Who is Valuable?

Occasionally, events that I experience, witness, or just hear about remind me to question myself, my values, and how I live them. I think that is how it should be. What follows is the result of today’s pondering.

How do we determine whether a person is valuable or not? (Valuable in the sense of importance.)

It seems like an easy question, and in one sense, perhaps it is. We all come with different values (value in the sense of amount or number or specific status) for specific attributes: some are smarter, others are athletic, still others are artistic. We can categorize humans by a myriad of means. Is this one a kind person or a mean one? Does this other person belong to my group (religion, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, national origin, skin color, and the list goes on) or not? These may help you place a person in a category, but I submit that it has nothing to do with a person’s value (importance).

What about job qualifications? I’ll argue that speaks to suitability for a specific task, and maybe even whether a person is considered valuable within an organization, but it does not address their overall value as a human.

What does?

Don’t answer that with your words. I already know what you think by how you treat those around you who are different than you.

The Insider’s Guide to Technical Writing

I love technical writing. Sincerely. When I say that to most people, they look at me oddly, squint a little, maybe cock their head sideways, and walk away. I think that is because most people don’t really understand what this job entails. To be sure, most people realize that technical writers are the ones who write those manuals that come with their favorite electronic toys and mechanical gadgets. We get credit for making sure mechanics have quality, accurate information before they lay a wrench on your car or adjust the hydraulic systems on the airplane you flew in to visit your grandmother. What most people don’t realize is that this process is actually a lot of fun. This book communicates that beautifully.

The Insider’s Guide to Technical Writing came out earlier in 2012. It was published by XML Press, which specializes on content for technical communicators (also known as technical writers, technical documentation specialists, and so on). The author, Krista Van Laan, has the experience to be credible and authoritative. She also proves her mettle with her clear writing and thorough coverage of the field.

As I read the book, I played a game. You see, I am also an experienced technical writer, and I have read some books on the topic that I would not recommend at all. My game consisted of trying to find the holes in the book. I watched carefully for the missed aspects of the job or the incomplete descriptions of a task. I scrutinized the text to see if I could find the sort of poor writing style or uninteresting examples that plague some parts of our field–ever read a manual and thought to yourself that you could write a better one? So have I. So has Van Laan, and she uses this example as one reason why you might be a good candidate to become a technical writer.

My game was an utter failure. The book is a resounding success. Everything I love is in here. Everything I do (including those bits I don’t love quite so much) is in here. The book is not only written clearly, but with a style that is enjoyable to read. Examples are interesting and ring true to life. If you have ever wondered whether you might want to become a technical writer, wondered what a technical writer does, or you are a technical writer who knows there are gaps in your knowledge, buy and read this book.

The Insider’s Guide to Technical Writing covers all the bases. It begins with a high-level description of what a technical writer does and how to determine whether or not you have the right stuff to be a success. This is not a discouraging section, but rather a deeply encouraging one that highlights the personality and intellectual traits necessary to learn and enjoy using the skills that a technical writer needs. It covers how to pursue the career and how to get a job in the field. Then, we get to the really fun parts.

I’m convinced that technical writing is about 15% writing. The rest of my time is spent doing research, being one of the very first people to test a product or an application, interviewing subject matter experts, learning about my audience, planning and coordinating my activities so that I can deliver the requested materials on time, presenting drafts for technical review, and accepting and incorporating correction and feedback from others who also want us to deliver excellent and accurate documentation. When I’m not doing these things, I might be organizing or reorganizing information, playing around with how it is expressed, working on a style guide to ensure that everything is consistent in its look and feel, or learning about design or a new technology for delivering documentation. Good writing skills are vital, but technical writers also need good organizational skills, interpersonal communication skills, the ability to learn new technologies quickly and completely, and adaptability.

Everything in the previous paragraph is in the book. In fact, that paragraph only scratches the surface of the book’s content. You will also learn about managing your career, working remotely, translation and localization, how to keep your writer’s skills and toolkit up to date, and constantly growing.

Seriously, if any of this sounds interesting to you, buy this book and read it.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy.

Reactive or Intentional?

I was thinking today about technical writing and how it fits within different companies.

Some companies think of technical writing almost like a nation’s military forces. Both consist of trained professionals and are used as the last layer of protection–something that should perhaps only be focused on when a specific threat exists. “Oh, Customer X can’t figure out how to configure Product Y. Get a tech writer in here, quickly! Let’s get something written up.”

