Defeating Disappointment

Though often stereotyped, we Technical Communicators are truly NOT all alike. We paint our word pictures using every color of the visible light spectrum. We differ in our tastes, preferences and opinions, just like workers in any other profession. That said, throughout my 15 years in this field, I HAVE noticed a few key similarities among us. Whether we are new writers, lone writers or lead writers, “doc” managers or “pubs” managers, most of us seem to have these three things in common:

  1. Determination
  2. Detail-Orientation
  3. Disappointment

Determination: There is no question that our job requires tremendous tenacity. We are often excluded when we should be consulted, ignored when we should be engaged and rushed when we should be respected. Those that succeed in this field are the few who can endure these conditions and press on anyhow.

Detail-Orientation: This is a profession where the details deeply matter! A single incorrect character in a program listing or code sample can cause a data center disaster. The scattered need not apply. Focus is essential. Those who’ve made it in our field either exude this trait, or can turn it on when needed.

Disappointment: This is the area I want to focus on. Like most of you, I’ve both written the copy and made the coffee. I’ve taken the minutes and taken my lumps. I’ve watched Technical Writing managers spend hours soaking up the sadness of their hard-working team members. And I think I know why so many of us are sad.

We work incredibly hard, and under unrealistic time-pressures. We face exacting reviewers, red markup on print-outs and very little peer recognition. Then, after the product ships, we hear … NOTHING. No customer feedback, no metrics showing the result, few awards. What other profession has traditionally received the dearth of feedback that TechComm has encountered? When we wonder how we did, we’re told, “No one reads the manual“. If that’s the case, why did we burn ourselves out to perfect it?

The first two commonalities are character traits, and they serve us well. The last one is a condition, based on circumstance, and it holds us back. With this in mind, I wanted to offer some advice to the Technical Writing managers who read this blog. Don’t keep mopping up sorrow: Cap the leak. Here’s a few ways:

  • Give each team member at least one assignment that genuinely inspires them: Even if it’s only 20% of their time, give each writer at least one important long-term assignment to combat the tyranny of the urgent. Something to look forward to drives performance in every aspect of work.
  • Implement metrics to show your team who is reading what they write: Purpose is the world’s most efficient fuel source. The knowledge that one’s work is truly helping another is like wind in one’s sails. To realize you are truly making a difference puts a bouncy spring in your step.
  • Go to bat for your writers: Actively engage in teaching upper management. Show how important content has become in the social landscape. Explain how your writers are the best resources for responding to the challenges of tomorrow. Explain why techcomm cycles must be invested according to customer needs, not developer preferences.

Your team will continue to be determined and detail-oriented. But they deserve a hearty dose of optimism and hope. By defeating disappointment, we can connect to purpose-driven productivity. Everyone wins.

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11 Responses to “Defeating Disappointment”

  1. Yikes! I had no idea there was so much sadness out there in the profession. Thanks for writing this important post, Tristan.

    I think those are excellent suggestions you’ve listed. My favorite is the first one. One additional thought: perhaps the assignment might also provide a chance to learn and try out some new technology that’s out there. There’s so much to learn. Maybe someone has something they’ve been wanting to explore.

    In the spirit of trying to help, I can offer one example from my personal history. The culture of the IT department in this company was very supportive – open to experimentation and allowing and enabling people to try things out. My manager was no exception. She was great. Not only did she allow us to spend some time on what we wanted to pursue, she also helped make it happen by contacting others in the company, or finding out who to contact, or helping to get you on a particular planning committee or something like that.

    Another thought: work with sales and marketing to have them showcase the docs up front. I still recall when we purchased our mobile phones and the sales rep showed us where to find the help directly from the phone before we left the store. I was totally shocked. Docs could and should be presented as a feature, not an afterthought. So figure out ways to push your docs instead of having them sit there until people need to look something up.

    I know that feeling of burnout. Of wondering if anyone ever read or used what I wrote. Was I wasting my time. All that. Short answer: no. Of course not. One way or another, our work helps. Keep in mind that you’re not going to hear from everyone. Sometimes the most vocal are those that tend to find fault. You may not hear from those that read and use the docs and just quietly go about their business. Great idea about the metrics; that would definitely help.

