Monthly Archives: August 2007

techpubs

Levels of difficulty and stress in a technical writer job

I have been thinking lately about how to measure the level of stress and difficulty you could expect from a particular technical writing job. Would it be the type of content you write? The output requirements? The deadlines? This post is a result of some ideas my coworkers and I discussed over lunch the other day.

There’s an article called “What Do Technical Writers Find Stressful?” on the techwr-l website. The author divides the stress into categories and then describes each one in detail. Here’s his list:

  • Work overload and time pressures
  • Last-minute changes
  • Difficulty with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)
  • Problems with managers
  • Ongoing learning challenges and limited access to a product
  • Poorly defined and managed projects
  • Computer and tool problems
  • Workspace environment
  • Job security
  • Lack of control over the work environment
  • What categories would you add to the list? What brings you the most stress as a technical writer?

    My next question that I’ll try to answer is, how would you discover the stress level of a job while you’re still interviewing for it? Here are my suggested questions.

    • Tell me about the last product release, did the doc go out with errors or did it go out late? Give me a specific example of your choices between quality and deadlines.
    • Do you feel like you get enough information about release changes? How are changes typically communicated to the writers?
    • How many meetings do you attend each week? (Interpreting the answer might be tricky – more than 15 hours a week of meetings probably means there’s plenty of communication, but how will you get the actual work done in 25 hours a week?)
    • What processes are in place for product releases? How closely are the processes followed? Does the team use any Agile methodologies? Is it Waterfall method? Is there no method?
    • What platforms does your help support? Do you have any concerns about accessibility? How about multiple language requirements?
    • Give me an example of how you gather information from developers or business analysts when you need to write a new procedure.
    • What are the specs on your computer? Do you run the product on a separate computer or separate server? Do you have two monitors to run the product and to author the content?

    In your interview, also try to read the stress level of each writer and manager you talk to. There may be clues in the amount of preparation they had for the interview itself, and whether the writer needs to immediately go to another meeting. What other observations might offer clues to the stress levels there?

    I agree with the Brazen Careerist that one question not to ask is, “How many hours do you work per day?” This is a personal question that has to do with the individual’s work and life balance and may not reflect the department or the company at all.

    Let us know your personal favorite interview questions when you are a candidate for technical writing and related jobs in the comments below.

    Related links about asking questions as a job candidate:

    writing

    Not the ROI of blogging, but the Reach And Influence of blogging

    At last week’s Austin Social Media Club meeting the topic turned to running numbers to prove that social media should be used in a particular situation. My blogger buddy Ynema at talk.bmc talks about her frustrations when people talk about the ROI of blogging. She wants to run screaming from the room when it comes up, but of course she doesn’t because she’s a pro. But, in a corporate environment, someone or some department has to pay the blogger’s bills. So it comes up. Continually.
    My take on it right now is that you might be measuring the wrong metric with the wrong yardstick.

    I just read this great article about the Reach and Influence (R and I) of blogging and it offers the measurable analytics to use when investigating the blog’s help on the bottom line. She’s talking about sponsoring independent bloggers, but I think the principles work effectively in reverse when analyzing your corporate blog site.
    From the article:
    1. Traffic (but don’t trust it alone)
    2. RSS feeds
    3. Inbound hotlinks
    4. Search position, part one – keywords for company brand and keywords
    5. Search position, part two – keywords for an individual’s brand (fame level)
    6. Voice

    Maybe reframing ROI as R and I of blogging can help people like Ynema keep her dignity so that she doesn’t have to suppress the urge to run screaming from the room. She didn’t run screaming from the room at the Austin SMC meeting, but that might be because she just had knee surgery. 

    Just calmly rephrase the ROI question as an R and I question and you can calmly prove that Influence is worth Investing in.

    I learned much, much more about how this influence works and what numbers you could tie it to at the August Austin Social Media Club meeting, though. (Lookie, a pic of me and Steve Carl at the meeting.) Giovanni Gallucci, social media consultant extraordinaire, had examples of how to tie social media value to real numbers.

