Happy Ada Lovelace Day: Celebrating a Planetary Evangelist

Watercolor portrait of Ada Lovelace
Watercolor portrait of Ada Lovelace (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

October 15 is Ada Lovelace Day when bloggers around the world celebrate the first computer programmer, and all women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Last week the annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society came to Denver. The primary way I kept up with the news out of this meeting (and most things space-related) was through Emily Lakdawalla’s Twitter feed. Emily is the Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for the Planetary Society (PS), and she is just amazing.

PS President Bill Nye has a much higher profile:

Emily Lakdawalla, Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for the Planetary Society
Emily Lakdawalla

But Dr. Lakdawalla brings much more of the working scientist to her role of improving public understanding, and marshaling public support for exploration of our solar system and beyond. Before her current gig, she was a planetary geologist; she stays in touch with her experimental side attending and covering conferences.

I first encountered this sensibility listening to Planetary Radio, the weekly 30-minute podcast (and radio show) covering space news produced by the PS. Emily has a weekly spot running down the week’s headlines. This podcast is typically one of the highlights of my week, in part because everyone on the show is clearly smart, but not given to speaking in jargon and vocabulary designed to fly over our heads. As a technical writer who aims for that same sweet spot, I appreciate how rare this quality can be.

Emily’s “Snapshots from Space” blog demonstrates this quality too. In this post, she discusses her chat with a cab driver going to the airport on the way to Denver. The post also explains why she chose “Planetary Evangelist” as part of her job title:

The word “evangelist” is heavy with connotations and is not one I use lightly. I use it to convey my devotion and passion to my subject, and what I consider my avocation to share it with the world, along with the belief that a respect for the cosmos and our place in it can make people’s lives better.

If you have any interest in science, astronomy, or have a similar passion for humanity’s reach for the stars, go check out the Planetary Society, its website, and the radio program.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

Previous Ada Lovelace Day Posts on Notes from the Metaverse:


Tips to Become “Influential”

Last week, I was a little bit flummoxed to learn that MindTouch had named me one of the “400 Most Influential in TechComm and Content Strategy.” As honored as I felt to be part of this list (see my other site for an initial reaction), I’m still not quite sure what I did to earn such a high place (57) on the list. This is probably a good thing, as otherwise I might be plotting to make the Top 50 next year.

As a longtime blogger, and WordPress author, I do get the occasional question from people along the lines of “Can I get rich and famous from blogging?” My answer is usually the same lines: “It’s been done, but it ain’t easy.” Well, I am not rich (at least in the financial sense), and I’m only (very) slightly famous. Apparently, however, I am at least a little bit influential, so I do have some vague notion (maybe) of how I got here. Can I share?

Find experienced people who can help

When I first became a technical writer, my predecessor in the job moved to the marketing department of our company. I asked a lot of questions and soaked up all the information I could—not just about the software we documented, but about tech writing as a profession. Among other things, she shared with me a stack of publications from the Society for Technical Communication (STC). What a good idea that was!

Find a professional organization in your niche

Finding STC connected me with hundreds of other folks who had my job (or something similar) looking to become better at it. When I first started going to meetings of the Rocky Mountain chapter, I met people I was actually in awe of, but were still friendly and helpful. I learned more, and got more involved as time went on. STC is not a perfect organization (does such a thing exist?), but I’m still involved.

When that first tech-comm job ended and I came back to my hometown, I found another group of kindred spirits at BarCamp Milwaukee and Web414. Scroll through the archives here for some thoughts on what I’ve picked up from them over the years. One of the best things I picked up was an early acceptance of Twitter as a communication tool!

Go to conferences

My annual routine includes as many BarCamps, tech comm conferences, and WordCamps as I can attend. Most years, that’s only one or two of each, but I pine to see more. What’s great about conferences? Even if you don’t get to travel to some exotic location, you can get out of the daily routine and learn something new. There’s meeting and hanging out with a different set of people too.

