Cultural Differences

Posted: September 2, 2010 in Anthropology, Personal

As a trained anthropologist, I’m delighted with the cultural bits. So I thought I’d cover some of the things I’ve notice that stand out while I’m in New Zealand.

While we share the same language, we also don’t. For example, skim milk is called trim milk. Fruit muffins are called Vegetarian. Obviously, an elevator is called a lift. But my favorite thing right now is the word “Flash”. It’s used to indicate something cool and good. As in “It’s flash.”

Coffee is really different. They have lots and I can’t really find anything like US coffee. But I like coffee very much so I’m enjoying exploring the differences.

The accent is generally OK, although with any accent, there are individuals I struggle to understand. To my ear, the accent is very high in the mouth and sometimes the wrong part of the word is accented. That can throw me, but people are nice when I ask them to repeat.

On another note

Today in the US is my son’s birthday. He’s older than I want to think about but I’m very proud of him. So- Happy Birthday, Matthew! May you have 60 more, my son.


I arrived in New Zealand after a 13 hour red eye flight. The good news is I slept 6 of the 13 hours so I arrived nearly functional. I was picked up at the airport and whisked to the Author-it headquarters in Auckland, where I started my first full day.

I met everyone – none of the names stuck – and grabbed a workspace. And then the information dump began. I’ve had more information shoved into my head in the last 3 days than I think a month of graduate school. And I’m actually remembering it, which is sort of amazing!

This morning, I’m in Wellington, which is the southern tip of the north island, for a conference. I’m working the booth with 2 other people, both of whom know way more than I do. So more learning, as I watch how they show products and talk about them. I’m super excited to see how and what they do so I can learn.

My impressions of Kiwi-land so far? It’s a lovely place. Very green, which for a So Cal girl is very strange. But it’s got rolling hills, water, super nice people and they all drive on the wrong side of the road, which I’m going to attempt Monday. I feel we should warn this very nice nation before I’m given the keys to a rental car. This could go terribly wrong very fast!

I’m delighted to be working with this smart and passionate group of people. It’s an honor and I hope I can contribute to the effort in a meaningful way. I see so much promise with these tools and so many way to make it easier to manage content.

OK – almost time to meet the guys and get the booth set up!

Back in March 2009, I was laid off from a job I liked. I was given a very small consulting contract from that employer and worked that for about a year. It gave me time to think about what I wanted to do next with myself.

Technical writing or?

I’ve been a technical writer for a long time and enjoyed it very much. I loved the job of product manager/evangelist that I was laid off from. I was certain I wanted to stay in the tech comm world, as I think it’s an important place to be.

But as I took contracts for technical writing, I realized that it’s just not challenging to me anymore. Most documents I could write in my sleep. I love the learning but…

I wanted to go back to evangelizing. I like being in front of a room, I like meeting people, I like making that difference.

But where?

Since I was out of work and contracting enough to pay the bills, I had the rare chance to decide what I wanted to do and where I wanted to do it.

Choices, choices

I thought with my background and experience, I could go to any company. But which one? What company makes products I would feel good about? What do I think is leading edge and has potential to change the future?

I also don’t fit in large companies. I’m feel like I can’t breathe when there are 400 layers above me and things are done because the paperwork requires it. I’m also not very politically smart – I think good work is important. I don’t play the large corporation games well at all. Not a good fit.

I fit best in smaller companies. And I like the start-up feeling in small companies. I like walking into the president’s office and chatting up new ideas.

That narrowed the choices.

So what happened?

I approached Author-It and asked if they could use me. I like what they do, I like what the products are capable of, I heard good things about the company. I decided that was where I wanted to work, if they wanted me.

And, after long discussion, they did want me.

I signed my employment offer letter this week and I start the end of August. I’m the new product evangelist for Author-It!

Excited and happy!

I’m so excited. I love the people I’ve been talking to, I like the vision of where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.

And I get to go to New Zealand for a few weeks on top of all that. It’s all so amazing, I can’t hardly stand it.

