Best book I read last year

I read quite a few books in 2008. Not as many as some years (way back when in junior high when I read so voraciously) and not as few as others (when I was in grad school — only counting books for pleasure, here, not for classes).

Far and away, the best thing I read this year was Little, Big by John Crowley. It’s not new; it was written in 1981 and won a World Fantasy Award in 1982. I don’t recall now how I stumbled across it, but I’m glad I did.

It’s a remarkable story, and really kind of indescribable. It feels something like an E.M. Forster novel with some inexplicable, mysterious magic about it. I could say it’s about fairies, but that doesn’t do it justice, and it’s not really about fairies at all. It’s about people, who are at once ordinary and utterly wondrous. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s happy, it’s hopeful, it’s sad. I laughed and cried. Reading it feels like listening to a vast symphony of notes that conjures up your emotions and leaves you deliciously spent. I highly recommend it.

“The farther in you go, the bigger it gets.”

What I Do

I realized I’ve never really talked much about what I do and where I work on this blog.

I’m an Information Architect* at a consulting firm in Pittsburgh that employs about 20 people. Our specialty is streamlining business processes that involve information, including things like policies and procedures, product documentation, and portal design. The company has been around since 1989, when it started as a technical writing firm. In the 90’s with the advent of knowledge management, the company got involved with wider issues around organizing information, such as portals and intranets.

I’ve worked here since 2003, and my job duties involve all parts of the information life cycle. On some projects, I’m essentially a technical writer: I gather source materials, interview subject matter experts, and write documents like procedures or user manuals. I’m also the “techie guy”, and much of my work involves designing efficient publishing processes that can take advantage of reusable information and publish it in many formats. Much of our documentation is based on XML formats that can be flexibly repurposed into, e.g., a print manual, online help, training slides, web-based interactive training, and so on. And finally, we help businesses organize and manage all this information as well, helping them understand their needs for content management systems, portals, intranets, etc., and how to integrate those tools into their ways of doing business.

So that’s what I do. It takes a broad range of skills, from technical writing, to indexing and classification, to thinking about usability and accessibility, to markup and scripting, to systems administration. I can’t say I’m especially good at many of those, but I muddle through somehow. :)

*I’m still not sure I really know what that means, but it looks pretty on my business card.

Stupid career quizzes and the existential angst exposed thereby

I just took a stupid career quiz on MSN: Do you love your job? In the tradition of all stupid quizzes, it doesn’t really tell you anything you don’t already know, or couldn’t figure out on your own with a little consideration.

I was a mixture of D’s and C’s, with a B or two thrown in (the “Answer Key” is at the bottom). Basically, if Goldilocks is an A, she likes her job too much; a B, she doesn’t like it at all; a C, she likes it just right. D… well, D is what I’m most interested in, because it’s where I identify most closely. Here’s a little of what it says:

D: It’s the first letter in “dilettante,” which is what you tend to be when it comes to your professional life. You are most likely ambitious and multitalented, but have trouble settling down because it means foregoing other choices. This isn’t necessarily a bad quality — many people change careers several times throughout their lives — but you should try to make sure these switches in direction are based on careful thought and consideration rather than impulse.

This is so me. I was a scientist who got burned out on grad school, so I quit and completely reinvented my resume and started a career as a technical writer. (File this under: Benefits of a liberal arts education.) Now I feel like I’ve pretty much mastered all the things I do in my job, and I’m ready for something new, so I’ve applied to go to library school.

I start to have a problem with what the rest of the description says, however:

Perhaps you’re reluctant to commit to one job or career because you haven’t prioritized your goals. Since it’s impossible to do everything, try narrowing your options by assessing your talents and preferences. Ask basic questions � do I like to work with people or am I happier with solitary pursuits? Do I have a knack for mathematics, science, languages, music, art or sales? Could my interest in a particular field lead to a career or merely a hobby? Can I make money at this? Do I want to do this work 40 or more hours a week? Finding the answers to these questions is the first step toward committing to a career choice.

Well thank you, MSN content-creation monkey, for so neatly mapping things out for me. Now my life is complete.

Seriously, who says I have to “commit to a career choice”? I just don’t really think there’s any single career that’s for me. I know it’s normal for people to change careers once or twice (and change jobs many times), but my life is shaping into changing my career every couple of years or so. And that’s OK with me. (For K folks, see the article in the last Lux Esto about alumni changing careers. I swear that K’s quarters ruined me for anything lasting longer than 10 weeks, and apparently I’m not alone in this feeling.) I think an MLS is also a super idea at this point, because (1) I’d love to go back to school about now, and (2) it’s the handyman equivalent of the academic world, a sort of jack-of-all-trades with information, which I feel will serve me well in lots of careers down the road, whatever they may be.

Yeah, I like this career-changing-every-so-often track. I imagine by the time I “retire” I will have been a climate scientist, a technical writer, a librarian, a car mechanic, an artist, and a fry-cook on Venus, and eight other things. All of which sound like a lot of fun, at least for a couple of years. “[I]t’s impossible to do everything”? My ass.

JW’s Philosophy of Learning

Some people are constantly amazed at what I know about various subjects, especially technology and how various pieces of software work. I am going to let you in on a little secret: there is no secret to amassing this knowledge.

(With credit to Dorothea for the phrasing): The way to learn is to beat on things with rocks.

