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. Lynda.com training videos, or reading something applicable online – it’s all worth x points that you accredit to yourself.

Luckily Lynda.com 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.

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(*) 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.

Post-TCUK memories

After waiting three years between visits, last week’s TCUK was a well worth it.

When you’re self-employed, all of these kinds of events need paying for by your company (aka ‘you’) so you have to ensure that it’s worth the outlay. And it certainly was.

Almost all of the courses were still available from my initial picklist, which made attending them easier. Only one I missed because I was running late and it was full to the brim, so I took that as a nice break instead.

I’ve now got to sit down and review each of them via the QR code in the event guide, but as that’s at home, I can’t do that right now.

The other benefit of these events is that, as planned, I got to meet up with faces old and new. It was good to catch up with the ISTC staff as well as other technical authors (and fellow introverts!) at the event.

I had a good chinwag with people from around the world, including one guy from Australia (Hi! Dave!) who was visiting the event as part of a ‘European tour’ that he and his wife were doing. We both ended up being bar-propper-uppers on the Tuesday night. To say we (probably) finished off the hotel’s supply of Hobgoblin Gold would be near enough correct 🙂

The only downside was the hotel’s lack of any form of mobile coverage (calls, texts or 3G/4G signal) and the WiFI wasn’t great on my phone either. It worked on the Tuesday, but then refused to connect at all after that. Thankfully, it worked fine on the laptop and I was able to join in with the few courses that required a working machine.

All in all, I’ll be at the next one 🙂

Attending TCUK 2018!

It’s been a while …

I bought my ticket yesterday (Sunday) so that I can attend the TCUK (Technical Communication UK) conference in Daventry from the 25th to the 27th September.

I have only been to one before and that was in the outskirts of Glasgow in 2015. I went there there armed with approx 30 credit-card sized USB memory cards. I had copied onto each one a preview beta of my Word Toolbox. By the second day I had ran out of the memory cards and had to resort to bits of paper with a few Dropbox links printed on them!

I attended quite a few of the courses and picked up a lot of information whilst I was there, including my first steps in WordPress!

This time I’m paying for it (well, OK, ‘Mee Docs Ltd’ is paying!) whereas previously it was my then employer.

I will be travelling down on the Monday afternoon so that I can get up early on the Tuesday as there are lots of talks to attend.

At each time slot, there are usually three separate talks. Each one was looked at and I worked out which ones would be most applicable to myself and future career prospects etc. 

For some of the slots I’m probably going to regret not being able to split myself in two and attend two separate courses at the same time, but c’est la vie.

Courses picked

If there are no cancellations, the following are the ones I’m hoping to attend:

Tuesday:

  • ‘How tech writers can improve UX’ by Hollie Hamilton
  • ‘Git(Hub) for Technical Writers’ by Robert Kratky
  • ‘How to write in plain language’ by Frances Gordon

    Also mingling and catching up with people from the ISTC forum that I haven’t seen in a few years, especially my ISTC editor, Katherine. She has the ‘fun’ job of de-mangling my VBA articles for the Communicator magazine. I reckon I must owe her a fair few glasses of vino by now 🙂

Wednesday: 

  • ‘Using Text, Images and Video in Technical Communication’ by Ferry Vermeulen
  • ‘Polymathing 365’ by Eran (Yuri) Kolber
  • ‘”Docs as code” without any code’ by Zsuzsa Nagy
  • The TCUK18 keynote talk on “Creating great customer experiences through outstanding technical support and content” by Ciaran Dunne

    Then it’s the Gala Dinner, prize-giving et al.

Thursday:

  • ‘From Docs to Bots: Find Your Passion & Get a Career Makeover’ by Toni Byrd-Ressaire
  • ‘If variety is the spice of life…’ by Alison Peck
  • ‘No final frontier: unleashing our inner Tech Comms polymath’ by John Kearney
  • ‘The Value of the Polymath Communicator’ by Alisa Bonsignore
  • 13-20 – 14:00 … still working out which one of the three to go to as all sound very good
  • 14:20 -15:00 … same problem .. which one to pick …
  • ‘Working with third-party content. What are the challenges?’ by Jennifer O Neill

    Then head home back to Stockport …

The ‘to do before I go list’

Polo shirts:

I’ve got a month to source some printed polo shirts in different colours in order to “pimp out the company name” whilst I’m there. 

The logo is near enough complete – barring any last tweaks from my other half (Eleanor) and two former colleagues (Kate and Steve): all three have already given their feedback on the earlier design(s).

The (almost finished image for the back of my polo shirts for TCUK 2018. Some words may yet change …

Considering it was based on a smartphone photo of a sketch that had been scribbled onto a tiny post-it note whilst on a train journey back home, I think it’s looking great.

The conversion from post-it note to its current look was all done by Stuart Josephson. I met Staurt at one of the Digital North shindigs last year.

If you need a creative person to steer your ideas (original ideas scribbled onto post-it notes are optional) then I highly recommend Stuart. His work portfolio can be found here.

Business cards:

The current contract I am on runs until the end of March next year. In December you are asked if you want to renew it for another year on top.

In my head, paying for lots of new business cards when I’ll be available again (in either 6, or maybe, 18 months) is probably a bit too much like looking in a crystal ball.

Then again, I might just get a few done as the current ones are really out of date and look like the generic VistaPrint layouts that they are. Decisions .. decisions ..

Latest ISTC article now available – Creating User Forms (Part 3).

I’ve updated the ISTC articles page with my latest one which continues my article series covering the creation of user forms for your own VBA projects.

This is the article where I lay bare a form from my Word Toolbox and explain how it all works: from the initialisation of the form, through to the variable definitions and how it handles the interaction with the user. Whilst this sounds very grand, there’s less than 40 lines of actual code in the user form 🙂

The next article will split into two separate sections: the first half will continue with the VBA user form controls as I’ll cover drop-down (aka combo) boxes. The other part of the article will be something special as it’s the Communicator’s 50th issue 🙂