Atlanta business communicators group to host panel on blogging

August 24, 2007

Last year our STC chapter worked with our counterparts at the local chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) to host a panel on blogging. It was a great success.

On Tuesday, August 28 (sorry for the short notice!) the Atlanta IABC is holding another program on the same topic with different panelists: “Social Media: It’s new. It’s hip. But will it work for you?”

One of the panelists is Marilynn Mobley for the Edelman PR firm. Marilynn has two blogs: Baby Boomer Insights and Remain Relevant in Changing Times.

IABC’s meetings are held at Maggiano’s in Buckhead. Your registration fee includes lunch.  

I will be conducting training at work that day and can’t attend. If any of you Atlanta STCers are able to go, please let them know that you are from the STC and you heard about it here!

Speaking of blogging, I wanted to point you to a couple of McKinsey reports on the subject of how Web 2.0 collaboration tools are being accepted in the workplace. In March, they published a survey on how businesses are using Web 2.0. This week, another report came out on “How companies can make the most of user-generated content.”

Tuesday evening is our STC Happy Hour in Norcross at Paizano’s from 6 to 7 pm.

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Are developers lazy?

August 22, 2007

At tonight’s STC chapter meeting, we had a “showdown” of sorts between the sometimes conflicting forces on a software development team. Robert (our chapter program manager) assembled a panel of 5: a business analyst turned product manager, another product manager, a QA/documentation manager, a project manager, and a development team manager. The panel took up the commonly debated questions of who is to blame for setbacks, defects, and failures in software development and then examined the role that the technical communicator can play in that meelee.

This was a great format for a chapter program because we all have confronted these questions in one way or another.

Robert interviewed the panelists ahead of time to get their thoughts on conflicts and tensions in development teams. Then he (diplomatically) threw their statements back at them in the midst of the panel discussion.

Notice that all of the speakers were in management. It would have been good to have a few guys from the trenches to take on the accusations and recriminations. “Are developers lazy?” is one that I would like to have seen fielded by a real developer, not a manager.

The panel had nothing but nice things to say about technical communicators. This is not the real world. I would have preferred to hear someone with a few bones to pick with us. While the best of us can provide real value on a development team, some of us (and sadly, you don’t know who you are) can be Tina-like in our behavior, driving everyone batty.

One point everyone agreed on was the importance of communication in teams. They weren’t primarily speaking of written communication either. It was people skills. This is the point I want to leave you with. Cultivate your people skills. If you are good at interacting with different types of people, you might take that for granted. But it is a rare and valued ability.


The man who communicated with technology

August 20, 2007

Joybubbles, died in Minneapolis on August 8. He was a sui generis technical communicator.

In 1957, Joybubbles (born Joe Engressia) found that he could communicate with the phone system, the only large, complex computer system readily accessible to the public at that time. He did this by whistling at the same pitch as a specific signal the phone system used. Yes, he was an early hacker, known in those days as a phone phreak. Here’s a link to a video about him. Younger generations of hackers and geeks revered him.

As you might guess, his special talent for making hundreds of illegal long distance calls eventually led to his arrest. An article in Esquire magazine in 1971 tells the story. But he didn’t do it for the money; he just loved the phone company and dreamed of working for them.

Reading Joybubbles’ story reminded me of Three Days of the Condor, a spy thriller where The Phone Company (TPC) turns out to be the omnipotent Big Brother.


Volunteers needed

August 7, 2007

The Atlanta STC Chapter is looking for volunteers to help with setup and cleanup at chapter programs. Since we are no longer holding events at the Marriott, we don’t have a paid staff to make the room presentable and clear away our leftovers at the end of the evening.

We’d like to have a small committee work on this so that it doesn’t fall on one person’s shoulders. If you are able to help, speak with me or Al or send us an e-mail. You don’t have to commit to attending every meeting.


User experience: The Durango and the buffalo farmer

August 6, 2007

For our trip to the Black Hills, I rented a Chrysler Durango at the airport to navigate the rugged terrain and back roads. It was too big, too expensive, and halfway through the trip, the driver’s side window refused to close, making for a windy, dusty drive.

It was only when we drove to the top of the really high peaks that I appreciated the sturdy SUV. When Dad warned us about the bad roads up to Cement Ridge, the northern most fire lookout post, I told Steve, “Let’s head up there and see what the Durango can do!” We made it to the top easily and the view was breathtaking! Cement Ridge lookout
Here’s a picture of the lookout tower.
From that peak you can look east to the South Dakota prairie, and west to the Little Big Horns.
We chatted with the young fire ranger, who was writing a book about his two years at a wilderness post in Montana. Some other rangers were signaling him with a mirror from a ridge 50 miles away. We marveled that a simple tool produced an unmistakable flash allowing the ranger to pinpoint their location.

