January 4, 2011

TW New Year’s Resolutions

Filed under: Uncategorized — heratech @ 8:32 pm


One of my goals for the New Year is to write (and post) more often.

I have literally hundreds of pages (I actually added them all up today) of draft posts for three different blogs (this one, my new historical blog, and my personal blog) floating around on my hard drive. I write almost every day, as well as collecting articles and quotes to jog future writing. But for most of last year I think my perfectionism got in the way of my publishing. I so often want my point to be complete and well articulated before I hit “post.” But sometimes there isn’t a single point and the writing tends to ramble all over the place, and in the effort to wrangle the “thought” into something resembling a “point” the initial enthusiasm stalls out. And my internal editor gets in the way of actually publishing content and starting the conversation.

I wonder sometimes if this is why Facebook and Twitter are so popular, because you don’t have enough characters to do more than publish the initial thought?

But I digress. The point was, one of my goals is to try to write on a more consistent schedule and ignore my internal editor just enough to actually publish some posts. And to revisit those draft posts and either finish them or discard them.

I got laid off (again) last November. I had a short-term gig that lasted about a month, then had the incredible luck to have two part time projects, both of which interest me a great deal, fall into my lap. Even together they don’ t pay quite as well as a full-time job would, but I’ll take work I really enjoy over a huge paycheck any day.

And I plan to take advantage of the fact that part-time work gives me a little bit more free time to work on some professional development that I’ve been putting off for “when I have time.” I’ve got a stack of books on Technical Writing, Agile, Lean Development, Project Management, and other related topics to read. I bought myself Adobe Design Premium for Christmas 2009, but haven’t had much time to learn the programs that I don’t already know. So I added a couple of Adobe Classroom in a Book titles to my Christmas list.

It’s so easy to put off professional development until you have time. The fact is, you have to make time for it, or else it never gets done.

What are your New Year’s Resolutions/Goals for your career this year?

November 11, 2010

Copyright on the Internet – Part 2 – “All your bouillabaisse are belong to us.”

Filed under: Uncategorized — heratech @ 11:45 pm
Tags: ,

CopyrightYesterday I wrote about the Cooks Source copyright infringement story that was all over the Internet last Friday. And how I was surprised that I hadn’t seen the story picked up by the technical writing community, because I can see so many reasons why we should be talking about it.

The post was getting a bit long, so I cut it in half. Today I present part 2. To quote one of the clever folks over on the Cooks Source Facebook page, “All your bouillabaisse are belong to us.”

You need to know who is really generating your “user generated” content.
One of the trendy topics in technical writing circles these days is “user generated” content. For example, having a Wiki where you users can contribute content. But how do you know that the content that your users are contributing is their own writing? Someone, somewhere is probably blogging or tweeting about your product. So how farfetched is it to imagine that some helpful person might copy a blogger’s copyrighted tips and tricks into your customer Wiki without asking permission or crediting the author?

The apology posted by Cooks Source implies that some unknown “sources” submitted all the articles that they reprinted without permission. “…we will no longer accept unrequested articles, nor will we work with writers or illustrators unless they can prove they are reputable people, provide their sources…

The Internet is all about content. And Internet denizens are fuzzy about copyright.
Back in 2000 I spent 30 minutes writing up a document that I called the Neo-Fan Manifesto. I printed out a bunch of copies, and left it around on the freebie tables at the World Science Fiction convention in Chicago (ChiCon 6). The editor of Emerald City asked permission to republish it. And the next year it was included in the WorldCon program book, where it was one of the panel topics and I was a panelist. I haven’t been to a World Science Fiction convention since 2004 (in fact, I probably haven’t been to a sci-fi con since 2008). But if you Google my name, somewhere in the list of entries you’ll find multiple copies of the Neo-Fan Manifesto. In fact, my little manifesto seems to have taken on a life of its own. I Googled myself earlier this week and discovered that it is now on Facebook. My 15 minutes of nerd fame.

My manifesto granted the right to reprint so long as my name remained on the document, and so far everyone who has republished it has honored that request. But in today’s Post-Napster, BitTorrent, open source world people just don’t stop to think “Is this copyrighted?” before grabbing something and using it as they see fit. I can’t tell you how many times I have Googled a topic, only to find identical content posted on several different Web sites. I have a friend who is a costume historian who has had entire articles lifted off her Web site and reprinted with her name and copyrights removed. I have another friend who is a tailor who has had watermarked photos of her work stolen from her site and reposted elsewhere. One of my costuming mailing lists keeps an eye on a vendor on Etsy who regularly steals photos from other costumers, pattern companies, and museums and claims that her costumes will look just like the photos. She’s been getting reported for her shenanigans for months now.