This is my dream job. That’s what happens when you decide what you want instead of having to grab something. I’m happy I had the time to decide what I wanted to do and then get to do it.

It’s all good!

I shouldn’t take decongestants. Ever. I can’t sleep even 18 hours after I take one. So I’m awake at 4am. Actually I was awake at 3am, but I listened to my husband snore for 45 minutes before I gave into the inevitable and resentfully, but quietly, got up to make coffee. He’s still snoring.

Maybe I can nap later today.

And this relates to content management how?

I spent the week working on a client’s files. One of the things I like about the files is that they are trying to hit all learning styles by using screen videos and videos of an expert in the field talking about the pros and cons of doing things in various ways in their product.

Now, I’m not a visual learner and I really don’t like watching videos on my computer. I also know I’m in the minority on this. But visual and auditory learners need this support. For them, it’s good to have these videos to support them in a sea of words.

So one of the things I did in these files this week was copy the links for these videos from the More Information topic to other places in the help files. If you’re going to do this sort of thing, it’s good to be structured. My structure is:

Topic heading

Introduction paragraph.

[little picture] link to video

more discussion or what ever comes next in the topic.

So if a link is there, the users can see it after a short paragraph. Visual learners skip the words and will see the link quickly, word oriented learners read the words and will skip over the video link. I think these videos were a great idea by the client and I liked making them even more available in other topics.

If there’s time in this project, I’d like to see us do more of these. Great way to support non-word oriented learners.

You can do almost anything

To support your users, you really can do a lot. But you need to hit all four learning styles and you need to be consistent about it.

I listen to a lot of newsgroups and one of my favorite posts is “Do I use appears or displays?” or something like that. It matters very little, in the users’ minds, as long as you pick one and use that. We lose our contribution to our users when we spend endless hours deciding what’s “best”. Pick one. I have a favorite, you have a favorite. But it doesn’t matter in the bigger picture, as long as you use it consistently.

And that consistency is the important part in what ever you’re doing. In document design, people depend on the schema you set up in the first few topics they see, whether it’s a help system or a book. So if you decide to include links to a video, design your information so that the link is always in the same place. Even if it’s not in every topic, users will know where to look for it to see if it’s available. A fast glance in the right spot tells them.

Wasted days and wasted nights

I suppose because I’ve spent the bulk of my career as a contractor or consultant (I’ve had 3 salaried jobs in this field), I don’t like wasting time. That is time I could be developing content, which is what I’m getting paid for, I feel.

I also know that some (many?) tech writers like to spend a lot of time deciding stuff: display or appear? One space or two after a period? Indexing, gerunds or not?

Despite the fact that many of my closest friends are tech comm people, this makes my head explode. Our value doesn’t come from these discussions.

Our value as a profession comes from developing useful content that allows the user to understand something and get back to what they were doing. We make the unknown known. That’s what we do best and that’s where we add value.

We devalue ourselves and we shouldn’t

When we spend time arguing these trivial things,  we devalue our contribution and I think that’s a bad thing. I know it seems we don’t have a lot of control in our profession and this helps us feel we have some. But it’s controlling the wrong stuff.

We have control over important things, like how to describe a concept, using metaphors, perhaps, so that it’s easy for your user to map known information to the unknown. We decide where a picture might support learning and how to best show that. We decide how and where our users are going to get the information support they need to be successful in what they need to do.

We have a lot of control, and influence, over people we may never meet. Let’s focus on that and stop the trivial discussions.

After all, we have an entire world that needs instructions.

Even if you’ve barely been awake for the last few years (um, actually 35 years…) in the Tech Comm world, you know there’s been talk back and forth about the value of certification in our field. In the larger sense, it’s really a discussion about quantifying what we do such that we can measure it. I think it’s part of a larger discussion about the value we add as a profession.

On Techwr-l recently, the discussion has come up again, specifically surrounding the certification STC is setting up. It’s the first baby steps towards defining and setting formal standards for what we do.

