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Confessions of a Failed Technical Communicator

Really, Father, my only sins are beer, donuts, beer, donuts, not knowing DITA, beer, donuts…

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned! I am a failure in technical communications.”

OK, perhaps in many eyes, I haven’t been a failure in technical communications. It will be five years this spring since I graduated with my Masters degree in Professional and Technical Communication from NJIT. In many ways, that feels like it was just yesterday, and I’m still a “new graduate”. But with the change this year in my STC Membership that’s moved from “Student” to “New Professional” to “Classic”, I supposed I’m not anymore.

While graduate school gave me a good foundation to move forward, I learned very quickly that I needed to continue to educate myself. As I attended conferences and presentations, and paid attention to discussions in social media, I found out that graduate school lessons barely cut the surface. I’ve tried my best to continue my studies by attending as many webinars, conferences, and presentations that I can. I even took another university graduate certificate course on digital marketing, hoping to get some insight that might help me going forward.

However, in the end, I failed to do one thing that might actually boost what I’m doing as a fledgling content strategist, and thus, my confession: I needed to learn DITA.

For those of you who don’t know what DITA is, it’s the acronym for Darwin Information Typing Architecture, and it’s a commonly used method for creating structured authoring using XML coding. The idea is that documentation done using DITA methods will allow for single-sourcing for content elements, and equally make it easier to integrate that content into print or digital outputs in a super-organized, modular way. It’s a standard that helps because it’s generic to almost any system out there. Any system that can read XML can read a DITA document, for the most part. When moving from one system to another, the content can stay intact if done using DITA/XML methods.

I don’t remember learning much about DITA in grad school, other than understanding what it was in general as I explained it above. I never learned the details. In my work life so far, I haven’t needed it.  It’s always been unstructured authoring. I try to take some small steps to create some single-sourcing content when possible in content management systems, but that was hard to do sometimes. One of my recent jobs made me realize that we needed some sort of structured authoring done, but I didn’t know how to go about it. We created our own coding tags to describe things going on in copy decks. It wasn’t the best, but it was better than nothing.

In the past year, I’ve tried to figure out ways to continue to improve my skills, and make myself more marketable as a content strategist/content manager. I talked to the leading experts in the field. (It’s one of the benefits of getting involved with the STC and attending STC events–you get to know these people personally.) And the one thing that seemed to come back to me again and again was that I had a good resume, and I have some great skills under my belt, and they knew that I was a good writer from this blog. The biggest sore spot in my skill set was that I lacked an important skill–knowing DITA and using it.  And while I looked for jobs in my area that included DITA practices (I think I’ve only seen one listing in three years), I’ve been assured that if I could learn DITA, the remote/telecommuting possibilities could be much better for me. And since remote opportunities are my best bet right now, I have to do what I need to do to make that happen.

So, as the saying goes, I bit the bullet. Fortunately, the STC was promoting a course about DITA Essentials taught by Bernard Aschwanden, the Immediate Past-President of the STC, and the proprietor of Publishing Smarter. Bernard’s a great instructor, and he’s taking it nice and slow. One of the best parts of the course is hands-on experience, even if it’s in the simplest ways. That’s the way I tend to learn best–learn the logistics of how something is done, then I need to learn to do the work through trial and error.  Last week’s assignment was particularly challenging for me. While I understood what I had to do conceptually, since I was also trying to familiarize myself with a few XML editors at the same time while applying what I wanted to do with my assignment, I got very frustrated. I sent in my assignment, along with notes about where I was getting frustrated and needing some guidance. Bernard assured me that all would be well, and asked me if he could use what I had turned in for my assignment for the most recent class. He also warned me to have a glass of wine ready while taking class, because I’d be needing it. Yikes!

I was told to prepare for the onslaught of big corrections to my DITA homework with a glass of wine. I took the suggestion seriously, thankfully.
I was told to prepare for the onslaught of big corrections to my DITA homework with a glass of wine. I took the suggestion seriously, thankfully.

The glass of wine was done by the end of the class, and yes, he ripped my assignment apart, but it was okay in the end. I knew there were problems with it, and he showed me where my original thought process was correct, but I didn’t know how to execute it properly. One of the mistakes I was making was my use of XML tags, particularly using the correct ones. While the XML editing apps all have guidance features to help you with using correct tags in certain situations, I still wasn’t using the best choices. Most of that was because I’m not familiar with what these XML tags mean, so I was using them at face value. For example, I was using a step example tag in part of my content, and Bernard understood why I used it, but felt that the way I used it was incorrect, and didn’t allow for cleaner coding. Okay, I can deal with that, especially when he demonstrated the correction.

