Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Because it's there...

Imagine an organization where the best minds in the Indian documentation industry put their heads together to thrash out solutions to everyday (writing) issues. Imagine if the Edwins, Suchis, Kumars, Basus, Gurus and everyone else who's made an impact in this field, all worked for a single organization.  Oh, stop dreaming and go back to work! Not going to happen. Because apparently, there was one law that Newton missed. One interpretation evidently says, the higher you go, the narrower your vision becomes. Or something to that effect. At least for some.

I've been enjoying tech writing conferences from 2007. I've attended all the STC events till date (from 2007) and all the TC world events in India as well. As promised, here's my take from the front seat.

Introducing.... in the blue corner, the 16 year old veteran, the STC India Chapter taking on the challenger, in the red corner, the 3 year old TC World India.

Round 1 - Value for Money: STC goes in with a quick left, right combination. With a 50 dollar membership, you can attend the main conference for 'free'. 1000 rupees more will get you the pre-conference too. TC world conferences are steeply priced, comparatively. I wish I knew who was making all the money. STC events manage to squeeze in more tracks as the duration of each track is usually less.  Which makes sense, keeping in mind the reducing attention spans. The breaks are also shorter. A lot of time is wasted at the TC World conferences.
TC World seems to have lost a few teeth in the first round.

Round 2 - Content: International does not automatically mean quality. We are in the communication business. Quite a few speakers, especially from non English (US/UK) speaking countries, struggle to express themselves at TC World despite all the hype created about the topic itself. I'm not saying they are all like that. But if you've had two experiences, one bad and the other good, which one is likely to stick in your head?
STC topics are selected by a panel of 'experts'. There's a call for papers and only the 'best' are selected. I don't know how it is done in TC World India. But whatever method they are bungling with seems to work once in a while. While we had Scott Abel talk in one event, another was wasted with some IT guy who became an MP. Novelty=10 Utility=0.
It's not going too well for TC World.
Round 3 - Attendance: Both these events are well attended. But TC World being restricted to Bangalore, obviously sees mostly local folks. But if you are looking at participants from outside India, it's the TC World conferences that has more participants from outside India.
With some good defensive moves from both contenders, this round is evenly matched.

Round 4 - Venues: STC walks away with the prize in this department as well. Sometimes. Don't think so? Visit Zuri. TC World on the other hand is getting predictable at the Taj Vivanta, Bangalore. When you get predictable in a bout, you get hurt.
Not looking too good for TC World again.

Round 5 - Sponsors: We have a few companies that jump at every opportunity. But generally, I find this area to be evenly matched.
STC is a little surprised at the way TC World is matching punch for punch now.

Round 6 - Salary Survey: Another reason to attend the STC event. But like I've repeated many times over, it would have made more sense to do it by role. Create at least two surveys, one for people managers and the other for individual contributors. Otherwise, it doesn't make much sense. People managers are usually paid more. It screws up the figures if this distinction is  not clearly made.
All that effort is making STC to sweat a little hard.

Round 7 - Maturity: So this one is going to hurt. At least one of these groups is run by a set of more mature people. The other group is busy in the censorship business determining what's good for its audience simply based on references to the opponent. Not on possible value that the content could mean to the audience. If there is a mention of the competitor, stuff just goes missing. It's a pity that some people can't/won't even try to see eye to eye. That's with or without heels.
Talking about eyes... TC World seems to have one black eye.

Round 8 - Food: This is probably the last item on the 'menu'. But in my personal experience, I found that food served at STC conferences to be a little more palatable. There's also more variety to select from. So if you have to choose to go for a conference and you've heard it all before, there's some hope for you if you've selected the STC event.
And what do we have? It's a Knock Out.

Actually, on viewing replays, the Knock out was a result of TC world tripping over their own shoelaces and landing on the head. Ouch.