But Julie, we’re trying to get people to read our content! Isn’t that the point?

No, the point that I want you to remember here is that once your content gets reposted/repeated on someone else’s site, you no longer have control over it. My sister is a filmmaker. She has a profile over on Internet Movie Database which she can update and edit. At some point, someone imported her IMBD profile into Wikipedia. No problem, she can still edit it. But then her profile got imported from Wikipedia into Facebook, and she no longer has control or editing abilities over the content. And good luck trying to contact Facebook about changing content on their site. She’s had a personal Facebook account for a while, but was surprised to find out there was another page on Facebook with her name on it that was obviously about her.

Professional writers need to act professionally.
Just because Judith Griggs called herself a professional editor doesn’t mean that she was either professional or a good editor. Professional editors should be up in arms when they see this woman calling herself an editor, when she so clearly can’t do the job. And professional technical writers should likewise be up in arms when we’re faced with the idea that just because anyone can write, that our skills aren’t valuable and that we don’t deserve to be compensated for our work.

The STC has had an ethics statement since 1998. I’m pretty sure this page doesn’t get linked to as often as it should be, so I think it’s worth pointing out that you can read it here.

You need to understand the power of The Social Network.
Many of my favorite historical blogs have SCA connections (they’re the largest group of medieval/renaissance reenactors in the United States). And the SCA blogging community was closely following this story, since Monica Gaudio is one of their own. I watched this story unfold, in near real-time, all day Friday. And it was awesome (and frightening) to behold.

Companies are out there busily trying to find ways to get the social web to work for them, but they need to remember that there’s also the chance that it can work against them. There are multiple sites out there like The Consumerist just waiting to publicize stories of poor customer service. And if you can do something clever, like write a song about how United Breaks Guitars, you could end up being an Internet celebrity.

I predict that Cooks Source is going to become the case study for how the Social Network brought down a company. My biggest take away from this whole story is rather neatly summed up in the headline of this story from PC World – How Not To Piss Off the Internet. An article which, I just have to note, has already been re-posted in its entirety, crediting the author but not PC World, over on IT Business.CA . Who apparently see no irony at all in lifting and reprinting an article about lifting and reprinting articles. And then putting their own copyright on it.

I rest my case.

Related Posts
John Scalzi on the Cooks Source Apology

All Facebook on whether or not the Cooks Source Facebook page was hacked

On the millennial generation

How to deal with an #epicfail

November 10, 2010

Copyright on the Internet – Part 1 – Cooks Source

Filed under: Uncategorized — heratech @ 11:39 pm
Tags: ,

Cooks SourceAlong with several technical writing mailing lists, I also read quite a few blogs. My blog reading is a mix of my friends, costumers and other folks with an interest in history, novelists and other freelance writers, and (probably last in order of importance) technical writers. I’ll admit, I don’t read nearly as many technical writing blogs as I do other blogs. I tend to learn more about writing, the actual process as well as the business end of things, from the professional novelists that I read. Tech writer blogs tend to be oddly specific, passing along tips for software that I don’t use, or focusing on the writer’s current obsessions. But hey, who am I to complain, I’m not paying to read these blogs. Everything on the Internet is free after all.

And that’s exactly the point of today’s post. Everything on the Internet is NOT free.

I’m really surprised that none of my TW mailing lists or the TW blogs that I read has picked up this story. Because while not one, but two of my technical writing mailing lists were bickering last week over whether is it one space or two after a period, the rest of the Internet was discussing the weighty topics of intellectual property, plagiarism, and copyright.

Let me ‘splain… No, there is too much. Let me sum up.” Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

Back in 2005, Monica Gaudio, a member of the SCA, wrote an article about apple pie that was published (and copyrighted) on the Gode Cookery Website. Recently one of her friends contacted her and asked how she had gotten it published? Turns out that a small, ad-supported magazine called Cooks Source (Yes there is a missing apostrophe. We all noticed it.) had reprinted her article without her permission. She contacted the magazine, and after a series of e-mails, in which she asked only for a public apology and a small donation to Columbia School of Journalism, she received the now infamous reply from “professional editor” Judith Griggs, presented here in its original form: [Must. Control. Urge. To. Spell check…]

“Yes Monica, I have been doing this for 3 decades, having been an editor at The Voice, Housitonic Home and Connecticut Woman Magazine. I do know about copyright laws. It was “my bad” indeed, and, as the magazine is put together in long sessions, tired eyes and minds somethings forget to do these things.

