14 December 2015

Technical Communication UK 2015

As usual, I attended the Technical Communication UK conference (TCUK 2015), which was held in Glasgow this year. As my father came from Coatbridge (a few miles east of Glasgow), the accent and the general location felt very familiar to me, and after several years of attending TCUK, so did many of my fellow delegates! It’s one of the things I really like about TCUK – the change to catch up with people I don’t see very often and find out what they’ve been doing lately.

I didn’t attend as many sessions as I normally do – but that wasn’t the fault of the organisers. I’d seen some of the presentations before (I attended UA Europe in the summer) and I needed to have a few conversations with people while wearing my president hat. Overall, though, another excellent conference. Some of the take-aways:

  • Diversify – if you can do something your competitors can’t (competitors either in the job market or amongst your colleagues), you have an advantage.
  • Keep up to date – you may have years of experience, but being a wizard in Word Perfect and in working practices of the 80s isn’t going to get you far.
  • Embrace your inner nerd – if you’re fortunate enough to have one. We are often told (or at least, I have been) that we shouldn’t be too technical. We write better user documentation if we are closer to them than to the developers. But there’s nothing wrong in being technical if your audience is technical, and in any case, being technical in your own niche (for example, XML, CSS, DITA, HTML...) can be a definite advantage.
  • Things are changing quickly – but there are always some who for various reasons choose to (or have to) keep doing things in a more traditional way. If there are sound reasons, that’s fine - but don’t just keep doing it the way you’ve always done it just because that’s the way you’ve always done it! Some of the things that are now being done in production environments (virtual reality and so on) are amazing.
As president, I also had the privilege this year of presenting the Technical Communication UK Awards to some very deserving winners. The challenges overcome to produce some of the winning entries were inspiring.

08 September 2015

Terrorist Tech-Comms

*This article was written for my regular slot in Communicator but didn’t make it to print as it made a copy-editor “uncomfortable” (you have been warned!)

Do you remember Guerrilla Gardening? The alliterative environmental resistance movement that swept some of our inner cities a few years ago and saw people improving our urban spaces using tactics that would have been quite de rigueur for the French resistance? Well, maybe the same thing would be possible for the world of technical communication? Of course, if we’re going to borrow combative methods and retain the alliteration, terrorism becomes our playbook of choice.

Modern global terrorism (as opposed to the localised forms experienced on and off since the word was coined in the 17th century) offers nearly as many lessons as The Art of War, with the added advantage that we don’t need to read between the lines to work out how we’re expected to add in modern technology… our source materials are bang up to date (pardon the pun).

So what makes an effective terrorist? I suppose there are four factors that can be readily related to the world of technical communication.

Ideology and identity
Belief in an ideology is critical to the terrorist, and the ability to identify with others who espouse the same beliefs (although group membership is less important, some operate alone despite identifying with a particular group). Most technical communicators already fit this box (especially those who’ve joined something like the ISTC). We think of ourselves as technical communicators rather than just ‘people who write technical documents for money’. I’d pay attention to how someone describes themselves if recruiting for a mid-senior level position as they will be the source of indoctrination for others.
Part of the civilian population
Unless they’re posing for promotional photography, terrorists don’t wear a uniform. This cowardly unwillingness to paint targets on themselves is actually very useful when it comes to doing their job. Is that bloke digging next to the road to fix a broken sewage pipe, or plant a bomb? Who knows? But before it goes bang, he’ll have stopped for a coffee, changed his hat and be just another rushed commuter making a quick call to check his voicemail.
Similarly, a good technical communicator should blend into the team they’re supporting so that they’re in on all the conversations and able to gather the information they need to produce their content without wearing a target and getting in peoples’ faces. There should be trust involved in establishing the symbiotic relationship that technical communicators need with SMEs (subject matter experts) in order to get the job done.
Statement pieces
I’m not suggesting any of you blow up a building, kidnap an SME or imprison someone from a rival firm in a cage. However, I am suggesting that your products need to have a bit of something that makes them stand out whilst being identifiable to both you and your organisation. This can be done with logos and graphic design (see the black flag of ISIS), a style guide that’s both comprehensive and adventurous, and by getting the message out there through as many mediums as possible (there are many books still to be written on the ground-breaking ways modern criminal and terrorist organisations use social media and multi-platform multi-media messaging). It’s not always easy when you’ve been commissioned to write ‘a manual’, but clients and firms are usually comfortable with the idea of training materials running parallel to bundled documentation, and I’ve a couple at the moment who are really keen to use screen capture video as a way to reach an English-as-a-Second-Language client base.
Easily replaceable
In any organisation, aside from a few innovators and intellectual property holders, most people are replaceable. In a terrorist organisation, where a fair percentage at all levels of the organisation are being blown up on a regular basis (by themselves or their competition) this is doubly true.
I’ve worked with prescient clients who’ve brought me in because a (or the) SME is retiring and they need to capture and distil that person’s experience into a manual for the team he’s leaving behind. But I’ve also found myself in a firm when ‘the knowledge’ has already left and an expensive and time consuming reorganisation has become necessary. In both of these situations, I’m the agent of continuity.
If I have a pet hate, it’s being faced with a set of documentation and products where everyone, including the technical author, has been doing their own thing. It’s not a good way to work. I’d like to think that an equivalently qualified and skilled person could pick up where I’d left off should something untoward happen. Being consistent shouldn’t be that hard as modern technical communications software uses styles to control appearance and tags to indicate purpose, and our profession is filled with reasonably standard ways of working. Be mindful that if we’re responsible for continuity, accidents befalling us shouldn’t affect our replacement.