I’ll remind you that WordCamp Milwaukee is coming in June, WriteCamp will be around that time, and BarCamp Milwaukee is the first weekend in October.

Share what you know

When you learn something, don’t hoard that knowledge. Whether you just retweet an interesting link, write a blog, or start speaking at conferences,it’s important to share. In my early days on Twitter, somebody out there suggested that a key to success on Twitter was to “always be linking.” Just don’t make your links all about yourself!

Have a personality, but don’t parade your ego

Here’s a generalization: Most people don’t care for people who just talk about themselves. When you’re interacting with people at all these events I’m suggesting you participate in, aim to be nice, and aim to be helpful. Whether you’re online, in print, or in person, don’t be the know-it-all (even if you think you do know a lot). Always remember that you’ve been wrong before, but maybe not now. Never be afraid to just listen, too. That is how you learn things.

I don’t know for sure whether these practices turned me into an influential character, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be doing what I do without these practices. Many thanks to all who have helped me over the last decade or so. Quite a few of those folks are also on the MindTouch list, but many others are outside the field.

Happy New Year! May you be influential in your niche too!

Conference Season 2011

Spring is here and it’s time to get educated. Yes, I suspect that a lot of you reading this are still in school, and aching for the days when you won’t be sitting in a room being educated. Tragically, I have to tell you that once you get out in the Real World, you really begin to relish the few chances to get together with colleagues, perhaps in a strange city, and learn new things. That’s what I’m doing now.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be attending (or keeping watch on) these great events. For most of these, you’re more than welcome to join me:

Society for Technical Communication Summit
Dates: May 15-18, 2011
Location: Sacramento, CA Convention Center
URL: http://summit.stc.org/
Twitter Hashtag: #stc11

This is the annual conference of my professional organization, and my employer is sending me so I can be a better tech writer. As a bonus, I get to see possibly the most famous technical communicator in the world. Tim O’Reilly is our keynoter Sunday night, and while you may know him as the god of technical publishing, I just learned from this interview at South By Southwest that the publishing business started during a slack time in his tech writing consultant business. There’s much more of interest in that hour-long podcast, but I’m really looking forward to hearing him.

This will be my second STC conference, and the last one was quite useful. I’m confident it’ll be another good experience.

WriteCamp Milwaukee 3
Date: June 4, 2011
Location: Hide House, Milwaukee, WI
URL: http://www.writecampmilwaukee.com
Hashtag: #writecamp

This local gathering/unconference of writers of all genres is a great opportunity to break out of the isolation of the Writer’s Life, see what other people are doing, and learn something new. It’s the brainchild of my friend Boone Dryden.

I’ve proposed two WordPress-related sessions. I’ll give one or both, depending on interest.

In any case, it should be great fun and always interesting.

Open Help Conference
Date: June 3-5, 2011
Location: University of Cincinnati, OH
URL: http://openhelpconference.com/index.html
Hashtag: ??

I wish I could get out of town to attend this gathering of documentation teams for various open source products, but I’ll try to follow this online.

Folks from Ubuntu Linux, the GNOME project, FLOSS Manuals (I’ve also written about my experiences with FLOSS Manuals here) and Mozilla will be there. One of my favorite tech-book authors, Anne Gentle, will also be talking about community building.

WordCamp Chicago
Date: July 30-31, 2011
Location: DePaul University, Chicago, IL
URL: http://2011.chicago.wordcamp.org/
Hashtag: #WCChicago

One of a zillion WordCamps that happen every year, where people spend a weekend talking about WordPress. Someday we want to have one in Milwaukee, but this isn’t too far away. They’re pulling together a program as we speak, and nobody knows yet who will appear. I’m hoping it’ll be great!

Meanwhile, the second Milwaukee WordPress Meetup is in the works, for sometime in June. More info to come on that!

So whether you can make any of the above events (and I’d love to see you), do try to find like minds this spring and summer, and don’t put your brain entirely on hold.

