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!

Engineering: when everyone speaks English but words still don’t work

Most of us think that translation always involves more than one language, for instance, English into Simplified Chinese.  But there are many forms of  English-to-English “translation” necessary to prepare internal data for release to the outside world. Nowhere is this more evident than when you are required to act as a liaison between sequestered developers/engineers and sales/customers.

I was left to my own devices to decipher what was worth carrying back to the outside world. Over time, I found some techniques that actually worked.

I learned this years ago while working for a small start up company in Boston. The company had yet to make its first real sale; think pre-IPO start-up on a “below” the ground floor opportunity. Living on the west coast, I was supposed to spend two weeks in our Boston headquarters to “get acquainted” with the product and developers. I documented and shared my impressions internally; that trickle of critical internal business intelligence led to three and a half months of living on Commonwealth Ave and life amongst the Clan of the Code Creators. Soon I was spending every day with the “smartest guys in the room.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I was developing a “translation” skill that I continue to use to this day.

At times I felt like Jane Goodall, only it was more like I was the chimpanzee, and the engineers were an enclave of exotic humans.

The Lion’s share of our engineers had come from the same company. Having worked together for so long, they had developed a “tribal” form of communication probably found nowhere else on the planet. At times I felt like Jane Goodall, only it was more like I was the chimpanzee and the engineers were an enclave of exotic humans. I’d worked with many developers one-on-one before, but never in a pack or tribe. But there are recognizable patterns in how engineers communicate, both verbally and in writing.

Because the clock is always ticking against how many lines of code they write, time is highly valued by developers. And they can be less than patient if you can’t articulate your question in less than 15 seconds. “Max, are you going to tell me the time, or build a damn clock?” Emails and written communications (e.g. draft text for an RFP) can even seem down right rude to the initiated. If I had a dollar for every engineer authored email reply that started with “Anyone with a brain can see that …”

Learning UNIX was easy, but …

Learning UNIX and creating content from code remarkably like XML on our turnkey publishing systems was the easy part. When our engineers gathered together, with no civilians in the room, communications changed radically. Although I was clearly a “civilian”, I soon became a familiar fixture and the pack of developers reverted to their “native tongue”. Since sales support and marketing people live or die by painting word pictures to propel a message, the “disconnect” can be pretty awesome. It’s kind of like watching Marcel Proust trying to communicate with the masters of Haiku.

I was left to my own devices to decipher what was worth carrying back to the outside world. Over time, I found some techniques that actually worked. People who are gifted at handling three streams of conscious thought while writing or debugging code have to be a different breed by nature. And one of the things that nature didn’t give them was that hackneyed resume phrase: “excellent written and oral communications skills.” At least not for mere mortals.

Actually, engineers and developers do communicate quite effectively amongst people who live and die by the same “code.” But their limited access to customer site drama and sales dynamics can inhibit their “outside world” communication skills. If you find yourself in my situation, acting as the translator/liaison between your developers and the rest of the world, here are the rules for capturing critical data when there are no engineering release notes, and “getting out alive”:

