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John Garison
STC Associate Fellow and
Lead Technical Communicator, Medidata Solutions
Let’s start at the very
beginning …
 How important is education?
 English and Philosophy major - the perfect
training fo...
So, who am I to talk about this?
This session is not about me per se, I’m just using myself as
an example to illustrate th...
What have I worked on?
 Financial databases (IDC)
 Operating systems & programming languages (DEC)
 Accounting systems ...
What jobs have I had?
 Writer, Sr. Writer, Principal Writer
 Course developer and trainer
 Supervisor, Documentation Ma...
OK, so I’ve done a lot of stuff …
 Why?
 Like many of you, I’m curious and easily bored
 New opportunities present them...
Change is a Constant
 Adapt or perish! Stagnancy is death!
 Tech writing is not dead or dying … just
continuing to chang...
One thing hasn’t changed
 I still explain stuff! (Thanks, Rick!)
 There is and always will be a need for people who can
...
First job: Customer Service rep (IDC)
 Learned what was in the financial databases
 Learned how to use the software app
...
Next: “Technical” writer (DEC)
 Learned and documented several minicomputer operating
systems (RT-8, RT-11, RSX-11M, IAS,...
Next: Not-so-technical writer
(TASC)
 Learned and documented accounting system app
 Learned and documented first generat...
Next: First-level Management
(Wang)
 Learned office and word processing systems
 Learned how closed-mindedness is a liab...
Next: Teaching (Harvard & UMass)
 Remember that “explain how you do what you do
as a writer” thing at TASC?
 Remember th...
Next: Go International! (Fact)
 Remember that “attend user group meetings” thing at
Wang?
 Met the GM of a Wang OEM part...
Next: Consulting (DDI, InterChange,
Help U, and freelancing)
 While looking for a job, got an offer from the headhunting
...
Next: Startups and Doc Manager!
(Keyfile, Ziff-Davis, Centra, IDe)
 Remember that “solo writer to hiring a team” thing fr...
Next: Desperate times and measures
(HP, Black Duck, TeleAtlas, DHMC, MedKaz)
 Working remotely for HP, so I moved to Verm...
Final: Remote Captive (Medidata)
 With previous experience in health care, working
remotely, and system administration, I...
It wasn’t planned; not luck either
So how did it work out so nicely? At every step of the way I learned something I
could ...
Going forward …
 What have you already learned in your career?
 How does this prepare you for your Next Big Thing?
 How...
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Forty Years a Tech Writer: Lessons Learned

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How to prepare for inevitable changes in the technical communications profession

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Forty Years a Tech Writer: Lessons Learned

  1. 1. John Garison STC Associate Fellow and Lead Technical Communicator, Medidata Solutions
  2. 2. Let’s start at the very beginning …  How important is education?  English and Philosophy major - the perfect training for tech comm in a pre-computer world?  Philosophy: How to deal with large, complex behavioral systems  English: How to write good
  3. 3. So, who am I to talk about this? This session is not about me per se, I’m just using myself as an example to illustrate the lessons I learned in order to survive. I believe that these lessons are not unique to me and will help you and others in your careers in a profession that is not dead or dying, merely transmogrifying as it has always been.  Technical communicator since 1974  Almost everything has changed since I started  Lots of experience in different industries  Lots of experience in companies large and small  Lots of experience is different jobs  Lots of experience in different tools and technologies