Do you have a favorite conference? Hate one or more of the above events? A preference for one or another WriteCamp session? Other spring-like thoughts? Share them in the Comments window.

How Do You Learn About KDE?

A discussion has popped up on the KOffice-Devel list as to whether to discontinue the user-oriented KOffice mailing list. Some developers are wondering whether it’s worth it to keep this admittedly low-traffic list going. The main argument being that if people aren’t using the list now, the few questions that do get asked may not be getting the attention they deserve.

I have an opinion on the subject, but I’m not sure that’s all that important. As a technical communicator, what I’m interested in is how others learn about and solve problems with their software, particularly in the open source arena. KOffice doesn’t have the mind share and user base that other open source productivity suites (OK, I mean OpenOffice.org) have, but are there channels today’s Linux geek and her grandma use to get support for their software. There are lots of choices, and it would be interesting and helpful to me, the KOffice and KDE teams to learn those preferences.

I’m going to try to set up a poll here, but please use the Comments section as well. The official question is “How do you learn about or get help with KOffice and other KDE applications?” Here are the options I’ve thought of:

Share your journey in the comments. Choose as many options in the poll below as you like. Explain what you like and don’t like about getting help. Even if you don’t use KDE specifically, feel free to chime in.

Update: CiviCRM Manual Launched!

The CiviCRM manual is now complete, and available at FLOSS Manuals.

Here’s the news release, emphasizing the … shall we say “unusual”? … reality that the documentation is released BEFORE the software itself. With user docs often an afterthought in open source development communities, it’s great that the CiviCRM team really put a great deal of energy into the documentation, as well as the code.

Most of the book was written over a long weekend, described here (by me) and here (by the CiviCRM team). It was great fun, and I hope to contribute again soon.

Upcoming Midwest Gatherings for Writers, Technical and Otherwise

I’ve been busy working on a summary of my WritersUA Conference experience, but while I’m doing that, the first week in June is shaping up to be a great time for writers in the Midwest (and elsewhere) to get together and talk in the next few months.

  • June 2-5: The DocTrain DITA Conference is in Indianapolis. For the rest of April, they have a pretty amazing special going, acknowledging the difficulty in getting people to come to conferences in a deep recession. if you call them at 978-649-8555 to register, you can get the two-day conference registration (on the 3rd and 4th), hands-on software and DITA skills workshops on the 2nd and 5th, all meals, AND three nights at the conference hotel for $999. The only other money you’d have to come up with is transportation. While that still works out to $250 a day, that’s still within many companies reach, and will be an important investment for folks looking at the Darwin Information Typing Architecture. That should be just about everyone involved in online user assistance.
  • June 6-7: WordCampChicago is likely to be a great time to learn more about WordPress, the platform that this and many other blogs run on. Lisa Sabin-Wilson of WordPress for Dummies fame is involved. Matt Mullenweg will give a “State of the Word” address on Saturday, and many other great things will undoubtedly happen. Of course, it’s all free of charge. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to be there, because I will be at…
  • June 6: WriteCampMilwaukee, a first-of-its-kind (that I know of anyway) unconference for writers of all genres. OnMilwaukee.com covered it in a short piece today. I’m going to do a session on getting into technical writing, and maybe introduce folks to the National Writers Union too. So if you write for a living, or write just to live, come share with us.

Finally, if you work on documentation for open source projects, you should think about hitting one more June conference: Writing Open Source in Owen Sound, Ontario on June 12-14. This is an intriguing idea, and while I may not have the resources to go, hope springs eternal.

All in all, some great opportunities.

So What Are Those Open Source Tech Comm Tools?

In my last post, I told you about the talk I’m giving at the WritersUA Conference next April Fool’s Day. While the post wasn’t exactly content-free, it was certainly more about me, and not-so-much about the promised topic: Open Source Technical Communication Tools. While you can find that information at the conference website, it’s only right that I give you a hint about the plan for this presentation.