  • Understand why they are the way they are: you may be dealing with someone who appears bright, refreshed and ready to face a new day. You may not have noticed that he is wearing the same clothes from yesterday, he just put in 22 hours of solid bug fixes, and hasn’t eaten anything for 11 hours. What kind of mood would you be in under work conditions like that?
  • Get over it: never, ever take anything said to you by an engineer personally. If engineers seem downright rude, (“are you just stupid, Man?”) they probably have no idea that they are perceived that way. They communicate with each other this way, and time is of the essence. In their world there isn’t time for the diplomacy part of their brains to go active when addressing non-engineers.
  • It’s their way or the highway: realize up front that you will need far more patience with the developers or engineers than they will ever have with you. In that sense, it will always be a one-way relationship. The engineer may want a 7 second question from you, yet take 45 minutes to describe something that should take 10 minutes. Don’t bring this behavior to their attention. Hang on every word and keep questions to a minimum.
  • Pretend your watching an Opera: most of us aren’t fluent in Italian and don’t really follow an Opera’s libretto word for word. If we’re familiar with the story, the performer’s intent comes across. Engineers can be highly elliptical in their explanations: many of them seem incapable of committing to a solid conclusion. “We need further testing.” Even if you have to endure a 90 minute “drama” regarding how/why it may take two or six weeks to complete some development, just try to capture the  “big picture”. You can always go back for details later. As we all know, regarding software release cycles, it truly isn’t over until the fat lady sings.
  • Come bearing gifts: be creative in discovering a way to earn the respect of engineers. You aren’t going to do it through writing code or being “one of them.” You have to find something to offer that they value. It may be a clever benchmark or Captivate demo showcasing their creation. Or, you may be able to share highly prized business intelligence on the competition. Before blogs were thought of, I created an email list with select engineers (with their director’s approval) and fired off a weekly “what’s hot” from the field emails. With one SW company I went “cute” and labeled these missives “FAX from the Max.” (Are any of these ancient messages in the Boston Computer museum?) The engineers loved it: (a) they were getting unfiltered feedback from the field, (b) they knew who the potential big fish were, and fashioned appropriate hooks to land new targets and (c) it was also an interactive process, in that replies from engineers were instantly woven (after translation) into my revised sales pitch. It became an iterative process that “snow balled” into proof of concept tests for new industries our company wanted to penetrate. Anything that stuck to the wall was disseminated to the field to replicate a new sales/engineering team strategy.
  • The way to an engineer’s heart is through his stomach: shamelessly bribe them with food. Jane Goodall used bananas to draw chimps into the clearing. Draw  your developers from their cubes with a box of Krispy-Kremes or several boxes of favorite-maker pizzas. This will go a long way towards stamping “value” on your non-tech forehead and buying more time in their presence. In some business situations, a couple of cocktails will loosen tongues. With engineers, a group feeding frenzy can often turn into a productive brain storm and a “Jane Goodall” moment for you to discover something new and brilliant about forthcoming product features.
  • Blow their horn: help give individual developers deserved visibility within the rest of the company. Engineers often rightly feel that they are isolated and ignored. Who else is there at 2 AM? Letting sales and marketing occasionally know that so-and-so had a real break through in a feature that will make next year’s numbers can lead to a reprogrammed employee I.D. pass for you that unlocks a few more doors. (Caution: if you start eating only pizza and don’t remember what the sun looks like, you’ve gone too far, and need to go back to civilization for awhile.)
  • Acting skills can help: learn to listen to developers and keep a straight face no matter how far out or ridiculous their suggestions for a proposed user interface may seem. (Baby boomers, imitate Dr. Joyce Brothers; younger team members, imitate your favorite “serious” sports commentator who knits his eyebrows, pauses, and looks concerned). If the Code Klan throws out something really wacky, don’t laugh until you get to the other end of the parking lot. Remember, these guys are used to handling tools and editors that make ordinary people feel like they just got off of a roller coaster. An engineer’s pain thresh hold will always be higher than yours. These guys probably get fillings replaced with no Novocain!
  • Haste makes waste: sleep on it. Never fire off a multi-recipient email or an internal blog about your latest findings from the Clan of the Code Creators in haste. If possible, wait overnight before reviewing your commentaries “through the eyes of an engineer.” Then send it off for internal distribution. The more brilliant your developers are the more easily insulted or alienated they may be from a perceived slight. On an emotional level, the richest fruit doesn’t always hang from the strongest branch.

Improved habitat doesn’t lead to better communications

Thanks to the proliferation of social networking tools, various herds and tribes of engineers can find and connect with one another, and feel less isolated today. But it hasn’t done much to improve their communications skills. If you don’t believe me, have your favorite engineer write part of a response to an RFP and anticipate how the customer may react to some of the tone. Of bring a couple of engineers along at your next face-to-face customer meeting, when you expect to close a sale! “Hey, did you know that you can pull together a solution for free using Open Source Tool kits that you can download for free?” (I actually had an engineer say that to a customer in a trade show booth once.) Somehow, the connection between sales and salaries/bonuses hasn’t sunk in for much of this tribe.

