Reflections on the TCUK 2018 conference

It is conference season at the moment, and last week we attended Technical Communication U.K. conference 2018 (TCUK).

The official theme for this years conference was “The pursuits of the Polymath”, but in reality it seemed to be about quiet confidence and quiet leadership. This was one of the most optimistic TCUK conferences I have been to in recent years. There was a sense that technical communicators are adapting to Agile methods, microcontent, and all the other changes the profession faces.

Below are summaries of some of the presentations.

Lessons Learned on an Introvert’s Journey to Leadership

Ben Woelk presented the opening keynote on “Lessons Learned on an Introvert’s Journey to Leadership”. A lot of technical communication professionals are introverts. He talked about the difference between extroverts and introverts. He talked about how extroverts draw power from personal interactions, and how introverts can feel drained after personal interactions. On leadership, he explained how introverts often overcome any reluctance to lead when they are passionate about a subject. This is often seen in activities outside of work.

Technical mentoring

David McCormick talked about the technical mentoring provided to Technical Authors at ARM.The more you understand the technical semantics of the topic you are writing, the easier it is to write well. He looked at how to improve our subject knowledge, using real life examples from ARM.

ARM has a lot of writers, who have different backgrounds. It offers different learning approaches so people can learn in a way that can suit them. These can be self-study, short learning sessions, 1-1 coaching and mentoring. He said one important issue is whether you offer a syllabus or self-directed learning. There are pros and cons for both approaches. At ARM, they developed self-study learning materials, with optional exercises, which authors had to go through before each 1-1 mentoring session. ARM developed knowledge and skills matrices for each subject or product, and the mentor used this to identify the topics that the students needed to cover.

What makes a good coach or mentor? He said, you need to good working knowledge, be patient, and have good interpersonal skills. They need to be encouraging. At ARM, the coaches and mentors can be engineers or senior writers.

Polymathing Office 365

Eran (Yuri) Kolber gave a presentation on using Office 365, and how its cloud tools can improve a documentation team’s productivity.

Eran explained some of Office 365’s less-frequently used capabilities, such as SharePoint Online, OneNote, Teams, Forms, Delve, Sway, and Flow.

He showed how you could use OneDrive to share files, OneNote to collect and collate information, and Delve to discover who is working on similar projects. There were lots of interesting ideas in his presentation. He also mentioned Microsoft Stream. Stream is Microsoft’s video hosting service. Stream can create audio transcriptions and use face detection to make finding relevant content easy. You can even search for specific words or people shown on screen.

Structured content

On the second day, I spoke about structured content. There was a lot of interest in how it could be used with an documentation API and/or a Headless CMS. In the Q&A session at the end, we discussed the way a Headless CMS could be used for user documentation.

Developing user-centred content in an Agile world

Sarah Thomson explained how working in the Gov.uk’s multi-disciplinary teams in an Agile environment helped the content design team to focus on the language of users. She showed how Agile could help designers focus on the user need, as it has more frequent testing stages and the Waterfall methodology. She said the planning could be a storyboard to test the hypothesis that solution will meet the users needs. For writers, this typically means starting with the minimum amount of content, and testing if that meets the user need.

Working with third-party content

Jennifer O Neill looked at the challenges with working with content from OEMs. She looked at content quality, legal issues, localisation, tools, terminology management.

She said the main challenges she faced are:

  1. Poor language quality. A lot of content comes from Google Translate, and influenced by Chinese grammar rules.
  2. it is hard to get Chinese Other Equipment Manufactures to recognise the importance of documentation. They want to keep costs as low as possible.

She recommended:

  1. Be in charge of your content, so you can fix any errors.
  2. Set up standards for and manage your terminology, so you have consistency. Give an OEM a glossary, for the 200 or so terms they will use.
  3. Track where the errors come from, so you can go back to the OEM.
  4. Spend time on your managing your terminology. This can be 5-10% of your working time.
  5. Find a common ground for a way to work on projects with an OEM. Agree and document common processes. This can help if there is a lot of staff turnover at the OEM.
  6. Be patient, and try to understand how the OEM works.

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