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Confessions of a Failed Technical Communicator

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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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What Can Technical Communication Do After The U.S. Election?

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DUDE! What just happened?

In the past week, the United States had an important election for its next President. The election results, to say the least, have been controversial. While I’m not one to usually talk politics on this website, I’ll simply say that this past week has been devastating to me, and has hit me hard. It wasn’t because my candidate lost, but because her opposition, who promoted MANY values which I do not endorse in the least, was elected. There has been a segment of people in my country, that as a result of this new leader’s position, that think that they, too, can engage and promote these inappropriate behaviors, while others are trying to find ways to express and take action against those inappropriate behaviors.

I’ve been thinking long and deeply about how this election affects the technical communications community. I know people involved in technical communications that voted for candidates from both parties. Most of the technical communications community that I know had the same reaction that I did–one of deep disappointment. There were some who were happy for the outcome, but the overwhelming majority of the technical communicators I know were not–including some who aren’t even American citizens and are living outside of the U.S.!

A big part of my disappointment is that the President-Elect, who is not known to choose his words well or speak eloquently, promoted animosity towards people of different colors, people of different faiths, people of different sexual orientation or identification, and women in general. That’s problematic. These are all people who contribute to our society in positive ways, and don’t have any reason to be maligned at all. AT ALL.  I’ve always talked about the technical communications community being my “clan”. During the years I’ve become more involved with the tech comm community, I’ve found that each time I get together with my tech comm bretheren, the diversity among American technical communicators is what makes us an example of how American diversity is supposed to work.  This diversity carries over into our relationships with technical communicators around the world.

A big part of tech comm, especially in the last five to ten years (if not longer) has been embracing the knowledge that globalization and localization is an important key to effective technical communication. Whether it’s for business purposes or otherwise, a large part of what technical communicators do is write with the ability to reach out to the world. Not just their own hometowns, their own states, their own regions, or their own country–they write for a global audience.  With recent events, we are reminded that we need to continue to keep our hearts and minds open to different languages, different cultures, different religions, and different traditions here at home before it even goes abroad.

The other thing that has me very concerned is the economy. The U.S. was in a deep recession before the current President took his office. The economy has recovered, with the unemployment rate easily half of what it was during the recession. I’m definitely one of those people who felt that pinch, but worked hard to end up ahead. During these recession years, I went back to school–and some of it was paid for by my state’s training programs for re-employment–to reinvent myself as a technical communicator. I realized what my skills were, where I had gaps, and I filled the gaps as best as I could. Even now, I still do that. I constantly am trying to pick up new skills to keep myself flexible and employable.

When the world starts getting topsy-turvy, companies react for self-preservation, and that can result in job losses, often for people like technical communicators. It’s the old thing of doing more with less, so hiring stops or slows down until the company can figure out how the election will impact the economy. We’re in that position now, which is not good for those of us who are currently looking for new projects or jobs right now. So as we’ve had to do before, we’ll need to learn to adapt again.

Related to the economy, I’ve been listening to the pundits on television talk about how both political parties ignored a specific segment of disengaged voters from rural America that made their needs known through their votes. We’re feeling the impact of those votes now, but it has opened up a discussion about how to address bridging the gap. The focus of the political parties, according to the pundits, concentrated more on those who were living in the big cities and the suburbs instead of addressing the needs of rural America, or not addressing rural America as much as it should be.

This issue provoked a lot of deep thinking for me. One of my biggest issues related to rural America that I can relate to as a technical communicator has been finding work outside of a large city. While I live in between New York City and Philadelphia–two of the biggest cities in the United States where there are plenty of technical communication opportunities–they are too far a commute for me to go on a daily basis. Now, imagine someone who has a great set of technical communications skills, but then lives somewhere that isn’t anywhere near a big city. What do they do? Additionally, thinking even outside the box of technical communications, why isn’t there more industry spreading out around the country, to bridge those gaps? For example, why doesn’t Apple have offices in the middle of Nebraska that can start to help devise tech tools that can help various types of farmers in the rural areas of the U.S.? That’s not their focus, I know, but perhaps they should start thinking outside of their own box. How could someone in rural America use their products, provided that they could afford them? How would those products help agricultural services grow and prosper? The biggest question of all this is, how can we ensure that rural America is part of the globalization and localization movements? I was remembering that for many years–I don’t know if it’s still in place–that the U.S. Goverment used to pay farmers to NOT produce surpluses of crops. What if we could help them, by allowing farmers to produce whatever they produce, and help them learn how to globalize their businesses with shipping their crops or products made with those crops? When those government subsidies were created, there was no internet commerce, no globalization on the scale there is now. How can we, as technical communicators, help change that view and help that person globalize their business? (Perhaps I’m over-simplifying things here and don’t have a full grasp of economics, but hopefully you understand where I’m going with this thought process.)

