Tag Archives: career

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Career Focus: Community Documentation

I gave this interview via email to Mandy Morgan, a senior at Missouri State University this year, majoring in technical writing with a journalism minor. She wrote up a memo for a career focus class based on the interview and I’m repurposing the Q & A here.

Q: For starters, I was wondering what skills you have that you didn’t learn in schooling that helped you succeed in the professional world?

A: There are pretty specific web and server skills that I had to learn after finishing my education – mostly because they’re very fast-moving technology that I had not needed to try out during college and grad school. Every tech writer I’ve met has a different path into tech writing, but mine is a bit traditional. I got an undergraduate degree in Chemistry and spent a summer in a test lab, doing quality checks on infant formula. I found I was interested in the instrumentation manuals and how they were written, so in my final year of undergrad I started researching technical communication. As it turned out, there are graduate programs in tech comm so I went to Miami University in Ohio and got a degree. Part of the degree program was an internship, and I learned about online writing and HTML had just started to be a standard for the web. Since then, I’ve always worked in software documentation at large and small companies. I have had to pick up technology skills constantly along the way.

Q: How important was it for you to learn the technology before you started your job and what systems have you learned during your professional experience?

A: In my current job I learned much of the technology on the job because I hadn’t needed to know cloud computing prior to joining Rackspace. One attribute of technical writers in general is that we learn quickly. So in my case, it was more important that I could grasp concepts quickly rather than learn the technology prior to starting the job. I took this job about 2 months after the OpenStack project was launched, so really it would have been impossible to learn about
OpenStack, open source cloud computing, prior to starting. A clear understanding concepts and systems should be applicable no matter how the technology changes through the years (or months or days!).

Q: How often do you get feedback on the work that you do, and what form do you receive your feedback in? Who are the main people that you interact with (whether this be a team or SMEs, etc.)?

A: Getting feedback (and future direction) can be tricky in documentation because you want to write for certain users and audiences rather than for the team that wrote the product itself. I love it when I hear people say, “I no longer work for development. I work for the user.” They say it with disruption and evolution in their hearts and minds. They fully intend to serve the user the best they can, and user feedback is the most valuable type. I also believe in using web analytics to gather feedback on how effective your deliverables are.

Comments are a great way to get feedback immediately on a page you’ve written. Comments connect users to each other and to the authors of the content.

So in my case, I try to interact with community members and users as much as I do with developers who are subject matter experts.

Q: How important would you say knowing grammar and mechanics rules are?

Honestly, as quickly as the code moves, the documentation also has to move, so knowing grammar and getting mechanics right the first time are essential to having high-quality docs done quickly. I also review a lot of community contributions and need them to write English very well. I can serve as a grammatical editor during the review process but ideally the writer is very good at it already.

Q: Did networking play a large role in the job process for you and where you are today?

A: Absolutely – every job I’ve gotten has been a direct result of networking either through professional associations or through volunteer work on open source projects. I hold strong beliefs in networking being a constant activity – not for my own sake but for the good feelings I get from helping others, which I suppose is still self-centered.

Q: How much time did you have to devote outside of the work place to your job when you first started and now?

A: I love the flexibility that writing as a core skill in my career gives me – I can write from home, write at any hour, and the equipment I need is something I own and like to use already. I also love that I can attend user group meetings outside of regular work hours. I also get to attend twice-yearly in-person meetings with the community project contributors, which is just part of the job, not necessarily outside of the work place. I guess my answer is, the job doesn’t have an “inside” and “outside” of the workplace since it is so collaborative and community-oriented.

Q: And the ever famous questions, what struggles do you face with your job and what is the most rewarding aspect of it? Is the track that you’re on now, the one you planned to be on after school?

A: The struggle isn’t so much with the job itself but with the need to raise a family and have a home life when we’re so connected constantly. My daily  prioritization and focus is something I struggle with. This job is a dream job for me, though, it’s so rewarding to work in a community towards common goals. Plus Rackspace firmly believes in using your strengths to do work you love. I’m surrounded by really smart helpful people.

A graduate degree was my path to get to the awesome job I have now, but I don’t know that it has to be the “right” path. With the upsurge in open source documentation groups, it seems an apprenticeship in open source doc would still lead you to the right jobs and connections. After undergrad, I discovered technical writing, and had a very planned track through grad school to get to where I wanted to be. Even so, the career paths in technical writing in particular have a stodgy character to them sometimes. I’m more innovative and experimental with technical writing than the general group of technical writers subscribe to, and sometimes that causes twists and turns in the path.