Basically, I’m going to be talking about a selection of open source tools that a technical communicator can use to ply his/her trade. Paul Mueller from User Aid will take up a selection of (mostly) web-based applications to help consultants and small teams handle some of the business tasks independent writers (usually) can’t stand to do.

My 35 minutes will cover these tools:

  • OpenOffice.org: Every tech writer needs a word processor, most need a way to make Portable Document Format (PDF) files, and some need spreadsheets and a presentation tool. Perhaps you already know about the free, standards-based alternative to Microsoft Office. I’m going to do a quick run-through on all the suite tools, with an emphasis on outlining, list numbering and master documents.
  • LaTeX and LyX: Most technical communicators producing long documents destined for a printer work with (or long to work with) Adobe FrameMaker. It has a long and honored history, with a devoted following that has ascended FrameMaker’s fairly steep learning curve. The community pretty much lives with periodic rumors of the application’s demise. LaTeX and its many kin also has a long and honored history, is noted for its ability to handle long documents and technical tasks, and was far ahead of its time in seeing tags and styles as the proper basis for creating documents. Just recently I began to ascend the legendarily steep LaTeX learning curve, cheating a little by using the LyX GUI front-end. I’ll share some lessons.
  • Scribus: If you need some old-fashioned desktop publishing for Quick Start Guides, short-form materials, or a newsletter, Scribus is a great alternative to Quark or InDesign. It will do PDF as well.
  • The GIMP: Another open source challenger to the Adobe Creative Suite, the GNU Image Manipulation Program is a worthy alternative to Photoshop.
  • Inkscape: A vector drawing tool that defaults to the web standard Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), and creates very nice drawings and flow charts.

What’s cool about these applications is that they all run on Windows and Linux. I have to double-check on their Mac-friendliness before I do this presentation. This means that nearly every technical writer can get these tools and start using them today.

Time permitting, I’m also hoping to talk about my favorite web-based app, Evernote. While not open source (and needs Wine to run on Linux), it’s still a great tool for the mobile and/or forgetful. But that deserves its own post.

If you’re writing software manuals, online help and the like, you should try these. Let me know what you think about them, and if there are other apps in your open source toolkit that I should know about. I hope to see you in Seattle next spring!

Speaking Gig: Open Source Technical Communication Tools

Update: This is what I get for titling a post before writing it! In the event that you came here looking for great open source tools for technical communication, this really isn’t the right one. I will do that post tonight. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Goodness it’s been awhile! Apologies to my readers for the delay. Much has been happening in the Metaverse of late, and I’ll be trying to catch up for a short period.

One of those things that’s been happening is that your humble scribe will be speaking at the WritersUA Conference in Seattle, WA next spring. This annual three-day conference for people who produce Software User Assistance is one of the places I learned my craft as a technical communicator, and I’m honored to share some of the things I’ve picked up since I last attended. The session is Wednesday, April 1. I’ll be discussing open source tools for technical communication, and Paul Mueller will talk about online tools for the independent writer. You can see the full conference schedule here.

There will be more to say as we get closer, but now’s the time to think about attending (and asking your boss if you can go). Ping me if you have questions.

Writer River: A Social Media News Site for Technical Communicators

Tom Johnson just can’t sit still, I guess. Tom is a technical communicator who hosts a blog and a podcast, is active in his Society for Technical Communication chapter, and Twitters pretty heavily as well.

Last week, we were both at the STC annual conference. I’m not sure whether he had as good a time as I did, but his review resonated with my experience at least to some degree. But he indicated that he was getting tired of the whole interview-based podcast thing, and wanted to do something different.

Being much more decisive than your humble correspondent, two days ago Tom launched Writer River: A Social Media News Site for Technical Communicators. It’s a Digg clone; using Pligg as its engine. You can learn more about how the site was built here. If you like a story you read here, Float it up the river till it hits the front page. If you don’t, you can Sink it too.

