Month: January 2010

Strange Bias

Pulling together my monthly column for the ISTC (I write about blogs, unsurprisingly), I noticed something rather odd. I really, sincerely, hope this isn’t something I’ve been unconsciously doing but it does seem that many of the technical communications blogs I follow, and which I feature in my monthly column, are written by men.

Given that, for the bulk of my career, I was usually outnumbered in many a Documentation department, with on one occasion when I was one guy in a team of six, I find this gender balance quite odd.

Thinking back to the Technical Communications conference I’d say there is a fairly even split of gender in our profession, but I can’t say I was paying that much attention.

Is it just me? Am I being over-sensitive about this?

Of all the blogs I monitor, the split is pretty even (a rough count suggests about 55% are written by men) but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Some of those blogs are very topic specific and I tend to look for things which will have the widest appeal, so perhaps the topic specific blogs are more likely to be written by a woman than a man.

Or not.

It’s a minefield!

Not here

I don’t think I’ve done this before and to be honest it’s more an experiment than anything that has particularly good reasoning behind it, yet here I am, tapping away on my iPhone.

It’s because I can, pure and simple, yet there is a part of me screaming “SWITCH IT OFF!!” and begging me to step away, switch off, detox from all of this modern technology.

And I should, I have the books, the moleskine contains few scrawls and aches for more, yet I’m drawn to this tiny screen.

How sad.

So I will, turn it off I mean, and go lose myself in a book, or wander across the empty pages, trailing inky thoughts behind me. This is a holiday. So I will turn it off.

For today.

How to prioritise your work

We all have a need to make sure we are working on the most important thing, the thing that needs our attention and focus the most. Given that all of us will have more than one thing that needs to get done, you need to prioritise.

But how?

Ivan Walsh recently posted his thoughts on this topic but he doesn’t cover the process that comes before the daily decision making of “what shall I do today?”.

Presuming that you don’t lurch from day to day and that you have a plan, or at least a list of things that you need to deliver, how do you go about setting the priority?

Some people will be lucky to have a direct customer who knows exactly what they want, you can work with them around any constraints of time and budget (resource) to prioritise the work that needs done.

But what if you have two customers, or three, or seven?

Well that’s close to the situation I’m in and my solution is quite simple.

Let them decide.

A few months back I started to jot down, in a spreadsheet, everything that my team COULD do. It includes some items like scouring our Wiki for any useful information that we can use, as well as “hey you know what would be really great..” requests we get which aren’t urgent but which I didn’t want to lose.

I soon realised I might as well track every information request there and very soon after that I realised that I needed a way to sort the list and make sure we were working on the right thing, at the right time.

Given that many items on that list were ‘put’ there by other people, I realised that if we estimated (very roughly) how much effort each would take, we would be able to bargain with people and, ultimately if two requests are in conflict then, hey, I can get the people who requested them to discuss the reasons and let them decide.

So we now have a big list of work items, each estimated, each prioritised (we are using MoSCoW) and which I can use to drive discussions when the next “must have, immediately” request lands in my inbox.

Ultimately, our customers decide what we work on and as I can give them a full picture of what, and why, it’s much easier for them to understand those times when they don’t get what they want. Having that information to hand makes the act of getting real priorities much easier.

My response, via Twitter, to Ivan’s post was this: “I tend to let other people set the priorities for my work. That way they all have (to have) a view of it.”

How do you set your priorities?

ISTC & Community

Over the coming month or so, I’ll be casting around for opinion and insight from you, my lovely readers, particularly if you are based in the UK and especially if you are a member of the ISTC member.

Why? I hear you ask.

It’s because I’m planning, designing, and building, a community focussed extension to the website (or sub-website, or side-website or.. well that bit has still to be agreed). I’m still figuring out how best to collate the information and requirements for such a website, and where would be best to hold those collaborative conversations that will be required throughout the build and test phase of the website. I’ll announce things here as well as the ISTC mailing list (unless it’s something of particular sensitivity, but as I can’t even dream one up at the moment I doubt that’ll be an issue).

Exciting times ahead then, challenging some would say, and I have to admit I’m really looking forward to getting some momentum going. I’ve plenty of ideas but it’s not about what I want, it’s making sure the new website meets the needs of people who will be using it. With that in mind I’m currently planning on how, and who, is best to get involved.

But before I can ask anyone to get involved, I think it’s a good idea to have a clear vision for what it is we are trying to achieve and that’s what I’ve been working on this week and you can expect an update at the weekend.

