Geek Free Consulting is a boutique end-to-end consulting firm specialising in technical writing, instructional design, training and facilitation as well as change management. We are dedicated to achieving quality outcomes that satisfy our clients requirements and add long-term value to their business.
It began as an easy and fairly innocuous job. The only downside was that it had to be finished by Monday. But I was just the technical writer and my role was secondary. Or so I thought.
The content was being emailed to me by another person. A communications document for a new software implementation. All I had to do was wait: then review, resequence and summarise.
So the emails went backward and then forward. Each time I received the emailed document, me being me, I created a new version. Besides being good practice, it meant that the email trail was a change journal. Version control.
Each time, I made the requested changes and sent it back. No slip-ups if any content was lost. Or so I thought.
Sunday came and went, Monday too. Tuesday morning, at coffee my colleague says to me,”Your name has been mentioned.”
I looked at him puzzled.
“So-and-so said that you deleted content from the communications document.”
I stared. I shook my head.
“I have the email trail. I made a copy each time I received the document.” Version control. Or so I thought.
I’d been iced.
So-and-so didn’t discuss anything with me. Our supervisor didn’t discuss anything to me. The next I heard about it was when our managing consultant convened a meeting.
“Version control,” I said as I explained. Or so I thought. But I had been iced cold.
The greatest public humiliation I experienced was at the hands of an ex-wife and her then boyfriend. But that didn’t prepare me for my greatest workplace humiliation (also known as the copy and paste incident).
It occurred during a meeting. I was presenting the changes I had made to an intranet to a group of people. At that time I was working with two subject matter experts and sundry members of that group, taking content from Microsoft Word and re-presenting it to a Wiki.
I had made it clear in my interactions with this group that they provide the content and I reformat, restructure and resequence it for the intranet. And I had also ensured there was a process of approval. Each and every email was suffixed with the intranet link and a postscript, to the effect of if you wish to make any changes, please contact me. Which was universally ignored by this particular group of people.
During that meeting, one of the participants complained that I had changed her content. My response was mild. The content was in Word, it was being moved to an intranet, inevitably it would be changed as writing for the web was…
Until I was interrupted by the manager of the group. She in no uncertain terms directed me to copy and paste. She asked me if I understood her directive and carry this out. The pause that followed was a lifetime. I thought to myself, “That’s the end of me.” And it was.
Perhaps you’re curious. Perhaps you’d like to know what a technical writer really does?
Don’t they wall themselves off, hibernate from humanity and only emerge through a single person crevice?
Do they then re-emerge brandishing a finished, poetically written, exquisitely prosed work instructions? Or a golden policy or procedure?
Or is there more unwritten pages to the role?
“Are you a spy?”
Close but no unbuttoned trenchcoat. We do find out hidden secrets. We find out those closeted snippets of knowledge that enable an organisation to operate. That knowledge that lies between the known documents and the unknown expertise.
“So you ask questions then. Are you an interrogator?”
Only if your answers are monosyllabic. Only if your answers already are documented and you’re confirming known knowledge. Besides if you think I’m an interrogator, I’d be sitting back and telling you all my past secrets hoping you’d tell me yours.
“Yes you are good. Close but not yet there.”
Technical writers are much like historians. We take the past and are able to interpolate it in the present. Much like the enquiring mind that can work out who really killed Arthur of Brittany!
” Only afterwards. Only after it’s determined what’s to be kept and what needs to be stored for history’s sake.”
“A spy, an interrogator, a historian and archivist rolled into one?”
All clues to the final answer.
A technical writer is an interpreter. He or she first takes the often unspeakable hieroglyphics that comprise business documents. Then he or she asks the missing questions.
With the answers found he or she structures, simplifies, summarises and sequences that documentation in the hope that it will be clear. As birdsong. A tune that only the right audience knows, lyrics that they can understand so they dance as they apply that knowledge to their working lives.
There I was, sitting silent in the project meeting. I was quiet, meek and mild, bored in truth, for nothing was relevant to me. That was, until the external consultants spoke. They stated (and everyone agreed) that all live training would be using the (unstable) software test area. I sat there and silently contemplated the potential disaster that awaited the training team.
I tapped my pencil on the table in front of me. I metamorphosised from passive trainer to software change manger. Then came the awkward questions. “Will we be informed when changes occur? What about being emailed when the test area isn’tworking? Etc.”
My words didn’t even echo in what was now a soundproof booth. No-one answered me. But there was an ancillary benefit.
The next email I received stated that my colleague and I would have to attend project meetings for a while. Neither my colleague nor me were unhappy about that ! But…
We went live. I was off-site. The second training session. My audience, mental health professionals were most attentive. I resisted the compulsion to tell them about my unfriendly share house.