Q: What is your title?

A: My business cards read “Content Stacker” which is a play on words – at Rackspace we are called Rackers and when you work on OpenStack we are called Stackers. So since I create, curate, source, and sort content for OpenStack, I call myself a Content Stacker. My title at Rackspace is Technical Writer.

Q: What piece of advice could you offer to students on being successful in the tech writing world?

Become as technical as possible while maintaining a user advocacy viewpoint. Be willing to experiment and definitely embrace the web and mobile devices as delivery mechanisms for information. Do what you love!

Last sprint, first step

This week I’m finishing up an Agile sprint. Not just any sprint, though, my last sprint as a technical writer embedded on a sprint team at ASI. I’ve learned so much there in the last couple of years that I’ve decided to make a go at consulting. I want to help people with content strategy, social media, and any tools they need along the way such as collaborative authoring, wikis, web content management systems, or DITA.

This week is my last Agile sprint for a while, but I think I’ll adopt some Agile principles and apply them to my new work lifestyle as an advisor for LugIron and a contractor for Informatica here in Austin.

  1. Only deliver things that an actual customer would find useful.
  2. Deliver something that I consider to be done, shippable, and customer- ready.
  3. You can do any task, no matter how daunting, if you slice it thin enough.
  4. You should list and prioritize all tasks, large and small, that get you incrementally closer to your goals.
  5. Create prototypes all the time, no matter how rough or simplistic. Keep polishing as you go.
  6. Reflect periodically, and change what’s not working well.
  7. Understand the business goals. Clarify when needed by asking questions and seeking the details.
  8. Welcome changing expectations and requirements. Embrace change.
  9. Maintain a sustainable pace. I should be able to maintain a constant pace forever.
  10. And if all else fails, don’t overthink it, and go get a beer.

Content curation – a manifesto

The phrase “content curator” was one I had to define in the glossary of my book. It seems now that content curator is an idea that others are writing about as well.

RJ Jacquez, Adobe product evangelist, tweeted a link to an article about Content Curation on the site Social Media Today titled “Manifesto for the Content Curator,” written By Rohit Bhargrava. In it, he describes his definition of a content curator: “A Content Curator is someone who continually finds, groups, organizes and shares the best and most relevant content on a specific issue online.”

manifestoflickrPhoto courtesy ingorr on flickr

I think that professional writers and technical writers should consider a move towards this role. We already search for and find the best content, sift through loads of content, discard poor content, and publish the most worthy content whenever a software release goes out. This description also sounds like something a content strategist would do as part of their analysis of the content.

What I found fascinating after the article had been out a few days was to read one of the comments, where the commentor seemed to think that tasks related to content curation should be automated. He referenced two sites that curate content by classifying it and rating it, mahalo.com and oneforty.com. He saw content curation as a great opportunity for software developers and entrepreneurs.

What do you think? I’m guessing my blog’s audience would protest mightily. Do you believe that content curation can be done by algorithms of rating and relevancy? Or should this job be reserved for specialists?

Talking to Ellis Pratt about Conversation and Community

I spoke with Ellis Pratt with Cherryleaf in London from my home in Austin for a video interview last week, and the shortened version is available online now.


He had many good questions, ones that I enjoy discussing all the time, such as the future of our profession. One good one was “What will user documentation look like in the future?” Also, “Is there too much reliance on search?” and “What are the blind alleys?”

I’m not sure I have all the answers, but I do enjoy talking to people who “get” it like Ellis does.

Here’s a direct link to the interview, which has slides guiding you through highlights of the the questions and answers.

I really appreciated Ellis Pratt and Cherryleaf giving me the opportunity to talk about the concepts in my book. These types of interviews – video, audio, lunchtime, you name it! – lend more dimension to the book than just flat pages. I appreciate it!

Elsewhere on the web…

I have neglected to excerpt and link to some of my posts from the Duo Consulting blog. I’ve taken a break from writing for them for a few months while finalizing my book, but looking back at these posts, I wanted to share them with my readers! So here goes.

It Ain’t All Business: Using Social Networks for Good

When the social media groundswell turns altruistic, the results can be amazing. Here are two examples of both large and small differences made with a few simple connections. Connections made all the more quickly and with a higher rate of trust with the use of social media tools like social networks and Twitter.

