Month: January 2009

New Manager: How do you take over as manager for a group of technical writers?

I recently received an email which asked:

Since my career seems to be following a path broadly similar to yours … I’d love to know what your experience was and any lessons learned.

Specifically Mark, who sent the email, asked a few questions:

  1. How do you take over as manager for a group of technical writers?
  2. How do you get better management buy-in (promise cheaper or faster dox?)?
  3. What are the first activities you should do (content audit, benchmarking?)?
  4. How soon is *not* too soon to start changing things?

I’ll break each question out into a new post so, without further ado, onto question #1.

How do you take over as manager for a group of technical writers?
Carefully!

Typically if you are joining an established team then it pays dividends to take your time to settle in, understand their working processes and day to day habits. It’s fair to presume that they have a set of processes that work for them and that are tailored for their environment. That’s not to say that those processes couldn’t be improved but avoid being brash and making changes for the sake of it. You got the job, you don’t need to ‘make your mark’ by changing things the minute you get in the door.

I’m not sure if I have a management style per se, but I do try and be as open as possible. If I don’t complete a task I say so, and if I hear something that the team might want to know, I’ll tell them. Beyond that I let them manage their day to day activities and try and make sure that my role only extends as far as pulling everything together into a cohesive view across the entire documentation set. I strongly believe that a good manager is one who removes obstacles and deals with issues, whilst promoting his team at every opportunity. I’ve been lucky that the team I currently have are diligent and motivated, all I really do is guide them when they need it.

As a new manager it’s important to quickly build relationships with everyone with whom you’d like to be involved. I’d suggest that that typically means almost every area of the company. A short introductory meeting with each manager or team lead is usually enough, a quick chat to outline what you are trying to achieve with your team, and how it may benefit them. This is largely the beginnings of managing the expectations of what your team can bring to a company, as well as building some bridges.

Currently I have good ties into Sales, Pre-Sales, Marketing, Training and our project staff. It can be tricky keep everyone up to speed, but the benefits of having a consistent message is an easy one to sell. These introductory meetings also allow you to re-instate the position of your team. Previously it may have been the case that “ohhh we don’t talk to Marketing” but you can use the fact that you are new to break through the socio-political barriers, after all, you don’t know any better, do you?

Gaining buy-in from your team is the main thing that you need to figure out. Taking a soft approach when you first join, making sure that you are learning from the team and not dictating things is important. Ask questions by all means, sometimes a simple question might prompt the team to realise something they had noticed (aka the ‘can’t see the wood for the trees syndrome’) but it makes sure that you are seen as a team player.

Finally you need to understand the business plan. Ultimately part of your job is to make sure that your team is contributing towards the goals of that plan as efficiently as possible. You will have other expectations and agreed deliverables, and understanding the business plan will allow you to make the right decisions both for your team and for the benefit of the company.

Once you understand all of this, your position, and the position of your team in the company, you can start to formulate goals and aims. Setting a high level vision for where you want to take the team can be tricky but if you have spent the time gaining their trust and buy-in, you should be able to collate all of that into a vision that everyone agrees. Once you have that, revisit your colleagues that you introduced yourself to and update them. Set out the expectations for the coming few months and get going!

Fellow Followers

A couple of days ago I Twittered the following “Twitter-verse – recommendations for a Photo Poster service (ie, send them a JPG, they send back a large format ‘poster’ of said photo)“, to which Lyle responded “@gordon : Photobox, although it does depend on the size of print“.

Last night I browsed to the Photobox website and had a look around. I didn’t fill in any details, although I did bookmark the specific page I was looking for so I could revisit it at a later date (e.g. after pay day!).

And today I received an email from Twitter stating that “PhotoBox (PhotoBox) is now following your updates on Twitter.”

Coincidence? I think not.

Evidence that Twitter is now in the realm of ‘marketing tool’, definitely.

Thankfully Twitter remains controllable, frankly I don’t care how many people follow me. I can block those I really don’t want to see my updates, and the rest, be they person or company, do me little harm so they can follow, follow, follow all they like.

Remember people, you control your social media and your social media is not you.

Get off your RSS

January draws to a close (already!!) and it is time for me to own up. I’ve been experimenting on you. Sorry about that but, on the bright side, it’s not like some weird alien abduction involving probes and brain washing.

