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I’m a writer. So, explain to me why I should know HTML?

It’s been a while since I’ve written here. It’s been a very busy year! I’ve started articles for the blog, but then forget or don’t finish them. I’ll catch up eventually.

In the meantime, this topic has been really relevant to me lately, and I figured that I’d share my thoughts on it.

My first disclaimer is that I am not a developer in any shape or form. I leave that to my husband who’s been doing it professionally for about 30 years now. However, as I’m often known to say, I know enough to be dangerous. And that amount I know has actually helped me immensely in my career.

I originally started learning HTML about 22-23 years ago. Yes, HTML hasn’t changed that drastically since the 1990s. I was working for one of the early e-learning dot-com companies. It was the position that in my mind truly started to launch me into a tech comm career, although I didn’t know what tech comm was or know this would be the launching point at the time. We were building a continuing education portal for various financial companies, and in order to make customizations of the splash pages, I needed to learn a little bit of code. As I started helping out with some of the customizations more and more, I asked my manager if the company would be willing to pay for me to take a course at the local community college so I had a better understanding of what I was looking at, and could do a better job with these customizations that were being used in both the splash pages and building the content for the learning sites. They agreed, and off I went. I still have the textbook because the basics were so easy, and if I forget something, then I can still look it up. But taking that course and applying it to that e-learning platform for our clients was just the start of something that helped to propel me in my career.

Years later, I started a content management job using SharePoint. Now, this was long enough ago where the content author/managers could still go into the backend of editing fields into the HTML. People were always being told that they could copy and paste directly from Word, and the formatting would stay the same, but the reality was (and still is) that Word adds all sorts of extraneous code that’s not needed, and when that combines with the CSS (Cascading Style Sheets for those who don’t know–the code that set the general formatting for the page(s)), it wouldn’t always look all that good, especially when it came to tables. This job was at a financial company, and boy, did they like their tables, and they would always look horrible. I would grab the HTML code for the pasted tables, put it into Dreamweaver where I could look at both the code and the front view at the same time, and I would either rebuild the tables or work on taking out that extraneous code that Word would leave in. Once I’d get it to where it needed to be, I’d copy the code back into SharePoint and…voila! A perfect table! I got a reputation for being the “Table Queen”, always fixing everyone’s tables on their pages and fixing the formatting.

Fast forward to now. I’m liking my job, and I’m part of a team that’s worked in SharePoint (no access to the HTML, though) and a new knowledge management system (KMS–similar to a CMS), and sure enough, the CSS that’s been provided by the outsourced developers to customize the system they are using is, well, terrible. We figured out some tricks to work around it, but it’s not unusual for me to get a request from someone on my team asking me to–again–fix a table, fix the bullet points, or the section alignment, or something along those lines. Just today, my manager couldn’t figure out why the bullet points she wanted to make in a text field weren’t working. And so I went into the HTML code on the backend, went through the section line by line (fortunately, it wasn’t a big section), and had to tweak the code and manually fix it so that it aligned properly again and the bullets were done correctly. I’ve turned into the go-to person to fix these things in the system.

Am I a developer? Oh, heck no. Not by a long stretch. There are times even the HTML baffles me, and I’ll ask my husband to look at something and see if he sees something I can’t. He’ll be able to show me where there’s an issue (it’s usually something small in JavaScript, which I can kind of read, but couldn’t write), or determine that it’s not on my side with the HTML, but must be part of the CSS that I don’t have access to. But having a basic understanding of HTML has also helped me understand what I’m looking at in PHP, JavaScript, and definitely understand how XML and Markdown work. In fact, when I taught Technical Editing a few years ago at NJIT, I included several weeks of a crash course in HTML, XML, and Markdown, because so much editing these days–if not done through comments and “track changes” in Word, is done fixing code–not always with an text editor.

HTML, XML, and Markdown are pretty easy to learn once you get the hang of it. Does it help you as a technical writer or technical communicator? Yes, absolutely. You don’t have to be a writing software documentation or writing API documentation to know that having these basic coding languages under your belt can be helpful. Just using standard CMSs and KMSs often will use these. Knowing how to go into the code to add that Oxford comma in the sentence, or to realign the row of a table–it makes a big difference. It also opens up opportunities to learn more and take on more important and interesting projects down the road. It’s a game changer for technical writers because this allows them to be more than just writers–it allows them to be more multi-functional in a technological world. (And again, to put this in perspective, the KMS that I’m helping to build is about Human Resources stuff, and I still help to write the knowledge articles, too!) So I’ve found learning these basic web languages to be instrumental to my growth and my career as a technical communicator. I’m needed not only because of my regular technical writing skills, but I have that extra “something” to contribute as well.

What do you think? What are your experiences? Include your comments below.

