All skills on deck!

As I clean my desk at Altitude Software in the week before my final dismissal, I stumble across my old ID card for “Clube EASYPHONE”. I can hardly recognize myself in the photo. I've lost that beard years ago! Where did that 30-year old boy from 1998 go?

It was early 1997 when had lunch with some friends while I was looking for work. We had been colleagues at the University, and we had worked side-by-side for five years. At the end of that lunch, one of them uttered the words “well, we have this problem...”. After a surprisingly short interview with some 19 persons (all the senior staff in the company!), I joined EASYPHONE in April 1997 to solve the problem. Namely, the lack of documentation.

One year later there was a documentation team in place, with me promoted to instant half-manager, half-writer. It would remain similar for 17 years, even though EASYPHONE would later merge with its parent company SSF to become EasySoft for a short while, before separating again to become Altitude Software, acquire Intervento in 1999, then downsize to half its former size in 2002. The documentation team grew to 9 in 2000, shrunk to 3 in 2002, then slowly grew to 7 in 2012.

The team actually solved the “documentation problem” of 1997 three times over the years:

  • Initially, until 2002, documentation was composed of small documents based on product features. These small documents help to conceal the fact that not all areas were documented, especially in the very beginning.
  • After I developed practical user profiles, the documentation was reorganized as larger documents focused on the tasks of each user profile.
  • After 2008, as the complexity of the product grew, I directed the team to systematically developed design patterns to tame the areas of complexity.

But it turned out that it takes more than technical writing to create documentation. To advance our mission of “ensuring that all employees and users have the information and skills needed to do their jobs”, I also did the following at Altitude Software:

  • Hired and coached 23 writers, usually people without former knowledge of technical writing (since 1998).
  • Adopted Agile management practices (since 2004), constantly evolving the governance of the team to match the experience of team members and the characteristics of the work at hand.
  • Developed a successful content strategy for the company Intranet, organizing the content besides the product documentation. The content strategy survives largely unscathed since 2005.
  • Performed the instructional design for class-based product training (since 2006), which grew to 19 days in 2014. The product training covers operation, system administration, and programming. Having better training reduced the “time to become senior” from five to two years.
  • Wrote stories for comics as motivation for 34 lessons of operations training (2014), which take the first week of product training.
  • Created abstractions and illustrations (since 2009, with the help of a designer colleague) that explain important variations in the configuration of the product.
  • Migrated the documents from Word into a custom XML publishing solution (2001), and then to the DITA standard (2005), using open-source tools and my programming skills to create a work environment suitable for writers.
  • Developed two Python scripts to automate the generation of API references (2003), and to automatically update graphical interface references to match the interface itself (2009). These two scripts saved two full-time positions at the team (utterly boring positions).
  • Managed the localization of product and documentation to Japanese in 2000. Then, I proposed the localization process (2002) that was eventually adopted by the company a decade later.
  • Conducted and directed face-to-face ethnographic interviews to final users within client companies (since 2013).

As I usually promised in the hiring interviews for Altitude Software, working in the documentation team was never boring!

What now? My long-time job just vanished. My step-father has passed away, after parents and parents-in-law. My two children grew from babies into adulthood. It's a time of change, for me and for those around me. Change and opportunity.

I am following the advice that I dispensed so many times to others. I am doing an inventory of my own skills, new and old. Because the 30-year old boy is still here, still familiar with Unix system administration, Internet protocols and services, programming in Python, Perl, Awk, Sed, Shell, but also in C, C++, Smalltalk, Prolog, Common Lisp, Cobol, and also SGML, HTML, CSS, JavaScript. The old technical skills awaken, eager for new action.

Yet, I am no longer just a technical guy. I love turning people into a team. Católica University opened my mind to business realities. Making hard choices in the trenches of product development strengthened that business view. UX Lx reinforced the importance of research, strategy, and design.

I am reconnecting with old friends, and I am looking into new communities, making new friends. I see myself anew through their eyes, through their smiles. I look for synergies, but also for gaps in my skills. Everything old is new again.

I look around for the next problem to solve. Here's to the next 17 years!

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