    One: ask any sales person who needs a direct connection to a real customer how valuable a connection is when they say “I read this person’s blog and I am ready to learn more about your product.” Real sale made.

    Two: immediate reaction to any negativity or problem with a product or service nearly requires the quickness of a blog or other social media tool. I immediately thought of the speed of Twitter and wiki page updates compared to waiting for a newspaper print to run or a TV news story to be aired. Real time saved.

    And whurley (opensville.org) added
    Three: A-list bloggers get listened to and if they mention your blog or product, you can directly compare that coverage to the advertising costs of a campaign that would have the same results. Real money saved.

    Do you think I’m right in changing investment value to influence value for the new media? Any other metrics I’ve missed?

    techpubs

    A recent graduate talks about her experiences getting a masters degree in technical communication

    In my previous post, I interviewed Diane Fleming who had completed a graduate degree in technical writing later in her career. Today’s interview is with Melissa Burpo, who has completed the coursework and internship portions of the graduate program but still needs to write up her internship report (an equivalent assignment to a master’s thesis) before graduating. I was especially interested in the most current graduate’s perspective and Melissa graciously agreed to answer all these questions.

    Melissa Burpo’s Interview

    Anne: Could you give me a little bit of a bio – your employer, how long you’ve been there, what you do there?

    Melissa: I work for Dovetail Software (www.dovetailsoftware.com), a CRM software vendor. Before I was hired as an intern in October 2006, Dovetail had never employed a writer of any sort, and I had never been employed as a fulltime technical writer. Because both the company and I are new to this whole “technical writer” thing, my job duties can be somewhat nebulous. Common tasks include rewriting, reorganizing, and redesigning legacy documents; writing end-user documentation for new functionality alongside a small agile development team; and lately, moving all of our scattered documents into AuthorIT, a single source content management system. I also occasionally handle marketing tasks, such as writing, designing, and voicing product demonstrations; designing product and company brochures; and producing graphics as needed for other marketing purposes.

    Anne: First of all, tell me what your undergrad degree was in?
    Melissa: Bachelor of Arts in Communication from Oglethorpe University, with a minor in Sociology

    Anne: What led you to a graduate degree in tech comm?
    Melissa: An undergraduate professor suggested that I look into tech comm after I finished my bachelor’s degree, but it took me three years to find my way to the MTSC program at Miami University. At first, I was turned off by the idea – I thought tech comm meant writing instruction manuals all day. Eventually I figured out that there was a very cool side to it as well – tech writers are constantly learning new things, exploring new technologies, and then figuring out how best to communicate that information to a user base. It seemed like a fun and innovative space to work in, so I decided to get the degree.

    Anne: What other degree programs did you consider?
    Melissa: I briefly looked at degrees in Professional Writing and Literary Nonfiction, but tech comm won out in the end.

    Anne: What did you learn in the degree program?
    Melissa: I learned how to practically apply technical writing theory to real-world problem solving contexts. Almost all of my school projects were for real clients in a variety of industries. For example, I collaboratively put together a website for a waste water group, wrote and designed a procedural reference card for nurses at a local hospital, and wrote a white paper about a local environmental issue for the university.

    Anne: What do you wish others had told you about technical writing before you got a job in it?
    Melissa: I wish someone had warned me that being a technical writer is just as much about building successful interpersonal relationships as it is about writing and designing good documents. Forging a good relationship with your SMEs is vital, because they are your information resource. Everything works a lot better if he or she is happily willing to share information.

    Anne: What do you consider to be the “value” of the graduate degree – in monetary terms, employability terms, and general learning?
    Melissa: I don’t see the value as the degree itself, but instead, I see the value as the experience I gained while in the program. The experience translates into a full portfolio, a well-rounded resume, and the ability to find and secure a good job.

