Saturday, November 13, 2010

Farewell to my static Web site!

A couple of months ago, I made the decision to drop the Web site I had set up and maintained to promote my freelance writing. It was a static site, rather boring, and not all that convenient to maintain. In addition, I had to pay an annual fee to keep it running, and this year, I realized I was getting absolutely no return on that investment.

When I set up the site in 2004, there really weren't many options. Blogs were still fairly rudimentary and Facebook was in its infancy. Twitter wasn't even on the radar! Web domains were the "thing" and I jumped on the bandwagon, setting up several sites for my various interests.

It's amazing how much things have changed. Today, we can use any number of free blogging platforms, including Google's outstanding services, and promote our blogs via Facebook or Twitter. My "resume" is now a page on this blog and it's incredibly easy to update. Best of all, it's free!

Farewell You served me well, but we're moving on into a new age!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

How do they do it?

I've been working for more years than I care to admit and consider myself a hardworking, dedicated employee. I tend to stretch the limits of my job, learn as much as I can about other jobs, and help out when I can. I don't like to be bored and generally manage my time quite well. I try to stay out of office politics, and while I'm certainly friendly with co-workers, I avoid gossip and try to take the high road in certain situations. This is who I am.

Despite all this, I always seem to get the short end of the stick when it comes to promotions and company awards. It seems as though it's always someone else who gets the recognition or promotions, despite my efforts.

Nowhere was this more apparent that at a previous employer. A woman with whom I worked was constantly rewarded with promotions and awards despite being a bully in the workplace and having what I would consider a poor work ethic. I was called upon to assist her from time to time, but my contributions were never recognized nor was I even considered for the types of monetary awards she received regularly. She is still doing the same thing, getting awards, and working what seems to be a part-time schedule. I just don't understand.

What did I do wrong? Was there a point in my career where I should have stepped differently? Would it have made a difference.

I continue to ponder this question even though it does me absolutely no good at all to dwell on it. I am currently managing an important project at my current place of employment, hoping once again to finally get that long-awaited promotion. That's just who I am and what I do!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Connecticut shooter alleged racist bullying prior to incident

Was Omar Thornton the victim of workplace bullying? Is this what led him to go on a shooting rampage at Hartford Distributors? In a call to 911 just prior to turning the gun on himself, Thornton said, "This place is a racist place. They treat me bad over here and all the other black employees bad over here too." And, although the company's CEO, Ross Hollander, denies these allegations, Thornton's girlfriend, Kristi Hannah confirms Thornton's co-workers had been harassing him regularly.

"He said every day when he'd come in, there'd be new stuff on the [bathroom] wall," Hannah said in an interview on Good Morning America. "One was a hangman with a noose around his neck and underneath it said, 'Kill the n-word.'"

Hannah said Thornton had shown her cell phone photos he had taken of the racial slurs written in the bathroom.

Certainly, there's never an excuse for someone committing such a heinous act. But everyone has his own breaking point. If this man had been systematically harassed for months and his employer was aware of this, something should have been done. The company said he turned violent after having been presented with evidence that he had been stealing beer from the company and reselling it, and was about to be fired. That would certainly give them reason to let him go and it appears these charges are true, which would somewhat undermine his reasoning for the shooting rampage.

Still, workplace bullying affects everyone differently. One person may simply turn their anger inward, while another may react violently. There are even cases where bullied employees killed themselves rather than face another day of abuse. Laws need to be in place to set a process in motion that would encourage employers to investigate charges of bullying in the workplace. As it stands, employers tend to take the side of the bullies, who are most frequently in a management position. A law that would allow abused workers to sue a company would ensure employers take these charges seriously, and hopefully, deal with the situation before it explodes.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Going mobile

I just got an LG Ally phone and am reveling in all its capabilities! I actually wanted to see if I could post a new entry to my blog using this device. And I did. Not as fast as using the PC, but it would do in a pinch. I love modern technology!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Why do we blog?

