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From Contract to Permanent

my transition from contractor to perm

In 2004, while staring at redundancy for the third time, I accepted a six-month contract with BT to fill a potential gap until a permanent role emerged. A former colleague told me that contracting can be a long-term career choice. However, transitioning from a contract to a permanent position can be challenging. He offered various reasons, but I went ahead; I couldn’t afford to be out of work.

trnsition from contract to perm

My first two contracts were with BT in London and their HQ in Ipswich. Then came T-Mobile (now EE), NTTE, and Capita. Before I knew it, five years had gone by, and recruitment agents were calling with contract and permanent jobs. 

However, some agents were reluctant to forward a contractor to a client wanting a permanent technical author. Recruitment agents had stories of contractors accepting a permanent role and quitting after a month (or a week) to return to the contract market. Yet, while I interviewed for several permanent positions, none matched what I wanted.

So, every year, I hopped from one contact to another on multiple tasks, occasionally meeting TAs with stories on workplace experiences; we all understood each other and provided a laugh. 

Note: To be a technical author, you need a sense of humour and a sharp wit.

However, I never got to grips with the gaps between contracts. While the money was above average, allowing me to pay myself an inconsistent amount every month. During the 2008 financial crisis, my earnings dropped by a massive 33%, not helped by a four-month contract gap. During that period, Blackberry offered me a permanent role. Unfortunately, I didn’t stay long because of an overzealous  Canadian-based micro-management team leader. So desperate to make her mark, she called me when she arrived at her office in Waterloo, Ontario. She said during one call I must learn to manage my stress. Yet, she caused me stress by constantly interfering and telling me how to do my job—her two years of experience against my 13 years.

Yet, look on the bright side: with more contracts under my belt, I developed more skills: 

  • SharePoint (Document Management)
  • Confluence
  • Help Desk support, transition from contractor to perm
  • policy & process writing, 
  • VISIO process flows
  • ITIL (incident and change management), 
  • ITSM. 
  • PCI/DSS, 
  • ISO 27001 Audits and 
  • operations manuals for data centre migrations and
  • project management

Goodbye to software environments and hello to the broader world of technical authoring. Not only did I widen my experience, but I also travelled to Pune in India, Germany, Belgium, and Canada. 

I have started but cannot finish.

The cost of Technical and Process documentation
The cost of Technical and process documentation

A common trend with contracts is poor budget allocation. In one PCI/DSS project, I worked with two technical authors on a 10-week assignment. When we arrived, the PM had used most of the budget to prepare for an audit, which involved hiring an expensive external consultant with high fees.

We needed to prepare the groundwork, identify SMEs, and divide the sixty titles between us. After five weeks, we began talking to SMEs and writing the documents. But the task was beyond our efforts—too much to do and insufficient time. While the company in question went bust during the pandemic, it had nothing to do with the project. 

Hiring managers and project managers often struggle with the dynamics of documentation projects. Many project managers assume documentation to be a straightforward task. It rarely works out that way.

On my journey to a permanent role, the points below formed the basis of my decision. If you are a contractor considering a change towards a permanent position, consider what you could offer as a permanent employee.

  • I could concentrate on doing what I’m good at rather than spending gaps and seeking new freelance jobs.
  • Working as a freelancer has allowed me to improve my flexibility and adapt to new situations. Technical authors MUST know the meaning of flexibility and the ability to work alone or in a team. 
  • I respond to many people, environments, and attitudes. This experience makes it easy for me to work well with different management styles and personalities.
  • Can they manage me? Even as a freelancer, my remit is contributing to a team. And as a freelancer, I have always been “managed…” by my clients.
  • How would you benefit our clients? If you want me to get involved with client contact, I can help with their needs with knowledge and experience and offer documentation solutions. 

We are also

    • I am confident our considerable Skillset will shine through.
    • Understand issues and be ready to hit them head-on. 
    • experience of multiple environments
    • recognition of common problems
    • Understanding of project needs
    • broad experience
    • Renewed enjoyment of teamwork

What are you thinking? 

Maybe you are thinking, how can I shift from contract to perm and take a sharp hit in my pocket? As a contractor, my earnings fluctuated, with no consistent monthly payments due to:

  • The time between contracts (a few weeks to a couple of months). 
  • Increasing administration and overheads through my limited company. 
    • unemployment insurance (£150 per month to cover me in case of an injury or debilitating illness),
    • personal and public liability insurance (£10m in value £160 p/a), 
    • private medical for quick treatment (£1200 p/a)
    • accounting fees (£1200+ p/a)
    • Travel costs were deductible; 
      • Car mileage
      • Air Fares between Brussels and Gatwick
      • Hotels and meals while working away from home in the UK
    • Increased Taxation on Dividends
    • The Government fails to grasp that we risk takers don’t have holiday pay, sickness benefits, or company benefits.

Pre-pandemic, I received about five calls a week from agents checking my availability for work. Meanwhile, I maintained a growing Excel spreadsheet of calls listing potential clients and reinvented my CV every six months.

During the pandemic in 2020, I was out of work from March to October. My company accounts for 2020 saw a £5000 loss and a £3000 loss in 2021.

In April 2021, to circumvent IR35, I joined an umbrella organisation.

Post-pandemic, IR35 played havoc with the contract market and caused an enormous drop in calls from recruitment agents. 

Here's a fun fact. In eighteen years as a contractor, I worked at 45 different companies. That doesn't include about ten companies where I walked away after a few days to avoid a disaster in the making.

Why did I walk?

The hiring manager sold me a dud while management expectations were unrealistic..

Between 2004 to 2021 over 300 hiring managers received my CV and more than half interviewed me.

The last journey

In 2021/22, after I completed a long-term contract project, I focused on finding a permanent role. Most calls were for permanent work. The HR department of a County Durham-based bank (my home county) offered me an interview. However, HR rejected me because of my contracting background. So, if you are reading this, take note. I am now a permie, see what you missed. 

transition from contracting to perm

While I had three more interviews, the sticking point was the salary. A business owner, one lady, called after finding my CV online and offered me a perm role paying £35K after a five-minute discussion.

And Finally…

So, when I read the Atkins job description, I thought, let’s give it a go, with nothing to lose. During the interview, the interviewer asked the inevitable question. I refer the reader to the first three paragraphs of this post. 

After quitting the contract market, I am no worse off when considering my salary and the benefits I receive. I no longer worry about tax bills, dividend taxes, accounting fees, and various insurances costing a fortune. A permanent role has worked for me and might work for you. Never say never.

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Technical Authors what we are and what we are not

Don’t let the title of Technical Author fool you. Regardless of your opinion, do not underestimate us. We have the potential to offer unexpected help in more ways than one. Allow me to dispel the myth regarding our identity.

What I or WE are NOT

Software Developer

If I had proficiency in BASIC, C/C++, Java, et cetera, I would earn significantly more as a developer. I receive calls for API documentation, a skill requiring familiarity with the code.

Project Manager

I will be careful here. I am not a project manager certified through Prince2, Agile Scrum, etc. My PM skills apply to technical documentation, whereby I set my schedule and arrange meetings with SMEs and other stakeholders. 

Beyond documentation, my PM skills do not stretch to:

      • The provision of detailed project planning, including progress evaluation, risk management, issue and resolution. If that is essential, hire a full-time project manager.
      • A secretary organising the working lives of colleagues and taking minutes. I record my meetings (with a dictaphone) and extract the relevant information for the documents.

Technical authoring is lengthy, and additional expectations could delay my progress. It’s time to open the heads of SMEs to extract all that hidden information. I then use it to build a document explaining to your non-technical audience how it works.

While I will be familiar with the terminology, remember I am not an expert in your department. I learn on the job. 

I am skilled in facilitating communication and collaboration through effective verbal and written communication. I provide support and encouragement to help achieve goals, and the process is not as daunting as it may seem.

I’m a third party.

As an external consultant, I decided, after a period of reflection on your situation and expectations, to use MoSCoW. That stands for four different categories of initiatives: 

      • must-haves, 
      • should-haves, 
      • could-haves, and 
      • will not have. 

The “W”, should you prefer, can mean wishful thinking

Let me have it.

When I join, please throw your documentation at me, everything, wherever it is, and let me sift through it all. I have my own Excel spreadsheets to track and control the documentation.

Define how to manage documents/content with SharePoint and Confluence. 

The efficient management of both applications improves the information available to your teams.

By now, I know where the knowledge gaps are where I can improve the documents and start working with your SMEs. 

Project Management 

As mentioned above, I possess the relevant skills within the context of a technical author. 

