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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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Recap of the Adobe Day “Coachella” – Tech Comm Rock Stars abound!

KSM ROTHBURY packing up 5Adobe Day at the 2013 STC Summit was really great. It took me a while to digest all my own notes and relive the moments promoting the rock stars of tech comm. But like all good music festivals, the “Coachella” of tech comm had to end, but with great memories of fantastic information that will stay with me for a long time. Hopefully you enjoyed this “magical mystery tour” as well!

There were several people from Adobe that were truly instrumental in making this event a success, but I have to “give it up” for the two Masters of Ceremony of the event, Saibal Bhatacharjee and Maxwell Hoffmann.

Saibal
Saibal Bhattacharjee

MaxwellHoffmann
Maxwell Hoffmann

So many people know them from the Adobe TCS webinars, blogs, and other social media outlets. I know they’ve been two of my greatest supporters, so I want to thank them for inviting me to the event, and as always, making me feel welcome both during Adobe Day, as well as during the STC Summit.

If you missed my series for this Adobe Day event, here’s a recap, so you can relive the day yourself:

 macca

Maybe I’m Amazed I met this Tech Comm legend…

 Jagged+Little+Pill

How does that jagged little pill of content strategy go down?

 Peter-Fonda-and-Dennis-Hopper-in-Easy-Rider

Get your motor runnin’…Head out on the [mobile] highway…

 Coldplay2

XML Metrics are the Coldplay of the Tech Comm World

 coachella

If Tech Comm had its own Coachella, how would it be done?

I hope you’ve enjoyed all the articles. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to comment below!

The next time there is an Adobe Day near you, or if you have the opportunity to go to one, I strongly encourage you to go! I’ve now been to two of them, and both were different.  It’s amazing to see how perspectives change on the “hot” issues of tech comm in a mere few months! I was glad to hear from leading experts on the pressing topics of the day. And I have to say, I’ve learned so much from both visits. I can honestly say, as well, that both provided information that were applicable to my job, even as a new technical communicator.  Keeping up with current trends in technical communication is important, because technology is changing fast, and technical communicators need to keep up with not only the technology itself, but the needs that new technology presents. Adobe does a nice job of bringing the best thought leadership from around the globe to talk about these issues  for free. How can you pass that up?

Thanks again, Adobe, for an amazing opportunity to attend this free event!

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Maybe I’m Amazed I met this Tech Comm legend…

macca“Excuse me, Dr. Corfield, I’m tweeting this event for Adobe today. Would you happen to have a Twitter handle?”

With the apology that he hadn’t one, but that he did have a Facebook page, I had started a too-short yet lovely pre-event chat with Dr. Charles Corfield, the keynote speaker for the 2013 STC Summit’s Adobe Day. In my mind, being the inventor of Adobe Framemaker would easily qualify the tech comm pioneer for the Tech Comm Hall of Fame (if there was such a thing). For me, talking to Dr. Corfield was like talking to the Paul McCartney of tech comm (and that’s super high praise coming from a Macca fan like me!). Just as McCartney is unequivocally deemed as one of the early pioneers who revolutionized how we listen to rock music today, Corfield helped to revolutionize tech comm with his creation of Framemaker, and in the process, created what we know as a software standard for technical communication that still holds up today. I loved listening to Dr. Corfield’s soft-spoken, British accent as he chatted with me briefly about social media and about some of the things he was going to be talking about in his presentation. I was truly having a fangirl moment, and hopefully I kept my cool during the conversation. Awesome!

CharlesCorfield
Dr. Charles Corfield
The “Father” of Framemaker

Dr. Corfield started his talk by presenting us with a history of how Framemaker came about. He explained that before Framemaker, computing was still fairly archaic, but workstation computers were starting to become more powerful. As a graduate student at Columbia, he was looking to create software that could take things a step beyond word processing, namely make software that could also create unified pagination and page layouts. Framemaker allowed page layouts and paginatable text to work in a symmetrical flow. The software targeted long documents and other paper output done by humans.

