Sunday, 9 August 2009

More blog posts on my main site

The Blockhead Blog is now incorporated in my main site. New articles will appear there, and I look forward to reading your comments.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Moving right along

I'm not the sort of person who jumps on every new bandwagon that comes along. No, I wait for them to pass me by and then run like mad to catch up. Many other technical writers started blogging long before I did, I was a relatively late arrival on the Twitter scene.
This week I have started to catch up with the blogging phenomenon known as WordPress. I was originally a bit put off by the need to set up a database on my website, but my hosting provider, made that bit really easy.
Installing WordPress itself was also very easy, though I did have a good friend standing by to help me out. It was certainly much less hassle than setting up Windows 7.
You can visit my new site at my regular web address, even though it is still very much a work in progress. If you're feeling sentimental, or if you're looking for material that I haven't ported over to the new site yet, you can still visit the old site. I have started posting blog articles on the new site, and in due course the Blockhead Blog itself will be incorporated in the new site.

Friday, 24 July 2009

First steps with Windows 7

For a variety of reasons, I operate as a business, and for a variety of other reasons, my business is a member of the Microsoft Partner programme. That shouldn't really surprise anyone, despite my frequent criticisms of Microsoft and its products over the years. The fact is that I, like most people involved in hi-tech, continue to use Microsoft products every day, as do the overwhelming majority of my business clients.

One of the advantages of being a Microsoft Partner, is early access to forthcoming products, which is why I have a copy of Windows 7 before its general release. This blog article follows my first steps with Windows 7.

Microsoft: "download now"
What I did: quite late in the evening, I followed the steps to install the download manager, and then started the download and went off to watch TV. 4 hours and 2.5GB later, I had the Windows 7 Release Candidate .iso file. (The download steps do include getting a product key.) Next day, I burnt the .iso to a DVD.

Microsoft: "use a dedicated test PC"
What I did: found an 80GB hard drive I didn't need, and installed it in my PC. I set the disk up with Win XP. Then I loaded the Windows 7 DVD.

The installation took about 30 minutes, during which the machine rebooted itself 3 or 4 times. There is an option to set up Windows 7 as a dual boot, but I didn't choose this, I created a completely new clean install.

First impressions:
The visual appearance is very much like Vista, with a rather odd background graphic with a strange blue fish. I wonder who chose that?

First problem:
Windows 7 didn't automatically recognise my wireless networking PCI card. I installed the drivers for the card from the original CD. I still found the Networking dialog a bit confusing, and I still couldn't use it to connect. However I did connect using the wireless card's own software utility, and happily found my way to the Internet. Hurrah! But the Windows 7 Networking dialog still didn't recognise that I was connected.

When I installed the wireless card software I was prompted to approve the action, Vista-style. I wonder how often this is going to happen.

I have now gone back to my Win XP PC to get work done today, and I'll continue my experiments with Windows 7 over the weekend.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

STC Action Plan

My earlier post on the STC looked at the problems, but didn't address what the Society should do now about its financial crisis. Some people have asked me what I think the Society should do about raising money. Some of the ideas I've seen, like imposing a levy on members, looked crazy to me, so I thought I'd offer a few of my own, which might not be quite so crazy.

  • Announce today that dues for the next membership year (2010) are going up by 25%-30% for all categories.

  • Offer members who renew for 2010 before 1st November 2009 a big discount on next year's rates.

  • Ask any local Chapters with excess cash in their bank accounts to lend money to the Society as an interest-free, standing loan, which the Society will repay when it can (which may of course be never).

Those are my ideas on finance. But my main idea on STC's dwindling value proposition remains the same. The Board urgently needs to address the key question that every individual member is asking themselves:

  • What can STC give me that I can't get cheaper, or for free, somewhere else?

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Does the STC deserve to survive?

The Society for Technical Communications (STC) is a membership organisation for technical writers and related professionals. It is more than 50 years old, and has been in decline for some years. The rate of decline has now become precipitous, and the economic situation of the last year has added a financial dimension to the STC's ongoing crisis. The Society's leadership has reacted to the financial crisis by inviting suggestions for action from members.