      • Design new template
      • Improve the structure of existing documents
      • Process documentation across several categories,
      • Arrange meetings with SME’s,
      • I use tried and tested methods to plan, write, review, publish, and maintain the content.
      • Write/update the documents.
      • Procedures and processes updates,

An aid to content development

With over 23 years of experience behind me, I already own an extensive library of generic documentation and various templates. If you have no documentation, we can tweak any document to meet your business profile. It saves not only time but also money. 

ITIL and ITSM

I have experience in producing the following document types: 

      • IT Service Management (ITSM) based on ITIL best practices. Level 1 to 4 BPMN VISIO Processes and Narratives.
      • Service Design, Service Transition, Service Operation and Continual Service Improvement,
      • Delivery and Service Support, 
      • Availability, 
      • Capacity, 
      • IT Service Continuity Management; 
      • Incident, 
      • Problem, 
      • Change, 
      • Release, 
      • Configuration Management and 
      • Service Desk.

Policy and Process

      • Delivering written Policy, Process & Standards
      • ISO27001/9001 compliance documentation to support a company’s GDPRPCI/DSSsecurity project
      • Documentation to support a disaster recovery scenario

Infrastructure Documents

      • Operating infrastructure documentation to support the functions of a large-scale network
      • A documentation suite to help IT teams manage a recently migrated infrastructure.

Editing Existing Content

Enhancements may include: 

      • adding VISIO drawings,
      • new screenshots,
      • reword policies and content per se,
      • additional narrative to processes that are light on information,
      • new templates, and
      • Structure to existing Word documents and consistency. 

All information needs a peer review by people who should know the data best and provide feedback. I leave nothing to chance to get what you need in place. 

Tools

Apart from spreadsheets, MS Word, PowerPoint, and VISIO, my skills keep these projects on track. I will also suggest ways in which you can keep the documentation up-to-date and current. Information is an asset, and without it, you could place the business at a disadvantage.

SharePoint and Confluence

Suppose you have no official documentation strategy or a way to manage the documentation. If so, let me create a plan that will work for you. Documentation must be available to all staff and updated, rewritten, and archived appropriately. Ownership, version control, and historical control are other aspects that need managing.

If the business uses Confluence, my experience on a client site is an overload of outdated content irrelevant to the company. I can analyse all spaces and check when the content was written and submitted. 

Expectations

There are too many to mention, but the immediate impact will be on the following three points:

      • Reduced costs
      • more responsive help desk/support 
      • better informed staff
      • Confidence in performing procedures.
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Get a head start

Templates with generic content

Do you have a documentation project lurking in the background and you are yet to get to grips with the detail? I have available many templates which contain generic policies, processes, and standards content relating to the following documentation:

      • PCI/DSS
      • ISO27001
      • ITIL
      • ITSM

If you are embarking on a project for any of the above from scratch, you can save time measuring into months by using the relevant template.

Consider the fact it can take upwards of six weeks to produce one document of between 20 to 30 pages, imagine the scale of the work if you have more than sixty titles to write from scratch.

The content within the documents will require tweaking to make them relevant to your company, such as Team names and Team members, Technical terms and branding.

However, be aware I do not own a comprehensive list of Policy and Process documents. My library covers the documents that will take time to produce.

VISIOs

I own VISIO drawings covering the following and many more:

      • Incident management
      • Change management
      • Problem management
      • Document lifecycle

Templates with Headings only

You may require a set of pre-headed templates to help you document your Network. You can use these templates to document your servers and use the documents for many purposes.

Training: help new starters gain knowledge about the Network.

Audit: Have to hand information that can help you manage your Network over the long term.

Data Centres: Use the templates to plan a data centre migration.

      • Operating documents
      • Installation guides
      • Profile documents (5-Pages)
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Technical Writing: The Survivior’s Guide

Have you ever thought about the role of a technical writer? This booklet based on my Blogs will give you the highs and the lows of the job.  You might learn something useful.

To buy a copy click on the link below.

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The difference between Policies, Standards, Procedures and Strategies

As a Technical Writer, I have written many policies, processes, strategies, standards and related documents. These documents outline how a business operates and provide help when a team member requires a reference.

I worked on a project where the PM insisted a document contained a process. When I said it was a strategy, he threw a hissy fit. He insisted and had no intention of listening. He is not the first who thought they knew better. In the meantime, steam billows from my ears while the consultant continues to sprout opinions on the various documents.

For the uninitiated, here is my explanation of the difference between Policies, Standards, Procedures, Standards and related documents.

Policy document?

A policy sets out an agreed management policy which might refer to IT Security and Risks. However, it will not give any direction on how to execute this vision or strategy.

A set of policies are principles, rules, and guidelines planned or adopted to reach its long-term goals. Management signed policies and published them in the Company’s preferred medium.

    • Writing Policies is to influence and determine major decisions.
    • Processes and procedures are the specific methods used to express policies in action in daily operations.

What is a Process?

It is a task, a procedure – it is NOT a Plan.

The ISO definition of a process is:

A process is a set of inter-related activities that turn inputs into outputs,

You MUST learn the process; know WHY you need it and perform the process end-2-end.

      • Process is a high-level description of a series of inter-related tasks covering an entire business.
      • It is an internal, ongoing process updated annually, as policy guidelines serve as a crucial guide for employees and managers.

Procedure 

A procedure contains more detail than a process but less detail than a work instruction. It tells users HOW to perform sequential tasks to achieve a specific outcome.

Participants will complete a procedure from start to finish in one continuous time frame (no significant delays between steps).

Work Instructions (WI)

A WI contains a detailed description of a task. Its sole purpose is to explain how to do a specific task step by step.

Plan

IT IS NOT a Process

      • Organisations have Management Plans which outline WHAT you are going to do; it does not explain HOW you will perform a task.
      • The Plan determines how to allocate resources and provides backup plans if resources are not available at a crucial time.
      • The Plan document outlines the components to show How a process will work.
      • A plan is how you will move from A to B and should support your strategy by providing a method to reach B containing an acceptable balance of risk and reward.

What is strategy?

A strategy document explains how an organisation will move from point A to Point B.

      • How will you get there?
      • Issues, problems
      • Solutions and tools to get you to point B

A strategy solves the move from A to B, considering any unforeseen issues and problems that may occur to slow your journey to B.

Your strategy is WHAT you want to do.

Understanding the difference between a strategy and a plan allows you to make sound strategic planning decisions that separate the two.

What is the standard?

Standards are mandatory actions or rules that give formal policies support and direction. Writing standards requires a company-wide consensus on what standards must be in place. It can be a time-consuming process vital to the success of your information security program.

      • They are written to show expected user behaviour—for example, a consistent company email signature.
      • Might specify what hardware and software solutions are available and supported.
      • Compulsory and must be enforced to be effective. (This also applies to policies!)
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Give us a break

Give us a break. We need it. I write with authority and experience with over 25 years of experience as a technical author. My enthusiasm for delivering clearly defined documentation/content strategy has never diminished. Yet, two common issues remain for which I have no answer:

      • management expects a quick return on their budget, and
      • meeting people who think our role is a waste of time.

Our role is vital, and without us, standards of written and oral communications will forever diminish. Like many technical writers, I have various skills which overlap into different roles. I may operate under the title, technical author, but I have many more job titles under my belt. What skills do you ask? I communicate with many experts and produce relevant policy and operational process documents regarding maintaining a network. While I may not have the technical knowledge, I could step into a role and manage the infrastructure by working with technical teams. 

What can I tell you?

  • Despite the title, we are not technical experts.
        • we are documentation experts; we have an innate ability to understand the technology and explain with help from an SME how it works,
        • analyse workflows and write complex processes with drawings to help teams work more efficiently.
  • our job is never straightforward as we rely on many factors that hinder progress,
  • A change to one document means changes to related documents that contain exact content; writing is not easy:
      • Try writing 300 words about yourself. When done, look closer; how many errors can you see, and what changes will you make?
  • We work with people who are not technical writers.
      • And people who do not understand documentation but have an opinion on how to write and manage documentation.
  • We are not miracle workers:
      • If you expect to see results within a short period based on an issue that has continued unchecked for many years, you will be disappointed.

Many assume we do a cut-and-paste job and do not know that writing and managing reams of content is a fundamental role. If not, companies would not need people like me to make sense of the problem, offer a solution, and complete the job.

What do we do?

I have worked with developers, engineers (of varying shades), and experts in IT subject matter. The majority either:

        • Regard documentation as a luxury,
        • write their documentation, or
        • I do not see the point,

The developers I have met consider technical writing below their pay grade. If you think we are below your pay grade, you need to understand our role and responsibilities. 

