Carrying on at Iron Mountain

After my previous contract ended back in March of 2021, I took a few months off. Partly as a sabbatical, partly as a rest from WFH. I wanted to go out a bit more and take more photographs and/or slum it in front of my TV and watch films, or play on the Xbox.

After about 6 weeks of doing this, I was getting itchy feet. I hadn’t stopped applying for technical author contract roles, but it wasn’t a daily thing. Luckily a call came through in May about a role at Iron Mountain for a technical author on a project they were working on. The interview was held towards the end of May and I started on the first full week in June 2021.

I can’t say much about it, but it’s interesting. I had to get my background checks done to get the SC as this was required to “fully” work on the project. Until it came through, I was a bit limited on what documents I could open, review and more importantly, fix.

There have been a number of contract extensions and I’m booked in until the end of April 2022. Not bad for what was initially just a 2 month contract.

Latest ISTC Article – At The VBA Crossroads

I’ve uploaded my most recent article from the ISTC magazine, Communicator onto my ISTC Article Downloads page.

The article refers to a Google survey about my VBA articles as a whole. I’d like some feedback on the kind of direction (or directions) to take my coding articles next. No more clues though, you’ll have to download the PDF (and any of the back issues, if that takes your fancy) and then have a look at the survey.

I’ve also recently updated the VBA Compiler to be the most recent one, as I’d left the previous download pointing to a version which was already 6 months old. It would automatically say “please update me!” when it was first run – oops!

18 months into the contract .. and IR35 looms ahead.

As this week is the last working one of this year, I was trying to work out roughly how long I’d been working on this contract. Turns out it’s 18 months (and 17 days) since I started back in June 2018.

In theory, I’ve got a few more years ahead of me, so long as they keep renewing my contract on a yearly basis. However, we were supposed to have been told by our new employment company by now that we are due to be renewed. I’ve expressed my wish to continue but with a request to be based at a site nearer to home. If that needs the occasional week based back down here near Milton Keynes, then so be it. Moving away from MK will help me with HMRC’s erasing of my ability to claim living/travel expenses after June 2020. However this only works if I am officially based elsewhere. If I have to stay down here, then no more expenses are possible.

That’s the “good” news. Of sorts.

But, due to the election and this job being a public sector one *and* that all contractors are still awaiting the dark shadow of being defined as ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ IR35, we’re all out on a limb. Waiting. And waiting.

Will the new/continuing chancellor decide to revisit the whole IR35 mess that was set up by the ex-PM and chancellor? Or will they go with the flow, complete with a huge ‘oh bugger’ from the contracting community and the mass exodus that could follow. Or will they decide that it’s been mishandled from day one and to send it back for a rethink. Who knows?

I need definitive news on which route they are going to take, if only so that I can make my career and financial changes accordingly.

If I go “inside”IR35, then do I need to wind up my company and give contracting a miss? I could put the company on ice and try it out, and if it doesn’t work well, then I break the ice and start looking for a similar job elsewhere.

Or will the status quo be kept and I get to remain “outside” IR35, as I currently am? It works for me, at least until June 2020 when my “2 years at any one place of employment” kicks in and I’m no longer able to claim expenses. Then working in MK becomes a lot more expensive indeed.

Before anyone else suggests it, I’ve gone through the “new and improved” CEST tool numerous times and it can’t determine my IR35 status. However, with this new supply company, we (the contractors) don’t get to decide this ourselves but our they do on our behalf. I.e. they could shove all Technical Authors in as a single role-type and then apply that to each and every one of us TAs, wherever we’re based.

Emails have been received and documents sent out, but still no-one seems any the wiser. Ergo, I currently see myself as being “stuck” in IR35 limbo.

Although, if anyone has any Confluence-based technical author contracts coming up around April 2020, commutable from the Manchester area, then I (IR35-depending) would/could be interested.

You’ve always got to keep your options open :)

When a cat takes precedence over TCUK …

As much as I’d love to attend TCUK again this year, especially as last year’s one was so informative, I can’t attend. Instead I’ll be visiting my folks in late August for their 50th wedding anniversary.

These “none paid days off” that I get as a part of my contract, have to be thinly spread out due to the enforced 10 days off site around Xmas/New Year. I realised this a little too late last year and had to watch my days off count shrink by quite a lot as I hadn’t accounted for them. Some people like Xmas time, however, I was always the one banging on the door on Boxing Day demanding to be let back in at my old jobs.

It was either use 4 days off to go to TCUK, or use the same amount of days visiting my folks. Son (and future daughter-in-law) duties and all that.

