Friday, October 26, 2007

Meet a Member: Sheldon D'Cunha

Sheldon D'Cunha is the Volunteer Manager for STC Toronto, a position he's held since October 2005. In that capacity, he's always looking for:

  • Enthusiastic members who are passionate about the profession;
  • Volunteers who want to make a difference to the chapter; and
  • Senior members to mentor technical communicators who need their guidance.

More of Sheldon's STC Toronto profile is here. Milan Davidovic interviewed him for the newsletter back in May...

Milan Davidovic: Without giving away anything confidential, what are you working on right now?

Sheldon D'Cunha: We are working on implementing the first phase of a content management system (CMS) at International Financial Data Services (IFDS), and I am working on designing the template that will capture inputs from our subject matter experts (SMEs). The template contains embedded information, samples, and tips on what SMEs need to do to provide focussed inputs easily and quickly.

MD: Have you had any interesting stories happen to you recently on the job?

SD'C: Queued printers at my workplace print a cover sheet for every person that fires a print job, and despite our qualms about wasting paper, they continue to be printed. I always used to save my cover sheets to reuse as scratch pads, since one side is blank and usable. When management asked for employee suggestions to cut costs and improve the way we did things, I submitted the idea of keeping trays near the printers to collect all cover sheets printed each day. We generate hundreds of cover sheets each day, so we can collect and recycle a lot of paper in-house. I recommended reusing these sheets as scratch pads, or donating them to charitable institutions.

I also created a prototype for a corporate scratch-pad, and submitted it as proof of concept, along with details of the costs and savings involved. My idea was accepted and implemented, and I got a cash prize from IFDS.

MD: Can you share any good advice about technical communications that you've recently gotten or overheard?

SD'C: While it is important to create documents that are easy to understand and use by our end users, it is vital that SMEs, who provide inputs upstream, also get the benefit of our expertise, through clear guidance about what's expected from them.

When SMEs are educated about the deliverables we generate, and how vital their expertise is in generating the final output, they are more enthusiastic about working with technical communicators instead of opposing them.

For instance, the template I am working on gives our SMEs clear guidelines about the purpose of each part of the document, where their content fits into the big picture, and what it is going to look like in the published document. They also are made aware of the consequences of missing or incomplete information. I like to think we now do much less rewriting and editing, and SMEs are happy that their content is published without major editorial changes.

MD: Tell us about the most interesting piece of technology you've newly encountered recently.

SD'C: We are currently implementing a custom-structured FrameMaker template that has been designed with specific tags to chunk our information for reuse using a content management system. It is an interesting process to create content using structured templates, and it is very different from conventional authoring.

The pool of content that we author using Structured FrameMaker is edited, validated, and stored in a repository, and then rendered for publication and reuse through the CMS. What is exciting is that information is captured once, but can be reused in newsletters, release notes, user guides, RFPs, and other deliverables. Also, existing or published outputs can be updated in real time if required.

MD: Tell us about a good speaker you've heard recently.

SD'C: Our company sponsored us for a training course to learn about structured writing techniques at Front Runner. Bernard Aschwanden was the instructor for the course, and he knows the subject matter and the tools really well. In addition, he knows how to make dry technical topics come alive with relevant anecdotes. He was very helpful, and provided us with implementation tips, tricks, and resource leads, based on his rich experience in the field.

MD: Tell us about a good book or article (related to technical communications or otherwise) you've read recently.

SD'C: The white papers, training materials, and other documents provided to us by our CMS vendor, SiberLogic, are really informative. Senior Consultant, Rob Hanna, who is piloting the implementation phase of the CMS project at IFDS, has provided us with valuable technical material that one cannot garner from the Internet or generic sources.

MD: As you're the Volunteer Manager, would you care to give a quick plug for volunteering with STC Toronto?

SD'C: The Toronto Chapter administrative committee is made up of volunteers, and we are only as good as the volunteers who work tirelessly to make the chapter what it is today. We have seen some really talented and dedicated individuals come forward in the past years, and they have helped boost the chapter's performance with their time, knowledge, contacts, and other resources. A number of chapter members have seen and noted their positive contribution to our chapter.

It is going to be election time soon, and I would like to invite all our other members to become active ambassadors of this dynamic and friendly chapter. You could volunteer your time and talents on an ad hoc basis, mentor someone who could needs your special experience and contacts, commit to become an activity manager, or even join as an administrative council member. Email me at about your interests, and I would love to answer any queries you may have for me.

MD: Finally, assuming that you actually have some down time, what are you doing for fun these days?

SD'C: Our prayer group is helping with arrangements for the "Lift Jesus Higher Rally", a major event held each year at the Metro Toronto Convention Center. It is exciting to come together with a lot of dynamic people from all parts of the country, and the USA, to help make the event a success. My four-year old nephew has interesting car games lined up for me to play with him on weekends. I am also looking forward to calm, sunny days, so we can test-fly a new model aircraft that I got as a birthday gift from my brother.

MD: Thanks for chatting with me.

SD'C: Thanks very much for your time and interest in talking to me about my work and interests.

Techpub Gaffe Costs US $77 Million - Could it Happen to You?

It isn't often that technical publications make headlines - and when they do, it is far rarer that the headlines spell good news. The most recent headlines from Canadian Press are no exception.

Airline group SAS AB is seeking US$77 million in compensation from Montreal-based Bombardier after its entire fleet of Q-400 turboprop planes had to be grounded in September 2007. This follows two separate accidents in Denmark and Lithuania involving landing gear malfunctions. No one was seriously injured in either accident.

"The incidents were caused by flaws in components not included in the maintenance manual. This is why we feel the responsibility lies with Bombardier,'' SAS spokesman Hans Ollongren said.

In total, about 60 of the 160 turboprops in use by airlines worldwide were affected. He said SAS has lost about US$62 million since the groundings. "There are other costs involved, too, related to credibility and other things,'' said Ollongren.

See the full article, Airline group seeks compensation from Bombardier.

Could it happen to you? These types of errors are rarely the fault of a single technical writer and usually point to more serious problems in the documentation process. Where is the accountability for information? Where is the traceability between the product development lifecycle and the documentation lifecycle? How do you ensure completeness and accuracy of your information? The technology and best practices exist that should catch these types of errors - either the process was circumvented or it was not implemented correctly.

As technical communicators, we need to pull our noses out of our books and get a broader perspective on what it is we are writing. Where does this information come from? How do I know that it is correct? How do I know that it is complete? How am I going to meet my deadlines while worrying about the accuracy of my source? Have a hard look at your processes and methods to ensure that the proper checks and balances are in place. Leverage technology to keep the process moving swiftly and develop repeatable best practices to correctly use that technology.

Try building some scenarios where faulty or incomplete documentation may result in risk to life or limb. How much does it cost to do the job right versus how much it costs to allow these types of mistakes to occur?

As technical communicators, we often belabor the lack of importance placed on value of our work. This is where the rubber hits the road for technical communicators. If we cannot keep our companies out of harms way, how can we truly justify the need for our work?

Rob Hanna -
STC Region 1 Director