What do we offer? 

We link the business and the users by describing the product’s potential. Knowledge management: if the knowledge resides in a team member’s head, get it out before that head moves on. That knowledge is an asset. A skilled communicator is essential to get this work done. We create critical information that is subject to an audit.

        • Writers can help with ITIL, security standards ISO27001 with quality, processes and procedures.
        • They can also help marketing teams with collaterals, white papers, marketing materials.
        • They can create newsletters—internal and external.

Who cares? No one reads it! 

Try telling that to your customers who spend more time calling your helpdesk. If your documentation is not updated and compatible with their version, you will hear loud and clear complaints. 

Businesses forget their T&Cs contain a clause that explicitly clarifies providing documentation. 

Relax at work! 

We get little time to relax because we’re always looking at ways to improve the documentation quality. It is not a standstill role. As colleagues overlook us in many stages of the development, the release phase can be daunting due to:

      • Last-minute functionality changes,
      • managing un-realistic situations,
      • unrealistic deadlines,
      • Multitasking—working on other vital projects.

This profession has a high level of stress due to a lack of communication. Managers expect the documentation to be ready and available within a few hours. Sorry, unless you have a mega team of technical writers, that will never happen.

Documentation review can wait. 

If that is the case, you must make documentation an integral part of the software development life cycle (SDLC). It will help to:

      • Include the documentation review in the schedules of the reviewers.
      • return review comments to writers on time,
      • Writers are aware of necessary changes before deadlines to make the required modifications.

People assume technical writers only write and think it’s a straightforward job. The importance of technical writing will come when they understand:

      • The actual work we do, as technical writers,
      • the management of multiple issues to enable the completion of a project,
      • the process of documentation is also a process of quality control.

Be aware of your technical writer(s) and what they do to make you look good. Do technical writers work? A technical writer performs many other tasks and related activities as a part of the documentation process:

      • Multitask: work on multiple projects at different stages of completion. 
      • Organise: keep projects to prioritise the work,
      • Be patient: deal with deadlines,
      • Manage: track multiple documents and content.
      • Training: train staff in communication and writing skills.

An SME can do the job just as well. That is debatable:

      • SMEs have their responsibilities, and documents are way down their list
      • gaps in the content are common because they don’t believe certain functions are worth mentioning.
    • A technical writer will revisit the documentation, test for cracks, and add missing content.
        • professional technical writers are: 
        • more efficient, 
        • produce high-quality documentation,
        • structure documents for consistency,
    • design easy-to-use information, and
    • Perform other related writing activities.

My advice, take technical writers seriously, and everyone will be happy.

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Technical Writing | Project Managers and Technical Writers

Project managers and technical writers, two distinct roles. One of my many skills as a technical writer is organisation. We juggle many tasks and switch between them with ease. People skills are important as we speak to coders, engineers, and technicians of various shades. In the meantime, we manage a ream of documentation while taking instructions from SMEs. Occasionally we meet a project manager who has had minimal exposure to technical documentation as part of a project.

techwriting
Project Managers and Technical Writers

If you lack experience planning the technical documentation component of a project I suggest you consult with your technical writer. A working collaboration between project managers and technical writers can help organisations reap the benefits of the project (because it’s documented), and provide better internal and external support through documentation.

If you are one of the many Project Manager who has never worked with Technical Writers, remember we are professionals.  We will not tolerate the viability and quality of the technical documentation to satisfy the needs of others.

Techwriting
Project Managers and Technical writers

So, if you have no direct experience with documentation or Technical Writers consider:

  • Talk with your TW(s) because their experience will provide you with a much-needed background in document management.
  • To help plan the documentation, avoid creating timelines as you progress the project.
  • TAs cannot pull documentation from a hat or generate a document from code.
  • Speak to the TW(s) to gauge how long it will take to review/write/edit a document. In my experience, many project managers overestimate the timelines or worse underestimate the deadlines. Always build in flexibility to allow for problems in the documentation process
  • Reviewing a document intended for transformation containing more than 20 pages plus will take time (the general rule of thumb is one hour per page).
  • The time required for writing
  • Peer reviews
  • Time to have the content technically reviewed
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Technical Writing | Interviewing SMEs

Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are essential to enable you the technical author to write that document. Without their input you will struggle. So, how does an experienced technical writer consider approaching and interviewing SME?

I base my advice on my personal experiences of talking to and working with SMEs. You will no doubt find, like me, that some SMEs are difficult while others are happy to help.

Approaching and Interviewing  SMEs 

  1. Make sure you schedule a meeting with the SME in advance, do not turn up at their desk and expect to talk. Most SMEs are busy and might work on an important task.
  2. Make sure you know the SMEs area of ability and their role within the company
  3. If you collaborate with other technical writer’s check any project management plans or ask if they have already spoken to that SME
  4. If yes check the information to see if it applies to you. It will save time asking the SME twice for the same information and prevent any stern reminders that they have already discussed ‘XYZ.’
  5. I use a dictaphone to record interviews because it means if I have any queries I can always run the recording back. To date, no SME has objected to me recording the conversation.

    approaching and interviewing subject matter experts
    approaching and interviewing subject matter experts

    • If they DO, it will mean listening intently and writing the information
  6. Approach the Interview at the appointed time:
    • Do not be surprised if the SME cancels the meeting because of other demands
    • If so, reschedule the meeting
  7. Always regard the interview as another knowledge capture exercise, which adds to your experience, do not assume you know everything before you get there, even if you do.
  8. The SME will assume that you know what they are talking about; if not – stop the interview, and either request a less technical explanation or if you still do not understand then you need to reassess your ability to do the job.
  9. Only schedule an hour for the interview but clarify that if there are any points which are not clear, you will need to reschedule more time
  10. Be clear – there will be a peer review required, but you will let them know in advance when the document is ready for review
  11. approaching and interviewing subject matter experts
    approaching and interviewing subject matter experts

    If the SME is not aware of your role or why you need their comments to introduce the project and you if you have not already done so introduce yourself

  12. The SME may not know everything and may need to refer you to another SME for information
  13. When you return to your desk, start writing up the document. Do not wait for a few days, even if you have recorded the interview
  14. Carry a pad and pen. You may need to ask the SME to draw the infrastructure
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Technical Writing | Professional vs Amateur, its a matter of choice

A LinkedIn connection shared a poster, which read: Professional vs Amateur; If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur.

In 2004 I had an interview in Watford and later Cambridge with software companies looking for a Technical Writer. During the second interview, I had this feeling of deja-vu in that it followed a similar line to the Watford interview. The hiring managers seemed uncertain. The feedback was both companies appointed an internal resource to save money.

Later that year the Watford company after a management buy-out sacked the TA because the documentation failed to meet standards. I was later contacted by an agent after the Cambridge internal appointment failed to deliver.

A previous client called as one of their technical writers had left with work to complete. Once I analysed the work, I made it clear that I had no time to rewrite the work. The manager to keep costs down employed ‘technical writers’ with negligible experience on a high-profile project for a major Telco client.

I can appreciate the fact when times are tough companies like to make a few savings. However, the difference between employing a professional vs. amateur can be stark regarding cost.

Professional vs Amateur, it’s a matter of choice

What you need to consider is the result. Do you want a professional job or a makeshift effort by an amateur? Many experienced technical writers will point out that you get what you pay for. My advice is to be ready to pay the going rate to attract an experienced technical writer who is more than capable of doing the job. In terms of time and delivery, it will save you a lot of time and energy and negate the need to pay twice for the same job.

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Technical Writing | Sourcing a technical writer

When sourcing a technical writer, ensure their experience matches your requirements. The best candidate will have the correct background and expertise. Listen carefully to their answers as many like me at the interview dispense advice and why a particular route may not work. If they don’t talk through that experience, keep searching until you do.

Productive years as a Technical Writer

An experienced Technical writer can only be an asset to your team or project. The longer their career in various businesses, the broader and more in-depth their experience will be. However, the only way to be confident is to read their CVs carefully.

Read the CV, and discuss the project. My rule is this: if you cannot see it on my CV, then I haven’t done it. That does not mean I will turn down unfamiliar tasks.

Do they use Social Media or have a website?

Check out LinkedIn for their profile; If you cannot find it or a website describing their experiences, what have they be doing?

During the interview, did they communicate?

During an interview, be wary of a candidate who sits, listens, and says very little. An experienced TW will respond to your questions and offer suggestions on elevating the project with innovations you may not have considered.