What I'd like to see in these conferences

Innovation is not just about a flash mob dance, where the audience is left wondering about who's flashing and who's dancing. Neither is it about a flash drive. TC World often gives all participants a USB drive. While the idea itself is novel, never has it served the purpose it was intended for. Some of these drives even set off antivirus alarms. I kid you not! They've even contained outdated versions of presentations that were not even close to the ones that were actually shared by the presenter. Not to mention that the majority of presentations made, were missing! Concerned about privacy? Stop pulling my leg. You had no business putting up private content in the first place. It suddenly becomes private when someone asked for a copy? There were a couple of things that TC world tried. One was assuming that because this industry has more of the XY chromosome, they thought that kids were a concern. Day care on a Friday was arranged. And Murphy took care of the rest. So while I agree that the TC World organizers tried new things, how much of it actually worked, is another matter. I appreciate the STC organizers for at least seeking suggestions and ideas. Not simply conducting an event, without really understanding the audience and their needs. Try and be more participative. Even Hitler saw success, but it was only for a while.

Introduce (and talk about) a hash-tag for the event and encourage the audience to tweet their thoughts about each presentation as and when it happens. And there's a large screen that shows the tweets as they are sent out. This is being done in several other conferences. Perception is reality. Learn to manage it.

Here's your chance to connect with your audience. Conducting video interviews with participants will be useful to promote the event next year. Nothing works as well as 'shot at the location'. Record feedback about the conference.

Eat the cake and have it
Video record all the tracks. And make them available at least to members. TC world had made an attempt to try this and there was also one STC conference in Pune where all tracks were recorded. But of course none of us got to see these recorded tracks. There's a wealth of information being shared. It kills some of us that we can't be at more than one place at the same time. Solve that problem for us.

Please ensure you have reviewed every presentation before the event. People don't always attribute the lack of standards to the speaker. It's shared with the STC or TC World brand. So guess who's taking the beating when something is not right? I'm still aghast when someone presents a deck that uses a yellow font on a white background. Worse, the font is minute, AND there are no telescopes in the conference kit! When selecting a speaker, make sure that the check box for 'common sense' is selected.

Time Management
For once, please keep time. You are disrespecting the punctual people when you wait for late-comers. Start on time, end on time. Don't insult yourself talking about the Indian Stretchable Time. Every time. Make sure there is sufficient time to scuttle between halls before each session starts. Orchestrate the tracks. Assist the speaker in managing time. We could have the 'smarties' walking around with a sign board that said 10 minutes left, or 5 minutes left. Just like they walk around before each boxing round. Let there be hard stops. You are allowed to knock out your audience, but only within the stipulated time. Otherwise, it's a foul!

Apps for Feedback
Collect feedback from your participants. Please don't use paper. Use apps. What? No smart phone? That person needs the feedback more than you do!

Encourage Carpooling to and from the venue
I'd go a step further and try and connect with folks coming from other parts of the country. Offer to take them around the city. If you have a couple of bedrooms that you could spare, you could invite them home. Not everyone gets sponsored by their companies. This good deed can maybe returned when the event happens in your city. Facilitate this collaboration.

A little heart for Corner Cases
Be considerate to special needs in your audiences. There was more than one occasion where there was this handicapped writer (he was visually impaired and had only one functional hand, but by golly, what a thought process he had!) Firstly, I think such folks should be given a discount in their registration dues. Secondly, imagine trying to eat all the wet stuff with one hand, holding the plate and cutlery. Lookout for such folks and make sure they are comfortable. Just a sandwich or roll should make them happy. It goes a long way to show that you care and that you've thought about everything. Also, there are several folks who lost their jobs recently. Can these events be considerate and allow such folks to attend at maybe student rates?

And oh the title? That's what a famous mountaineer said when asked why he climbed Mount Everest. Some of us attend (and conduct!) these conferences with the same attitude.

Make it matter. Impress your audience. Inspire. Make sure they'll pay for their own registrations the next time, when their companies don't.  And they see value.

I'll leave you with what I think could be a powerful thought. We all know that over 90 percent of communication is non-verbal. So why are we still writing manuals?

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Case of Diminishing Returns?