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Keep your (digital) motor running…

Wow, it’s 2021 already? Geez, I know I haven’t written here in a while, but it was longer than I thought. I did start a post at the beginning of the year, but then decided not to publish it because it’s an idea that I can use for a presentation instead, so I’m going to hold off on that one. 

But it’s been a crazy year or so, hasn’t it? I realized that I really need to get back to posting on here when I can (which is rarely, but still…). So much has changed in the last year or so both personally and professionally, and I really should jot down my thoughts now and then. 

So, in looking at some drafts I started but didn’t complete, the words below were from almost exactly a year ago to the day that I started it, and yet it seems more timely now.

It has occurred to me that with many people working from home–sometimes on their own laptop instead of one received at their employer’s, that ensuring that everything is running well starts to become a priority.

I’ve discovered in my years of working from home that keeping my laptop in tip-top shape is as important as ensuring you do your oil changes and tune-ups on your car on a regular basis. When I got my first car, I didn’t know about regular oil changes. It was so long ago, that my car was the kind that didn’t have a reminder light that went on when it was getting close to the time to have it changed that I messed up the car pretty badly and killed my first car. My current car has that reminder light for me now, and it’s still in very good condition with almost 154,000 miles on it.

I found that with my laptop, I could get the same “gunking up of the system” from cluttered data files, internet file junk, old registry files messing things up, and a slew of other issues.

Based on that, I have a few suggestions to keep your laptop or desktop humming along for better efficiency. I am not sponsored or paid by any of these tools–I wish I was! I’d be a rich woman! But these are the ones that I found to be the best that I run regularly to help keep my laptop humming along:

Windows Update (free): If you have a Windows machine, it really is worth keeping up with all the updates for Office, Windows, and the security updates that Windows provides. I don’t have a Mac, but if they have something like that for your Mac, you should it too, since it’s free. If you also use Office or Adobe Creative Cloud, make sure you do your regular updates on those as well. 

MalwareBytes: This is the best product for ensuring that nasty malware isn’t creeping in. You can get it for free, but it won’t check your machine unless you run the program. It’s worth getting the paid version as it will automatically check for you at least once a day.

DriverEasy: Again, worth getting the paid version. This one doesn’t automatically check for you, but if you run it at least once a week on your own, you are guaranteed to have the latest drivers for your machine, and that can help immensely as well.

System Mechanic : Another one that is worth every last penny that you pay for it. It checks your registries and cleans them up, optimizes your memory, cleans out internet and other browser junk, has anti-virus measures…it does so much!

Another periodic thing to do–it’s tedious, but worth it if you have a Windows machine (can’t speak to Macs) is to open your Device Manager, and go through every single driver to update. While Driver Easy usually catches about 90+% of them, sometimes it misses a few, and the only way to know is if you go through each one, right-click to get a menu, and update driver, using the web to find any updates. It’s caught a couple that were missed. Also don’t forget to check and make sure your BIOS is up to date–you can check with your manufacturer support site for that driver. 

Keeping your laptop in good condition will help its longevity and keep it running smoothly and quickly. If you use tools like these to keep your laptop running, then when there is a problem, you can usually know that it’s a fluke rather than something that could’ve been avoided. I still get those flukes now and then, but first thing I do is make sure everything is up to date and all drivers are up to date. That’s usually the main culprit. 

What kind of tricks or tools do you find helpful in keeping your laptop running well? Share in the comments below. 

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So, how was your 2020? Good for you, too?

Let’s face it–2020 was a horrible year for everyone for a variety of reasons. And it was no different for me. One of the things I’m trying to do as I reflect back is understand how lucky I was in so many respects. No one in my immediate family has gotten COVID at this point. No one in my immediate family had died from COVID. My husband didn’t lose his job (since he’s the main breadwinner of the family), we didn’t lose our house, no one got horribly sick with anything that couldn’t easily be treated, no one went hungry–nothing like that. In that respect, I count my blessings.

Things that weren’t so good were included that we lost my father-in-law during this pandemic. He was located in another country, and my husband couldn’t even travel to say goodbye or pay his respects. He had to be on a video call with his half-brother to watch his father be buried. I lost two friends this fall from STC, which made me sad, and one of my best friends lost her mother a few weeks ago. A year ago exactly, I was let go from a job I wasn’t happy with, but the release from my contract was sudden and without much warning and was not handled well. I thought I had something lined up…a friend from graduate school had given me the lead, and I got the job. It would’ve been the most lucrative thing I’d done, and I was up to the challenge, but that fell apart before the pandemic hit. Having missed the new year window of job opportunities (most job listings are around the new year and the fiscal new year in July), I struggled to find opportunities and get interviews. And then…the pandemic hit, and hiring freezes were abound. While I had unemployment insurance funds to get me through for a while, it was a good thing that I am always saving money and conservative with my money, because I had to go into my nest egg for most of the year. I did pick up a few small side gigs–and that helped to not only buoy my finances, but also my confidence when it was at an all-time low.