If you think technical writing is all about grammar arguments and Word vs. FrameMaker duels, you may be surprised by the site (even if an interview with Grammar Girl did make the front page on Day One). There’s a lot of material touching on Web 2.0 stuff, the business case for Twitter and assorted other tech topics. Fundamentally, what’s there will depend on its readers, of course. So if you find something interesting and relevant, submit it, or cast your vote.

Thanks, Tom. I think this is going to be a great service to our community.

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Howard Rheingold Connects With Technical Communicators

Last week I was in Philadelphia for my first national conference of the Society for Technical Communication. I had hoped to do some live blogging there, but the wireless connection in the convention center was somewhat haphazard. Thus, though lacking in the  immediacy of the rapid notetaking, you’ll get a little more digested commentary.

Howard Rheingold was our opening keynote speaker (Richard Saul Wurman was the other keynoter, but I had to get to the airport), and I couldn’t have been more excited about that. I read The Virtual Community back in 1993 or ’94, not long after I got my first Internet account, and it still has an honored place on my bookshelf. I joined Electric Minds (archive) almost as soon as I heard about it; while that didn’t last very long as a business, the community apparently lives on.

Rheingold focused his STC talk on his most recent work, the book and weblog called Smart Mobs. He wanted us “people who understand new technologies first and help others understand” to help him spread a new story about how humans get things done. What follows are a combination of my speech notes with a few editorial comments.

Today’s technology has lowered the threshold for collective action. Governments (in the Philippines, South Korea and Spain) have toppled, lives have been saved (in the Asian tsunami, Katrina, and several searches for missing individuals) and people have been changed as people have become more literate about media.

This isn’t the first time a change in media has led to a change in the larger world. Once we figured out how to make clay tablets, that enabled a new communication medium: Alphabetic writing. Eventually, writing became the property of the ruling class: scribes only people given access to the code — till Gutenberg cracked it.

You can make the argument that the Protestant Reformation was the first virtual community, because Luther’s theses, and perhaps more importantly, the Bible itself, spread from household to household from Gutenberg’s presses.

Rheingold didn’t mention it directly, but one of the first best sellers in the North American colonies was a little pamphlet called Common Sense. He did mention the first organizers for colonial rights, the Committees of Correspondence. Can you imagine the American Revolution without its documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers (batches of letters to the editor!)

Every time there is an explosion of new literacy, there arrives new ways to organize.

Today we are in the early days of a new explosion of literacy: Merger of mobile phone, computer and Internet.

Readers of this blog know that the open source movement was built without market incentives, or corporate bureaucracy. Now it represents the largest single revenue contributor for the very symbol of corporate bureaucracy (IBM).

What’s next? Rheingold looks ahead to new forms of collective action:

  • Supercomputers linked at greater-than-broadband speeds.
  • Platforms for Participation.
  • Tech of Cooperation and Sharing Economies

While he had to rush through the end of his talk (the morning’s award ceremonies went on WAAAY too long!), he talked about his current projects (none of which appears to involve book-authoring):

  • Cooperation Project: CooperationCommons.com
  • Trying to teach rhetoric of blogging. socialtext.net/medialiteracy
  • New way of looking at learning and teaching

What are the tasks of a technical communicator in the new age? Learn how to master the technologies of participatory media. Recognize that education on media literacy today happens outside school. These kids today are a self-guided population, but in need of guidance.

Ultimately, we have to remember: Don’t keep up with the technologies; keep up with literacies!

Good stuff.

One more personal note: Afterward, he signed books in the “trade show” area. I had a whole list of things I wanted to talk to him about (I’m especially curious what he thinks about Clay Shirky’s new book, Here Comes Everybody, that covers a lot of the same issues as Smart Mobs).  As the second person in line, I probably could have chatted for awhile. But it’s so hard to engage with your heroes, so I just mumbled how great it was to meet him after all these years. Then I shut up. Arrgghh!

I’ll have more about the STC Conference coming up. It was an interesting week.

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