Part of that, in my opinion, goes back to two things I’ve talked about many times in this blog. First, we need to make mobile learning a priority, because it’s not just second- or third-world countries that need opportunities to advance. There are already segments within the U.S. that have yelled loudly through their votes during this election that they need it, too. Education is progress, even in rural areas. If someone has a problem with land producing crops, and they only know the old solutions that aren’t working, then technology is going to be the solution in educating them on how to create or learn new solutions.

Second, companies have to start being more flexible towards remote work. Not everyone can get up and move to a big city or large suburban area to find appropriate work. They need to stay in their community for whatever reason. A great solution in figuring out how to extend globalization and localization within our own borders is allowing remote work. That way, that person from rural America can work doing what he/she does best, while still being an active and vital member to their community, and perhaps with the good pay they have, can help to revitalize their local economy, bringing that knowledge to their community instead of having to move elsewhere and not making a direct impact.

The proclivity of technical communicators, from my observations, is that they have big hearts. They have strong ideas, they are organized, and they know how to take action. They are generally open-minded, they think “outside the box” for solutions, and they understand the importance of reaching out and embracing the world because the proliferation of the internet has warranted it.  We can make a difference in how we approach our work, both domestically and internationally, to set an example of best practices of being decent human beings trying to help each other progress and survive in this world.

This isn’t just something that Americans need to do right now, but it’s everyone globally who supports the basic values of every human being being treated with respect and dignity, and providing moral support whenever possible that needs to be part of this. We all have the same human rights and needs. We all need to be able to live together, work together, and survive together. Technical communicators have the ability to shape ideas and processes. We are strategists at heart, whether as wordsmiths, content strategists, or instructional designers, or any other title that falls under the umbrella that describes technical communication.

In the coming weeks, months, and years ahead, we need to figure out how each of us can contribute to this human goal, starting at home. Let’s start with the words from the Wyld Stallions of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”:

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“Be excellent to each other!”

Diverted from law, but destined for tech comm

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Not all of us blond chicks are meant to be lawyers like Elle Woods.

The other day, I had jury duty. I was rather anxious on a number of levels, but mostly because I was fearful of being chosen for a jury that would last more than a day or two, because I had already put off the first day of a new contract to fulfill my civic duty. My anxiety really got the best of me, as it made me physically ill all day.

I felt very nervous being in the courtroom during the jury selection process. I shouldn’t have been. It was straightforward. This was for a civil case, so it wouldn’t be about anything too gory, awful, or drawn out like a criminal or murder case.

But here’s the irony of the whole thing: when I started college, I was very determined that I was going to be a pre-law student studying international affairs, and that I’d eventually continue to law school. I had participated on high school mock trial teams, and watched courtroom shows all the time, soaking in all the courtroom action whenever I could. So, what happened?

Eventually I’d work for law firms during the summer as an office clerk or a receptionist, and found that I really didn’t like it. I also was having second thoughts about going to law school, since I had some trouble with certain courses in my undergrad years.

As I sat in the courtroom the other day, my memory was refreshed on how court proceedings were done, such as what it means if a judge says that an objection is overruled or sustained, how a court case is run, and the types of questions that need to be asked to elicit the responses that the lawyer wants to get out of the witness. It occurred to me that I was GLAD I wasn’t a lawyer after all. I would have hated it after a while. Sure, there’s a structure to how things are done, and laws are often written so there’s as little interpretation as possible as to what is liable and what isn’t. But sitting in that courtroom made me grateful that I did not lead a lawyer’s life.

After being dismissed from that courtroom and waiting to see if I would be called to another trial, I had time to think about how my life choices took me in another direction. I thought about the qualities of a lawyer, and thought about which of those qualities would make me think I’d be good for that, yet would be applicable to my current career in technical communication.