Dr. Corfield pointed out that the first content management problems started to occur as a result, and those issues included the need for internal references, such as footnotes, indexes, cross references,  and markers. The power of Framemaker’s ability to create indices to update long documentation was–and still is–more powerful than Microsoft Word even today. He also added the ability to refer to external factors like external references and hypertext.

Framemaker created the ability to manage variants of a single document, leading to what we now think of as single source publishing. Variants would be such objects as variables, conditional text, frozen pagination and change-pages. This yielded a new dilemma. As Corfield posed it, do you send out fully changed documentation or only the pages that were changed, especially with super large documents? The problem would be that with big documents, people would say, “Well, what changed?” Corfield pointed out the Boeing 777 project in 1990s needed IMMENSE documentation, so they needed to use retrievable databases. The Boeing 777 project solution was to use SGML (the predecessor of HTML and XML). This project made it the first “web” delivery of documentation. The Boeing 777 project used Framemaker with SGML, using HTML, XML, DITA as well as “structure.” Framemaker provided a server-based generation of documentation.

Shifting his talk a bit, Dr. Corfield started to talk about Framemaker’s impact today.  He pointed out that the original retina display was actually paper! Sophisticated layouts had to be used to maximize the user-experience. The computer came along later to expand on that concept. Displays started out with 72 dpi (dots per inch) displays, which led to crude layouts. Now, retina display is available at 300 dpi, but we need to re-learn what we did on paper yet also include dynamic content from high resolution video and images.  Corfield pointed out that there has been a proliferation of platforms. We have desktop, laptops, smartphones, and tablets that use different platforms such as Unix, DOS, and MacOS (for PC and Mac products respectively) that need different outputs. Technical writing, therefore, is directly impacted by all the different displays and platforms in relation to  document authoring. It is a requirement to produce structure and rich layouts for the output. Documentation needs to be able to support dynamic content (video, animation, etc.) and it needs to manage content for consumption on multiple platforms. The good news is that Framemaker can do all that! While there are other tools out there that can also deliver different kinds of output, many still struggle to manage and deliver to these needs the same way that Framemaker can now. Dr. Corfield is not part of Adobe anymore, nor is he part of today’s Framemaker product, but he seems happy with where the product has gone since he left it in Adobe’s hands.

(I should note, that while this was a talk sponsored by Adobe, this really wasn’t intended to be a big info-mercial for Framemaker, but rather something that puts the concept of tech comm software into perspective, and it happens to be the product of the sponsor.)

So, where does this tech comm legend think technology is going next? Corfield thinks that going forward, voice is going to have the biggest impact. He felt that screen real estate is full, and that much of the visual is about adding a new widget, then removing a widget. Voice, he continued, eliminates how keyboard shortcuts are remembered. How many keyboard shortcuts does the average user know? Touch screens are a slow way to perform data entry. The impact of voice will be the ability to use visual tips, and have voice act as a virtual keyboard. Voice will be impacting product documentation, allowing it to understand how existing workflows can be modified. Corfield’s prediction is that Framemaker, along with other software out on the market, will “assimilate” voice, just like everything else.

Since leaving Framemaker, Corfield has been working with a product called SayIt, using voice as part of workflow optimization, and emphasized that voice truly is the next big thing (you heard it here, folks!). When asked about the use of voice technology in practical office use, Corfield responded that push-to-talk technology helps prevent cross-talk in an office environment. He also pointed out that with voice, there are no ergonomic issues as there are with carpel tunnel syndrome using a mouse and keyboard. If anything, voice will be more helpful!

On that note, the presentation was over. The long and winding road had ended, but has lead to new doors to be opened. 😉

I really enjoyed listening to the history and the thought process behind Framemaker that Dr. Corfield presented. Everything he mentioned made total sense, and it’s to his credit that he had the foresight to think about the next steps in word processing to create a useful tool like Framemaker to help technical writers meet the needs of documentation in the digital age.