I suppose this goes to show that for the true professional, who’s always willing to learn, there are lessons tucked away in even the darkest corners of humanity.


29 September 2014

Hail to the Chief!

I’ve been away with the Army Reserve for a couple of weeks, and it seems that things have been moving quite rapidly whilst I’ve been gone. Firstly there’s the start of Alison’s tenure as President of the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators. This is a voluntary position that Alison will hold for a few years as she juggles Clearly Stated with providing leadership and direction to the wider profession. Her first official engagement after becoming president at TCUK14 was an appearance on Radio 3’s The Verb where she talks about the importance of good technical communication in an ever changing world. The show is entertaining as Alison shares the floor with both a comedian and a poet in an exploratory discussion.

Now it would be nice to spill the beans about some of Alison’s plans for world domination the development of technical communication in the UK, but that would probably sit best in other forums (like her inaugural presidential article in Communicator) but it’s nice having a famous mum!


26 August 2014

Professional Memberships

I know I’ve been away from the blog again, as I’ve been busy. This hasn’t just been work (although that’s part of it), but in a wider professional sense. In recent months I’ve stepped up to full membership of the ISTC, and become a Fellow of ITOL.

Today’s blog post can be read from a few distinct perspectives. Perhaps you’re a recent graduate wondering what all those extra post-nominals you see on business cards are for, or maybe you’re a peer thinking about joining or staying in a professional organisation. Then again you could be involved in running a professional body in some way, and you want to know what your members think. You’ll have to read between the lines a little bit – and this is very much my perspective – but I’m sure you’ll find something here of use.

It was tempting to create a series of tables and infographic you to death at this point in an attempt to compare various types of qualifications and professional bodies... but I’m afraid that if you want an answer to “what is chartered status?” or “what is a regulated profession?” you’ll have to head elsewhere. It suffices to say that the professional bodies I’m thinking of are those like the ISTC and ITOL where there is no qualification-based route to entry, and no statutory requirement to be a member (which means the same article written by a surveyor or surgeon about their professional memberships will reach somewhat different conclusions). Here are some of the things that you get – or don’t get – as a member of a professional body.

When you put in for membership of a professional body, you are scrutinised by a committee of Fellows (note the capital F) who are at the top of their profession. At the very least they’ll look at your CV and qualifications, and possibly a few samples of your work... they may also seek references. When they decide that you’re eligible for Membership, this means that you’re competent in the field, and when they opt to make you a Fellow, they’re acknowledging – for the record – that you’re at their level. For example, the team who decided to make me a Fellow of ITOL decided that I’m as capable a trainer and training consultant as they are – although we may train and consult in quite different specialist fields.
With the status comes a bit of a confidence boost. I wouldn’t say that I've become a better trainer or communicator solely because of my memberships, but the validation has made me more confident. As a training planner, I’d occasionally run into situations where my plans were questioned and I was guilty of backing down and delivering a weaker solution as a result... but I now feel more resistant to those pressures.
Further Growth
Once you’re in a professional body, there’s the opportunity for further growth and development as part of that group. Those of you who keep up with my output will know that I regularly write for Communicator, and this quarter I’ve used my involvement with the journal to get to interview one of my ‘heroes’ (this blog is spoiler free, so you’ll have to read Communicator to find out who this is). I’ve spoken at TCUK and roped one of my favourite journalists into being the keynote at last year’s conference – something I was sadly unable to capitalise on when it came to wrangling a writing gig!
Jobs Contacts
While we’re on the subject of failing to capitalise on things, professional membership isn’t a route to getting a job (unless you happen to be in a regulated profession or require chartered status). Professional membership is a route to building your contacts and meeting the people who can guide you as your career develops, but unless you’re very lucky they’re not going to offer you a job. Similarly, unless you’re dealing with a company already very aware of the organisation, you’re unlikely to find membership as part of a job description... but you can still talk about it at interview as an example of how you’ve validated your professional practice, developed confidence and kept up to date.

So, I’ve become more “active as a professional”, which should hopefully lead to bigger and better things and I’ve learnt a little bit about professional bodies as a result. It’s good – in a warm and fuzzy way – to know that my work as a trainer and communicator (and indeed, trainer of communicators) is recognised and respected.