Other companies think of technical writing as infrastructure. It is an important part of the overall whole, and if created using careful planning and quality materials, enables greater things to be built upon it.

In between the two is where most companies exist. The harsh reality of difficult time schedules and limited budgets force some compromises, and individual incidents do not necessarily imply intentional standards. These compromises are where you discover the values of a company’s leadership, or maybe the limitations of its internal team(s). If it must err, on which side will it err? Is the decision to lean one way or another reactive or intentional? Is there evidence of planning and forethought, or rather tons of piled-upon quick fixes?

I’ve worked for both types of companies and spent ample time cleaning up messes caused by reactive-style work that never had time allotted to it to be cleaned up. I’m thrilled that my current job involves working in a team that is intentional.

The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra

It has again been a while since I have reviewed a manga book. This is one of several atypical educational books that use graphic art to help teach difficult concepts or illustrate the action and another wonderful entry in the “Manga Guide to…” series that I have been reviewing.  I keep requesting review copies of each title in the series as they come out, and I have yet to be disappointed. This is an impressive series that consistently makes very difficult academic topics more interesting and a little easier for students. I would not consider these a replacement for a textbook, and neither would the publishers of the series, but every book that I have reviewed from the series would make an excellent supplement, especially for the struggling student.

The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra follows the actions of a Reiji, who wants a black belt in Karate and to gain the interest of the girl of his dreams, Misa. She happens to be the younger sister of the captain of the university Karate club, and although her brother is intimidating, he offers to give Reiji lessons in exchange for Reiji tutoring Misa. You will have to read the book to see how that turns out.

The book starts with an introduction to the characters, then an introduction to linear algebra. I admit, it has been many years since I studied the topic and I was interested to see how quickly I would pick it back up. The book made it easier than I anticipated, partially because it gives context for each concept presented. Knowing why something is important and how it fits into a greater scheme makes it much easier to understand and remember.

Topics covered in the book include fundamentals like number systems, implication and equivalence, set theory, functions, combinations and permutations. We then transition into matrices with a “what is a matrix?” section, calculations, special matrices and lots more. Once matrices are covered in depth, vectors are introduced along with calculations, geometric interpretations, linear independence, bases, dimensions, and coordinates. Once we move into linear transformations and spend some time trying to get a handle on this difficult topic, the presentation turns to an interesting discussion of the relationship between linear transformations and matrices–again, this helps provide some useful context to a difficult idea to grasp. Finally, the book discussed Eigenvalues and Eigenvectors, including how to calculate them, multiplicity, and diagonalization. Then, the storyline surrounding the mathmatical topic is brought to a close.

Studying linear algebra? This won’t replace your textbook and doing your homework, but it may help you figure out the context for and gain a deeper understanding of what you are doing. That alone makes the book valuable and earns it my recommendation as a quality introduction to the topic.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy.

Seven Databases in Seven Weeks

I’ve spent some of my free time over the last couple of months researching different databases for a chapter in one of my books. I have some limited experience using some NoSQL options, but must confess that I am not as familiar with many of the newer databases as I would like. As a part of my research, I read this book.

Seven Databases in Seven Weeks: A Guide to Modern Databases and the NoSQL Movement by Eric Redmond and Jim R. Wilson came out earlier in 2012. It is published by The Pragmatic Programmers, as a part of their Pragmatic Bookshelf, which is an impressive and deservedly well-respected series.

My goal in reading this book was to get a better sense of the landscape, to learn the basics of several of the new databases out that have been receiving the lion’s share of the buzz in the computer press. The book did not disappoint, in fact it exceeded my expectations.

All a reader absolutely must know before reading this book is what a database is, but after saying that, I will follow with a quick disclaimer that this is not intended for newbies. The book is written for experienced developers, people who understand software, who know their concepts and how to apply them, but who are interested in the latest developments. The book does not cover things like installation or systems/database administration. Instead, it gives information that surveys the strengths and weaknesses of the new databases to help the experienced developer better understand when, why, and how he or she might find a specific one useful. We have discussions of features, contexts, and pragmatic looks at usefulness. I appreciated the author’s willingness to state not only how specific products could benefit, but also mention when specific products may be unsuitable for a specific project.