But honestly Monica, the web is considered “public domain” and you should be happy we just didn’t “lift” your whole article and put someone else’s name on it! It happens a lot, clearly more than you are aware of, especially on college campuses, and the workplace. If you took offence and are unhappy, I am sorry, but you as a professional should know that the article we used written by you was in very bad need of editing, and is much better now than was originally. Now it will work well for your portfolio. For that reason, I have a bit of a difficult time with your requests for monetary gain, albeit for such a fine (and very wealthy!) institution. We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me! I never charge young writers for advice or rewriting poorly written pieces, and have many who write for me… ALWAYS for free!”

Perhaps you can understand why this story went viral? [Warning – I’m going to supply links for background, but don’t follow them unless you really want to spend all day following this story. It was everywhere on the Web last Friday.]

Monica blogged about the incident. A friend of hers, professional writer Nick Mahatmas picked up the story. Then John Scalzi wrote about it. And cult favorite Neil Gaiman tweeted about it to his 1.5 million followers. And the story spread like wildfire. (There is a timeline of events here.) By the end of the day Friday, many traditional media outlets (NPR, LA Times, The Guardian, Publishers Weekly, etc.) had picked up the story as well. (Summary links here.) It took until sometime Tuesday morning for an actual response from Cooks Source/Judith Griggs.

OK Julie, that’s all very interesting, but what does it have to do with technical writing?


Really, the more I think about this story, the more I can see links to and implications for technical writing. In fact, this is going to end up being a two-part post. Which is why I’m so very surprised that none of my TW mailing lists or blogs has commented on this story yet.

Copyright infringement should concern all writers.
Copyright infringement should concern anyone who writes for a living. As other net denizens have pointed out, while recipes can’t be copyrighted, the content wrapped around the list of ingredients can be copyrighted. This particular recipe came with an article that was over 1,000 words long. And the article was copyrighted.

Many technical writers create content for themselves: they write blogs, articles, give presentations at conferences, write articles for local churches or charities, create poems and short stories, etc. And it’s a good idea to Google your content once in a while, just to make sure that someone hasn’t given it a new home that you don’t know about. One of the novelists whose blog I read has at least one fan who expressed their appreciation for her work by scanning her books and posting them on BitTorrent, thereby costing her money in lost sales. Some fan, huh? As she says, “Book sales fall because of pirated material, writers get dropped by their publishers and have to find other work — which means no more books.”

OK Julie, but few of us are lucky enough to be published by a traditional publishing house and receive royalties for our writing. We’re writers for hire….Yes, which means that our employers have copyrights that need to be protected. Although most of us can leave that up to the lawyers.

Plagiarism and Copyright infringement are an issue for hiring managers.
Back when I worked in a doc group, my manager received a resume from a guy who had worked at the same company where our editor had previously worked. So she asked our editor to take a look at his writing samples and tell her what he thought. Our editor took one look at the samples and said, “This guy didn’t write these. I did. He’s made some minor edits, but I wrote the original drafts of all this content.” With so many companies publishing their product documentation in digital form these days, I can only hope that hiring managers are checking with references after they’ve inspected an applicant’s writing samples. It is all too easy to pad your portfolio with documents that you didn’t write, or that other employees at your company wrote. (This is one of the reasons why I like to use my name or company e-mail address in examples, as a way to “sign” my documentation. )

Tomorrow – Part II – Where I write about Cooks Source and user generated content, professional ethics, and the Social Network

November 9, 2010

Marketing the Color Nook

Filed under: Uncategorized — heratech @ 11:40 pm
Tags: ,

Library Hello, my name is Julie, and I’m a Biblioholic.

The first thing people usually say when they visit my home is “Wow, you have a lot of books.” Since I’m starting to run out of spaces to put new bookshelves, I’ve been seriously considering buying an e-reader. But after reading this article about the new color Nook from Barnes and Nobles, I have to wonder if the people designing these contraptions have any idea who their core market is?