There is a certain aura around creative, imaginative and smart people who make huge differences in our lives, whether it’s in music like McCartney, or tech comm software like Corfield. You can’t help but be awed in their presence, and yet understand that they are generally humble people.  When you have a chance to meet an individual like that, you want the opportunity to capture the moment–like have a picture of yourself and that person to prove that it happened. I was much too shy to ask Dr. Corfield for a photo with me to be honest. I felt awkward asking, so I didn’t. Heck, I felt awkward asking about his potential Twitter name! Even so, I’m glad I had the opportunity to meet him and hear him speak.  He’s got my vote as a candidate for the Tech Comm Hall of Fame someday.

(And, Dr. Corfield, if you do ever read this, please feel free to correct anything written here or add any clarification or other commentary below!)

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Instant Mobile Apps? Not quite.

MP900441051Last week, I was in contact with one of my former professors at NJIT‘s MSPTC program. We talked about several things going on, and in the process of the email conversation, she mentioned that she is starting another semester of the PTC 601 (Advanced Professional and Technical Communications) classes, and she asked me a question about mobile, because she wanted to add a new component to an assignment.

I remember doing the assignment well just three years ago. Essentially, the student is given a manual for a fictitious coffeehouse franchise’s espresso machine, and the student has to rewrite the manual into a quick reference guide, preferable something that included visual images that could the learner/user can learn from it or refer to it as needed. Conceptually, it’s an easy enough assignment (or at least it was to me), but creating it with the tools I had at the time proved challenging, even if I did pull it off.

Adding a mobile component to this assignment makes a lot of sense to me. This is a perfect example of what m-learning is, what it looks like, and what it can be! Taking a simple how-to manual and creating a mobile app for it is highly logical, especially in this scenario. I mean, think about it…how often do people whip their smartphones out of their pockets to look up any kind of information, let alone have a how-to app on their phones? So having a special app that could be downloaded and instantly used as a reference guide for that newbie coffee barista would be ideal!

I was happy to hear about this addition to the assignment. The professor knows how enthusiastic I am about promoting mobile solutions, and I was thrilled to hear that she is making an effort to include mobile solutions in the MSPTC curriculum. So, she asked me if I knew any software programs that could convert text into some sort of mobile output. The first thing that came to mind was Adobe’s Technical Communications Suite 4, especially with Framemaker and Robohelp. But, the school doesn’t have a copy of that for students yet (they are working on it), and even with the short trial, there’s a big learning curve for an assignment that would be due fairly quickly.

So, I began to do a little research to help the professor out. There were a few things–a few parameters–that I had to keep in mind as I looked for a tool for her to use. It has to be easy to use for someone who didn’t have too much or negligible programming skills. It has to be free or at the barest minimum of cost. And it had to have an easy ramp-up to have a project done on it in a week or so. I knew, from experience, that people from all walks of life come into this program, with a true mix of web expertise. I remember helping some of my fellow classmates by providing a crash course in HTML, and the quest for the free or cheap web editing software or site where an e-portfolio could be created. So, I understood the parameters well.

The sad thing I discovered was that while there are dozens of places to set up and create free or cheap websites with web editing available that anyone could use to set up a good looking site, the same can’t be said yet for creating mobile sites. There are a few sites that do help a person create a mobile app easily, but it’s not cheap. Or, if it’s cheap, it requires some programming know-how. It was tough. the other thing to keep in mind was whether the mobile app being created was for a “native” app, a “web” app or “hybrid” app. The differences between these is that a native app is saved on the mobile device and can be used offline. The web app is one that is essentially a mini website and needs an internet connection to access the app. A hybrid is…well, you can figure that out. If you’ve ever tried to access an app on your phone, but couldn’t get it to function because you didn’t have wifi or 4G, then that’s a web app. If it only partially worked, but you still needed wifi/4G to connect for part of it, it’s a hybrid. You get the idea. In the end, I gave the professor a few suggestions that I found.