Effective communication

An essential part of our job is communicating with SMEs to gather the right level of detail for the documentation. If you have a TW and the documentation appears vague, it might be time for a chat.

Do you want a contractor or permanent TW?

Do you want to build a team that includes a TW to keep the documentation up to date, a person who will grow into the environment? However, I caution against hiring a permanent Technical Writer unless you are sure there will be ongoing work.

Work cycles can dip, so be careful how you use the Technical Writer. During one of my earliest contracts, the project engineer referred to me as a secretary and treated me as one, as did the rest of the team. In a much earlier role, my line manager used me as a general dogsbody.

A proactive Technical Writer between writing, researching and interviewing could improve the company’s documentation. However, once they get on top of the tasks, the role could become routine and repetitive. There will be an odd spurt of activity within the working life cycle; hence, the position of Technical Writing lends itself more to contract work than permanent work.

To summarise: if you hire a permanent Technical Writer to ensure you have plenty of contingencies to avoid your TW developing itchy feet, I suggest you discuss additional tasks that may add value to their experience. Allowing a member of staff use them for jobs for which you employ an office junior will not go down too well.

A word of caution

Unfortunately, our profession attracts its fair share of triers. You can reasonably expect CVs from candidates who have had minimum experience preparing ad hoc documentation on projects at work. Unfortunately, that minimal experience does not translate to full-scale projects requiring a technical writer. In many cases, it turns into an expensive flop.

Many recruiting agents have a minimum expertise sourcing Technical Writers. When they speak to prospective candidates, they hear a few buzzwords and place candidates forward for a role for which they are not suitable. Be sure to check that they have the right experience and background.

To avoid problems, apply the following advice:

Be careful hiring a Junior Technical Writer or one that has worked in a permanent position for the last five years.

Why: a permanent position can be very repetitive, which limits the Technical Writer’s experience. That also goes for junior writers. For high-profile projects, hire a seasoned contracting professional who can talk through the project with you.

Finally, budgets – ensure you are buying the experience you need. In the world of Technical Writing, the price you pay determines the standard you accept. Hiring the wrong candidate could be a costly mistake.

Where else can you source a Technical writer?

You have found me. However, I may not be suitable for the role. Check LinkedIn, Social Media sites and online Job Boards. Ask other companies and fellow professionals if they have used Technical Writers and, if so, what was their experience. They may have recommendations that, in the long run, could save you money.

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Technical Writing | The risks of poor document management

The risks of poor document management stem from managing multiple types of documents in different formats, workflows and updates. If the documents, which are in constant use have no defined structure it will lead to an uncontrolled and unmanaged repository. This haphazard approach to managing the document Lifecycle impedes employee productivity.

The scenario is this: you are sitting at your desk when your boss requests the latest version of a critical policy document. When do want it you ask?

The risks of poor document management
The risks of poor document management

Now is the reply as she has an urgent meeting. It is located on the company’s shared drive. Your search starts with your department folder.  However, it is not there. You decide to perform a search and type in the title. Your face falls flat when the search returns 100s of potential matches. You open up the most likely and find they are not current.  Panic sets in and your boss is now calling your desk phone, as she is late for her meeting.

We have all been there, as intuitively as we think we have organized our company “shared” network folders, documents get lost and frustration sets in. Whether it is neglecting to archive or delete the outdated version of documents, images, files, assets, etc. or employees using confusing naming scheme for the folder structure – the point is this archaic means of organising and managing documents/assets isn’t working for your company and it is costing you.

Failure to treat business documents as vital assets can lead to:

  • Diminished document utility
  • Decreased business efficiency
  • Increased operational risk and cost

Effective Lifecycle management

The management of Documents continues throughout their useful lifespans ensuring businesses meet compliance and regulatory requirements while preserving the productivity of employees and agility of business processes:

  • Quick access
  • Frequent review and updating
  • Distribution
  • Conversion
  • Archiving

Document management

The risks of poor document management
The risks of poor document management

If your document library is growing with no control consider creating a Document Management library to store and manage your documentation.

The growing influence of ISO and ITIL requires documentation to contain elements which relate to its History, Versioning and sign off, all of which are easy to incorporate. Going forward your staff should know how to manage the documentation in the absence of someone dedicated to the role.

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Technical Writing | Disaster Recovery Plan

Document the Disaster Recovery Plan

Remember, to be effective you must be prepared to document the plan. Without the documentation you risk the possibility of NOT recovering from a disaster, therefore placing the entire company at risk.

If you have no existing documentation that describes the functions of the company’s servers and their hosted Applications, consider writing relevant Operating Document. In the event of a disaster, without knowing the role and the purpose of a server, as well as the Operating system – it could delay recovery.

A list of your critical systems

All companies will have a set of applications hosted on servers, which, are crucial to the business such as financials.

List your servers by priority and the criticality of the hosted Application – that is the amount of time the server and its applications can remain non-functional before it severely disrupts operations.

Create a disaster recovery plan for each critical system

This returns to the Operating document. To recover the system during a Disaster could take time, more so if the Owner is not available during the disaster to help login and failover the system then failback the system.

Therefore Keep documents simple, direct and to the point and written in such a way that anyone can understand the process, not just the SMEs who designed and built the system.

Who is responsible
Delegated participants must know and understand their responsibility should a disaster happen. Engage them in areas where they will know what to do and act accordingly. When compiling such lists make sure there are Team Leads, and Deputies should the first choice not be available during a disaster.

Make Backups
In this context be sure that if you use allocated drive space that your staff are backing up valuable information and documents to that allocated space.

Do you have an Off-site backup
Store all data in an Off-site Common.

Store Backups off-site in a location away from the same grid as the originals.

Test the Plan
On completion of the written plan, you enter the test phase. Make a plan to failover your infrastructure and then failback the infrastructure.

Take notes along the way to strengthen the areas in the plan which need more validation. Note where there is a need to access backup data time how quickly it takes to restore the system.

Keep the plan safe
Store a paper copy of the plan in a safe place. Remember: during a Failover, the online version could be unavailable.

When it comes to planning your Disaster Recovery strategy, do not forget the disaster recovery documentation. It may be the last project on your mind but could prove to be your company’s one lifesaver.

Disaster Recovery never stops and undergoes modifications every six months or twelve months.

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Technical Writing | Technical documentation vs Helpdesk

technical documentation vs helpdesk
technical documentation vs helpdesk

Technical Documentation vs Helpdesk – Despite the reluctance to invest in technical documentation, many managers bypass a proven way to cut back on calls to the Helpdesk. No doubt many helpdesks provide an excellent service and manage the demands of the users. The problem with most technical documentation including user guides is that it is incomplete and full of gaps. Documentation needs to flow and provide practical tips on how to get the best from the software.  If your customers had well written and comprehensive documentation you could substantially cut back on costly calls to your helpdesk.

Technical documentation vs Helpdesk

technical documentation vs helpdesk
technical documentation vs helpdesk

I have experience in manning a premium line Helpdesk and have spoken to many angry customers whose subjective complaints about the company and the guilty software lead to comments such as:

  • The product is bordering on rubbish, and it doesn’t work, is it bugged?
  • annoyed with the company because the software is garbage
  • I can’t follow the user guide because it doesn’t belong to my version of the software
  • I can’t follow the instructions

When documentation fails to deliver the answer, the Helpdesk records a steep curve in calls. Customers who feel forced to call the Helpdesk Support can hold mixed feelings about the product and company.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

technical documentation vs helpdesk
technical documentation vs helpdesk

Customers are the lifeblood of any organisation, and their demands can vary.  To facilitate their requirements, I created a feedback option to enable internal and external users to point out where the documentation appeared vague.

The developers and helpdesk provided a more detailed solution based on their knowledge and experiences. I created a FAQs knowledge base (or Wiki) for external users and placed the information in the back of the document. The internal staff received the content via a RoboHelp *.chm file.

The FAQs were a success and helped cut calls to support by 80%. I had created searchable information that was easy to find and accessible to all staff.

Experienced technical writers can produce audience focussed documentation that helps customers maintain productivity.

Technical documentation vs Helpdesk

Always treat your documentation and your information as an asset’ and invest in the necessary resources maintain the documentation. The savings could be significant meaning satisfied customers.

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Technical Writing | What is technical writing and why you need it

What is Technical Writing?

Technical writing is a skill and should you hear a Project Manager or Subject Matter Expert say: ‘anyone can write so “why do you need a Technical Writer?” continue reading.

