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Confessions of a Failed Technical Communicator

homer_confession
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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Oh, the Academian and the Practitioner should be friends…Engaging TechComm Professionals

The farmer and the cowman--I mean, the academian and the practitioner should be friends...
The farmer and the cowman–I mean, the academian and the practitioner should be friends…

I attended the IEEE ProComm at the University of Limerick, in Limerick, Ireland last week. I was absolutely gobsmacked months ago when a presentation proposal I sent in for this conference was actually accepted. I figured, why not? I’m always looking to expand my tech comm circle, so I had hoped that this would help in this endeavour. I made some great new connections, and I was glad for that, and I certainly enjoyed the sessions I attended.

One thing that was very different about this conference, unlike the other tech comm conferences I’ve attended thusfar, was that this particular conference focused more on the academic side of tech comm. I found out, through inquiry, that while all were invited to this conference, there was definitely a very strong bent toward academia. There is nothing wrong with that, but the depth of this academic frame of mind is not something I’ve dealt with since I graduated from NJIT three years ago.  I understand that academia has its own rules and ways of doing things, but it was definitely…different. Not in a bad way, but different.

Up until this point, I had attended what I’ll call “practitioner” conferences. I’ve chose the word “practitioner” rather than “professional” because in the end, we’re all professionals at what we do in the technical communications, whether we teach and do research, or are out in the corporate world making things happen. Thus those out there in the corporate world I’m choosing to call practitioners. Some practitioners do teach, and some academians do corporate work, but they don’t always overlap. I wanted to clarify this before I move on with my narrative here…

Anyway, as I started to say, up until this point, I had attended conferences that had a stronger practitioner’s bent to them. Most speakers would be people who had been out there battling it out in the corporate masses, and sharing their experiences and knowledge attained from those experiences with others. I often attribute the fact that I got my last job with BASF because of information that learned through one of these practitioner events, because it was something that the company could use beyond analytical theories. Speakers at these practitioner conferences are those who are in the trenches every day, putting to practice all those theories about content strategy, revising them, applying them to businesses globally.

So, attending a mostly academic conference like the IEEE ProComm was a bit eye-opening. Many of the talks were summaries of research that had been done on a variety of topics, and peer reviewed, which was all well and good. I found that the sessions that I could connect best to were the ones that were given by practitioners, practitioners who were also academians, or academians who had a foothold as consultants outside of the academy. There were plenty of sessions whose topics were relevant to the corporate world, but they failed to deliver completely on something new or to provide any revelations to me. There were also summary sessions that provided research conclusions which were incorrect or inaccurate from practitioner perspectives, or elicited the feeling of “…and why are you researching this topic again, and what is its relevency?”

I spent a good part of my time networking with people who happened to be practitioners studying for advanced degrees or had an advanced degree. I particularly connected with one woman who happened to come out of the same NJIT program that I did. (We weren’t classmates, as she started the semester after I graduated, but we knew or had many of the same professors.) She’s been a practitioner much longer than I have, and as she had recently graduated from the NJIT program. NJIT people rarely attend these conferences, so if we do find each other, we tend to flock together a bit. She and I spent a lot of time comparing notes from our experiences and concerns that we had not only about our own program, but other programs as well.

The main gist of our conclusions was that this disparity between the academy and those in practice was discouraging. We both felt that while there were several technical communications programs that did help with job placement and practical experience while still in the studying process, not enough were. Additionally, some of the information that was being given to students about the realities of working in tech comm weren’t accurate or up to date. This is a disservice to both those who do research and especially to students who have to go out in the “real world”.  In order to not make it sound like I’m placing any blame on academia alone, practitioners also have a responsibility to be active in helping to groom future technical communicators as well. My NJIT colleague and I talked about we might be the first two members of an alumni advisory committee that we’d like to start (of course, NJIT doesn’t know this yet), because we felt that we could bring back our experiences either as instructors or merely as advisors to help professors and students keep up to speed with what’s happening outside the virtual or literal campus walls.