The better the product, the higher the risk

Ironically, in small, pre-IPO companies that are heavily populated with developers or staff with technical degrees, there is a high degree of risk: being hypnotized by your own creation. If everyone in headquarters is beyond average intelligence to the point that “next generation” tools seem normal, there is a risk of not reaching the IT equivalent of “Joe the Plumber.”

In the movie Lover Come BackDoris Day played a high-power stakes Madison Avenue Ad executive. Holding a garish Ad mock up , she wisely observed, “Leonard, we have to sell this product to ordinary, average every day people.” Her creative Director rolls his eyes and quips, “oh yes, Them!” Thus, there will always be a need for some internal “translation” between an engineer’s brilliant intent and the human-readable message that finally makes it to the outside world.

If our developers weren’t as brilliant as they are, the products they produce wouldn’t be worth selling. If our sales people had to decipher the first draft of product functionality into customer-ready language, they’d have to stop selling. And if traditional marketing people were familiar enough with the product or application to do this translation, a “Jane Goodall” liaison wouldn’t be needed.

Another group to translate for

So there will nearly always be somebody in between, that hybrid “liaison” person, well versed in the application, who carries forth nuggets of wisdom from the Code Cave into the light of day. Once your hybrid/liaison person translates the nuggets into usable feature/benefits, your brilliant creation can be sold in understandable terms. As we all know, customers and purchasing agents are not always the “sharpest knives in the drawer.” And that can lead to yet another level of English to English translation, and a blog longer than this one!

Life in Life Sciences

During my current job search I’ve taken a fairly extensive poll from all of my contacts to see how they are faring in our current, troubled economy. I found that my friends who feel that they are experiencing the greatest job security work heavily in Life Sciences. This is true even w/in the translation / localization community. No one knows whether we can credit this to an aging population more dependent on health care products, or long product cycles, in which projects were funded before the economic crises. Regardless of the cause, Life Sciences is a good place to be these days.

Do you have to be a chemist or scientist?

Life Sciences encompasses pharmaceutical, medical instrumentation and host of other health related products. Although the highest visibility positions are for people with a hard core scientific background, there are many opportunities for content creators in this field. Life Sciences lives and dies based on the effective exchange of information. And that is what content creation and management is all about. Furthermore, Life Science products from North America are deriving more revenue from overseas markets than in recent years. So this is an extremely important sector to translation vendors.

Issues specific to Life Sciences content

In revisiting my own CV credentials, I discovered that I have far more Life Sciences experience than I realized. When working for any vendor (translation or otherwise) you have many clients from many industries. But for the better part of 8 long years, nearly all of my work focused on typical Life Sciences content, like IFUs (Instructions for Use), Chemistries, MMs (Maintenance Manuals) and OPS (Operations Manuals.) These documents each have unique requirements, and also special challenges in translation and localization. A series of “best practices” (to be covered in a later blog) can ensure that content in such publications is flexible, portable, and reusable.

In addition, I designed and fixed templates in a variety of formats for labels. Labels are a common challenge because (a) they must fold down to a small size (look at the label in your contact lens solution), (b) be readable (hopefully w/o a magnifying glass) and (c) often repeat information in over a dozen languages! Certain languages (like German, Russian and Greek) are very prone to text “expansion” … in other words, the same information will take up more lines of text (and vertical space) than the English source materials.

Trends towards more flexible Life Sciences content

Gradually, most of the content in Life Sciences is moving over to topic based authoring through DITA. (See Wikipedia overview.) By authoring content as topics or reusable chunks, Life Sciences customers are able to reuse content more effectively, and assemble alternate versions of documents for similar products.

Worth investigating

If you are involved in writing, content management, XML/DITA, image design or similar fields, you may want to examine opportunities within Life Sciences. For now, in this troubled economy, there seems to be a lot more “life” there than in other industries and sectors. And there are no signs of these opportunities fading any time soon.