Monday, November 26, 2007

Meet a Member: Jennifer Paton Smith

Jennifer Paton Smith, STC Toronto's Education Manager, began writing professionally in 1988, preparing fundraising and public relations materials for B'nai Brith Canada. She moved to Israel in 1990 and worked there until 2002. Since returning she has worked on a number of jobs, some for a company she started with her husband.

Milan Davidovic spoke with her earlier this year for the STC Toronto newsletter.

Milan Davidovic: Your profile on STC Toronto mentions that you have a background in philosophy and political science. How do you think that helps you approach technical communication?

Jennifer Paton Smith: I consider philosophy the perfect background for tech writing. As a university student, I had to understand complex systems of ideas, explain them, and critique them. As a tech writer, I need to understand complex software programs and then figure out the best way to explain them. I also critique them by finding bugs and suggesting UI improvements. Both disciplines require similar analytical, writing, and organizational skills.

MD: Without giving away anything confidential, can you tell us what are you working on these days?

JPS: At Infor, formerly Workbrain, I'm documenting our first shrink-wrapped product. Workbrain published a toolkit for workforce management that it used to build solutions for huge companies. Infor is now going after a different market, so we need to rethink many assumptions. Because our customers will be much more self-reliant, documentation has become a higher priority.

MD: What makes working at Infor interesting for you?

JPS: Infor has an unconventional way of organizing tech writers. Instead of reporting to a single tech writing manager, each writer reports to a different development manager, depending on the product we work on.

Although we have input from the managers, it's up to us collectively to figure out many of our writing standards and processes. It's good because it's very democratic and gives everyone a voice, but that's its drawback too. As writers we spend a lot of time trying to reach a consensus. Overall, we are continuing to make progress, which is good.

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

JPS: Think about the people who will be reading the doc, why they are reading it, and how they will use the software. Try to add value instead of just describing the obvious. Think about what the readers are trying to accomplish and what will help them. For example, if you don't know why a feature is being added, ask the product manager for the business case, and the scenario in which it will be used. This will help you come up with real-life examples that will help the reader. Most software isn't intuitive. If a feature is not explained clearly in your doc, it might as well not be in the code, because customers won't know how to use it. So our job is very important. It is the gateway to using the software.

Also, keep the doc easy to read. My background editing educational software for elementary students comes in handy -- where we had to stick to a word list and certain sentence structures. I learned to use simple sentence structures and easy words instead of long complex sentences filled with jargon. Remember that English may not be the first language of many of your readers.

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

JPS: I want to tell you about AutoSSL, which is a technology developed by my husband. In addition to my day job, my husband and I have a small software company. Our software makes it easy to install SSL certificates on Web servers running in people's homes. SSL certificates are what makes Internet shopping and banking secure. When you see that little closed padlock icon in the bottom-right corner of your browser, it means your data is encrypted and secure when it is sent over the internet. You can double-click the icon to view information about the SSL certificate.

With the growth of broadband in the past few years, more and more people are running Web servers in their home, often without even knowing it. For example, they may be sharing pictures of their kids, or they may have some kind of webcam installed, such as a nannycam or a security camera. Without SSL, this data is transmitted in the clear across the Internet, where it can be sniffed by predators and other criminals.

I'm proud of our technology for two reasons: it makes a difficult technical task easy for the typical home computer user, and it helps keep private data secure, which stops predators from accessing your private information.

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

JPS: I really enjoyed Jack Molisani's talk at the chapter meeting in January. I thought he was a very engaging and motivational speaker. You can see some of his recommendations on his Web site.

MD: Tell us about a good book or article you've read recently.

JPS: I recently finished reading "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die" by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. It's a fascinating look at why some ideas are memorable and compelling, with lots of real world examples. As a tech writer, I spend lots of time trying to figure out how to make material easy to understand and relevant to my readers. The Heath brothers argue that simplicity and concreteness make an idea "sticky", so I found this a very inspiring book as a writer. This book even has its own Web site.

MD: Thank you.

You can find a profile for Jennifer and other STC Toronto members by going to the STC Toronto site, clicking "Membership" on the left, and then "Index of members".

2008 Slate of Candidates

Hi to all:

I received the following information from the STC head office in regards to the candidates for the upcoming elections.

For President: Mark Clifford will automatically succeed from first vice president.

For First Vice President: Cindy Currie will automatically succeed from second vice president.

Candidates on the slate for the 2008 STC election:

For Second Vice President: Michael Hughes and Larry Kunz

For Secretary: Sharon Garrity and Char James-Tanny

For Director: Suzanne Guess, Rob Hanna, Hillary Hart, Judith Herr, Linda King, Rich Maggiani, Lisa Pappas, and Garret Romaine

For Nominating Committee: Dia Burroughs, Carolyn Kelley Klinger, Carolyn Luttrell, and Thea Teich

The 2008 Society election is scheduled to begin March 12 and end April 14, 2008 at noon ET (4 pm GMT). Please watch the STC Web site for detailed information about the candidates and to access a question and answer area you can use to ask questions of the candidates.