Wanted: Good Home for Good Dog

Photo credit: Jim Sneddon on Flickr found using Flickr-Storm. More…

Web Content Mistakes and Worst Social Media Campaigns

We’re becoming more accustomed to correcting small-ish errors on wiki web pages when we come across them. I catch myself looking for an “Edit” link on other people’s pages, but of course not all web pages are editable. But that habitual reaction has me wondering about web content mistakes and how best to correct them.

What’s the biggest web content mistake you’ve seen (or done?)

Michael Silverman told us about the six-year-old news article that went out due to inaccurate automation techniques, causing a 75% drop in a company’s stock price before it could be corrected, in Save $1 Billion with Web Content Management! Now that is a big web content mistake. More…

Terms of Contention: Who Owns Uploaded Content?

Terms of use and privacy policies, how often do you read these terms before agreeing to them? Most of us would admit we don’t read the fine print even when it’s prominent large type. But when a community member does pay attention to a change in the terms of service and gets 100,000 other people to pay attention also, you’d better believe that the originator of the terms and policies are going to take notice. That scenario happened just last week for members of Facebook, one of the largest social media sites with 175 million active users and the most visited site in January 2009 with 1.2 billion visits according to Compete.com. More…

How my 5-year-old sees web content

I had the funniest inquiry from my five-year-old son today. He said, “Mom, how does the computer know there are new Lego sets?”

Now, I didn’t launch into a description of Document Engineering: Analyzing and Designing Documents for Business Informatics and Web Services even though Bob Glushko’s book is on our bookshelf. I had to stop and think before answering, and I realized his view of the web is quite retail- and consumer-oriented. He uses a computer for web browsing (using the Glubble Firefox Plugin), playing games, and that’s about it. He’s still piecing together how the pictures, videos, and text about Legos gets onto his computer, and he’s building his own ideas about how it all works. Fascinating!

My answer was a simple “Lego is a company, and when they make a new set, they put the information on the web site, and then you go look at it.” I don’t think there’s much more to it, from a five-year-old’s view point.

The Lego site has such great marketing – they know their audience members are the kids, but they still know the targets are the parents with the purchasing power. Their designers have a great set of videos that describe the toys and sets to kids. Check them out.

Maybe I’m looking too far ahead at career choices for my kid, but I’d be proud to raise either a Lego Designer or a Document Engineer.



Check her out!

Here’s my interview for GirlStart, highlighting a technical communication career for the “Check her out!” section of their website. The toughest question for me was the last one! GirlStart is a non-profit based in Austin that empowers girls in math, science, and technology. I was pleased to be able to say what a great career information development is, and also reading the other interviews was an inspiration to me!
So, here goes.

Senior Technical Writer, blogger
Advanced Solutions International and JustWriteClick.com

What do you do and what are some of your job responsibilities?

I write online help, website information, and user manuals for software that people use to run associations, non-profit organizations, and faith-based organizations. Our software can conquer mailings, large events, fundraising, organize and retrieve member contact information, and handle magazine subscriptions just to name a few tasks that large organizations do for their members.

I have to learn new features of a product quickly, and analyze the tasks that our typical users want to accomplish with our software product. Technical writers are sometimes described as extremely fast learners who can also interview to get the information they need as well as a journalist. My job involves writing, interviewing, learning about users, checking the software for quality, helping improve the user experience with the product, and constantly checking the future horizon to ensure our deliverables match what our customers want.

I also write a blog about information development and design at Justwriteclick.com, and it has helped me learn so much and connect and collaborate with others in my chosen field. I started blogging for my former employer, BMC Software, and it opened doors and opportunity to me because it moved me to the edges of my comfort zones.

How did you find your current job?

I belong to a professional organization called the Society for Technical Communication, and networking through those affiliations has helped me find every single career-type job I’ve found so far. Professional networking and social networking are huge parts of job-hunting, especially for fulfilling, flexible work like the jobs I have found a passion for.

Did you learn any of your skills from school?

I’m a little unusual in that my path to technical writer started with an undergraduate degree in chemistry, where I learned a lot about scientific thinking and process. After reading the manuals in the analytic laboratory where I worked for a summer testing powder samples of infant formula, I decided to explore how those manuals were written. I discovered a master’s degree program in scientific and technical communication and learned a lot of my specific job and career skills there, but I have also had to continually educate myself and reach out to others to learn more skills, for both technical and design-oriented skills. I also read a lot – books or blogs, either one is highly useful and helpful to me. I attend presentations, conferences, and training classes as well.