When I worked at Barnes and Nobles, the company defined a “reader” as someone who read at least one book a year. In 2007 the Associated Press conducted a poll, and found out that 25% of Americans read no books in the previous year. The typical American reads 4 books a year. If you exclude non-readers, the average number of books read in a year is 7. If the average reader buys all 7 of their books in hardcover, the $175 they spend on books hardly justifies spending another $150-300 to buy an e-reader.

People who only read one or two books a year aren’t going to buy an e-reader. The sort of people who want to buy an e-reader are the people who don’t leave the house without reading material on them. People who don’t have enough room in their house (or luggage) for the volume of books that they read. People who have trouble storing their libraries because they’ve run out of bookshelves. Or spaces to install new bookshelves.

The average American isn’t their market. I am. The couple of years when I bothered to keep track of the number of books I read, I plowed through 60 – 75 books a year. And back when I sold books at Barnes and Nobles, we had customers who came in to the store weekly and filled a basket with books. Then came back the next week and bought another basket, because they’d already read the books they bought the week before. These are the people who I would think would be the core market for e-readers.

And yet look at the mixed messages that this article is sending about their target market. The battery allows up to eight hours of continuous reading, and the gadget’s 8 GB of internal memory can hold around 6,000 books. Eight hours of continuous reading? I’ve been known to devour a good book in one sitting. And haven’t their developers ever been on an international flight? It’s not unusual to be away from an outlet for more than eight hours when you’re traveling. How frustrating to have 6,000 books in your pocket, and not enough battery life to read them.

But the part of the article that worries me the most is the part where is says that Barnes & Nobles’ announcement indicates it views the e-reader fight as one that will be won on technology — not content.

Really? I thought the whole point of an e-reader was to be able to read content. But what do I know, I’m just a reader. And at the moment, the criteria I’m looking for in an e-reader isn’t technology, but the following:

• Screen size – equivalent to a trade paperback book
• Price point – low enough to justify the purchase (at or close to $100)
• Battery life – measured in days, not hours

All three items on my wish list are currently available, just not on the same device. Instead, the current crop of e-readers include several features that I really don’t care about:
• Color display (I’ve seriously cut back my magazine and comic reading, and there aren’t many picture books targeted towards adults)
• Social features (ability to Twitter or post to Facebook)
• Ability to loan books (I only have 2 or 3 friends who own e-readers)

Another thing that I’m struggling with is the current pricing scheme for books for e-readers; prices for hard copy and e-reader versions are the same, around $10 per copy. But when you buy an e-book, you don’t really own anything. Yes, you paid for the story, but after you’ve read it, you don’t have anything left but data on a device that will probably be obsolete within a year or two. A hard copy book can last for decades, which means, if you really like the book you can loan it to friends. (My copy of The World According to Garp got passed around at least a half a dozen of my friends, and has since been autographed). Or donate it to your local library book sale, service member or charity.

I haven’t quite made up my mind yet as to whether or not I’m going to buy an e-reader. I supposed it depends on whether I think I’ll do enough reading of “disposable” books in the next year or two. But it’s still an interesting thing to ponder, when you can’t sell an e-reader to a biblioholic, what are you doing wrong?

Related links –

I’ve read quite a few blogs by professional writers (i.e novelists) on the topic of e-readers and ebooks. My favorites are probably the following posts by author Jay Lake.

The value of ebooks; or contents vs container.

More on ebooks, pricing and licensing.

Yet another dip into ebooks and licensing.

And a Color eInk reader has been announced by a Chinese e-reader maker.

June 30, 2010

Professional Organizations and Value

Filed under: Uncategorized — heratech @ 10:14 pm
Tags: ,

Belt tightening I had a bit of a revelation last week. On my way home from Scrum Club last Thursday my brain was a whirl with thoughts, making connections between the speaker’s presentation and not only my work life, but my personal life as well.

And then I got to thinking about the pros and cons of the different professional organizations whose local meetings I attend.

The first organization charges $215 a year for membership dues, $20-30 for monthly meetings (which pays for dinner), frequently schedules meeting topics that have absolutely no relevance to my career or interests, and when I do attend the meetings my impression of the members is that they’re old, out of touch with recent trends, not particularly technical, and even worse, completely uninterested or unwilling to learn or change.

The second organization has no membership fees of any sort, doesn’t charge for meetings and even provides free pizza, recruits excellent speakers sometimes with national reputations, and the membership generally impresses me as intelligent, professional, and technical.

Which professional organization would you rather belong to?

Yeah, me too.

