Your User Manual

As a technical writer, anything that mentions “manual” (or “documentation”, for that matter) tends to catch my eye. I suppose it’s an occupational hazard. But when I saw this post from my friend, Steve Jones, it made me take notice.

I’m reblogging this for my own personal reference as much as anything else. Suppose you had a set of instructions for yourself? How would it read?

I might try this exercise for myself at some point, but for the moment, read Steve’s article, and see if you can come up with your own manual for yourself.

Voice of the DBA

Many of us have spent time looking through manuals or the documentation for some software or product. I know I’m on the MS docs site regularly for work, and there is no shortage of times I’ve used various manuals to help me fix something around the house. We usually use a manual when we want to learn how something is supposed to work, or how to get it to do what we want.

I saw a post on a personal user manual that I thought was a good idea for some people, maybe many people. This isn’t a manual for how you should live your life or work, but rather, how others might interact with you. This manual describes how you work, what motivates you, stimulates you, what pleases you, and even the environment in which are most productive.

Whether or not this is something you might give to co-workers…

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Make time for your art

This pic above showed up in a Facebook meme, and it spoke volumes to me. To sum up my thoughts in only a few words, I’m an artist.

Okay, I suppose some context is in order; after all, I am writing this as a ‘blog article.

For the benefit of those of you who don’t know me, I’m a musician in my spare time. I started playing the piano when I was seven, the clarinet when I was eight, and I taught myself how to play mallet percussion and the saxophone when I was in high school. I grew up learning how to play classical piano, and I picked up a taste for jazz and classic rock along the way. I played well enough that I easily could have been a music major had I chosen to do so; alas, my parents wouldn’t let me.

I also started writing my own music when I was in high school. I started out writing piano compositions (think John Tesh-like new age piano music) without lyrics. One day, I said to myself, “what would happen if I wrote lyrics for my music?” The result was a song called If She Only Knew. I ended up writing more songs; you can hear many of them on my songwriter’s page (you can even purchase my music on the page or on iTunes). I still have more music that I haven’t finished recording (alas, trying to coordinate time with friends who can actually sing is a major blocker, not to mention that life happens), and it’s only within the past few years that I’ve started writing again, after a long layoff of many years (like I said, life happens).

When I first started writing, I was an isolated, naïve, and lonely kid who hadn’t been exposed to a lot in the big wide world. As such, much of what I wrote was stuff that was on my mind that I was unable to express in words. Music was — and still is — the perfect outlet for me; it enabled me to convey what I was otherwise unable to express.

The pandemic over the past few years has stressed me out in many different ways, as I’m sure it has for many people. Under these circumstances, it’s especially important to maintain your mental health; indeed, it was why I ended up in the hospital last year. We are not robots, so it’s important to maintain some kind of relief valve to release the pressure. This is a huge (although not the only) reason why the arts are important. (I could also talk about how art trains us to think critically and creatively, but that goes beyond the scope of this article.) The arts allow us to express ourselves in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to in the corporate, business, and high-tech world.

Art can take many forms. For me, it’s in my music. For others, it can involve drawing, sculpture, painting, glass-blowing, creative writing, poetry, sewing, video production, theater, collecting, cooking, and so on. (You could also make the case that sports and athletics are an art.) You don’t necessarily even have to be good at it. I once got into a lengthy argument with a friend who said that a picture created with animal feces was not art. What he didn’t understand was that art doesn’t necessarily have to be good or tasteful; it just has to be something that’s expressed, even if it’s (literally, in this case) a piece of crap.

I think art is critically important (I’ve argued that we should be teaching STEAM, not STEM). It’s important for us to develop as well-rounded individuals. And it provides us with a creative outlet that we desperately need to release stress, especially in our current world that is full of it.

#WELocal Conference, Buffalo, NY — I’m speaking!

I received word that one of my submissions has been accepted for the WE Local Conference in Buffalo, NY on April 8-9! The WE Local Conference is sponsored by the Society of Women Engineers. This is my second conference that is not related to PASS where I’ll be speaking, and this will be my first in-person event since SQL Saturday in Rochester, just before the pandemic hit.

