Google Webmaster proves the spammers wrong!

27 February, 2009 at 10:54 am | Posted in Uncategorised | Leave a comment

A (spam) email arrived the other day, telling me that our website has broken links and other problems, and offering to sort them out for us – for a fee of course! I was pretty sure that their analysis was wrong, especially as it says we don’t have a robots.txt file when we’ve had one since 2006! Still, I did wonder…

Fortunately I have a Google Webmaster account, so I checked it this morning. The Overview of the site shows no errors, either in links or in crawl.Better still, it’s found a couple of pages with duplicate or short meta descriptions/title tags which I can easily sort out.So Google Webmaster gives peace of mind and useful data – all for free!

Learning about SEO…

20 February, 2009 at 3:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorised | Leave a comment

I was looking at our site statistics on Google Analytics, and I spotted that the page which comes second in the list of top landing pages is http://www.4csys.com/project_manager.htm – not the home page, or one of the ones referenced from our AdWords ads. So how come?

Turns out it’s a graphic that’s been indexed! If you Google “gantt chart”, 4 pictures are shown and the second one links to that page on our website. If you do the same thing on Google Images, it’s picture number 3. Search on “critical path” on Google Images and our picture is number 4.

The moral of this is: make sure you have keyword-rich “<alt>” tags on your pictures!

How can I help?

18 February, 2009 at 2:25 pm | Posted in Uncategorised | Leave a comment

As one of my passions is reading, and my hobby-horse is spelling/grammar/punctuation, I volunteered as a helper on adult literacy classes in 2000, but had to give up after a couple of years.

Over the Christmas break I decided to see if I could get back into it again in the New Year. So I’m now helping on two “Essential English” classes, and thoroughly enjoying meeting people from widely differing backgrounds and education levels, who just want to improve their reading and writing skills.

The education system has let so many people down over the years: these are intelligent people, held back by their low level of literacy and resulting lack of confidence. Some of the written work they are now producing is very moving: a recent class exercise was to write an account of the plane crash into the Hudson River in New York, as if you were a passenger. One lady wrote a moving piece that had the whole class spellbound – and this was someone who left school with no qualifications.

Publicado en Español

9 January, 2009 at 12:54 pm | Posted in Uncategorised | Leave a comment

Just to announce that my article ‘3 Main Benefits of Project Baselining‘ has been translated into Spanish and published on ‘the first project Management website in Spanish’.

And I did send them my photo…

What is a Technical Author?

8 January, 2009 at 11:54 am | Posted in Documentation | 1 Comment

When I was asked this question the other day, I explained that there are many types of writers who go by this description. 

Examples include those who write (and sometimes illustrate) technical documents for mechanical and electronic devices, writers of software manuals (and Help systems) for a variety of audiences (developers, analysts, system administrators and end-users) and people who write the instruction manuals for consumer goods and self-assembly products. There’s an excellent blog article Read Rage by David Crystal on the subject of the latter.

What’s the difference between technical authors and creative writers? I think that the difference lies in the question of audience. For the creative writer, I believe that the primary motivation is self-expression: they are often writing mainly for themselves, and just hope that their audience will enjoy what they write. On the other hand, the technical author’s main concern is (or should be!) their audience – what does my reader need to know? What level of understanding will they bring to the subject and hence what do I need to explain at the outset? It’s clear, however, that many documents produced by technical authors do not meet their audience’s needs: as David Crystal says, over a third of people ignore the manual and use trial and error instead.

I’m going to be published in Spanish!

20 October, 2008 at 9:24 am | Posted in Uncategorised | Leave a comment

I got an email last week from the editor of a Spanish project management website, asking for permission to translate my article ‘3 Main Benefits of Project Baselining‘ and publish it on their site. He said: “This article is very interesting… Really, we want to rely on you because this article is very interesting for all our Readers.”

I replied immediately giving permission, providing they include my author details and the link to our website. He’s going to send me the link when this and a couple more of my articles are published. He has also asked me for a photo to include on their collaborators page: I’ve resisted putting my photo on the web up till now but if I can find a reasonable one I’ll send it to them…

Being a Professional

10 October, 2008 at 12:07 pm | Posted in Uncategorised | Leave a comment

I consider myself as a “professional”, but I got to thinking about what that entails – what does “professionalism” mean?

The Compact Oxford English Dictionary gives this (helpful) definition: ‘the competence or skill expected of a professional.’ The definition of a professional is: ‘a person having impressive competence in a particular activity.’

Fair enough, but this doesn’t begin to describe what I think the term encompasses.

I think that, apart from having a competence, professionalism is largely about your attitude to the work you do and the people you work with.

As a professional, every piece of work I deliver should be done to the best of my ability. This view can apply in all aspects of one’s life, not just at work. For instance, I belong to an amateur drama group, but every production is done to a professional standard. No aspect of the play, whether acting, direction, lighting, sound, costume or stage set is “good enough”: it is always of the highest possible quality, given constraints of budget, skills available and time. Everyone in the group works to that standard – which is why we consistently win awards!

