31 August 2012

“Here come old flat top”

Now I know that many readers will be thinking, “This guy’s meant to be an author, yet the grammar in his post title is awful!” But then it’s not my grammar: it’s Lennon and McCartney on the subject of meetings. ‘Come Together’ really is an amazing piece of music, and I have always imagined that it describes a conference for a profession that time forgot... like the annual penguin shepherding convention, which sounds silly but is something I’d like to attend just for the banter value.

This year I’m attending my first TCUK in Newcastle and – having just filled out my workshop preferences form – I’m looking forward to great things. Of course as a theme tune we could never use ‘Come Together’ by the Beatles, as we’d suffer minor apoplexia due to the grammar (and anyway, we’re not that ugly). I was half thinking about the Beegees’ ‘I’ve just got to get a message to you’, but then I realised that, as conference themes go, it’s quite morbid. (It’s sung by an individual on the way to the gallows who’s looking for a chance to apologise rather than being technical communication based.) In fairness, it may be fit for a political party conference, given the current state of affairs.

So what piece of music could work for the TCUK conference? I wracked my brain and have two suggestions. The first is ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft’, which I feel is a song that could well have been written by a technical communicator, given the precision of the lyrics and the range of vocabulary used. I’d like to think that if ever we did encounter aliens, there’d be at least one technical communicator on the scene to stop some boffin or politician saying something that’d get us assimilated, exterminated or made the subject of some ritualistic predation.

Option 2 is a cool yet understated instrumental, like the Bond theme played on a harp (I wrote the blog before discovering someone had actually done this!). This would work because, firstly, tech comms is an extremely cool profession, and – like 007 – we tend to find ourselves working in many different sectors. Secondly, whilst 007 may be able to diffuse a wide range of explosive devices and pilot any vehicle known to man, he’ll only be doing so because a technical communicator has done it before him and documented how it’s done.

So, I’ll see some of you at TCUK. Some of you will just be missing out by not going, and some of you will be reassured that Clearly Stated are staying up to date and at the forefront of the profession, no matter what theme tune is playing in the background.


30 August 2012

Business Development

This week I’ve been looking a bit more at the business development function within Clearly Stated. In the current economic climate it’s probably more important than ever that the business continues to grow rather than stagnate or shrink. We now have two full-time authors (Alison and me) and we like to stay busy.

I’ve done business development before, and in that post I've been a “business development manager” with a fairly broad remit which took me to assorted trade fairs, networking events and cold calling (or at least luke-warm calling) various potential clients. In a smaller organisation, business development is often an also-ran alongside other duties. The secret is to take just enough time away from current work to ensure that there will be more work to do a few months down the line. It is a difficult balancing act: spend too much time finding new contracts and the current work suffers, whereas spend too little time and sooner or later the work is going to dry up.

The ISTC works very hard to ensure that the profession is recognised, and most of our clients seem to have a clear idea of what they want from their documentation – even if that subsequently changes and adapts – and actively seek us out. I am aware that there is still a lower recognition threshold in wider society as mentioned in an earlier post. I won't be cold calling in this job. Rather, business development means a few things that it might not in a different industry and is very closely tied to CPD.

We prefer to work on projects that enable us to develop our industry experience, to stay current and continue moving forward. For example, much of the software we currently document is based on a traditional keyboard and mouse operated computer. I’d love to start working with anything that uses the new touch and motion sensing technology that’s out there, as within software documentation, this will involve a volte-face in the way the actions of the user are described. Instead of left and right click, we’re getting “tap”, “drag”, “draw” (and possibly “flick”, “glide” and “massage” depending on future developments in the technology) and a whole wealth of other language that will gradually become standardised to explain how highly tactile, multi-contact point touch screen devices are used. I have some experience in this as I trained colleagues in a college environment on the uses of interactive whiteboards, but if anyone out there is writing an app, or porting their existing system towards the newer interface systems, I’d love to come and compose your documentation for you (which may or may not be “writing”, there are all manner of equally cool options available through Robohelp, Captivate and a wealth of other packages).

The second part of the business development game is the education of the individual communicator, and that doesn’t mean just learning software packages (although that’s essential) or taking an MA (although that starts in the new year). It means reading widely and well so that we are able to parse the world into chunks we can communicate about. Later on I’ll be including a whole range of book reviews in the blog, partly out of interest, and partly to showcase some of the things we’re encountering and learning here at Clearly Stated.


20 August 2012

Version control

One of my favourite cinematographic scenes is in Men in Black, in the room with all the impressive outer-space technology when K turns to J and says “This is gonna replace CDs soon; guess I’ll have to buy the White Album again...” I love this scene because it points to some forms of expression and art being timeless. I guess I am the kind of person who enjoys certain films, songs, games and books in a way that will stand up to time, I actively enjoy watching Zulu, whether it’s on the TV, VHS or DVD, and will probably enjoy watching it in 30 years time on whatever format we use then. The issue then is, with the exception of the transition from DVD to Blu-Ray (as a Blu-Ray player plays DVDs as well), titles are continually re-purchased. Looking at my dad’s music collection, I can see the same tracks on vinyl, CD, MP3, and I know there was a tape in the late ’80s that perished after far too many summer days in the car.

I accept that progress happens, I also accept that an iPod stores far more music by volume than a tape, and that it’s unlikely to melt in the car. I also get that any machine that accepted all possible media formats is more likely to resemble a creation of Dr. Emmett Brown than something you'd like to install in your living room. However, when I look at my professional life, I find this need for multiple versions incredibly frustrating.