I will be doing my presentation about communicating to non-technical people (my original talk)!

So meet me in Buffalo next April for what looks to be another great conference! And perhaps you’ll be able to catch my presentation, along with a plate of Buffalo wings!

Support your local artists

A little while ago, a friend of mine from high school sent me a message (along with a link) saying that his band was scheduled to perform a gig pretty much in my own backyard. I added his gig date to my calendar, and I will make the effort to attend.

I have to admit that I really haven’t done enough to go out and attend local concerts and gigs, unless it’s one in which I’m actually performing, and that’s a shame on my part. As a part-time musician myself, I can say firsthand that local musicians (and all artists — not just musicians) take their craft seriously, and they put a lot of time, effort, and soul into what they do. As such, these artists deserve to be recognized for their efforts, whether it’s by purchasing their art, sampling their wares, or attending their concerts and gigs.

Often, whenever my wife and I have an evening free, I’ll often ask her, “you want to do anything tonight?” Most of the time, that involves doing something for dinner. As a sports fan, I’ll sometimes look to see if one of the local teams is playing, and if I’m up for it, I’ll look into getting tickets. But as a musician, I don’t often look for any live music performances that interest me.

Whenever I’m performing, I’ll announce that I have a performance coming up — nearly always on Facebook, but sometimes also on Twitter and here on my ‘blog. I would hope that (at least) my friends would come out to support me and what I do. And whenever my friends tell me they’re performing somewhere, it’s only fair that I reciprocate. Part of it is “professional” courtesy, but mostly, my attendance sends a message that “I support what you do!”

As I get older, I’ve noticed that I’m somewhat less inclined to go out. I used to hit some jazz clubs when I was younger (I love listening to live jazz, among other things), but events like that have lessened as I’ve gotten older. Mostly, after a week of working or free days doing things around the house, by the time a Friday or Saturday evening rolls around, I’m “too tired to go out and do anything.” And that’s a cop-out on my end.

Some people won’t go to a concert unless it’s a big name. Hey, even I’ll admit that whenever my favorite band comes to town, I have to attend. That’s okay. But there’s also likely a number of local artists who also deserve your attention, and a lot of them happen to be pretty good! Not only that, but chances are the price of admission is likely to be a lot less than a ticket to see your favorite nationally-known artist.

Think of it this way — if you like to travel, you’ll likely buy souvenirs that are unique to that area. Sometimes, the wares are pieces of art that are indigenous to wherever you’re visiting. In doing so, you’re supporting lesser-known local artists. So why not do the same in your own hometown?

So whenever I ask my wife (or any friends) if they’re interested in doing something, I’ll make sure I check the local arts calendar to see who’s performing or exhibiting. It makes for good, inexpensive local entertainment, not to mention that you’ll be supporting your local artists, you’ll get a taste of your own local culture, and you’ll likely have a great time in doing so!

(P.S. I put my friend’s gig date in my calendar, and I’ll try to bring some friends along with me!)

Lack of language command doesn’t have to be an impediment to presenting

As someone who is a child of immigrants, I understand and appreciate the travails of anyone who is new to this country and struggles with the English language. Indeed, English can be a very screwy language, with a plethora of archaic rules such as “i before e” and so on. I remember my Korean mother telling me about how Korean is grammatically perfect; every rule is followed to the letter (no pun intended), and there is no “i before e” or anything like that. I got a better idea of this when I tried to teach myself Korean. (I’ll confess that I’ve gotten busy, and I haven’t kept on top of this as I’d like. I’ll have to pick this up again at some point.)

I’ve learned about the structure of the Korean language, but I have not learned enough to be able to carry a conversation or read signs. As such, I have absolutely no command of the language. So I respect anyone who is not a native English speaker, but learns enough to be able to come to this country and be able to have a comprehensible conversation. That ability requires a great deal of work and practice, and to be able to go to a foreign country and speak the language of its inhabitants is a tremendous achievement.