Now, in saying all this, I don’t mean to step on ANYONE’s toes in this discourse. Far from it! While I’m sure you can tell that I lean on the side of being a practitioner, this doesn’t mean that I don’t understand the academic side at all. I’ve been there. I’ve taught, too. However, there were just too many conversations in which I wanted to say to a few professors that only teach and do research, “REALLY?? Are you serious?”, knowing well that they were serious. I understand that many universities also have a hard rule about the need to do publish and research to keep one’s professorial job, so that can’t be easy to balance all of it.

Aunt Eller meant business when she had to "encourage" everyone to get along.
Aunt Eller meant business when she had to “encourage” everyone to get along.

When I first started meeting people at the ProComm conference, they assured me, as a first-time attendee, that this was a friendly group and it was easy to get to know others. This proved to be true. Just like the STC Summit and other conferences I have attended, the people were friendly, helpful, intelligent, and eager to “talk shop” with each other. I welcolmed that, and have found that these sentiments seem to be universal with all technical communicators. However, as time went by, that difference and angst between the academians and practitioners, while mild, was still palpable. The entire conference, I had a song running through my head from the American musical, “Oklahoma” called, “The Farmer and The Cowman (Territory Folk)”. (If you haven’t seen the musical before, you can watch the YouTube video of the song.) Essentially, the message of the song is that the two groups really had the same interests at hand in the end, and they needed to learn to cooperate more to make the goal of being the new state of Oklahoma work. I’m hoping that my role in this, on some level by opening up this conversation, is that I play the role of Aunt Eller from the same musical. She gives the advice at the end of this song by singing,

I’d teach you all a little sayin’
and learn the words by heart the way you should,
I don’t say that I’m no better than anybody else,
but I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good!

😉

The Living Bridge at the University of Limerick.  Looks like a good place to start to "bridge" the gap.
The Living Bridge at the University of Limerick.
Looks like a good place to start.

While I don’t think our difference as as strong as the farmers or the cowmen of Oklahoma, I’d like to think that we can come together much more easily and bridge that chasm more quickly and completely. We all have the same goal, after all–to continue to make technical communications a top notch field and create superior technical communicators. How can we go wrong with a goal like that?

My own view is that more needs to be done to connect academia with practitioners. I know that the STC-PMC, for example, has been very active in the past year working with technical writing students at Drexel University in Philadelphia. They are always looking for more local schools to connect with. I’m sure there are other outreach programs out there, but how many exactly, whether it’s through STC or IEEE or any other professional group out there? I know that I’m going to try to reach out to my own program at NJIT in the next week and see if I can offer any help. What can you do?

What do you think? I know a lot of my readers fall on both sides of this issue, and several straddle both. I’d love to hear what you think, and let’s get the conversation started on this!

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Online Student Again, Part 11: I passed! 

“Alright then, you’ve proven that you aren’t a total pudding brain. Now, I want you to learn geo-quantum astrophysics next,” says the Doctor.

After a delay due to server hacks at Rutgers University, I finally got my grades while I was vacationing in Ireland. My final grade was a B+ for my Digital Marketing class! While in recent years, I have had a reputation of having a straight A average with my grad school level classes, I was not disappointed in this grade. As I may have mentioned in a previous post, I got an 82% on my final exam. The test was one where it was one shot at 50 multiple choice questions. If I hadn’t studied the quizzes and taken the quizzes multiple times to practice (they weren’t graded), I wouldn’t have passed. Most of the questions on the test were the same as the quizzes! So there’s that. Some of the questions, as they were worded, were NOT easy. Even so, with the fact that I got an 82/100, I was greatly relieved.