To sum up the plan, you submit a portfolio of work in one (or more) of several defined areas.

  • User analysis
  • Document design
  • Project management
  • Authoring (content creation)
  • Delivery
  • Quality assurance

A group evaluates the portfolio, using modern standards for that area. You get certified for 3 years, assuming you pass.

Back and forth

I’ve been back and forth on the subject of certification over the years. Right now I’m for it. Here’s why:

  • This is a wretched economy. For every job opening, there are 15 to 100s of people applying for the same position. Anything you can do to float yourself to the top of that pile is a good thing. Even if you are already employed, we all know that tomorrow you may not be. I’m hearing of massive layoffs in the oil and gas industries right now.
  • Why shouldn’t we have some sort of standard? What we do is not magic or unknowable. We have good practices in our field, we can be measured and show an ROI for what we do. Why not certify that importance?
  • Employers can’t tell good from bad until they hire. Very often, a bad writer gets hired and no one realizes it. Then, over the course of several months, it becomes clear this is the wrong person and the long goodbye process starts. It makes employers scared about the next person. Certification can add some sense of confidence that this person has been vetted at some level already.
  • We’re professionals, dammit. We *are* professionals. Most of us are very proud of what we do. We should value things that shows the profession as a whole has standards and is valuable. Certification can be part of that. It’s not all of it, certainly, but it’s a big part of it.

These are my thoughts. Feel free to share yours.

Here’s now my week has gone:

  • One of my oldest friends was rushed to the hospital. He has since been moved to a nursing facility for physical rehab. In the interim, he needs someone to be his healthy legs, arranging housing, retrieving his cat from the shelter, and all the other details of life he can’t do right now. He has no family so I’m it for him.
  • My beloved niece has an unknown medical issue that has required her to wear a heart monitor all week. We’ll know more next week about what her issues are. But at 16, she should be healthy and happy. She’s neither right now.
  • My mother’s sister – the only surviving girl in that sib group – is out of the hospital and in a nursing home to recover from pneumonia. My cousin says her prognosis is good, but her health has not been good for years. I worry.
  • My best friend’s house burned down. Not completely down but badly and seriously damaged. No people or pets hurt but lots damaged or destroyed. We co-teach and I’m working for her as a writer and so there is stuff that I’m picking up to help. Because I don’t have enough going on.

So why do you care?

Other than it’s been a horrible week, many of these tasks speak to my (and your) project management skills. Managing all the details for my elderly friend while working full time requires all my project management skills. I have to prioritize, set goals, track details, and make sure everyone is doing what they need to do when they need to do it.

I’m not alone with having to help elderly friends or family. If you are or have done this, you have a lot more project management skills than you may realize. You had to to make this all work. Recognize these skills and use them in your workplace, regardless of your official job title. It’s going to make you and everyone around you happier and your job will be easier.

At the end of the day

Right now, I’m beat at the end of the day. Just wrung out and vibrating with nerves. I work from 6am to 2pm and then the rest of my day starts. I’m not sleeping much. I’m not even knitting because it’s just too much. And this is all bad – I need to do those things that calm and refresh me or I’m going to implode.

What are you not doing that you need to do to calm and refresh yourself? Why aren’t you doing it?

Engineering Students

Posted: July 12, 2010 in Engineering, Teaching

As mentioned before, I teach baby engineers how to communicate at UCR. Engineering 180 – soon to be 180W for all engineer majors – is a required part of their program. They must pass the class. Because it’s a required class, we typically teach 4 quarters a year, including summer. They must take the class in the 3rd or 4th year of their (unofficially) 5 year program.

I co-teach with my best friend so they get 2 instructors, teaching slightly different things. It works well for us because together we can teach to our strengths. For example, I’ve not done much in writing specs. I know a good one but I’ve not written many. My co-teacher has. I’m stronger at how to actually write than she is. She can’t explain how to do it well – I can.

