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STC-PMC 2014 Conference – Better than last year!

NJIT's MSPTC program in the house at STCPMC14! L to R: Dr. Bernadette Longo, director of the MSPTC program; Jamil Wilkins, current MSPTC student; Danielle M. Villegas, MSPTC alum and STCPMC presenter.
NJIT’s MSPTC program in the house at #STCPMC14! L to R: Dr. Bernadette Longo, director of the MSPTC program; Jamil Wilkins, current MSPTC student; Danielle M. Villegas, MSPTC alum and STCPMC presenter.

In a nutshell, the 2014 STC-PMC Mid-Atlantic Technical Conference was better than last year, in my opinion! A slightly different format, a different day, more networking, and excellent speakers made for a fantastic event.

Okay, now for more details.

First, having been a member of the conference’s planning committee this year, I know that a lot of work went into making this event a success. Kudos to my fellow volunteers! Special care was taken to choose the best proposals submitted, and it definitely was reflected in the best of the best! There were so many great subjects to choose from that even among the presenters, some were saying to each other, “I want to go to your presentation, but I’m presenting at the same time!” I think some of the attendees also had hard choices to make, since sometimes they couldn’t decide between topics during a given session!

Nicky Bleiel, who is currently the President of the STC, gave the keynote address for the conference. She talked about flexible content with responsive design. The main message of her talk was that with responsive design, technical communicators can create and deliver a single responsive output that will work on thousands of devices, including new devices, old devices, and even ones that don’t exist yet. She showed us a few examples, such as Microsoft and Lycos websites in which the content remains the same, even though the output in different browsers changed to work with the size of a particular browser size. Many companies started making separate mobile sites, but the content was not the same as the full site. Responsive web design is Google’s preferred configuration when ranking sites. Mobile users want content parity, meaning they want everything that desktop owners have, thus they want one Web. Fluid layouts, fluid images, media queries in the coding, and stacking or collapsing grids are the key to creating responsive design.

During the first breakout session, I gave my own presentation, “Blogging Out Loud: The Basics of Blogging,” so I didn’t get a chance to see anyone else’s presentation during that time, obviously.  I did have a lot of people in my room, which pleased me, and we had a great discussion during the question-and-answer time. It was a great group, and smart questions were asked.

After a lunch break filled with awards, volunteer recognition, food, and networking, I chose to attend Todd DeLuca‘s talk about volunteering your way up the career ladder.  Todd kept the presentation fairly open, sharing some of his own insights about volunteering from his personal experiences and how they were able to apply to his professional life. The group attending participated by sharing ideas and experiences themselves about volunteering, bringing about a great conversation. Todd’s main idea was that it doesn’t matter how big or small the contribution, or if the volunteer opportunity is inside or outside of work. The experience fulfills you when helping others, but also fulfills you by allowing you to gain skills and experience that helps yourself. I think one idea he presented resonated with me, which was that volunteering is an offer to help, but it’s also a promise that evolves, as it’s a commitment that is followed through and builds trust. I also liked his point that volunteering is a safe environment to grow because usually there is less risk and some mistakes are expected, so the environment is often more nurturing than work. That’s a great environment to learn! Todd has been volunteering for things inside and outside of his job for years, related to tech comm as well as unrelated, and felt that he’s reaped benefits that apply to where he is professionally. I know that Todd will be speaking at the 2014 Spectrum conference for the STC Rochester chapter in a few weeks, and he’ll also be speaking at the STC Summit on this topic, so I encourage you to attend to get more details and ideas!

The last presentation I saw for the day was by Neil Perlin. Neil and I have known each other through both e-learning and tech comm social media circles for a while now, but hadn’t met before. It was a real treat to meet and chat with him, but to also hear him speak, as I know he’s rather popular on the e-learning and tech comm circuits. Neil’s talk was about emerging technologies, which is a subject he’s excited about and presents frequently. Neil covered a wide range of topics that are currently in use now and look to be expanding in the future. These topics included more mobile content that needs content strategy to steer it, more use of analytics to understand what our users need and use, using social media extensively, augmented reality, wearables, the use of the “cloud” and cloud-based tools. He also stated that there is a need for standards in order to future-proof our materials to avoid problems as technologies come and go, since it’s so hard to predict what will everyone use. He advised us to stay current by going to conferences and staying on top of general business issues and trends. Business issues can kill a technology, so staying current on your company business is a show of tech comm’s support of corporate strategy. His last bit of advice was to review your tools regularly for environmental change, accept the rise of content and social media, don’t denigrate tools in favor of writing, and embrace and help shape change!

