Talking Content, Content

Delighted and honored to be the latest guest on the Content Content podcast. Join Ed Marsh and I as we discuss why tech writers are now content engineers, why metadata is important, what it’s like to document massive hardware, and more.

Why XML is a Four Letter Word – and more


There’s no such job! – Or, How I ended up with a career in Technical Communications

I can’t spell. I really can’t. I’m terrible at it, always have been. Yet I read voraciously (it just took me three attempts to spell that one right), and I love to write. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was seven years old, but my poor spelling was always something of a handicap, because I’m so old that when I was at school there was no such thing as spell checkers. Sure, there were dictionaries but the problem with a dictionary is that you have to at least have some basic idea of how a word is spelt to be able to get find it in the first place.
I also liked machines, cars, motorcycles, planes. I enjoyed taking them apart and finding out how they worked (OK I didn’t take planes apart, but I studied aerodynamics so I knew how they stayed up there). Early in my teens, sitting in the careers advisor’s office at school with the oil from the latest engine tear-down fresh under my finger nails, I had a discussion that went something like this:
Careers Advisor: “So what would be your ideal profession?”
Me: “Something that combined Engineering and Writing.”
Careers Advisor: “That’s not a career. There’s no such job.”

He then looked at the file on his desk, and then at my oily hands. “Your report says you have a good grasp of most subjects and can learn quickly, but you are a terrible speller.” Another look at the hands, “But clearly you like machines. Go be an engineer.”

And that was his final word, and that’s the path the school put me on.
Fast forward several years and I have a degree in Marine Engineering in my pocket and I’m working as a Junior Engineer in the British merchant marine on container ships. It wasn’t the life for me, except for one aspect.

During long boring watch rota shifts in the mainly automated engine room I would while away the time reading the tech manuals. You know the things that I’d been told didn’t exist. And my reaction was (1) That idiot careers advisor had been wrong as someone must produce these, and (2) I could do them so much better.
Despite being paid to travel the world (well the Mediterranean and North Atlantic) while staring at a deck full of containers, after a year I decided to head back to land and to University to pursue a second degree in Industrial Technology. As part of the degree course we had to spend two separate six-month periods working in industry. My first industrial-placement was at a computer company, and the second?

At some point I’d been chatting to my girlfriend (now my wife) about potential placements and she suggested I talk to her brother-in-laws, both of whom worked at British Aerospace. Over a pint in the pub later that evening someone casually mentioned that there was a department called Technical Publications at the aerospace facility nearby, and he happened to know the guy who ran it. One introduction later and the following summer I found myself at a desk writing my first piece of technical documentation – a Component Maintenance Manual for an upgrade to the engine intakes on Concorde!

As for that job that didn’t exist, by my reckoning I am now in my 32nd year of working in the profession in one capacity or other.

That Was The Week That Was ….

I’m not sure I could have asked for a better first full week of the New Year. No matter how I look at it 2012 looks like it’s going to be a promising, exciting, and busy year in the world of Content Strategy and Business Communications in general, and on a personal level for 4Js Group as well.

Let’s take a look at what made this week such a perfect start to the year.

  • I kicked off the week by delivering the final manuscript for “THE CONTENT POOL” book on Content Strategy to the fine team at XML Press for final copy edits, indexing, and layout. – We are looking at publication in the first half of the year. – As soon as we have nailed down a date I’ll post it here and on my twitter accounts. – I’ll also be posting updates here as the book goes through the final stages before publication.
  • On the conference front, it looks like I will be speaking at this year’s Lavacon in Portland in October. Lavacon has rapidly become on of my favorite events of the year, and I always enjoy speaking there.

As I mentioned, overall a great week – and a great start to the New Year.

Remember the (STC) Alamo

Just over a week ago I attended what was simply the most open and stimulating regional STC event I have ever been to.

The Central Texas STC Fall Seminar, was organized jointly between the Austin and San Antonio chapters of the industry group and held at the excellent Hotel Valencia on San Antonio’s famed Riverwalk. (Home to many fine restaurants – including the one where we had lunch.)

But it wasn’t the setting that made it memorable – it was the participation.

In my experience a lot of these regional get-togethers end up in features and functions comparisons of tools, minutiae of the job, or arcane technical discussions about standards that only a minority of people use. Not so in this case.

The discussions ranged from using emerging new technologies, Web2.0 tools,, wikis, social networks, to how to develop and recognize metrics, to how to make sure that the documentation process is heard and accounted for in a Agile Development driven world.

But underscoring all the talk of technology was the realization that technologies will come and go, and the most important skill to develop was the ability to learn about new things, and communicate that in an empathic way.

There were several people who were attending their first STC event and they, along with everyone else, left with the impression that this is an exciting time to be in the corporate publishing world.

SaaS Publishing

A couple of weeks ago I attended a software industry business conference in Atlanta. The hottest topic under discussion was the shift from traditionally licensed, on the desktop, software to Software as a Service, or SaaS.

The SaaS model replaces desktop processing with the work being done by remote servers located “out there” in data centers and accessed via the internet. For those of us who’ve been around the IT industry long enough this is nothing new. It’s reminiscent of the old mainframe / dumb terminal model. The biggest difference is that now the processing power is the responsibility of the software vendor and instead of a dedicated network access is now, theoretically, from anywhere at anytime.

The poster child for SaaS is, and the seems ideally suited to enterprise wide business systems. But isn’t publishing also an enterprise wide activity (even of 90% of enterprises don’t recognize it as such). Is there a role for a SaaS solution on publishing?

In some ways we already have them, blogs (like this one) and wikis are SaaS models where all the processing, storage and delivery is done via a web server with no specialist editing software on the host machine.

With both blogs and wikis gaining wider adoption in the Corporate Publishing world, will more traditional editing, content management and publishing tools be far behind?