How German is tekom and tcworld?

The world largest tech comm conference and trade show is a really a bilingual affair with two separate names. Follow me as I untangle the differences in reply to Alan Pringle’s request “Help this first-time tcworld attendee, please!” over on Scriptorium’s blog.

tekom, the conference of the German association of technical communicators of the same name, takes place every year in Wiesbaden. What goes by the shorthand name of tekom is really three separate events in the same place over three days.

There is tekom, the German-speaking conference which had 150 presentations, workshops and tutorials. (All numbers are from last year’s event.) Then there is tcworld, the English-speaking variant with another 74 sessions. About 2,400 delegates attend sessions in both languages. While session topics sometimes overlap, the same session is hardly ever offered in both languages.

The two names sometimes lead to confusion, for example, on twitter when it comes to the appropriate hashtag. The official recommendation is to use #tekom for the event and content in German and #tcworld in English.

The third event is the trade fair where you can meet 200 exhibitors who range from tool vendors, via  documentation and language service providers, to professional associations such as the STC. The trade fair is in the same venue and open to all conference delegates. It also draws an additional 1,300 visitors at a nominal entrance fee of €20, though many take advantage of vouchers that offer free admission.

Multilingual diversity

At the size it is, tekom is a unique event with logistical challenges of its own: You pretty much need to map out your schedule beforehand, lest you miss a session or vendor. Because tekom takes place at a convention centre, not at a conference hotel, you also need to plan your waterhole activities. There is no bar and not much of a lobby where you can simply hang around and meet people. Judging from after-hours tweets, though, it seems that many of the English-speaking crowd stay at the same hotel or two.

Among the rewards for hardy delegates is a unique variety of topics and delegates. Session streams include mainstays, such as professional writing, content strategies and user assistance, but also related areas, such as content management, parts catalogues and localization. tekom underscores its commitment to higher education and to graduates, with streams dedicated to young technical communicators as well as to academia and science.

Two traditions of professional presentations clash at tekom, and many sessions fall quite squarely into one of the two camps, regardless of the language they use. ‘Anglo’ presentations are sometimes heavier on business aspects, while ‘Germanic’ presentations tend to focus on technical or process details. As a result, some presentations feel a little stiffer than at conferences in the US or England, especially if the presenter is not a native speaker. But usually, there’s good substance, regardless of the language and delivery.

Just as with TCUK and the STC Summit, the largest group of delegates comes from the host country, followed by neighbouring countries. tekom especially attracts many delegates and exhibitors from Eastern Europe.

While you will get the most from tekom if you speak both English and German, you still get a full conference experience in English. There are two to four presentations and two or three workshops and tutorials in any one slot, offering five to six complete streams in English.

Making the most of tekom

My advice is to plan ahead:

  • Make and update your schedule to avoid missing out on your personal ‘must-see’ sessions and workshops.
  • Schedule free time to visit the trade fair, to wander the halls, to run into acquaintances and meet new people.
  • Bring business cards. I find I am using many more than at conferences in the UK or the US.

Wiesbaden is very conveniently located with direct commuter trains that reach Frankfurt airport in 40 minutes.

There are lots of interesting sites in close proximity: Mainz with its cathedral and the Gutenberg Museum (always a winner with the bookish crowd) is just across the river. The picturesque part of the Rhine with vineyards and medieval castles starts just a little downstream.

Note that 2013 will be the last year that tekom is held in Wiesbaden. The convention centre will be torn down in the summer of 2014. tekom14 will be held in Stuttgart.

This post is an abbreviated, slightly amended version of “How German is it?” which appeared first in ISTC’s Communicator magazine, Spring 2013, pp. 7-8.

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tekom Danmark is off to a good start!

tekom Danmark, the Danish country group of Europe’s tech comm association, is off to a good start, thanks to good attendance and enthusiasm during the foundation event in Odense on 5 November.

Logo of tekom DenmarkThe afternoon combined official speeches with two presentations about topic-based authoring, each followed by a lively discussion. A get-together over dinner concluded the event in high spirits (and I don’t mean alcohol).

What does tekom Danmark do?

At 15:30, Per Sørensen, head of the Initiative Committee for tekom Danmark, kicked off the event that brought together around 40 technical communicators who represented a wide variety of industries and services from all across Denmark.

Michael Fritz, CEO of tekom (the German association), presented what tekom is and what it does. Denmark is not the first country group – there are already country groups in Switzerland, Italy, Romania and Turkey.

Holger Thater, a German tekom member based in Hamburg, will act as mentor to tekom Danmark. He explained specifically what tekom Danmark will be all about:

  • The general mission is what you would expect from a professional association: To provide networking opportunities, to facilitate exchange of knowledge, to offer training and qualification and to generally raise the profile of the profession.
  • To ensure that a tekom country group has a chance to succeed, it takes the explicit support of 10 tekom members in that country and a so-called initiative committee who works with tekom to found the country group and get it up and running.
  • tekom supports country groups by assigning a full-time employee who is the official liaison to tekom (Germany) and a country mentor who offers guidance and, let’s say: spiritual support.
  • tekom also offers a nascent country group an organizational framework of a start-up timeline and some budget with which to offer 4 events per year that are open to tekom country group members.
  • Interested parties are welcome to attend the events and can become a country group member for free during the first year.

