Month: December 2007

The weekend! It's the weekend!!

I’m sitting on the sofa with some weird MTV programme blaring at me, but my niece seems to be enjoy it, despite my protestations…

Yesterday was the first Xmas ‘event’ of the year, namely the Development Team’s away day. 50 of us, crammed into a nearby gastro-pub, crackers, crap toys, and turkey. All washed down by … Guinness. Still the food wasn’t all that bad, and it was good to unwind, the last two weeks have been manic as we headed towards a release deadline.

And so my attention turns to Christmas. We are heading through to my parents today to help put their tree up. Something I’ve not done for many years, and at some point I’ll need to start thinking about buying some presents.

It also means I now have time to get on with those other things I had hoped to get finished by Xmas. A website or two, another 100 CDs to rip and get into the loft, not to mention considering what I’m going to buy in the New Year sales.

Toying with a super-compact camera, for when my current camera is a little too big, Sky HD, or… umm.. a PlayStation3. The latter is expensive and scarce and I might hold off for another 6 months or so… which then brings the Wii into play, presuming I can get hold of one.

Decisions, decisions.

But first. Coffee. And some more painkillers…

Recently Read

Tomorrow we get to spend the afternoon in the pub after gorging ourselves on turkey and stuffing. Yes, it’s the Development Christmas Lunch. This year it’s handily placed right at the end of a release cycle (although that does mean some poor souls may be dragged back into the office), so we can celebrate the release AND the birth of a baby a long, long time ago (or whatever you believe).

That also means that next week I’ll have a little more free time to think about the future, and get some plans in place. I’ve already got a fair list, some of which will feature here.

However, for the time being, here are a few things that caught my eye the past week (or so).

Writing Tips for Non-Writers Who Don’t Want to Work at Writing
As THE core skill of my job, some of this is a little hard to take but sometimes we can be a little too obsessed with grammar, don’t you think?

Grammar matters, but not as much as anal grammar Nazis think it does … Frankly, I think if most non-writers can manage to get agreement between their verb and their subject, I’m willing to spot them the whole “who/whom” conundrum.

Wiki Patterns: The Book
I love it when this happens, a blog I’ve read for ages (devoured some would say) gets published in book format. Needless to say my copy is already ordered.

Human behavior is pattern-based, and wikis are designed to support the
patterns of activity that occur when groups work together. Therefore, there’s no right or wrong way to use a wiki, so it’s impossible to write a recipe for successful wiki use that will work in all cases.

Instead, documenting the behaviors seen on different wikis and classifying those that help the wiki effort as patterns, and those that hinder the wiki as anti-patterns, is a more useful
way to offer guidance to other wiki users.

Use Structured FrameMaker and WebWorks ePublisher?
Sticking with Wikis, here is an excellent article from the WebWorks Wiki: Implementing Help-Specific Features with a FrameMaker EDD.
I probably learned more about using Structured FrameMaker with WebWorks reading that article than I have in the past year of actually using both products in anger (although that’s mainly because the set up here works so I’ve not had to tinker).

This project contains a complete workflow for producing printed and on-line documentation with ePublisher Pro. At the heart of the system is a structured FrameMaker template with an underlying EDD. The minimalist EDD contains a scant nine content elements and yet automatically assigns more than 120 paragraph styles that implement help specific-behaviors in the corresponding ePublisher Pro template.


Building Enterprise 2.0 on Culture 1.0

Sounds a bit odd I know but if you are interested in how to build an collaborative environment in your organisation then you must have a look.

To encourage an organisational shift along the enterprise collaboration maturity model, Enterprise 2.0 leaders should focus on capturing the flow of information. Over time, the flow builds not only a stock of searchable knowledge but also a reputation as the source of fresh ideas and trusted up-to-date content.

And finally, a little house-keeping. I had promised to update the OPML file of TechComms RSS feeds but I’ve not had a free minute. It’s top of the list now though, so expect to see an update early next week.

Brussels

The food from the Brassica oleracea Gemmifera group that is, not the capital city of Belgium.