Why blogging is good

The blogs I read are written by a reasonably diverse group of people. Naturally I steer clear of people who have hateful views, or from which I’m not going to learn anything except that they like the sound of their own voice, but on the whole I read interesting posts written by intelligent people.

When people ask me why I blog, what I get from it, why I bother, I tell them this. I tell them that, whilst there is a level of chaff which you need to sort through (that ‘Next’ button in Google Reader is a lifesaver at times), there are times when you get a series of blog posts on a particular topic that really make you sit back and think.

I quite like being challenged, being made to think, so I consider this a good thing.

And so it was recently when Clay Shirky wrote a piece titled A Rant About Women, which tempted Tom Coates out of hiatus to write a post titled Should we encourage self-promotion and lies?, which was followed yesterday by a piece from danah boyd titled whose voice do you hear? gender issues and success.

Such things are an example of why blogging is a good thing. Someone states their opinion in a fairly even handed way and people respond like adults (the downside of the internet can be found in a lot of the comments, Twitter posts and other ranting nonsense that erupted after Clay posted his article).

As for the issue being discussed in these posts I have to agree with Tom, particularly when he talks about how arrogance and confidence have a place in your “personality toolbox”, but the person who only has those tools is all the poorer for it. Unfortunately society, and certainly the workplace, still seem to favour people with confidence when what we should be doing is cutting through the noise to see what substance lies underneath.

Interestingly I did have in mind a post about how men objectify women (which I’ll still write up for another time) but got sidetracked by danah’s article. Well worth reading all three of them.

Finding Balance

My balance is quite good, says the Wii Fit Plus, but then it also says I have a “Fit Age” of 31 so what does it know. So whilst my physical balance isn’t too bad, I’m finding myself looking for balance in the other parts of my life.

I feel like some caricature when I say this but I’m increasingly realising that I should really be doing more of the things I enjoy, and prioritising everything else.

That’s why, already, I can say that I have read at least one book this year. I couldn’t say the same for the whole of last year which isn’t something I’m happy with.

Nobody to blame but myself of course, and I did achieve a lot last year although it was mostly work focussed (which I enjoy so that’s not a bad thing). However as I roll into this year I’m a bit swamped and finding myself procrastinating somewhat in the form of writing blog posts that don’t really need written.

Enough of this though, it’s not like my lot is a bad one and it would serve us all well to remember that.

And, on that note I’d invite you all to take a look around, see how your life is and then consider others. Naturally I’m talking about the recent earthquake in Haiti.

You can donate online and I’m sure most of you can spare something. So rather than that bottle of wine, or ordering a takeaway, perhaps we can all find some balance by pausing and thinking.

ISTC West of Scotland area group – January meeting

Theme: The remit of communication professionals in the organisation. How can different comms professionals (technical authors, editors, web content/marketing/training writers, internal/corporate comms, information architects, graphic designers…) work effectively with each other and the rest of the organisation?

Time: Monday 25 January 2010, from 7.30 pm onwards.

Venue: Waxy O’Connors pub, 44 West George Street, Glasgow, G2 1DH. Please make your way to McTurk’s Room on the middle level.

The event is free and you don’t need to be an ISTC member to attend. Get in touch with Katja McLaughlin for more details.

Bayerische Motoren Werke

I’d love to say it isn’t.

It’s really really not a personal thing, and I do know a few of them so I KNOW they aren’t ALL bad. It’s just that 8 times out of 10, when I finally see the badge, it’s one of them.

I’m willing to concede that it might be one of those things, you know, when you are more attuned to something inevitably you see more of it than you had before.

Yet there does seem to a mindset and, let’s be honest, it’s not just me saying this, the type of people who buy them seem to be of similar personality.

Brash, aggressive, impatient and inconsiderate. I could go on, but their driving style speaks volumes. Every single time I have some twat driving 2 feet from my bumper, when they finally swoosh past (just as we approach a corner, or small hill usually) it’s the blue and white badge that glares back.

This driving style is all the more baffling given the current weather conditions, and it’s just scary having a big 5 Series bearing down on your bumper with ice and snow bordering the roads.

Not only that, but of all the cars I’ve seen that haven’t been de-iced, or de-snowed, in the past couple of weeks, it does seem to be either BMWs or Jags.

Now I’m pretty careful when I de-ice my car, mainly because I like to have clear windows. Visibility whilst driving is a big thing for me, yet apparently somepeople, quite literally, jump in their car, run it for 5 mins and drive off.

You can recognise this particular brand of idiot because bar a small section of the windscreen, all of their windows are frosted up or still covered with snow.

It baffles me how anyone can think this is ok, and that’s from a common sense point of view, let alone it being a legal requirement.

