Tag: <span>Pre Sales</span>

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!

Work

Single sourcing is good, I’m sure most of us can agree on that, but I’ve recently been wondering if perhaps DITA isn’t quite good enough?

The thing is, I’ve been looking at DITA as a solution for our single sources needs for a while now. I’ve attended conferences, read whitepapers, listened to vendors and everything else that goes with it and I’ve got a pretty good handle on things. If applied correctly the benefits you can gain are very large, although the same can be said of any other single source project, yet what seems to be consistently missing during all of these wonderfully theoretical discussions is the cost and impact of getting such a solution “applied correctly”.

A key part of planning to move to single source, of which DITA is only a part, is understanding the business needs and technological requirements of all of the content producers in your organisation. Traditionally that means Technical Communications, Training, Pre-Sales and Marketing, with perhaps other flavours to be considered depending on how your company is structured.

However, if those parts of your organisation aren’t yet ready to move, then the business case changes. At present this is the situation I’m in, so I find myself looking for a short-term (2-3 year) solution that won’t lock us in to a proprietary format and that can give us benefits as soon as possible.

Re-use is our main reason for moving to single source. We don’t (yet) localise, and there is only one other team that has any interest in re-using our content (and even then, they are likely to use it as an source of verification, not a source of content). With that in mind, and with the proviso that I’ve used it previously, we are looking at AuthorIT.

Yes it does mean we forego a lot of the power of DITA but as it will allow us to tag topics accordingly (in keeping with the DITA model) and it does have an XML DITA output option, then it shouldn’t lock us in. I’m willing to put up with a little pain further down the road to get the benefits now.

I’m still not entirely sure what else we are missing. We publish PDFs, HTML and Javahelp, all of which AuthorIT handles, and as yet we don’t have a need to dynamically publish information based on metadata. If that changes in the near future then we’ll handle it appropriately but it isn’t on anyone’s radar.

I am concerned about the versioning capabilities of AuthorIT as we maintain the last 3 versions of all our publications, but I know there are ways to achieve this in AuthorIT. I doubt it will work as well as our current system (FrameMaker files in an SVN repository) but, as is always the case, I do expect we may need to make some compromises to get ourselves moving towards single sourcing our publications. This is our main pain point and so becomes the focus for any possible solution.

DITA remains the long-term goal but, and I’ve said this before, until there is an all in one solution that is easy to rollout it remains marginalised as a viable option. Most of us need to produce some form of business case to justify such purchases and, at present, DITA is still too costly an option. I’m always happy to learn new things, and whilst I would love to be able to invest time and resource into creating and maintaining a DITA based solution, I just can’t justify it.

All of my research suggests that, rather than being a simple installation and conversion process, creating a DITA solution requires a lot of technical know-how and a not insubstantial amount of time and resource. We can handle the first, the latter is (I believe) not yet at a level which makes it cost-effective.

Ultimately, for the moment, DITA costs too much.

Do you agree? Can you prove me wrong? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, particularly if you have implemented DITA already. I’m keen to hear just how more productive a DITA solution can be if you aren’t involved in localisation. Have you recouped your costs yet?

Perhaps DITA is only really applicable for those with large budgets and the chance to invest heavily upfront. Alas I’m not in such a position. For the moment.

Tech Work