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What you so afraid of? Part II – The Tech Comm Edition

torchwood_jacktorturedI’ve been reflecting a lot, lately, into what makes me continue to pursue a technical career, especially in technical communications. I’ve been thinking about what I’ve been doing in the last year to stay on top of trends and issues in the technical communications field, because the last thing that a prospective employer needs is someone who is stuck in his or her own ways, never learning and never progressing. Technology is constantly changing, and both technical communications at-large as well as the e-learning world are both in the flux of a “revolution”–a revolution that reflects that these fields are in the process of changing and revitalizing in order to keep up with modern thought and technological advances. One of the reason I try to stay as active as possible in social media is to stay on top of those trends and have an understanding of the current issues and advances in these fields so that I can go into a job understanding what the needs of a company are in order to help that company move forward.

And yet, it seems like there are so many companies, from my own observation, that are terrified of change and progress. Is it too much too soon? Perhaps it is. I’ve talked about this topic before at length specifically in regard to how the m-learning revolution is trying to make headway in the e-learning field in my post, “What Are You So Afraid Of?” back in July 2012. But as my most recent experiences personally have been more tech comm related, I’m starting to think that this fear of progress extends to the tech comm world as well.

I remember a big part of what was mentioned at the Adobe Day panel was the idea that as technical communicators, we understand the value of our work better than the higher-ups in managerial positions, and it’s our duty, in many respects to make sure that these higher-ups understand that value and the ROI (return on investment) that using structured content and other tools at a technical communicator’s disposal will benefit the company in the long run.  When I’ve gone on interviews or worked at various jobs, I talk about the advances that are going on involving mobile technology and how companies need to keep up with this fast-growing technology. While the interviewers or other people I speak with are impressed with my knowledge and agree the changes need to be made, the argument made is that the higher-ups, who don’t understand this value of technical communications as well as we do, insist on sticking with old ways, and slowing down progress for the sake of comfort levels. It’s a “Don’t fix what ain’t broken”-kind of mentality. I know that sometimes budgets can limit how soon progress is made, because ever-changing technological advances can be expensive, especially if one is always trying to keep up with the latest and greatest. But I also know that spending a lot of money on ancient systems that aren’t keeping up with current technology and even supporting such ancient technology and methods that aren’t even supported today is throwing money away too. Would we even have smartphones or cell phones if we settled for landline phones only? Would microprocessing computers have even been invented if we settled for manual typewriters long ago? Settling for the old doesn’t really benefit anyone, especially global companies that want to stay ahead of the competition.

The photo above is a favorite character on one of my favorite TV series, “Torchwood,” named Captain Jack. Captain Jack is generally a fearless guy, especially since he has some sort of capability where he cannot die. In that sense, when up against some sort of danger personally, he’s got nothing to lose at all. But since he’s lived for so long, he also respects the past and understands the full impact of his actions and how they affect others. Despite having nothing to lose by his actions, he’s actually the conservative one when it comes to making decisions, basing his actions on what he knows and what he researches first. He is cautious, but he’s not against trying something new if it makes sense. If you see him with a facial expression like the one he has above, you KNOW that something REALLY bad is going on, and it has greater repercussions beyond himself.

There are times that I have that same feeling, at least in my own mind.  While I respect that certain systems work and work well, and I know I’m not the most experienced technical communicator out there, I’ve done some due diligence, and again, I try to keep up with what’s going on in the world so that I’m ready to keep up with the latest advances and thought in the field. When I hear that companies are hesitant to budge from an old way of thinking, I feel frustrated. How are these companies supposed to keep their standings as world-class, advanced companies when their communications are not cutting edge, or at least up-to-date? Again, I understand that executive managers have to look at the full picture and work within budgets, but with a world that is going mobile faster than anyone can keep up with, why aren’t big companies even attempting to keep up even a little bit? Just as I had mentioned in the last article on this topic relating to m-learning mentioned above, I see it occurring in tech comm itself as well, with companies not keeping up with the latest version of how documentation outputs have to be changed to keep up with mobile technology. There is little risk with proven methods.

As a global economy–not just in the United States–we are trying to emerge from one of the biggest financial crises in economic history. Looking back at history, it’s usually during these times of economic woe that some of the greatest leaps in technology and business have been made, using great intellect and creativity to push things forward when resources were scarce. This is a time of emergence again. There are so many companies that have taken the leap forward to help take us to the next step. Smartphone and tablet manufacturers have brought us the next means of gathering information and providing communication between us. In turn, software manufacturers, like Adobe with TCS 4 and MadCap with Flare, among others, have provided us with tools to help take the content that technical communicators write to a new level of efficiency and flexibility among all the new mobile devices in the world while still keeping up with desktop capabilities.  If any companies embrace any of the changes that are going on in the technical communications field, they can deliver bigger and better communications thus benefitting from the changes, not being hindered by them.