You see, for most of this year, I was in a deep funk of depression. People would call me “inspirational” for constantly trying to pursue work and keep things going. I can assure you now, there’s nothing inspirational about it. It’s called survival and doing what you have to do, even if you aren’t up to doing it. 

Job hunting constantly is exhausting in and of itself, but constantly getting “ghosted” and rejected takes a toll on you after a while, or getting some big rejections when you thought you were getting close to securing that job that you wanted…it can be a big blow to your ego. Now, imagine doing that for almost a year. I even had one job offer that I was looking forward to, only to have an opportunity–for the second time in the same year–retracted due to no fault of my own. I mentioned the first one at the beginning of this year. It was a situation where I was the sub-contractor, and the client decided that they were not ready to go through the project after all, so they dumped the project, so I had to be dumped in the process as well. No fault of mine.  The second one was the fault of the recruiter. Because of some sort of legal mumbo-jumbo going on with drawing up the contracts for my consulting employment with the client, the deal didn’t go down–after I had already faced some daunting and difficult interviews to secure the job in the first place. I was really starting to lose hope, and I spent a good part of my year trying to figure out the answer to the question, “What’s my next move?” Frankly, I had no idea. Part of that involved reminding myself that I probably wasn’t doing anything wrong at all–it’s just the circumstances of what’s been going on with a pandemic. 

Add to that other stresses going on. My son started college at the local community college at the beginning of the year. He’d had problems with the program he was in during the last quarter of 2019, and he’d been asked to leave–essentially because the educational facility where he was didn’t have any clue how to support his special needs appropriately. It was a blessing in disguise, because now he’s in a good program at this local community college. However, he still has to get general education requirements out of the way, and those have been a challenge. Between his dad and I (mostly me), he’s halfway through the general education classes, and passing with what’s probably a mid-to-low B average.  He was just starting to gain some independence when that was taken away because he couldn’t go into classes on campus. That was a big step for him. and the pandemic set him back quite a bit.

The last stressor was my chapter–STC-Philadelphia. For whatever reason, pulling in new volunteers has been difficult for the last few years, and I knew that if we continued in the same way we have been, the chapter wouldn’t be sustainable for much longer, and it would fold. We lost some money due to the CONDUIT conference we had to eventually cancel due to the pandemic. So, a big part of my year was trying to reorganize and try to keep the chapter afloat, bring in new people, and set new expectations to stay afloat. I couldn’t bear the weight of it all on my shoulders anymore.

Things didn’t finally start to turn around until the end of October, which was good because I thought I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown by that point. But they started to improve, just in time.

First, I was grateful that I had those smaller gigs, because when I needed a little boost that validated that yes, I do have the skills and experience needed to do something, I had it. Thanks to Kevin Siegel for being one of those people who gave me a chance, even though it was short term. I enjoyed the work very much. But I was also happy for finally finding work that I’m enjoying now and getting compensated appropriately for. I like working for a manager speaks the same content design and UX design language as I do. One of her requirements was that she wanted someone who’s active in STC, and I’ve got that in spades! My suggestions and recommendations are not nixed, and I actually feel valued again. That’s all anyone really wants with their job, if you think about it. They want to feel productive in what they do, valued for what they do and think, and compensated fairly for being productive and valuable. I’m getting that now, so just for that, much of my depression has been lifted.

Next, my chapter is still afloat. We have a new team that’s starting to come together now, and the new chapter president is doing fine. I still advise, but the weight is off my shoulders. In fact, I was able to move into new volunteer opportunities. I was invited to be on the STC Education Committee and the STC Community Affairs Committee (CAC), both of which are high profile groups at the Society level. I’ve been working hard in those groups, and finding my value there, and getting great support from the chairs of those committees.

And…while the deaths of friends and family weren’t due to COVID, COVID did have an impact. I’m hoping that now that the US has a new president and vice-president elected, things will get better. Like many in the US, I was on pins and needles until that final count came in. I cried for joy for hours–something I’ve never done in a situation like that before. Why? Because of the relief that some semblance of “normalcy” and decency is going to be brought back to our government. The US is not out of the woods yet–it’s still going to be ugly for a while, but decency and morality and ethics prevailed in the end. That anxiety was alleviated a bit, too.

So, as 2021 begins, we still have a pandemic. We still won’t be able to do what we want to be doing. Not having a vacation or leaving the state is taking a toll. I need to break away, but being slightly immunocompromised, I really don’t want to take my chances outside my immediate area where most people are generally good about wearing masks and all the other stuff. (Yes, even in hard hit New Jersey.) I was looking forward to going back to conferences and seeing my friends. I’ve seen them online and in video chats, but it’s not the same. I haven’t seen any friends for ages except one and that’s only because she’s my dermatologist, too.