  4. 4. What have I worked on?  Financial databases (IDC)  Operating systems & programming languages (DEC)  Accounting systems (TASC)  Word processing software and hardware products (Wang)  MRP inventory, process, and manufacturing applications (Fact)  Tech writer contracting agency (DDI/KTI)  Adjunct tech comm certificate program instructor (Harvard, UMass Lowell)  Image management groupware app (Keyfile)  Pre-web online newspaper and magazine publishing network (Ziff-Davis/AT&T)  Web-based classroom simulator app (Centra )  Partner in Training Conference venture (Help University)  CxO-level product portfolio app (IDe)  Enterprise-level Network Management (HP)  Encryption detection and reporting (Black Duck)  Electronic Mapping (TeleAtlas)  Cancer Center web producer and Clinical Informatics Program Manager (DHMC)  Portable Electronic Health Record (Medkaz)  Clinical trials management software (Medidata)
  5. 5. What jobs have I had?  Writer, Sr. Writer, Principal Writer  Course developer and trainer  Supervisor, Documentation Manager (4 times)  Director of Documentation Services  Director of Communications  Project Manager  Web Content Producer  Clinical Informatics Program Manager  Consultant/Contractor/Freelancer  Information Architect  Lead Technical Communicator
  6. 6. OK, so I’ve done a lot of stuff …  Why?  Like many of you, I’m curious and easily bored  New opportunities present themselves  Times, tools, and technology change  Mainframes  Minicomputers PCs Web apps  C-Script  Runoff  Word (DOS)  WinWord  Windows 3.0  Win95  <crap>  Win 7  Win10  Trace templates for screen shots  screen captures  videos  Printed manuals  PDF  Online w/self-serve PDFs  Doc-To-Help  ForeHelp  Dreamweaver  RoboHelp  RoboHTML  WinHelp  Madcap & Flare  FrameMaker  FrameMaker  Confluence and wikis  DITA and XML
  7. 7. Change is a Constant  Adapt or perish! Stagnancy is death!  Tech writing is not dead or dying … just continuing to change  Globe classifieds used to have a special section 50+ pages of high tech job ads … every week! Now … not so much  But there are still opportunities out there
  8. 8. One thing hasn’t changed  I still explain stuff! (Thanks, Rick!)  There is and always will be a need for people who can transfer knowledge from those that have it to those that need it  As writers, we still have to:  Conceptualize  Investigate  Assimilate  Organize  Regurgitate We just have to keep finding new and better ways to do it
  9. 9. First job: Customer Service rep (IDC)  Learned what was in the financial databases  Learned how to use the software app  Learned how to generate reports  Learned how to troubleshoot problems  Learned how to deal with people under stress  When the tech writer left, opportunity knocked  I knew the app  I could write  I had a lot to learn
  10. 10. Next: “Technical” writer (DEC)  Learned and documented several minicomputer operating systems (RT-8, RT-11, RSX-11M, IAS, RSTS/E …)  Learned and documented several program languages and compilers (Assembler, Pascal, Basic …)  Learned how software and computers worked at a very low level  Learned how to get information out of reluctant developers  Learned not to use bad examples  Volunteered to work on style guides and standards  Learned I didn’t like writing for programmers!
  11. 11. Next: Not-so-technical writer (TASC)  Learned and documented accounting system app  Learned and documented first generation of “smart” electrical meters  Volunteered to work on document task force (and got some hands-on time with a Xerox Star system)  Tasked to explain how I did what I did as a writer  Learned I liked writing for real people more than programmers!  Learned that raising my hand got me invaluable exposure to really cool stuff!  Learned that there are unforeseen advantages and disadvantages to some tasks!