Whilst there we will be cat-sitting their anxiety-ridden ball of fur, known locally as ‘Ted’. He really did land on his feet when he moved himself into my folks’ house and allowed them to adopt him :)

Whilst we’re there looking after him (aka ‘spoiling him rotten’ as he’s accustomed to), my folks can go away for their anniversary weekend without worrying about him stressing out.

The upside is that we get to celebrate the folks’ anniversary and catch up with friends whilst we’re there. However, we must be back at the cat’s house in the evening! There are images floating in my head of Ted, dressed like Andy Capp’s wife, standing at the door berating us for being out too late …

So, for this year, the “Mee Docs” t-shirts will have to go to the back of the wardrobe until the next time I can visit TCUK. Plus if I leave it another year, they might fit me once again…

For those attending TCUK, have a darn good time networking and learning.

All being well, I’ll be back there in 2020 :)

Go Mee! Current contract extended :)

Contract renewal

I finally have my written contract for the next year with this public sector client. My end date is now March 31st 2020. Although the first version of the contract had a minor date typo, which worked out my contract length as -1 day due to an incorrect year on the end date…

So after 9 months of ‘bedding in’ within this place, along with getting used to living on a dairy farm, it’s nice to see that myself and my skills are wanted for another 12 months. Especially after the previous year’s redunancy and period of unemployment prior to me starting here. Hey ho, time’s a healer as they say. (*)

The contract renewal means that I’ve got another year of:

  • Excel spreadsheet tweaking/hacking/coding. This includes even more tutorials on VBA coding to go with the existing 30+ Confluence pages I’ve already created. It’s just a pity that I can’t share any of them outside of the workplace but those are the rules!
  • More Confluence-pummelling. This is even better now as we recently upgraded to the latest version. My personal “Technical Author Resources” space is constantly increasing in size due to the extra content I’ve added, and planning to add.
  • Microsoft Word – mostly proofreading existing documents, with the occasional bit of documentation creation for walk-throughs and/or how to’s.
  • Microsoft PowerPoint – I am not often asked to do much using PowerPoint, but when it does turn up, it’s usually just a case of proofreading the text.
  • All other manner of odds and sods that don’t really come under the “technical authoring” umbrella, but are skills that do belong under my “Aye, go on then, I’ll see what I can do” umbrella.
  • Even more Spotify-listening :)  My ‘Tastes of 2018’ playlist showed me that I’m not just listening to metal and/or classic rock. Along with a smattering of 1980’s classics, there’s also some oddities that Spotify thought I might like and I’ve kept.

There are, of course, a few downsides though. Mostly lack of free time as my weekends usually consist of me trying to squeeze in as much as I can to the 48 hours that I get – once travelling back & forth are accounted for. So, unless I book a holiday, my spare time is very limited.

A lot of hobbies have had to fall by the side because of the spare time. My slide scans website is in dire need of new scans to be done and added, but there’s no time to do any more. Likewise with the impending arrival of the Spectrum Next. Short of relocating it to my B&B digs and leaving it there each weekend …

It’s not all bad news though as there is the possibility to request to be relocated to the soon-to-be-created Manchester office. There’s no guarantee it will be offered though, so it will have to stay as a pipe dream for the moment.

(*) One of these days, I’ll publish the ‘warts and all’ info about what happened to me where I ended up being made redundant. Especially now that another TA has left the same company, for some of the same reasons.

Like myself, he was the only other ‘technical’ technical author. We both specialised in “not just run-of-the-mill TA work”, before it was all dumbed down, and, bit by bit removed from our remit. But, for the time being, the juicier stuff will need to remain offline.

What does a TA actually do?

Whilst I was writing the above lists of what I do, and being a time-served TA, it set me thinking about the current state of what the general expectations of a technical author are in the current marketplace and comparing how different it is to what I actually do in this role.

Purely for due diligence’s sake, I went looking at other contract TA roles over the last few months. If nothing else, it was to make sure I wasn’t making any mistakes by staying with my current client for another year and making myself unavailable for other roles.

The text was originally going to be included underneath as a separate section, but the more I thought about it, the more text I added to it.

Bear with me whilst I cogitate a little bit more … and add even more text. Time permitting, I’ll get something sorted for next week.

Latest ISTC article: VBA arrays (Part 2)

This is part two of the article covering VBA arrays.

The original plan was to have it as a double-part article. But I ran out of time (it was written just after a long break at Xmas and New Year) as well as article space to include the part on getting the data from the array and displaying it inside a list box.

So, apologies to those who thought it would be all done and dusted with this part. You will have to wait until part 3 :)

As per usual, the article (and all previous ones) can be found on the ISTC Articles download page.

