating, they are building – building the wall.

So I say to these workers, and to the company presidents, vice-presidents, CEOs, and managers at all levels:

Tear down these walls!

Bailing Out On History

Image result for big three automakersIt’s not a fun time to be working for the Big Three, soon to be the Small Three, Two, One or None. Ford, Chrysler and General Motors are fighting for their lives, receiving government bailouts in the billions – that’s billions with a B, as in Bloody Big.

When you take the first letters of the these three companies (F.C.G.M.) it makes a cute little acronym: Failed Cars, Godawful Management. You have to wonder how such highly paid managers deduced that higher gas prices mean building bigger, less fuel efficient cars.

Of course, now other struggling industries are lining up at the trough. Where will it end? It’s time to take a trip down memory lane and look at all the failed communications industries and technologies over the years and see what they would have to say today.

Papyrus Manufacturers (3500 B.C.) We work hard to make paper out of trees. And now these new guys are coming along making better, smoother paper out of fibres. Talk about paperwork – it’s just not fair! We need lots of paper money to save our paper.

The Union of Quill Pen Makers (3500 B.C.) Damn those ballpoint pen makers! They make a pen that you don’t have to continually dip in ink – where’s the fun in that? Our industry is going straight to the birds!

Block Printers (200 A.D.) The movable type industry has decimated our business. If we don’t get help, thousands of block-heads will lose their jobs.

Movable Type Printers (1040 A.D) This is Mr. Gutenberg. I’ve spent years inhaling the lead fumes from the movable type blocks I’ve made, and let me tell ya, there’s nothing like it. But now these new printing processes are coming along and putting me out of business. I may have to lay off my my maid, my cook, and even my mistress. I need help!

Lithographers (1796) We’re still around, but mostly for big printing projects. Everyone seems to have their own printer now. Tell your local politician to support Proposition 300: Ban the colour blue from private use!

Mimeograph Makers (1876) / Ditto machine (1923) / Thermofax (1950s) – We’re all getting killed by those new photocopying machines. But we’re worth saving, because we’ve got the one thing they don’t: that wonderful smell. Mmmmm – chemical fumes…..

Typewriter Manufacturers (1850s onwards) – Why would anyone want to buy a computer? They crash, they’re too complicated, and they don’t make the wonderful clickety-clack sound that our machines do. Trust us, they’ll never succeed.

Word Processing Machines (1970s onwards) – Like the typewriter guys said, no one is going to want to buy a full blown computer when a dedicated word processing machine will do. Besides, 12 point Courier is all the font you need.

Newspapers and Magazines (1600s onwards) – God, it’s brutal out there. We’ve had to lay off thousands of people. Don’t people read anymore? Oh yeah, there’s that new thing around. Whadya call it again? The Internet? Yeah, like that’ll last…

Failed Software, Hardware and Computer Companies (1960s-present) – Microsoft bad. We good. Give us money.

* * *

If you still support bailing out the Big Three, then I’d say start up a petition – using a quill pen on papyrus, of course.