I have a confession to make. I spend an inordinate amount of time working on my blogs, especially Music in the 'Cuse. I recognize this endeavor won't make me rich, but that doesn't stop me from scouring the Internet looking for the latest live music events in CNY and compiling an exhaustive list of club dates and special events every day. That's right, I haven't missed a single day since I started Music in the 'Cuse in February, 2009. In fact, before I had my own blog, I compiled the same data for for two years - again, every day.

Why am I doing this?

While I'm not a statistic freak, I do check traffic on my blogs most days. I probably shouldn't, though, as it is discouraging to spend so much time working on this and have very few people read it. I've done what I can - linked to Facebook, printed business cards, and talked about my blog, but still, I can't seem to boost it up to a respectable (and even semi-profitable) level.

So what to do? On days like this, I'm tempted to hang it up. Why bother, I wonder. I'm not getting decent traffic, no one comments, and other than a couple of bands, no one seems to appreciate anything I do here.

And then I get a comment... just one, but that makes all the difference! Someone is reading my blog after all. 
So, I guess I have my answer, then, don't I!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Differentiating areas of responsibilities

I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that one of the most difficult tasks in technical writing is getting information from subject matter experts and other essential contributors. These people are often both our end customers and suppliers, and as tech writers, we walk a fine line when it comes to getting what we need to complete projects.

This task is even more frustrating when the information we need is actually something we are able to provide for ourselves. However, due to departmental processes and procedures, we must wait for "official" input and in the process, our projects are unnecessarily delayed.

I am currently working on a project and depend on a steady flow of input from another department. Unfortunately, the person who was creating this data for me has been laid off due to a company rule that limits the length of time a contractor can work. The department is already short one person and the remaining staff is having difficulty doing all the work that needs to be done. My data is only one of many projects they are working on, and now, the flow has stopped and I am almost out of work.

What's frustrating is that given access to the database, I could create this data myself. I would, of course, have someone from that group double-check my work, since they own this data, but still, the drafts could be created without their people having to get involved. I have suggested this several times, but this idea has been rejected. "It's their data," I've been told.

The problem is that, as the project coordinator, I am ultimately responsible to see this release is on time. As it is now, I am certainly going to miss my Sept. 1 deadline and there's nothing I can do about it. It's a no-win for everyone involved - the customers, my department, and the company.

What do we do when hard boundaries are set regarding areas of responsibility? Where do we draw the line. I know it's important to pick my battles, but when I find my deadlines slipping and know I could provide a solution, I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut!

All in a day's work, I suppose!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

What qualifications are important in a technical writer?

Recently, my department has been interviewing to replace one of our technical writers. The company for which I work has a policy to hire from within wherever possible and so far the job has only been posted internally. However, there are only three other technical writers at our site, not including those who work in our department, and none of those experienced writers applied for our open position.

Historically, my company has pulled technical writers from either engineering or drafting. Technical writing as a career path is still relatively new, and the perception remains that technical knowledge is more important than writing skills. This isn't a criticism of my company, simply the way it's always been.

The problem is, with technology advancing at lightening speed, technical writers are being challenged to develop software skills to enable them to create interactive and Web-based documentation. Universities are now offering degrees in technical documentation and the old "anyone with technical knowledge can do this job" philosophy is falling by the wayside.

So what is important when it comes to hiring a technical writer? Certainly, an applicant needs basic word processing and formatting skills, and experience creating some sort of documentation. Ideally, he or she should have working knowledge of some kind of publishing software. A technical writer must also have demonstrated excellent research and organizational skills.

My contention is that it's' easier to teach product to an experienced technical writer than to try and train a technical person to be a writer. There are so many factors that weigh into creating technical documentation that is both accurate and user friendly, product knowledge is only one part of the process. The question should be can the technical person "translate" this information into something that is user friendly, well written, and correctly formatted?

Consider the reverse of this argument. I am currently working with engineering drawings for an interactive parts list and use the drafting database to access these drawings. I pull the drawings from the database, open them in Illustrator and strip out everything but callouts and lines. I then consolidate these drawings on one page, renumber and format the page for ease of use.

