Tech comm communities are people, not tools

There’s not a single social media tool or channel that’s the vital “one-size-fits-all” connection for our diverse tech comm community, but it’s their combination that lets us thrive, as I’ve learned last week.

On Thursday, a colleague and I ran into an obscure problem with review packages in our help authoring tool, MadCap Flare. We didn’t find a solution in Flare’s online help, so I reached out to a user forum.

Peer/user forums

MadCap Software Forums are provided by MadCap, but they’re run for and by the community of MadCap users. I first searched existing threads to see if someone had encountered the same problem before, without success. But I did find a thread where two days earlier two users, V. and M., had run into a similar problem that we had also encountered – and solved.

In the communal spirit of give-and-take, I outlined our solution. (The trick hinges on knowing that Flare’s review packages are really zip files which you can unpack and manipulate – if you know what you’re doing.) Then I posted our own query.

Within 24 hours, M. posted three replies:

  1. To confirm that our solution indeed works, at least in some circumstances – hence we were on to something useful that was worth sharing.
  2. To post MadCap’s reply to her support case which essentially had the same steps as our solution – hence we got our DIY solution sanctioned by MadCap.
  3. And to point out that our solution can also help us address our own problem – hence we basically couldn’t see the forest for the trees, and needed a fresh pair of eyes to consider our issue. 🙂

So it turned out that both my posts to the forum paid off. – But a small detail nagged me: M.’s greeting on the forum sounded like we knew each other, but her user name didn’t ring a bell.


Flashback to October 2010, when I attended TCUK, the annual conference of the UK tech comm association ISTC. It was only my second tech comm conference, and the first one where I presented. My talk “Getting ahead as a lone writer” summarized my experiences and lessons learned when I had an opportunity – rather than the explicit task – to raise the quality and profile of the documentation. (You can also read about the talk in my earlier posts.)

I was really nervous the night before my talk and was very lucky to find a fellow tech writer and scheduled speaker to confide in. Karen Mardahl lent great moral and practical support. This chance encounter is another succes story: Karen has since become a good friend of mine – and most recently even a colleague!

My talk went well, and from comments I could tell that some tech comm’ers in the audience got something out of it, whether it was an ideas to try and implement or a more general sense that it might be possible and worthwhile to get ahead as a lone writer.

The feedback has been very helpful by reminding me that even minor points are helpful to some. And conversely, my biggest lesson may fall flat if no one has that same problem – or I don’t present it in a recognizable way… 🙂 Since then, I try to let conference speakers know when something struck a chord, whether it’s some practical advice or an alternative perspective on things.

Mailing lists and groups

As a member of ISTC, I get a daily digest of the association’s mailing list. I must admit I haven’t gotten a lot of use out of it so far. Maybe it’s because much content is specific to the UK, such as meetings of area groups. But Friday’s digest had an entry that merits its mention here: M. had posted, using the same user name as on the Flare forum and her full name.

Now I knew who it was: One of the attendees of my talk at TCUK 2010! We had been connected on LinkedIn for a while, so I sent her a message to thank her for her advice.

It’s the people, not the tools

I sometimes think that the tech comm blogging scene may be slowing down. At other times, I wonder if I really need yet another mailing list. But as last week’s experience has taught me, different channels have different uses to connect me to other tech comm’ers. So ultimately, it’s not about this channel or that app – it’s about connecting with people. And I, for one, am glad, proud and humbled to be part of such a vital professional scene which is stronger than any one channel.


8 Responses

  1. I think that Barbra Streisand said it best: People….people who network with people…are the luckiest people in the world.

    That’s a great story of the tangible rewards that come from building a professional network — and of how good it feels when we receive those rewards. Thanks, Kai!

    • You’re welcome, Larry. I really enjoyed seeing how all the encounters fit together and how we’re all better off in the end.

  2. As the mystery “M”, I should share what I’ve learned from this too, although it may be rather late to put it into practice now.

    If I were able to live my online life again, I would make sure I had a consistent online presence. As soon as I saw Kai’s post on the MadCap forums, I knew who it was, hence my enthusiastic greeting of “Oh hello Kai”. I didn’t realise I had hidden my tracks so completely.

    I endorse everything Kai says about community. It’s a scary ride implementing a new authoring tool at work as a sole author. The support and encouragement of the community as a whole has been invaluable, especially on the days when things didn’t go as I expect, and I began to doubt my decision. It was wonderful to know that others had been there before me and were now reaping the benefits.

    Marjorie (or msquared, or msquared990, or titch or titch990)

    • Thanks, Marjorie! I remember my own days as a lone writer and how insecurity can sneak up on you on a bad day. But even today, where I’m part of a team of 10 writers, we all gain so much, not just by tapping into the community at large, but also by helping each other out. So our corporate forum and chat could each also get a paragraoh in the story.

  3. Online presence identities are a dilemma for me as I’m sure they are for others. Should you separate your personal and professional lives? If so, how?

    For example, I have two Twitter accounts. I use my @cybertext one for anything related to tech comm. I follow other tech comm’ers under that handle too. But I also have another Twitter identity — a personal one — where I post things about my life outside work. Unfortunately, as that handle is related to my personal name, I do get tech comm’ers who inadvertently follow it then wonder why they are getting stuff not related to tech comm. Likewise, I have two blogs — a professional one for tech comm-related stuff (, and a personal one, which mostly focuses on quilting ;-).

    In both cases, I started with a single identity, but fairly quickly realised that I needed to keep them separate. The downside is that unless you know my company’s name is CyberText, you don’t know that @cybertext is really me. It’s probably WAY too late to change it to something else, but the dilemma of what identity to use would still remain even if I decided to change.

    As a reader, I don’t like seeing personal stuff in my Twitter feed from my tech comm community (a little bit every so often is OK, but not all the time); likewise, I don’t want to read tech comm stuff in my personal Twitter feed.

    We all have multiple facets to our lives (work, family, friends, sports, hobbies, volunteer work etc.) — should we have separate identities for each, or just one global one?

    • Rhonda, thanks for your comment. That IS a good question. My solution has been to create only one twitter identity, @techwriterkai, and keep more personal/non-tech comm affairs in closed channels, such as direct message tweets and email. It suits me fine, because I don’t “need” to share personal stuff publicly. That said, I do occasionally tweet about music or books I like. My litmus test is: “Would I share this with a bunch of tech comm’ers at a conference?”

  4. This sentence caught my attention: “… it’s not about this channel or that app – it’s about connecting with people.” It’s almost like the tools vs content debate. The fanciest tools won’t save you if your content is really poor. Channels and apps are the tools, and we, the people, are the content (connections). 🙂

    And yes, I am so glad we had that chat at TCUK10. 🙂

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