On my desktop right now 3 separate versions of Adobe FrameMaker are installed (7.2 running on a virtual XP machine, 9 and 11). I have access to every version of MS Word (and Office) since 1997; I still have the discs and licence for all of these “just in case” a client has a specific requirement. There are serious issues with this need to keep slightly different software iterations around “just in case”. The small box of discs that I started out with in the ’90s is now a “software cupboard” where licensed software is stored just in case it could one day save the world (almost like a software “man drawer” ). This need for a cupboard, and the virtual machine, is partly generated by software companies not building in true backward compatibility – yes, I can open an old file in a new version of the software, but once I save it, it can never be opened again by a client who’s not invested in the same version of the software. The current solution is the cupboard, but I am becoming increasingly enthralled by the various “cloud” approaches out there (Adobe and Microsoft both have offerings in this category).

The theory with the cloud is that I get access to whatever the latest version is (including patches/service/support) for a monthly fee rather than a single, and sometimes intimidating, one off cost. I feel that there are many advantages in this approach, and the version number could almost be set aside to instead be replaced with the knowledge that for a a monthly cost, I am always up to date. I feel that subscribing to a rolling “cloud” based programme would do away with the software cupboard in the long term, although I am deeply concerned that the companies putting these offerings together should be aware that occasionally professional technical communicators may need the ability to roll back their installations to handle “legacy clients”.

I’d quite like comments on this post, especially from anyone involved in or experienced with the type of cloud based systems we’re considering subscribing to.


14 August 2012

Walking the line

Today has been a strange work day. This is in part because I’ve not had a full night’s sleep in nearly a week on account of becoming a dad. I’ve come to realise that meeting your children either early or late can lead to sleepless nights; whilst waiting till destiny forced me into a deadly light-sabre battle might have been waiting too long, being there at the time of delivery is also quite “epic” in the demands that are placed on a father. In a more ideal world, I think I’d like to meet the child over a cup of something warm (tea, or in his case milk) at a time when no-one is screaming or thinking about using anything sharp on anyone else. That’s not the whole story though, in between the frantic mad dashes to hospital, the sleepless nights, the assembly of nursery furniture – on the subject of technical authoring, the instructions for assembly were very good... and they’ve finally fired the guy at the furniture factory who used to put one extra bolt in the packet just to trigger any latent OCD – not to mention deadlines for various clients there’s been today, which is best described as a “lull”.

This doesn’t mean I’m doing nothing. I’ve got Clearly Stated set up with a Facebook presence, and have started teaching myself XML. This means that I’m working on marketing and capacity building. It somehow doesn’t feel enough; maybe that’s because I like measuring my output and it’s far easier to point at a document I’ve written and say, “See, I’ve been working, I wrote that” than it is to say “I learnt stuff” and expect it to be counted. This is a fairly recent development: I’m not sure whether it’s because I’m working in the family business and don’t want to let people down, or because I’m about to be paying a mortgage, but a few years ago the idea of spending an employer’s time reading a book (fiction) and on Facebook (commenting sarcastically on assorted photographs from around the world) seemed like the perfect way to spend my time. Now, even when stuff is most definitely “vocational” and “relevant”, I feel some measure of guilty angst that maybe I’m not getting quite enough done. Hopefully, I don’t become complacent. I feel that part of being professional, and responsible, is having the ability to self-monitor and make sure that the activities we are involved in are in some way relevant to our profession and the job we are asked to do as authors. After all, it is far easier to quickly minimise an inappropriate browser window or leisure-app than it ever was to palm a Steven King novel under a textbook and remain undetected. I think the man in black (the one with the guitar not the light-sabre) would describe this behaviour as “Walking the line”.


05 August 2012

The education of readers and writers

I remember clearly many of my secondary school English lessons. Perhaps one of the most interesting lessons was on the subject of how stories begin. Several options were presented ranging from the somewhat clich├ęd “It was a dark and stormy night” through to the more nuanced but equally as suggestive “to Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman”. The central thrust of the lesson, after going through various successful opening lines – or at least the opening lines to successful works of fiction – seemed to be that there wasn’t really a right or a wrong way to begin a story, so long as the author managed to in some way reach into the mind of the audience and plant a question or two or three that would make them want to read more. This reader would continue turning the pages like some literate, speed reading dervish until such a time as those questions were answered, the book was complete and the reader left shocked, amused and fulfilled. Being older and cynical, I also imagine that these answers would need to be rooted far enough into the book that they couldn’t be quickly answered by someone having a surreptitious shufty in a book shop, thereby forcing a sale and the generation of royalties.

In school, and maybe this was just the 1990s, there was always this sense that people wrote either stories or essays, with the occasional recourse to poetry (particularly the intricacies of iambic pentameter) and plays (presumably for either those who could only write dialogue, or for those who found quotation marks offensive). This probably explains the conversations I’ve had recently where I’m initially asked what kind of story I’m writing. I tried getting ahead of the curve with one old friend by starting out with “technical author” rather than “writer”, and received the reply “well, you were always interested in science fiction; does it happen in space?”

My inner cynic tells me not to complain too much, as this lack of understanding reflects a fairly broad niche that technical authors are required to fill. When looking at the bigger picture I feel that, just as there has been a recent push to replace the older IT syllabi with something that will better gear the UK for a technological future, there could be a matching push to move the art and craft of understanding, manipulating and using words to better reflect the way modern professional writers often write.