I would consider myself an expert at what I do, but does that qualify me to be a draftsperson? No way! I have no training in the software used to create the drawings and no engineering experience. I don't really have a lot of technical knowledge either! So, although I have eleven years experience as a technical writer and have been working with the same product for two years, I can say without question that I'm not qualified to be a draftsperson!

It's time technical writing be recognized as a legitimate career path. To do anything else devalues what we, as tech writers do, and in the long run, diminishes the quality of our documentation.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Video: There Oughta Be a Law

Here's one woman's story of workplace abuse, the consequences for her and her family, and a daughter's resolution to help pass a law to help others from experiencing this situation.

Episode 1 ( ©2009) HD from Beverly Peterson on Vimeo.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Workplace bullying: One woman's story

In 2005, I accepted a position as a technical writer for a well-respected Central New York company. I brought years of experience to the position and was excited about the opportunity. A number of my former co-workers had joined this company and they had nothing but good things to say about their new employer.

The problems didn't start immediately. Initially, I was assigned to work with the department's new supervisor on a proposal project. Neither of us had much experience in proposal management, but together, we were able to successfully complete the task and get the proposal out on time. We worked well together and I enjoyed the experience. She seemed pleased by my work and we talked about my being the department's proposal coordinator. I was glad I'd made the move.

Once the proposal was complete, however, things began to change. She was named the proposal coordinator and began using other people in the department to help her. When I reminded her of our discussion, she brushed me aside. Instead, I was given minimal assignments; usually editing boilerplate copy or inputting engineering changes into technical manuals. Where she had once solicited my opinion and advice, she began to shut me out or worse, discount or even mock my suggestions.

The real shift began just before Christmas. I stopped into her office to wish her a happy holiday and noticed she had a new company Excellence Award plaque up on her wall. She proudly told me she had been given this as a result of all the hard work she had done on the proposal and showed me the impressive diamond earrings she had bought with the money that accompanied the award. Clearly, my face reflected not only shock, but crushing disappointment. I had received no such recognition for my contributions to the project, not even the lower level company award. Realizing the implications, she immediately stopped talking and  dismissed me. I drove home in tears.

At the same time, another co-worker went out on maternity leave. I was assigned to work on the new manual with which she had been tasked. I took my direction from the project manager, logistics, and the design team, and together, we created a new and improved manual for the customer. The team appreciated my efforts and I finally felt as though I were on level ground again. But the rug was soon to be pulled out from under me.

Occasionally, the co-worker who was on leave called to check in and talk about the project. I respected her experience and bounced ideas off of her. During these conversations, she told me she was not looking forward to coming back to work and complained about our supervisor. Apparently, she had asked if she could come back part time at first but this request was denied even though our supervisor worked a 32-hour (or shorter) work week. I agreed this was unfair and we both complained about the way our supervisor was running the department. Little did I know that this conversation would later be used against me.

Sometime between this conversation and my co-worker's return from her leave, my supervisor "got" to this person and extracted information from her. I'll never really know how this happened, but when the woman returned, she had also turned against me. She deemed the manual that I had created to be completely unacceptable and insisted on starting the entire project over. I was taken off the project and another writer assigned to help her. I was blamed for the project being late and put on probation. Remember, I had worked with all the principles on this project, and they had approved the manual and recommended it be published.

From then on my life became a living hell. My supervisor yelled and swore at me, often in front of others. She challenged everything I said or did and found fault with all my work. I was criticized in staff meetings and given tasks that were an insult to my years of experience. She told me she didn't like the facial expressions I made when she talked to me and didn't like that I always looked mad.

My co-workers were told not to talk to me unless absolutely necessary because I was spreading negativity. Thus, I was essentially shunned. And, as paranoid as this may sound, I suspect my office was "bugged." My supervisor and the department manager were able to quote things I had said in the privacy of my office to people whom I trusted implicitly and who swore they did not repeat our conversation.

For example, I was warned not to tell anyone I was on probation. I was told that revealing this would be grounds for my termination. I was very careful not to say anything to anyone about this, but one night after a particularly grueling dressing down by my supervisor, I slipped and said something to my office mate. I gestured to him to come with me outside the building and explained the gaffe I had just made. While he was stunned that I was on probation, he assured me he wouldn't say a word and he did not. He was equally disgusted, and in fact, his job was "phased out" shortly thereafter.  However, the fact that I had shared this information with him when I was specifically told not to was one of the points mentioned in my termination letter. How did they know?