I quite like Brussel Sprouts providing they aren’t boiled to death. However, over lunch today, it seems I am in the minority. At a table of 7, I was the only person who liked them. Some people dislike them so much they want to bash them but of course that might be genetic (it’s a PTC receptor thing apparently).

If you don’t like plain Brussel Sprouts, try this; Steam (or boil) the sprouts for 10 mins, then chop them up. Chop up and fry some nice bacon, add a dash of cream and throw in the Brussels. Delish. There are plenty of other recipes as well.

Anyway, I refuse to believe that the humble Brussel is so hated, so it’s over to you, dearest reader.

Saying goodbye

No, I’M not saying goodbye, but it’s been on my mind recently.

At some point this blog will end, it may be a gradual decline during which the format and content will slowly morph into something else, or it may just stop and be replaced by something else. I’m comfortable with the fact that I will always have an online presence, my own microbrand if you will, and I’m quite happy for that to evolve naturally. After all, what you see here today is far removed from what I started with.

However in the process of cleaning up the Scottish Blogs directory there is one glaring piece of advice I’d give to all new bloggers. As well as suggesting they concentrate on their readers, tell a story or two and so on, I’d also suggest they say goodbye.

In other words, don’t just vanish. I understand the initial enthusiasm wanes quickly and that the flourish of posts and surge of excitement can disappear as quickly as they arrive, but if you have any readers, hell even if you don’t, then a brief note to say goodbye would be nice.

Admittedly sometimes we don’t always get the choice, but if you do make the decision then, please, share it with the rest of us.

The next question is, how?

For me, a large part of blogging is about connections, and hopefully those would kick in if someone suddenly disappeared. They have in the past, with chains of emails surrounding the “death of a blog” quickly gathering facts and, typically, finding someone with a real world connection to the blogger in question. As we invest more of ourselves online, these connections become vital, linking online with off, and proving the blogging really is about people.

Write the docs first

I’m currently pondering a proposal, suggesting to our Dev team that we write the user documentation first, and then use that as the basis of what the product should deliver.

This wouldn’t work for everyone but given that an XP environment encourages little (well, less) documentation than a more traditional ISO style project, then having a draft of the user documentation would be beneficial in many ways:

  1. Early design thoughts are often lost as they are translated into the stories used to develop the functionality. Fleshing these out into more fully formed documentation would better capture that information, and focus it on the user.
  2. Earlier consideration of the “what ifs” will likely come of this, pushing thoughts and discussions out into areas that the documentation needs to cover but which might not be considered as they might not be part of the software.
  3. Focussing on the final product, rather than just the next piece of functionality, should make the big picture easier to see, allowing the developers to better understand WHY they are working on a particular piece of functionality.
  4. Testing/QA can use the documentation to validate the software that is being produced. If it doesn’t match the documentation, it’s wrong.
  5. Anyone coming late to the team can get up to speed much quicker.

I’m still thinking this through, and by pushing on with the documentation, sometimes even striding ahead of development, the technical author can help with the finer details of the implementation, running through some of the scenarios (or edge cases, or “unhappy path trails” depending on your lexicon) before they have been approached by development, blazing a trail for them to follow. After all, we spend a lot of our time considering things the readers of our documentation are likely to ask, if the answers need to come through the software then what better way to develop the solution?

All of this would, of course, be in close consultation with the development team but I think it might be an interesting experiment to try.

Anyone got any thoughts? Pros? Cons??

Update: I posted about this on the TechWR mailing list, and Andrew Warren pointed me at his previous response on this topic. Interesting.

Stress is a wonderful thing

Nearing the end of a project is always a stressful time. Regardless of the best plans, contingency and prayers, things always end up tight at this point. That’s when the stress kicks in.

I actually revel in this kind of work, doing my best stuff under pressure, with no time to ponder I make decisions with conviction and plough onwards. There is also a subtle effect on other areas.

I’m usually working long hours at this point, and so end up a little run-down, narky and tired. Emotions of all kinds are quick to the surface and over the years I’ve started to focus more on them than any impending doom scenarios that are building elsewhere. I should point out that I work in the software industry so, in most cases, missing a deadline is bad for business but no-one loses a life, it’s not the end of the world, so whilst I do get stressed there is a point where I realise I’m getting stressed and I just… well… stop getting stressed. Hard to explain and it took some amount of time to get it sorted in my head.