When working with people, whether customers or colleagues, my overriding attitude is respect. I expect them to be as professional as I strive to be, and in my experience most people live up to or even exceed my expectations. Several years ago, my manager at the time said he thought I am a humanist, by which he meant that I believe in the inherent “goodness” of human beings. At the time I hadn’t thought in those terms, but he was right in his perception. Professionalism, for me, involves dealing ethically and fairly with all the people I come into contact with, being open, honest, polite and tactful, and behaving with the degree of formality suited to the level and length of our business relationship.

Another important aspect is how you represent the organisation you work for to the outside world, and how you talk about your competitors. It is unprofessional to discuss shortcomings in your own organisation, and to criticise or ridicule other organisations in your particular field. Comparing how they do things with your own organisation’s methods, and highlighting the advantages of the latter, shows respect for them whilst still presenting your organisation in the best light.

For me, professionalism means taking a pride in my work, acknowledging excellence and showing respect for the work of others, and treating people the way I would wish to be treated.

What other writing do I do?

7 October, 2008 at 4:31 pm | Posted in website | Leave a comment

Apart from writing manuals and Help, I also author all the pages on our website (which I constructed without any formal training – but that’s another story!). This requires a rather different approach, as the website is a sort of extended product brochure, where the emphasis must be on the benefits of using our software, rather than how to use it. I’m also “selling” the company, in terms of the services we provide, and what it’s like to work with us.

This can sometimes be difficult, as I have to think at a higher, more conceptual level than when I’m writing about the minutiae of which button to click. However, talking to prospective customers helps enormously, as they ask the sort of questions which make me think more clearly about the reasons why our system will help them achieve their objectives.

This illustrates very well one of the main issues for a technical author – appropriate writing for the intended audience. We not only have to consider who are the people that will read our work, but also why they might be reading it.

ISTC Membership

7 October, 2008 at 10:02 am | Posted in Documentation | Leave a comment

I heard last night that my application for membership of the ISTC has been approved. This entitles me to put MISTC after my name.

This organisation reflects my belief in the importance of documentation which is accessible to non-technical people. It promotes technical communication as a profession, with a Code of Conduct which seeks to ensure that members are ethical in their dealings with customers, employers and employees, suppliers, fellow professionals and the wider community.

Dealing with ‘Scope Creep’ in Software Development Projects

17 September, 2008 at 11:32 am | Posted in Implementation | Leave a comment
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Someone asked me the other day – “how do you handle scope creep in your development projects?” I thought I’d share the answer with the wider world!

First of all, what is scope creep?

New software is usually developed as a result of a customer (an internal or an external organisation) identifying a need. The next step is to specify how the software will meet that need; specifically, what functionality will be developed. This is the ’scope’ of the project. The project plans are drawn up, based on the estimates for developing and delivering the specified functionality, and an end date is agreed.

Development starts and the project seems to be progressing well. But then the customer realises that there are additional requirements they forgot to mention, or extra elements of functionality that they need. Often, adding these extras will cause the project duration to be extended, resulting in missed deadlines and increased costs, leading to erosion of margin on the project and potentially customer dissatisfaction and loss of credibility due to late delivery.

So what can we do about it? Our solution is a functional specification, written in terms that the customer can understand: we often write a ‘walk-through’ of the process that the software will support, illustrated with mocked-up screen shots. This helps clarify how the new system will work from the user’s point of view.

The functional specification is agreed and signed by the customer, and it includes a Scope Statement. This states that only the functionality which is explicitly described in the specification is included in the project scope, and that anything not described is outside scope.

If the customer subsequently identifies additional elements, reference is made to the specification: is the required functionality described or alluded to? If not, then the new development is outside scope.

We work out the impact of developing the new functionality: what extra effort will be required? What effect will this have on the overall project duration? What additional costs will be incurred and how will this affect the project margin?

If the impact is trivial, we’ll often agree to include the new functionality in the existing project, but we still issue a revised specification. There’s a danger that the customer believes a precedent has been set and that further revisions will be made in a similar way, so we make clear the reasons for allowing the revision in this instance.

However, usually the additional development will cause delay (as it affects the critical path) and/or extra cost. The implications of the revision in terms of its impact on timescales and costs are discussed with the customer, and a separate specification of the additions and changes is written (with its own Scope Statement). It’s then up to the customer to decide whether they are willing to pay more, and if they can accept the revised end date for the project. If they agree, the new specification is signed off as before.

Now you may think that writing a sufficiently detailed specification to be able to make the Scope Statement involves more time (and cost) than is warranted by the value of the project as a whole. If this is the case, we assess the likelihood of the risk – based on our knowledge of the customer and how confident we are that all the requirements have been identified – and the possible impact. Then we build in sufficient contingency in our estimates of time and cost to cover all but the most major revisions to the specification.

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