What would you tell a girl that was interested in doing what you do?

Technical writing and information design are professions that a lot of women have found to be fulfilling and interesting, and for many reasons, women are prevalent in the profession. I’d encourage you to read as much as you can and practice writing because both are important skills for writing technical information. I also would encourage a sense of excitement and exploration with technology, whether it’s Webkins or a Nike+iPod running sensor.

What are some of your hobbies?

I enjoy running very much and while I’m not fast, I am consistent. I’m into running for the long term ever since I found the best running partner in a friend 30 years older than me. I also write for my blog as a hobby and explore the latest technology in social media and computers by talking to my friends and colleagues online. I read voraciously and have joined at least three book clubs in the last few years. I also enjoy kids and especially my own kids. I teach my son’s classes as often as they let me and love going on field trips, even if they’re just in the backyard with a flashlight or binoculars at night.

What is your favorite website?

My favorite website is bloglines.com because that’s where I store all my blog feeds to read, and reading is my absolute favorite pastime. Probably my favorite website to visit is dooce.com because she’s an excellent writer and her daughter and my firstborn son are nearly the same age, so much of what she writes about I’m living. Right now, I enjoy del.icio.us/annegentle because it’s where I’m bookmarking all my favorite places to read and savor later. To talk with friends and coworkers, I enjoy twitter.com and twemes.com.

If you could talk to you when you were 12 years old, what advice would you give yourself?

This is a tough question, I have to say. Don’t argue with others for the sport of it comes to mind first, because my wise sixth grade teacher wrote that in my yearbook. Secondly, you’re not fat! Looks don’t matter as much as you think, but perceptions of presence, actions, and words (written and spoken) do matter. Learn as much as you can from those more experienced than you, and learn how to listen really, really well.

techpubs writing

STC2008 – From Nightclub DJ to Content Management Consultant

Subtitle: Developing a Business Career The Content Wrangler WayScott Abel\'s career path at STC Summit in Philadelphia, June 2008
From the ever entertaining Scott Abel, this was an invigorating session that still kicks you in the butt to get out of your whiney mode and into a winner mode. Sounds cheesy to repeat, but it worked. Here are my notes from the session. I’d love to hear your thoughts and critique on my “live blogging” style – too much information, not enough information, not the right information? Let me know.

Routes to tech comm – English major or developers accidentally become tech writers

scottabel.com – crafted a career – but Scott didn’t grab that URL (he’s obviously not That Scott Abel.:)

He earned 146 credit in four different programs, and didn’t earn a degree
he could get a college degree, but decided not to pay the “fees.”

Still takes classes like knowledge enabled information management – Indiana University 8-5 every day for three days, presentation to 200 people as a capstone, and you fail if you’re late, or don’t play by their rules. But it’s three credit hours.

John Herron school of art in Indianapolis – foundational school – you should have drawing or sculpting skills, though.
Business School, next stop – he lasted one semester, it wasn’t about the answers, it was about how you get the answers – answers are on the back of the syllabus

Next stop, photography – first working with digital photography, won some photography contests by accident.

Journalism school – at Indiana University – and he worked there too. He went to and helped with computer assisted journalism conference. Use computer technology to cull through all the data.

He started in entertainment journalism, friend of Margaret Cho, has interviewed Elton John, other celebs.

Started a local alternative magazine… fun exciting and profitable. Assignment in journalism school – business plan for a magazine… just did the magazine, didn’t do a plan. 72-page monthly publication, two guys with two much time on their hands – sold highscale ads and actually made revenue.

He waited tables to get through school, learning that he could make 200-300 bucks a night, he met influential people. PanAm games, miniature Olypics hosted in Indy, got more experience.

He had the attention span of a worm – didn’t lead to very many opportunities.

Became a bartender – clock in at midnight, clocked out at 3-4 am. But felt he lost time during those “young” years even though he had flexibility and enough money.

Age 14: my first gig as a DJ. Learned how to mix, taught him about content reuse and personalization… wrong song – every one hides like roaches. or perhaps on purpose, when music sucks, beer and drink sales go up.

Wrong song, wrong version of the song. He had a remix of a chitty chitty bang bang that got played on Chicago radio.

Remixes were user-generated, 45s were all they had to work with, they’d buy 2 copies of the single, because they needed songs longer than 3 minutes. So… two turntables and a mixer – had to understand tempo, tone, feel of a song, but tempo control was the key. The Technicas 1200 Turntables are still instrument of choice for many deejays.

