New Chapter

As some of my readers may already know, I have moved back home to Tampa, Fl.  It was a tough decision to leave Boston, but in the end, it just wasn’t for me and my husband and we weren’t happy living there.  We are settled, unpacked, started new jobs, and things are going great.  I started working for a software development company called MB2x and I absolutely love it so far.

My position is called Sr. Tech Writer/Business Analyst.  Most of my work is more on the biz analyst side since I am not writing any user documentation right now, but it’s great because I am learning so much and getting to do all sorts of things that I haven’t had the opportunity to do before.  For example, there has been a lot of client interaction and travel, and those are both relatively new and exciting aspects of the job.

My linkedin profile has more description of what my duties are, but mostly I am doing a lot of Information Architecture and UI design, user experience, (which I love), wireframing with Balsamiq (my favorite tool), writing software requirements specifications, writing use cases, personas, doing some bug testing and site maintenance (writing copy, etc), client management and presenting to clients, and all sorts of other tasks.

We are hiring right now, so I have been helping prepare for career fairs, posting jobs online, reading resumes, setting up interviews, and conducting interviews.  Since we are such a small company, I get to wear many hats and do something different everyday.  I love it because I can help out to with the most urgent priority each day and feel as though my work really matters rather than just doing the same task everyday that hardly gets noticed.

When I was job hunting, I had a couple of offers I was considering.  The top two were a large, well-established software house and this startup (MB2x).  In the end, I chose the startup for many reasons.  Mostly, I prefer smaller companies to large ones because not only does my work matter more, but I matter more to the company.  I will not get unnoticed or lost in the shuffle of people, I won’t have to answer to a chain of command any time I need to get something done, I won’t have to climb a huge ladder to get any advancement, and the list goes on.  So far I couldn’t be happier with my decision.

I love my boss, my coworkers, and the work we do.  I really believe in our products and our processes.  That is very important to me.  I am so happy with this career move and life move and so far this new chapter of life is going fantastic.  All is well in Lauren land.

Agile, Scrum, Waterfall, and CMMI Development

We are currently in the middle stages of the SDLC at work for a new application.  Our company operates under a number of different methodologies that have been merged together into a hybrid environment, (which is pretty common from what I hear).  There is no one perfect methodology – you have to take what you like from them and make it unique to how you want to operate.  The best way to describe our environment is Agile/Waterfall/Scrum/CMMI.  There is some disagreement on this subject.  Some may say that these are conflicting or opposed methodologies, while others find many simularities.

The largest influence over us is CMMI (Capability Maturity Model Integration), which is an approach for effective process improvement.  In order to be CMMI certified (we are currently level 3 and pursuing level 5), we have to adhere to and be audited on certain procedures and processes.  It requires that we complete things like project plans and risk analysis for each of our projects.  We also have to meet to approve each other’s projects, etc.

Although there are obvious difference between CMMI and Agile methods, they have a lot in common.  Agile requires us to complete activities such as requirements, specification, architecture, design, implementation, testing, deployment, and maintenance.  The CMMI tasks coordinate with and are incorporated with the Agile tasks.  Waterfall allows us to complete these tasks in a sequential process, with one step flowing down to the next.  We generally do not start on the next task until the first one has been completed.  (There is some overlap, but nothing goes out of order.)  For instance, we do not design while we are writing requirements.

Most recently, we have incorporated some of the Scrum (not to be confused with my hilariously embarrassing twitter typo “scum”) methodology into our process.  We started having daily, 15 minute long, Scrum meetings (or “Scrums”), with 1 person in charge, called the Scrum Master.  So far, we have noticed that these meetings are extremely productive and helpful to the team.  We created a wiki page on our Sharepoint site for the team to post their questions prior to the meetings and we have been going through everyone’s questions and answering them right there, on the spot, so that the developers can immediately incorporate the changes into their development (and me into my documentation).

As the lone writer at this company, I am an integral member of this team and I often have just as many questions as the application developers do.  I am writing the user manual as they are developing and even though we have written all of the requirements and use cases, I am still discovering things that need to be addressed while writing step-by-step instructions.  I find things like, modals that have not been mocked up, or incomplete processes in key functionality, etc.  I can’t imagine the tech writernotbeing a part of these meetings.

I like how we have the freedom to pick and choose the processes that we like from each of these different methodologies and create our own hybrid process.  I think we have taken the best elements from each and found what works for us.  We are a small company, and an even smaller software development team, so efficiency is crucial since some of us are wearing multiple hats.

