Month: October 2009

What next?

Last night, around 3am, I woke up. I lay there in bed wondering why I’d woken up and as my mind started to churn I realised I was very very awake.

In flooded four things I’ve been thinking about for some time, all of which are related but I couldn’t quite make the connection. Last night I cracked it. Maybe.

I’m still thinking it through but here are the four items in question:

  1. Single sourcing our documentation – and recent discussions with other areas of the company who could benefit from the same approach.
  2. Company Information Strategy – a simple pyramid based model that allows everyone creating content to ‘map’ their audience appropriately and which should start to help with consistency of terminology and messaging.
  3. Document Management – there have been some murmurings about this from a few people and it’s likely to fall into my lap.
  4. Requirements gathering – we’ve recently rolled out a new process which should lead to better requirements for each project build.

All of these are tied together, and if planned properly can feed off each other. Naturally there is quite a lot involved with all of the above and I’ll be revisiting items one and two in the coming weeks.

Ohh and I’ve still to pull together a slide deck on “selling our services”, which involves all of the above and more. Once it’s ready, I’ll share it here.

Exciting times ahead.

NaNoWriMo? No!

I’d love to.

I really would.

Every year that rolls around finds me considering it.

Every year I start to jot down notes (where do you think one man tales came from?).

Every year I visit the website, and get excited at the thought.

Every year I think, yeah I COULD do that.

Every year I think, maybe I SHOULD do that.

Every year I think, maybe that’s just what I need.

Every year I think, yes, this is the year. I will do it!

But I won’t.

Not this year.

I just don’t have the time (such a lame excuse, really).

Even if I was to promise myself to MAKE the time.

I wouldn’t.

I SHOULD.

If it really meant that much to me I would.

But I won’t.

Maybe next year.

Maybe.

Will you?

Author-it & Word

A teeny tiny gotcha that I thought I’d mention here. I can’t find explicit mention of it in the Author-it Knowledge Center and it’s tripped me up a bit.

Quite simply, and I realise these will sound obvious, make sure everyone who is using Author-it is using the same version of Microsoft Word.

My particular scenario has my laptop running Word 2007, making changes to the template, but when publishing from a machine running Word 2003, the footers weren’t being displayed despite the AutoText entry being available in the output Word document.

Naturally I’m discovering this delightful quirk on the final day of the project as we do a final publish and check on our deliverables. And people wonder why I’m almost bald…

It never rains…

Some time around 1am this morning there was a loud bang from downstairs when the kitchen ceiling got fed up trying to hold up a big pool of water, choosing to dump it, and several bits of the ceiling all over the kitchen below.

It seems that, after all the hassle and faffing with the cistern, there has been a leak in the bathroom. We did hear a couple of drips yesterday, but they had stopped (replaced, I presume, with a steady leak).

We mopped up, turned the water off and phoned the insurance company, they took our details and said they’d get someone to phone between 8am and 9am. Which, of course, didn’t happen. So I phoned them and was told someone would phone me soon, which they did (funny how that works) only to tell us that the guy in our area had phoned in sick, so it’ll be tomorrow before he can come out.

So we’ve got the heater on in the kitchen to dry it out as much as we can (it’s doing the job well) and just when I’d started to relax I heard a dripping noise. Yup, it looks like the flashing around the porch is leaking again, despite being replaced last year.

Frankly I’m of a mind to get all this fixed then sell this bloody place as it’s been nothing but hassle (I’d burn it down but it’s too damp). We did get this house very cheap because it needed work but this constant worrying about money is getting really really old.

Right now, at this moment

I’m trying to catch up on a few bands I’ve heard mention of over the past month.

I’m pondering switching from dark maroon to blue.

I’m still faffing with Yahoo Pipes (which power this).

I’m writing up a proposal for a “community website” for a professional organisation I’m a member of (the ISTC).

I’m drafting blog posts sparked by conversations with some fellow professionals last night, one of which is “How I use Twitter”.

