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.

6 months in!

Confluence, a bit of Excel VBA, and more Confluence

I’ve now been in the same contract role for a smidgen over 6 months now. Still loving the job but also still finding out how to do ‘stuff’ that this place develops.

Once I understand that, I then have to write about it in an easy-to-read format on the relevant Confluence page(s).

Being the “go to guy” for Microsoft Office (mostly Excel, sometimes Word/PowerPoint), keeps me ticking over.

Confluence work

Along with the documentation of the tools that are developed here, I’ve also requested my own personal Confluence space for all of my musings, hints and tips and tutorials.

Within this space, I’ve created several tutorial sections which are continually being expanded upon.

Currently there are guides on:

a) Programming Excel (21 x Beginner’s level and 9 x Advanced level pages).

b) An Excel Code Library (44 x routines useful to anyone who wants to start developing their own Excel VBA-based projects)

c) A selection of pages (approximately 27 .. so far) on how to use ActivePresenter for the testers, developers and those doing demos of the various tools in use.

d) Various other “one off” pages covering hints and tips on various Microsoft Office packages and, naturally, a few pages “accidentally” pimp my Word Toolbox as a solution 🙂

Only “a page”?

As anyone who uses Confluence is aware, a “page” isn’t just a single sheet of A4. It’s the whole page of information that I’ve written, some being quite a *lot* longer than others.

The downside

I cannot share any of the above outside of the workplace. Those are the rules, so c’est la vie.

What else has been going on?

Dark mornings and nights

The current dark mornings and nights mean that I’ve had to “upgrade” my attire to include: a torch, a headlamp, a hi-vis over-jacket (to prevent me getting run over when I do make it onto the road near work) and a decent hat to keep me warm.

Due to the clay-like mud in the fields, especially after rain, there’s a lot of slipping and sliding. So, along with the above extras, I’ve also bought one of those bristle-type brushes to help me remove the dried up mud that sticks to my boots and trousers each day. It saves me from a few of the “evil stares” from the cleaner!

I still look forward to the last day of each week as the farmer (or his wife) give me a lift into work with the suitcase. Dragging that through the muddy fields would be nigh on impossible. That and it’s (generally) a half-day and I can head back home.

Xmas / New Year

Due to the rules in place, the contractors aren’t allowed anywhere on site during the Xmas or the following New Year weeks.

If (and only if) I can come up with a business case, then I might be able to come back for the 3 days after New Year.

But I can’t, so that’s 2 weeks (unpaid) off. The one downside to being self-employed.

To turn this into a positive, I’m taking the other half around a few places in Europe that she’s not been to during that Xmas week 🙂

And finally ..

I finally got around to filling in my bio for my membership of The British Beard Club.

I need to find and add more photos, as the only one up there is a selfie taken on Milton Keynes Central station one day as I was heading back oop North!

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 🙂

Two new ISTC articles available

The current issue of the Communicator magazine has the latest in my series on VBA User Forms. This time you get to learn all about combo boxes. It’s not exactly riveting stuff but they are a necessary evil if you want to build a decent looking user form for your own Word projects.

As it’s the 50th year of Communicator magazine, there is an additional supplement with it: “50 Years Of Change”. My second article is in there. This article covers a brief history of word processing macros. It even mentions the ZX Spectrum and the joys of Tasword 2 🙂

The articles can be found in the usual place.

I’ll be back to doing a single article for the next issue. And, as much as I’ve been putting it off, I need to cover arrays. Luckily, I’ve also been working on a series of Excel VBA tutorials at my current workplace.

So that’s the basics done already!