Changing the world, one engineer at a time

I like to think that I’m changing the world, at least a little bit. I suppose it’s flattery to myself but every now and then, we get a student for whom we did make a difference. I only need one a year to keep me going. And we got one this summer:

I’m [name removed] from your engr180 course. I just wanted to take the time to e- mail you both to say thank you. Honestly, I thought about quitting engineering so many times because of the level of difficulty, but I figured I had gone this far, so I might as well finish since this is what I want. After your Tuesday lecture my mind is made up. I will finish my bachelor’s degree as an engineer. I am sincerely thankful to you both for appreciating and understanding the discipline.

I’ve been at UCR for over 3 years and you have been the only ones that have put me to think about what I’m doing. Now, to end this e-mail I’ll just let you know why I feel this way: I’ve had the toughest most lifeless college life since I’ve been at UCR and I feel it’s because of the major I chose as a female, in addition to me having a job and being a full time engineering student. I plan to improve my “college life” by joining clubs and organizations next fall. Until then, your class is what I’ve needed. Thank you for reading this e-mail. I look forward to the rest of the quarter in your class.

After I dried my eyes, I replied. Wow.

Not all the students who tell us that we impacted them are women – this one just happens to be. Typically, about 2% of the class is female. We’ve had classes of 60 with no female students at all. Starting this fall, we have all engineering students and the course caps at 90. I’m curious if we have more women when we include all engineering majors.

It’s really an honor

I am deeply honored that I get to be a small part of their education. These engineers will be changing the world. I can’t wait to see what they do.

And our former students stay in touch. I am so interested in how their story goes. They are smart and capable and just amazing duckling engineers.

If you work with an engineer who seems to understand the value of clear specs, product documentation, and other information, you can send me a thank you note and I’ll pass it on to my co-teacher. We’re trying to grow engineers we want to work with.

I like to spend part of my weekends knitting and watching generally mindless TV. It’s my treat for getting the household chores done and any grading I needed to do. I’m picky about what I watch, tho, because I’d like to learn something or be told a good story. I love Ice Road Truckers.

In case you’ve not seen it, Ice Road Truckers is about moving goods and equipment across snow and ice in either northern Canada or Alaska. During winter. Often across sea ice. All by big rigs. It’s rather amazing.

My favorite thus far was the season when they were working in northern Canada. They were moving goods and equipment to and from a mining station on the actual ice covered Arctic ocean. Some (50+ miles?) of the road was actual sea ice—if the ice failed, they sank into the depths of the Arctic ocean, miles from anyone.

The last 3 episodes of that season were compelling. They had to get everything off the ice before it melted and the equipment sank to the bottom of the ocean. Talk about deadlines that can’t be moved.

Why I like the show

Ice Roads goes to the heart of project planning and project management. All equipment and big rigs need to be moving to allow the far location to function. A delay of even 6 hours can be very expensive to the distant location, if not actually dangerous, so the pressure is on for the drivers.

Additionally, the big rig drivers need to know what they are doing and then do it. They have to be trusted to know how to solve problems in real time – like stay on the icy road, deal with blizzards, not crash or break through the ice, and so on. Guys leave quickly if they are not top of their game.

The folks in the dispatch office have to know who can drive what, watch the weather, and make sure things are prioritized to get where they need to be. They have to manage the drivers and put people where they are best. Not everyone might be good at the long dangerous hauls but shorter hauls are also needed. They also have to trust their people to know how to handle issues in real time. You can’t micro-manage these drivers – they’re too far away.

It’s a delicate balance for everyone involved. And a project I wouldn’t want to manage.

And when all the equipment has to be off the ice in 2 more days, people are tired, and the ice conditions are bad… The end of any project is the worst time and when people make the most mistakes. But driving over sea ice that’s warming up and melting, the consequences are bad if you don’t attend to the details. This is when people could be making bad mistakes out of exhaustion but you need them to be making good decisions out of instinct.

