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TechCommGeekMom, where have you been? The Delta Quadrant?

I know you haven’t been in the Delta Quadrant. So where have you been?

OK, so it’s been a while. I know. While I wish I could say that I’ve been on an Intrepid-class Federation starship named the U.S.S. Voyager, sadly that is not the case.

It’s a little hard to be writing blog posts when a) you don’t know exactly what to say after having written hundreds of posts before, and b) you’re just REALLY busy.

2016 was a rough year, but 2017 has also had its challenges so far.  You know that I’m always in some sort of work search mode, and that’s already had its ups and downs for the past few months.  I was excited to get my first independent contract. It was an opportunity to finally flex my e-learning muscles, and do it on my terms.  I started to create a curriculum matrix,  to make storyboards, to write transcripts, test questions, and study guides, and created video training–21 completed videos in about a month. But the contract ended before the full project was completed, and I don’t know what will be happening going forward. There was a big learning curve involved, and after the fact, I’ve realized where I made some wrong moves, but I also learned where I made many right moves as well.  I’ve been mastering TechSmith’s Camtasia during this time, and feel pretty comfortable with it now. I sometimes feel I missed out on one of my many callings as a video editor (although you never know–that might change going forward).  I know that I was producing good content, if I say so myself, so I have to be satisfied with that for now.

I also was the co-chair of the STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter (STC-PMC)’s annual CONDUIT conference.  Thankfully, that came off with few hitches, and it was well received by everyone I heard from. Some people hadn’t been to the conference in years, and it was a great opportunity for them to see how our conference has grown!  Next year, at this point, it looks like I’ll be the main chair for the event, so it’s going to feel a little overwhelming, I’m sure. Just being co-chair felt overwhelming at times, while trying to work with client deadlines. It stressed me out enough that I even got physically sick for a while. For CONDUIT, the payoff is worth it, and I hope that everyone who is reading this considers coming as a presenter or attendee for next year.

Oh, and I can’t forget that I’ve been studying my DITA by helping someone who is writing a book about it, and I was asked to contribute edits as a beginner who wanted to ensure that they understood the author’s instructions.  That was cool, and helpful.

Kim: Is she kidding us? Overwhelming?
Paris: That’s what she claims. Who am I to argue?

All through this time, as I said, it’s been a bit overwhelming. I realized some missteps with all of it the hard way, as I usually do, but thankfully I have a lot of good people who help me get back up and fight another day. (Photon torpedos are loaded, Captain.)

I spoke to veteran tech comm consultants at CONDUIT and through Single-Sourcing Solutions’ TC Conclave, as well as just talking to other technical communicators when I had the opportunity offline.  All have provided me with advice about how to move forward in the future as an independent consultant, and massaged my ego just enough, knowing how battered and bruised I felt at times.  For that, thanks to all of you. You know who you are.  This is why I get involved with the STC and with other technical communicators.  Five years of networking is finally paying off–you know me, I know you, and I can learn more about things that they don’t teach you in grad school. I benefit from your experiences and I’m grateful.

Kim: I think we should take a ship-wide survey or start a betting pool on what she’ll do next. Who’s in?

So now the question is…what do I do going forward? I’m in limbo once again with timing, figuring out what to do next. At this writing, I’ve decided to lay low for a couple of weeks. I’m concentrating on my VP duties for the STC-PMC for the rest of this program year (two more main events to go right now!), reworking my consultancy’s website (a project temporarily postponed when I started my contract in February), and doing a little bit of project hunting, but nothing too deep just yet.  I have a few leads on things, but I’ve always been hesitant to “count my chickens before they are hatched,” as the saying goes. I’m looking forward to attending the STC Summit in a few weeks in Washington, DC.  I’m getting excited about going, because I realize that it’ll be nonstop tech comm for me almost from the moment I get there! I’ll be with my tribe! I plan to take advantage of seeing all my STC friends–and making new ones as well–in the hopes that my continued networking will help me build my business. I’m looking at things through a slightly different perspective now.

In some ways, I’m still scared to death being “on my own”.  Having survived through my first experience without an agency, though, was exhilarating, and I liked being my own boss and calling most of the shots, and determining how things should be done.  I was able to validate that in many ways, I’m still on the right track, even if things are slow-going right now.

Kim: Captain, there’s something out there!
Janeway: I need a better description than that, Mr. Kim!