The first was something called Viziapps. I think I had heard of Viziapps because I believe (just off the top of my head) that this was the software being used in an STC class on how to build mobile apps. Viziapps allows individuals to create a mobile app without knowing any or little coding, but they would have to have some idea of information architecture (which is part of the project assignment–understanding what’s important, what’s not, what comes first, content structure, etc.). It’s mostly a visual editor that allows the user to build the apps online, then publish on the web for free, provided the creator has created a web app. If it’s a native or hybrid app, then that has a price. It seems like it might be a viable choice as a tool that would allow for a quicker ramp-up for someone seriously trying to create a mobile app.

Other more creative choices would be using their mobile devices to make something. For example, there is an app called SnapGuide, in which an individual can take photos or video to demonstrate how to do something. Mobile by Conduit might be another possibility, as it’s free, and supposedly has an interface style similar to WordPress.

But then I thought about WordPress,  and I realized that might be another option. TechCommGeekMom is a WordPress website, after all, and it can be read on mobile devices. Basic WordPress accounts are free and fairly easy to use. You can create a “blog” or website on WordPress, and then there’s a setting to create a mobile interface. Here’s a little bit of info about it: http://en.support.wordpress.com/themes/mobile-themes/  It seemed to fit the criteria needed for a mobile app creator/editor, in that it’s free, it has a mobile output (as well as a regular web output), and it provides a primer for content management in the experience.  I thought that if I was still in the class, I’d create several pages on a single WordPress website for different parts of the Guide–similar to the pages and navigation I have here, and then promote the mobile access to the website. It’s not a perfect system, but for quick ramp-up purposes for a fairly small assignment, it seems like it would fit the bill.

I think my former professor appreciated the help, but we both discussed the dilemma that it posed. Why must someone have a programming degree and some cash in order to create a mobile app–whether it be a native, hybrid or web app? Depending on the app, all three formats have their positive and negative aspects to them.  But how does one learn how to use any of these mobile app writer/editor products quickly? There are some great tools out there, I’m not denying that, but for the true beginner or student on a budget who is trying to learn how to create mobile solutions skills as a technical communicator, it’s not that easy. I see a huge business opportunity here (not that I have the time, cash, or enough knowledge to start such a business), but creating a highly user-friendly software program that one’s grandma could create a mobile app for a very low cost would be a fantastic business. It would make even more information accessible to share with others.

It occurred to me later that for the average user, another possibility is another Adobe program that I’ve been using to create and maintain my e-portfolio, called Adobe Muse. It’s a cloud-based app that acts as a very easy UI interface to create websites and mobile apps. I’ve used the website editor, but I haven’t tried the mobile conversion yet there. I believe it’s about $14-15 per month, and you can set up an account at Adobe’s Business Catalyst and create your mobile site that way.  It allows those who have next to no programming skills create something that looks great, but it also allows more advanced users some nice shortcuts to create great sites without having to do all the coding–Muse does it for you.

Perhaps, as mobile solutions become more mature like editing software for desktop interface websites, this mobile app creator problem will go away, and there will be more affordable options. In the meantime, we have to wait or muddle through it all…

If you know of any easy-to-ramp-up mobile app editors, please mention it in the comments below! Share, everybody!

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Being a specialist or a generalist? Which is better for a technical communicator?

I feel like I’ve stepped into quite the conundrum by entering the technical communications field. As I continue to search for full-time work, a problem that I seem to find almost everywhere I go is that technical writing jobs in my area seem to require that one be a specialist in their field, or do very, VERY specific types of work. Both before and after my technical communications studies, I had always been taught that with few career exceptions, being a generalist was more often a desired skill set, simply because I couldn’t get stuck in one specific direction and find little to no work. Having a broad range of skills and abilities made one more marketable, flexible, and thus desirable as an employee. I know the last place that I consulted for full-time appreciated that generalist ability of mine, because I ended up being the go-to person for web editing, web design, and general graphics design. There were those who had the title of “web publisher” but didn’t even know basic HTML, and I actually did.