As for my Capstone project which involved more work and thought towards the practical application of the information we learned, I got a 95/100, or an A. I was happy about this, as this is the part of the grade I actually fretted over more. I knew it would be difficult, because I didn’t have any clear cut projects from work or situations to base my digital marketing strategy on. So, in my mind, this was an educated shot in the dark. I decided that I would base my project on something that was real for me. I’ve mentioned that I had been thinking of starting my own consulting business, and so I based my project on the idea of my proposed reality–I needed to come up with a plan to promote my fledgling company to gain brand recognition and acquire customers. That’s fairly straightforward. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I understood how to approach the digital part of the strategy, but not as clear with the marketing. So, I did the best I could, and labored over this project. It paid off. The commentary of what was missing was minimal, mostly about re-evaluating after gaining clients and reassessing the stats taken based on that. That makes sense, but let me get some clients first!

So, once the exam was averaged with the Capstone, I got an 88.5% for the class, also known as a B+. Considering that this was not an easy subject for me to study, I still think I did well. I did not think much of giving equal weight to the test and Capstone then averaging the grades. The test, while it tested students on concepts, wasn’t well written and it was not really practical. Ultimately, the Capstone project was a practical use of the information and more of a projection of what I’d really have to do in “real life”, thus it should have been worth more, because these kinds of strategies are what need to be brought into the real world. So in my mind, while it’s not official, I still got an A for the class because that was what I got for the Capstone.

So there you have it. I got a B+.

Would I take this course again? Probably. The experience was very different from doing my online Masters at NJIT. My studies at NJIT were much more structured and directed than this course at Rutgers. This online digital marketing course was 10 modules of about 10 videos per module. The information in the modules was excellent, and the instructors were top notch. I wouldn’t trade that. When I was able to go to the “virtual office hours”, the instructors were approachable.  However, I had to stay super-disciplined in watching all the videos (3-4 hours’ worth of information that could be dry content at times) every week. I didn’t have the chance to interact with fellow students almost at all to exchange ideas. It wasn’t as rich of an experience as I had enjoyed with NJIT. Despite the lesser things about this course’s delivery, I know that I will definitely use this information going forward.

So, I will shortly receive my mini-MBA in Digital Marketing from Rutgers soon in the mail. I suppose the question will be–what will the next course I take be, and when? I don’t know yet. I’m the eternal learner, so I look forward to that answer, too.

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Online Student Again – Part 3: Social Media Marketing–Now You’re Talking My Language!

social-networksThe next module of my online digital mini-MBA in Digital Marketing was about social media marketing. Simply from the name of it, I suspected that I had a better chance with this topic than I had with search marketing. I took a look at the slides and completed the pre-reading assignments, and sure enough, I understood ALL of it.  Why? Because I’ve entrenched myself into social media from the beginning of my tech comm career, and it’s why you are reading this article. It’s all about how to use social media for promotion and starting the conversation with your readers through the use of meaningful content.

I was lucky that I had a great course on the theory and practices of social media at NJIT, which I still refer to in presentations and still greatly affects me to this day. That course was what started this blog, after all! I learned many of these marketing concepts through trial and error over the last three years.

There were so many concepts that easily clicked for me, which included what I’ve been struggling to get people to understand not only from a social media perspective, but from a content strategy perspective as a whole! It seems that most of the issues from a corporate level stem from a cultural standpoint, and that corporate culture is not willing to evolve and change with the times! There are other complications, but that’s the primary one. I know from working with several companies, I’ve seen this often. There’s some progress, but it’s not the progress that I would recommend. (But I’m a consultant at the bottom of the food chain, so I know I don’t have a chance to be heard anytime soon.)

The biggest part of this module that I agreed with entirely was that social media is not another type of media along the lines of singularly directional TV, radio, or print. Social media is SOCIAL, people, so it’s about that two-way communication that I wrote about in my last blog post. The instructor for this module of the course, Mark Schaefer, is the author of several books on the subject and has been in marketing for 30+ years, and discussed much of what I’ve come to understand on my own! He went into deeper detail of it all, but he talked about the idea of creating strategies that create relevant content that connects. He said that we are already experiencing content overload, and the key is figuring out how to filter the relevant content that connects people to each other. It’s no longer B2B (Business to Business), but rather P2P (Person to Person).  Mr. Schaefer is also the author of Tao of Twitter where he provides insights on how Twitter can be used effectively–and ineffectively–for content marketing.  As students of this course, we all received a digital copy of the book. Based on how this module went, I definitely plan to read this! (Perhaps I’ll do a TechCommGeekMom Book Review about it as soon as I finish it.)