I have been an active member of the STC for more than a dozen years. I have served on the managing bodies of both the Israel Chapter and the UK and Ireland Chapter, where I have served as President and as Treasurer. I am now Co-Manager of the Europe SIG and serve also on a number of Society-level committees. In the past I have been a loyal supporter, and have advocated STC membership for many reasons:

  • STC membership puts you in touch with an international community of tech comms professionals, most of whose members are in the United States

  • STC membership provides you with a peer-reviewed quarterly academic journal

  • STC membership provides you with a regular magazine of interest to tech comms professionals

  • STC membership gives you heavily discounted access to conferences (mainly in the USA)and Webinars

...and so on. This has been STC's "value proposition" - the things that it provides that its members value enough to pay money for.

Recently, I have begun to feel that there is not much value left in STC as it stands today, and it is in need of a radical overhaul in order to survive. I believe that outside the rarefied atmosphere of the STC Board and Head Office, this view is widely shared.

The elected leadership has now invited suggestions on solving the financial crisis. Most of the member suggestions I have seen are about reviewing or changing the Society's core activities, not about saving costs or generating revenue. To me this is an indication of a dangerous disconnect between the deliberations of the elected Board on the one hand, and the concerns of the membership at large on the other. Do Board members not realise that the financial crisis is just an acute symptom of an underlying chronic condition, which is the decline of the Society? One Board member at least has acknowledged the breadth of the problem. Mike Hughes has written that he probably would not recognise proposals to make STC appealing to a new generation of professionals.

Elsewhere, Sarah O'Keefe has summarised the STC's ills by writing that it lacks "velocity", "community", and "openness". This contrasts with the official statements from the STC Board, which imply that all the Society needs now is more money.

In another blog, Keith Anderson suggests that a core problem of STC is that it tries to cater for too many interests, including those of academics and those of professionals. As a professional who is also a part-time academic, I would have to agree that this is problematic, and the result is that STC fails to serve either community adequately.

Many people are contributing to an open debate on Twitter, sending suggestions with the hashtag #stcorg . I have contributed several myself, some of which are expressions of my frustration as a community leader. Here are the ideas I posted to Twitter:

  • embrace the social media technology we champion as professionals

  • provide affordable branded training courses at all levels of the profession

  • provide pro-active support for volunteer local leadership

  • provide excellent service to individual members and local volunteers when they call the office on any topic

  • remember we are a non-profit membership org that needs business-like management, but we are not a business

The unstoppable Tom Johnson has a more detailed list of even more practical suggestions.

As an active and loyal STC member, I have been saddened by the conclusion I have now reached. If STC fails, I don't believe that anything irreplaceable will be lost. Local groups may or may not continue, meeting in person or on the web. The social media tools available now at low cost or no cost make community-building on the Internet almost childishly simple, and show STC to be behind the times. Techcomm bloggers and pundits will continue to write and self-publish articles, while STC publications recycle blog articles that have been in circulation for months. Some conferences will still take place. Outside the USA, other national techcom societies will certainly continue (and within the USA other societies exist as well).

So to answer my own question, does STC deserve to survive: if it can join the current communications game of blogs and wikis rather than email and print; if it can slash its overheads and extricate itself from damaging contractual commitments; if it can establish the kind of zero-based budgeting that it wants to impose on its local communities, and if above all it can make itself relevant and vital to the profession in the 21st century, then of course it should survive. The articles from Tom and Sarah and Keith mentioned above have plenty of suggestions about what could be done to achieve these goals, and I am more than willing to contribute constructive ideas for a revitalised STC, and to continue to commit my energies to them. What we need from the Board is inspiration to achieve them.

But if all the Board wants is more of my money, then I'm afraid I'll be giving a different answer.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Limits of community support

One of the trends I mentioned during the meeting in Vienna this week was the growing importance of user generated content.

User generated content can mean many things, but in the context of commercial products and services it generally means allowing users and customers to add comment to your company's web site through open wikis, blogs, or user forums. Some companies encourage their own staff to engage with their customers by responding to forum comments and questions, by writing blogs and inviting comments, and so on. Other companies are happy to let the users - the customers - get on with things by themselves, without interference from the company. They even deliberately use the term "user community" or even "community support" to encourage their customers to take part.

