Saturday, January 29, 2005

What's a Ballast Cover?

Remove fixture; place the lens and ballast cover off to the side. If required remove appropriate knockout(s) for power supply entry.

I should have been playing War of the Ring, but instead I spent three hours installing a light fixture. All in all, I'm pretty impressed with the design of this fixture. For one thing, I don't have to fiddle around with screws and bolts to get inside the thing. So why did I spend an hour fiddling with screws and bolts? Because the manual sucks. Probably every electrician in the world knows what a "ballast cover" is, but I still haven't the faintest. I guess it's the part that snaps away from the housing when you apply pressure near the notches. Now if only the manual had included a sentence like "apply pressure at the notches to remove the ballast cover from the housing."

American Fluorescent Corporation, regular shmos like me are buying your product. We're driving down to Loews on a Sunday. We aren't electricians. Please write your manual so we can understand it!

Friday, January 28, 2005

Your Product is a Conversation

Here's what I've been reading lately: Cluetrain and Hughtrain. Cluetrain is an insane rant which nevertheless manages to sneak in some real wisdom. Hughtrain is an insane rant that's nevertheless quite entertaining and contains funny pictures and has potty words.

The insight here is that the Internet is turning markets into conversations. My first question, as a tech writer, is "where does documentation come into the conversation?" And the answer as it turns out is four posts down. Documentation is what extends your product into the conversation.

Think about it this way: at what point does your customer enter into the product conversation? For a lot of them it's the first time that something's broken: they need to go to your web site to get a driver, or they search a message board to resolve and issue. For other customers it's before they buy. It's when a user goes to epinions to read a review; it's when a big company does an evaluation and a pilot. It might be in the greater context of a solution offering, which is really a conversation about how to solve a problem.

What does this mean for the tech writer? It means that the documentation is part of the user experience, and should be treated as such. Every manual, whitepaper, and UA doc you write is going to be someone's first conversation with your product. I have to admit I find that thought humbling, but also invigorating.

What Keeps me up at Night?

The question that keeps me awake at night is "what is my value proposition?" Yeah, I'm lying away pondering what is essentially a marketing question. How far the mighty (proud) have fallen.

When you're working a good job for good pay, you can take your own value as a given. When you have to go out and explain it to someone, and expect them to part with their money, it is not. Today I am grappling with the question: "why should I hire you when I can get a Technical Writer II from the staffing agency on the cheap?"

"Because I'm a better writer" isn't a good enough answer, and "because I'm prepared to sell out" isn't a good enough answer. The answer might be "because I can be passionate about the technology, and because I can be right."

In other news, I may have some contract work coming in to help pay the bills, huzzah!

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Org Chart

I didn't carry many things out of my office (cube) when they laid me off. One of the things I did rescue were my postit cartoons. I've been drawing these for years. My cube was packed with them. I'd been meaning to bring them home and scan them for the blog. This one is, I suppose, the perfect one to begin with.

Groping My Way

I ran across the following sentence in a job posting today: "The ideal candidate for this position is an editor who is eager to create a world-class documentation system that is an essential part of its associated product line, not merely a bunch of auxiliary text in which semicolons are used properly." (emphasis mine) The pretty much sums up what I've been thinking about (nay, obsessing about) for the last two weeks.

Time was, all that was required to be successful as a writer in the tech world was the ability to write credible prose, and a mildly competent interest in the technology. Customers were thrilled to encounter a writer who could actually discuss and understand the technology they were writing about. No more. Nowadays the writer who can't offer something beyond the usual is fodder for the staffing agencies.

This has always been my way of approaching documentation, I just didn't know it. Documentation is how your product talks to the customer. Eventually, every customer is going to want that conversation. Eventually, every product is going to be a conversation.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Blog Business Summit

What if they gave a Blog Business Summit and I was so busy playing online games that I didn't even know about it until the day after it was over, and it was in my home town?

I'd be cryin', that's what. The lesson is, keep up with the world, it keeps changin'.

Sunday, January 02, 2005


Microsoft has a bad habit of bundling, then scrapping image tools for Office, which always leaves me at a loss for a decent image tool. I inevitably end up using 3-4 different tools to do anything: 1 for scanning, 1 for editing, 1 for cropping and resizing (most do a lousy job of it), another for saving to the format I want.

Enter Paint.NET. It's got all the features I need (plus layers and some others), and it's FREE.

Webcasts and the Tech Writer

I realized the other day what a great job Microsoft is doing of tapping the passion of its employees. I realized this while I was looking for some information about Live Communication Server, and I realized there was a live webcast in just 10 minutes.

As a tech writer, I don't like writing Web casts. I've written just about every other kind of content with relish. Whitepapers? Love 'em. Training? Any day. It's not that I'm intimidated by the level of technical knowledge required. In the past I've made myself into an expert on a product very rapidly if I've had to. It's that Webcasts, like blogging, require a certain kind of engagement with the technology.