So, taking all this into account, imagine my glee at spotting a nice big BMW sitting on the hard shoulder last night, it’s rear window completely frozen, and the policeman standing pointing at it whilst the driver looked on, the twat.

It’s moments like this that convince me there is such a thing as karma.

Words and books

I’m blaming Stephen Fry.

I tried, I really did try and read his autobiography but it just didn’t flow for me. As wonderful a wordsmith as he is, it just didn’t read well, the flow and cadence was wrong and I found myself slowing down to read things in his voice. Whilst I like Stephen Fry, taking him to bed every night got a bit taxing.

So I gave up. I stopped. I admitted defeat and stopped reading which isn’t something I’ve done before.

Actually that’s a lie, I’ve given up a several books after faltering in the first few pages but that’s different. That’s like taking the first bite of a meal before realising it’s not what you wanted, or isn’t sitting kindly on the palate, and so you call over the chef (cook, wife, whatever), send the meal back and ask for something else.

No, this was different and it took me a while to realise that, although I’d read over half of the damn thing, I just wasn’t enjoying it.

That got me thinking about things I do enjoy, things I don’t enjoy, and which things I would have to change in my life to get more of the former and less of the latter.

And before my mother pitches up, yes I know life includes things you don’t enjoy but need to do but gosh darnit I’m all grown up now and if I can’t sway things more in the favour of enjoyableness then… well… that’s just not fair! Or some other slightly more reasoned argument that I can’t quite think of at this time of the morning.

With that in mind, one of my New Year resolutions (and I’m very aware of such things, setting yourself up for failure and all that) is to read more. Like my resolutions of last year, I’ve written it (and two others) on a piece of paper and wedged it in the frame of the mirror I use everyday, so I have a constant reminder of such things.

I am now reading, and enjoying, Empress Orchid. A tale of the last Empress of China, a story with characters, intrigue, passion and no small amount of gorgeous imagery. It’s nice to find myself enjoying the act of reading again, and perhaps I’ve dwelt too long on “professional” books in the past couple of years. I need to make more time for the novel.

Which means my rather quiet Goodreads account should start seeing a few more regular updates. It also tells me I have 34 books in my ‘to-read’ pile but don’t let that stop you recommending me more.

Making the brave choices

I was recently asked to write an article about blogging for inclusion in a piece focussed on social media and how it will both challenge and change our profession as a whole and the more I wrote the more it helped me sort out my own thoughts on the matter.

One thing I’ve realised is that even if you don’t think social media will impact your own professional circumstances, I have no doubts that it will change the way our profession is perceived.

I’ve also come to realise that I’ve done a fair bit of talking about a lot of this stuff, yet continue to be stalled on actually doing it. So, with a new year stretching ahead of me I guess it’s time to put up or shut up.

As I have control of our developer community website the most obvious place to start is with a blog. Using the blog to publish short articles, and allowing people to comment on them seems to be a straightforward approach and with some encouragement I know some of the developers will contribute short articles as well.

The challenge will come in how we seed the community. At present it’s telling that with a little bit of PR, the number of people visiting the community website rises, so for now I’ll continue with the old school methods to drive traffic to the website (mainly through ‘update’ emails). Hopefully, if we provide enough interaction opportunities on the website, that need will drop away and the community well start to sustain itself.

Social media is a strange beast at times. There is always a lot of noise at first and, when it dies away it can seem like there isn’t much substance left. However, the people who are succeeding at using social media services, the people at the cutting edge of such things, the people who adopt new ideas and technology and are ready and willing to try them out to see if they work, are finding that there is a much richer set of capabilities than may be obvious, and the real value in your use of social media isn’t the technology but the people who use it, the community.

Your circumstances may mean that, for reasons outwith your control, social media just cannot be considered. However for everyone else, surely it’s time you took a step back and thought about the information you produce, the community of people who use it, and how best to meet their needs.

Maybe it’s time to make some brave choices.

And if you’ve come this far it’s about now that the reality of social media hits home.

You see for all the strengths and possibilities that the myriad of social media services offer, the one thing that no-one else can tell you is what choice to make. The direction you take depends on too many variables that only you know but, at this point, there is only one thing worse than making the wrong decision.

Not making a decision at all.

The information platform is changing, it is evolving and will continually evolve over the coming few years. You can’t afford to wait until the evolution is finished, you need to jump aboard now. You’ll need to learn fast, figure things out as you go, plan as best you can, and concede defeat at times but if you don’t then you’ll be left where you are now.

Except it’ll be 3 years further down the line and the rest of the world will have moved on.