That said, a common statement among my friends and colleagues from foreign countries is that because English is not their native language, it is an impediment for them to do technical (or any) presentations. More often than not, it isn’t external feedback or reactions that keep them from presenting, but rather a self-perception that because they aren’t native English speakers, they aren’t able to present technical concepts to English speakers.

To those people, I want to tell them (hence, the reason for this ‘blog article): nothing can be farther from the truth. On the contrary, I fully encourage you to present.

Now, I was born and raised in New York State. English is my native language. I like to think that I have a pretty good command of the language, and I will confess to being a bit of a grammar snob (I’ll often joke that I’m one of those people who’s silently correcting your grammar!). Granted, I don’t pretend to be perfect, but I think I can hold my own. I will often say (and I do often say this in my presentations) that command of your native language makes it easier to present concepts when it comes to technical communication.

However, while language command is helpful for presenting topics, it isn’t a requirement. Some of the best speakers I’ve met on the SQL Saturday circuit have been people whose first language is not English. The list includes some very good friends of mine whom I’ve met through SQL Saturday, including Slava Murygin, Taiob Ali, Michelle Gutzait, Paresh Motiwala, Cecelia Brusatori, and Thomas Grohser, among others. They are all excellent speakers whom I highly recommend, and the fact that they speak with accents that may be foreign to many Americans doesn’t keep them from presenting technical topics or being group leaders.

Even if you’re an English speaker who never got the hang of diagramming sentences or knowing the difference between their, they’re, and there, it should not deter you from presenting important topics. And if you are self-aware about your lack of language command, don’t be afraid to ask for help or feedback from someone who does have a good grasp of language.

So if you have a topic to present, but you’re not a native speaker, go ahead and present, anyway! If your topic is profound, interesting, important, etc., the material will often speak for itself. Lack of language command is not an impediment for presenting.

Reminder: I’m speaking on Wednesday, October 20 #TechCon2021

I will be speaking at the Quicken Loans/Rocket Mortgage TechCon 2021 on Wednesdauy, October 20, at 3:45 pm EDT.

I will do my session about how to talk the language of technology to those who don’t understand it, called “Whacha just say?!?” This is the same presentation that I gave this past Saturday at Data Saturday #13, Minnesota!

Hope to see people there!

Never assume it’s obvious

When I was in college, I remember a professor who seemed fond of saying “it’s intuitively obvious.” I don’t remember a lot from that professor (other than that he was a good professor and a good man), but I vaguely remember my classmates making fun of that line, partially because he used it often, and partially because it often was not “intuitively obvious.”

How many of you remember way back when the “this beverage is hot” warning labels started appearing on coffee cups? Many of us (myself included) ridiculed it, responding with, “duh!” But of course, there is usually a good reason behind the story. Now the hot beverage warning label is ubiquitous on nearly all hot beverage cups, and most of us don’t give it a second thought.

I was reminded of this yesterday as I worked on a project. I won’t go into the details (I don’t like to share details of an in-house work project), so I’ll give you the high-altitude view of it. I’ve been trying to solve a problem where multiple people are asking IT Support for assistance, and IT Support is overwhelmed by requests. IT Support does have a website where many of these questions can be answered, but it seems that people either don’t know it exists or don’t know enough to look for the answers there.

I went poking through the website. It did seem to have the tools necessary to answer many questions, as well as resolve a few issues I’m working on. It then occurred to me — the very fact that I was poking around the site to figure out how it worked. In other words, it wasn’t entirely obvious as to how to get the answers from the site. It occurred to me that what was missing was a user guide for the site. I’ve been pitching it to several people, as I believe it’s a good idea, and I think it will resolve a number of problems. Nevertheless, I’ve gotten a little bit of pushback, along the lines of, “of course it’s obvious how to use it,” and “we have links everywhere that explains how it works.” (Also, IT Support, as just about any department, tends to get somewhat protective — understandably so — of its assets and material.)

So if it’s so obvious, then why are you getting overwhelmed with questions?

As a technical writer, “never assume it’s obvious” is one of my biggest mantras, and I think it should be for anyone involved with technical communication, UX/UI design, teaching, or documentation. Simple instructions can often be overlooked (how many times do I have to say that reading is work?!?), and people from other cultures may not always understand the language or context that you’re writing, so that’s something else to consider.

