It could happen to you, redux

When winter comes and times get tough, many birds fly south. In our current economic climate, the birds are not alone. You need to get your wings in gear to do a little flying next year to some conferences, even if it’s on your own nickel! We are nowhere near hitting bottom in this economy. This is the worst recession of my life; since I’m in my mid 50s, that’s quite a mouthful.

You may be among the fortunate ones who are not laid off in the coming months. But if your company is one of the many hundreds that is under a “travel freeze,” don’t let that deter you from expanding your essential skills education in these perilous times.

Background: You may have read my story in a November issue of TCW. I was laid off very unexpectedly October 1st, and I made it my “full time job” to secure another position through social networking. Thanks to many many contacts in TCW Community and, of course, Linked In, my next boss found me; I started my new job on December 15th. If you’re dying of curiosity to find out who hired me, check out my Linked In profile: http://www.linkedin.com/in/maxwellhoffmann

I had well over 100 Linked In and TCW Community contacts and friends actively assist me in my job search, with referrals, job listings, recruiters, etc. Many friends encouraged me to think outside the box, encouraged me to pursue gigs that could use my writing talents, etc. I broke every rule in the book, by not hiding my age, having a resume that was “too long”, “too unfocused” … (based on feedback from several breathless resume make-over artists who pursued me relentlessly during this search). Fortunately, I ignored professional advice; my new boss commented that he liked the amount of detail in my postings and on-line profile. But enough about me. What can you do to ensure that your value to your current or future employers and customers continues to grow?

Spread your wings and fly

In two of the half dozen recessions I’ve survived, I used comp time, vacation time and my personal airline points to fly to several critical conferences. In all cases, my company was under a hiring and travel “freeze.” While my co-workers stayed in their cubicles, I garnered essential information and training at a time when publishing tools and workflow were undergoing significant changes. The knowledge and skills I brought home from these conferences not only increased my value to our customers, it made me “stand out” as an asset during an ensuring lay off. By the way, if you have at least one “job interview” at a conference, and you secure a new job before the end of the calendar year, all travel and conference costs are tax deductible.

Which one is worth going to on my own nickel?

During my recent job search, I spent a lot of time on Linked In Groups and TCW Community forums; I noticed a lot of discussion threads were devoted to which 2009 conferences are “worth” attending. Here are some candidates to consider:

  • You may have just missed XML-in-Practice 2008 by IDEAlliance. Check their website for upcoming events. Highly practical case studies and useful “how to” tips with XML and DITA.
  • Start the year right, with a January trip to Palm Springs for Intelligent Content 2009, driven by “is there anything she can’t do”, Ann Rockley. This is a small, intimate conference, where you can get the big picture from stellar keynote speakers like Joe Gollner. (Note: any conference with Joe Gollner is worth attending, he is that good.) Intelligent content (like structured content) is rapidly becoming an essential corporate asset, and only a small workforce is aware of the issues at this point. Let Ann be your guide.
  • Hit Palm Springs a little later, in March for DOCTRAIN WEST. This year, the focus is “moving from unstructured to structured content” … something we will all have to do, sooner or later. Find the latest updates on new products, relevant case studies from a variety of industries, and always a session or two on globalization. A great venue to learn or increase knowledge with this essential skill.
  • Society for Technical Communication’s (STC) annual convocation has been gaining strength in content and relevance in recent years. Consider attending STC’s Technical Communication Summit in Atlanta, GA, in early May.
  • Come June, you will have three solid days to get a full grasp of DITA and its latest applications at DOCTRAIN </DITA>, in Indianapolis. Speakers and sessions aren’t posted yet, but based on past speakers and participants at the DOCTRAIN series, this promises to be another “must attend” session.
  • Since dynamic web content (and globalization of your customer facing websites) are becoming more critical than ever, look into the Web Content Conferences by DUO CONSULTING. The February event focuses on the affect of social media technologies while the June/Chicago venue notes “Poorly-targeted sales pitches and mass market messaging are being replaced by laser-targeted — and measurable — content delivery methods that promise to deliver the right information, to the right people, at the right time, in the right format and language.”

That’s why they call it the “World”-wide Web

Globalizing content will be key to any enterprise that hopes to still be in business (let alone be viable) 5 years from now. Do a google search throughout the year for “globalization” “localization” “webinar” “2008” and register for the many webinars on these topics put on by vendors in that market sector. My new company will be putting on several; follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/maxwellhoffmann to stay posted. I will broadcast 150 character announcements about other webinars and opportunities as well.

What if you just graduated from college and are getting started in this economy?