So despite the fact that I wrote a post last year about how I was sticking with the Society for Technical Communications, I don’t see myself renewing my membership next year. I’ve been trying to be more active in the STC, posting to my mailing lists and attending local chapter meetings. I still hate leaving an organization when it’s in trouble, but I stuck with them this year, despite the fact that my dues went up by over $100 and I still lost benefits under the new a la carte pricing system. My STC dues have more than doubled in the past five years. Between the bad economy and their huge price increase, is it any wonder that the STC has had a major drop off in membership this year?

Over the past couple of months, as underemployment has pinched my budget, ROI has become more and more important to me. But the good news is, there are plenty of free resources out there, if you’re willing to look for them.

I’ll miss the STC Lone Writer’s Mailing list. But I’ll still have the TECHWR-L mailing list and HATT Yahoo group and various blog feeds to keep my G-mail inbox supplied with professional development reading material.

MadCap Software has been offering a series of free webinars. Some of the webinars are specifically for MadCap products, but many of them are tool neutral. I recognize the names of the majority of the presenters, which means they’re either industry experts or active on one of my various mailing lists. So far the couple of webinars that I’ve attended have been worth my time to attend. And you can’t beat the price.

The STC charges $79 for webinars. I haven’t signed up for one yet because I’ve attended more than one poor workshop or webinar where I wished I’d spent the money on a good book instead of the event. So far the STC’s track record for events hasn’t done anything to convince me to part with the money for a webinar.

But I think that even more than the money, I’m worried that the STC is out of touch and that the membership is graying. I’m often one of the youngest people in the room at our local chapter meetings. The Boston chapter is supposed to be the second largest chapter in the country (Silicon Valley is number one, natch), but despite the fact that Boston is a college town and has several local universities with TW programs, we don’t seem to be attracting members in their 20s and 30s.

And the fact that national actually put out a request for someone to write an RSS tutorial rather frightens me. I’ll admit that I was rather late to join the RSS party, but I somehow managed to set up three RSS feeds on two different readers without anyone providing me with a tutorial. It’s not that hard people!

So for the foreseeable future, I think I’ll be focusing my professional development and networking efforts on the local organizations that are providing free events in the Boston area:

Nashua Scrum Club

Agile Bazaar

Agile Boston

June 24, 2010

She’s Back

Filed under: Uncategorized — heratech @ 10:15 pm

Welcome Back
It’s been a couple of months since I’ve had any free time on my hands to think or write about Agile. Between ramping up to working four days a week and activities with my reenactment Guild it doesn’t seem like I’ve had much downtime in the past three months.

There was a solo weekend trip to VA in March (I live in New England) for Military through The Ages, and another weekend trip to MD in April, this time with several Guild members, for Marching Through Time. Our reenactment Guild had three weekends of workshops, as preparation for three weekends of historic encampment at the Connecticut Renaissance Faire’s Robin Hood Faire in May. As one of our Guild officers, I’m responsible for communications (natch) as well as various and sundry planning and logistical chores. And because I’m an introvert, participation in events take more out of me than I sometimes can afford. I’ve learned that it’s best to plan for a weekend of “nothing” at the end of a run of faire just to recover.

So faire is over, I’ve had time to recover. My gear is cleaned and stowed until fall. My house is tidy. And I’ve got time to think and write again. At least until the craziness starts up again in September. I’ve had time to start thinking and writing again. I’ve pulled out my list of potential post topics full of ideas, links, and partial drafts and started sifting through them again.

I went to Scrum Club tonight, and as usual, the speaker was excellent. I think I’ll probably get a couple of posts out of tonight’s talk, once I download the slides and have a chance to digest them.

I also have to send out a big “Thank you” to John S. for poking me with a stick, er, contacting me to meet for lunch recently to chat about what it is like for a lone writer to “go Agile.” His company is getting ready to make the move to Agile development, and he’s now starting the same process of thinking and planning that I went through when I started the transition to being an Agile Technical Writer.

He’d read my Agile Manifesto posts and was kind enough to tell me that he found them helpful in getting him thinking about how to adapt to Agile. One of the bits of accepted wisdom for Technical Writers is that “no one reads” what we write. So it’s always wonderful to hear that something you wrote was useful to one of your readers. Plus, that was just the motivation that I needed to get back to writing here.

Thanks John!

February 25, 2010

Spinning Plates

Filed under: Uncategorized — heratech @ 8:43 am

I’ve been neglecting my Agile blog, and for that I apologize.

