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A week in 5 things

  1. A big week as we released our new cloud service. This was the second cloud product I’ve worked on from scratch but a lot has changed in just a few years. The product was built on the Salesforce platform which meant lots of new challenges for the development team. Our major challenge as content designers is we don’t yet have context sensitive help in place.
  2. A chance to reflect on how well the user design team worked with the content designers. At every stage of the onboarding design, we were brought in to conversations and had ownership of the words. This was a great example of two complimentary disciplines working with synergy.
  3. I’ve spent more time doing what I love over the last few weeks, namely writing content, than I have in over a year. Truly has shown me that you can’t spend time in a job you’re not enjoying.
  4. Micro-content is a whole new thing that I’ve not had much to do with before. It’s quickly become one of my favourite things.
  5. Need to start thinking about translation. We have translation teams internally, but I know that as soon as we start translating, we’ll need tighter content control. Eek.
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Checking in video files

arrgghh.

I’m due to get a laptop replacement this week and I’m only now realising how lax I’ve become in adding my video files to source control. It’s a time-consuming error prone process when using VPN connections to the company network, but it’s got to be done.
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Why you should present at a conference

brunch (3)
I wrote recently about stepping out of your comfort zone, an article that was derived from a presentation I gave at TCUK, the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators annual conference.
You can read it here.
I didn’t want to present at a conference. That was the last thing on my mind when I had one of my regular meetings with my line manager in 2013. But, I came to realise that although I’m by no means an expert in technical communications, I haven’t done this job for almost ten years without learning something. And that something may not be profound, or entirely original, but it is unique. That something is my experience, seen through my eyes, felt through my being. And that makes it special.
You might be thinking along similar lines. You might think that the only way to benefit from a conference is to go along and listen to speakers and take notes and go back to your office and share those notes with others. But you’re wrong; that is the least interesting way to attend a conference.
Just think of what you might learn by setting yourself up as a speaker. You’ll have the chance to really focus on a subject or your experience and share that with other human beings who want nothing more than for you to succeed. We are all interested in each other. We want to learn from each other. But the only way to do that is to open ourselves up to the occasional risk; to step out of our comfort zone and open ourselves up to the possibility that we will be truly marvelous.
If you want to consider presenting at this years TCUK, be quick! Deadline for submissions is 10 April 2015.

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Getting my own column

I’ve been neglecting this blog of late, but I haven’t been neglecting my writing. Check out my author blog to see what I mean.

But, things have changed a little. Ignoring the well heard advice of never volunteering for anything, I offered to take on a column for the ISTC journal: Communicator and am now in charge of the Online Groups column. This has got me thinking about my career—always a dangerous thing—and writing blog posts is always something I enjoy, and should add more value to the column itself. (Maybe one day, I’ll be able to just copy and paste a selection of blog entries into an article for Communicator and save myself a job).

For now though, stay tuned…

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Coaching our new Technical Author

Our technical writing team has grown from two to three in the last few weeks. Yes, our recruitment was successful and we now have a new bod to get used to our way of working, our projects, and our tools.

The new member is fresh from a support role and so despite having experience in writing knowledge base articles, hasn’t written in a technical author environment before. There is a lot to learn, and we need him to be productive in a short space of time.

But, I was prepared.

The department had to go through an exercise last year, listing all the skills and experiences we each needed in our roles. This is essentially a checklist that can be worked through when assessing your own knowledge gaps.

I’ve taken a copy of this and used it as the basis for a learning plan.
Rather than throwing this in the direction of our newbie and expecting him to deal with it on his own, I’ve scheduled coaching sessions with him and we work through the spreadsheet. I’ll demo something, and ask him to repeat the task or we’ll talk about how he might use that in our real life projects.

I’ve never done formal coaching before, so I’ve no previous experiences to compare it with. But, we talk about how things are going, and our newbie seems happy that this process is working.

How to get the most out of coaching:

  • Know what the point of the coaching is. Without this, you can’t know when you’ve reached your goal.
  • Discuss the coaching plan with the coachee. Does this suit their preferred way of learning?
  • What other materials can support the coaching once the session is over?
  • Involve the coachee in the session. I never let it go a couple of minutes without asking the newbie to try to replicate what I’ve just done.
  • Ask for feedback. Remember you’re doing this for their benefit, not yours.
  • Don’t be afraid to change your approach. Not everyone learns in the same way. Be adaptable.

