Tag Archives: career

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 dejays.

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 sqaure 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 roomates. 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 scaleable – 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:

    Reports and proposals in technical publications

    Plus a description of what a technical writer does through an interview with a technical communication student from Miami University

    I got an interesting query from Matt, a student at Miami University in Ohio, where I received my master’s degree in Scientific and Technical Communication (MTSC). Miami University also has an excellent bachelor’s degree program in Technical Communication. Matt’s a Technical Communications major from Akron, Ohio. My MTSC classmate Janel Bloch is Matt’s teacher. Matt has read my blog and has an assignment for his technical writing class where he should conduct an investigative report assignment on the types of reports and proposals written by professionals in his area of interest, which is Computer Science. So, we emailed back and forth and he came up with these interview questions. Here are my responses to his interesting questions.

    What is your title at BMC Software?

    My title was Information Developer II until BMC decided to standardize more job titles recently, and then my title was changed to Sr. Technical Writer. I’m not much for focusing on titles, instead I prefer to focus on the interesting nature of my assignments, so you could give me any title and as long as the work is interesting I’ll be content with any title. 🙂

    What is a typical day like (I know this is probably a stupid question)

    It isn’t a stupid question, I often like to ask this one when trying to find out more about a person’s job because daily activities are a good indicator of whether I’d like the job or not. So here goes…

    I’m the type of person who likes to have a couple of different assignments going on at any given time, as long as I know the priorities for each and approximately how to chunk the tasks down to sizes that are manageable. I check email constantly throughout the day and try to respond immediately when supporting others in their work (such as “what’s now broken in this help system that used to work?”) I also attend about five hour-long meetings a week, which in my current corporate environment is not too many meetings compared to the number that many other writers and managers attend.

    Right now, I spend about half of my day working on a user manual, whether it’s asking questions of development, making changes to the document, or trying out the user interface or command-line utilities to test procedures I’ve already written. The other part of the day I am working on the information architecture planning tasks we are working on for a DITA implementation for some pilot projects. Recently I have also been finishing up white papers that are related to Business Service Management topics. I like to have a variety of work options in front of me in a typical day.

    When a product release is coming up, I focus much more on the product documentation and keep up with the development and especially quality assurance/testing team’s daily activities. So my daily routine would be much more focused on communicating with the team, finding out testing progress, and looking out for software bugs that might change the documentation.

    What kinds of things do you write at work? outside of work?

    At work, I write user manuals, release notes, white papers, blog entries, and painstakingly craft email messages when I need to. Often I write “how to” documents for other writers, such as how to install Epic Editor for our environment, or describe how I have found efficiencies for a certain internal procedure, such as how to zip up help files. Sometimes those get turned into blog entries even. In addition to my external blog on talk.bmc.com, I maintain an internal blog called “Geeky Tech Pubs Tips” where I post information that’s only relevant to people who work at BMC.

    Outside of work, I write email messages to friends and family, I write lots of commentary for photo albums I’m maintaining of our family’s activities, and otherwise I don’t do a lot of writing. I have a secret stash of children’s book ideas though and I might get to writing those some day. I also write blog entries for our STC chapter’s blog, http://stcaustin.blogspot.com/.

    What kinds of media do you use when you write? (online or print)

    I nearly always have an online media in mind when I write, which may or may not be the best mindset. However, most of the products I’ve been working on tend to ship more online PDFs and HTML documents than printed documents, so I think it’s the right mindset for what I’m currently assigned to.

    For white papers, though, I have a printed media in mind and page count really matters, which makes you write and do layout at the same time, paying close attention to line breaks and page breaks and graphic placement. As for the type of tools I use while writing, we use FrameMaker for printed manuals and white papers, and Dreamweaver for HTML editing. I am also using Epic Editor to write DITA topics as I do the research for our structured authoring projects. I use Word to write internal documents or early drafts of text where I might want to use the Track Changes feature.

    Do you write any proposals and/or reports? Are you required to do any research?