For someone who is technically unemployed, I’ve been keeping pretty darn busy so far this year. So busy in fact that I feel like I have several plates spinning at once.

  • Contract Job #1
  • Contract Job #2
  • Interviewing
  • Personal Journal
  • Reenactment projects
  • Agile Journal

Spinning plates

I’ve been working three days a week at my former/current employer (otherwise known as the folks who laid me off last June, then called me back part-time in July because they missed me). They recently bumped me up to four days a week, so it almost feels like I’m working full-time again. Except for that monthly check I write to cover my COBRA benefits that is. I’m grateful to be working as much as I am, when so many of my fellow TWs are unemployed.

Since October I’ve also been working a short-term contract with a TW friend of mine. They needed some help converting a Word document into FrameMaker and he was too busy with other projects to give it the TLC it deserved. I’m starting to think of this as the Short Term Contract that Will Never End (but not in a bad way). The initial contract was for 40-80 hours. I passed the 80 hour mark back in January, but they’re still bringing me in one day a week and sending me paychecks. I shan’t complain.

The hiring situation is pretty dire here in New England, so since I’ve been blessed with income, I have to admit that I haven’t really been looking too hard for full-time work. My friend Stephen expressed it well when I asked if he was going to follow-up on a job lead that I’d sent him? “I’ve got a job, so I feel a bit guilty looking for another one. I figure I’ll let someone who is out of work take that one.” But back around Christmas a friend forwarded me a job opportunity, which resulted in two rounds of interviews. And the requisite running around finding a suitable winter job interviewing outfit (the three interview outfits in my closet are all summer weight), reading through the company’s Web page, researching the company on Google and LinkedIn, futzing with my resume and writing samples, etc. While they didn’t make me an offer, I appreciated the opportunity to meet with them and learn about another one of the companies in my area.

My personal blog is where I post random things, vent about work, and write rather lengthy tales of my weekend adventures. When I took a short trip to visit my parents back in January the trip resulted in 8 pages (4,700 words) of entries. Time spend writing in my personal blog does cut into the time that I can spare to write in my Agile blog.

The last weekend of January and first weekend of February I was at reenactment events. Our group only formed last spring, so we’re still recruiting new members. I had quickly thrown together a recruiting flier last fall, but it didn’t look as professional as I’d like. I downloaded a proper template and reworked the design. I’m not fond of marketing jargon, but I do enjoy playing with fonts and design. So this was one of those little projects that was fun. Since we reenact 16th century Bavarian mercenaries, I wanted to give it an “old-fashioned” feel. I downloaded several different gothic fonts and experimented until I found one that gave the feel I was looking without sacrificing readability (gothic fonts can be horrible to decipher!).

Since I’m a writer, and one of the more computer savvy folks in our group, I was also volunteered to be the Web master for our group. We threw together a couple of pages last fall, but mostly the group uses our Web page as a place to host our discussion forum. Since I was going to be handing out recruiting fliers that included our Web site, I felt obligated to go in and put up a little bit of actual content and clean up some of what was already there. I’d include a link, but it’s not yet to the point where it’s anything to brag about. My side project for the next couple of months is still “building the Web site.” Which will require research, writing, learning more CSS, and time spent experimenting in my sandbox Web site to get the look I want.  I’m a new reenactor, so writing the content is slow going.  And my Web skills for anything other than Help are rusty as well.

The write-up in my personal blog for that first weekend event (a one day event) ran to 8 pages (4,700 words). The write-up for the second weekend event (a three-day trip to Chicago for ReenactorFest) ran to 12 pages (6,900 words). Again, I was devoting my after work writing time to my personal blog and not this one. I haven’t stopped writing (I can’t!) I’ve just been posting my output elsewhere.

Let’s see if I can get the Agile Blog plate spinning again. It shouldn’t be too hard. I gave up that time-thief FaceBook for Lent. And I have Scrum Club tonight. I’m sure I’ll want to write about that when I get home.

February 24, 2010

Agile Tenet #12 – Reflect on Improvement

Filed under: Uncategorized — heratech @ 10:25 pm
Tags: , ,

Number twelveTwelfth in a series of posts examining the Twelve Principles of Agile Software and how each of these tenets can (or can’t) be applied or adapted to technical writing.