Latest ISTC article: VBA arrays

This time it’s a 2-parter covering the use of arrays in VBA. A necessary “evil” to learn if you want to improve the use of data storage and user forms in your own Word applications.

The follow-up article will appear in the next issue of the Communicator magazine. It will take the arrays knowledge up to the next level and show you the joys of using list boxes in your user forms.

It’s also my first article with my new ‘Fellow’ status at the end. I’m still feeling chuffed at this :)

The article can be found in the usual place.

I’m now a Fellow of the ISTC

At the recent TCUK 2018 conference, in an ISTC-hosted meeting about the CPD aspects of Fellows within the ISTC, someone (I think it was Paul Ballard) suggested that I should apply to transfer from being a Member to a Fellow: a “MISTC to a FISTC” so-to-speak.

It took me a month to pluck up the courage and send off the email with the application form listing my work experience, examples of my work (handily, a lot of them are in the ISTC magazine, so easy to find!) and an updated CV.

It was weird removing / shrinking down the text on the first page of my CV to make room for the new self-employment side of my working life. Wading through the 10 years that I’d at a single company and editing down the amount of blurb I’d written .. but needs must, so the scissors were dug out and it’s now a lot neater looking.

I heard back from the ISTC this morning that I’d passed the test. Woo-hooo! Now I have to make a quick change in my CV along with my LinkedIn profile to alter the first letter to be an ‘F’ instead of an ‘M’.

What happens next is what I’m looking forward to. You have to keep a tally of your learning etc. training videos, or reading something applicable online – it’s all worth x points that you accredit to yourself.

Luckily videos appear on my LinkedIn account automatically when you finish them. My articles (when they’re published) in the ISTC’s Communicator magazine also count towards my total too.

There’s more research to do into what else is involved towards keeping my CPD score “above the line” (Excel to the rescue!) and, unlike my last full time permanent role, it’s nice that finally this kind of stuff actually *gets recognised* and it actually helps with the advancement of my career.

(Instead of it being used against me, as it wasn’t “the normal stuff to do” by former managers and/or team leaders. They didn’t recognise the ISTC as a valid career enhancement as it “wasn’t part of our industry” … sigh!)

Onwards and upwards!

Diving into ActivePresenter (again)

It’s been a while since I did any work using ActivePresenter (by Atomi) but a project came up in work where it was going to be easier to create videos, instead of bulk updating several manuals intended for Admins, Users and Managers.

My thought was “Why rewrite the same sentence / page in several flavours, when a video could be used instead?”.

I remembered using ActivePresenter at a previous employer and it was a much better at doing desktop demos – as used a lot by the systems analysts. It was also useful for proving bugs (for the testers / technical authors) that would then go onto a JIRA ticket.

All in all, once we had discovered it, the existing solution using the (ancient) Windows Media Encoder was binned.

Anyway, that was way back when and we were using a much older version (v5) of it, upgrading to v6 towards the end of my time there. Back to modern times and it’s now available as an updated release (v7) with even more bells and whistles included.

What I’d never done before was to use properly the massive amount of tweaks that you can do to your initial recorded project / recording of a software simulation (*).

After a quick FB message to a former colleague, I received my old tutorials which needed to be recovered from a SharePoint page. I then needed to see how much difference there was between the older versions that I had covered in my documentation against what was included in the new v7.

Quick answer: A lot!

The interface has changed / improved a lot since my previous tinkerings, along with Atomi adding more and more features.

(However, in my defence, some of these might have been in the original package, but because they weren’t needed, they tended to be ignored. Ahem .. oops!)

It wasn’t long before a couple of test projects were created and the MP4 videos were generated. Everything was there (that I wanted) with the mouse cursor tracking, pop-up boxes galore, the status of any clicked buttons displayed and whatever I had entered into a field. All of it was detected, recorded and visible in the video. Sorted!

The only downside to this is that I’ve now spent almost a full working week creating the relevant guides on Confluence covering the basics so that anyone where I work can wander / blunder in and create their own videos.

Yes, there’s a full manual that comes with it and there’s plenty of examples on YouTube, but, as a technical author, it’s in my blood to create docs and/or pages with my thoughts and technical info.

So, TL:DR, if you want a freeware application / website recorder, with the ability to generate MP4 files afterwards, then I highly recommend ActivePresenter.


(*) These are the two main uses that I’ve found for the freeware version of ActivePresenter, but if you buy a copy, there’s also the ability to generate tutorials / training courses with full HTML 5 and SCORM support.