I was a wreck. I took my concerns to Human Resources, but the only way the situation could be addressed was for the HR manager to notify my supervisor that a complaint had been lodged against her. Of course that made matters worse. I was mandated to talk to the company psychologist who I suspect also betrayed my confidence. All though this, my boss and the department manager kept assuring me that they wanted me to succeed and were trying to help me. This is, they told me, a caring place and we want you to be happy.

It's not that I didn't try to conform. I did. I tried to control my facial expressions and follow department protocol and procedure even when these rules made no sense. I made a conscious effort not to complain or talk about the boss, and worked at being more positive. I triple-checked all my work and consulted the department style guide to make sure I followed it to the letter. I trained myself not to react when I was scolded and never to talk back. I attempted to smile all the time and even volunteered to organize a baby shower for another co-worker.  But even then, they kept finding fault with me. I was accused of being false and sarcastic. I simply could not win and wondered if I were in fact going crazy!

Never in my adult life had I faced such a situation. I couldn't transfer out of the department because I was on probation. I couldn't quit because I was self-supporting and had to have unemployment. I couldn't find another job because I was in no shape to do an interview. I consulted an attorney and was told that despite the psychological and physical damage, I had no grounds for a disability case.

The abuse escalated and I began having full-fledged panic attacks. My hair was falling out and I couldn't sleep. I dreaded getting up and going to work and as a result, used up all my sick, personal, and vacation time. I finally went to see my doctor who was horrified at my condition. My blood pressure, which had always been low, was elevated and he was concerned about my depressed state. I was prescribed anti-anxiety medication and advised to quit this job immediately.

The medication stopped the anxiety, but also dulled my responses. All my fight was gone and I stopped reacting to the situation. I was then accused of being "on drugs" or drinking on the job. Again, I had to see the company psychologist. I showed him the prescription and figured he would be able to at least defend this ridiculous charge. Whether he did or not, I'll never know because shortly thereafter I was terminated.

Four years later, this woman is still employed by the company and has since been promoted to manager.

There is a happy ending to this story, for me at least. I was able to find another job with a great company that does not condone this type of behavior. In my nearly four years with the company, I have never witnessed an incident of workplace bullying by a supervisor or manager, and difficult employees are dealt with swiftly. The work environment is friendly and relaxed, and I've been free to forge my own path. I am in line for a promotion and am well-liked. My supervisor is great! He listens to me, respects my opinion and experience, and I feel as though I am a valuable member of the team. I couldn't be happier.

It's taken a while to recover, however, and I still have moments of self-doubt and even fear. I think I will always be affected by this experience, but I am stronger for it. Writing this entry has been difficult, but I share my story because I want others who are in a similar position now to know they are not alone. Sadly, some people are unable to cope, and there are even instances of people having committed suicide rather than face another day of abuse. (Read Jodie's story here)

On May 12, the New York State Senate passed the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) S1823B / A5414B with a landslide victory of 45 to16. The intention of this bill is to protect workers who have been bullied or abused by their co-workers or supervisors. The next step toward passage is a vote by the New York State House of Representatives. I encourage everyone in New York to contact their representatives and encourage passage of this bill. It's in all of our best interest.

For more information, visit the New York Healthy Work Advocates Web site.

New York State legislature considering Healthy Workplace bill

On May 12, the New York State Senate passed the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) S1823B / A5414B with a landslide victory of 45 to16. The intention of this bill is to protect workers who have been bullied or abused by their co-workers or supervisors. The next step toward passage is a vote by the New York State House of Representatives.

Currently, an abused worker has no recourse in New York, a state where an employee can be terminated "at will" with no explanation necessary. He or she is completely at the mercy of his or her employer and cannot sue for wrongful termination. New York State workers have no protection against workplace abuse and this behavior is often tolerated by upper management.

