How tech comm is like – desert hiking!?

This piece has appeared in slightly different form in ISTC’s monthly newsletter InfoPlus+ in October 2011 on pages 14-15.

Desert hiking and tech writing never seemed to have much in common. One is a perfect pastime, the other a job. Little did I know how they both challenge me in similar ways…

@techwriterkai in Bear Canyon near Tucson, AZ

In my day job, I’m Senior Technical Writer for SimCorp in Frankfurt and Copenhagen: I create and maintain user manuals and online help for our investment management system SimCorp Dimension. We’re currently (as of fall of 2011) using Word for manuals in PDF and an in-house help tool for online help in CHM, but we’re in the process of migrating everything to MadCap Flare for single sourcing.

Many of my professional tasks are pretty standard: I document newly developed or enhanced features in topics for release notes and user manuals. I try to make sense of the product and the underlying specifications. I seek out SMEs (subject-matter experts) for help when I’m lost on my own. I consolidate topics into user manuals. I try to pace myself well so I finish in time, even though I don’t really know how long I’ll take when I start.

I really enjoy my job for its interaction with different colleagues, for the joint effort to deliver a good, useful product. I sit in an office, divide my time between my PC and my colleagues – and I regret when sunny summers outside pass me by. Which is where my other life comes in.

Hiking canyons and desert floors

For about 15 years, I’ve been an avid desert hiker of the American Southwest. Day trips only, thank you very much – I’m not out for any “Survivor” trips. As I’ve explored the Chihuahuan, Sonoran and Mojave deserts on foot, I’ve come to appreciate, respect and love them intimately. I know the cacti and the bushes and detect animals and their tracks. I recognise the clouds, the friendly, fluffy ones and the fateful ones about to release a monsoon. I enjoy the hues of the sky, the orange at dawn, the deep blue before noon, the purple at dusk. I relish the smells, the herbal sagey dryness and the creosote’s syrupy resin after a rare rain. I move among the sounds, above the crickets’ chirps on the ground, beneath the canyon wren, a small fella of a bird who sounds like he can’t get his pickup truck started.

Walking in solitude, I let go of the words that I harness as a technical communicator. Often they accompany me on my trails, swirling around me like a flock of birds that feed on the only spirit for miles around. As they dissipate, they reveal my passions to myself and the challenges I enjoy.

Enjoying the challenges

There’s the trail that’s hard to find, as it crosses sheer rock or has been washed away by recent flooding. It gives me pause, not unlike an unknown, new feature without anyone around to ask how to proceed. Nothing left to do, but take a few steps back, try one way, evaluate, weigh, try another and decide on the most promising path, while allowing for the possibility of error. Like that one hike up a wash with no guidance other than the park ranger who mentioned a rock arch on the canyon’s rim to the right and a slot canyon to the left.

Then there’s the difficult, challenging terrain that taxes the body, not unlike difficult, unknown concepts that tax the mind. That’s the time for patience and endurance, focus and concentration, because I know that carelessness can get me into trouble. Like that hike down and up the Grand Canyon when there was no doubt about the path, but the steep climb back out is just really strenuous…

Regardless of the path and the terrain, I need to plan well and pace myself, before time and provisions run out. I only carry a limited amount of water as I set out and don’t know exactly how long it will last me. But with experience, I can gauge better how fast I will have move to make it in time. At work, time is my water: I don’t know how long I will take when I set out on a new manual. Experience helps me to come up with a reliable guess. But there’s always the risk that I lose my path and don’t know how to proceed. Or that the terrain proves unexpectedly difficult.

The most important lesson, however, has been this: If something goes wrong – don’t panic! I just need to pick up the pieces, retrace my last steps if necessary, and carry on. Moving faster or taking shortcuts usually doesn’t work, but will only wear me out faster.

At the end of the day, if I’m lucky, both hiking and technical communications leave me with a feeling of satisfied achievement. I appreciate both, my job and my pastime, and the balance they afford me.

Your turn

Do you have a hobby or pastime that could teach you something about your tech comm occupation? Or am I just over-identifying, seeing tech comm everywhere? Feel free to leave a comment.

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5 Responses

  1. Fitness walking does it for me. Be prepared, know where you’re going, tell someone where you’re going, and pick a walking buddy. Except I’m a lone writer, so the buddy thing doesn’t quite work out. Grin.

    • Hi, Craig, sounds like we’re on similar paths, different environment and pacing notwithstanding. And yours is good advice – I’ve been negligent about telling people, but I’ve alyways come out so far… 🙂

      • Telling someone where you are walking, running, or hiking, is always important, especially if you are going by yourself. I have seen the TV series “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” far too many time to not learn lessons.

  2. Hi Kai

    As you know, I’ve documented a few of my hobbies/pastimes and how I think they relate to tech comm here: http://cybertext.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/brain-connections/

    I still haven’t figured out if my liking for patterns makes me a good tech writer/editor, or if my writing/editing makes me good at patterns! I think it’s probably the former.

    –Rhonda

    • Hi, Rhonda, thanks for mashing up nicely two of my recent blog posts, I think we might be seeing a pattern here… 🙂

      To me, it’s a sign of our profession’s versatility that we can find its traces in other domains and hobbies. And maybe it’s simply a chicken/egg question whether techcomm seeps into other areas, or vice versa.

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