This time, I got 100% on my quiz on the first try.  So many of the concepts in this module were easy for me, I think simply because there was such a strong connection between content strategy and social media concepts that I already knew or learned on my own in the last few years, either from experience or from various presentations I’ve seen at conferences (Intelligent Content Conference is a great example–did you see that discount there on the right side bar? If it’s still there, take advantage of it! It’s a very good conference on this very topic!)  After last week’s struggles with Search Marketing, I was relieved that this module, while truly packed with a lot of information, was much more my speed and less confusing.

I know Rutgers offers another mini-MBA program that is solely on social media marketing, and I’m sure that I’d like that very much, but I think I’ll wait and see how this mini-MBA goes first. I’m not sure that I necessarily need the social media marketing mini-MBA, but Mr. Schaefer said he teaches in that one, and if this module was a broad summary of the larger course, then I think I’d be okay!

The next module is something that I think I’ll have a pretty decent understanding of as well…mobile marketing! Y’all know that I love my mobile tech comm and m-learning, so I have a feeling that many of the concepts that will be brought up in this module will be familiar to me or easy to understand as well. Until the next module…

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Online Student Again: Part 1

ipad with handAs I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I decided to bite the bullet and “git me some learnin’ ” in preparation of possible unemployment or breaking out on my own to consult. The big buzz in content strategy for the last year or so has been “content marketing”. From the highest level looking down, I get what it is, but I have no practical experience in marketing, or have true comprehension of some of the components that are important to it. So, I’m taking the Online Mini-MBA course at Rutgers University in Digital Marketing. It seemed to have everything I was looking for in a digital marketing class to fill in the gaps–social media marketing, SEO and SEM practices, YouTube marketing, mobile marketing, etc. (Gee, I sound like Stefan from SNL with that description.)

stefan-snl
Stefan from Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live (SNL) says, “It’s got everything, alright!”

The coursework for this credential is very different from my experience for my MSPTC (Masters of Science in Professional and Technical Communication) at NJIT. With those courses, there was required reading, and each module was released each week (more or less) with set deadlines for online discussion participation and papers. Each week or two, I had to have something to turn in. I don’t remember ever having quizzes or tests, but rather I had lots of assignments to show that a) I could follow directions, and b) could produce something that showed that I comprehended the information.

This mini-MBA is set up rather differently. It is more self-driven as far as the pace goes, with a series of videos to watch that were evidently taken during a recent week-long, in-person crash course of the same material. There is a capstone project at the end that comprises of a 20-slide PowerPoint presentation, but I guess I’ll figure out what that entails as I go along. All the modules are available to do from Day 1. I’m not entirely used to that!

So, I just completed the first of ten modules, which was an overview about digital marketing as presented by Dr. Augustine Fou. He gave some easy to understand examples that I could follow along, but at the same time, I had to be grateful for having attended the Intelligent Content Conference and other presentations last year that talked a little bit about content marketing. Otherwise, I would’ve been totally lost or overwhelmed. At least I had a clue about what he was talking about, and again, the examples he used were easy to follow. I took my first quiz, and fortunately, I got a perfect score, and that’s considering that I watched all the videos for this module over two days in my free time, and there were only five questions! At least it’s a good start for now.

I was nervous about starting this coursework–business topics are something that I’m not exactly keen on or particularly good at, and it’s been a while since I’ve felt the pressure of having to do well considering I’ve spent a lot of money to be learning this information, but I think, as I said, I’m off to a good start. I’m truly hoping that after I’m done, it’ll help me speak in marketing language enough that I can potentially get a content marketing job, or at least be able to offer some advice as a consultant.

Onwards to Module 2!