I still have a very long way to go, but I’ll find my way eventually. Sometimes I feel like the very green Ensign Kim, who has some knowledge, but still finding my place while trying to make a difference. Sometimes I feel like Captain Janeway, where I feel like I can lead and figure out what needs to be done. There will be Borg, Kazon, Vidiians, and Hirogen to battle along the way, I’m sure. Hopefully my persistence moving forward will get me where I need to go, even if it takes a while.

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Technical Writer – Career Rankings, Salary, Reviews and Advice | US News Best Jobs

See how technical writer stacks up against other occupations.

Source: Technical Writer – Career Rankings, Salary, Reviews and Advice | US News Best Jobs

Thanks to the STC and Liz Fraley for posting this on Facebook for me to see.

I’m fortunate that I’m friends with Adriane Hunt, the STC President who is quoted in this article. It’s great to know that technical writing is listed as #3 on the US News & World Report’s top Creative & Media Jobs list.  Adriane is a member of the STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter (STC-PMC), which I’m currently the vice-president of, and she’s had lots of great takeaways over the years from attending STC-PMC programs and events (like the CONDUIT conference) and other STC events.

This is a great read to remind us why we stick with technical writing and communications.  It’s a profession that continues to grow, even when we think it isn’t, and we can gain great satisfaction from doing the job. It also doesn’t hurt that technical writers are usually great people as well. Adriane is a great example of that.

Check out the interview I did with her almost two years ago…the video is spotty (it was the first time I was doing it, and we had some unforeseen technical issues), but listen to the conversation, and you can see why Adriane and the STC has a great future.

A Conversation with Adriane Hunt

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2016 TechCommGeekMom Year in Review: Yeah, it could’ve been better.

Bored girl expressing, "Seriously though, do you think it could've been worse?"
Seriously though, do you think it could’ve been worse?

As 2017 gets going, I realized that I haven’t written a whole lot in the past year. Why? Simple–not a whole lot to write about, frankly. 2016 was a rough year in many ways, but there were some good elements, too.

It’s hard to write about things when you feel like nothing is inspiring you or giving you little motivation. I remember feeling excited about tech comm for the first few years, and it was much easier, as I was learning new things constantly. Now, while there is still a lot for me to learn, it’s not quite as much in some instances. It’s probably like anything else, in that movements go in waves, and the mobile wave first took hold right about the time I started to study tech comm and get involved in tech comm. Now, it’s something that we take for granted, like electricity or running water in developed countries. There are still things to discover, but the wave of innovation and adapting to the changes to those innovations–both professionally and socially–have generally passed. We’ve adapted, for the most part.  The use of mobile devices like mobile phones and tablets are common place now. Almost everyone has a smart phone. And many companies–not all, but most–have adapted their content and UX to have responsive design to adapt to different devices.  E-learning has gone back to basics with m-learning by re-adapting chunking and also using responsive design and better UX.

From my view, the initial thrill is over, and we are now settling into the “new normal”.   Things that were new and exciting have now become everyday, or have morphed into what they will be. For example, when social media really started to take off, it was an opportunity to create content that could be shared easily in sound bytes or blurbs in a more viral manner than conventional media. It was an opportunity to use content to incite a two-way conversation to discuss and share. Now, social media strategists don’t use social media for discussion, but rather as another marketing medium. Content strategists have been…shall we say…strongly encouraged to look at content as a marketing asset, and look towards content marketing. Content marketers, however, are not content strategists who have some understanding of marketing, but rather it’s expected that they are full-fledged marketers that have some understanding of content. (Trust me. I’ve read the job descriptions posted for many companies.) Both social media and content marketing are things I looked at doing seriously with my career. But as time went on, it was apparent that corporate expectations were shifting, and that these jobs were really meant for business people who were marketers and trained in marketing, not technical communicators. While I have some good sense about business, marketing, and customer service after many years, I don’t consider myself a business person per se. In other words, I would never get an MBA because business topics bore the hell out of me, and there are others who can look and do that sort of thing better than me.

This past year was a year of experimentation for me. When I got out of grad school almost five years ago, I wanted to be an instructional designer until I found that there was no such position as an entry-level instructional designer. I fell back into doing what I had done for years, but with stronger knowledge and experience, which was content strategy and management. I’d been happy doing that work, but always wanted to expand my skills. When I was released from my long-term contract doing content management in 2015, I saw it as an opportunity to do something different. I could start over, if you will. I was hired to do a knowledge management job, but the position was a misnomer. It really didn’t do anything close to knowledge management, and in the end, the projects they had brought me on board for were cancelled, and my contract ended in early 2016.