The 3rd edition of the TC World Executive Conference at Bangalore for Leaders in the Tech Writing Industry (after The Emperors New Clothes and Management Lessons) was, well, not as (for want of a better word)  productive as the first two. Though according to the organizers, about 10 more folks had registered this time (compared to the 50  participants last time), it looked like there were fewer who actually attended, especially from outside Bangalore. There were a few familiar faces, but there were also several missing. It didn't start on time like it has in the past. Waiting for late comers, as usual.


Khadim Batti’s key note was about how he and his partner ventured out as entrepreneurs. He described the struggles and the wins along the way and how they stumbled across their current offering (reviewed here). He stressed on the importance of MVP (minimum viable product) and customer validation of the product being offered. And how do you know if you’ve launched at the right time? If you haven’t received (enough) flak from customers for version one, you’ve probably waited too long to launch. Khadim described how they got their first customer and it was this customer who demanded certain features; features that they had not yet built, but had already sold! Their first product which was a search optimizer, saw a good number of interested customers sign up with them. But they also saw a lot of churn. They found that customers were not following the recommendations made by the tool and thus didn't see value. When trying to explain how to use the tool, they hit upon the idea of whatfix . It was a tough call to give up a product that was earning them money and go after one that they thought had more promise. But they were certain they could do only one. If you have a unique product, your customers aren’t limited by geographies They have customers in Italy, France, Holland, Canada and the US. The quote on his last slide summed up their experience really well.

                "Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t, so that you can spend the rest of your life like most people can’t.” Wow!


Talk Show - Lessons in Leadership and Entrepreneurship

The talk show was at best an OK. Nothing to write home about (or any other place). Other than the usual suspects on the 'couch', the only variation was Madhuri Hegde, who is into translation and localization. I wish someone asked these questions before these 'talk shows'. What would you want your audience to remember after the show? Is there a clear theme? Will your audience be able to understand what you are trying to do? Is it relevant? and more importantly Who is your audience? What do you think they are expecting? I'd really like to know what the answers were. I for one, remain clueless.

Personal Excellence Workshop

Brij’s workshop on personal excellence was about problem solving using an expand, explore and converge methodology. The group was divided into groups of 3 with each participant describing a problem and the other two using hints on the screen to expand and explore the problem before converging to a set of solutions. It would have been awesome if Brij started by showing us how to use the method maybe by doing a role play. Some of us couldn’t relate most of the questions to the problems being discussed. But I guess, in the given time, it’s as much as can be done.

PACE - Operational Excellence and Performance Acceleration

Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Rajiv says it’s possible. But I think what would be more effective is to simply fix the chimp who did the hiring! The session started with the following video.

I'm sure that anyone who's looked up motivation has watched this one, at some point of time. Anyway, PACE stands for Performance Acceleration is a function of Competence Enhancement. Other than some anecdotes, I felt the whole thing seemed more like a trailer promoting the training program he conducts and a book he’s writing. This was complete with a live testimony from a customer who he ‘dragged’ along. PACE is a program designed to constantly improve performance and stop companies from constant fire fighting. (Sometimes just allowing things to burn is itself a solution. Ask our farmers!) The five steps involved in this process are awareness, aspiration creation, analysis, action planning and achievement. Yeah, you noticed it too? Someone has gone through a lot of trouble to get all the words start with an ‘A’.
There was one anecdote that he shared about a mountaineer he met at a Malaysian airport (very important, not just any airport) who had scaled the Everest. This guy, when nearing the peak developed frost bite and had the option of going back to the nearest base camp to get help or snipping off some of his fingers and marching ahead. Some people do some rather illogical things when it's cold! This guy snipped off 6 of his fingers and proceeded to the peak. There have been people who climbed Everest and returned with all body parts intact. Yes, in life you have to make choices. The choice of 'returning  now to fight another day' has worked for others. 
The way he was flipping through the slides, I thought the session would end with one of those limited offer pitches “if you approach us in the next week, there’s a discount, but only in the next week… remember”. But thankfully, it didn't. And the highlight of the session was clearly when he was narrating a joke like it was an incident. Unfortunately, everyone had already heard the punch line. The response was a damp silence. Wouldn't want to be in his shoes at that time. If there was anything to learn from that incident, it was on how to carry on speaking like nothing happened!