That’s it. Just keep trying until it does what you want it to do. When you get there (or even if you don’t), I guarantee you will have learned something.

OK, I can recognize that this is a statement of philosophy, but as an actual game plan, it may not be all that helpful. So here are five tips on how to be a more effective rock-beater:

  1. Define the problem well
  2. RTFM
  3. Change one thing at a time
  4. Someone else already knows
  5. Don’t believe it until you see it

Define the problem well. This may seem like a no-brainer, but if you don’t know what it is you’re trying to do, it’s hard to come up with something effective to do about it. Before you start hammering away willy-nilly, take a step back and say, “What do I need to accomplish here? What’s vital in what I’m trying to do, and what’s just nice-to-have? Is this really a problem, or is it caused by something upstream that’s really what I need to be working on?”

RTFM. Read the *#$%^@ manual. (This is especially dear to me because I used to be a technical writer.) Now, I know, not everything has a lovely manual like the kind I used to write. But by gosh and by golly, you won’t know until you take a look, will you? I can’t count the number of times someone has asked me a question that’s perfectly good, but also perfectly easy to answer if they’d spend 5 minutes taking a look at the documentation.

Change one thing at a time. If you’re trying to suss out how something works, you must think of yourself as a scientist performing a little experiment. You must change just one thing at a time to see what happens. If you change two or three or twenty-seven things at a time, how will you know which one is the one that actually worked?

Somebody else already knows. The chances are high that there is someone out there who can answer your questions. Maybe it’s your colleague in the cubicle next door, or maybe it’s somebody with a blog or a book or on a forum or mailing list. (Part of the trick is knowing where to look; do some research. The Internet is your friend, and so is your library.)

If you ask, these people are often eager to teach you what they know. However, a word of warning — there’s a reason this is the fourth tip and not the first one. “Define your problem” and “RTFM” first, or people are likely to be a little peeved at you for dumping your ill-defined problem on them, or asking things you could easily have found out yourself. Get as far as you can on your own, then ask for help.

Don’t believe it until you see it. This is the flipside of “RTFM” and “Somebody already knows”. Some document or person can describe how something is supposed to work, but you should still try it out. (This is especially true when the document happens to be a piece of marketing literature for software.) By trying it yourself, you make it yours. You really understand how and why (or even if) it works.

Good luck

So that’s all I know, and it works for me. I can’t promise any more than that, but I do hope it helped my former coworker, and I hope it helps somebody out there in the blogosphere, too.

Too busy to blog?

My last post was an email I’d just written to a friend. As I was writing the email, I thought, “I should blog this”, largely because I’d read this just an hour before:

When people tell me they’re too busy to blog, I ask them to count up their output of keystrokes. How many of those keystrokes flow into email messages? Most. How many people receive those email messages? Few. How many people could usefully benefit from those messages, now or later? More than a few, maybe a lot more. (Jon Udell, “Too busy to blog? Count your keystrokes, more info here”)

The whole post is definitely worth a read.

I’ve been pretty absent from blogging lately, but I think I’ll take this to heart, both for this blog and for work-related emails that might be better served by an internally-facing blog. My company is reasonably compact (certainly in comparison to Microsoft, anyway!) but we still have a lot of challenges spreading information around when people aren’t all in the office together and communicating face-to-face. We’ve reached a size now where, even when we are all in the office, some people are still out of the loop on X, Y, or Z because they weren’t present at the conversation in so-and-so’s office, or over the lunchroom table, or wherever.

And speaking of not blogging in a while, it reminds me that I also have a post on Yahoo Pipes and Dapp and many related issues that I started ages ago — like when Yahoo Pipes debuted — that I still haven’t finished… Too busy… ;)

Karen Schneider, hip “old lady”

The biblioblogosphere is fluttering with talk about the fluffy librarian-image piece in the New York Times style section. On one hand, it’s one of those “Librarians: we’re cooler than you think we are” articles, and as those go, it’s not a half bad one. I mean, Jessamyn gets mentioned, so that’s one thing going for it right there.

But Karen Schneider calls out what’s lacking. It is, after all, the style section, and there’s a lot of concentration on cocktails, clothes, and tattoos. There’s also a glossing-over of some stereotyping that deserves examining and lack of attention to the things that truly make librarians “hip”. Karen writes,

Jessamyn is of the hippest of the hip not because she routinely uses instant messaging, but because she is such a tireless advocate for small libraries and poor communities — the unserved, often voiceless communities many of us (including me) forget about when we get hopped up about some new new thing.

Right on. And she goes on to say,

I am cool in my subversive old-lady tech-loving the-user-is-not-broken way, and getting cooler all the time, and I count among my friends and colleagues librarians of all ages, dress codes, and evening habits.

Karen, if you want to identify as “old lady”, I’ll support you on whatever you want to be. ;) But I have to say, also one of the coolest librarians I know of. Thanks for blogging.

On clever solutions…

When people come to the library, that’s a good thing. But, sometimes lots of people at the library can mean the library gets noisy with people working together or just chatting. People who’ve come to the library for some peace and quiet to get work done can be disturbed.

The solutions to this problem are usually to have quiet study rooms that can be closed off, and/or to formally designate or subtly design for group spaces where it’s OK to talk a little bit separate from quiet spaces. Today, I saw a pretty clever additional idea from my undergraduate alma mater: noise-canceling headphones you can check out to use while you’re in the library. Cool!