    Anne: Do you think the degree has paid for itself?
    Melissa: Yes, absolutely.

    Anne: How well has the education “aged,” meaning, are the subjects you studied still current for the field?
    Melissa: So far, so good – of course, I’ve only been out of the program for a year : )

    I do want to mention one thing, though. The technology I studied has already been replaced by new versions and new innovations. But that’s okay, because one of the greatest lessons I took away from my program is the ability to quickly learn new technology as needed.

    Anne: Do you think that an undergraduate degree in tech comm offers the same results as a masters degree in tech comm?
    Melissa: Yes. If the undergrad degree has a practically-based curriculum that prepares students for a professional career, then there shouldn’t be much of a difference. I needed the graduate program because my undergraduate degree was unfocused. It didn’t prepare me for a career.

    Anne: If you hadn’t gotten the master’s in technical and scientific communication, speculate about what might be different for your career path and job prospects.
    Melissa: In the one year since leaving the program, I’ve already completed two contract jobs and an internship, and I now work in a regular full time position. I don’t think any of this would have been as easy or possible without the experience I gained in my graduate program. If I hadn’t gotten my MTSC degree, I would probably still be struggling to establish myself as an employable, valuable professional.

    Anne: What would you advise others who are thinking about pursuing graduate work in technical communication?
    Melissa: When looking for a program, find one that gives you practical experience in the field. This will not only start you off with a great portfolio, but it will also give you the knowledge and confidence to move into a real job. Also, keep in mind that studying a specialty area is important. For example, if you want to work in the pharmaceutical industry, you’ll probably need to know something about human biology, drug chemistry, regulatory issues, etc. This should be reflected in your studies, whether it’s before, during, or after you enter the tech comm program.

    techpubs

    Should I get a graduate degree in technical writing? Interviews with those who have

    It’s no secret that I have a masters degree in technical and scientific communication from Miami University. With all the hype about Web 2.0, outsourcing, crowdsourcing, and social media like wikis, an interesting question that I get asked occasionally is, “should I get a graduate degree in technical writing?”

    I’ve had quite a few interesting online discussions while seeking interviewees, and I’ll post two interviews this week, and then try to discuss all the complexities in answering this question in a third post.

    I emailed questions to two current technical writers in the Austin area who have masters degrees in technical writing. This first post is an interview with Diane Fleming, a Senior Technical Writer at NetQoS. The second interview is with Melissa Burpo, a not-quite-graduated degree candidate who’s working as the only technical writer at DoveTail Software.

    Diane Fleming’s Interview

    Anne: Could you give me a little bit of a bio – who is your employer, how long you’ve been there, what you do there?
    Diane: I currently work as a Senior Technical Writer at NetQoS. I provide all documentation for SuperAgent, an end-to-end performance monitoring tool. Because the Training and Technical Writing departments are combined at NetQoS, I provide product docs (pdfs and online Help) and curriculum for customer training.

    Anne: First of all, tell me what your undergrad degree was in?
    Diane: It’s a BA in English from SUNY Buffalo.

    Anne: What led you to a graduate degree in tech comm?
    Diane: I had never heard of technical writing as a profession (this was in the late seventies), but a graduate of RPI’s technical communications department offered a one-night seminar at a local college entitled, “A Career in Technical Writing.” After taking the seminar, I discovered that a high school friend of mine had also graduated from RPI, so I started exploring their degree program. At the time, I was working at the Poughkeepsie Journal and they had a very open tuition reimbursement program. They agreed to pay for my degree at RPI, though it required that I work full-time and commute to Albany to complete the degree (a two-hour commute in each direction). But I couldn’t pass up the free tuition.

    Anne: What other degree programs did you consider?
    Diane: None, though later I began work on an M.S. in computer science (which I never completed).