On the other hand, there are some serious objections to user generated content. Many companies believe that any information published about their products needs to be authoritative and reliable. For example, if you are manufacturing electrical equipment you need to give your users accurate information about the correct voltage for your products. If you leave this sort of thing to others, you might be opening yourself up to legal challenges, and more importantly, people could even get hurt.

Nevertheless, there are independent, user-run forums for many products, as well as company-sponsored ones. An ongoing research project sponsored by STC has found that independent user forums are more popular, and more trusted, than vendor sponsored ones. Perhaps you don't find that fact surprising. After all, the Internet was all about sharing information amongst peers long before the commercialisation of the World Wide Web, and many people feel strongly about the freedom of information.

Something happened to me this week which made me recognise a limitation of community support. I often use Huddle, an online collaboration platform, to share documents with clients and colleagues. My use of Huddle is quite low volume, and so I only use a free account, which means I don't have direct access to Huddle's tech support. This is reserved for paying customers, and I quite understand that distinction. Although this little anecdote may sound critical of Huddle, I think it is a great product, very easy to use, and definitely worth evaluating if you are looking for an online collaboration tool.

This week, I wanted to share a rather long document with a client. It was much too big for email, so I uploaded it to my workspace on Huddle, and tried to invite the client to join the workspace. Inviting people is a very standard action, something I'd done without a problem many times before. This time I could see that something was broken. Clicking the Send Invitation button got no response, and instead I saw a line of code in my browser's status bar. I have been around software long enough to recognise a bug when I see one, and I wanted to report this to Huddle.

When I went to the Support page, I found that as a free account customer the only option open to me was to post a message to the community forum. I found that someone else had encountered exactly the same problem, and had posted a message to the forum some six hours before, but there had been no response. I added a "me too" comment, and waited.

Community forums are really great for how-to information, and for tips and tricks, but communities can't fix software bugs, not even the most trivial ones. I hoped that the messages posted to the forum would alert Huddle to the problem, and that they would look into it.

After waiting a few more hours, I decided to turn to another sort of community to see if i could attract Huddle's attention. A message on Twitter, with the tag #huddle, got three friendly and helpful responses from the company very quickly, and I am pleased to report that the problem I experienced was soon resolved. (It may even have been one of those minor bugs that resolves itself when something else happens on the server, I don't really know.)

It was unfortunate that Huddle hadn't provided a Report a problem link for its free account customers, and I have suggested that they should consider doing so. I am certainly going to continue using Huddle, and continue following Huddle staffers on Twitter as well.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Notes from Vienna

Let me put your minds at rest - despite the possible pun in the title, this is not a posting about Mozart. (I leave that sort of musing to my STC colleague Tom Johnson.)

Tom and I have both been in Vienna this week for the 10th Anniversary Conference of the STC TransAlpine Chapter. Tom gave a workshop on WordPress, and two other sessions, while I gave my talk on ignoring users (I'm against it, by the way) and took part in a panel discussion about trends in technical communication. These prosaic and unmusical notes are about the conference themes and that discussion of trends.

Most of the conference was about the basic challenges that technical communicators face. We talked about getting messages across to users, improving the documentation we create, and trying to improve the product we write about. I was very impressed by the lively discussions from the audience, and the spirit of collaboration and participation at all the sessions I attended. The feedback I received to my own presentation was particularly valuable, and I hope my next audience (at Technical Communications UK 2009) will benefit from some of the ideas my audience in Vienna suggested.

The panel on trends in technical communications covered a wide range of issues. We talked about the impact of the world-wide economic slowdown on job prospects for technical communicators, and the need to keep our skill-sets up-to date as part of our response to this. We talked about the continuing need to demonstrate value to our employers and our clients. We talked about the challenges and opportunities to technical communicators presented on the one hand by the growing adoption of structured authoring techniques such as XML and DITA, and on the other hand by the growing importance of user-generated content through blogs, wikis, and discussion forums open to customers and the public at large. Despite not being able to provide definitive answers, I hope the panel discussion highlighted areas of interest to watch in the coming months.

As is usual, the social aspects of the conference were important too. It was also a great event for meeting other professionals, with delegates from a dozen countries. I enjoyed being introduced to the sights and sounds, and to the tastes, of a new city, and I really enjoyed a very worthwhile trip. My thanks to all the organising committee for inviting me.