So, as much as I’m struggling with DITA, I do understand the essential concepts behind it now. My biggest problem is learning how to use it beyond the most elementary tasks. I haven’t had any “real world” scenarios to date when I could implement and learn how to use the XML editors and use DITA practices in writing or rewriting content.  I need to figure out how to find content and start having a way to truly play with something so that I can get the full experience of that trial and error to master DITA.

After the STC course that Bernard is teaching, I plan to follow-up with Scriptorium’s DITA tutorials as well, and see if I can learn some more about XML coding. I have a lot to do to figure this out, but I know that in the end, this will be a big skill that will make a lot of difference in how I approach content. The content strategist skills I already have acquired have helped me frame DITA much more easily than if I learned this with no prior knowledge. But, I can tell that I still have a long way to go before I feel that I’ve mastered this.

So, this ends my confession. I have needed to learn DITA.  If it’s not taught in university classes in technical writing, it should be. I think it would have saved me a lot of frustration, and provided more opportunities for me sooner. If I can get a better handle on this, I’m hoping that I can start exploring how XML Editors can integrate with CMSs, like Adobe CQ. I’m not an Adobe AEM developer (I’m not a developer at all!), but I know how to create websites and pages with AEM, and hopefully I can start figuring out how to integrate those skills with DITA skills. I was told by one mentor, that would make me a very desirable job candidate, and I think she’s onto something. Of course, I need to brush up on my AEM skills, since it’s been a couple of years since I’ve used them regularly, but with all things, once you master them, it’s like riding a bicycle. You might be a little unstable at first, but you never quite forget how to do it once you get started back into it again.

Here’s hoping that in 2017, DITA will become a “bicycle” skill for me. I’ll go say a few rounds of the Rosary in the meantime for my penance.

(What do you think? How important is DITA in technical writing? I’ve heard some say it’s a passing trend, and others say that its usage continues to grow. Include your comments below.)

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BBC – Culture – Why is Canadian English unique?

America’s neighbour resisted annexation by the US and its people remained subjects of the British monarch. But Canada’s English isn’t British or American, writes James Harbeck.

Source: BBC – Culture – Why is Canadian English unique?

Happy Canada Day! I was happy to see this article that is appropriate for this day, and see that it’s addressed. Americans often don’t realize how much Canada directly affects much of our culture. Some of our favorite actors, actresses, comedians, and musicians come from Canada. I swear that most of the HGTV channel’s programming comes from Canada! And there are a LOT of Canadian members of the STC, including our immediate past president, Bernard Aschwanden.

Canadian is a unique form of English. As the article says, it’s not quite British or American, yet there are elements of both. Perhaps the North American standard should not be US American, but Canadian as a bow to both of the main two dialects usually taught? Great article.

What do you think of this article? Include your comments below.


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Saddle up for a FREE workshop event from Adobe at #STC2016!

What? You say this Adobe Workshop is free? Then I reckon I oughta sign up now....
What? You say this Adobe Workshop is free? Then I reckon I oughta sign up now….

While I was unable to go to the STC Summit last year, I am looking forward to going to Anaheim this year to not only being a presenter at the STC Summit, but  also to learn and connect with other technical communicators again!

I realized that one of the events I’ve always liked attending is the Adobe pre-conference event. They always have great information to share. However–what’s this? No Adobe Day this year? Nope. But wait…there’s something better.

Register for the FREE Adobe Tech Comm Tools Workshop at the 2015 STC Summit!
(Click on the wanted poster for more information)

That’s right! Saddle up, and gain some skills through this FREE Adobe Tech Comm Tools Workshop!  This looks like a great event, cowboys and cowgirls!  There are industry leaders leading the workshop, you earn a certificate for participating (which you can include on your resume, it’s that good), and lunch and snacks are included in the afternoon.  And did I mention it’s free? Who says you can’t get a free lunch AND a free certificate? Evidently not Adobe!

Oh, did I also mention that even if you can’t attend to earn the certificate, you can still follow along on my Twitter feed found at @techcommgeekmom that day, as I’ll be tweeting highlights of the event for all who come to the Twitter corral!

If you don't comply, you can't register. But these are easy terms to deal with, Sheriff.
If you don’t comply, you can’t register. But these are easy terms to deal with, Sheriff.

Now, there are some caveats in registering, namely that you have to bring your laptop, and download the Adobe Tech Comm Suite Release 2015 Trial Version (if you don’t already have the full version). Other than that, it should be like riding into the sunset.