    Anne: What did you learn in the degree program?
    Diane: I don’t remember the exact titles of the classes, but we learned writing and editing, project management, and computer programming. One of the classes required that we work as a team to produce a piece of documentation, which unfortunately required an extra weekly commute to Albany for me. We also took a communications class, which entailed a general review of communication theory.

    Anne: What do you wish others had told you about technical writing
    before you got a job in it?
    Diane: I’m not sure anyone could have told me, but I always regretted not pursuing computer programming in lieu of writing because of the greater respect programmers garner – tech writers have to constantly remind others of their value. Sometimes it seems like a losing battle. With offshoring, the message seems to be, if you can speak English, even minimally, then you can be a tech writer!

    Anne: What do you consider to be the “value” of the graduate degree — in monetary terms, employability terms, and general learning?
    Diane: My degree opened a lot of doors for jobs I’d otherwise be overlooked for. I’ve managed to stay employed as a tech writer since 1988, and I’ve been paid well.

    Anne: Do you think the degree has paid for itself?
    Diane: Absolutely! Especially since my employer paid for the degree. Even if I had paid for it, the degree was worth its cost. It’s enabled me to put two sons through college and to support my family.

    Anne: How well has the education “aged,” meaning, are the subjects you studied still current for the field?
    Diane: The skills that have aged well are writing, editing, and project management. But as technology changes, my skills degrade. New programming languages, wikis, agile development, blogging, browser-based interfaces, so on and so forth – all these innovations require that I keep learning new things to stay current.

    Anne: Do you think that an undergraduate degree in tech comm offers the same results as a masters degree in tech comm?
    Diane: Probably. When I got my M.S. degree, lots of teachers were retraining to become technical writers. In fact, the original program at RPI was geared toward teachers. RPI ran summertime institutes so that teachers could retrain during their time off. The masters degree enabled people in other professions to retrain in a couple of years. But for someone coming right out of high school, an undergraduate degree should suffice.

    Anne: If you hadn’t gotten the master’s in technical and scientific communication, speculate about what might be different for your career path and job prospects.

    Diane: I doubt I would’ve become a tech writer – I’d tried to “break into” IBM for many years – it was the major employer where I lived. But at the time, I was told that women were secretaries and that was that. I had worked as a temp secretary at IBM, even with an English degree. It wasn’t until I received my masters degree that someone would interview me for a tech writing job at IBM. I might’ve eventually pursued a computer science masters degree in order to become a programmer. But if I hadn’t done that, maybe I’d still be at the Poughkeepsie Journal doing graphic design for retail ads.

    Anne: What would you advise others who are thinking about pursuing graduate work in technical communication?
    Diane: Check out certificate programs first – RPI offers a HCI certificate (human-computer interaction), which might help you find work as a tech writer. Also look into current technologies – are companies using wikis? What kind of technical information do you want to document? If you’re interesting in writing about programming interfaces, you might get an M.S. in computer science to complement an English degree – this might be of more value in the long-run in terms of pay scale and promotability. Also look into distance learning – schools offer low-residency programs in technical writing, which enable you to keep working and pursue your degree at the same time. Also look for a program that’s tied into a particular industry. RPI was associated with IBM, which really enhanced their program. I think more academic programs are less useful. If the program seems to focus on a lot of theory, it’s probably not going to help you be a good tech writer, though it might help you teach. Also, see if you can talk to a tech writing manager at a local company and ask them what they recommend to become a tech writer.

    writing

    Simplest of style guides

    Ah, simplicity. Elegant. Succinct. Basic. Good.

    Welcome to ASI, new writer. Here are the basics:

    • Write well, quickly, in the active voice and the present tense.

    • Put punctuation outside the quoted material.

    • Maintain gender neutrality. (“He” and “she”: bad. “They”: good.)

    • Replace semicolons with periods.

    • Use numerals for all numbers.

    • Make cross-references target-neutral.

    • Insert AIT variables.

    • Publish Word documents or HTML files only.

    • If it’s not here, look to The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications.