Anyway, whilst I’m in this zone I try and focus on the positives and one always comes shining through. Louise. She knows how to handle me at times like these, and it makes me appreciate her all the more.

In addition, with emotions wrought and wrangled and because I often resort to headphones to get the last minute of “do not disturb me” time out of the day, I find the oddest songs can develop a strange resonance and catapult themselves into my internally kept list of favourite tracks. Such tracks literally give me goosebumps. Whack on Nothing Else Matters by Metallica and when that guitar solo kicks in… yup, goosebumps.

Sticking with the rock theme, for I cannot lie I do like my rock music, the current song achieving similar levels is the oddly repetitive yet wonderful anthemic Come Alive from the Foo Fighters. Not only does it seem to musically hit the right notes, lyrically it brings me full circle back to the centre of my life, my darling wife. Odd that.

I just wish I could play it just a little bit louder (but I’m quite considerate when using headphones).

Anyone else get this with certain tracks? Just me?

Free is Free

A few weeks back Radiohead, a fairly well-known rock band from England, released their new album via the web and in a fairly radical move, allowed people to pay whatever price they wanted for the privilege. Anything from £0.00 to £100, they said (I wonder what the top amount paid was…).

Since then… apart from a couple of press releases full of ill-thought out stats… nothing.

What happened? Where is all the noise? Where are the “told-you-so” bleatings? What happened to the “revolutionise-the-music-industry”? It’s a disappointing damp squib if you ask me.

On one side, Radiohead remain silent on the matter. Or as good as.

On the other side the press was quick to report that a large number of people grabbed the album for free. They threw stats out like sweeties; one-third of people who downloaded the album paid nothing, average price paid was £3, and so on.

What does this prove? What does this say? Everything and nothing of course, and part of me hopes that was exactly what Radiohead intended.

Offer something for free and people will take it. Offer something with only guilt as a payment mechanism and many people easily push any emotional feeling to one side and plunge onwards. Offer something which can be free, and people will take it for free. This is the society we live in, writ large and then swept under the carpet.

Reaction to all of this freeloading seems out of place, there was SO much hype, in many different quarters, about this that it seems almost out of proportion.

Other artists (most notably Prince) have given away their music for free, realising that they make the bulk of their money outside of CD sales, but part of me hopes (desperately) that the music-loving fan, when given the ability to set a price, would do the right thing and pay up. A glint of humanity and integrity is all I’m looking for…

How laughable.

What I really don’t understand is where is the backlash? There is no screaming rhetoric to be found anywhere, either bemoaning the freeloaders or angry that this experiment failed to show the music industry that it was a viable solution.

But I guess that is a good thing because this experiment could do no such thing. It couldn’t PROVE either, the freeloaders (statistically) grabbed the music in about the same percentage as they do for music released via a record label.

The music industry didn’t take much of a kicking either as Radiohead will also release the album through a record label and hey, guess what, not EVERYONE is comfortable downloading music. The majority of the music listening public like CDs, or at the very least something tangible.

Reading between various lines, I think the only thing this experiment could ever prove was whether an artist would make more money PER SALE if they distributed things themselves, or via a record label. On that front I think Radiohead, on a per sale basis, doubled their money? I’m not sure as getting accurate figures is proved difficult but they certainly didn’t lose any money.

The deafening silence that blankets this entire episode worries me more than any of the financial/industry aspects.

Are we really so quick to put such things aside? Wasn’t this supposed to herald a new wave of thinking in the music industry, or is that where the silence comes from? A million record industry executives trying to figure out how to ‘fix things’.

This kind of thing isn’t a viable business model for a semi-successful band, one who flirts just below the limelight, and whilst it may boost the standings of newcomers (mySpace in particular) at a certain point it will start to hinder them.

I’m bemused and a little disillusioned. I had hoped this would’ve kicked started… ohh I dunno… something, anything… but nothing seems to have come of this. So I’ve gone back to my usual method of purchasing music and will continue to do so with knowledge of a better way gnawing at my wallet.