Technical Writing like many jobs has many facets. The fact you see Writer in the job title suggests to the uninitiated that primarily we write. You could not be more wrong! The writing takes only a fraction of the time allocated to the project.

Let’s get to the point

Our time is taken with analysing content and listening to Subject Matter Experts.

Our Writing is concise and to the point. We are not novelists describing a beautiful character down to her laughter lines. A poorly written novel will not hold the attention of a reader; the same goes for poorly written technical documentation. A user wants to read the document and understand say – the function of multiple servers and Operating systems within a significant infrastructure. Know how to follow a process or service within a few sentences. We can create a document from the viewpoint of the reader by listening to the user and offering document(s) based on the best solution.

Technical Writing is – as it explains in the box – technical. We speak to Subject Matter Experts and translate their language into content that a technophobe will understand.

We produce documentation in several formats in such a way, to get the message across to our many audiences. What I have written – you too will be an expert. Give yourself a hand.

Key elements of technical writing

Using a consistent language with regards to terminology.

Creating Glossaries to help readers understand the terminology used within the document.

Formatting document headers with the same font size and tables and drawings labelled the same way are important.

From using Excel spreadsheets, Template creation, document versioning, documentation content and types of material, clear document titles and subjects – working with either a shared drive or a document management system and talking to SMEs every day your average technical author is a ‘rare breed’ indeed.

If you have not already read my post titled “Technical Authors are not easy to find’ we do not attract many candidates.

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Technical Writing | Hire a Technical Writer sooner, rather than later

As a Technical Writer with over Twenty Years of experience, I need to address a problem which haunts documentation projects. I aim this at Project Managers who scope such projects as part of a more comprehensive project.

Have you ever planned a project (PCI, GDPR, ISO27001, ITIL, Policy and Process) where documentation is critical? If so, how did it go? Crucially, did the project deliver ALL the documentation? If not – do you know why the plan failed?

First: Did you speak to a Technical Writer for a realistic appraisal of the expected outcomes?

Second: was your budget a few pennies short?

A collective failure of technical / process documentation projects is the lack of knowledge and expertise during the planning and discovery phases. Many project managers do NOT grasp the reality of a documentation project.

If the PM does NOT know the difference between a written process, a documented plan, and the purpose of a policy and its processes, your project could be in trouble.

The planners do not understand the lifecycle of a document, from the initial draft through various reviews and sign-off. The process takes much longer than expected.

How long does it to write a document? My default answer is “I do not know”. Technical Policy and Process documentation, depending on the project (PCI, GDPR, Operations, ITIL), will have many requirements and factors which delay the following stages:

      • the information gathering,
      • the interviewing
      • opinions
      • the writing,
      • review stages,
      • amendments
      • opinions, and
      • sign-off.

The likely reality of writing a 30-page A4 process document containing:

      • VISIOs (3 or more) comprising between 10 to 30 steps
      • Process narratives (3 or more) of between 10 to 30 steps
      • Appendixes (2 or more)

It will take at least 8 – 12 weeks of effort before the review stage. My advice is not to plan such a project without professional help.

Compliance projects such as PCI and GDPR generate a lot of policy and process documentation. If you are starting from scratch, the list of required documents could exceed 60 or more. In timing terms, you are looking at 12/18 months of work. To be safe, let’s say 24 months. If you have partially written documents, DO NOT expect timings to diminish to a few months. If the papers are scattered throughout various drives, the technical author must first attempt to get the documentation into a consistent state. That could take months of work.

Finally, there must be a management agreement to help the PM and TA find the resources to succeed. Any failures will multiply costs.

Hire a Technical Writer

My advice is this: If you have a project that requires documentation, hire a Technical Writer, not a Business Analyst, for advice from the start of the project, NOT when the end date is in sight and when the budget is running out. The TW can highlight issues, risks, and bottlenecks and help you manage expectations within the allocated time assigned to the project.

The Technical writers will need:

    • to assimilate the project
    • Time for training on any tools
    • access to Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

Add in contingencies for illnesses, holidays and unplanned absences, and resignations from the project. They happen.

If the budget and the timelines become fixed (in stone) with multiple documents to complete in a short period, then produce quality rather than quantity.

To ensure quality, rank the documents across the set:

    1. Required
    2. Nice to have
    3. Not important

Or use The MoSCoW method.

    • M – Must have this requirement to meet the business needs
    • S – Should have this requirement if possible, but project success does not rely on it
    • C – Could have this requirement if it affects nothing else on the project
    • W – I would like to have this requirement later, but delivery won’t be this time.

Additional Points

    • Travel: Will the TWs need to travel abroad or nationally?
    • References: Identify any useable archived documentation.
    • Reviews: decide who will review and who will sign off a document
    • Scope: Could there be any changes which will add to or change the size of the project

In summary,

Documentation projects fail due to:

    • poor planning
    • the lack of experience and
    • not allowing enough time to complete the documentation.

In contrast, documentation projects succeed due to:

    • excellent planning
    • understanding of documentation lifecycles
    • allowing enough time to complete the documentation.

Finally: If the project’s success depends on the documentation (Disaster Recovery Plan, PCI/DSS, BCP and ITIL)—why do PMs and SMEs allocate so much of the budget to non-documentation resources?

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Technical Writing | A brief guide to documentation projects for Project Managers

A brief guide to managing documentation projects for Project Managers will demonstrate that when done correctly will produce long-term benefits.

Here are some examples to help keep your documentation on track.

The original writer is not the best person to check their documentation because they very rarely spot their mistakes.

  • Arrange for a peer review and/or technical review of all changes
  • establish a review process to make sure the documentation is both factually correct and consistent.

All documentation requires ongoing review once or twice a year.

  • If your company use a Document Management system to store documentation, make use of the “metadata” windows to describe the content changes to make the review process easier and consistent.
  • If you are so inclined adding an index to your document, especially when it is a large document will enhance the documents usability

Like everything else, documents become living information that:

  • Maintaining the documentation represents a significant challenge
  • Without a management policy or agreed procedure, the Documentation you are creating will cease to have any value if it is not updated
  • Documentation requires dedicated resources, in which some companies will not invest
  • In other words, use or contract an experienced Technical Writer
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Technical Writing | Why your business needs Technical documentation

Managers underestimate the purpose of technical documentation until they discover they have no relevant documentation. Listed below are 6 reasons why you need technical documentation

  1. Without technical documentation you have no historical record of any project ever completed within the company
  2. You have no metrics against which to measure current projects
  3. You have no information which outlines the lessons learned and the lessons failed
  4. During an upgrade project the team relies on guess-work to get things right . . . it also means the project will take much longer to complete stretching the budget
  5. What documentation there is lies scattered over several drives and only makes sense to the author
  6. Your valued tech staff have left the company taking information with them in their heads

Now you know why Technical Documentation is important; if you recognise one or more of the points above . . . what’s your next move?

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Documentation projects, before, during and after

Documentation Projects

Many Project Managers and Subject Matter Experts fail to understand the challenges posed by documentation projects. To lead such a project, you need to know what is important and how you will achieve the goal. What preparations should you make to ensure you complete the project within budget?

Here follows the best advice on the documentation projects, before, during and after.

There are many types of technical and process documentation. If the project is compliance based (PCI, GDPR) concentrate resources on the documentation. Consider hiring a Technical Writer quickly for advice.

Capture the data/content

  • Check the availability of the Subject Matter Experts as well as other team members critical to the project
  • Consider the audience for the documents as that will determine the level and detail of the material.
  • Remember the level of content and information is only as useful as its source and the ability of non-technical audiences to use and follow the instructions/processes

Organise the document and content

Create a standard template with Heading and instructions regarding the level and type of material the TWs need to gather. As a guide use the following headings:

  • Work History
  • Versioning control
  • Scope/Out of Scope
  • Document Purpose
  • Document ObjectiveIntegrate Level 1 to 3 Headings to outline the topics.
    • You can base these decisions according to prerequisite documentation knowledge to provide the master plan for all future written work.
  • Does it require VISIOs/Screenshots?
  • Appendixes

Do NOT waste time creating project timelines to write and produce the documentation.

Until the information and gathering phase begins, do not even consider a guess about how long it will take to complete the documentation.

As the list of titles grows, Management may need to consider extending the budget to finance the project. Abandoning the documentation when it is ‘Nearly there’ will be waste of money, time and resources.

Decide the output format

When the Technical Writer has written the documents, consider which of the following formats will suit the company’s requirements.