    DITA wiki

    DITA and wiki – w/ho/w will (we/you) write

    I received an excellent question from a reader about his eagerness to use wikis for his product’s doc set, but he came across conflicts and issues when he questioned the practicality of maintaining a wiki for his large set of documentation. Here’s Paul’s well-phrased request for information.

    I am considering using a wiki for documentation projects, but have been coming across some showstopper issues. Here is the story:

    Our documentation set is large. We only want to maintain one set of files. Therefore, any changes in the wiki would need to be automatically synched with the source files.

    The obvious suggestion is “just make the wiki your source files.” However, it is not as simple as that, for a few reasons.

    • First of all, we need to generate attractive offline documentation in online help format, viewable across several operating systems. No wiki enables an elegant way of doing that.
    • Secondly, we have a bunch of conditional text–our existing documentation comes in six different versions. I have not found a good way to integrate the different conditional tags into a wiki, while maintaining it in both our sources and the offline output files.
    • Finally, wikis almost by nature do not support DITA. Wikis are designed to be simple and easy to understand. However, that approach negates many of the advantages of structured writing.

    For these reasons, I currently see wikis primarily as a collaboration tool. But they do not have the features necessary for complex technical documentation.

    Do you have ideas for how we could get around these issues?

    Oddly enough, on this particular day, another reader wrote in about similar issues with wikis, but they have started to overcome them. He listed the issues succinctly, saying:

    I’d say that there is quite an art to creating wiki doc from a couple of perspectives:

    * conversion
    * building out the infrastructure
    * look-and-feel issues
    * style issues
    * review issues
    * basic editing issues

    Even with all these issues — :) — however, the immediateness of the experience, the ease associated with making changes and the creation of links and containers, and the modern look and feel really make wikis a fascinating competitor with other, much different technologies. How many other industries move off in such opposite directions (wikis vs. dita)? It’s sort of like trying to figure out whether cars should run on gas or steam!

    The CEO of Confluence came through a few weeks ago. He was pointing out to the following as an example of a company that had developed wiki doc:

    http://www.gigaspaces.com/wiki/dashboard.action

    Here are two more you might find interesting if you don’t already know about them:

    http://docs.codehaus.org/display/GROOVY/Documentation

    http://www.aptana.com/docs/index.php/Main_Page

    And here’s the part that is amazing to me – in a follow up email, Paul answered some of his own questions and said that the gigaspaces.com wiki is one wiki he is investigating further. For example, by talking to one of the writers, he learned that their wiki has 1300 pages, and reuses many pages through the [include] command or transclusion, which is the inclusion of part of a document into another document by reference. My original response to Paul talked about DITA as source files and wiki as an output from those source files. I learned that Robohelp does something like that, with source files and wiki as output, and this blog post mentions round-tripping the content back to Robohelp.

    Naturally, I have some ideas about DITA and wikis. My post about DITA Storm built into a custom wiki describes a hybrid approach, with DITA files as the source and editable pages. Paul takes that idea one step further, saying that you could have the internal technical writers see a DITA editor interface to the wiki, but have end-users write doc in a simplified editor with fewer tags. I like that idea.

    There’s also the possibility of a transform from DITA to wikitext. A search on the dita-ot-developer list on sourceforge.net revealed that Deborah Pickett was writing such a thing for her employer last April. I emailed her and she generously gave me her XSLT source files, but said that she gave it up when she found that “The whitespace rules for wikimedia meant that anything fancy would end up being better written in wikimedia’s pretend HTML format anyway.” Hm. I haven’t tried the transform yet myself. Bob Doyle has done a lot of DITA to WikiMedia transformation to pre-seed the ditawiki.org with content, and he says “The Perl script for conversion to MediaWiki is publicly available at http://www.jtidy.de/conv. It has a major flaw in that it does not convert URLs to hyperlinks.” Again, I’d need to try it myself to see whether that approach would work and if the technology scripting is worth the effort.