So far, I’ve only talked about actions for content creators and Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who are already in the workplace. What if you are just starting out a career, and you need to gain skills, establish credibility, and you don’t have paid vacation or airline points? Here are some tips for you:

  • Brush up you XML skills with many of the effective and free tutorials available on-line on the Web. For starters, try out the XML Tutorial from http://www.w3schools.com.
  • Join The Content Wrangler Community and connect with forums that focus on XML and DITA that is relevant to your industry. Don’t be shy; go ahead and ask “stupid” questions. The Community is very supportive, and you will be directed to some great resources. There are many other groups that can help you come up to speed as well: mobile devices, L10N (localization/translation), topic based authoring, best training practices, etc.
  • Study at home with some effective XML related training video/DVDs. Do a google search, or start out with some new offerings by Ken Holman at www.cranesoftwrights.com … The first course launched is Holman’s Practical Transformation Using XSLT and XPath Video.
  • Need a portfolio? Do it pro bono: one of the biggest challenges to landing your first job is having some physical evidence (a portfolio) of what you can do. Whether you are a web designer, writer, or other type of content creator, consider doing a web site or documentation “make over” for a small start up company “for free” but in exchange for “screen credit”. Naturally, you need to put constaints on the amount of work you can do for free. Consider creating 6 pages of marketing literature, or the top, entry level pages of a website. You will only need to do this once or twice, then you can link the fruits of your labors to your own website and have an on-line portfolio with blog and comments.
  • Sweet Charity: Find a visible, but deserving non-profit that could benefit from what you have to offer. Create something (images, formatting or content) that will markedly increase customer or donor traffic, and get a logo in the lower corner to capture new leads or customers. Also remember, your work in the charity sector (medical, family issues, green initiatives) will also help flesh out your credentials as an SME in that area as well.
  • Become an “expert” in issues and industries that are here to stay. Diabetes is the fastest growing disease in the U.S.A. It is predicted that one of every two Latino children born since 2000 will develop Diabetes in their lifetime. In the general population the same statistic for children born since 2000 may be as high as one in four. Become knowledgeable enough to write intelligently about Diabetes. For starters, learn this difference between Type 1 and Type 2: do you know which one requires insulin therapy? There many on-line resources to bring you up to speed on this deadly disease (start with ADA, American Diabetic Association.) Consider writing an article or short white paper for your local hospital or medical associaton “pro bono”, but get you name in the tag line.
  • Go green: with new political leadership and increased government spending as one of the few alternatives available to “jump start” the American economy, expect increased funding and activity in renewable energy, fuel efficient vehicles, wind power and more. I live near Portland, and Oregon is rapidly becoming known as a “green center” with several off-shore hybrid and electric car manufacturers considering moving manufacturing to the Beaver state. Again, you don’t have to be an engineer to write intelligently about this subject. The starting point is research; search for relevant blogs to add as an RSS feed in your reader. Spend 15-20 minutes per day reading about your chosen new area, and you too can become an SME.

The answer is connections, connections, connections

Recessions and economic downturns are always scary times, even if you have what seems to be a secure job. This recession is taking us into unchartered waters. We have never gone through a recession during a true, post Cold War, “global” economy. Previously “unshakeable” institutions such as big name banks and the two of the “Big 3” in Detroit, are on the brink of collapse. Corporations that were once considered unassailable are now in desperate need of new ideas and leading edge technologies. Economic incentives now exist to rebuild many infrastructures, develop alternatives in transportation and other sectors. In some ways, our technology tipping point may parallel the early 20th Century when visual and audio mass communications first gained traction.

With mature social networking tools and the proliferation of hand-held devices that let anyone “twitter” anytime/anywhere … the possibilities for new products and new services are endless. You have in your hands something that no generation before us has possessed; direct access to priceless business intelligence through your social networking contacts. As always, expect the CEOs and upper eschalons of most corportations to be the last to clue in.

In the meantime, connect with anyone worth knowing, have something to offer in return (e.g. your own “business intelligence” or mutually beneficial contacts), and dust off those airline points. Travel freeze or no travel freeze, spread your wings and fly!

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One thought on “It could happen to you, redux

  1. I’ve been lucky in that my company has either paid or partly paid for me to attend conferences in the past few years in the US (I’m based in Australia, so we’re talking up to $AUD4-5K for me to get to a conference). We’re in a travel freeze, so I’m considering carefully which conference I’m interested in and how I’m going to get there. Work will give me the days as education days, so that’s great, but I don’t think the requested 1-2 trips to the US next year will come through.
    I’ve also shared a hotel room with a friend – great way to help keep costs down. Another consideration for me next time I travel will be the exchange rate. In June, AUD$1 got me about USD90c – a pretty darn good rate! At the moment, it’s more around the 70c mark, which isn’t a deal breaker, but makes me more careful about other expenditure while I’m away.

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