Which methodology has your company adopted?  Are you in a hybrid environment like me?

Day 4 at the WritersUA Conference

The last day of the conference felt like the last day of school before summer vacation.  Everyone was buzzing around in a great mood, trading business cards (the professional equivalent of “sign my yearbook”), saying last-minute goodbyes to their newly forged friends, and taking silly photos.  It was obvious that we had a great time because everyone was a little sad to leave.

There is a lot of great information presented at the sessions, but probably the best part about attending conferences is the networking, side conversations, and personal connections made.  Sharing stories, venting frustrations and just getting away from the office and chatting with people who actually get what you do and what you go through is just fantastic.  I feel like I have found friends and mentors here that I will definitely keep in touch with and maybe even see again someday (another conference perhaps?).

I attended four sessions:

  • Improve User Productivity with Just-in-Time Advice
  • A Survey of DITA WebHelp Formats
  • Thinking About UA as Performance Support
  • All About Hyperlinks

I have to say that the first and last session benefitted me the most.  The middle two were really interesting, but ended up not very relevant to my current work (I’m not using DITA). The last session was led by Matthew Ellison from the UK and he was one of the best speakers.  I learned a lot about the origins, uses, and best practices for hyperlinks.

Just before lunch they had a fabulous peer showcase where 16 of the top industry professionals showed their innovative work.  I watched 3 of the quick, hands-on presentations and voted on them:

  • Creating Flash Rollover Images with Captivate and Snagit  –  Fer O’Neil took standard screenshots that when you moused-over the image, animations would appear in a flash video-style. Very cool!
  • Using a Web-based Product Lifecycle Roadmap and Customized Search to Increase Documentation Usability – Timothy Rosa used “sticky searches” and roadmaps to help users find the info they need faster and easier.
  • Engaging Users with Documentation that doesn’t feel like “Documentation” – This was the best of the 3, my top pick, and the winner of the peer showcase contest!  Steve Stegelin illustrates his own cartoons and graphics and integrates them with very contemporary walk-through guides that make reading them fun!

After the showcase we had lunch at Automatic Slims which was really tasty.  The conference closed with another real-time audience-response session led by WritersUA President Joe Welinski.  He asked us to predict the future of the field of User Assistance and the results were surprising, but probably true.  Technology is rapidly changing everything – it is difficult to keep up with at times.

I ate a duck cookie (pictured below), said my goodbyes, and shared a taxi to the airport with several other writers. I came to Memphis excited and nervous, not knowing what to expect, and left with a head full of information and a pocket full of business cards.

To read my session summaries, visit the Tech Writer Today Magazine website.

Day 3 at the WritersUA Conference

Day 3 was the longest day of the conference with sessions starting at 8:30 am and running until 4:00 pm.  I attended 6 sessions:

  • Getting Started with UA for Mobile Applications
  • Best Practices for Working with Video and Compression
  • Influencing Product Direction
  • Needs Analysis for UA Professionals
  • Using Iterative Design and Usability to Create Intuitive Applications
  • Integrating Help, Technical Support, and Training Content

Some of the other really popular and “tweet-worthy” sessions were the one on Neuroscience Research, eBooks, and gamification and comics topics.  If I could’ve attended more sessions, I would’ve, but you can only attend 1 out the 3 that take place in the same time block.  I attended the ones that were most relevant to the work I’m doing now, but would’ve liked to check out those other ones as well (luckily they gave each of us a flash drive that has all of the presentation slides on it!).

The best session I attended yesterday was the one on Integrating Help, Technical Support, and Training Content.  I really liked his strategy for using a landing page like a “Help Center” where all of the help content and training material, tutorial/training videos are all in one place.  This makes it so much easier for both us and the user.  The mobile session was great, but unfortunately I don’t see myself working with mobile devices in the near future at my current job – our customers are government employees.  The video session was REALLY informative.  I learned so much about video file formats, compression, screen resolution ratios, audio quality, etc.

We had another great networking lunch with topic tables.  I sat at the Blog/Podcast table (naturally), and had great conversations with fellow bloggers.  Then it was on to more sessions and finally we headed out to the famous Beale Street for dinner and some people went on a Pub Crawl.

We went to Silky O’Sullivans, which was an outdoor bar/restaurant with a live goat pen with a sign that read “Beware of the Irish Diving Goats.”

I had a great time there because I met a lot of interesting people and had great conversations.

I met several people from Microsoft and Dell and found out some insider perspective on working for a software powerhouse.  The common thread:  they are surprisingly more restrictive and closed-minded that you would think.  You hear stories about Google and Facebook’s free and fun work environment and assume that all major technology companies are like-minded, but that is not the case.