You just can’t add fresh drivers in the last few days because they don’t know the road and they may not have the skills needed. Fresh drivers may not be able to make the right decisions in real time, so you need to rely on the experienced drivers. The same ones who are exhausted.

Technical projects are very similar

Most projects I’ve been on are similar. There is a deadline, creative solutions are needed to get there, and some people may not perform or their talents are not being used correctly.

Good project managers manage the dance well, putting people where their talents are best used and trusting their people to make the right decisions. They are also not afraid to make the tough decisions when needed – like firing someone. Or promoting someone.

Bad project managers put pressure on and micro-manage. They brute force the process, resulting in people not using their talents to make the right decisions. When you micro-manage, people get passive. It’s not a good way to get the full creativity out of your people.

Watching Ice Road Truckers puts this into focus for me. Once the trucker gets on the road, you have to trust him or her to make the best decisions with the goal in mind. You can’t be on the radio 200 miles away, trying to make the decisions for them.  Bad project managers assume they must make every single decision in the project or refuse to make any decisions and get mad at people when they make a decision. Why did you bother to hire smart people if you weren’t going to let them be smart?

I learn a lot about project management watching the show.

I’m working on a project for a client. It’s an update to an existing project so there is a lot of good material already. I’m reading much of it right now to learn about the system.
One of the things they do is something I’ve not seen much of: they tell the user how to cancel out of what they are doing in the middle of the doing it instructions.

Moving forward

When I teach, I tell my students to move the user through to the end of the task. Pick one task and move them to success. Even if there are 10 things that they could do somewhere, don’t confuse and upset users by telling them everything all at once. And that includes bailing in the middle of a procedure.

After all, the Cancel button is right there. If they don’t know what a Cancel button is for, we can’t help them. That’s a different level of user, with special needs.


I’m also seeing a lot of stuff I wouldn’t do. Like using the word Once. It has several meanings and so I avoid it. If I need to talk about once you do X, you can do Y, I say after. If I need you to do something once, I say to do it one time. The same thing goes for the word Since. I avoid it as well.

Of course, my initial reaction was these docs are not as well written as they could be. But then I started thinking about audience and information needs.

I think for this audience, they know their domain cold – the product is new and how to interact with it may be new. So, does it hurt to have the cancel instructions in the middle of a procedure? Probably not.

And what about the words I wouldn’t choose? Well, I’m used to working in an environment wbere the content will probably be translated. If not right now, then certainly in the future. So I write as if it were to be translated now.

This material is not going to be translated and the users are solid English speakers. They can probably be counted on to understand, based on context.

I’m not the source of all things true

So while I of course think I’m right, it may be for their users, this is fine.

I always think it’s better to get good info instead of spinning your wheels to make sure things are “perfect”. This is not a hill I’m willing to die on.

I teach a lot: at the local UC, the local Extension, and for the STC. I teach technical communication topics to people who either want to learn more or are being forced to learn more by their program.

As a first assignment, I always ask for 1000 words on something the person is passionate about. I want to hear the passion in the assignment. I want to hear why this thing makes the writer excited.

So why do I do it? Well, several reasons, depending on the audience.

  1. If the person is taking the class to learn more about tech comm, I want to see how well they write outside the confines of the rigid structure tech comm provides. An awful lot of tech comm people are not that great at writing overall, but within the restrictions of tech comm, they are quite good.
  2. If this is an engineering student and they have to take the class, I want to see how well they can write telling me about something that excites them. How well do they establish the discussion? Can they show me why they love the topic? Can they organize?
  3. And, regardless of the reason, I get to learn about my students. I’m terrible at names. Just awful. I need a story to attach to people to remember them. And in a large stand-up class or a completely online class, I don’t get to know people the way I want. But this essay gives me a story to attach to a person. It helps me remember these people because I remember that someone was interested in Sake, for example.

Regardless of the reason I have the student, I love this assignment. It’s so fun to read about what the person thinks is exciting about something. Most of us have something that excites us – why not write 1000 words about it to share?