Technical Communicators of Florida and Beyond,
We have liftoff. My wifi is on the fritz this fine February evening, so I am bringing this to you live from a certain big-name coffee shop.
Whilst I type to break the sound barrier before the dining room closes, let me just say that this month’s meeting topic is very near and dear to many of us (our chapter’s president included — check out his very personal account later in this edition).
We are following up on last year’s smash hit topic, The Ethics of the Challenger Disaster, with a sequel that we wish would never have been required: The Ethics of the Columbia Disaster. Please join us and our speaker, UCF’s own Dr. Paul Dombrowski, for a sobering reminder of just how much responsibility we bear as technical communicators. This is a must-see.
Manager, Communications Committee
By: Alex Garcia
(Orlando Central) Florida Chapter, STC
“The Columbia Shuttle just blew up. Poor them and their families! :(“ — a blue notification on my Kyocera flip phone.
It was a sunny Saturday morning in February 2003 when, through sleepy eyes, I received the bone-chilling text message from a college classmate in the Aerospace Engineering program at UCF. I turned on CNN and was glued to the TV for the rest of the day. Seven lives ended over the swamplands of Texas and Louisiana on February 1, 2003. The Space Shuttle Columbia, which had been damaged by falling External Tank foam during launch, succumbed to the heat and pressures of reentry. They never had a chance.
In the months that followed, somewhat selfishly, I wondered what this would mean for my chosen field of study—my five year plan, after all, was to work for the Space Shuttle Program at Kennedy Space Center (KSC). The accident grounded the Space Shuttle fleet for over two and a half years, and led to President George W. Bush setting a program cancellation date of 2010. A Congressional panel was called, a report was published. The three remaining orbiters (Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour) would fulfill the Shuttle Program’s primary mission of finishing construction of the International Space Station and refurbishing the Hubble Space Telescope before limping into museums where they would inspire future generations of scientists.
It was in the period following “Return to Flight” that I actually set foot onto KSC as a contracted employee, specifically a Co-op student. I felt a sense of pride about working for the Shuttle Program, but there was a sensible agitation in the workforce. Our program was a lame duck, but, despite the cancellation, we would get every single mission off the ground and back home safely. It was as if we held out hope that each time we excelled, the program would be extended. Quite honestly, everyone loved their job and didn’t want the ride to end.
Through my college-aged naiveté, I sat in the background of meetings and listened to how decisions were made with painstaking attention to detail. One of the results of the Columbia report was an emphasis on letting any employee speak up during a situation they felt uncomfortable in. Everyone, me included, was handed a “TIME OUT!” card: a business card with the phrase in bold red letters to attach to their badge holder. If one of these cards ever hit a table, a shop cart, or the floor, the team would immediately stand down wherever they were and talk about the problem. In my career, I only saw one of these slammed on a conference room table during a fairly heated exchange between two engineers. The entire room audibly gasped at the gravity of the TIME OUT! card being employed. Cooler heads prevailed and business eventually continued as planned.
NASA had disasters in 1967, 1987, and 2003. That is three different generations of engineers. It could be argued that enough time passed between the accidents that attrition caused organizational knowledge to dissipate, lessons to be forgotten, and history to repeat itself. Organizational change takes years, sometimes decades, and longer if turnover occurs in key positions. As engineers and technical communicators, we have an ethical responsibility to verify all the information in our documents is accurate, especially if we attach our signatures to them. I would say that the lesson of the Columbia Disaster would be this: If you ever feel uncomfortable about a decision at work, call a TIME OUT!
By: R.D. Sharninghouse
Orlando Central Florida Chapter, STC
On Thursday, December 15, 2016, the Orlando Central Florida chapter of STC held their Holiday Social at Black Rock Bar & Grill.
The dinner also included a brief presentation from guest speaker, Jack Molisani. Jack talked about his personal, professional, and financial growth. Below is a list of recommended books from Jack’s presentation that inform and inspire growth:
Jack also made the offer to look at anyone’s resume. You can contact him at:
Learning About… Learning! January’s Topic is DITA and Beyond.
By: Jonathan Neal
Staff Writer, Memo to Members
“Please take out a pen and paper!”
Rob Hanna’s instructive DITA webinar begins with mental exercise. L’horreur! But there is no way around it. If we truly wish to communicate content to our readers, we must first learn about learning.
On January 19th, the Orlando Central Florida (OCF) chapter of STC held its monthly meeting at the IHOP on University Boulevard. Those in attendance viewed STC fellow Rob Hanna’s webinar, Leveraging Cognitive Science to Improve Topic Based Authoring. Mr. Hanna is president of Precision Content Authoring Solutions Inc., and with over 20 years’ experience under his belt, he knows his way around information writing. Here is a brief summary of his lesson:
The amount of data we encounter every day is increasing at a rapid rate, roughly doubling every two years. Therefore, we as technical writers must help our readers digest large amounts of data with minimal cognitive strain. One way we can accomplish this is by employing Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA).
DITA is an XML vocabulary that enables readers to digest data more easily. For the uninitiated, XML is a metalanguage akin to HTML that we can use to “mark up” data with custom tags and distribute it to any number of separately formatted files, fully accessible across systems. In effect, XML enables us to “repurpose information instead of rewriting it,” which saves time and effort. Rob Hanna has mastered this efficient strategy by establishing his own “content standards for the enterprise,” which he uses to systematize all of the XML he works with. This doesn’t just help him stay organized—it also helps his readers digest the data more easily.
In DITA, there are 3 major topic types, each associated with a different type of memory:
|Topic Type||Associated Memory Type|
|Concept||Semantic Memory (conscious understanding via study)|
|Task||Procedural Memory (subconscious understanding via repetition)|
|Reference||Working Memory (forgotten quickly)|
Technical writers can use this knowledge to compartmentalize content according to topic type, thereby reducing cognitive strain. Mr. Hanna refers to this process as “pre-digesting” or “chunking” information for readers to absorb. In some cases, this can double the amount of information readers are able to retain. Pretty good, wouldn’t you say?
Not all companies use DITA the same way, and that is why Rob Hanna emphasizes the importance of finding a balance. Pre-existing style guides may favor a different approach. If it works for the target audience, all is well; if not, then it may be time for a revision. If possible, try to incorporate the 4 fundamental needs for retention: consistency, chunking, relevance, and labeling.
Rob Hanna has developed a further-improved XML vocabulary, one that adapts information mapping principles and combines them with the pre-existing DITA formula. He adds two “precision content” topic types: process and principle. Each of his five information types is compartmentalized, fully taking advantage of XML’s custom tagging functionality. We may use this formula or develop our own—this is a freedom afforded to us by DITA and XML. To learn more, you may visit learningdita.com for some free online courses on the subject.
February’s meeting will cover the Columbia disaster and the ethics surrounding it. Stay tuned for more, and until then, good luck and happy writing.
PSA #1: Congratulations to Emily Wells, who is now co-manager of the mentoring program with Dan Voss!
PSA#2: 2018’s STC Summit will be in Orlando, FL. The event takes place at Hyatt Regency Orlando on I-Drive, the hotel formerly known as Peabody Orlando. We are looking for volunteers to help table the event. If you are interested, please contact STC Orlando’s president Alex Garcia via this email: firstname.lastname@example.org