Innovation Workshop

This one also started with a video. I'm sure you are aware of the Fun Theory. If not please refresh your memory

There were two things that were at the core of the workshop. Other than of course, having fun. Yeah we got to blow balloons and build towers using them. We tried to. At least with the balloons that didn't go "boom". Coming back to the two things. Given that 90% of all internet traffic by 2017 is going to be video, one topic was the new shape of content. And the other was a Ground Reality - the grim situation in documentation where many companies were laying off writers (of course among other roles). We looked at average TW wages and how the Indian writer's wages were not all that competitive anymore. Organizations have the option of hiring from timezones that are closer to them (including Mexico and Europe). Not to forget Philippines. Many companies now even have data on why off-shoring to India does not work. So as part of 4 teams, we had to come up with ideas on the two topics. This was after our attempts to build a balloon tower using just balloons and some twine. At the end of the stipulated 5 minutes, two towers hung from the ceiling! There was one tower built with chairs (someone forgot about the balloons)! And one more 'tower' was struggling with midlife crisis! There was one question that the facilitators asked " In all the years you've been in documentation, has anyone in the audience come up with some innovation that made a big difference? There was only one answer, and even that was about not documenting procedures. (I can't resist this, but if some people focused a little more on collaboration and synergy, set aside personal differences and stopped deleting posts just because it had a 3 letter word in it, we'd probably make some headway in that area. Yeah ouch!)

Some of the questions asked/points discussed were

Can documentation become a profit center? Who's least affected in times of a recession? Why does documentation always have to prove value? Which teams don't have to move a finger to show the value they add? Can we take a few notes from them? What are our core strengths? Can we leverage any of these strengths to stop being a cost center? Would learning a new language help? How can we improve customer experience? Can we try something new using augmented reality? Would we be a natural choice when it comes to building customer communities? Do attitudes need to be changed? Does it make sense to specialize in a domain? What about getting into user experience?

State of Structured Authoring

And I have so many Adobe product discs, as part of conference kits or otherwise, that I think Adobe can point to me if anyone wants one : ) Adobe was the sole sponsor to this event. So giving them a slot makes sense. But Structured authoring as a topic? Adobe has so many creative people, (some of their ads at the venue were proof of it), I’m sure they could have come up with something better, more relevant. Was that really what Adobe really wanted to talk about? Was structured authoring what the audience wanted to hear? Well, there were some interesting statistics shared, but other than that, I’d just have to say that it was 30 minutes in lost opportunity. Maybe it's time to take a look at how Parth (when he worked with Adobe) did it in the 14th STC conference as a key note speaker.

Panel Discussion

The panel was different and had experts from different domains and different functions. One of the panelists talked about how he's never looked at the manual of any phone he's bought. (Well, looks like he's not doing much with the phone.) Another panelist almost said documentation was going away. It would DIE! Till someone in the crowd reminded him about statutory requirements. It's not going away alright, but will you be the one who will continue to do it? If we did what we've always done, how long can we continue doing what we are doing was one of the questions Sandhya asked. Most of the replies was around 3 years. The panel felt that the speed of products going live was increasing so much that lead times have becoming considerably shorter. Which leaves very little time for those documenting it. The panel also looked at why downsizing was happening to documentation teams. One of the thoughts was because many Indian teams managed documentation for sustenance products. When the strategy around the product changed, it is bound to impact support teams. 
There was talk about how aircraft maintenance is done using the manuals and how the direction going forward is to integrate help very closely with the product. There's no panel discussion complete without touching up on Apple. The product that doesn't need any documentation. But in fact as one of the panelists said, does have loads of documentation  online. One of the participants thought it would be great to involve documentation right from design, but practically, that does not really happen.

TC World conferences had a few things unique and one of them was that participants had a copy of the presentations (at least some of them) even before the presentations started. All on a pen drive. Did not happen this time. And that's only one of the reasons why it's probably a case of diminishing returns. And gauging expressions/body language from a few other participants I spoke to, it's not just me.

Coming up next: If I had to choose between attending the TC World Conference OR STC annual Conference (any one), which one would I choose? The cat's probably already out of the bag on this one.