    Now, for everyone pondering wikis and DITA, an absolute must read is this great article by Paul Prescod, The Convergence of Structure and Chaos. Not that it offers practical solutions (although he hints at some at the very end), but it maps DITA concepts to wiki concepts.

    I’ve also been noticing that people are trying to automate getting content from their support forums into wikis… Check out this poor intern’s daunting task: http://ask.metafilter.com/62679/Automated-Media-Wiki-Page-Creation.

    I guess to answer my own question about where wikis fit in tech doc, I currently see wikis as supplemental, not source doc from which to make other things. I probably lean towards seeing a wiki is another output from perhaps DITA source. Sure, there would have to be a loopback mechanism to get the contributed parts of a wiki back to the source files, and I’m not sure how automated that could be. But, I would love it if vendors could convince me otherwise, and frankly, I keep hearing about Confluence and their examples are compelling.

    So I share with you these side conversations I’m having in hopes that the information here helps others in their quest to offer wikis to their end-users. Users, write the manuals. But make sure us writers get to meet our objectives as well.

    As a final departing thought, I share the machine is us/ing us video, containing the best description of Web 2.0 and new media I’ve seen to date, created by a cultural anthropologist. It’s about five minutes long, and a thought provoking piece.

    One of the questions in it that stuck in my mind was the question at about 3:00 minutes, “Who will organize all this data?” And the typed and re-typed answers after a screencast or demo of del.icio.us:

    We will.

    You will.

    blogging

    Feedburner support – they help until it sticks

    I want to extol the virtues of Jon Klem at Feedburner, plus give a status update for this feed and the old TalkBMC feed. Now the feeds have been combined into one, bringing subscribers over with no interruption, and Jon stuck with me for no less than a 16-email message thread so that he and I understood what was going on behind the scenes for this feed.

    My goal was to have a seamless transition to my new blog, and thanks to Ynema Mangum, the talented and clever powerhouse behind talk.bmc.com and Tom Parish, the SEO brains and guru for the site, I was able to bring over the subscribers from my old feed to my new feed. So with their permission I emailed Feedburner support to explain my situation and see what the technology could do.

    Feedburner has a way to transfer one feed from one account to another, and then transfer the subscribers from one feed to another. Then, the account holder (that’s me) exports the stats from the old feed to a spreadsheet for safekeeping, and then deletes the old feed and stats.

    Are you as curious as I was about the most popular posts from my talk.bmc.com blog? I’m sure you’re not, but here are the top three anyway. Your analysis and interpretation is as good as mine.

    1. Celebrating moms and parenthood in the workplace — TalkBMC
    2. Connecting the dots, or pixels, for service impact — TalkBMC
    3. Best practices in tech comm for customer feedback — TalkBMC
    DITA

    DITA round up

    Just doing a little data mining of the posts I’ve written about DITA in the last few years. I think that there’s a gap for DITA users who are writers or content creators and not coders. I’d like to say that DITA bloggers can bridge that gap. Join me on the DITA blog by writing your own experiences with DITA.

    These posts are ordered from newest to oldest, and I wrote them to share my experiences with DITA and to chronicle some of the Central Texas DITA User Group meetings I attended.

    A watched folder for publishing from DITA source files

    June 15, 2007: I’ve figured out a way to automate DITA builds where you just drop a zip file of your DITA source files into a “watched folder” and PDF and CHM files are automatically built.

    Usability and inline links in user assistance systems

    May 19, 2007: Examining DITA’s linking and usability.

    Getting Started with DITA

    April 12, 2007: A brief overview for a couple of fellow Austin writers who have asked me recently how and where to get started with DITA.

    Checking out the new DITA Users website

    April 10, 2007: Using a coupon code (it’s BETA) I joined the new DITA Users website for free today.