I had accessed a medical record . I started showing the patient information first. Then I clicked to show the individual documents for that patient. And they appeared. And as I turned back to the screen, one by one, like the stars in a famous science fiction story, the document icons disappeared. A few attempts to try that record and others didn’t work. As one does, I kept going.
I said, “What you would now be seeing would be document icons. Each icon is a thumbnail : miniature views of the first page of the document.” No one stirred. Then I asked if anyone knew Acrobat Reader. Everyone nodded with complete focus. I continued,”If you double clicked one of the icons, you would be viewing the document just like Acrobat. ”
And still by then, it wasn’t working. What I only recalled later was how understanding and attentive the audience were. Truly they encountered greater crises each day.
Afterwards, I returned to my desk at work. I then wrote a protest email describing what had happened. My colleague also affected created a PowerPoint presentation consisting solely of screenshots (which did see use when the network in a venue failed!!).
For some reason, the project team did ensure that training was carried out in a separate area.
It’s still the cool of a yet to be hot summer day. I watch as two boys in whites walk onto the shiny green cricket field.
I can’t tell them apart. Same height. Pads, gloves, even shoes are the same. Only their hats and branded bats distinguish one from the other.
They’re still alike until they start to play. Two opening batsmen with completely different styles. One with beautiful talent and grace and speed. The other with timing, patience and persistence.
As usual, I’m the scorer and sometimes umpire for my son’s junior cricket team. He’s yet to bat. And obviously, he won’t be batting with one of the two out there.
And today, I know which batsman will be leaving the field first. And the summer of the two dissimilar batsmen was brought to mind when I started reading John Stepper’s You are Talented Enough.
In that article, he recollects how as a manager would choose people on talent only. Those with talent were segregated, feted and developed to their potential. As for the rest, they would locked and boxed, then set aside.
Taking and applying that principle to our two opening batsmen, the talented one would receive all the coaching. After all, the talented one is scoring all the runs, isn’t he? And the persistent one, he’s racking up dot balls (no scoring shots), making less runs and isn’t worth the effort.
Until you asked the scorer (me) what was really happening. For each and every game was the same. The opener with ability scored runs quickly. But not for long. He always got out and returned first. As for his partner, he would still be out there, persisting in developing his talent. And slowly getting better despite the setbacks. Cricket has plenty of those.
And as John Stepper wrote large companies look for talent and nurture it . And I would imagine that such people didn’t always last the distance. Yet the ones with passion and persistence are the valuable ones, the ones that make my day, the ones I learn from and then the others I write or train.
Whether as player, scorer, cricket coach, subject matter expert interviewee, trainee, workmate, colleague, you get the idea.
Only one of those two players returned the next season. He kept persisting.
The deal was that I had to give up my business card. The benefit was I didn’t have to as I knew the giver (Michelle Ockers) who had finished presenting to the conference.
Which was lucky for me. For, after reading this book, I don’t have enough business cards to make the exchange worthwhile!
I began as writers do. I turned the book over and read the summary. The following phrases leapt out at me : “Investing in deeper relationships“, “Lead with generosity…You make your work visible and then frame it as a contribution.” That was enough for me. John Stepper had described the ideal workplace!
But how does Working Out Loud achieve even progress to that ideal? What is it all about?
Working Out Loud as defined by John Stepper is “an approach to work and life. It helps you achieve your goals and feel better about work while you discover more possibilities.”
I’m interested that Purposeful Discovery evokes adult education, specifically being a self-directed learner, and using critical reflection to discover and apply knowledge. So far so good.
And that Building Relationships evokes Dale Carnegie. Another tick.
And that Leading With Generosity mentions Give and Take by Adam Grant. This was the book that diagnosed and helped resolve one of my major work and personal issues. I’m too generous and I burn out. But from that book I learnt how to manage my workplace giving. But not to give up on serving others which is the best form of leadership (see Robert Greenleaf and his work on Servant Leadership). Excellent!
And then Making Your Work Visible. Here is the real reason that I’m holding this book. For this is the challenge for me. Up until now I thought Working Out Loud was blogging about your day. It’s not. Yet I want to share but not overbear when I do. And that’s the challenge. But there’s yet hope…
A Growth Mindset. Stepper talks about learning by effort. And me being me, I think of cricket. Especially how the determined players improved themselves and often bettered the more talented ones.
Better get started. It will be an interesting journey.
Often it results from a critical incident where the normal learning failed to work or new learning occurred. The participant is encouraged to reflect upon what they learnt and use it in the future. Often this is seen in sport, for example, a batsman in cricket has a certain weakness which is then exploited. Once the batsman realises the weakness, changes in technique can be applied.