I was able to pick myself up quickly, taking a copywriting technical writer position. While I definitely had the ability to do the job, I found that my best writing abilities and UX/UI skills couldn’t be used to their fullest potential. I’m used to writing more than two sentences at a time, or re-labeling a button using a single word. I knew I had more to offer than what was required with no opportunities to contribute more than that, so I let that contract expire.

After trying those two other avenues, I found a short-term job doing content strategy and management again. Oh, it was exciting for me! I felt so comfortable doing that kind of work, and I felt confident again in my abilities. I was right to trust my instincts–that there was more to me than writing two sentences at a time, and doing something that I like doing. That, in itself, was a big discovery.

So, through this period of self-discovery, it was rough. I was unhappy with the work I was doing, unhappy with my lack of progress in a positive direction professionally, began to doubt my professional self-worth, and felt conflicted about next steps. Okay, so I’m still working through some of it, but I think the worst is (hopefully) over.

This isn’t to say that it’s all been bad. From those events, I can say that I learned what I’m good at, and what I’m not good at. I learned what I like and don’t like. I started to have a better understanding of my self-worth, at least professionally. Those are big realizations in themselves.

There were also other good things that happened that proved to be positive challenges. I had post-weight loss surgery, and recovered from that well. I’d never had major surgery in my life (and will be avoiding it in every way possible in the future), and found strength within myself to recover quickly and push myself.  I attended three conferences in 2016, namely CONDUIT, TC Camp – East, and the STC Summit. All went well, and it gave me a chance to learn and reaffirm my passion for tech comm, meet and network with old and new colleagues, and remind me that this is the profession where I belong.  I got more involved in my local STC chapter, and now I’m the vice-president of the chapter, and working my way up the STC food chain, as one might say. I’ve been in charge of STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter’s programming this year, and I’m also co-chair of their conference, CONDUIT, so it’s been very busy for me that way as well, as I gain some new soft skills–and enhance ones I already had.

The election outcome put me in a very bad funk for the latter part of 2016. Dealing with my teenage autistic son has been more challenging than ever. End of the year holidays also don’t put me in a happy mood, usually. It’s usually a stressful time on a number of levels, and I couldn’t wait for the year to be over.

While in many respects, the start of 2017 is a chance to start fresh again, it’s an artificial starting point. I say that because we can start over fresh anytime we want to, if you think about it. It could be in the middle of August, or the end of March, or anytime, really. But with the stress of the holidays and year-end activities, January 1st was as good a date as any to start over, and it’s not something that is only on one day.  Fresh starts can take days, weeks, or months. I’ve made some big decisions going forward that will take some time. I will need to be more patient with myself in achieving those goals. I am going to have many challenges, but I have support from my family and my colleagues to move forward in the direction I am intending.

The number one thing that I’ve decided that I need to do in 2017 is I have to get to a place in my life where I can be happy with what I do, and do what I enjoy.  That’s easier said than done. To that end, I’m going to focus more on building up my independent consulting business, which I had intended to start after that long-term contract ended in 2015. I got majorly side-tracked in 2016, so 2017 is going to be focused on getting back on track with that. No agency contract distractions like in the past year. I’m going to do it on my own, using entrepreneurship and networking skills. It may be slow going to start, but I have a few good leads so far. Time will tell if they work out successfully. I know I’ll put my full efforts into any projects I do get. I’ll also be learning, both independently and with help, how to run a successful business.  Hopefully, this will encourage the spark for me to write here more often about things that are going on that I see in tech comm, and how I view things that I’m learning in the process. I had a recent head-start with my adventures in learning DITA. My initial plans are to continue to train and practice using DITA. I’m also going to be learning Drupal next month, as that seems to be a widely used CMS in my area with some of the leading employers in the area. I’m hoping that adding DITA and Drupal to my “arsenal” of skills will be helpful for my business. I’ll attending CONDUIT and the STC Summit for sure this year, strengthening my professional ties and knowledge. I’ll be working hard still for the STC-PMC, as I intend to run for President of the group this year (we’ll see how that goes!).

Outside of my professional life, there are some hurdles along the way as well, but my goal this year is, well, to get through this year unscathed, or better off than I am now. I don’t mean just financially or professionally, but personally as well. It’s going to be a rebuilding year, and I hope that this time next year, I’ll be a little more upbeat about things, and I will have been able to share more with you over the course of the year.

What are your professional goals this year? Include your comments below.

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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.)