Workplace bullying is not uncommon in today's highly stressed workplace. A 2007 WBI-Zogby survey indicates that 37 percent of American workers were currently being bullied or had been bullied in the past.In addition, the survey found the following:

* Most bullies are bosses (72%)
* More perpetrators are men (60%) than are women(40%)
* Most targets (57%) are women
* Women bullies target women (71%); men target men (54%)
* Bullying is 4 times more prevalent than illegal discriminatory harassment
* 62% of employers ignore the problem
* 45% of targets suffer stress-related health problems
* 40% of bullied individuals never tell their employers
* Only 3% of bullied people file lawsuits

Why is this bill important to me? For one year I was the target of workplace bullying at the hands of a former employer and the experience changed me forever. And while I am now employed by a great company that does not condone this type of abuse, I want to help protect employees in other companies who are enduring this abuse.You can read more about my experience here.

Workplace abuse costs companies millions in lost productivity, increases the company’s insurance premiums, and can affect the company’s reputation in the community. I am urging our state representatives to pass this bill and help make New York State the best state in the U.S. in which to work.

For more information, visit the New York Healthy Work Advocates Web site.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Process Improvement

In recent years, companies, especially those focused on manufacturing, have had a big push on for process improvement. This trend applies not only to the manufacturing arm, but also to the various business groups.

The company I work for is no exception. In mid-2008, my department was given the challenge to achieve "silver" status by November 2009. The company's process improvement plan was very specific in the various steps we would need to follow to get to our goal, and at the time, it seemed quite daunting.

We started out by examining the process by which we create technical documentation. The department had evolved over the years and there was a process most of the writers followed, but it wasn't documented.

As a group, we set out to document the various steps and identify areas where we were getting bogged down. It seemed redundant; we all knew the problem in getting documentation published on time was getting information from the various departments that would enable us to do so. We recognized that without a steady stream of input, documents were never going to be created.

The problem with process improvement when applied to business practice groups is that the suppliers are also the requestors. You can't force people to comply with deadlines and too much pressure can result in the opposite result. It's important to be tactful and not alienate the very people we rely upon.

The solution our group developed was a supplier scorecard. We created a spreadsheet listing all the open projects, the due dates, and the dates the information was due to us. This sheet "grades" the timeliness of the submissions as well as the quality of the information received. Each month, this document is distributed to the various stakeholders, bringing attention to situation and making department managers aware of the roadblocks we faced in getting this valuable input.

Although some of our suppliers were unhappy with their lack of follow-up being made public, we have found the process is working in that we are getting the input back a bit faster. We will be tracking this tool over the next 12 months and will be getting feedback on our next Market Feedback Analysis (MFA) due to launch in April.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Welcome to Technical Writing Today

I've been a technical writer for ten years and have amassed a fairly impressive amount of knowledge. But what good is knowledge if it's not shared? The purpose of this blog is to share information with other tech writers with the goal of improving my own process and helping other tech writers.

First, a little background info! My degree is in English/Education. I went to college with the goal of becoming a journalist. I had worked for the Salem Evening News in high school and had this grand idea that once I got my degree, I would become a famous journalist! I didn't expect a lot of competition, but once I graduated, I soon discovered that there were a lot of us out there looking for a "big break."

After toiling away for several years, I gave up on my dream and took a job as a customer service rep. This led to purchasing and a job with a small software development firm in a suburb of Syracuse, New York. Then, the company's technical writer moved up and her job was posted. Why not, I thought. I bid on the job and convinced the powers that be that I could handle the job.

I started out editing existing documentation, but soon found myself developing documentation for a new product launch. Talk about jumping directly into the fire! It was a challenge, but from the start, the job felt right to me.

From this position, I moved on to a larger research and development company. This the led me to work for an international manufacturer of cooling products with whom I am still employed. Currently, I am developing and tagging illustrations for an interactive customer parts list. I love what I do and actually look forward to going to work every day. Now, how many people can say that!

I'm excited about sharing my experience in this blog and hope to develop a network of other tech writers who can share their own experiences with me! Let's get started, shall we!