The subject arose during aTwitter discussion on reflective learning for lawyers. The discussion centered around the necessity of reflective learning. That discussion led to the following article which talked about reflective learning in the context of legal studies.
Upon reading the article, it proved to be a brilliant example of the power of reflective learning. It showed how students can extend their knowledge by expanding the scope of their learning. Truly Transformational adult education.
But it sounded like a new-fangled idea! Professionals applying reflective learning? Who would have thought?
Schon takes the view that professionals need to be less reliant upon theory but be continuously learning through improvisation and reflection to remain professional.
While he explicitly mentions architects, engineers, town planners, management and psychotherapists his advice is easily expanded to accountants, medical staff, information technology specialists, consultants and lawyers. Perhaps even adult educators.
It’s still relevant today, perhaps more so, in our short attention span world.
Apart from school debating and one lecture presentation, nothing prepared me for my debut as an instant facilitator.
I was an attendee for a computer user conference at the World Congress Centre Melbourne at Crowne Plaza. As part of the Queensland branch of the group, I had been asked to introduce each speaker and then ask for questions once they had finished. This was easy. Usually there were no questions and I wrapped it up quickly. Or with too many questions, I left everyone to continue the conversation out the door after the presentation finished.
Which meant I was completely unprepared for the last session of the conference.
Fifteen minutes beforehand, I was taken aside and asked to lead. I almost went into apocalyptic shock. This was a plenary session. Me in the middle, five geek gurus on my left and several hundred system managers, developers, engineers and sales people in front of me. I was outgunned and more than a little overwhelmed.
And my preparation didn’t help either. I quickly scanned the names of the experts. I saw that one of them had worked on an previous incarnation of the currently popular operating system. That old clunker had a command called show stardate. I thought I could use that as my icebreaker.
I turned around and the fifteen minutes have disappeared in seconds. I walked to the podium. I waited for the geek gurus to sit. Then I wait for the audience to file in. I made sure to keep my hands behind the podium. If exposed they would be glistening from sweat.
I introduced myself. Then the experts. I make my joke about the show star date command. And I die. I received a dirty look for my failed joke.
I had no choice. I had to go on. Then it didn’t matter. I opened up the session for questions. And then I stepped into a different space and time. I’m suddenly aware of who was asking questions and what they really meant. Every so often, I would take a question and then ask for more information. Or paraphrase the question back to them for clarity. Both I found helped the experts with their answers. I’m not sure but I may have asked questions of them myself : I now know I tend to do that if no one else is asking.
It worked brilliantly. I was relaxed. I even apologised to the man at the back dressed in black sitting in front of a dark wall who I couldn’t see too well.
It went so easily. Except I’d never facilitated before and had only spoken in public on one other occasion. So what happened?
Last night, I mentioned in passing that one of my favourite authors was John Le Carre. Which began a discussion about Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy! After a lull, I mentioned that one of his books I most treasure is The Russia House. When asked why, my answer became surprisingly pertinent to my role as a documentation writer, trainer and change analyst.
This novel is Le Carre’s farewell to the cold war. It’s a well-written anti-spy story with a unique plot. It also is one of the best spy movies ever made.
It centres on a book publisher Barley Blair (played in the movie by Sean Connery) who is unknowingly given Soviet secrets stating that their nuclear arsenal is ineffective. That information falls into the hands of the British Secret Service who want to determine its truth. To that end, Blair is semi-trained as a spy and sent back to find out more. He ends up falling in love and plays the spies off against each other.
Yet Blair though an extraordinary character is not the reason I love and adore this book. It’s his handler, a spy called Ned (played by James Fox in the movie), a character who despite acting in the background dominates the story.
And its his relationship with Blair that fascinates me. As a good operative, Ned has done his research and is well-briefed about his agent. But he doesn’t divulge what he knows. For Ned’s role is to ensure Blair gains his trust, tells him what he already knows and tell him what he needs to know.
Ned is first and foremost a listener. To that end , Ned shows he has a open personality. His gift is to give away small secrets about himself so that others can share greater ones. His talent is so subtle that people tell him their truths without them ever knowing. And that’s exactly what happens with Blair.
Yet we only find out minor details from Ned about his life and background. We never find out what Ned is really thinking until the end of the book. And then its too late!
Ned’s a man well versed in the art of listening. A man who knows the power of the quiet of silence. Yet a man who knows how a few words can evoke many in return, enabling him to find out necessary and extra information. And that’s his talent. And his job.
If I were a spy I would have been like him. Fortunately, I confine my lesser talents to stakeholder management and eliciting information from subject matter experts. I do work in that same way : proffering small amounts of information to elicit greater knowledge while excluding unnecessary context as far as possible. Tasks at which Ned would have been incredibly adept.