At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

At my first technical writing job, at the end of every release cycle, we held a post-mortem. Each department would discuss what worked and what didn’t in the last release cycle, and management would meet and discuss what we reported. But during the next release cycle it seemed like we’d do the exact same things, follow the same process, and compile a very familiar list during the release port-mortem meeting. It seemed like no matter how many times we listed things we’d like to see change, we always maintained the status quo.

Some find it easier to list their complaints than to work towards making changes. I suspect that many of my coworkers were too set in their ways and too comfortable with the way things worked to make any major changes. And I suspect that even those who wanted to change found their old habits were just too hard to unlearn.  I know that I find that habits are hard to break, especially when I don’t have real  motivation to do so. This is why I believe that the most important part of this tenet is the second half –  “then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” The reflection is absolutely useless unless you actually act on it.

Several years ago I came across the concept of kaisen which is a Japanese word for continuous, incremental improvement. Small changes over a long time eventually add up to big changes. It is something that I’ve tried to apply to my life, because if you’re not improving, you’re either standing still or falling behind. This is one of the reasons why I belong to several different STC special interest groups (SIGs) and a couple of technical writing mailing lists. If I’m not keeping up with the industry, I’m falling behind.

Agile tenet #12 puts kaisen to work. The team regularly checks in with itself and examines their own processes. At my company we have a retrospective at the end of every Sprint. We list things that are working (and that we should keep) and things that aren’t working (that we want to change).

One of the benefits of Agile is that you can experiment with changes. A Sprint is a relatively short period of time, typically 30 days. You can try out a change, see if it works, and if it doesn’t, you can easily abandon it. For example, our team has shifted the time for our morning Scrum meetings around a bit. They’re still in the morning, but the times have shifted around between 9:00 and 10:00 a bit depending on the needs of the team (and the season, we’re in New England after all).

I keep reading articles about how important it is to risk failure in order to succeed. So often we are paralyzed with fear, afraid of doing the wrong thing, not sure what the “right” this is, so we do nothing.  But the short time span of a single Sprint lets makes it easier to risk experimentation.  You can try something new for a month, and if it doesn’t work, you can try something different.  Short term commitment is one of the benefits of Agile. And it can free up the creativity of the team, let them take risks (OK, maybe small risks, but risks nonetheless) and work on developing new team habits.

And there may also be an accidental genius to the three or four-week sprint. Convention wisdom holds that if you want to make or break a habit, you need to practice the desired behavior for three weeks. So if the team is trying to break in a new work habit, the length of a Sprint should be long enough to start building the new habit.

And at the end of the Sprint, you can reflect on your changes, decide if they’re an improvement or not, adjust accordingly, and start the cycle all over again.

February 9, 2010

Collaboration – Writing is a Team Sport

Filed under: Uncategorized — heratech @ 10:00 pm
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Collaborating over a laptopSeveral friends and I started a historical reenactment group last year. Since we are a new group, when we had our first encampment, I wrote up a recruitment flier to hand out to potential new members. I included a list of minimum kit: clothing, shoes, and personal items. I also listed the sort of people we were looking for: those who love history and are willing to work with the general public (especially children). Then I sent the draft out to a couple of our founding members for comments. And Alena wrote back that while I’d listed what potential members would do for the Guild, I’d forgotten to list what the Guild could do for potential members. D’oh! I quickly added a “Benefits of Membership” section to the flier. This wasn’t the first time that Alena had made suggestions that improved my writing.

The popular image of a writer has them hunched over a typewriter in some lonely garret, toiling over their manuscript without any human contact. But that image of the lone writer is a myth. Writers work with other people all the time. If you’ve ever read the Acknowledgements section of a book, the author almost always thanks an entire team of people who helped make their work possible. Chief among the people thanked is often their editor.

At my first technical writing job I was lucky enough to work with a fantastic editor, Paul Dixon. I was fresh out of my TW certificate program, and the only editor I’d worked with until that point was Judy Tarutz, who had volunteered her time to perform an editing pass on the students’ major projects. Working with Paul was a great learning experience. He covered my drafts in blue, green, or purple ink (he avoided red) writing comments, questions, and suggestions in the margins. Answering his questions forced me to reexamine choices or assumptions I’d made, revise poorly written sentences, and delve deeper into the product to expand my understanding. My second drafts were always improved by his edits. The seven years that we worked together helped shape me into the technical writer that I am today.