In fact, if I’m honest, it’s only really occurred to me these past couple of days that I’ve been experimenting.

I’ve been posting to this blog for a very long time and it’s fair to say, and indeed I did say it, that my blogging mojo was slowly eroding. To try and see if it was just laziness I decided that I’d try and post every single day for at least the month of January, and then see how I felt.

This is contrary to most of the advice and reassurance I was given, which largely boiled down to the fact that I need only post when I wanted to and that the lovely, smart, beautiful people who read this blog would be quite happy.

Quality not quantity they said.

Pfffftttt, I said.

Which brings us right up to date.

Putting aside the part of me that writes all this for the sheer fun of it, I turn to my stats. Surely with a more regular stream of content, my stats would be on the rise? I may it stands to reason, doesn’t it?

You’d think.

It hasn’t. Not one jot. My average (130 visits a day) remains as it was throughout all of last year. Flat, static, constant.

Mind you, I don’t actually know how many people read the posts via RSS (dear people who make clever website stats thingies, can’t I get ONE single via of all the consumers of my content?). I’m an avid RSS user myself and I know how often, on average, I actually click through to read a website

So I’d like to extend my experiment a little. For today only, could I trouble you, dearest RSS reader, to click through to the website? You don’t have to leave a comment, just load up the website if you read this post.

I’ll post before and after stats, so come on people LET’S MAKE A DIFFERENCE!!!

Feeling Good

Birds flying high you know how I feel,
Sun in the sky you know how I feel,
Reeds driftin’ on by you know how I feel

OK, so it’s maybe not a new day, a new life, or at least not in the grander scheme of things. I’m not reborn or anything, but there is a noted shift in my mindset and thinking these past few weeks.

Perhaps it is down to the fact I’m writing everyday. Yes, some of the blog posts have been less than inspirational but I’m enjoying the habit of making myself write.

Perhaps it is the realisation that my work persona is shifting slightly. That is more subtle, and has come about through several little comments from several different people, all of which have helped me realise a few things that I need to correct, and a few qualities I have that are beneficial to everyone else.

Perhaps it is because I am, slowly, beginning to lose weight again. A blip this week has already been tackled, and as soon as I’m done with this blog post I’ll be doing some exercises (in preparation for my return to physio for my dodgy knee). My blood pressure is down and under control.

Perhaps it is the fact that I have more of a routine of an evening. I’ve cut out a lot of things that used to distract me that weren’t really bringing me any real benefit and have even found the time to read a little more (just started American Gods by Neil Gaiman).

Perhaps it is because I think, for once, I’m organised and on top of things and I’m starting to get a handle on a lot of things that kind of flummoxed me before.

Perhaps it is just because I’m that little bit older and a little more accepting of who I am.

Perhaps it is all that and more.

Perhaps I should go back through this post and remove the word “perhaps” as it doesn’t now fit with my current internal soundtrack. Sing it, Nina.

Stars when you shine you know how I feel
Scent of the pine you know how I feel

And I know how I feel

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
For me
And I’m feeling good

Previously on 24… er.. this blog…

One thing I don’t do very often is revisit previous, recent, posts and offer any closure or update. However I think the following are worthwhile revisiting:

1. My iPhone Apps
In the process of writing that post, I realised that the some applications I did have on my iPhone weren’t quite right. So I spent a little time hunting for better alternatives and on the way picked up a couple of new applications.

Replaced applications include:

  • Tweetie in for Twitterific – Twitterific was great when it first came out but seems to have been left dormant, Tweetie is far more complete.
  • Remember the Milk in for Zenbe lists – Zenbe is a good, web aware, list app but it’s not as good as RTM for task management. I’ve had a badly used RTM account for ages so this was a good push to get me focussed on using it, especially as I’ve now put money behind it (you need a Pro subscription to use the app on your iPhone). Working well so far.

New applications, some of which I’m still evaluating, include:

  • CameraBag – a simple photo manipulation app with presets that mimick various effects. Very much a one trick pony but kinda fun nevertheless.
  • Tumblrette – I have a Tumblr account, and this app might help me make better use of it rather than just recycling blog posts and Twitter statuses.
  • RunKeeper Pro – I had the lite version of this but the Pro version was offered free for one day, so I’ve nabbed it and put it back on the iPhone in the hope I get back to jogging sometime this year.
  • MMS – which provides MMS capabilities on my iPhone, not done much with this yet
  • SaiSuke – which gives me direct access to all my Google Calendars. Not quite sure why I have this, think I thought it did more than it does!