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Recruiting for a technical author


We’re at the stage where we can reasonably request another technical author to join the team. Since this happens so infrequently, we’re all a bit unprepared for what needs to happen. Development teams acquire programmers and testers so frequently that recruitment is a well-oiled machine, or at least a working machine. Not the case for technical authors. It’s like someone’s taken a mallet to our machine and springs and cogs have fallen far and wide.

We’ve had to consider:

  • What’s more important to us? An experienced technical author, or someone with the necessary domain skills in our business who can be trained up?
  • What projects they might be working on.
  • How we’re going to get them up to speed. I’ve been working on a learning plan and it’s eye-opening to see the things we’re going to need to cover with a new starter, that I take for granted.
  • How we’re going to evaluate a candidate’s ability to do the job.
This last point has been interesting. I’ve had a conversation with people on Linked in. I say a conversation, but it’s become a little argumentative. There’s clearly a lot of disagreement about whether it’s appropriate to test technical writers at all.

The arguments against seem to fall into these themes:

  • Some people aren’t good at being tested and will steer clear from posts that require the candidate to take a test.
  • It’s not right that a manager should make a candidate take a test. The candidate gets no right to test the manager if they’re capable of setting an appropriate test.
  • Concern that a tech writer may be getting tested and other roles don’t get tested.
  • Does the test discriminate against anybody.

The arguments for a test:

  • You can gain an understanding of how a candidate might approach a problem – would need discussion with the candidate after the test.
  • You can set expectations with the candidate about the kind of work you’ll be asking them to do.
  • You can assess whether the candidate can work with standards.
  • You can use tests to explain to managers why you might like to hire person x instead of person y. 
  • You can verify their basic skills like ability to proof read and find typos.
Despite the disagreement in my LinkedIn conversation, we are going to have some kind of exercise for a candidate. As someone who’s going to work with the newcomer, I want to see how easily we’re going to fit together. If they struggle to do even some basic editing, or explain to me how they’d approach writing a topic from scratch, that’s going to set some warning lights off—not literally, although that would be fun.

What kinds of issues have you had in finding a good candidate for a technical writing position?

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Metawriting

I’ve been reading so many really good blogs recently about writing and it makes me a little sad that my blog feels so disjointed.

Trawling back through the archives I’ve got stuff here about my personal life, then more recently stuff about my job as a technical writer. But very rarely do I write much about writing.

Writing about the art of writing is a strange one. Painters don’t draw pictures about what it feels like to have their hands covered in paint. Crafters don’t string bracelets together to express their frustration at not having sold more than they have. Are writers the only “meta” artists?

So I’m wondering whether what I want to do is spend more time on the blog talking about writing, wondering whether in doing so I’ll become a better writer. Or will it merely give me some false illusion of purpose? Metawriting isn’t going to get my next novel written. In the time it takes me to write a decent blog post I could have added a few hundred words to my word count.

But will I gain anything as a writer in exploring these thoughts?

Undecided.

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It's too easy to turn non-work into work if you let it

There’s a certain irony in that I’ve volunteered to run a workshop on productivity at work, when this weekend, I’ve taken a look at my task list and deemed it unacceptable.

The theme of my workshop definitely won’t be on how to get more done with your time as I’m more and more convinced that that way lies madness. Productivity for its own sake is a destructive exercise that ultimately serves no one apart from productivity gurus touting their wares. The focus has to be on making efficient use of the time you choose to spend on work, whilst remembering that you have a life outside of work that needs nurturing too.

We talk a fair bit about work-life balance and I think on the face of it, I’ve got this balance thing okay. But, then all I do is push myself to get more and more done with my non-work time, in effect taking all the play out of it, and turning it into more work.

This weekend, I came across Kim and Jason’s Escape Adulthood blog and started to read their free ebook ‘There’s an adult in my soup’. This material really resonated with me today and certainly set some thoughts whirling away.

I’m not sure how that’s going to affect my week yet, but I feel that it’s going to have some impact.

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How successful are online courses?

I read a good article about massive online open courses (MOOC) and thought I’d share my recent experience.

