14 December 2015

Technical Communication UK 2015

As usual, I attended the Technical Communication UK conference (TCUK 2015), which was held in Glasgow this year. As my father came from Coatbridge (a few miles east of Glasgow), the accent and the general location felt very familiar to me, and after several years of attending TCUK, so did many of my fellow delegates! It’s one of the things I really like about TCUK – the change to catch up with people I don’t see very often and find out what they’ve been doing lately.

I didn’t attend as many sessions as I normally do – but that wasn’t the fault of the organisers. I’d seen some of the presentations before (I attended UA Europe in the summer) and I needed to have a few conversations with people while wearing my president hat. Overall, though, another excellent conference. Some of the take-aways:

  • Diversify – if you can do something your competitors can’t (competitors either in the job market or amongst your colleagues), you have an advantage.
  • Keep up to date – you may have years of experience, but being a wizard in Word Perfect and in working practices of the 80s isn’t going to get you far.
  • Embrace your inner nerd – if you’re fortunate enough to have one. We are often told (or at least, I have been) that we shouldn’t be too technical. We write better user documentation if we are closer to them than to the developers. But there’s nothing wrong in being technical if your audience is technical, and in any case, being technical in your own niche (for example, XML, CSS, DITA, HTML...) can be a definite advantage.
  • Things are changing quickly – but there are always some who for various reasons choose to (or have to) keep doing things in a more traditional way. If there are sound reasons, that’s fine - but don’t just keep doing it the way you’ve always done it just because that’s the way you’ve always done it! Some of the things that are now being done in production environments (virtual reality and so on) are amazing.
As president, I also had the privilege this year of presenting the Technical Communication UK Awards to some very deserving winners. The challenges overcome to produce some of the winning entries were inspiring.

08 September 2015

Terrorist Tech-Comms

*This article was written for my regular slot in Communicator but didn’t make it to print as it made a copy-editor “uncomfortable” (you have been warned!)

Do you remember Guerrilla Gardening? The alliterative environmental resistance movement that swept some of our inner cities a few years ago and saw people improving our urban spaces using tactics that would have been quite de rigueur for the French resistance? Well, maybe the same thing would be possible for the world of technical communication? Of course, if we’re going to borrow combative methods and retain the alliteration, terrorism becomes our playbook of choice.

Modern global terrorism (as opposed to the localised forms experienced on and off since the word was coined in the 17th century) offers nearly as many lessons as The Art of War, with the added advantage that we don’t need to read between the lines to work out how we’re expected to add in modern technology… our source materials are bang up to date (pardon the pun).

So what makes an effective terrorist? I suppose there are four factors that can be readily related to the world of technical communication.

Ideology and identity
Belief in an ideology is critical to the terrorist, and the ability to identify with others who espouse the same beliefs (although group membership is less important, some operate alone despite identifying with a particular group). Most technical communicators already fit this box (especially those who’ve joined something like the ISTC). We think of ourselves as technical communicators rather than just ‘people who write technical documents for money’. I’d pay attention to how someone describes themselves if recruiting for a mid-senior level position as they will be the source of indoctrination for others.
Part of the civilian population
Unless they’re posing for promotional photography, terrorists don’t wear a uniform. This cowardly unwillingness to paint targets on themselves is actually very useful when it comes to doing their job. Is that bloke digging next to the road to fix a broken sewage pipe, or plant a bomb? Who knows? But before it goes bang, he’ll have stopped for a coffee, changed his hat and be just another rushed commuter making a quick call to check his voicemail.
Similarly, a good technical communicator should blend into the team they’re supporting so that they’re in on all the conversations and able to gather the information they need to produce their content without wearing a target and getting in peoples’ faces. There should be trust involved in establishing the symbiotic relationship that technical communicators need with SMEs (subject matter experts) in order to get the job done.
Statement pieces
I’m not suggesting any of you blow up a building, kidnap an SME or imprison someone from a rival firm in a cage. However, I am suggesting that your products need to have a bit of something that makes them stand out whilst being identifiable to both you and your organisation. This can be done with logos and graphic design (see the black flag of ISIS), a style guide that’s both comprehensive and adventurous, and by getting the message out there through as many mediums as possible (there are many books still to be written on the ground-breaking ways modern criminal and terrorist organisations use social media and multi-platform multi-media messaging). It’s not always easy when you’ve been commissioned to write ‘a manual’, but clients and firms are usually comfortable with the idea of training materials running parallel to bundled documentation, and I’ve a couple at the moment who are really keen to use screen capture video as a way to reach an English-as-a-Second-Language client base.
Easily replaceable
In any organisation, aside from a few innovators and intellectual property holders, most people are replaceable. In a terrorist organisation, where a fair percentage at all levels of the organisation are being blown up on a regular basis (by themselves or their competition) this is doubly true.
I’ve worked with prescient clients who’ve brought me in because a (or the) SME is retiring and they need to capture and distil that person’s experience into a manual for the team he’s leaving behind. But I’ve also found myself in a firm when ‘the knowledge’ has already left and an expensive and time consuming reorganisation has become necessary. In both of these situations, I’m the agent of continuity.
If I have a pet hate, it’s being faced with a set of documentation and products where everyone, including the technical author, has been doing their own thing. It’s not a good way to work. I’d like to think that an equivalently qualified and skilled person could pick up where I’d left off should something untoward happen. Being consistent shouldn’t be that hard as modern technical communications software uses styles to control appearance and tags to indicate purpose, and our profession is filled with reasonably standard ways of working. Be mindful that if we’re responsible for continuity, accidents befalling us shouldn’t affect our replacement.

I suppose this goes to show that for the true professional, who’s always willing to learn, there are lessons tucked away in even the darkest corners of humanity.