    I typically only write internal reports and can’t think of any proposals I’ve written. Wait, a few years ago I worked on a team that wrote a proposal for embedding online help into a product’s interface. So I do write proposals as part of my job description. I have done a lot of research on technologies that matter for technical publications, sometimes related to online Help presentation, sometimes related to XML implementations, and so on. I’ve written up reports and do presentations for both internal and external audiences for those types of unique projects. Determining whether to recommend JavaHelp for a certain product is an example of such a research report.

    Who is in charge of reports and proposals?

    I tend to think of several examples of reports and proposals in my current company’s setting. Here are some examples and who is in charge of those:

    Annual reports – A summary of how the business is doing, typically written at the end of fiscal year. I’m not entirely sure who is responsible for that project.

    Competitive reports – An analysis of products that compete with our products and how our products stand up against certain features or selling points. These reports are usually written by product managers who talk to customers and sales people, and they may also be written by sales people to help others sell in competitive situations.

    Internal research reports – The embedded help proposal I’ve attached was written by a team of writers who researched and reported back to development what we learned about embedded help, and what we would propose should go into the product.

    Internal proposals – In our environment, the one type of proposal I’m familiar with is an internal proposal or a business case for justifying an initial investment in order to gain efficiencies or better serve customers. Another example might be the business case to move to structured authoring using DITA. We might need to purchase different authoring tools for the new way of authoring, so a business case would help justify the Return On Investment (ROI) for such a purchase and change in authoring. I haven’t had to write that but our managers are writing that type of proposal.

    How much time do you spend writing?

    Many technical writers would agree with me that you don’t get to spend the majority of your time writing. Really, the writing time is probably less than 20% of your work time. The rest of the time you’re reading, researching, talking and communicating with team members, going to meetings, and learning as quickly as possible.

    Who are your audiences?

    Audience analysis is very important so this is an excellent question. For user manuals, the audience depends on the product. I’m currently working on a Recovery Management product where the audience is typically system administrators who are in charge of backing up and recovering critical databases.

    White papers also have different audiences. For technical white papers that target one product line, the audience is typically the technical person implementing the information you present. For solution white papers that span multiple product lines, the audience target is closer to Vice President or Sr. Director of IT, a Director, Manager, or purchase influencer. To us, manager-level readers are seeking higher-level information such as ROI, and an implementer or technician seeks more technical details about implementation.

    There are also internal audiences for some of the research-type things I write for internal use only. Typically I write for coworkers, development managers, quality assurance managers, or technical publication managers as an audience.

    Do you read any scholarly or trade journals?

    Currently all of my reading for educational purposes is done online via searches or using RSS feeds, so I can’t think of scholarly or trade journals I read regularly. I can refer to STC’s journals online, such as Technical Communication (their journal). Typically, however, Intercom has articles that are more relevant to my work situation. And I find myself reading white papers and attending webinars more often than I read a trade journal.

    I find that the absolute best printed periodical for me is Wired Magazine. I read it regularly which means I’m making the time to read it, even if I take it with me to my doctor’s waiting rooms for prenatal care visits. 🙂 It is an excellent magazine with articles relevant to the future of communications. I also think that by reading it I can stay in touch with many members of the technical audience that I write for.

    How involved are you with STC and what exactly do you do as a senior member?

    To be a senior member of STC, you basically just have to be a dues-paying member for five years in a row. There aren’t extra responsibilities associated with the senior member title but it does show a commitment to the organization. I have served in several leadership roles in the Austin chapter and the Southwest Ohio chapter, such as Hospitality chair and Membership chair. There are plenty of ways to be involved, though, that don’t require a leadership role. Two of the best and most interesting volunteer things I’ve done with STC are helping to plan programs for the monthly meetings, such as brainstorming topics, requesting speakers, and coordinating locations. I also helped gather proposals and abstracts for talks for the Regional conference held in Austin three years ago which was another great volunteer position because I could read all the interesting things that people were doing in their jobs and wanting to present at the conference.

    How were you involved with the MU student chapter of the STC?

    Several years ago I was the student chapter advisor. I attended meetings and helped the students coordinate activities with the Southwest Ohio chapter as well as hold their own elections and meetings. I invited students to everything STC and we even ended up hosting a student reception at the national STC conference which was held in Cincinnati in 1999. I took the chapter president to conference planning meetings with me and I think she learned a lot by observing and pitching in her ideas when needed.