This is a great opportunity for those who would like to either get to know the Tech Comm Suite better, or brush up on some skills.  Space is limited so you should register as soon as possible to get your seat on this great event!

Information and Registration for the Adobe Tech Comm Tools Workshop at the 2015 STC Summit

(My apologies to those who are more sci-fi savvy for mixing my space westerns together. Firefly and Cowboys and Aliens were the first things I thought of!)

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Adobe Day@STC Summit 2014 – We Went Back to The Future

We definitely didn't hear this panel say to any of us, "I'm afraid you're just too darn loud!"
We definitely didn’t hear this panel say to any of us, “I’m afraid you’re just too darn loud!”

I apologize for my blog coverage of the 2014 STC Summit edition of Adobe Day being delayed–it’s been a busy month! But hopefully, you’ll feel it’s been worth the wait, and you had a chance to see my live Twitter feed as it happened.

The STC’14 Adobe Day felt a little bit different this year. One of the things I noticed was that as much as Adobe says that these Adobe Day events are Adobe-product free, lately, they haven’t been. HOWEVER, they are still not one big, in-person infomercial either. Adobe products are not brought up much, but if they are, it’s to show that they can be tools to use to create solutions to common tech comm issues. So, it might be an inadvertant infomercial in that respect, but it’s not done in a blatant way that screams, “YOU NEED TO BUY ME!!!!!! PLEASE BUY OUR PRODUCTS!!!” Adobe continues to do a good job in showing what tech comm issues are out there, and as leaders in the software field, they are tuned into these issues and are creating products that benefit the technical communicator. I think that’s fair enough. The talks, overall, were broader topics that in some instances used Adobe Tech Comm Suite tools to provide solutions. And you have to remember, while these talks are aimed to be product-free for the most part, it’d probably look pretty bad if you had someone declaring all the glories of a competitive product when Adobe is hosting the event. Y’know?

With that out of the way, I observed some other things that made this a little bit different. First, there were fewer speakers this year. I felt that was a good thing, because in the past with more speakers, each speaker would be racing to get his/her presentation completed in a very short amount of time, and there would be little time for questions or discussion. Since there were fewer speakers this year, each one could elaborate more on their topic, which allowed for more time for questions and discussion. More networking time during the breaks was also a benefit from having less speakers.

The other difference I saw dealt with the speakers themselves. While they were all familiar, established voices in the tech comm world, it wasn’t the same crowd that one usually sees at Adobe Day events. All of them have participated in Adobe events or other tech comm events before, but in the past, it usually is most of the same speakers up on the podium. While I like all the “usual suspects” very much, and consider them my mentors and have become friends with several of them, seeing these new “players” was actually refreshing to me. I hope that Adobe continues to change up the speaker lineups with future Adobe Days, as all the speakers I’ve heard have a clear voice that’s worth listening to, and hearing as many of those voices as possible provides both variety and fresh perspectives going forward. As I go through each presentation in forthcoming blog posts, hopefully you’ll see what I mean.

But as tradition in this blog dictates, I always start with the panel that capped off the Adobe Day event. I find that these panel talks bring an umbrella perspective to where we are as a profession through several points of view, and seeing where there are agreements and disagreements in the issues at hand.

This year, the panel was moderated by Matt Sullivan, who has been an Adobe Day speaker in the past. He did a great job, as this was the first time I’d seen him as the moderator of an Adobe Day panel. The panel consisted of Adobe Day speakers Marcia Riefer Johnston, Bernard Aschwanden, Kevin Siegel, and past Adobe Day speaker, Joe Welinske. The theme for the panel was looking ahead to the future of where tech comm seems to be going.

The Adobe Day Panel L to R: Matt Sullivan, Bernard Aschwanden, Joe Welinske, Marcia Riefer Johnston, and Kevin Siegel
The Adobe Day Panel
L to R: Matt Sullivan, Bernard Aschwanden, Joe Welinske, Marcia Riefer Johnston, and Kevin Siegel

Matt started with the point that tech comm is more than tech writing now, so what do we need to improve short-term and long-term? Kevin responded first, saying that we need to do more with less on smaller displays and adapting the content appropriately for mobile. Marcia added to that, saying that using less can mean writing tighter as well. (She has a technique she taught during the STC Summit, in fact!) Joe agreed with Marcia, adding that technical communicators need to put in the time to make concise content meaningful, and to look at simplified English as part of that objective. Bernard felt that attending workshops and demonstrations were important, because technical communicators need to continually learn and adapt in this industry! He added that SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) should contribute to content, but technical communicators should control it. Kevin also agreed with Bernard, saying that SMEs are writing content more often now, so teaching them to write tighter will help. Marcia chimed in that many people are now being required to write, but don’t have the skills. We need to help with that.