However, I’m finding that as much as I did my best in both my career and my graduate studies to study a broad range of subjects, including social media, e-learning design, content management strategy, UI strategy, and technical writing and editing, to name a few, I end up as a Jack of all trades, but master of none. However, it seems that because I don’t have specifically five years of medical or proposal writing background in XYZ software, I’m useless. I was recently criticized for having an “unfocused” resume because it was so broad. When asked what specialization I wanted to follow, I listed all the subjects I mentioned above and then some others. I feel I have the skills to start out in any of those fields if someone gave me a break to go in any of those specific directions.

One of the things that stuck out in my mind from Adobe Day at Lavacon last month was commentary by the panel at the end of the morning, in which the group said that one of the issues right now in tech comm is that there are too many tech comm specialists instead of tech comm generalists. When I heard that, it was music to my ears, and I felt vindicated for taking the approach I had with my career! I’ve already taken steps–specifically getting a Master’s degree in Professional and Technical Communication–to provide myself with an education on understanding all the available possibilities in the technical communications field, and be able to adapt to it. However, one of the other challenges listed in the panel talk was the general resistance to progressive change. I fear that the resistance to change is far more widespread than anticipated, based on my own experiences. Every job listing and every recruiter I talk to seems to want to pigeonhole me into one specialty, and I don’t want to do that. The reason I went to graduate school was to allow me to gain opportunities beyond my knowledge of content management alone, and allow me to flex my editing, writing, design and e-learning muscles some more.

Perhaps because I’m a “newbie,” I don’t understand this strict adherence to being a specialist in only one kind of tech comm. Becoming a specialist is a double-edged sword. On one side, being able to work in a niche field makes your skills more desirable for that niche. However, on the other side, it limits the kind of work one can do if there are layoffs or one finds him/herself out of work.

Since I’ve been looking for full-time work for almost a year now, I talked to my husband recently about this idea, and questioned whether I should commit more to one particular area of technical communication than another. While I’ve done a lot of content management work, I find it constraining when I want to be able to edit what I see as just plain BAD writing, and I feel limited to not flex my brain muscles on all the things I’ve learned in grad school in the last two years. I’ve tried to immerse myself in the tech comm world and the e-learning world to varying degrees, but again, I find myself as a generalist since I don’t have any job to help me hone my professional focus as of yet. Even so, I wondered if I should just resign myself, and just try to figure out what specialty I should focus on, perhaps in the hopes of increasing my job prospects. After voicing this concern, my husband vehemently disagreed, feeling that it was better just to continue to be able to look at a little bit of everything and do a little bit of everything, as it broadened prospects by giving me multiple directions to follow.

It makes me wonder how other graduates–whether they are from undergraduate or graduate school–find a job at all. How is someone supposed to be able to do a technical communications job with little to no experience? How the heck can they become specialists without first being generalists given a direction from their first jobs? I know I have the flexibility and know-how to go into many jobs, but it’s autobots that read my resume instead of people more often than not, and autobots don’t understand the value of what I can do and my ability to learn on the spot. I’m sure I’m not the only one in this rut, and yet there doesn’t seem to be any flexibility on the part of employers. There are plenty of us who are more than willing to be dedicated employees with a strong skill set foundation, and we aren’t given a chance.

So, what is better? Being a specialist or a generalist? Write your opinion in the comments below.

For me, I’m still torn, and my problem is that if I do need to be a specialist, I don’t know what direction to follow, because I like so many aspects of tech comm. Should I find work as a full-time blogger, pursue my desire to be an instructional designer, go back to content publishing and management, become a technical evangelist, become a teacher or trainer…or what?

(If you know of any telecommuting/remote jobs or jobs in the Central NJ area along these lines, let me know!)