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Pandemic re-emergence? What’s new with TechCommGeekMom…so far.

Exit Darkness, Enter Light” by Fr@ηk is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

It’s been a while since I’ve actually updated things. The last few years with this pandemic haven’t actually been that inspiring. And the last year or so has been a whirlwind. As I write this, I just finished giving my husband all my documentation for our 2021 taxes. Wait–it’s 2022 already? There are times my head feels scrambled because there’s just so much going on, and just in 2022 alone, there have been some big changes in my life–or at least how I’m doing things. Let me explain.

First, let’s look at things on the STC front. I’ve worked very hard over the last few years as a chapter leader for my local chapter–doing everything from communications to membership to programming to executive operations (if you want to call it that), and while I still have to do one more transition training after the spring (Easter/Passover) holidays, I’m essentially out of chapter/community leadership for a while. I knew the day would eventually come. I’m still a chapter member, just not in leadership. It was a good run, because the chapter is still going despite a lot of things that went wrong due to the pandemic and just the state of the world right now, and I’ve left it in the hands of people that I trust, so that helps. But this doesn’t mean that I’ve left the STC volunteer schema in any way. If anything, I got lucky as I was elected as a Board Director for the STC Board Director. I will tell you, the process to be a candidate was more intense than any job interview process I’ve ever been in! And I was lucky because there were two spaces and I was one of two candidates…so…you do the math. I really went into it not expecting to be elected at all, and lucky if I got to be on the slate. So, there’s a lot of changes that are coming up this month where I’ll be initiated into the Board. I sat in on an orientation/onboarding meeting this past week, and just had to breathe through it…it’s different, and it’s a lot to take in. I’ve been assured by my friends who’ve been on the STC board that I’ll be fine. I hope they are right. In the meantime, I’m still active on the Community Affairs Committee (CAC) for the Board, so that keeps me busy as well on that front for the rest of the program year. Between Board stuff and CAC stuff, I’m going to especially busy for the next month or so. I’m also presenting at the STC Summit this year, so I have to finish out the slides and such for that. Busy, busy, busy.

The other big thing that’s happened this year is that something that I’ve been seeking since this blog was started was finally achieved. I finally got a permanent placement position that’s remote. While I still had to interview for the position as if I was coming from the outside, I was able to convert my contract position into a permanent full-time employee position. I’m still doing the same job, except now I have the security that my contract isn’t ending at the end of October 2022, so unless there’s a big layoff or I really screw up, I have some job security. That’s taken a huge weight off my shoulders. I finally have employee benefits–better than what my husband had at his long-term position, that we switched it to me taking over medical, dental, vision, etc. Some things that I’m working on, though, is getting out of a contractor mentality. I’m still the biggest advocate for contractors–believe me–but I’m still adjusting to a full-time employee mentality. I haven’t been a full-time employee since 2000–before my son was born! So, it’s a bit of an adjustment in that respect. I also am part of progress checks and performance evaluations, which I’m not used to, and that gives me anxiety. I went through my first one the other day, and so far, so good.

Nonetheless, I’m glad that I’ve found a work “home”, and I generally like the work that we’re doing. Right now, it’s a little stressful as we have a big project going on that is launching at the end of June, and the intensity of getting everything done and doing the due diligence with the content is…challenging. Part of the challenge is me learning to go with the flow of things, and while I know what’s planned for after this project, I can’t think past that project launch. Just so much going on. I will say, at least, that where I’ve landed encourages that I have the opportunity to learn and grow, and I know my manager is happy with my STC involvement, so, that helps.

Some of these things spill over into my personal life, of course. While I haven’t been needing to look for a new position, I had to help my son look for his first apprenticeship/internship for school as he continues his studies to be an auto mechanic. He still struggles with his studies, but I can’t always help him because I don’t know the first thing about auto mechanical-related stuff. But I could help him with his apprenticeship search, and I’m helping him with his onboarding. It’s his first job, and his autistic anxiety is getting the best of him in some respects. I think he’ll do fine. We lucked out because we pushed him to look before the other students did, and he is starting in two weeks where he works once a week for about 3-4 weeks, and then he’ll be almost full-time (32 hours per week) while he continues his studies during the next 16 months. But, he got something, and he’s going to be one tired guy once he starts, but hopefully it’ll go well. He seems to get along with the service manager he’ll be working for, so that’s a good start. When I started this blog, he was still a little boy, an early “tween”. Now, he’s a young adult, and while in some ways he’s still a teenager even though he’s actually in his early 20s, so much is changing for him, too. Oh, and the hubby is fine, too. Readjusting to working hybrid, and he’s wishing he could work remotely permanently.