Never, ever, assume anything is obvious — because more often than not, it isn’t.

Enemies and adversaries

I stumbled across this article today. I won’t get into the politics behind it (those of you who know me know how much I despise politics), but I wanted to write about it because of a quote by one of the perpetrators I read in the article — one that I found to be extremely disturbing.

The quote: “We need to hit the enemy in the mouth.”

When one political side — any side — refers to the other as “the enemy,” we have a major problem.

Most of the time, when I use the word “enemy” (and I’ll admit that I might use it occasionally), I use it tongue-in-cheek. As a sports fan, I’ll sometimes jokingly refer to our archrival as “the enemy.” But I also keep things in context. At the end of the day, it’s still just a game.

That wasn’t the case here. The perpetrators used it maliciously, with intent to harm. It became a matter of life and death. This is how wars and armed standoffs happen.

I do remember one point during the presidential elections in 1996, when Bob Dole talked about his contentious campaign against Bill Clinton, when Dole said, “we are adversaries. We are not enemies.”

Like everyone else, I have my own perspective of the world. As such, I have my own biases. I’m a registered Democrat, yet I have many friends — including many whom I love dearly — who are Republican. Heck, I’m a Yankee fan whose wife is a Red Sox fan. I was born and raised in the US, yet I embrace cultural differences; indeed, I have an appreciation for environments, traditions, mores, and foods that are not my own. I encourage people to send me good karma, to pray for me, to send me a Mazeltov or a Barakallahu fiikum (I hope I used that context correctly), or whatever best wishes their culture or tradition dictates. Not only would I not be offended, I’m actually flattered that you would think enough of me that you would offer me best wishes from the standpoint of your own culture.

Conflict is everywhere. We as humans will never completely agree with everyone else (nor should we). Conflict is important; it allows us to see things more critically, and it’s an important source of feedback. By using conflict productively, anything and everything we do gets better.

However, if we start thinking about the other side — whatever the “other side” is — as the “enemy,” then we’ve just crossed the line. We reach the point where we are intolerant of other opinions and viewpoints — enough that we’d be willing to cause harm to the others with differing views. And in my mind, that is unacceptable.

Everyone sees things differently. While I think it might be too much to ask to embrace opposing views, at least understand the perspective from the other side. When we understand views from the other side, we can hammer out our differences and come to a better resolution.

The #Coronavirus chronicles, part 23: Learning songs in a new language #COVID19

Before I get into this article, I need to direct you to a few other articles that I wrote, all of which are directly relevant to what I’m about to write. You will likely not understand some of the references in this article unless you read these other ones first (or are friends with me on Facebook, in which case you can skip these). Give them a read (or at the very least, skim through them), then come back to this one. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Back yet? Okay…

This morning, a friend of mine PM’ed me with this: “it would be epic to see LOTD in Korean.”

I sent him back this reply: “challenge accepted!”

So, I looked up K-Pop songs, and I came across this video. I will freely admit that what caught my eye was the artist’s name (take a look!). I listened to the song, and as it turned out, it’s a really pretty ballad that’s relatively close to my own writing style. I might end up buying some CDs (yes, I still prefer buying CDs, even if I do rip everything to iTunes) from this artist.

I ended up using the first four lines for my Lyric Of The Day (and I’m posting this mostly for my own reference and learning purposes).

"나를 사랑하는 법은 어렵지 않아요
지금 모습 그대로 나를 꼭 안아주세요
우리 나중에는 어떻게 될진 몰라도
정해지지 않아서 그게 나는 좋아요..."
-- Roy Kim, "Only Then"

(If you’re dying to know what this says, here it is in Google Translate. And if you want to hear it, check out the video.)

I was never a fan of pop dance songs. When I first heard K-Pop songs and saw related videos, my initial impression was that K-Pop songs were primarily pop dance songs, so I haven’t given the genre a lot of thought. This video that I found changed my mind.