The reasons were very clear to me almost instantly. Both lawyers and technical writers need and like structure. Lawyers work off the law guides, while technical writers work with style guides. Both are very keen wordsmiths. They often are the authors of policies and procedures and other documentation. The wrong word or the right word can make the difference in what they are doing. Related to that, they are acutely aware of details. One incorrect detail can make or break the situation at hand. Both professions work to relate to their audience, whether it’s a judge and jury, or end-users at large. Both have to be at least a little bit clever to be able to convey their content clearly, cogently, and concisely.

So, was my time being a law wannabe for nothing? I don’t think so. Little did I know that it would help me figure out skills that would be needed for a vocation that I did not know I had yet. If anything, it most likely helped me ease into the technical communications field more easily because I had attuned these skills at a young age for a different purpose.

The very next day after jury duty, I started at my new contract, going back to doing content strategy and management. Oh, what a relief it was! Even though I was working with a new client and a new content management system that I hadn’t used before, I knew that I had something substantial to provide with my skills, and I felt so much more at ease than having to present a case based strictly on law and courtroom decorum. I didn’t have to worry about my skills not being enough to convince someone to judge in favor of someone–or something– I was advocating. Instead, I got to work in a team environment, where my voice was heard as one of a few contributing ideas to create something with a positive outcome–no matter what the outcome. I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, but I think many technical communicators know that they must have some of these same skills to be able to produce the best outputs they can to serve a larger audience for positive purposes. We have to advocate for our field constantly, to prove that we are needed in the workforce, and we strive to get positive results.  There are even technical communicators whose specialty is to write up policies and procedures.  Not law school worthy? I beg to differ.

What do you think? Do you think we possess many of the same skills as lawyers, or not? Include your comments below.

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John E. McIntyre’s trigger warning about taking his editing class- Baltimore Sun

Take a seat, school’s back in session. Here’s John E. McIntyre’s “trigger warning” to new students at his editing class at Loyola University Maryland.

Source: John E. McIntyre’s trigger warning – Baltimore Sun

I highly, highly encourage you to watch the video in this link, especially if you’ve ever taken an editing class.  This reminded me SO much of what I had to go through in the technical editing course that I took at NJIT with Dr. Norbert Elliot.  He’s retired now, but his lessons definitely live on! I showed this to one of my classmates from the class, and she said this was exactly how she imagined Dr. Elliot in her imagination, but with a different appearance, naturally.  I spent many weekends and weeknight pouring over texts. Our usual assignment would center on a particular common grammatical error, such as the use of commas. We’d be provided eight to ten sentences, which we would not only edit, but we had to give citations from various grammar rule books–such as the Chicago Manual of Style–and explain WHY it was wrong. It was NOT an easy class by any means, but I eeked out an A, and it was one of the first grades I received in grad school.

Did you have an editing class that was similar to what this gentleman was teaching or what I experienced? Did it help you as a technical communicator (I know it helped me!)? Share your experiences in the comments below.

–TechCommGeekMom

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Taking On the Ph.D. Later in Life – NYTimes.com

As doctoral programs become more flexible and students seek to enhance or change their careers, enrollment of older adults grows.

Source: Taking On the Ph.D. Later in Life – NYTimes.com

Thanks to Craig Cardimon for posting this on LinkedIn.

I hope this trend of flexible PhDs continues. Just a couple days ago, both my husband and I were commenting that if money were no object, and we were retired or hit the lottery, we’d both want to go back to school, and I would love to get my PhD. Right now, it wouldn’t be for professional reasons, as a Masters degree seems to be fine for now.  But to get a PhD in Technical Communications would be cool. I also wouldn’t mind getting an advanced degree in linguistics or history either.

I’m willing to bet that as more PhD programs take on an online presence (there’s only one PhD in tech comm online, namely at Texas Tech, as far as I know), and hopefully become more affordable, more folks will not only sign up for the programs, but also people over 40 (like me and many others I know) might be more willing to go for it.  There are several great online degrees on a Master’s level or graduate certificate level in tech comm and instructional design.  Check out my Educational Resources pages for some leads if you are interested, or let me know if I’m missing a program that I can add to the list (or update)!

Would you consider going back for a PhD in a discipline? If so, what would it be? Let us know in the comments below.

–TechCommGeekMom