  • MS Word stored in a Document Management System
  • PDF stored in a Document Management System
  • *.CHM files created by using such application as RoboHelp
  • Wiki formats: A Wiki provides the user community with the opportunity to provide documentation feedback

Future Review Requirements

Do not overlook the future requirements of any project. All documentation is an ongoing project. Establish a workflow between the IT teams/Process teams and the documentation department to update documentation.

  • Update the documentation when:
  • the IT teams upgrade or modify the Server/Application/technology
  • document all changes, using a change management process to prevent any repeat the configuration
  • align the documentation and the project

Revise the Project

On completion of the project Use the documentation to:

  • reflect the changes and updates
  • test to ensure instructions are clear, concise and correct
  • Avoid considerable time, frustration, and future expense by correctly applying documentation strategies to:
  •  . . . ensure that users can follow the instructions
  • . . . provide a historical record of the changes made during the project

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Technical Writing | The cost of Technical and Process documentation

Why is it that companies view the cost of Technical and Process documentation as an unnecessary expenditure rather than viewing documentation as a centre of knowledge? Management seems to have a blind spot with documentation and conveniently forgets the role of documentation.

Techwriting | Technical and Process Documents

When redundancies beckon, I know how quickly management will sacrifice the technical documentation department. When management seeks layoffs, the technical author(s) will be amongst the first out the door. Months later a member of staff points out that the documentation is out of date and follows up by asking: do we have anything up to date we can use?

In sacking the technical documentation team, no one assumed responsibility. Keeping it up to date is left to those least inclined to keep it up to date. They are the people who would benefit most from its upkeep.

The cost of Technical and Process documentation
The cost of Technical and Process documentation

Within a software environment, we easily forget that as the developers progress their software application, it also becomes more complex. Failing to supply up-to-date documentation means customers can overlook many of the improvements and advanced features. We could say the same of any IT department. As the network grows, there are more questions and fewer answers. No one has a good overall knowledge of the network because of the lack of documentation.

Where does that leave technical writers?

However, you refer to us, be it technical authors, communicators, documentation staff or as the font of all knowledge. Never doubt our experience, our people skills, our ability to write clear instructions.  We can explain complex technical terms in easy-to-read formats. Who else will put up with blank stares, sarcastic comments and listen to comments such as “whaddya want now?’ to get what your company needs; usable documentation.

The cost of Technical and Process documentation
The cost of Technical and Process documentation

Remember, it is not about the cost of hiring a technical author. It is about our value to your organisation. Our documentation will keep your staff informed and up to date. There is a point to keeping your processes up to date as your working environment changes. It is also about keeping that software guide up to date enabling your customers to use your product more efficiently and know they invested in a superb product.

Finally, don’t forget that a technical author will not only you save money now but also at a later date and will keep on saving you money, therefore, over the long term justifying their value to your business.

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Technical Writing | Hiring a Technical Writer

Budgets for the job

When you start the process of Hiring a Technical Writer, my advice is thisdo not cut corners when sourcing a budget:

  • Check the daily rates/hourly rates. Do not expect an experienced technical writer if the daily rate is derisory.
  • If your rate is low, you will attract Technical Writers with less experience whereby the result could be a disjointed document with no formatting and poor English
  • A good TW who charges a higher rate may save you money by taking less time to do the job.

Your Technical Writer in the flesh

hiring a technical writer
Hiring a technical writer for your project

Many TWs will have worked in a variety of environments. In due course, we gain knowledge that could provide a solution to other long-running problems. Hence why managers should never underestimate TWs.

What will you need?

Before you actively engage the TW on your site, do you have all equipment ready:

  • One of the most common problems is no laptop on the day they start
  • That their profiles to log in to the network are set up
  • If they are reviewing existing documentation make sure it is available

When you start explaining the work to a TW in company-specific jargon, do not assume they understand you. There is a good chance that the TW during an interview may mention that what one company knows as “XYZ” may not be the same as yours.

What should you do?

  • Be certain the SMEs or others with whom the TW will engage are aware of the appointment and know the goals of the project
  • If you are the primary contact do not disappear without the TW knowing where you are or who is second in command
  • Do not assume the TW is less than proactive if you cannot see them writing down a list of questions and talking to the appropriate people. If they are reviewing existing documentation, they may need a few days to understand the content before they start acting pro-actively

Techwriting Hiring a Technical Writer
Hiring a Technical Writer

If after settling on a start date

If a problem arises let the TW know in advance because:

  • You may need to change the start date or find another job for the TW to assess.
  • Delays will only diminish your budget if the TW is on-site with nothing to do.
  • If the problems are likely to be ongoing be honest and let the TW know – do not consistently change the start dates because it is not very professional and TWs do talk to fellow TWs.
  • Be consistent with the project, its objectives, and deadlines
  • Do not change the parameters of the project by allowing project scope creep.
  • Communicate with the TW as S/he may not have the time to stay beyond the current time allotted for the project.
  • Make contingencies if you need to extend the contract

What will the Technical Writer do for you?

Supply a project plan. Do not expect one within a matter days. if they own a generic copy, they can adapt it for the project; else create one from scratch.

The project plan should include a documentation schedule, including milestones and how progress can be measured.

On longer projects, TWs will complete a weekly project management report, which will outline problems, issues, bottlenecks, etc.

If the contract states that travel abroad or within the UK is necessary, make sure they are available to go.

Foreign travel as part of the contract

Some companies expect contractors to pay their expenses up front on foreign trips.

Might I suggest that they:

  • Can afford to do so without getting into debt.
  • Know the procedure to claim their expenses
  • Be clear on when the payment will be paid
    • I once submitted expenses, which, due to a misunderstanding took three months to process.

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Technical writing | Now that you have Technical Documentation

So, after the initial shock of discovering what happens when you have no technical documentation, what can you achieve now that you have technical documentation?

1: Have you employed/contracted a Technical Author . . . Great!! If not what’s holding you back . . . remember we bring value

2: If you cannot see your technical author at their desk you’ll no doubt find him/her performing Vulcan mind melds and extracting the necessary technical information from the heads of your development/infrastructure staff (if it looks painful don’t worry, the job is mandatory!)

3:  Start a discussion about what you need and I’m certain your technical author will only be too happy to help?

4: Once you have technical documentation there is no more guesswork as you have plenty of reliable data against which to measure the progress of future projects

5: You can also employ a project manager who can plan ahead because you know everyone who needs it!

6: Documentation is no longer a problem and what you require is what you will get . . . Congratulations!

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Technical Writing | The Problem with Shared Drives

It is not unusual to find companies still use Shared Drives to store their documentation. As many Technical Writers will point out, the problem with shared drives is that they are neither secure nor searchable.

What is the problem with shared drives?

  • The folder structure has too many levels meaning documents are difficult to find
  • There are information gaps as users keep copies of documentation locally and not on the shared drive
  • There is no formal ownership of the documents
  • The title and subject of the document does not accurately reflect the content
  • Document versioning is not used meaning the latest version is  . . .  Where?
  • There are many copies of the same document
  • The failure to maintain a workable Archiving policy means many documents with the same title contain unchecked updates
  • There is no historical tracking of documents to keep integrity of the content
  • Searching for documents on a shared drive will raise many unrelated results

Using a non configured Document Management System (DMS)

It would seem ironic that companies do spend a large amount of budget on installing a DMS such as SharePoint but fail to task an experienced employee to set it up correctly. So what happens when the DMS is left to grow without the correct administration?

  • Failure to lock down user privileges means it becomes a free for all  with no proper administration
  • Check In, Check Out, Document Versioning and Security are not configured meaning user’s drop off documents where they see fit
  • There is no historical tracking of documents to keep integrity
  • Users create folders without proper titles and lose their document
  • Backup of the DMS is irregular

If you want to manage your documentation in a way in which it cannot become a free for all you need to consider a form of document control and establish a policy and a set of rules to keep your documentation in check.

Technical and Process Documentation is an asset, and your staff should treat it as such. Look after it, and it will look after your business.

IT Audits: a Technical Authoring view

IT Audits: A technical author’s view from the front line. I have worked on several projects, including an audit of a company’s IT ahead of a migration from one data centre to another. In three cases, no documentation existed; in the fourth, documentation was scattered around in various places.

IT Audits

IT Audits: A technical author’s view from the front line. I have worked on several projects, including an audit of a company’s IT ahead of a migration from one data centre to another. In three cases, no documentation existed; in the fourth, documentation was scattered around in various places.

Data Centre migrations

An IT audit focusing on a data centre migration project aims to ensure the process is well-planned and executed to minimise risks, guarantee operations and data integrity continuity, and adhere to relevant standards and regulations. This article introduces the data centre migration audit concept and what it entails.