Databases covered are these, listed in the order in which you will find them in the book:

  • PostgreSQL
  • Riak
  • HBase
  • MongoDB
  • CouchDB
  • Neo4J
  • Redis

You will notice that there is a nice variety in the types of databases listed. Represented are a standard relational database (PostgreSQL), key-value stores (Riak, Redis), a columnar database (HBase), some document-oriented databases (MongoDB, CouchDB), and even a graph database (Neo4J). The survey is clear, deep, and packed with useful data that makes comparing these vastly different, but often lumped together as “NoSQL” databases, easier.

If you have any reason to use or consider using anything other than a more traditional relational database, and aren’t sure which one to try out of the exploding number of new options, this book will help you make sense of the field and better evaluate your options against your current needs. I recommend it.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy.

More reviews coming soon

I moved house recently, and I got behind. I have several books in a pile waiting to be read and reviewed, and now that the dust has settled from the move, I’m ready to get back to it. I don’t have a time frame, but in the queue are books on databases, technical writing, and another entry in the Manga Guide series, this one on linear algebra. I’ve read enough of these to be certain they will be worth mentioning, but I also have several more that I haven’t even opened, so there may even be more than those three in the coming weeks.

Confluence, Tech Comm, Chocolate

As I mentioned in an earlier review of writing-related books, I am a writer. I write for a living. I write technical documentation, books, occasional articles for magazines and websites, and more. This review covers a book that has been helpful to me primarily in technical writing.

Wikis are wonderful. There, I said it right at the beginning. I’m biased. I’ve written documentation using everything from word processors like Microsoft Word and LibreOffice to XML variants like DocBook. I’ve hand-written entire suites of documentation using HTML and XHTML. I’ve also used various wikis, such as MediaWiki, MoinMoin, and the topic of the book in this review, Confluence.

Confluence, Tech Comm, Chocolate: A wiki as platform extraordinaire for technical communication came out earlier in 2012. It was published by XML Press, which specializes on content for technical communicators (also known as technical writers, technical documentation specialists, and so on). The author, Sarah Maddox, works as a technical writer for Atlassian, the creator of Confluence and other software tools.

This book fits a useful niche between marketing materials that are more useful in an early product evaluation stage and technical documentation that is most useful during the implementation stage. Planning your documentation comes in between these two stages and is a vital step that is often poorly documented, especially in terms of planning and creating technical documentation on a wiki. This book gives a wealth of practical advice for this stage.

In addition, Sarah Maddox includes in the book all the information that a complete novice requires. Topics like what is a wiki or how is a wiki used on a day to day basis for technical communication are covered and covered well. The reader receives specific instruction on useful topics like creating content for reuse, using Confluence as your single source for output to other formats, creating templates and styling, importing content from other formats, creating documentation as a team, using a wiki within an Agile context, and performing content reviews on the wiki itself.

I’ve used Confluence to create technical documentation from scratch in previous projects. The best practice guidelines and tips in this book ring true to me from my experiences. My current project uses Confluence as one tool among many. I will be sharing the book with my colleagues to see how we can use it even more effectively.

If you are a technical communicator and are considering Confluence as a medium for documentation, take a look at this book before you do anything. In addition, I believe the book would be useful to share with both technical collaborators like software engineers as well as less technical collaborators like program managers or sales staff. The latter generally have more direct communication with customers, either through software requirements or personal interaction, and the book will help each understand and determine whether Confluence is a good fit for your technical communication, for your company workflow, and also for your sales and bottom line.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy.

VMware Cookbook, second edition

VMware Cookbook

Just released.

I had the privilege to work with Ryan Troy for both the original and for this second edition of
VMware Cookbook
. With scores of step-by-step solutions, this cookbook helps you work with VMware ESXi in a wide range of network environments. You’ll not only learn the basics—how to pool resources from hardware servers, computer clusters, networks, and storage, and then distribute them among virtual machines—but also how to overcome the stumbling blocks you’ll encounter when you monitor systems, troubleshoot problems, and deal with security.

This expanded second edition covers recent advances in vCloud Director and vShield cloud security. Ideal for system administrators of any level, VMware Cookbook also includes valuable information to help you determine your virtualization needs.

ISBN-13: 978-1449314477