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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When all else fails, use candles

One Autumn when heading to the season close of the  Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon,  I arrived a day early in the midst of a strong electric storm. I decided to attend a near by, “local” theatre to see a musical version of  Tale of Two Cities in a very small, initmate theatre.

Near the end of the first Act, the power went out (for hours) and the actors had to think quickly on their feet. They decided to continue the performance by candle light. The cast or director could easily have decided to cancel the performance and give the audience a refund. Instead, the company decided to just “go with it,” and the results were astonishing.

Since the production was set in the 18th Century, the theatre company happened to have an abundance of working candelabra, so “alternate” lighting was available. With real crashing thunder and lightning for sound effects, the audience had a very memorable night of theatre. Not only did the “realistic” lighting give more edge to the acting, but the actors had to improvise blocking to stay “in frame” (or in candle’s glow) and also not set one another on fire. The actors were on edge (they could no longer see the audience, beyond the candle’s glow) and each member of the cast took on a raw vocal quality that went perfectly with a story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.

Ironically, the “black out” portion of this play led to a “musical” with no music. The cast had been using recorded music as background to their singing. Now, with no source of power, other than wax candles and vocal chords, each actor had to sing “unplugged”.  Again, there was a raw, haunting quality that gave the lyrics far more impact than in a normal production. The first song sung sans music, was delivered by “Madame deFarge“, harshly lit by one candle directly in front of her face. The lyrics cut like a knife, when delivered without music:

Now is the time to act not alone,
Now is the time to take what we own,
Now is the time to cut to the bone! 

The audience was transfixed. Partly because no one knew what would happen next. Would the lights go back on?We were literally on the edge of our seats. Each lyric and line seemed pregnant with meaning. I got so caught up in this unique production that I forgot how the story ended, although I had read Dickens’ novel at least twice and had seen the 1930s movie 3 or 4 times.

At the end of the production, half the audience stayed to chat with the actors and try to convince them to do all future productions by candle power only. (I have no idea whether Ashland fire laws allowed this.)

This unique night of theatre taught me something that I’ve never forgotten. When a seeming catastrophe happens (e.g. you arrive at a trade show and there is no software, or someone sent you the wrong computer), just “go with it.” Don’t cancel your performance. Give your customers and audience whatever you have to offer, even if you feel like you are performing “naked,” without your familiar props and support systems. Sometimes you actually build a stronger connection with your audience or customers because you have to “make up” your narrative as you go along and your familiar script is no longer available.

Not long after my theatrical inspiration,  I had 5 minutes notice to step in and deliver a substitute presentation to a major potential customer during flu season. My sick co-worker had the PowerPoint presentation at home with him! So, I had to engage my audience for 2 hours with nothing but a white board and 3 colors of dry/erase markers. I connected with the prospects as well as Madame deFarge had with her candles, and we actually closed the sale!

In the midst of a catastrophic economy, when you think you’ve lost the essential tools you need to “go on with the show,” don’t hide in the shadows. Take whatever “candles” you can get your hands on,  go out on stage and share whatever you’ve got.  When you have to perform “unplugged”, with no lights, no sound system, and none of the other tools you thought were essential, you are forced to fall back on just raw talent and work with what you have.

You might be surprised by the results, and your “audience” (or potential employers) may be pleasantly suprised also. During a recession, thunder and lightning can be terrifying, but they also make really great sound effects when you have nothing else to work with.

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.