Day 2 at the WritersUA Conference

Today was the first full day of WritersUA conference.  They had a nice breakfast buffet for us (provided by Adobe) and then we went straight into the opening session, led by WritersUA President Joe Welinske.  They had a lot of audience participation in a quiz using real-time response pads that immediately aggregated results on the screen.  Many of the questions related to our everyday work and personal lives, while some were there just for fun.  Fun Fact: Did you know that Memphis was named after a city in Egypt?

I attended the following 3 sessions:

  • Embedding User Experience in the Product Development Life Cycle by Michael Hughes. Read my session summary published by Tech Writer Today Magazine here!
  • Improving Your Online Help with Topic Type Patterns by Linda Urban.
  • HTML5 and CSS3 to the Point by Scott DeLoach

They were all very interesting and directly related to my everyday work, so I would say that things are off to a great start.  Probably the best one for me was the first session on UX in the product development cycle.  Michael Hughes’ presentation really hit home for me and provided a lot of excellent advice for ways that UA professionals can add value to the product development cycle.

After that session we took a break for lunch, which was in the grand ballroom that made me feel like I should’ve been wearing an evening dress and gliding across the floor dancing to classical music.  Like this woman pictured below in the ballroom…

The tables were designated by interest areas.  I sat at the DITA table and learned a bit about the uses and benefits of DITA from some leading experts.  I’m trying to decide if switching to DITA would be beneficial for me or not.  Jury is still out…

Just before sunset, we attended a cocktail hour mixer on the famous rooftop terrace of the Peabody Hotel (where the opening scene of the movie The Firm was filmed). The weather was perfect for the occasion and the view of downtown Memphis and the river couldn’t have been better.  They served fresh fried green tomatoes and other hor dourves, which were delicious.  We also visited the ducks in their “palace,” which was nicer than my first apartment in college.

Photo by Andrew Thomas

After the mixer, me, Al, Connie, and Keith walked to the highly recommended Flying Fish restaurant.  We each got a different kind of fish and I was dared to get the banana pudding so I could try all of the banana pudding in Memphis and declare the best (a welcome challenge). So far, Central BBQ still takes the cake for the best banana pudding I’ve ever had!

I will be writing more detailed session summaries on TechWhirl so be sure to check them out (and subscribe to the fabulous email listserv).

Day 1 at the WritersUA Conference

I arrived in Memphis today (after a 6 hour flight delay and 2 time changes) and checked in at the Peabody Hotel for the Writers UA Conference. From the minute my taxi pulled up to the golden front doors (held open for me by doormen in bright red uniforms), I knew I was about to enter a historic and opulent landmark.  The main lobby has the charm of the south mixed with the grandeur of a historical museum.

Twice daily, the famous Peabody ducks parade from the rooftop to the main fountain.  These ducks set the tone and theme for the entire hotel.  Almost everything inside my room has a duck on it (including duck-shaped soaps in the bathroom).

After getting settled into my beautiful room, I met the Tech Whirl (Tech Writer Today Magazine) team face-to-face for the first time (I am covering the event for them with a team of other writers, as you will have learned in my previous post).  Having video chatted with them a couple of times online via skype and google+ hangout, it was really easy to tell them apart from the crowd. We went to a local bar, called “Local,” for a drink and to get to know each other a bit. Then we went to Central Barbeque for delicious pulled pork sandwiches, ribs, and life-changing banana pudding.  It was a nice way to end a long day of traveling.

I’m really looking forward to the sessions tomorrow! Good night!

A Technical Writer’s Bookshelf

Books. Yes, real books.  Black and white ink printed on paper.  I am a purist and one of the last remaining proponents of reading actual books.  No matter how cool, convenient, or affordable the eReaders get, I refuse to ever get one.  I like the experience of physically holding a book, turning the page, and writing notes in the margins.

I take books with me on airplanes and when everyone else has to turn off their electronic devices, I can still keep reading.  The battery on my book will never die, the hard drive will never crash, and water spilled on it will not ruin it. In fact, the older and more wear and tear that a book has makes it more valuable to me because it shows the character of the book.

Call me a curmudgeon, call me old fashioned, I don’t care.  One of my favorite things in life is the smell of an old book.  I love walking into a used bookstore, picking up a first edition, opening it to the middle, and planting my face in between its pages.  The smell of an old book takes me away to a different time when there was a slower pace of life.  You just can’t get that from a kindle.