Later that day, I invited my parents and nephew to join us on a trip to Custer Peak, just south of Lead and Deadwood. It was about 4 pm when we set off and my dad, who has thin blood and gets chilly when it drops below 75, lamented that we hadn’t brought jackets or sweatshirts along. I said, “Don’t worry, we’ll be back before the heat of the day wears off.”

Custer Peak Road cuts off of US385 and meanders pleasantly through campgrounds and meadows until just below the actual peak when you really start to climb. Despite the dust coming in my open window, I was grateful to be in the Durango and noted that our ascent up the rocky slope would make good footage for a Chrysler TV ad. The road was pitted and washed out. Just one narrow lane the whole way up and a steep drop on our left. In parts the roadbed was exposed limestone with loose jagged rocks.

Just before the summit I heard a hissing noise. Steve and my nephew Max reassured me that it was just some brush caught in the wheel well. But when I brought the vehicle to a stop, the noise didn’t stop. I hopped out and my heart sank to see the front right tire deflating rapidly.

It’s important to remain calm in these situations, but my heart was pounding as I pictured us huddled on the mountain top for hours waiting to be rescued, my dad turning blue from the cold. We called Hertz’s emergency roadside service as well as AAA. Then we set about locating the spare and preparing to change the tire. Max and Steve were up for the challenge despite their membership in the Men Who Don’t Know Much About Cars Club.

Since we were unsure how to release the spare, which was hanging under the back end of the car, we consulted the owner’s manual.

How to find information in a 475-page booklet? Use the index. “Spare tire” had two citations, but neither mentioned how to release the frigging thing to actually change the tire!

Fortunately, a man and wife had followed us up the peak in their four-wheel ATV and offered to help. He was a buffalo farmer from Alberta and approached the situation with a thoughtful mien and a can-do attitude. This inspired confidence in Max and Steve. He also knew where to find the tools to release the spare. And we finally found the information in the manual under “Jack location.”

Steve and Max finished the job in no time. We were saved! Steve called off the emergency services, Mom and Dad climbed up to the fire lookout to enjoy the view, Max blew the seeds off a giant dandelion, and I gave a sigh of relief.

On the way down, while I was praying silently that we would not get another flat, everyone else assessed the experience and found Chrysler wanting. Max pointed out that the most common repair owners make to their car is changing a tire. And it usually happens under stressful circumstances where you shouldn’t have to search through a manual. Why not put a simple set of instructions in a logical location, like the rear interior of the vehicle? Why make the driver search? Or how about a quick reference card in the glove box with easy-to-read steps for changing a flat?

The importance of understanding the user experience was again confirmed.


You can lead them to technical communication, but you can’t make them think . . . or act to prevent injury and death

August 2, 2007

When I was in school at the University of Minnesota, I frequently used the 35W bridge that collapsed yesterday evening.

All of my immediate family lives in Minneapolis, and I panicked when I could not reach my mom by phone last night. It turned out that she was calling me at the same time to assure me that everyone in the family was safe and accounted for. But my dad had an appointment in that part of town at 7 pm last night and had been planning to take a route that traveled over that bridge. Close call.

Several people are dead and 20 or 30 more may still be trapped in cars in the debris. The pictures are chilling.

Now it turns out that the Minnesota Dept. of Transportation issued a report citing structural deficiences with the bridge as early as 2001. The warnings were apparently ignored.

According to CNN:

Bridge deficiencies are summarized as “structurally deficient” and “functionally obsolete,” according to the Federal Highway Administration. 

A bridge is tagged structurally deficient when significant bridge elements have deteriorated and the bridge’s load-carrying capacity is reduced . . . .

A bridge is dubbed functionally obsolete when the bridge does not meet current design standards.

Neither label indicates a bridge is unsafe for travel.

“Structurally deficient,” “functionally obsolete.” Are these just words that allow bureaucrats and politicians to file reports and forget about them? Clearly this tragedy could have been prevented.


STC Academic-Industry Leaders Summit?

August 2, 2007

I’ve seen references to the “STC Academic-Industry Leaders Summit” coming up in Houston, but I can’t find any information on it at the STC’s site or Google.

Is this event by invitation only?