  12. 12. Next: First-level Management (Wang)  Learned office and word processing systems  Learned how closed-mindedness is a liability  Learned that cleverness can overcome almost any obstacle  Learned how to hire and motivate a team  Learned how to develop a new project from scratch  Learned that higher-level opportunities exist in areas you think you know intimately  Learned to keep my mouth shut  Learned how to develop, propose, and run a training program  Learned that good relationships with co-workers can be invaluable  Learned that participating in user group meetings is a wonderful learning experience
  13. 13. Next: Teaching (Harvard & UMass)  Remember that “explain how you do what you do as a writer” thing at TASC?  Remember that “get along with co-workers” thing from Wang?  The combination resulted in teaching “CAS-540 – Software Documentation Methodology” at Harvard University Extension School for five years and later on in UMass Lowell certificate program for 10 years  Learned I LOVE to teach
  14. 14. Next: Go International! (Fact)  Remember that “attend user group meetings” thing at Wang?  Met the GM of a Wang OEM partner, got a job offer and moved to New Zealand !  Learned what it was like to be a solo writer for a software company  Remember the “build a team” and “teaching” things? Learned to identify potential in people, train non- writers, and build a cohesive team  Learned what it’s like to be victimized by a global recession  Learned the benefits of planning ahead
  15. 15. Next: Consulting (DDI, InterChange, Help U, and freelancing)  While looking for a job, got an offer from the headhunting company I approached to find me a job  Learned what the consulting business is all about and how it works  Volunteered to work on InterChange  Learned how to think out of the box to find a way to do things I enjoy and add value at the same time  Learned that the grass can be greener on the other side of the fence  Learned never to say no and to be open to other people’s ideas  Learned how to be nimble and think on my feet  Learned tact - how to tell people to go to hell in such a way they looked forward to the trip
  16. 16. Next: Startups and Doc Manager! (Keyfile, Ziff-Davis, Centra, IDe)  Remember that “solo writer to hiring a team” thing from Fact?  Learned about managing … giving teams good work to do, and staying out of their way  Learned that Clarke’s three laws are true  Learned how to work outside my comfort zone  Learned how to wear lots of hats and herd cats  Learned how to be an early adopter and “just do it” on the cutting edge  Learned that what you say in the classroom and what you say in the docs could and should be similar  Learned to trust my instincts and that Ogden Nash was right – turtles only make progress when they stick their necks out  Learned to leave the Titanic before it heads into open ocean
  17. 17. Next: Desperate times and measures (HP, Black Duck, TeleAtlas, DHMC, MedKaz)  Working remotely for HP, so I moved to Vermont; then HP laid off their remote workers  Remember Centra and the HTML help system? Turned that into web producer for DHMC’s cancer center  Remember 2008? It was pretty bad in a rural area  Learned that you never know when or where an opportunity will arise. LinkedIn and Craigslist inquiries turned into short contracts for electronic mapping company, encryption reporting, and a portable EHR  Built on the EHR experience to get a 2-year contract leading a team of MDs configuring a new industrial strength EHR for academic medical center  Learned that no matter where you are and how dismal things seem, you can find a way to turn things in your favor
  18. 18. Final: Remote Captive (Medidata)  With previous experience in health care, working remotely, and system administration, I got hired at Medidata  Had to be in NYC M-Th for a few months while I got acclimated to the people, products, and processes  Approaching retirement age but not ready to retire, I work from home with a few trips to NYC a year  Have gotten verbal approval to move to contracting 3- days a week within a year or so … nice way to segue out of the rat race and become a gentleman farmer
  19. 19. It wasn’t planned; not luck either So how did it work out so nicely? At every step of the way I learned something I could use going forward.  Learned as much as I could about as much as possible  Learned how to parlay something I knew into something I didn’t know  Learned to try to do as many different things as I could  Learned the benefits of volunteering for things  Learned that some sacrifices are worth making  Learned to not burn any bridges (well, not many anyway)  Learned to play nice with others and share my toys  Learned that you can learn more when things don’t work perfectly or at all  Learned to always keep one eye looking ahead  Learned to communicate openly and frequently  Learned to own up to my mistakes (and there were some doozies)  Learned to give credit where credit is due  Learned to be myself in interviews – jobs I don’t want self-select out  Learned to share my knowledge and experience with others  Learned not to take things personally or too seriously
  20. 20. Going forward …  What have you already learned in your career?  How does this prepare you for your Next Big Thing?  How do you see your job changing?  Where will your next opportunity come from?  How do you see the profession changing?  How are you preparing yourself for the inevitable changes?  What lessons will you learn … and pass along? John Garison john@garisons.com

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