So naturally at my desk at work, I have a bookshelf that is chock-full of paperback and hardcover books. Below is a list of the books on my shelf at work, which I believe to be a Technical Writer’s bread and butter.  I reference many of these books on a daily basis.

Style Reference Books

  1. Microsoft Manual of Style – Fact. Every technical communicator should have a copy of this book. It is 100% essential to producing quality (and correct) end-user documentation.
  2. Chicago Manual of Style – Goes hand-in-hand with the Microsoft one.
  3. AP StyleBook – If you are doing any sort of journalism or writing articles, you need a copy of this to reference as well.  These two styles are completely different and it is extremely valuable to know the difference.
  4. The Elements of Style By William Strunk, Elwyn Brooks White – The quintessential style reference book. Another must-have for any style of writing.
  5. HTML Manual of Style – Good for anyone who works with HTML.
  6. Merriam-Websters Dictionary and Thesaurus – Even though the internet can rapidly define almost any word, I still use this because it is more accurate.

Web Design/Usability/User Interface Books

  1. Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability By Steve Krug  – If you are working in web design in any capacity, this book is a must-have.
  2. How to Design and Write Web Pages Today By Karl Stolley – A really good approach to writing web sites by today’s standards.
  3. User Interface Design for Programmers by Joel Spolsky – a little more technical than the others, but it provides a ton of great information.
  4. The Design of Everyday Things By Donald Norman – A great book that will forever change the way you think about design.
  5. Head First HTML, CSS, & XHTML – This is a phenomenal book that teaches even the most non-tech savvy person how to make websites from scratch.  I love the Head First books because they present the information in such a user-friendly and easy to understand way. I highly, highly recommend.
  6. Head First Javascript By Morrison
  7. Head First jQuery By Benedetti & Cranley
  8. Adobe Classroom in a Book: InDesign – I highly recommend these books if you are going to teach yourself how to use the Adobe Creative Suite.  Their instructions are very good and they come with CDs.
  9. Adobe Classroom in a Book: Illustrator
  10. Adobe Classroom in a Book: Dreamweaver
  11. Writing Effective Use Cases by Cockburn – If you’ve never written a use case before, you will benefit from this book.
  12. Software Engineering: A Practitioner’s Approach by Pressman – This is a good book if you are new to Software Development (as I am).

Marketing & PR Books

  1. Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore – This book explains the Technology Adoption Curve that I talked about in an earlier post.  It is really interesting and helps you understand how the general public encounters new technology.
  2. Inside the Tornado by Geoffrey Moore – This book explains more about the chasm as well as going into detail about Value Propositions.
  3. The Idea Writers: Copywriting in a New Media and Marketing Era By Theressa Iezzi


I also have the Hunger Games series on my shelf.  Because, it is one of the best fictional series I have ever read.  Fabulous.  I highly recommend it.  Fiction is my favorite genre of books to read for pleasure.  I usually buy paperback or hardcovers, but I also occasionally will listen to an audio book from Audible on my iPod at the gym or on cd in my car from an audio book I checked out from the library (yes, people still check out books from the library).  I am starting The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series this week.  What’s on your bookshelf?

Meet us in Memphis @WritersUA Contest

I just entered a contest to be a guest blogger for the Conference for Software User Assistance hosted by Writers UA in Memphis, TN in March!  I’ve never been to a conference like this before and would absolutely love to go.

Just reading the session topics got this #techcomm nerd excited about the possibility of being chosen to go.  Their main topics are: Content Strategy, Tools and Technologies (HTML5, CSS3, HATs, Adobe, DITA, and Mobile help), and Emerging Skills. I feel like I could learn so much from these industry experts.  If picked, I would be interviewing them, attending the sessions, and blogging about it from the road.

I’m glad that tech writers and industry professionals get together like this to share ideas and engage in discussions.  It helps everyone develop and improve their skills.  College was the best time of my life, and I think it was mostly because of the constant learning, community, and engagement in focused subjects of interest.  I thrive on it.  I’m always researching new topics and looking for ways to improve myself both personally and professionally.  Attending conferences like this one is a great way to do so.

I hope I get picked!



Follow up: I won!  I’m going to the conference and will be covering it both on this blog and on the Tech Whirl website.  Stay tuned for more info!