After the conference, WebWorks and Publishing Smarter hosted a nice post-conference get-together at the Iron Abbey, a pub-restaurant down the street from the conference venue. It was a great treat of libations, appetizers, and networking further with tech comm peers.

Overall, it was a great experience. I liked the format this year because it felt more relaxed with fewer breakout sessions. Presenters weren’t rushed as they often are at events like these, and more time was allowed for networking with everyone. Perhaps it’s because I’d had a different experience last year as a total newbie that it was so different to me, but I don’t think so. The topics of the conference, the agenda, and the camaraderie of those hosting at the “City of Brotherly Love” came together into a pleasant Saturday of learning. As a smaller, regional conference I think the more intimate setting helped it be a more personalized experience for all, thus it was a big success.

(To any of the fellow speakers I reviewed here–if you’d like to add or correct anything that I summarized here, please feel free to do so in the comments area below!)

If you are in the Philadelphia area next year around mid-March, I highly recommend coming to next year’s STC-PMC Mid-Atlantic Conference. I guarantee you’ll enjoy it.

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Villegas Views: Why Bother Learning More in Technical Communication?

See on Scoop.itM-learning, E-Learning, and Technical Communications

Danielle M. Villegas‘s insight:

I have a new monthly byline with the STC Notebook blog! Welcome to Villegas Views. Check out this latest entry about continuing education in tech comm.

–techcommgeekmom

See on notebook.stc.org

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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!)

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Hard Work and Persistence (Who Says OCD Is a Bad Thing?) Pays Off! : How I won an iPad

As someone who participated in Adobe’s TechComm Conundrum contest on Facebook, I can confidently say that it was not for the faint of heart! It combined one of my favorite topics—technical communications—with the thrill a researcher gets when hunting for clues. Many of my favorite television shows and movies often combine finding historical facts and clues to find a treasure of some sort at the end, whether it be an “ah-hah!” piece of important information, or some physical prize at the end.  As it turns out for me, it was a matter of having both at the end of my journey!

The TechComm Conundrum, for those who did not participate, was a series of questions and clues to learn more about technical communication history, as well as Adobe’s role in technical communications, on the way to find Adobe’s missing employee, Tina.  Being that I was trained to do research while I was a graduate student at NJIT’s MSPTC program, I knew that sometimes answers would be very obvious, and sometimes I would have to read between the lines.

Like many who did participate, I hit some brick walls along the way.  Many of the answers were right in the Adobe Technical Communications Suite 4 videos, blog, and product page. Other answers required deeper searching, and using extensive Google searches, I found the information I needed. Some responses were more obvious than others, and I admit I learned a few new things about the technical communications field and its fantastic history. It made me proud to call myself a technical communicator, and reinforced the idea that I was glad to be a part of this field. It was fun.

For those who got that far but got stuck, like I did initially, the last question was the trickiest of all. Finding a connection between a photo of actors Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, the logo of FrameMaker, and a photo of produce at a market was daunting.  I found a connection between the actors, as they were all in the film titled, “The Kids Are Alright.”  But beyond that, I couldn’t figure out what that had to do with a photo of vegetables or FrameMaker.  I tried so many combinations of ideas to figure out the answer, and wasn’t getting very far. I wrote down all the answers on a sticky note by my computer, and for at least a good week, I would enter all the answers for the questions and get stumped at the last one.

Finally, I decided to look more carefully at FrameMaker’s history to see if that would yield any clues.  It was Wikipedia that finally yielded the clue I was seeking. In Wikipedia’s first line of the history of FrameMaker, it explains that FrameMaker’s original author, Charles “Nick” Corfield, designed FrameMaker to be a WYSIWYG document editor. Wait…WYSIWYG…that acronym stands for “What You See Is What You Get.” My mind started racing, as that’s an acronym I like to often use myself. Was it really that simple in the end? I was told later (after the contest) that Mark Ruffalo’s character in the movie owned a restaurant called “WYSIWYG”, although I didn’t know that since I hadn’t seen the movie. Nonetheless, I tried the acronym as my response, and gingerly hit the “Enter” button on my laptop to submit it.

EUREKA! That was it! The explorer finally had her “ah-hah” moment! There was true joy in deciphering something that was still stumping everyone else still playing. So, yesterday, when I found out that I had actually won one of the “grand prizes”—a new iPad—I was actually thrilled. I was informed that only two people—I was one of them—figured it out. The hard work to crack the code paid off!

Hopefully, Adobe will bring this contest back as a fun game, as I think the quiz is great for new technical communicators to learn about the rich history of the technical communications.  Talk about your active learning exercises through e-learning! (And I’ll bet it was created on Captivate, which is a featured product within Technical Communications Suite 4, too.)

Thanks, Adobe for such a fun ride—and the iPad!