    A new DITA Open ToolKit release and brand new DITA newbie blog

    October 04, 2006 : A couple of blog-worthy items in the DITA world

    Turning information into DITA topics

    September 14, 2006: What would you do to make this particular type of content into topics?

    How to substitute your custom CSS when using DITA Open Toolkit transforms

    September 07, 2006 : When you want to use the DITA Open Toolkit transforms but you want to use your own CSS, here’s how to substitute your CSS for HTML Help (CHM)

    DITA Open ToolKit now has a User Guide

    August 22, 2006: Just released last week, the DITA Open ToolKit now has its own User Guide

    Using the DITA catalog for your specializations, creating a Public ID

    August 16, 2006 : Thought our discovery might help you as you specialize DITA

    Evaluating XML editors for DITA

    August 01, 2006: Notes from the July 2006 Central Texas DITA User Group meeting

    A web-form-based DITA editor

    July 14, 2006: Could this be the perfect storm for a DITA wiki?

    Troubleshooting tip for the DITA Open Toolkit install

    June 23, 2006 : Finally figured out the fix for my DITA Open Toolkit “resource/messages.xml” not found error

    Where to put your files and other setup for DITA

    June 09, 2006: Working with the environment setup for DITA

    Defining OPML and relating to DITA maps

    May 31, 2006: I found a nice definition for OPML from whatis.com as their word of the day, and I’m starting to wonder about similarities between OPML and DITA maps

    Learning more about DITA

    May 18, 2006: Learning about how to get started with DITA and a trivia item for fun

    Notes from the central Texas DITA user group meeting

    April 21, 2006: Two speakers shared their takeaways from DITA 2006 and CMS 2006

    Our DITA experience at BMC Software

    March 02, 2006: Link to a case study published about BMC’s DITA experience

    DITA from the trenches

    February 20, 2006: Information Architect from IBM, Kristin Thomas, presented to the Central Texas DITA User’s Group meeting last week, and here are my notes.

    Moving from Books to Topic-oriented Writing

    January 27, 2006 : A report from JoAnn Hackos’ talk at the Central Texas DITA Users Group meeting January 2006

    DITA and wiki combo

    December 05, 2005: Darwin Information Typing Architecture, meet Wiki.

    Darwin Information Typing Architecture – DITA (dih tuh)

    November 04, 2005: Roundup of the DITA reading I’ve been diving back in to lately.

    Non-profits, organizations, and social media

    I have gathered several questions recently related to social media and non-profits using technology to further their causes. Many other people are writing about this with much more authority than I, but I would like to share my perspective and link like crazy to the experts.

    What sites or tools are defined as social media? Blogs, wikis, Second Life?

    Scoble has an excellent article, What is social media?, explaining how social or new media is different from old media. This article gives me a gold standard to compare all tools with traditional media like newspapers, television, and so on.

    How have non-profits and professional organizations found ways to use social media to further their causes or to serve their members?

    There are plenty of examples, especially now that Facebook has introduced the new Causes application. This blog post “The Long, Long Tail of Facebook Causes” describes it with links: The very cool Causes application by Project Agape enables anyone with a Facebook account to support and engage their Facebook networks to support a “Cause” – be it “Save the Seals!,” “End Global Warming!,” or “Fight Hate.” All of the Causes have to be attached to a Guidestar-verified 501(c)(3).” The quoted blog post also has tips for promoting a cause on Facebook. Plus it has number to back up its claim of the Long Tail at work – the total donations ranged from ran from $5 to $22,871. There’s another blog post that gives you steps for promoting your cause on Facebook.

    The Red Cross created a visual in Second Life to raise awareness about disaster recovery. Often this type of display is too costly for most non-profits, and it’s difficult to measure the effect and return on investment. There also is a subculture of “griefers” on Second Life that makes any investment in presence risky.