I think when all this pandemic stuff started, it hit me very hard and pulled me down hard because there seemed to be no end in sight. As a person with high-functioning autism, and just as a human being–I needed something that gave me some structure and something to look forward to. I couldn’t look forward to a vacation or anything like that all year. Now that a vaccine is out (even if I am not probably able to get it for another year), that means there’s some hope again–that there is an end in sight. In my eyes, it’s about a year from now. I’m thinking that things will be different this time next year. I will have probably finished up my current contract, and will be sad to go but on the hunt again. My son will have started the classes in his major and gained his newfound independence again. And “normalcy” will start to bloom again, albeit slowly, but surely.

One of my tech comm friends recently was down on herself because she didn’t hit any of her goals this year. Frankly, neither did I, except for one that I made later–stay alive! This is my goal for this year as well. We shouldn’t be hard on ourselves for not always attaining what we want to do. First, we’ve been in a pandemic, so we need to adjust. Secondly, this year, as horrible as it has been, has helped many people–including myself–realize what’s really most important to us. Survival and supportive personal relationships are key. You do what you have to do–physically, mentally, and emotionally to stay alive. Most of us have been on “Red Alert” all year, and haven’t had a chance to back down to “Yellow Alert” (sorry, I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek this past year), but I’m hoping that 2021 is that “Yellow Alert” year–where we still have to be cautious and use our heads, but pure survivalist instincts will take over. 

I’ve often reminded people of two things– humans are adaptable creatures, so anything thrown our way, we can learn to adapt. This was definitely a year of learning how to adapt! The other part of it is that life is not a race. Only matters of life and death should be rushed–all the rest is nice to have sooner than later. Even earlier today, I was talking to my husband (who is an IDL developer/programmer) about this, especially in relation to IT or tech comm work. Forcing patterns and speed help nothing. Agile is good in theory, but I’m seeing more and more often that good content and UX is sacrificed for the sake of speed getting it up. The “bling” of UX layout and visual design is still overridden over content. We talked about SCRUM and DITA, and where is works and other instances that it wouldn’t work. All of these things are worthy discussions and have valid guidelines for practice. Perhaps in light of what’s going on, it’s time to take a few steps back, take out time, and rethink things. What’s REALLY important? What’s more important to you and your users–that they get the info they want and need, or that your site looks “sexy”? 

My goals for 2021 are simple:

  1. Stay alive
    1. Get the vaccine when eligible
  2. Eat more veggies this year
  3. Move a little more (not exercise or exercise more regularly, just move)
  4. Stay in touch and support the people who I care about and support me in return
  5. Stay flexible and learn what I can in my current position. 

We never know what’s going to happen from year to year–despite the best laid plans. Keeping your plans simple will help you achieve them, and also help keep you feeling sane. Self-care and self-love can go a long way, so do it when you can. 

Here’s hoping for a better year ahead in 2021. Let’s be stealth and jump to Black Alert. (Really–it’s worth it if you watch a lot of the current Star Trek series. Great entertainment as well as mental motivators.) 

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The Nine Principles of UX Design Psychology: Can You Predict the Behavior of Your Users?

You design not a product, you design interaction with the user — the psychology for UX design

Source: The Nine Principles of UX Design Psychology: Can You Predict the Behavior of Your Users?

Thanks to CJ Walker for originally posting this article on Twitter. In this day and age, UX writing and design is becoming more and more important in how we interact with content. Just yesterday, I was working on content that from a UX standpoint didn’t work from a mobile context–it was set up to scroll horizontally for choice in one section, and vertically in another section. It made no sense knowing how people typically use their phones, and in the context of the content that I needed to post. I fixed it to be a better user experience, converting it to all vertical scrolling in this instance.

We can’t always fix these things so easily, but we do need to be vigilant. Users come in for content, but as any good technical communicator knows, if it’s not where they can find it easily, and it’s not displayed in a digestible way, the content is worthless. This is where content strategy/design, UX writing and design, and technical writing all come into play.

This is a really good read–the image in this article lists those rules, but it’s worth reading the details of what each involves.

What do you think? Include your comments below.

–TechCommGeekMom

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LavaCon 2020 is coming up! Get my special discount!

LavaCon 2020 banner

As 2020 winds down, there are still a few more virtual conferences that are scheduled, and among them is the very popular LavaCon.  I have attended them in Portland, and it was my introduction to the tech comm conference scene, and I haven’t looked back!

I’m not able to attend this year, but you can get register $100 off conference tuition if you use my referral code #DanielleM.Villegas.  Select the LavaCon banner above to register and again–use that discount!

I know Jack has some fun things planned–even virtually–so if you can go, do so! And don’t forget to stop by the virtual hall during the conference and say hello to any vendor who you’d might like to meet.