I also re-jigged my home pages some, and they now look like this (click for bigger):

iPhone Apps

2. MacBook screen issues.
I reported a weird glow, right in the centre of my MacBook screen, that would appear and disappear, seemingly, intermittently.

The circumstances of when I first noticed this was when I was sitting on the sofa with the laptop, I was facing the window and it was a nice sunny day outside. I was dropping the brightness to eke out a little more battery life (too lazy to go upstairs and get the power cord) and when I dropped the brightness to 0 (a black screen) there was the weird glow right in the middle of the screen. I tried to replicate this effect later in the evening but couldn’t.

Got all that?

Now take a look at this photo of the case of a MacBook. Notice where the Apple logo is, that translucent section of the casing? Right in the middle of the screen.

Yup. That’s right. Sunlight streaming through the Apple logo onto the back of the ‘darkened’ LCD screen.

Thanks to Matt for figuring this out.

So, apparently, it’s not just my Mother that is an idiot.

Speaking of which…

3. My Mother is an idiot.
At Christmas we got my parents a Wii Fit board to go with their new Wii. My Mum has been using it and enjoying the various mini-games, one of which includes using the position of your body on the board to help balance a tight rope walker as he walks between two buildings (on the tight rope).

You lean left on the board to make him lean left, right to go right. It’s pretty basic but quite tricky.

So I could understand when my Mum said that she couldn’t complete the task, that she kept ‘falling off’. It is quite a tricky game.

However it was only when she mentioned it to Dad that she realised why.

She had the Wii Fit board round the wrong way. Lean left to go right…

Sorry Mum, but I need to do SOMETHING to distract from my moment of idiocy!

Music to work by

I have a thing for loud, chord heavy rock music. It is why I still enjoy tracks from The Cult, why Puddle of Mudd, Eagles of Death Metal, Aerosmith and the like feature heavily on my playlists.

None of those acts (with perhaps the exception of Aerosmith) would claim that they are at the pinnacle of song writing, I doubt they’re expecting an Ivor Novello anytime soon but they do write some catchy, if simple, melodies. Ideal stuff to whack on in the background whilst I’m getting my head down to work.

On a separate note, is this a generational thing? The need to have a source of ‘noise’ to help focus?

Anyway, riff-tastic rock is a tried and tested accompaniment to my working habits. I do veer into electronica on occasion, but ultimately the Sigur Ros’s and Portisheads of this world are too varied in tone and pace and end up disturbing trains of thought. Rap music is about the only other alternative for me, with Jay-Z and Q-Tip jostling with long time favourites Cypress Hill for ear time.

I’ve tried Classical music, Jazz, Folk, Pop, and everything in-between but nothing works as well as good ole fashioned rock ‘n’ fuckin’ roll! Maybe that’s my predeliction towards rock music, brought up on a diet of Queen and Status Quo, peppered with Simon & Garfunkel, Manilow and Sedaka, it’s understandable that I favour the pop side of rock music, and generally appreciate a well crafted song regardless of genre.

But for music to work by? Gimme chords, heavy riffs, a chugging bass and thumping drums and I’m happy. Lyrics are not important, subject matter makes no difference, as long as I can keep if banging away in the background I’m a happy and productive bunny.

This post was brought to you by the Foo Fighters track All my Life, the Eagles of Death Metal track Cherry Cola and Puddle of Mudd’s Nobody Told Me.

What music do you work by?

Cherryleaf Survey

Cherryleaf will soon be publishing the results of their recent survey of Documentation Managers* and, having skimmed through a preview, the main thing that leaps out at me is that the field of Technical Communications in the UK remains as diverse as ever in many respects, yet completely the same in others, and none of that is a huge surprise.

Whilst we all may use different tools and approaches to our work, we all feel under the same constraints of time and resource. However the results do throw up a couple of issues and, as one of the participants of the survey, I thought I’d expand a little on one of those.