    This blog entry says “As I mentioned in my blog post on the Red Cross entry at Second Life, depicting a disaster zone, one way is to create awareness, convey a mood or show people the challenges in such areas. This awareness is much more valuable than the lousy linden bucks it brings in tips.There is a thin line though; It is great to raise awareness but the cost is a consideration. The presence should be sponsored, not funded with sponsorship money.”
    Good analysis and commentary. Linden bucks are the currency in Second Life and there’s a direct exchange rate between Linden bucks and US Dollars (300 to 1 USD I believe?).

    What are mashups and are they automatically part of social media and web 2.0?

    Mashups combine and layer information on top of another item to bring more information to the reader. Layered maps are an excellent example of a mashup. Microsoft’s latest CRM offering shows a mashup of layering an aerial photo of the event location or venue in order to offer additional information to event planners. I believe mashups are directly related to social media because it is putting extra data together to form a more user-centered picture of the user’s goals.

    But what if I’m not in my twenties?

    My former coworker Michael Cote is now an industry analyst and he has this great post about how different websites like facebook and myspace are actually “colonies” where you are gathering with like folk. It starts with this great quote about how difficult it is for
    30-somethings to get 20-somethings to read their blog. I cracked up because I realized it’s so true for me. Read his post here:
    Cote talks about the “web I know” and it’s different for all of us, based on age, based on experience, based on education level, based on professional achievements, and so on. I feel like I too need to constantly be on the lookout for what “teh kidz” are doing, as a parent, as a blogger, as a writer.

    There is some research on the average age of people on Facebook and I would guess it is moving upward.

    Actual usage may go down as users age, though, so they need to continue to get people to sign up and join their “colony.” And Danah Boyd has written a wonderful essay about class and MySpace and Facebook. She’s truly a pioneer in this research and writes so well that you want to finish every essay right away.

    Anyway, besides the nagging detail that I’m in my 30s, and have a job, house, spouse, kids, pets, and other responsibilities, there’s another reason why I had been hesitant to sign up for facebook, and that’s the little feminist voice in me that dislikes the term facebook because for me, it has the connotation of that book that all the first year college students get where they’d look up incoming students and rate them on looks. (Am I the only one who had that type of incoming book in college?) I think that perception is melting away rapidly, though. Facebook only opened to non-current-college-students in September 2006, so it hasn’t even passed the one year mark as an open area.

    How can I keep up with social media and the technology?

    You don’t have to feel like you’re telling the kids to “get off your lawn” but you should be aware of the social media push and also recognize (and throw off) the hype when needed.

    I have discovered the new tag “nptech” for non-profit technology, and will keep an eye on that tag in del.icio.us, in blogs, and other areas of the web. There’s a lot to keep up with, and constantly analyze.

    I’d also encourage everyone to try out the sites to gain familiarity with the site’s look and feel and implementation, and find ways to use them for your everyday pursuits.

    agile techpubs

    What makes a doc plan Agile?

    Does working in an Agile development environment change the documentation plan, or user information plan?

    For many writers, the purpose of a doc plan is to inform the stakeholders what you (or your team) intends to deliver for docs for a particular product release and when you will meet key milestones.

    Here’s an outline of a typical user information plan that includes signoffs from interested parties, with the goal being that you work with your team to agree to what information deliverables are necessary for a software release to be complete.

    1. List of deliverables
    2. Risks and dependencies
    3. New features
    4. Documentation milestones and deadlines
    5. Techpubs expectations and assumptions for meeting the deadlines

    That outline was from an actual doc plan from about three years ago. It was feature-dependent and waterfall-driven.

    In an Agile environment, the doc plan might be more minimalist, listing only:

    1. key players
    2. release theme and top features in the release
    3. dates

    Then the real work of planning the details of what needs to be addressed in the doc happens during iteration planning. The detailed planning may not be written down in a doc plan, spending the time on writing the end-user doc instead.

    I suppose the most Agile doc plan would be a simple verbal agreement to what will be in the doc each iteration.

    If there’s a sliding scale, what is the least Agile doc plan? What is the most Agile doc plan?