Month: July 2011

Always learning

Next week the first of two new recruits joins our team. Both are graduates and whilst neither graduated from a Technical Writing based course they both have a good mix of skills, coming to the position through different routes. It’ll be a challenge for them, and a challenge for us, to integrate them to the team smoothly and successfully. I’m sure they will both do well, but to give them the best chance I’m preparing a few weeks of training for them, in various aspects of the job.

I’m trying to anticipate what they need to know, and when they need to know it, and whilst I’m very wary of letting my own experience get in the way it does mirror what they will be going through as my route into this profession was via an Electronic Engineering course, and I too had no experience in Technical Writing.

Training on our authoring tool (Author-it) is straightforward enough, and we will be mentoring each of the recruits as well so day to day questions we can handle.

We will likely use the IBM book “Developing Quality Technical Information” to provide a grounding in the basics of Technical Writing, along with an eLearning book titled Basics of Technical Writing that we purchased from CherryLeaf a few years ago.

They will have to learn how we do things, our specific processes, and learn how the overall Development team works so they understand where they fit, and they will receive a series of training exercises to complete before they take our product training course. On top of all that they will have a week long company Induction.

I’m a great believer in people learning by doing, so I’m planning a set of small tasks which will be checked and reviewed, and which will ultimately find their way into our documentation set.

Beyond that, I’ll be looking for them to ask questions, try things, make mistakes and learn from them, and then ask more questions. This industry is too varied to try and learn everything at once, and ultimately it’s down to them to decide what areas they want to push into… user experience? content design? API information? Who knows.

I do know it’s a challenge, for everyone involved, and that’s one of the things we, as a company, do best. There is a saying we have about being two feet outside your comfort zone, that’s where you learn best, that’s where you grow and start to understand your capabilities, so we will see how our recruits get on!

For me it’s doubly exciting as this is only the second time I’ve taken on graduates. I learned a lot the last time, both about how to train them and about my own foibles and attitudes to my profession so I’m brushing up my own knowledge to make sure I, and the rest of the team, give them the best change they have. In saying that, the first time I did this I was in my first ‘senior’ position, that was 10 years ago so hopefully by now I’ve gained a little bit more experience!

After all, you learn something new every day.

Have you brought a graduate into your team? Or are you involved in training or mentoring new recruits? If you have any suggestions I’d love to hear them.

In the mood

Right!

Yes, right.

I think, yeah I’m pretty sure, well as much as I can be, that my mindset is in the right place.

I pick up my bike on Saturday (finally) you see, hence the change of mindset this week, in preparation.

Hmmm, I’m waffling. Let me explain.

For a long time, many many years, I’ve been overweight (clinically obese at times but what do doctors know!).

I’ve dipped in and out of various fitness attempts and diets, with varying success. Play 5-a-side football, hit the gym at 6am, got down to 15st 10lbs at one point which is, as far as my ailing memory serves, the lightest I’ve been in my adult life, then put it all back on again.

Jogging seemed to be working for me before I injured my knee, and recent visits to the gym have dropped off, bad habits returned and I managed to get all the way up to 17st 12lbs.

With 18st approaching, I realised I had to do something so I’ve been a bit more sensible with my diet, and have slowly, oh so very slowly, gotten down to 16st 12lbs. I went to the gym a few times but seem to have plateaued.

Then I heard mention of a cycle to work scheme and, having moved to within cycling distance to my work (it’s about 8 miles) I realised there was maybe something I could do and would enjoy. The number of cyclists I see on my way to work seems to be on the increase and that only encouraged me further.

I’m not great in the gym, I don’t find it stimulating at all and whilst I know that, for health reasons, I need to go, it’s not something that fills me with great joy (yeah yeah, I know, nothing unique there). However, give me something outdoor, that I can, in my own head, turn into a competition (can I catch the guy in front? can I beat the car to that junction? what was my time yesterday, can I do it faster?) and my interest level rises and I really start to apply myself.

With the arrival of my new bike imminent I’ve actually started to be a bit sensible, rather than leaping on it and doing my usual (overdoing it and injuring myself). I went to the gym last night, will go for a swim tomorrow night and back to the gym on Thursday, and I’ve just ordered all of the fruit and veg in the world to be delivered later tonight (thank you Tesco!).

What I don’t fully understand, but I’m not really questioning, is how my mindset can so quickly change. Last week I was all about the pizza and the chocolate and the ‘fuck it’ attitude. This week, healthy, healthy, exercise, exercise. I’m not prying into that though, I know I’m best to look forward and set myself some goals.

So, whilst it’s not easy it does appear that I’m in the mood to do this so I’m doing my best to stay focused.

I also apologise in advance if the next few blog posts are slightly “cycle heavy”. And, of course, when I say “cycle heavy” I mean “cycle gadget”… no, I’m not buying a trip computer just yet, but I do have a couple of apps on my iPhone at the ready!

It’s also only fair to mention, now, that I do have a goal in mind for all of this. In September I will be cycling from Glasgow to Edinburgh. I will be raising funds for charity. You have been warned!

When is too many, too many?

When is too many, too many?, originally uploaded by Gordon.

I may have a problem.

In this photo there are 11 sets of headphones.

  • 3 – Sony MDR-ED 21LP
  • 1 – Apple iPhone set, with inline mic
  • 1 – generic headset with mic
  • 1 – Sennheiser PX100
  • 1 – Sennheiser PX200
  • 1 – Sennheiser EH1430
  • 1 – Sennheiser PMX70
  • 1 – Griffin Tunebuds
  • 1 – a-JAYS Three

I have a further 2 sets of generic iPod (white) headphones, and one set of Bose In Ear headphones which I use at work.

That’s 14 sets of headphones.

Fourteen.

FOURTEEN!

Update: I started writing this post mid-tidy up of some boxes full of cables, about 10 mins after publishing I’ve finished the tidy and found… another set of headphones (silver versin of the Sony MDR-ED 21LP).

FIFTEEN FRICKIN’ SETS OF HEADPHONES!!

I need help.

Anyone wanna buy a set of headphones from me?

Ode

You are the quiet ponder behind a secret smile.

You are the couple walking hand in hand, the girl giggling on the phone, the outfits in shop windows. In the coffee shop you are in the corner, legs tucked up beneath you, reading a book. In the newsagent you are the woman behind the counter with her hair pulled back. You are cakes on display, the puddles stepped round, the gentle rain caressing my skin.

You are the slick, swirling colour of a passing umbrella, the click of heels on concrete, the curve of the banister, the smiles and laughter of a small child, the deep red of your lipstick echoed in the passing cars.

Below the fading blue I stand in a field of grass, rippled on the breeze, my hands raised to the sky, reaching, reaching, embracing the comfort found there.

Sitting quietly, sipping coffee, the empty chair across from me, forlorn. Looking around at the quiet glances across other tables, the knowing smiles and comfort found in idling conversations.

Every luxury item, decadence and desire. All the hidden treasures, quietly announcing their wares. The hustle, the energy, the quiet sanctuary found in alleyways. A sparkle of jewellery, a carry and poise. The cute puppy bounding along, the feline stretching her claws, outstretched and unhurried.

A hidden glance, the swirl of a coat pulled round shoulders. A word caught on the flow of the crowd, the tone crackles and sparkles of her.

A gentle hand resting on my wrist.

Woven threads.

You are everywhere.

Happily, I cannot escape you.

Where are the new ideas?

“Imitation is the sincerest of flattery.”

It’s a fine line between imitation and theft but, looking around at other documentation sets recently, it’s interesting to see so many common items. Table of contents, numbered lists, signposts and so on. These things exist, and are common, for very good reasons but as we continue to learn about how best to anticipate the growing set of skills our users have when it comes to using information, I’m wondering what will become of these standard, common items we all include in our documentation sets.

Case in point; Recently, whilst, looking at the Atlassian documentation we realised that there were a few nice touches that we could incorporate into our own documentation set. At the foot of every page is a common set of links, something that we think would improve our offering as well.

The only reason we can look to copy that idea is because we host all of our documentation set online (in a similar layout to Atlassian). More and more organisations are going this way yet, so far, most of us are sticking with the old, familiar, tri-pane view we are comfortable with.

Looking at how more and more people use the internet to find information, it strikes me that perhaps we need to be more radical with how we present our information. I’m not quite sure how, but perhaps there is a need for more question and answer style information? Rather than documenting how to use something, concentrate on documenting what to do if it fails? Move away from the table of contents to a more graphical navigation with clear signposting to where information can be found?

Regardless of how, it’s clear that the expectations of people when they use information is changing and if you accept that this new usage model is only going to get more popular then it begs the question… where are the new information interaction ideas? I’m not talking about having a Twitter account, or publishing information to a Wiki, and I think it’s beyond the “every page is page one” view as we seem to be getting away from the notion of anything ever being on a ‘page’ per se, but instead this is a fundamental shift of how we consider, create, and consume information.

Usual caveats apply, of course, as I’m well aware that not everyone will, or should, be looking at this but for those of you who are, what does your future hold? How will you map what you produce now to how your users want to use it, will it be via Facebook, or Twitter, or the new Google+? Do you think you need to consider this? Or not?

The last few years have seen quite a change to our industry and that change isn’t going to stop any time soon so finding answers to those questions may not be easy or, in some cases, possible. However, from what I’ve seen some people are starting to find better ways to allow their information to be used as part of a larger piece, and for me that’s where we all need to start looking.

How is your information used alongside other, competing, sets of information? Do they integrate well or are they still viewed as separate entities? I think we need to include everything from documentation and training material, to sales collateral and the user interface itself. We all need to look at how more and more people are comfortable shifting their lives online and how it’s now common place for EVERYONE to “just Google” to find an answer to their problem. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself how many friends do you have online? and do you trust their opinions more, or less, than your friends when it comes to harnessing specific knowledge?

Quite simply, and this is not a new statement, if you aren’t hooked into the mass of information that is available, you are going to lose out. Which brings me back to my question.

To get properly hooked into people’s online life, I think we may need to change things, so where are the new ideas?

No mean city

Indestructible, the death dodging kids laugh as the bus driver rages.

Shards of sunlight slice through buildings, blinding the strolling shoppers as they wander with vague purpose.

A broken voice begging for change from behind dull eyes.

An old man pauses to talk to the African drummer, rich timbre in shared laughter. A real connection amongst a thousand shifting eyes.

The pigeon that walks but never flies, unhurried and unafraid. He knows this city from hazy dawn to blackest night, from pristine corporate headquarters to grime (crime?) soaked tenements.

Through it all I walk. Surrounded by life in all it’s beautiful forms; the ravaged and unloved; the dirt and the shine, the filth and the smiles. Across broken tarmac and old cobbles, past the shiny office blocks and humdrum taverns, constantly amazed by the contrast, dialled to 11. Stark reality meets coddled view. The unshockable, sullied and downtrodden brush past the cosetted, freshly pressed.

All of them existing in their own state of indifference. Suffering their own form of life their eyes speak the same language. But it is not all grey, this city remains indestructible, like the children it bears. It survives, it laughs, it lives.

If you look for them, they are there. The briefest moments that are so easy to miss, skipping past like the sleek blur of a housemartin.

There a smile flashes and is returned. There a daisy grows between the cracks. There an oily puddle dances rainbows in sunlight.

Ask them and they’ll tell you. They will reveal all the beautiful sides of this city, with a proud face, for Glasgow is all of this, beautiful darkness and shuddering light. A soft glow from a brutal heart.

Blog on TwitbookPlus

Apparently, according to something I read online over the weekend (so it must be true, right?) blogging is fast evolving into a niche activity thanks to the uptake of such fancy-schmancy websites like Facebook, Twitter and maybe even the new Google+.

Given that when blogging started it was a fairly niche activity, and given that I’ve been blogging since about then, it feels comforting to know that my hobby is returning to its roots.

Of course, in the intervening 12 or so years a lot has changed and blogging won’t ever really be the same maybe this is what it needs. I wonder if this something that other such social media type websites might follow in the coming years. For a long time, blogging was the only quick and easy way to self-publish. These days we are spoilt for choice and, as most of us are inherently lazy, the quicker (and therefore shorter) the better.

What does that mean for me?

I’m not really sure to be honest. Whilst this may sound harsh, I don’t get much value from this blog anymore so it’s dropping down my priority list. Do I get value from the other websites I use, you ask? Hmmm let me think.

Yes, I do get value from Twitter and Facebook.

Please note: your idea of value may vary.

Broadly speaking Twitter lets me keep in touch with acquaintances, Facebook lets me keep in touch with friends and family (and acquaintances), my onemanwrites blog helps me focus my professional thoughts, and everything else that passes my online filter is pushed to either Pinboard or Tumblr. That leaves this blog in a virtual no-mans land and, as has been evidenced over the past couple of years, has turned into a public diary which as much for my own need as anything. I’m not even going to mention that other writing place I have (except I just did).

As for Google+, well it’s still too new and for the moment the only thing it might do is kill my personal Twitter account. Time will tell.

And all of that is only considering, largely, word based content. I’ve still to shift from using Flickr as my main photo ‘presence’, but maybe that too will change? Who knows.

I’m not going to stop blogging, that much I do know, just as I won’t stop posting photos, bookmarking links, and generally sharing the stuff I stumble upon online. This blog, as with all my other online accounts, are but a representation of the parts of me and my personality I am happy sharing with the world. From that point of view, blogging has, most definitely, been on value and so, for now, I’ll keep on blogging as and when inspiration strikes.

After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

Big plans take time

I’m procrastinating.

I’ve reached a certain point in the work I’m doing that requires the completion of a very large planning spreadsheet. I’m currently looking at all of our content with a view to restructuring it to fit better with the way our customers work hopefully making it easier for people to browse the content.

I’m taking an organic approach for this first pass. Taking the chapters in each current guide and rather than forcing them into a pre-existing structure, I’m making an educated guess as to where they might live in the future. Once that is complete I’ll take the list of suggested locations, give them a quick sanity check and mockup some examples and take them to some of our customers.