    Another thought is due to a change in my life view following a personal hurdle I had to overcome. Don’t assume that your life today will be the same tomorrow. So if you need to, make adjustments in your life to be happy. For work, if it means you just print out Tristan’s post and take it to your manager, then you’re on your way. If you’re a manager, print it out and give it to your team members. And start brainstorming on how to get your docs out there. You’ll all be on your way. No worries, peeps!

    • I LOVE your comments and thoughts, Julie. Thank you SO much!

      I totally agree with your assertion that everybody has something relevant they’ve been “wanting to explore.” Rather than dismiss these as trivial, wise managers understand the long-term impact that can be made by an inspired team.

      And thank you for sharing your personal example. It’s exciting to read a real-world story on how an encouraging and empowering management style results in motivated team members!

      I can’t thank you enough for suggesting that others share the post. It means SO much to me that we, collectively as a profession, overcome our obstacles and proactively move forward.

      We are, indeed, on our way!

  2. “To realize you are truly making a difference puts a bouncy spring in your step” – I totally agree.

    I need to put some thought into how to make this happen.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article.

    • I am absolutely DELIGHTED to meet you, Alistair. Thanks so much for your comments.

      I’ve found and followed you on Twitter and I look forward to learning from you in days ahead!

      Again, I appreciate your input! 🙂

  3. Your timing in posting this article couldn’t have been more perfect. I’ve had a horrible week dealing with the disappointment you describe. I’m documenting three different products: two well-established and the third is brand new. All I have is a PowerPoint deck and a picture of the interface the developers tell me will change. I also have a deadline two weeks away, when I’m expected to deliver Help, user and installation guides. I’ve emailed, called and accosted developers in the halls, pinning them down for some face time so I can get even the slightest picture of what this product does. I’ve begged for access to a build, I’ve escalated and tracked and reported and all I’m told is that they’re not ready for documentation yet, they’re still coding.

    Meanwhile, on one of the established products, one of the project managers emailed 8 people with a problem found in one of my guides with this gem; “I don’t know who wrote this but it’s absolute nonsense.”

    I’m struggling to overcome the rather devastating feelings of failure I am currently feeling. Just knowing I’m not alone in this disappointment has made a difference and for that, I thank you.

    • If anyone CAN move from where you are to where you need to be, it’s clearly YOU Patty. Your tenacity and talent far outweigh these formidable troubles.

      I’ve actually been in this exact spot more than once, though it was a while ago. Here’s what worked for me:

      1) Make a list of the market leading products in the space (those that your new offering will compete with) – Check Gartner Magic Quadrant

      2) Gather all publicly available documentation from said competitive products

      3) In THEIR docs, study deliverable structure, audience level and task lists – Look for gaps

      4) In your tools, set up deliverable shells for your product content, do as much as you can

      5) Find internal marketing documentation (whitepapers, PPTs) – Use this to create “concept topics” – Even if you don’t have dev doc yet, program management had to write SOMETHING to get the release approved, right?

      6) Use variables for product names and feature names, assuming they will change

      7) Minimize screen shot use, assuming they will change: Import them into the tool via relative path, not embedded

      These tactics got me 50% of the way done while I waited to hear from Dev. Once finally received specs or builds, I was ready to plug the gaps and publish.

      Just my two cents.

      I BELIEVE in YOU! You GOT this.

      But you know that already. 🙂

  4. Great post, Trisan and I hope every manager out there takes it to heart. I think that, as a community, we need to make sure we can always demonstrate our worth. Metrics is part of that demonstration, but managers willing to fight up and support down are key too. I recommend that anybody who hasn’t read it yet, get a copy of Managing Technical Writers by Richard Hamilton, especially if you’re just moving into management. You’ll get a better understanding of the challenges from both ends.

    Keep up the great work!

    • Thank you for your encouragement and your endorsement, Julio!

      I appreciate the recommendation of “Managing Technical Writers”. I had the opportunity to spend time with our friend Mr. Hamilton at LavaCon and it was a JOY! There was a genuine Karaoke connection, that was uniquely TechComm!

      For all reading this, the book is available here:

      http://xmlpress.net/publications/managing-writers/

      By all means, pick up your copy!

  5. Defeating disappointment and happiness at work increases the productivity of the working personnel. The single most efficient and effective way to increase your productivity is to be happy and enjoying your work.

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