I’m slowly getting my gym mojo back, and quiet pleased that I’ve not put on any weight in the past two weeks (not lost any either but that’s a different story).

I’m planning ahead for the next couple of months, and wondering how to tackle some stuff in the New Year.

I’m laughing at the cat who is sleeping in a cardboard box next to me and who is snoring.

I’m remembering we are going out tonight and need to order some pizza to take with us (that was the deal, we’ll bring pizza, they provide beer).

I’m mostly daydreaming and wasting time when I should be having a quick shower and getting changed for tonight.

I’m wondering if I should even post this at all, as it’s a feeble excuse for a blog post and I had promised myself I’d do better.

Fuck it.

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

I’m always wary when I attend a gig by chance, having not heard any music from the artist in question. So when 10 guys bounced on stage, brass instruments reflecting the stage lights, and announced they were here to “make some motherfucking noise”… well I was even more confused.

Then they started to play and it all clicked into place.

Underpinned by heavy hiphop influenced beats (delivered from an American Euphonium), the trombones and trumpets soon picked out some … yeah.. hypnotic melodies. As the band members sway and spin in time to the music, it’s hard not to match their movements.

But the real key to their live act was the interaction with the audience, whipping us up between tracks, call outs and yells, reminding us that these guys know how to party, and when they started dropping lyrics with some slick rapping leading into and out of some of the track, the place went nuts.

Having such a hugely enthusiastic band, producing a booming, throbbing groove in such a small place is always a recipe for success, the energy was tangible and I was booging and swaying along without even realising. All too soon they were finishing up.

I picked up their CD on the way out and unfortunately the production isn’t great, losing all that booming bass, but this is a band that you DEFINITELY want to catch live, and the magic of the internets allows me to provide this video from Glastonbury this year to give you a flavour:

Dumping the manual

I honestly can’t remember the last time I picked up a user manual, an honest-to-god paper book of technical documentation. Actually that’s a lie, it was just last week when i was tidying up. I picked up several user manuals and moved them to a lower shelf on my bookcase.

It’s also been a long time since I last worked for a company that produce and printed user manuals but that’s more to do with my career path than any decisions I made within those companies.

Even now whilst we have a “documentation set” comprising several different user manuals, it’s published to PDF and made available as part of the product distribution (and also online).

So why do we still maintain this view of how information should be provided?

There is a level of comfort in having a table of contents and a structure to the information available when writing technical information. It allows you to make sure all the required information is in place, but most of the research I’ve read, and most of the anecdotal evidence I’ve heard, suggests that those lovingly created table of contents are not heavily used.

The index is another area, hell it’s another profession altogether, that we spend a lot of time crafting and rightly so as it is used by many people to navigate their way through a document.

But one thing that trumps both of these methods isn’t available in printed documents but is widely available for online information. Search.

OK, so none of what I’m saying is new, or revolutionary, far from it. Those of us who have been creating online help, regardless of the format (a lot of which was before the internet was popularised), know that if there is a search option available, it will be used.

With that in mind, and this is most definitely something we will be consulting with our users about, we are toying with the idea of dumping the index and the table of contents, making sure the content has a good set of internal reference links so users (power and novice alike) can find “paths” through the information, and switching the front page to be a Google-esque search.

Luckily we can pilot this approach whilst still producing the Javahelp, PDFs and HTML (Webhelp in Author-it terms) output so we don’t completely alienate our users. It’ll be interesting to see outcome.

Yearly Ritual

I have a ritual on mornings like this. I wake up with a level of excitement, take a deep breath to steady myself, get up and walk calmly to the window.

I throw open the curtains, don’t worry I don’t ALWAYS sleep naked so the chances of my dangling bits being on show are minimal, and as my my pupils dilate as they adjust to the sudden change of light, I peer out into the street below.

Typically there isn’t much going on. I might see our cat heading off for another adventure, or the local squirrel foraging for the last nuts of the year (remember I’m usually clothed, and anyway he isn’t allowed into the house), or perhaps one of the neighbours is out walking their dog. Basically take your own suburban scenario, the run of the mill morning activities of fetching in the milk, or going to buy a paper, that is what is playing outside of my window. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing different, nothing new.