Some of the writers on our team resisted being edited. Some didn’t want to give up their love affair with the passive voice. And I think that others confused criticism of their draft with criticism of them as a person. It takes a strong sense of self to accept criticism of your work without taking it personally. I find that adopting the attitude that all feedback is for the good of the customer and documentation helps make criticism easier to accept. You need to step back from your writing and humbly accept the feedback that others are offering you.

Are you open to collaboration? Do you collaborate with your subject matter experts on what should be included in the product documentation? Do you work closely with an editor during developmental edits? Do you read test cases to get ideas for customer workflows? Do you tag team with other writers on your team? Do you work with your sales or marketing or training departments to coordinate the public facing documents in your company?

And if you don’t, why not?

My company recently hired a course developer/trainer. I recommended a former coworker of mine that I knew had recently been laid off. I was delighted when we hired him, since I had always tried to work with the training department when we worked together. I’m really looking forward to being able to collaborate with Herb as the work he’s doing interviewing our SMEs will also help me to fill in the holes in my documentation set. We’ll both be working on standardizing the terminology that we use to discuss the product, components, and processes. And when he starts building course modules, I’ll be one of his beta readers. I’m excited that I will no longer be the only person writing content for customers. Having a partner in crime gives us the potential to harness the synergy of collaboration.

Writing is a team sport. Who are your collaboration partners?

January 27, 2010

Agile Tenet #11 – Self Organizing Teams

Filed under: Uncategorized — heratech @ 9:24 am
Tags: , , ,

Number elevenEleventh in a series of posts examining the Twelve Principles of Agile Software and how each of these tenets can (or can’t) be applied or adapted to technical writing.


The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

Who is more familiar with the code base – management or the developers who actually wrote the code? I can hear you thinking “Duh, the developers!” Of course.

Who is more familiar with the documentation – management or the writers who spend their day researching, writing, and organizing the content? Again, the answer seems a little bit obvious, doesn’t it?

And yet how many times have we experienced managers trying to do our jobs when they haven’t got the foggiest idea what our work actually entails? I’ve worked at a variety of jobs through the years, and I have learned to appreciate a manager who has come up through the ranks. Managers who started their careers as workers understand the issues that their employees are dealing with. And the wise manager knows when to get out of the way and let their teams go to work.

As you might guess, I’m rather fond of this particular tenet. Nothing irritates me more than a manager who doesn’t trust me to do my job without their constant supervision and input. Who knows my writing process better than I do? I’ve spent years learning and honing my craft, and over the years I’ve learned what works for me and what doesn’t work.

Donald Murray wrote about the writer’s toolbox. His writing books were full of different skills and techniques that his students and readers could add to their own writing toolboxes. You might pull out one technique for a particular project, then put it away and not use it for a very long time. Some people just sit down and start writing. Others need to do research, conduct interviews, take notes, brainstorm, write outlines, conduct interviews, or any number of other techniques. Our brains all work differently, we all process information differently, and we all work differently. Thinking that one writer’s process is the exactly the same as any other is a mistake that non-writers (and even writers) can make all too often.

If one person knows best how they work, wouldn’t it also make sense that the members of a team would know best how their team functions? If you’ve hired motivated individuals (you have hired motivated individuals, haven’t you?) you should be able to step back and let the team run itself.

And it has been interesting watching this tenet in action in our Scrum teams. Rather than have a manager impose structure and order from the outside, in Agile the ScrumMaster coaches the team, but lets them provide their own structure and order. The product owner writes the user stories and assigns priorities, but the teams decide which stories they will tackle in any given Sprint. The team decides amongst themselves which developers will tackle which stories.

I know that some people are uncomfortable making their own decisions. I’ve seen it manifest in everything from students who got stressed out when asked to provide their own opinion on a test (this wasn’t in my notes!) to coworkers who couldn’t make their own decisions without polling everyone in the office about what they should do. But these aren’t the sorts of people who would thrive in an Agile environment, they are most comfortable in an office hierarchy, where management tells them what to do and how to do it.

I wonder if I’m so comfortable with this self-directed approach because I went to Montessori school as a child? Reading over the Wikipedia entry, I noticed this passage:

Applying this method involves the teacher in viewing the child as having an inner natural guidance for its own perfect self-directed development. The role of the teacher is therefore to watch over the environment to remove any obstacles that would interfere with this natural development.

Sounds a bit like a ScrumMaster, whose job it is to coach and remove impediments, doesn’t it? Montessori is about providing an environment for learning. And I think that Agile is about providing an environment where productive work can occur.

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