The survey hints at two issues:

  1. “The documentation teams generally continue to use authoring tools exclusive to the team … Content from 3rd parties, in most cases, needed to be … imported into the authoring system.”
  2. There was little evidence of any moves toward a company-wide approach to sharing and managing intellectual content.

I don’t think the first is a contentious statement but what interests me is the phrasing. The implication is that technical writing teams are seen as (or see themselves as?) content consumers, areas of the company into which content is lost to proprietary tooling. Obviously we publish a lot of content but perhaps we are a little too guarded of the information we collate?

I’ve never had an issue sharing information, regardless of state, as long as the appropriate caveats are in place. Information is meant to be shared, so the more of it we do, the better. In my opinion.

More interesting is the second point around the lack of evidence of company-wide information management. This is something I’ve been working on with key members of other areas of our company, and from previous experience it’s usually the technical writing team that takes a lead here as we gain the most benefit from having a good information management solution in place.

That may boil down to a document management system (from ad-hoc to access controlled repositories), or even a content management system, but ultimately the benefits are applicable across entire organisations. I’m lucky in that there are a couple of people who see the benefits and so it’s much easier to drive adoption and cooperation across the organisation, but even if that weren’t the case, and in the current climate, it may be something you should look into and start to drive forward yourself.

The survey results are, like any survey, a thin sample of our profession in the UK, but it’s great to have that information available. I’ve already spotted a few things that I can use in discussions within my own company, and there are plenty of common themes and ideas that can be carried forward to help improve our team.

So, well done Cherryleaf, I’m sure it wasn’t an easy process but I certainly think it was well worthwhile.

* A coverall title that encompasses anyone responsible for a team of technical writers.

MacBook Screen issues

There is a dot on my screen. It’s not a small dot, it’s not a distinct dot so I guess it’s more of a blurry circle.

But it’s there, in the middle of the screen, glowing at me. It’s slightly worrying. It’s most noticeable when I dim the screen all the way down. On the MacBook you can use the F1 and F2 keys to decrease and increase the brightness. What the following photo tries to show is the screen set to minimum brightness (the next step down is completely dark/off).

MacBook Screen

Ignore all the reflections and screen dazzle, that weird glowing circle in the middle looks almost exactly like that (I’ve adjusted the pic very slightly to make it more obvious).

The most annoying thing is that it doesn’t always appear. It comes and goes on a random basis. I’ve tried it with and without the power cable in, with and without various applications open, I’ve restarted several times, yet still it comes back.

Any suggestions?? Anyone?

Jumping Twitter?

I’ve been Twittering for almost two years now and after being an early adopter who quickly turned naysayer, it’s now proving to be useful in a myriad of subtle and different ways.

It alerts me to breaking news (I heard of the Hudson River crash before anything featured on the BBC News website), provides movie, music and book recommendations, links to interesting websites and topics, and keeps me amused with that little touch of voyeuristic pleasure that is akin to sneak a peek into a living room window as you walk past.

I think it’s safe to say that, as Stephen Fry said last night, I get it.

I can’t recall the exact quote, nor who said it, but the true value of Twitter is only now being uncovered. The instant nature of the technology, the ease of use and forced brevity lend themselves to several different uses. Corporations are now looking at how they could use it internally, the marketers are trying to figure out how to leverage it, and everyone and their dog seems to be jumping on board.

Which brings me to the second quote that is now applicable to Twitter. It has, most definitely, jumped the shark (in the newer sense of the phrase). Anyone who has a Twitter account can probably sympathise here, with each day bringing a new ‘Follow’ request from a complete stranger (at best) to some company or other (at worst).

There has also, recently, been a spate of celebrities signing up. The good news is that they seem to ‘get it’ as well. The aforementioned Mr. Fry and Jonathan Ross both have Twitter accounts, personal accounts that is, not something created to help ‘market’ them. In the case of Jonathan Ross it’s been especially interesting to read his very personal thoughts as he returns to the TV screen. Time will tell how that will change of course.

Despite having hinted at it recently I’m not ditching Twitter, far from it. I will be locking things down a little more, and it’s likely I’ll start blocking people I don’t know, and thankfully whilst the Twitter website itself remains low in functionality, there are several Twitter clients out there which can help filter and manage what is, by nature, a high volume way of communicating.

I’m not entirely sure what the rising popularity of Twitter will bring but I am looking forward to finding out.