This ritual of mine only occurs on two days of the year, and I’ve long past the point where I’m surprised by what I see.

The simple fact is that I enjoy this silly little ritual, for most rituals are silly, aren’t they, when you step back from them they are a series of utterly pointless actions but, as a whole they recognise that the entire point of the ritual is important to you (which also allows for the rituals to be based around silly and pointless things themselves). This applies to the ‘superstitious’ sportswomen who must always put on her left sock before her right, or the businessman pausing to inhale his coffee before taking that first sip of the morning. Both are ritualistic and in their own way rather silly, but to the person who has initiated the ritual they are important and have far deeper a meaning than is obvious to the observer.

I mention all of this as a way to deflect from the true nature of what I was going to say, in short, I digress.

This very morning I followed the same pattern as I always do on this day of the year. I woke up and, upon realising the day, I smiled to myself and levered myself into a sitting position. I took a deep breath and got up. I walked slowly and calmly to the window, reached up and took hold of the curtains. Another deep breath was taken and as my lungs reached maximum capacity (this is an important detail of this ritual), I flung the curtains open, and looked down and out into the street.

And, once more, for the 36th year running, THERE WAS NO FUCKING FERRARI SITTING IN THE DRIVE!!!

I exhaled noisily and go back bed.

Happy fuckin birthday to me.

Selling ourselves

Like many, I struggle at times with a common perception, one which was highlighted to me yesterday by a colleague.

Like most team leads/managers, I have a lot of tasks that aren’t purely focussed on the creation of information. I don’t do much technical writing, instead letting the guys in my team focus on that (they are better at it than me anyway) whilst I work around the edges of what they do, things like taking a document through a review with some SMEs and processing the output, or building a new output template, or proof reading some of their work.

My team and I have a good idea of what I do, even though I also get dragged into chats about other information related initiatives (document management systems being the latest). But as far as everyone else in the organisation goes, I am obviously not doing a good enough job communicating that out.

So my colleague was asking how my team were doing as we are approaching the last few weeks of this current release cycle. When I said that it was a bit tight and we were probably going to have to move some of the ‘could have’ information, he asked why and then asked what I was working on myself.

Thankfully, to answer his question I have a whiteboard directly behind me that holds all the ‘other’ stuff that technical writing teams need to think about; Product Glossary updates, creation of a Knowledge Centre, Release Notes and so on.

However the point here is that, whilst we all struggle to convey the importance of what we do (until people get to that “ahhhhh” point which most do eventually), it is in all our interests to evangelise our services. Yes this will only have direct impact within your current organisation but the ripple effect over the coming years will start to grow as people move on and take your messages with them.

It may mean that you, and your team, need to stand up in front of the whole company to ‘introduce’ themselves and what they do (same applies for lone writers!), as well as backing that up with updates and conversations with people you may not normally chat to, and I realise it’s probably not something that comes naturally to many people.

So to give you a kick start, as soon as I’ve finished it, I’ll be sharing a sanitised version of that very presentation. It’ll be focussed on a software company which is being re-introduced to that wee team they all know of, but don’t know much about. I hope it might be of some use.

The Drugs Work

On Monday evening we got home to a slightly limping cat. He had a sore paw which we really didn’t want us to touch, and was generally moping about feeling sorry for himself. He seemed a bit better yesterday morning so we left him to it and went to work.

However when we got home last night he was limping heavily and his paw and leg were starting to look swollen so it was off to the emergency vet where he got a couple of injections, an anti-biotic to fight any infection and an anti-inflammatory to help with the pain and keep the swelling down.

He was a bit groggy when we got home so we pulled his bed into the living room, and put his food within easy reach. He had a wee nibble at some of his food and then fell asleep.

We were told to try and keep him calm and not let him go out for the night, which wasn’t a big issue as he ended up sleeping through until morning. He will be back at the vet later today, but he was up and about without much of a limp this morning.