Reuse is in the remix… that’s how tracks were laid down… vocals reused identically but combined with different styles of music.

Madonna explained how her voice could be changed, the tools allowed her voice to stretch like a proportional square stretches proportionally when you hold down shift key…

DJ mixing and increasing complexity similar to content choreography that we do with content – the technology is increasingly.

1999 – employment counselor said, you’d be an excellent technical communicator with your skill set.

Put together a portfolio

First job, documenting mortgage loan automation software, $45,000, he could buy groceries, kick out his roommates. Bedazzled by corporate America… benefits, paycheck, vacation.
Had folders called “Betsy’s documents” – totally disorganized, inefficient, wasteful, later they were sued out of business. Their automated software was

Started reading Ann Rockley, Bob Glushko, JoAnn Hackos, all of whom had really good best practices towards fixing the mess of content he was seeing at work.

Ann Rockley sent Scott a draft of her book, Unified Content Strategy, and he became technical editor on the book.

He needed a way to get organized, get away from notes on paper in his backpack, started a blog to be a storage container for his knowledge.

(Side note – I have to enter my “cringe” essays from grad school)

Once he got attention for his blog, he got more people talking to him, asking questions, help solving questions.

Started speaking at events, but then had to define his value proposition. Rebranded himself as a Content Management Strategist.

Tools that can tell management that content is valuable and that the product can’t ship without it. Value proposition can’t circle around their job – content needs to be valued.

Syndicate Conference 2006, encouraged to think bigger. He started commoditizing the site. Conference are a natural extension of what he was writing about, his readers wanted to learn more about what he was writing about.

Presenters seek attention – same folks who speak at conferences write articles and participate in groups.

Need for a community – 1900 members of the Content Wrangler community… there needed to be a way for people to connect to one another without Scott’s help.

Being an individual consultant is not scalable – and this is good news for you. You can create your own value proposition.

The discipline of Document Engineering – Bob Glushko, no future in commodity writing – the future is in solving content challenges. Structured content, XML, move content around, but not just documents – documents married with data from databases. Opens up a brand new world.

Road to success – don’t allow others to define you, no one right way to become a content management expert.

He’ll post to slideshare.net (youtube for ppt)

scribd.com (youtube for pdf) ipaper service

http://thecontentwrangler.ning.com Community site

Harmonizer product – will eventually let you analyze content using web page

acrolinxacrocheck product

How much coding does Scott know?
If you don’t know how to model content, you shouldn’t be coding. You have to be able to analyze content before you model it, even.

What’s next for Scott – providing service designs, such as RSS feeds. Problem solving providing services that give them answers before they ask them. Such as mortgage being due, or governments issuing fishing licenses.

Another question – any certificate programs you’d recommend? None, says Scott. Writing for reuse isn’t part of these certification programs, what about DITA, often focused on tools, not skill differentiators.


Examples of content providers blogging for customers

Sarah O’Keefe wrote up a nice summary of the WritersUA Pundits Panel, and Bogo Vatovec (of Bovacon)  made a statement something like this:

Introverted technical writers will not be writing help any more and will be replaced with experts moderating support forums. … Technical writers can no longer afford to hide in their cubes, they must go out and become experts and talk to the users.

I left a comment on her post that I see a similar future for our profession, although I do not have a value placed on introversion versus extroversion – likely introverts make perfectly good community managers and forum moderators since they can do that from their desks for the most part.

But, it does take some bravery to put your real personality online. I’ve found that a few of us are doing that – going from technical writer to blogger writing directly to customers.

While many of us blog to an audience of other professional writers, there are technical writers out there who are blogging to their end-user audience. Here are two examples:

  • Another example is Dee Elling’s blog for CodeGear users. This entry offers a great example of a real conversation with customers. I applaud her bravery (and emailed her to tell her) in facing these sometimes abrasive responses with a sense of customer service and helpful attitude. She doesn’t always have a good message to bring (they are working furiously to give their customers more code examples which we all know is time-consuming and difficult). But she brings a message directly to customers anyway.

Is anyone else talking directly to their customer base with their blog? Consultants in technical writing and content management are definitely talking to current and potential clients – Palimpsest is Scriptorium’s blog, The Rockley Blog, The Content Wrangler, and DMN Communications to name a few. But what about conversations with end users? I’d love to see more examples.


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: