Tag: IT

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.

Instructions and ethics

Two things are currently making me GRRRRRRRR quite a bit. One is a minor annoyance that crops up frequently, the other a fairly fundamental gripe with a certain profession.

In reverse order then, my main gripe is with the current batch of moaning politicians who are saying that it isn’t fair that they are having to pay back monies claimed because the rules have been changed and … well it’s just not fair. Cue stomping of feet and many huffing noises (no, not that kind of huffing), like the spoilt children they are.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it is slightly unfair to change the rules NOW and apply them retrospectively. I get that. The thing is, regardless of any rules, if we are all honest we’ve all broken a few rules in our time and WE KNOW WE ARE DOING IT.

So whilst they may have been able to claim for redecorating their kitchen in this seasons fashion, or getting that custom bookcase built to store their precious historical parchments, deep down they must’ve known they were taking the piss.

If they didn’t then it’s worse still, they are completely immoral.

So, yes changing the rules isn’t fair, and whilst I might try and claim a few extra pounds for a taxi ride here and there (on my yearly trip outside of the office), I wouldn’t think “you know what, it’d be much quicker to hire a helicopter, so I’ll do that” and presume that that was ok.

My company, like most, will pay for your dinner if you are away on business. I COULD order caviar, lobster, the finest champagne and finish off with half a bottle of exclusive brandy. I don’t though because that’s just taking the piss. Yes there are other reasons, ones I would like to see reflected back on to the way politicians expense claims work, such as having the knowledge that ultimately I’m spending my own money (the company pays me after all), but ultimately I am presumed to be professional about these things.

Shame we can’t say the same for our politicians.

Ohh and that other thing? Well it’s about places listing ADDRESSES on their website but forgetting that I don’t know what the building is like, nor the fact it’s one door with unclear signage above it. A photo of the premises would help LOADS!

Phew. That feels better.

At the conference

Morning, in a short while I’ll be delivering my presentation, trying to keep everyone awake whilst I waffle on about why blogging is the best thing ever and WHY AREN’T YOU DOING IT?? Or words to that effect…

Don’t worry though, dear reader, you can view the presentation and read through some of my notes although without my dulcet tones you’ll only be getting half the ‘experience’ (the best half, granted).

Although there is a small chance my session will be recorded so you may yet be able to get the full experience, I’ll confirm that later though (and depends on whether it can be edited as well!).

Wish me luck!

Ada Lovelace Day

Yesterday was Ada Lovelace day, a day when women in technology, particularly those who blog, take a moment to highlight some of the heroines (am I still allowed to use that word?).

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognised. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines. Whatever she does, whether she is a sysadmin or a tech entrepreneur, a programmer or a designer, developing software or hardware, a tech journalist or a tech consultant, we want to celebrate her achievements.

An excellent idea and, whilst it was open to me as well I completely, and utterly, forgot about this. So by way of apology I’ll offer up some of the blog posts that others have posted:

There are a variety of women I could mention in respect to Ada Lovelace day, particularly as my area of IT (technical communications) has a higher percentage of women than others, but over the past year or so there is one name that springs to mind, Anne Gentle, who has been a constant source of inspiration to me. I’ve been lucky enough to swap some emails with her, and we’ve bounced a few ideas between her blog and mine.

There are many other women in my field that I could mention and I’m lucky that, as I say, my area of IT is quite well represented. So, for those that missed it, what women inspire you?

Learning from others

I spent most of the weekend laying, re-laying, cutting and swearing at laminate flooring. I read the provided instructions, measured twice (hell, four or five times in most cases) but still it proved problematic. I re-read the instructions, googled a little and then, after some experimentation finally figured out what the problem was… me.

Well not just me, but my interpretation of the instructions which were a little vague in one key area. Namely, where to start. This is crucial as, most laminate flooring needs to be laid the correct way to make it possible to snap all the pieces into place. It’s a one-directional jigsaw puzzle, if you will.

The details here aren’t important, but what it taught me (for the umpteenth time I guess) is that documentation needs to be complete, unambiguous and for hardware related matters at least, a picture tells a thousand stories.

I keep going back to the assumed knowledge angle, and it rings true for this example. One of the forums I found during a frantic Googling session yielded a comment along the lines of: “The professionals know this but it’s not something you’ll find in the instructions”.

I have been guilty of this in the past. Presumption is the silent virus that can kill an otherwise excellent piece of documentation stone dead. All it takes is one presumption to render an entire document AND THE PRODUCT IT IS SUPPORTING, next to useless (or at the very least “problematic”). Introducing that kind of negative thinking at an early stage of the product lifecycle makes it very hard to undo.

Although that, itself, is a presumption. I’m presuming that most people only read the documentation when they are still novice users. So maybe that is another presumption that I need to work on removing.

Got TED?

Have you heard of the TED conference? (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design)

No? It’s been going a while now, and got started back in 1984

…out of the observation by Richard Saul Wurman of a powerful convergence between Technology, Entertainment and Design. The first TED included demos of the newly released Macintosh computer and Sony compact disc, while mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot demonstrated how to map coastlines with his newly discovered fractals and AI guru Marvin Minsky outlined his powerful new model of the mind.

As well as the conference they share some of the sessions on the internet (freely under Creative Commons license). The quality of these sessions remains high with some of the brightest minds of current times talking about some mind-blowing things and I remain constantly fascinated by the crossover of ideas from one distinct stream of thought to another.

Personally the TED sessions have prompted me to buy several books and dig deeper into some of the topics, I’ve learned a lot.

So, when Adrian McEwen said he’d pulled together a downloadable taster pack of some of the best bits, and was looking for a little help with some bandwidth, I figured it would be good to give something back. Included in the torrent file he’s put together (which will nicely fit on a DVD once you’ve downloaded it), are:

  1. Dan Gilbert asks “Why are we happy?”
  2. Malcolm Gladwell on spaghetti sauce
  3. Sir Ken Robinson say schools kill creativity
  4. Hans Rosling shows the best stats you’ve ever seen
  5. Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice
  6. Gever Tulley on five dangerous things for kids

So, don’t just sit there, fire up your Torrent application of choice (I prefer uTorrent) and GRAB IT WHILE YOU CAN.

Recently Read

Been a while since I did one of these and, as ever, they reflect some of the things that have caught my eye over the past week or so. A couple of things on DITA which have me rethinking my approach towards it, and a some links to posts discussing … welll community, social media, Web 2.0 kind of stuff, some of it is a little away from my world but it’s good to get a different point of view on these things.

Docbook versus DITA
Not the first comparison I’ve seen but an excellent summary comparison of DocBook versus DITA. Whilst it was written by someone who admits that they were looking to portray a favourable outcome for DocBook, it’s an well-balanced set of information and will be useful to many.

From Free to Three ($100K)
One of the issues I have with DITA is the cost associated with implementing a complete end to end solution, something that, apparently, I’ve been mistaken about:

Our DITA Tools from A to Z section on the DITA Users website lists every software and service up to those $300,000 publishing solutions. But our policy of free member access to online tools means that anyone anywhere in the world can at least get started (our membership fees range from free to $100 a year).

We call our approach “DITA from A to B,” authoring to building and, of course, publishing structured content.

Definitely something I’ll be checking out.

Agile Content Development

Social media represents such a fantastic opportunity because it allows us to create and launch media properties directly to the public. But even more of a blessing is the direct and indirect feedback process that naturally happens in this space.

You put something out there, and the crowd will reveal the direction you should go. It’s not necessarily always the wisdom of the crowd, but rather the desires and objections of the crowd that guide you.

Use of social media needs fear

What about all of the fears of potential liabilities, losing control, and (the night terror) negative comments? IRRELEVANT! All are either uncontrollable (and were all along) or can be mitigated with good policies, procedures and education. Social media carries as much risk as email. You should be more afraid of losing the battle for relevance.

Is IT in danger of becoming extinct?
I’m not entirely convinced but, once again, this post suggests that there is a shift of balance, and that shift is entirely driven by users and their new found abilities to build communities around, or away from, your products.

Social media empowers users at the expense of IT. Enterprise 2.0 companies marginalize IT by putting powerful tools directly into the hands of non-technical workers, bypassing IT in the process.

The Big Picture

Deliverables are dead. Long live multi-format, anytime, anywhere delivery of information!

The more I think about it, the more I am beginning to see that creating content, writing and styling and planning, for “print” is no longer valid.

Quick caveat: Know your audience and the requirements. Many places mandate printed documentation in one format or another. I am purely talking about my own experience in a software environment.

I’m the first to admit that whenever I start thinking about updating a manual I think in print terms. I think of entire chapters of information, I think of how the user will be able to navigate and understand the layout and construction of the document. Changing those habits is proving hard but I’m slowly getting there.

Part of that change has come about by focussing on the information types we are going to be using as the building blocks of our single source system. Making each topic unique and complete within itself requires some thought and planning, and with that planning being focused on tasks, you soon get a simple outline of the required documentation including the type of information that you’ll be writing for each chunk.

As that realisation begins to sink in, the possibilities of re-use suddenly make themselves clear. It becomes a simple matter of drag and drop to create an entirely new manual, and a new delivery method becomes a simple matter of publishing to a new format.

The latter fits nicely with some current thoughts around how we get our technical information to our customers. Whilst I don’t think Author-IT would be the best solution, or at least the complete solution, I can see us focussing more on a web-based delivery of information, pulling other available content (from mailing lists and wiki pages) into an MSDN-like community website. Add in a blog and some interaction and it could very well be the shape of things to come.

As I’ve mentioned before, for a lot of people in the software industry, the internet is THE source of information. So rather than try and force how we want the information to be delivered (maintaining legacy documentation) I’m looking at how we can deliver something our customers will use, without succumbing to the Web 2.0 crazies. Yes it could have a blog, but does it need one? Yes we could use Twitter to provide ‘from the floor’ thoughts from the development group but who would sanitise them first!

Wikifying the doc set (to borrow a phrase) is a possibility of course, but that would only be part of this solution, and would have to include the ability to package it up as a different deliverable (PDF for example) so the information can be accessed when the internet isn’t available, a requirement of our documentation.

There are other considerations of course, all of which are still being thought through and will need discussion and buy-in.

Exciting times ahead I think. More on this as it develops.

Why AuthorIT?

As I mentioned before, we are planning to migrate content from FrameMaker to AuthorIT, staging the migration across two different product sets (and no small amount of time!). I’m in the process of evaluating AuthorIT for, despite having used it before, it has recently been overhauled with a spiffy new UI and some new features.

AuthorIT is a single source system, with content stored in a central database, which can publish to most (all?) of the formats that anyone would ever need. It includes an editor, supports multiple users, and has some additional add-ons for localisation and so on. Their website is very good if you want more information on their product.

After downloading and installing the trial version, which limits your import and publishing but otherwise has all the features available for use, I fired it up and was greeted with the new interface. Based on the ribbons used in the latest version of Microsoft Office, it is quite a shift away from the previous version and it took me a while to get to grips with. However it is a huge improvement over the old version and once you are used to it, like anything, it’s very nice to use. Yes I know there are still issues being dealt with, but I didn’t run across that many during my testing, so I’m happy.

During my evaluation I spoke to their Business Development Manager who was very helpful in delving into some of the issues I had around versioning and set my mind at rest. I’ll outline how we are going to handle maintaining multiple versions of documents in another post, once I’ve given it a dry run or two.

One issue that cropped up was the location and format of the supporting database. You can run AuthorIT on a Jet database either locally or on a network drive although that is particularly performant, or run it on a SQL Server. As we are a small team I did consider the Jet database but our situation suggests a server database would be better. Which introduced another problem, price. SQL Server isn’t the cheapest and we don’t have an installation in-house. Thankfully one of our IT guys suggested SQL Express (a limited free version of SQL Server) as a possibility, and after a quick check on the AuthorIT Yahoo Group, I’ve found that it will run quite happily on that database.

There is a limit of 4GB on the database size but as long as we keep our images elsewhere there is little chance we’ll hit that limit. Our total content at present, including images, tops out under 500MB for one version of the documentation. So we’ll actually be saving space on a server as we won’t be maintaining multiple versions of entire documents. Must remember to point that out to our IT guys!

Aside from versioning the only feature I was unfamiliar with was the batch runner, which allows you to run a batch file (.bat) as a scheduled task. Our current system runs at night, using Webworks to create a Javahelp file which is then included in the software build and AuthorIT will give us similar functionality.

Why AuthorIT? Well, quite simply it gives us what we need.

I spent some time at the X-Pubs conference last year, and throughout the presentations the underlying message was “get your requirements sorted before hunting for a system”. The premise is obvious enough, if you decide on a system first, you end up shoe-horning your processes around how it works rather than getting a system that works you way YOU work.

I also spent some time considering DITA but ultimately switching to an XML-based system is still too cost-prohibitive. AuthorIT is a compromise, allowing us to work how we want to work, whilst giving us single source benefits. We will use DITA as a framework for how we plan and write the content, but the simple fact is that AuthorIT is a much better value proposition than a bespoke system, both in monetary and resource terms. This makes the business case much easier to sell.

If you are considering single sourcing your content, then I’d strongly suggest you investigate AuthorIT as a possibility. It has limitations, including the oft-cited reliance on Word as a publishing engine, but for me the advantages outweight those.

And no, I am not being paid to endorse AuthorIT.