So, what are you so afraid of, corporate world? Help technical communicators help you. Even the smallest step forward will be step towards a better future for your company.

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Flame Wars need not apply.

I had planned for this post to be something a little more lighthearted, but my plan was changed when I received my first insulting comment on this blog. It came in, and made accusations that proved that the person hadn’t read the blog post carefully, and additionally made insult of my relationship with Adobe. I was shaken up by this comment, because it was meant to be insulting, and in no way was the criticism constructive in any way. I was taken aback by it, and when I told my husband about it, he replied, “This is ‘typical’ internet behavior these days… don’t take it personally.” I knew he was right, and but still…it truly bothers me. It certainly doesn’t seem like professional behavior.

I choose my words carefully on this blog. Every entry is not written off the cuff, and I take a lot of time to write and edit each post. I do my best to be as diplomatic as possible when writing, even if I have a very strong opinion about something. I do my best not to insult anyone or anything. I try to dish constructive criticism when I feel it’s necessary. My intentions are to put forward my own thoughts as a new technical communicator who is trying to make her way into the field, and share ideas that I find interesting or educational. If I curate something from the web from my ScoopIt account, it’s because I found something worthy of sharing with my TechCommGeekMom audience.

This blog started out as a class project in graduate school, and it has taken off to have a life of its own. I don’t claim to be an expert. I don’t claim to be highly experienced. I don’t claim that I am familiar with everything that is related to tech comm. I try to be humble with what I do or don’t know. Yes, I have some knowledge and experience, but if you want to read commentary from someone more experienced who is an “expert” in the field, please, be my guest. You can go elsewhere.

I do write a lot about Adobe on my blog, and I feel that I need to clarify that, because if this one individual is questioning it, perhaps others are as well. My current relationship with Adobe was something that happened to me by surprise. I have always been a fan of Adobe products, even before this association happened. I’ve been using Adobe products for the last 15 or so years. I wrote a case study in grad school supporting Adobe’s business practices with Flash a year ago–well before I ever started this blog. So, when Adobe contacted me several months ago, it was a total shock. It was really out of nowhere for me. All I did was promote my blog and a post on my blog that called out Adobe and its competitors for making it a little difficult for students to get their hands on tech comm software. I never expected anyone to respond. If the MadCap Software, the makers of Flare, had responded the way that Adobe had, I’m sure I would be a Flare advocate right now. Same with the makers of Lectora and Articulate. I’m new, and when I wrote that fateful post, I just knew that these software packages have the same main function, and that I needed to learn this kind of software to get a job. Plain and simple.

Out of the many companies that I named in that blog post, Adobe was the only one that actually responded. As I said, I didn’t expect ANYONE to respond– it was just a fairly well articulated rant, if I do say so myself. Evidently, someone at Adobe thought so too, and wanted to help. Since I already liked their products, how could I not respond favorably to them? When offered the chance to do a webinar for their Thought Leadership series, that shocked me as well. What the heck did I have to offer or to say? I’ve been told that because I’m new to the TC world, it was because I had a fresh perspective of the field, and it was great to get a new opinion in the mix. From there, Adobe has provided me with opportunities such as sitting in on a conference call previewing products, attending a pre-conference event hosted by them at a major tech comm conference, and promoting my blog to a global audience. Did I ask them to do that? No, not at all. Am I going to take advantage of such opportunities? Well, I would be very stupid not to do that, especially since it’s still very early in my tech comm career!

Adobe is an advertiser on my page, but they aren’t paying me a salary. I am not employed by Adobe at all. (Although I wish I was! I’d be a great product evangelist!) I would love to have additional advertisers on this blog, as I totally embrace diversity in products and software if it helps get the job done. If Apple, Google, Microsoft, MadCap, Lectora, Articulate, TechSmith or any other software or hardware vendor wants to establish a business partnership to advertise on my blog, I welcome the opportunity! These are among the best of the best, and there are plenty of others out there as well that I’d be happy to include. Adobe happens to be the first to take advantage of my offer there on the right column.

Adobe is like the Doctor Who in my life. They came in unexpectedly, have taken me places and given me opportunities that I would not have had without them, and so there is a certain amount of loyalty they’ve earned from me. Is that so wrong in that context? I don’t think so. Unless they do something really ugly and downright horrible to me, I have no reason not to support them, especially in light of them supporting me and this very young blog that’s only 7 months old. They have never told me or asked me what to write on this blog. They have supported my independent thinking. This is not an Adobe blog. Perhaps it leans towards a “fan blog” sometimes, but it’s not solely concentrated on this.