Moving onto topics about how technology affects technical communication, Kevin said that new technology, like Google Glass and other wearables, is emerging, and we need to understand how these work. Joe pointed out that the Pebble watch now is starting to have user docs now, and more will be emerging. Bernard added that gesture based technology similar to the Xbox Kinect will need documentation.

Matt then asked, “What should we look forward to in the next five years?” Bernard felt that less specialization will be needed so that the right people write the right content, such as an engineer who can write. Specialized writing will be very important. Joe added that we need to agree on taxonomy and terminology, and use style sheets more often for consistency. Marcia believed that topic-based writing will be emerging more as a growth area. Kevin explained that in e-learning, there is a need to develop learning for new devices that responds to user displays, thus accomodating multiple screens.

The next question asked about how to help educate and help with adapting certain generations adjust between print and digital writing/designing. The consenus was that we just need to adapt. The panel encouraged the audience to get to know your UX/UI people, as they will help you learn to adapt, especially if you aren’t as tech-adaptive.

The last question centered on customers customizing their content–is this a trend? Bernard leapt into a response with, “GOOD! DO IT!” He encouraged us to help customers to start doing personalized help, or personalizing any information, for that matter! Moderator Matt closed by saying that rich media that engages users is going to be about content strategy, but it will also be about content marketing. The group agreed that personalized, concise information going forward will be best!

"I guess you guys aren't ready for that yet--but your kids are going to love it!"
“I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet–but your kids are going to love it!”

And that was it! The session went by quickly, but as you can see, there was a lot of great information that many technical communicators can take and use going forward in their own work.  While it might take some time to adapt, sure enough, it will bring the field forward as technology and the way we access it moves ahead.

Coming soon: The individual presentations at Adobe Day #STC14 Edition!

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Adobe Day at #STC14 Will Be Looking Towards the Future!

Doc and Marty McFly can't believe the fabulous information they are getting at Adobe Day @STC Summit 2014 . (They already went, and said it was fantastic--not to be missed!)
Doc Brown and Marty McFly can’t believe the fabulous information they got at Adobe Day at the STC Summit 2014. (They already went, and said it was fantastic–not to be missed!)

With each big conference that I attend, I always look forward to Adobe Day, and Adobe Day at the 2014 STC Summit is no exception.  You’ve probably read my past posts about Adobe Day from other conferences, so you know how rich in information they are. I’ve learned an enormous amount of information FOR FREE that would otherwise cost thousands of dollars from the leading experts in the field. It’s hard to find that anywhere else.

On Sunday morning, May 18th, 2014, Adobe is once again putting together a stellar group of technical communications luminaries to set our imaginations on fire! This year’s theme appears to be, “Vision 2020: The Demanding Job of a Technical Communicator.”  Based on the descriptions of each speaker’s talk during this morning session, each will be providing advice and tools–free of any product promotion–that can help make our demanding jobs easier and more productive.  I’ve heard all the speakers before in one way or another, and I can tell you that all of them are top rate. Most of them have spoken at previous Adobe Day events, and they are invited back time and time again because they have valuable information to share.

Kapil Verma of Adobe will be speaking about who he thinks are today’s technical communicators (hint: there’s more than one type!). Marcia Riefer Johnston will be talking about single-sourcing techniques she used to save her company USD$16,000! I’ve taken Marcia’s writing workshop and read her book, so I can tell you she have some marvelous tips. Kevin Siegel will be talking about how to combine something I love–e-learning–with technical documentation to make the documentation more dynamic and valuable! I’m looking forward to that.  Bernard Aschwanden–the STC’s newly elected vice-president–will be speaking about using content strategy to help promote revenue growth. And last, but not least, a panel including all the speakers plus Tom Aldous of Acrolinx, moderated by Matt Sullivan, looks like it will be quite the lively talk.

Did I mention that breakfast, snacks, and lunch are included, too? And it’s FREE?

I know–you are saying, “Great! I want to go! I don’t want to miss out on this!” Great! But you do have to register so that Adobe knows you are coming! Make sure you register by 11:59 PM PDT on May 16th, because you don’t want to miss out!

Register for Adobe Day @ STC Summit 2014

I will be covering the event LIVE on Twitter from my @techcommgeekmom account, so make sure to follow along, even if you are attending!

See you there!