So, that’s the update. Kind of hard to write about much more at the moment. Oh, I will be on the Content Wrangler podcast this week as well! The podcast is A Decade of Observations From TechCommGeekMom: Danielle Villegas on April 20, 2022 1:00 pm ET. I look forward to talking to Paul Perrotta! He and I already just gab and gab when we do get together to talk, so it should be an interesting chat!

How have you started to emerge from the pandemic? Any big changes for you? Share in the comments.

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An invisible disability is still a disability–even at work.

Photo by Ola Dapo on Pexels.com

Today was a typical day for me, in that I had to deal with my son’s frustration with his schoolwork. For those who haven’t read this blog for very long, he has Asperger’s Syndrome, a high functioning form of autism. And I have it too, but we are different in how we display it. (I’m older and more experienced in trying to work with it or around it.) He’s having difficulty with keeping up and understanding what he needs to do with his class, and he texted me today to say that his instructors were claiming that they had never received his accommodations form at the beginning of the year. I remembered when that came in, and I was sure that he had sent it to the head of the department at least (he’s only taking classes in one department). Since my son has given me permission to go into his school email, I was able to find the accommodation form as well as the original email, and so I emails the professors on his behalf, forwarding the information to them, and saying that if he needs to get more accommodations that will help him succeed added to his form, he’ll work with the school office that helps with that stuff to make it happen.

It made me think about everything that I’ve had to do in my life, not knowing that I was autistic as well for most of my life. I can definitely sympathize with my son, and I didn’t have the same kind of encouragement and help that he gets. One of the things that we have in common–which is definitely a sign of our autism–is that when we get overwhelmed, we shut down. We won’t be able to move forward or back or any direction until we get help. This is often misinterpreted as being lazy. Now, this is not to say that we can’t be procrastinators or lazy like others in the world. We absolutely can. But we need to differentiate what’s being overwhelmed and what’s being lazy. Sometimes the difference is razor thin.

One of my son’s fears in speaking up for himself is that he doesn’t want to look stupid in front of the class–or his instructors, for that matter. He’s afraid to say, “Hey, I’m confused, and I’m not sure what I’m doing,” even if the instructor just gave him the instructions. You can imagine his frustration that with the topic he’s learning, he knows he has to learn it as part of the curriculum and certification process that he’s going through because it’s going to be an important part of what he’ll be doing for his career, so he does need to understand how to do it. I’m the first to say my son is not an academic, but he IS smart, but is learning-different. And being learning-different is invisible. He’s still learning how to speak up for himself and advocate for himself, and this is when Mom (me), his dad, and people in the disabilities office at school try to advocate for him or teach him how to advocate for himself. When he’s frustrated, he gets overwhelmed and it’s hard to separate what he needs to do to advocate for himself and his anger and frustration. It’s tough.

But I understand it. It wasn’t until I was much older–twice his age–until I understand how to do it for myself. Now I’m a little TOO fierce when I advocate for myself sometimes! LOL But the difference is that accommodations at school and having your parents intervene is not the same at work. There are those in the workforce who think that accommodations is solely for needing wheelchair access, visual readers, closed-captioning, and ergonomic chairs and wrist rests. What’s often ignored in the workplace is the invisible disabilities–autism, dyslexia, dysgraphia, sensory integration, anxiety, and things like that. When someone is in school, there are support systems put in place to help people with these kinds of invisible disabilities. Sometimes, at the college level, they’ll have it, depending on the college, but it’s limited (this is what we’ve tried to take advantage of at my son’s college when possible). But at work…nope. Nothing.

For me personally, I’ve usually divulged my autism after I’m hired and settled in, because most of my career has been done without that knowledge, and I want to be hired on my accomplishments and merits without that information. But once I’m in, I try to make sure that my manager and my teammates understand some of my limitations. For example, I can listen and take notes, but I can’t process the information at the same time. I can’t condense it quickly to take down the notes, and move on. The person giving me the directions or talking about something might have moved onto the next thing before my brain actually can process whatever’s being talked about. So I find I have to tell people to SLOW DOWN, and I have been taught to review my instructions back to the person to make sure that I understand them. The last thing I need to do, which is a natural reflex for most people, is to say, “Sure, I understand,” when I don’t, and then mess up the entire situation. This used to get me in trouble–a lot more than anyone else who was around me either at school or work. So, I had to learn to do this so that I didn’t mess anything up. Other times, I’ve had to learn how to step up and say I’m overwhelmed, especially if everything–meaning many tasks assigned–all became a “priority” or “urgent” at the same time. I have learned how to gauge my own bandwidth, and call out if something is unrealistic, and ask my manager to prioritize the priorities as well, because I can only do so many things at once without feeling overwhelmed and having a meltdown. I will even have to make sure that I say something that I’m on the verge of feeling overwhelmed, and ask for help to navigate, because I do want to do a good job and do well. Some of this is the sort of thing that my son is still learning how to navigate, and I can only teach him so much about this without being with him at all times.