Documentation Required

The project will require several documentation types. As the project rolls on,  the project managers will develop their documents, such as progress spreadsheets. As a Technical Author, our focus is on the following documentation:

Profile documents – these are recommended if there is little to no documentation in existence. These documents contain high-level information. You will need one per server and list all the information such as users, dependencies, DR requirements, what it hosts, data flows In/Out and much more. I can supply a full list on request.

Operating Documents: These contain Profile information plus more granular information. The receiving team uses them as comprehensive information backup and must be stored in an accessible location.

Installation Documents – these provide valuable installation processes using the company’s configurations. These must also be stored in an accessible location.

Knowledge Transfer – to ensure everyone reads from the same page, collects knowledge from SMEs and shares it in an accessible location.

Purpose of the IT Audit in Data Centre Migration

  • Risk Assessment: To identify and assess risks associated with the migration, including:
      • data loss,
      • downtime,
      • security vulnerabilities, and
      • compliance issues.
  • Process Evaluation: To ensure that the migration process follows
      • organisational policies,
      • including project management,
      • change management, and
      • quality assurance.
  • Verification of Data Integrity and Security: To verify:
      • data integrity
      • implement security measures for data protection
  • Compliance Check: To verify adherence to relevant regulations and standards (e.g., GDPR, HIPAA, ISO/IEC 27001) that may impact the migration process.
  • Post-Migration Review: To evaluate the success of the migration in terms of meeting its objectives, including:
    • performance benchmarks,
    • cost-effectiveness, and
    • achieving planned benefits.

Critical Components of the Audit Process

  1. Pre-Migration Planning: Evaluating the thoroughness of the migration strategy, including:
    • assessing the current data centre’s architecture,
    • the migration’s Scope, and
    • the target environment’s readiness.
  1. Implementation Review: Analysing the execution of the migration to ensure it aligns with the following:
    • planned procedures,
    • project timelines, and
    • This includes reviewing the technical approaches, such as
    • data replication,
    • network reconfiguration, and
    • application migration strategies.
  1. Security Measures: Assessing the security protocols implemented before, during, and after the migration to safeguard data and infrastructure. This encompasses access controls, encryption, and security monitoring tools.
  2. Data Integrity Verification: Ensuring that data transferred during the migration is accurate, complete, and unchanged. Techniques such as checksum verification and data reconciliation are part of this process.
  3. Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery (BC/DR) Planning: Reviewing the effectiveness of BC/DR plans in the context of the migration, including the ability to recover data and maintain operations in the event of a failure.
  4. Post-Migration Validation: Conducting a thorough review after the migration to ensure that all systems operate as expected in the new environment. This includes performance testing, functionality verification, and ensuring that you achieve the migration objectives.
  5. Documentation and Reporting: Reviewing the completeness and accuracy of documentation related to the migration process, including planning documents, execution records, and post-migration evaluations. The audit will conclude with a detailed report highlighting findings, recommendations, and any identified issues.

Managing the Audit Process

    • Stakeholder Engagement: Involving critical stakeholders throughout the audit to ensure alignment and address concerns.
    • Use of Tools and Technologies: Leveraging specialised tools for data migration, security assessment, and project management to facilitate a thorough audit.
    • Expertise: Engaging with IT auditors with experience in data centre migrations and understanding the technical, operational, and compliance aspects of such projects.

Preparing for an IT audit involves a comprehensive review and documentation of your organisation’s IT infrastructure, policies, and procedures. The goal is to ensure your IT environment aligns with best practices, legal and regulatory requirements, and industry standards. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to prepare for an IT audit focusing on documenting the network, servers, data flows, and disaster recovery (DR) outlines:

Understand the Audit Scope and Objectives

    • Identify the Type of Audit: an internal or external audit and the standards or guiding regulations (e.g., ISO/IEC 27001, GDPR, HIPAA).
    • Define the Scope, including specific systems, processes, or locations.

Assemble a Core Team

    • Select a diverse team of subject matter experts (SMEs) from different areas of your IT environment (network, server administration, data management, security, disaster recovery).
    • Designate a project manager with strong organisational and communication skills to lead the documentation effort.
    • Overseas Infrastructure: If the company has European offices, make contingencies for language barriers.

Designate a Point of Contact (POC)

    • Choose a POC fluent in English and possibly other languages spoken by team members to manage all communications effectively.
    • This person should have a good technical understanding and excellent communication skills to bridge language or technical gaps.

Consider Direct Meetings

    • If feasible, arrange for technical authors, or project leads to meet with overseas colleagues in person.
    • Direct interactions can foster better understanding, clear up ambiguities, and build stronger team cohesion.

Kickoff Meeting

    • Hold a kickoff meeting to outline the documentation project’s goals, process, and importance.
    • Use clear, simple language and visual aids to ensure understanding across language barriers.
    • Discuss the need to create a high-level profile document.

Document Collaboration

    • Utilise collaborative tools like shared documents, diagrams, and project management software that support comments and revisions.
    • Ensure the tools chosen are accessible and user-friendly for team members with varying technical expertise and language proficiency levels.

Collect Basic Information

Start by collecting high-level information about the IT infrastructure to create the profile document:

    • Network architecture: Outline the basic network design, including principal components like routers, switches, firewalls, and connectivity layout.
    • Servers and devices: List critical servers, their roles (e.g., web server, database server), and other critical devices.
    • Data flows: Identify central data flows within the network, highlighting the sources, destinations, and data processing stages.
    • Disaster recovery (DR) outlines: Provide a brief overview of the existing DR strategies.

Document the Network

    • Create or Update Network Diagrams: Include all network segments, connections, and critical devices (routers, switches, firewalls).
    • Identify Critical Assets: Mark systems that store, process, or transmit sensitive information.
    • Network Segmentation: Document how the network is segmented, especially areas with sensitive data.
    • Document Servers and Systems
    • Inventory: List all physical and virtual servers with their roles, operating systems, and critical applications.
    • Configuration Standards: Document the configuration standards for each type of server.
    • Access Controls: List access control measures in place for each server.

Document Data Flows

    • Data Flow Diagrams: Create diagrams showing how data moves through your systems, highlighting where data is stored, processed, and transmitted.
    • Data Classification: Document data classification (e.g., public, confidential, sensitive) and the controls in place to protect it based on its classification.
    • Third-Party Data Sharing: Document any data shared with or received from third parties, including the controls and agreements in place.

Use Visual Aids

    • Create simple diagrams and charts to visualise the network layout, data flows, and server organisation.
    • Visual aids can be crucial for overcoming language barriers and ensuring accurate understanding across teams.

Schedule Regular Updates and Reviews

    • Set up regular meetings or video calls with the core team and other SMEs to review the progress, clarify doubts, and validate information.
    • Use these sessions to address any misunderstandings or language-related issues promptly.

Create a Glossary

    • Develop a glossary of terms and acronyms used in the documentation to ensure everyone understands the terminology clearly.
    • This team members for whom English is a second language.

Document Disaster Recovery

    • Document Disaster Recovery (DR) Plans
    • DR Strategies: Outline strategies for data backup, recovery sites, recovery point objectives (RPOs) and recovery time objectives (RTOs).
    • DR Procedures: Document detailed DR procedures for different scenarios (e.g., data breach, natural disaster).
    • Testing Records: Include records of DR plan testing, issues identified, and corrective actions taken.

Review Policies and Procedures

    • Ensure all IT policies and procedures are up-to-date and compliant with relevant standards and regulations, including access control policies, data protection policies, and incident response plans.

Review and Feedback Cycle

    • Implement a thorough review and feedback cycle involving all SMEs to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the documentation.
    • Be open to feedback and willing to make adjustments based on insights from team members with different perspectives.

Conduct Internal Assessments

    • Perform a self-assessment to identify gaps in documentation, policies, or procedures.
    • Use checklists or auditing tools to simulate the audit process.

Training and Knowledge Transfer

    • Conduct training sessions to review the documents and ensure everyone understands the content.
    • Use these sessions to refine the documentation further based on questions and feedback.

Conclusion

An IT audit for a data centre migration is critical in ensuring that the migration is executed effectively and securely and complies with all relevant requirements. By systematically evaluating each migration phase, organisations can proactively mitigate risks, address potential issues, and ensure a smooth transition to the new environment.

 

Tales from the Desk of a Technical Author

In the world of technology, unsung heroes lurk in the shadows, wielding their pens (or keyboards) to document the wonders of code, hardware, and software. In my case, training materials, editorial and consulting. Yes, we’re talking about technical authors – the wizards of words, the maestros of manuals, and the unsung champions of clarity in a sea of tech jargon.