Tips & Tricks: MS Word

This is a fantastic article with tips and tricks for MS Word and Excel.  It inspired me to share a few of my own with you. I am a self-taught MS Office user.  I never opened a book or took a course on how to use the programs (which is the case for every program that I use), I just started using them and clicking on things to see what they do until I learned advanced techniques.  I picked up a few tricks from peers and colleagues, learned some while writing my thesis, at work, and of course, from googling how to get out of “format hell,” as I like to call it.  But by now, I can make Word, Excel, Power Point and Outlook sing and dance.

1. Show/Hide Formatting marks.  This is probably my favorite feature of word.  I often reveal the formatting marks while I write and edit.  The first thing to know about these little marks is that they hold all of the formatting for the entire line of text.  If you highlight the paragraph symbol at the end of a line and copy and paste it over the next line’s mark, then that line will have the same formatting.  (It is similar to the functionality of “Format Painter,” but it is more specific.)

To show the formatting marks, click on the symbol (shown below) in the Paragraph section of the Word ribbon at the top of the screen.

It will look like this when it is turned on:

2. Use Styles religiously.  Along with revealing the formatting marks while I write and edit documentation, I also reveal the styles.  If you have no clue how a word or line is being formatted (or if it is doing something totally wacky – which it usually is), simply click anywhere in the line and look at which style is identified in they styles pane.  In the example below, the cursor is on Normal text.  You can use this feature to select a line and click on your desired style set for that line and it will change the formatting for the selected line(s).

This is also where you can modify the default styles. Hover over the style name, then click on the arrow to open the drop-down menu and select Modify.

This will open the Modify Style Editing window.  From here, you can change everything about that style and make it your own.  This is crucial to being a professional writer.  Using the default styles is usually the mark of an inexperienced writer.  It is very easy to modify the styles and it can have a major impact on your work.

3. I have two words for you… Find and Replace.  Warning: This might change your life.  Have you ever spent hours going through a document to change 1 word to another?  This feature of word will change everything.  From the Home tab on the Word Ribbon, click Replace.  This will open the Find and Replace window.  In the first box, type the word you wish to replace.  In the second box, type the word that will replace the first word.  Click Replace All.  Voila!

4. Track Changes is your friendWhen you need to edit a document and mark it up with your changes, track changes is the way to go.  I’m often surprised by  how many people don’t know about track changes.  They manually change the color of their text each time they type and manually enter comments, when all that work is done for you with track changes.  From the Review tab on the Word ribbon, click on Track Changes to turn it on, then freely edit the document and save.  You can also add comments from the review tab and it will mark them with your initials.

5. Compare/Combine.  Here is a scenario for you: Two people are editing the same document.  One is using track changes, the other isn’t.  You need to compare the edited version to the original and see what they changed, you can use the Compare feature in word.  It will prompt you to locate both versions in your files and then it will markup the edited one with track changes so you can see what they changed.  Now, let’s say that you need to merge their marked up copy with yours, use the Combine feature. These features are both accessible on the Review  tab of the Word ribbon.

And now for my favorite time-saving keyboard shortcuts!

  • Ctrl+C = Copy
  • Ctrl+V = Paste
  • Ctrl+B = Bold
  • Ctrl+U = Underline
  • Ctrl+I = Italic
  • Ctrl+Z= Undo (love this one)
  • Ctrl+X= Cut (it copies and deletes at the same time)
  • Crtl+A = Select All (very useful)
  • Ctrl+P = Print
  • Ctrl+Scroll = Scrolling up on your mouse scroll wheel increases the size of the page you are viewing and scrolling down decreases it.  This works on most windows.
  • Alt+Tab = switch between open programs  (You can continue holding down Alt and pressing tab to toggle through all your open programs.  When you release the Ctrl button, it will open the last page that you stop on.)
  • Alt+F4 = Quit Program or closes current window
  • Windows Icon+D = minimized all of your open windows
  • Windows Icon = opens the Start menu
  • Enter+Shift = In MS Word allow you to enter a carriage return (space) without carrying the formatting from the line above.  For instance, you are writing a bulleted list and you want to add a sentence in the middle of the list without interrupting the bullets.

Am I forgetting any?  What are some of your favorite time-saving tips and tricks for windows and MS word?

A blog entry on the importance of blogging…

I just read this article from Social Fresh written by Michael White of Musings of a PR Student and thought I’d share with you.  It is called The 8 Reasons Why Students Should Blog (but really applies to anyone – not just students). White makes some very valid points, most of which are reasons why I started a blog myself.  The biggest reasons for me were #1, 3, 5, and 6 – portfolio, networking, expanding knowledge-base, and reputation. (#8 would be nice of course, but like White said: “In my opinion earning money is never a goal, only a side effect from doing something you enjoy.”)