TechCommGeekMom addresses technical communications, m-learning, e-learning and educational technology from my perspective as a new technical communications professional who is trying to make her way into this field and make a difference. While TechCommGeekMom is meant to be a place where I can share my thoughts and concerns, others can as well. Differing opinions are welcome if they are done in a fair and constructive manner. This blog is meant to embrace and discuss the best practices in the tech comm and e-learning fields as they move forward. If you don’t like what you read, that’s your prerogative, and you can go elsewhere. But I’m not going to change how I write or who I am for anyone. I hope that my regular readers, as well as newer readers, will appreciate my position, and embrace it by continuing to visit this blog.

As a mom, I’d like to quote Thumper in the movie, Bambi,

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Tools? We don’t need tools. (Or do we?)

One of the things that is highly debatable in the tech comm world, as well as the e-learning and m-learning world, has to do with software.  It’s always the eternal question.

WHAT’S THE BEST SOFTWARE TO USE?

I’m here to tell you….I have no idea.

Really.

I’m not joking.

One of the regrets I have about the Masters program in technical communications I’ve been in is that while we were introduced to several different types of software, most software applications used were either free or low cost, or we’d have to use the free trial version as quickly as possible, but they were not necessarily the industry standards employers use.  If it weren’t for the fact that I would read industry magazines and look at plenty of “help wanted” ads, I wouldn’t have any idea what these software packages werethat many tech comm and e-learning professionals use. The arguments that my school made for not teaching us some of these software packages was a) it was too expensive, and b) upgrades on packages are made so often that they’d never be able to keep up with the constant upgrades.  While I understand both arguments–and they are valid ones–I don’t agree that they are doing us any favors.  I am taking classes through a technical institution, and it seems unfair that many types of similar or more expensive software packages are being purchased and licensed for the engineering students, but not for tech comm students. We can access MS Office products…and that’s about it. No Adobe. No MadCap. Nothing like that. And yet, that’s what prospective employers ask for–not only technical communication know-how, but experience using “X” software or something similar.

I know that it can be expensive, but it’s more expensive long-term not to help us learn the basics of these packages.  I’ll use the example that I’ve mentioned to some most recently. The first version of MS Word that I ever used was the very first one–Word 1.0. Yes, it was a long time ago, and I know I’m old, thanks. But the point is, I haven’t taken a training session or class on how to use Word since learning that first version. I’ve just figured out the upgrades through trial and error, like most people, but I already understood the basic concepts.  If I was taught from an “old” version of Flare, Robohelp, FrameMaker, etc. I’m sure that I would figure out the upgrade pretty quickly, since I already understand how the software program works generally. See my point?  The software packages that I just listed, and more of them, are a technical communicator’s bread and butter.  While exposure to using MS Office in a creative way, and using free products is good to understand concepts, it’s not what will help burgeoning technical communicators like myself find work. I can write storyboards, and I understand the basic principles of instructional design, but if I can’t use Captivate, Lectora or Articulate to expedite those things, then none of that matters unless there is an employer willing to either train me or let me figure out how the software works.

As I just mentioned, this applies to the e-learning and m-learning world too. If you don’t know how to use Captivate, Lectora, Articulate, or one of the other great instructional design software packages, you are up a creek.  Add the mobile factor in it, and considering that not all software packages– for e-learning or tech comm– have kept up with the mobile revolution…it really makes things difficult, to say the least.

My main argument is that if you learn one package, more than likely you can figure out the others–there’s just a slight learning curve.  Bringing back that MS Word example again, up until the time that I started using MS Word, I was a diehard WordPerfect user, and had used that for many, many years. (Okay, you can stop with the old jokes now!) Because I understood how to use WordPerfect, I understood how to do word processing, and it was just a matter of learning which types of buttons or commands were the same, and which ones were different. I haven’t used WordPerfect for many years, but I’d bet you that I could figure out whatever the latest version is, simple because I know how to use a word processor in general.

I’m not promoting any specific product here–I mean, I’m willing to learn any of them! Part of what holds me back is the cost. It’s expensive to try to buy these packages, even with my student discount when applicable. I was looking at one of these software packages just today, and for a single license it was $1000.00! Really? I supposed if I was in business for myself and I already knew the software, I could consider it an investment and make it a business write-off in my taxes the following year. But a thirty-day trial isn’t long enough in most cases, or they are limited as they will only allow you to use the product, but not save your work. Or, let’s say you have one of those thirty-day trials with full access, and you get hooked, but then you can’t afford the software. What good is any of that? You can see why this would be incredibly frustrating to a fledgling technical communicator.

So, if I am to learn any software products, and I can’t spend a fortune to buy all of them, which ones are the best to learn that would allow me to adapt to other software packages easily? Should I learn Flare, or should I learn Framemaker and Robohelp? Should I learn Captivate, Lectora or Articulate? These are all industry leaders. But for all I know, some other product might work better and be the best at teaching me how to be adaptable to all of these.

Any suggestions? Please comment!

This topic totally exhausts me.