One of the big things that the pandemic and the last four to five years has been about is people trying to encourage each other to be kind, patient, and flexible with each other. There’s no better place–outside of your own home–than your workplace, where people spend almost as much–and sometimes more–time with co-workers than with family. So many practices came into play a century ago that are still used today that don’t work. This isn’t “feel good” talk, but rather common sense and decency towards each other. We don’t all work the same way. We don’t learn the same way. Heck, even I get frustrated with other people when they don’t understand something that I do! But, having an invisible disability or not, we all need to figure out the best way to work with each other and make compromises. Sometimes that starts with someone who’s at a natural disadvantage that they can’t help.

What do you think? Do you think corporate society does enough to accommodate invisible disabilities? Include your comments below.

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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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Maintaining Your Principles While On the Job

figure balancing a check in one hand and an X in another hand, showing right versus wrongOoh…she’s going into controversial territory here… (Well, yeah, I am. What’s new?)

I’ve heard some people say that the COVID-19 pandemic and world events really has them looking at life very differently now on a number of levels. One of those levels for me has been dealing with how do a show the world my principles in a positive light? How do I practice my principles through my actions? These are tough ethical and moral questions for anyone, but this time period in my life and our world’s history is truly bringing this to the forefront, for sure.

As there’s a good segment of technical communicators out there who are looking for work due to the pandemic, it’s a good time to be thinking about those things. For me, it’s not only doing what’s right for me and looking for jobs that appreciate what I can offer and that I can enjoy my work, but also what they are doing. As I get older, sticking to some of my principles gets to be a bigger issue, and how I can apply my values within my work and still stay true to my beliefs and sleep at night knowing that I hopefully did the right thing through my work.

Now, looking at my work history, I didn’t always work for places that always had a good reputation. At the time, I kept a blind eye that as long as I wasn’t part of that segment of the business doing the “dirty work” thinking I was okay. As I’ve gotten older, I can’t do that so much anymore. I have to feel okay that what I do serves a better cause overall, and that I can agree with the company’s mission and ethics. We all have different levels of where we stand on issues, so in some instances this can be hard. For example, if you are a person who is strongly against fossil fuels, but the industry where you live is primarily gas and oil, then there are going to be difficulties. But if you also knew about the things that the company is doing to make cleaner fuels and other earth-positive products, you might not be quite as strict about where you work. It’s a slippery slope.

It also applies to the people you work with as well. I’ve been fortunate that most of the people that I’ve worked with hold the same values that I do, and that makes work easier as well when dealing with others. If you come from the same or a similar perspective on something, interpersonal relationships with others is easier. You don’t have to agree with everything, but you generally know that if someone’s holistic ethical approach is the same as yours, you’re going to be fine.

As I continue to find my next gig, this becomes important to me. I don’t want to apply to a company that supports causes that go against my standards. I don’t want to work for a company that cheats people or treats them poorly–whether they be their employees, consultants, or even their customers. I prefer to work for companies that do look out for those who work for them and their customers, and make it a point to make it part of their internal conversations.

Like I said, it’s a slippery slope navigating in this crazy world right now, but it’s something we should all be conscious of. Where do you want to be? What do you want to support? Is where you work a place that supports the betterment of others and helps elevate us all? Our principles and ethics can slide. What might be a deal breaker for you isn’t for me, and vice versa. And that’s okay. But we should all be conscious of this, especially in tech comm work. Why? It’s actually part of our job, if you think about it. We write manuals, how-to guides, policies and procedures, training, and a host of other forms of content that are meant to help others get things done on an equal level, or at least provide a means of balancing things so things can be equal. Localization and globalization is part of that. It’s built into what we do.

So, as you continue, just think about how influential technical communicators can be in this respect. And make choices that are right for you, and right for the world that you want to leave behind.

What are your thoughts? Include them below.