Contrary to popular belief, technical authors have a fun job that goes beyond following rules. So, buckle up and prepare to embark on a journey into the quirky world of technical authorship!

First, let’s debunk the myth that technical authors are mere writers. Oh no, my dear reader, we are much more than that. We are the bridge builders of the tech world, straddling the chasm between siloed departments with the finesse of a tightrope walker on caffeine.

Do you need help?

    • To translate developer jargon into plain English? 
    • Are you deciphering the cryptic scribbles of the engineering team? 

We’ve got you covered, and fear not; we shall unravel the mysteries of their chicken scratch.

But wait, there’s more! We are:

    • The masters of documentation management.
    • The Jedi knights of version control.
    • The guardians of the sacred art of template creation.

Need a document wrangled into submission?

Call us. Need help with the intricacies of your company’s document management system?

Call us, and we’ll swoop in like caped crusaders armed with spreadsheets and flowcharts.

And let’s remember our diplomatic prowess. Oh yes, dear reader, technical authors are the peacemakers of the tech world, armed with the patience of saints and the diplomacy of ambassadors. Picture this: a heated debate between rival factions over placing a comma in a user manual. Who swoops in to save the day?

That’s right, your friendly neighbourhood technical author, armed with a cup of tea and a voice to calm even the most agitated developer.

But our greatest superpower is our ability to transform mortals into document-writing virtuosos. Is the colleague struggling to string together a coherent sentence? Fear not, for we shall sprinkle our magic writing dust upon them and watch them blossom into wordsmiths before our eyes.

When you next encounter a technical author, dear reader, consider the depth of their skills and influence as the unsung hero of the tech world. We deliver well-written manuals, crafted templates, and harmonious team collaboration.

 

Navigating Resistance to Change: The Power of Experience

Introduction

As a technical author with 25 years of experience, I have worked with the best and worst of people. I have encountered and survived complex individuals in various roles. 

I possess the ability to perceive people’s reactions to my proposals, which has proven invaluable. Even with my expertise, suggesting a complete transformation and changing the current setup can be challenging.

This article emphasises the importance of continuous change, trusting your instincts, and overcoming resistance to changing established procedures.

    1. The Power of Instincts: Refrain from undervaluing your intuition or gut feelings in professional settings. Your instincts can play a vital role in decision-making. You can identify the best ways to deliver solutions by reading people and their reactions. If it turns toxic, walk away and preserve your sanity and reputation.
    2. Do not overlook the value of experience, a precious commodity. Over 25 years, I have encountered diverse scenarios, learned from success and failure and refined my techniques. My perspective from experience lets me get on with the job and find solutions.
    3. In today’s fast-paced digital world, document management is constantly evolving. New tools, technologies, and methodologies emerge, offering greater efficiency and effectiveness in handling information. We must stay up-to-date with these changes and maintain our relevance in the industry to deliver optimal results for your audience.
    4. Understanding the psychology of words is crucial for effective technical writing. It involves tailoring information to meet your target readers’ needs, expectations, and cognitive processes. Creating content that engages readers requires identifying their frustrations and preferences.
    5. Embracing Continual Progression is the key to staying relevant in a dynamic industry. Remain open to adopting new tools and methods to enhance content creation and management. Change can improve efficiency, quality, and audience satisfaction despite stakeholder resistance.
    6. Overcoming resistance to change is natural in professional environments. Managers refrain from using new solutions because they perceive facing fresh problems. To overcome this resistance, consider the following strategies:
  • Please explain how the proposed changes will benefit the company, including how they will align with business goals, increase efficiency, and improve the user experience.
  • Practical solutions can gain broad acceptance by establishing trust.
  • Involve stakeholders in decision-making, seeking input and addressing their concerns or apprehensions.
  • Provide ongoing support to ease the transition and ensure everyone is comfortable with your solution.

Conclusion:

Your experience as a technical author has given you valuable written communication skills.

  • To introduce changes into a stagnant environment, trust your instincts and keep progressing.
  • Communicate the benefits to stakeholders in overcoming resistance to change and lead towards a more efficient and compelling solution. 
  • Embrace the power of your experience, and let it guide you as you navigate the ever-evolving world of technical authoring.

Technical Author; learn how to project manage documentation projects

As a technical author expert, I recommend that other technical authors should learn how to plan their documentation projects. One of the most common issues project managers face is underestimating the complexity of documentation projects. This can have negative consequences on the project’s success, as inadequate timelines and impossible targets can be set without consulting professionals for advice.

Technical authors should prioritise learning how to plan their documentation projects. Project managers underestimate the complexity of such projects, leading to negative consequences for their success. Consulting professionals for advice is crucial to avoid setting unrealistic timelines and targets.

Documenting anything takes longer than project managers realise. They often prioritise other aspects of the project over documentation, leading to inadequate planning for documentation efforts. Project managers must plan and execute documentation projects more efficiently to achieve goals.

Clear communication with stakeholders and team members involved in the writing stages is paramount. Establishing communication channels to ensure the successful planning and execution of documentation projects is crucial. People need to understand the expectations of the team they will work with.

Project managers who underestimate the time-consuming document review and revision phases often realise they need more time to complete their plans too late. Therefore, project plans can lead to issues when changes or updates are required.

To ensure proper documentation planning for documentation projects, project managers must understand the unique challenges and requirements associated with technical writing and documentation. Involving documentation experts in the planning stages leads to more successful documentation projects. So, project managers must consult technical authors to ensure the success of documentation projects. However, having a technical author who can lead the project and make adequate provision for managing over 50 documents might be a better idea and offer better results.

What’s the difference?

How many technical writers like me receive calls from agencies trying to source a content writer? It is not uncommon as many writing jobs these days appear under the banner of Content Writer. If you want to choose a suitable writer, read on.

One day, I had to explain the difference between our two titles—comparing my technical authoring skill set to that of a content writer.

Would you know the differences between a content writer and a technical author? If you get it wrong, it will be a costly mistake.

So, what do you know about the following job titles?

      • Technical writer
      • Documentation manager
      • Content Writer
      • Content strategist
      • Content manager
      • Information governance

Technical Writer

First, we have the most comprehensive skill set. We take complex information and make it accessible to people needing to accomplish a task or goal. We must comprehend the process and produce instructions with diagrams.

Before starting a large project, I would ask if they have a strategy identifying the essential documents (the MUST haves). If not, I will create one with a timeline that identifies the production of critical documentation using MoSCoW. Process authors write:

      • Policies
      • Processes
      • Work Instructions
      • Standards
      • How to guide?

We use SharePoint to manage and control documents. 

In the software industry, you can write a wide range of documents, such as

      • user guides,
      • detailed design specs,
      • requirement docs,
      • white papers, and
      • manage a back catalogue of previous records.

Technical Author’s Skill-set

      • Communication skills to write the narrative around the document
      • focussed on detail – without it, the user could make mistakes, or worse, throw the paper away as useless
      • create a consistent process everyone can follow
      • teamwork – impossible to create documents without SMEs
      • technical skills to understand the terminology
      • writing skills go without saying
      • document management,

Document Controller/manager

This role aligns with technical authors; the duties of this role will depend on the industry type. A document manager oversees organisational documents used by employees.

Content Writer and Manager

Content writing produces engaging content for the Web. They’re also responsible for setting the overall tone of the website. Content writers accomplish these tasks by researching and deciding what information to include or exclude from the site.

There are many variations and opinions if you read up on various sites regarding the skill set. These are the most commonly mentioned:

      • Writing skills
      • Focus
      • Originality
      • Research
      • Customer knowledge
      • SEO and
      • Editorial skills

Content Strategist

The job is to create engaging content that resonates with customers and draws. The writer may have significant knowledge of the business. 

Information governance (IG)

IG is a strategy to manage information to maintain compliance requirements and operational transparency. Organisations must have consistent policies and procedures for distributing content. IG lends itself to information security, storage, knowledge management, business operations, and data management.

The differences. . .

Technical and content writers have common goals, such as solid writing and editorial and research skills. However, what the roles create in terms of content are different. Technical writing requires more specific knowledge. The clue is in the title; we produce technical content.

    • Technical writing must be objective and precise, with no personal opinions.
    • Content writing can contain an author’s opinion, figures of style, etc.
    • Finally, technical writers use a wide range of tools for writing, while Google Docs may be enough for content writing.

To get the job done, choose a suitable writer for your project.