It got me thinking: what would it take to write a song that’s not in my native English? There is some precedent for this; probably the most famous example is Ritchie Valens singing “La Bamba.” It would be a challenge for me; I’m still learning Korean (although I’ll admit that I haven’t been pursuing it as aggressively lately), and I’m far from being able to read it quickly or being able to carry on a conversation. Nevertheless, the idea is intriguing, and one that I’m considering.

This idea is making me consider several things. First, it’s encouraging me to get back into my Korean language lessons. Second, it’s making me want to revisit my songwriting and MIDI recording endeavors. Third, it’s inspiring me to break many bad habits directly related to pandemic fatigue.

And, if nothing else, it’s sparked an interest in K-Pop with me. I guess I’m going to have to go buy some K-Pop CDs.

The #Coronavirus chronicles, part 22: How TV could make this world a better place #COVID19

TRANSPLANT — Season: 1 — Pictured: (l-r) Torri Higginson as Claire Malone, John Hannah as Jed Bishop, Hamza Haq as Bashir Hamed, Jim Watson as Theo Hunter, Laurence Leboeuf as Magalie Leblanc, Ayiah Issa as June Curtis — (Photo by: Fabrice Gaetan/Sphere Media/NBC)

When I was in high school, my friends and I were into M*A*S*H — so much so that we nicknamed ourselves after M*A*S*H characters (my best friend and I used to argue over which one of us was Hawkeye or B.J.), and we tried to outdo each other any time the local radio station asked M*A*S*H trivia questions. Even to this day, any time I come across a M*A*S*H rerun on TV, I just have to turn the channel to it.

One of the things I appreciated about M*A*S*H was that it wasn’t afraid to take on social issues. Several episodes took on hot-button topics, such as racism, alcoholism, politics, religion, and so on. It made for some interesting episodes, and I think they made the show all the better.

Lately, I’ve gotten hooked on a new medical drama, Transplant. It seems like the US prime time network market is saturated with medical dramas, but a couple of things make Transplant different. First, the main character and protagonist, Dr. Bashir “Bash” Hamed (played by Hamza Haq) is a Syrian refugee, which makes for some interesting plot lines, including his struggles as he adapts to life in a new country. Speaking of which, this leads me to another thing that makes this show unique. The country in question is not the United States. The setting for Transplant is a hospital emergency room in Toronto, Canada. While NBC has the US broadcast rights to the show, it is not produced by NBC; it’s actually produced by Canadian station CTV. That the show takes place in Canada is apparent in a few subtle ways; in the pilot episode, a police officer wore a Canadian flag pin on his uniform, the CN Tower is visible in a few establishment shots, and in one scene, a doctor taking a patient’s temperature mentioned that it was 37 degrees, rather than the 98.6 that we Yanks are accustomed to hearing.

It also occurred to me that this may be the first show on a major prime-time network where the main character is Muslim. In these times of social issues, Islamophobia, racial equality, and Black Lives Matter, that is a big deal.

Dr. Bash (as I call him) is a very likable character. As a doctor, he is obligated to ensure his patients’ welfare, and he displays compassion and humanity toward his patients. As a big brother to his little sister, Amira, he is the father figure that they are missing in their lives (their parents died in the Syrian Civil War). As a friend to his colleagues at the fictional York Memorial Hospital, he displays caring and empathy for his coworkers.

He is the doctor I would want treating me if I had to go to the hospital.

There is a stereotype about Muslims in the US that paints them as extremists and fanatics. Dr. Bash breaks that stereotype, which is why I think this show is important. I have friends who are Muslim, and I empathize with them when they are portrayed as radical terrorists. Dr. Bash shows that he is not a radical; rather, he is human, with human emotions, feelings, and faults.

Many dramas (movies, not just TV) seem to have the power to raise awareness about issues. Dances With Wolves, for example, broke the stereotype of Native Americans as being “savages.” Likewise, Emergency! (another favorite TV show of mine when I was a kid) is credited as contributing toward the establishment of EMT services across the country.

TV shows, done right, have the power to change the world. If characters, issues, and situations are portrayed properly on prime-time, this world could be a much better place.