This is all part of a move away from monolithic PDFs, towards a more focussed set of content that is available online. However, whilst we are concentrating the bulk of our thoughts and efforts on our HTML based “Knowledge Centre”, the need for PDFs remains and hopefully the new structure will help keep the set of published PDFs much leaner by splitting out only the information that people need to be published in that format.

At present it’s definitely one of those jobs that ‘just needs done’. It’s not hugely challenging, nor particularly enjoyable but such is life. The end goal will, hopefully, just the means and all that.

It’s still got a way to go before it best my ‘most boring job’ though. That one involved reformatting hundreds of single pages of content, all held in separate Word documents as part of a migration process from one tool to another. It only took a month or so…

Signposts

I recently attended the Glastonbury Festival and, despite the mud and mayhem around me, found myself pondering an issue that we have in our documentation set.

Throughout the week I was at the festival I spent a lot of time consulting a map of the festival site, trying to figure out both where I was and where I should go next. It wasn’t always easy and I got it wrong several times causing us to have to stop at the nearest beer tent, you know, just to make sure we weren’t completely lost.

The signposts around the festival site weren’t always clear, nor particularly abundant) and whilst we coped, it is definitely something they could improve. Being lost is never fun, and at some point over that week I realised this was similar to an issue we have with our documentation.

It was very much one of those thoughts that had probably been percolating at the back of my brain (a dark and dusty place, if truth be told) for a few days. Somewhere in those dark recesses, prompted by frequently being lost at the festival, my brain dragged up a quote from a blogpost I’ve mentioned in this months ISTC newsletter (you don’t have to be a member to receive the newsletter, anyone can sign up and anyone can view the archives).

The quote that had, seemingly, lodged in my head was “every page is page one”; the blog post it’s taken from is well worth a read (it’s linked in the newsletter).

Like many of you, we have a LOT of content, particularly when it’s broken down into topics. Whilst we take care to plan out what content we will be adding to make sure the structure makes sense, we realise it’s not always easily findable. One of the main reasons is that, by and large, most people will find their way into the content via the search results.

Taking the maxim that “every page is page one” makes sense for our situation, but how do we best signpost where the user has landed?

Have you tackled this issue? Do you have a solution? I’d love to hear your suggestions on this.

Glasto – Sunday

We decided on a later start on Sunday, largely because we were knackered and not that fussed about seeing any of the bands on earlier. In hindsight this was a good move as it means we weren’t out in the blazing hot sun all day, but even then we had to seek out the shade whenever we could. This meant we heard a little of Laura Marling from the beer tent, but I don’t think we missed all that much.

We ventured out to try and find a spot of shade and catch Paul Simon, and whilst we couldn’t see much of what was going on, he delivered what sounded like a competent set. Definitely one of those artists that you forget has so many well known songs. Needless to say those from Graceland made the biggest impression, getting people up on their feet and dancing!

After that we headed to the Other Stage where we would spend the rest of the day. We stopped on the way for some food and caught the end of the TV on the Radio set (sounded good!), before setting up camp for Eels. Now THAT is one helluva hirsute band! Beards aside, they delivered a slick set with some good banter to keep things moving along. Didn’t know much of their stuff but will be seeking it out now.

And then the Kaiser Chiefs arrived. I hate the Kaiser Chiefs. Well, that’s not true, I don’t hate them, I just hate the fact that most of their songs are so bloody catchy they get stuck in my head (Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby! … see!!). I had heard they were good live and have to admit I was well impressed. Full of energy, upbeat and a great setup for the headliners. It was quite a sight to see the flags and raised hands silhouetted against the setting sun, and the Kaiser Chiefs were one of the surprises for me.

As darkness descended, on strode Josh Homme and Queens of the Stone Age. They were there to deliver, mostly, a set of songs chosen by their fans and from the outset they were loud, raucous and absolutely nailed it. Having seen them live a few weeks ago in Glasgow I had a sense of what they were about but, and I hate myself for admitting this, Josh Homme is just one stone cold, cool motherfucker. Swigging from a bottle of vodka? tequila?, cigarette dangling from his lips as he strummed the intro chords, they delivered a killer set and I swear the volume level went up for the last few tracks. Certainly the loudest thing I heard all weekend and a cracking way to finish Glastonbury for us.

Well, almost.

Wearily starting the walk back to the campsite, we could hear music off in the distance. As we got closer we realised it was Kool & the Gang and they’d just started playing Celebration. Cue many staggering, tired or just drunk people starting to sing along, quietly to themselves.

Standing at the tent, looking down the hill at the spotlights scanning the sky, the thumping bass from the dance tents still throbbing, and the general clatter for several thousand people milling around, talking and laughing, all of a sudden it was over. Just like that.

Would I go back? Yes.

Would I do it differently? Yes. There is so much to explore and we didn’t see even a quarter of what we could.

The good thing is I’ve got a couple of years to plan it…

Thank you Glastonbury, it was emotional!