I signed up for MIT’s Learning Creative Learning in February. This was the first I’d heard of MOOC’s and I was pretty excited. I’d also just been appointed my department’s learning champion so I figured a course that explored the theory and practice of learning would be great.

There are several learning champions in our division so I shared the sign up page with them first. I got one taker out of about ten people. Then I shared with the wider learning department, and got another six takers. Then finally, I shared with the rest of my department who I thought would be less likely to want to take part. However, as it happens, I did get another taker. So, that’s eight and me makes nine.

MIT rather cleverly wanted to see how they could make this work to a large audience (somewhat in the area of 10,000 people signed up) and they choose to use Google+ as their delivery platform. This allowed them to start a community, and use hangouts for the weekly live discussions. They also split up the online students into rough geographical areas and suggested they set up their own communities for smaller group discussion.

I’d received a join code when I signed up and had shared this with the people in my business so when they signed up, we could be grouped together. When I sent out my first email to the group, I didn’t get a single reply. Hmm.

After a couple of days and a couple more emails, I figured that no one in my company had actually gone through with the sign up despite being initially enthusiastic, so I joined another online group for discussing the material.

I found the first sessions really involving and although a little put off by the list of suggested reading (which they provided) I was pleased for taking part and felt I was learning something. I wrote a blog post after the second session and shared it with my new online group and had some good feedback. Time, as always, is tight and I was fitting this in after putting the kids to bed. Practically that meant I would start watching the recording of the live session at about 8:30pm. Each session is an hour. When the session is engaging watching the video is no problem at all and I would take notes to further encourage my brain to stay focused, but when the sessions were less meaty I was definitely struggling to stay interested.

Each week the level of reading varied as well. After the first week with a massive reading list that took a couple of hours to get through, there would be a week with no reading but projects involving Scratch (a tool to learn basic programming). This isn’t the kind of thing you can pick up at 8:30pm so I pushed the activity back until the weekend. But weekend’s, despite seeming a vast expanse of free time, very quickly get eaten with family and other activities. MIT tried to reassure online students that we should try to do what we could, but definitely not beat ourselves up if we missed the odd live session or activity. But still, I didn’t feel like I was succeeding at what I’d set out to do.

I guess the point of this blog post was really to say that taking part in an online course is difficult. More difficult than I’d envisaged. Yes, I suppose for many, once the initial enthusiasm about starting something new wanes, it’s always going to be difficult to stay motivated. And even though I can see real relevance to my work, it still feels like an activity I should do after I’ve got other things done.

I’m not disheartened about this experience. I’ve learnt things (about the subject and myself) and my eyes have been opened to a subject I had little appreciation of before. I know that I suffer a lack of focus and this has highlighted that to me again. The endless multitude of things to do and things to learn constantly distract me and pulls me in different directions.

We’re now on week 8 which is coincidently called ‘Motivation and persistence’. I’m going to watch the video and look through the reading list to see what catches my eye. After that, well I’m going to play it by ear.

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Gears of my childhood

This post is part of an activity from the online course run by MIT: Learning Creative Learning.

Gears of my Childhood

I guess a lot of people might well have said that Lego was the object that influenced them the most in their childhood. I’m happy to be part of that crowd. Lego was a hugely influential part of my growing up and whenever I pick up pieces of Lego, my hands can’t stop snapping the little pieces of bumpy plastic together to create.
How has it influenced me though? Slightly trickier. When I was young, it was all about the instructions, and making the toy that the picture on the box told me I should be building. That gave a couple of days play before the toy was broken down and never reconstituted again. I took more delight in making models from the shows I used to watch at the time. I remember building Airwolf several times, as well as the Thundertank, and plenty of TARDISes. In fact, I built a couple of TARDIS interiors only last month with my children watching in disbelief at their intense daddy hunched over their Lego box, taking all the best bits.
But back to that question about how it has influenced me. I like to consider myself a creative person. Could hours spent constructing images from my mind and memory be in some way responsible for that? I’ve never been afraid to take something apart to attempt to get it working again. Whether that be a broken PC, or fixing the chicken shed. Maybe that’s part of the legacy it’s left me.
The Doctor’s TARDIS

The Master’s TARDIS