After laying out the framework and procedures, Michael Fritz officially founded tekom Danmark.

Presentations and discussions

After a short break, I had the honor and pleasure to present one of the two sessions. I spoke about features and benefits of task orientation and topic-based authoring. As it turned out, aproximately half of the attendees actually use topic-based authoring, so I refocused my presentation.

Rather than going to great lengths about what topics are and how they work, I emphasised how the company I work for uses a DITA-derived information model to write topics. My presentation segued into a lively discussion about technical opportunities which our structure and our tools offer. Strategic opportunities and limitations also came up. I was glad to offer attendees a glimpse at processes and tools that work for us, and I’m happy to see that the comparison was engaging and enlightening to many.

Bo Brandt, a self-employed technical communications consultant, shared a case study where he accompanied a project from unstructured FrameMaker to Topic-based authoring with Arbortext. It was a perfect complement: His project emphasised translation more than our situation, and he had several interesting lessons and pitfalls to share. The tireless audience engaged Bo in questions about his strategy, tactics and tools.

A little before 19:00, we gathered for a group photograph, dinner and drinks. (Okay, so a little alcohol…)

What’s next?

Personally, I’m already looking forward to the next actions of tekom Danmark! Since I’m working for a Danish software company, tekom Danmark is almost like homecoming to a place I didn’t have until now. 🙂

A next event is not yet scheduled, but the idea is to move around Denmark, so look for events in København, Aalborg, Århus or the like. To keep us busy until the next event, we have already formed a tekom Danmark LinkedIn group which is moderated, but easy to join.

If you’re a technical communicator working in Denmark or if you are working with technical communicators in Denmark, I highly recommend that you join the LinkedIn group and check out tekom Danmark. It’s been great to spend an afternoon with such a diverse group of enthusiatic colleagues, and I think we’ve seen the beginning of a fruitful network!

Denmark gets a tech comm association again

tekom Danmark, the country chapter of Europe’s largest tech comm association tekom, will be founded on 5 November in Odense. If you are a technical communicator in Denmark – or even West-Sweden -, consider joining us for the public inaugural event. And even if you cannot make it on that day, join the tekom Danmark LinkedIn group to connect with other Danish tech comm’ers and keep up with association news.

Click to open invitation in PDF

Click to open invitation in PDF

I met Per Harbo Sørensen, Head of the Initiative Committee for tekom Danmark, at tekom last week. He told me that there is considerable interest in having a professional association in Denmark again, after the regional STC chapter folded several years ago.

tekom Danmark provides opportunities for networking and exchanging opinions and tips and tricks how global trends in technical communications affect professionals locally.

For technical communicators seeking professional recognition, tekom Danmark offers access to TC TrainNet, an international training and certification program for technical communication.

Agenda

The day’s agenda is a good mix of formal speeches, professional presentations and networking opportunities. So it should give everyone a good idea what tekom Danmark will be all about. For all the details, open the invitation in PDF.

Founding tekom Danmark
15:30 Welcome
15:40 Introduction to tekom (mission, tasks and goals)
16:10 Introduction to tekom Danmark
16:30 Formal foundation of tekom Danmark

Topic-Based Authoring (professional presentations)
16:45 Features and Benefits of Task Orientation and Topic-Based Authoring
17:25 From Unstructured FrameMaker to Topic-Based Authoring with Arbortext
18:00 Open discussion

Networking
18:30 Buffet

Event details

tekom Danmark Foundation Event

Monday, 5 November 2012, 15:30–18:30

Odin Havnepark
Lumbyvej 11
5000 Odense C
Room 1.13

– As a tech communicator who’s working for a Danish company and involved with tekom, I’m very excited to be part of this event! See you there! 🙂

How tekom crowdsources conference programming

The German tech comm association tekom has found an innovative way to involve its members in conference programming: They invited 15 tech comm practitioners for a workshop on 25 July to discuss the status quo of software documentation with best practices and challenges. The collected issues and topics will go into the “Software Documentation Forum”, a 1-day stream with 7 sessions at this year’s tekom conference in October. (I was lucky enough to participate, and I blog on my own account; tekom’s view and position may differ.)

The event was by invite which helped to ensure that a wide variety of technical communicators were present, from the software departments of industrial companies (whose employees make up the majority of tekom’s membership) to pure software companies, from small companies with a lone writer to very large corporations which have hundreds of technical communicators worldwide.

Common challenges

The workshop started with a short round of introductions, followed by a round of 10-minute presentations where participants addressed these issues:

  • Specific demands on software documentation in your company
  • Best practices that have proven successful
  • Current technological, organizational and economic challenges
  • The future of software documentation in your opinion
  • How do you improve the value of software documentation in your company
  • How can tekom help to improve the value of software documentation

As the presentations proceeded, common topics emerged. For example, several participants face the need to keep tech comm effective, efficient and consistent as processes become globalized. Some work in teams that are distributed across several countries. Others have writers far away from developers and engineers. Others reported difficulties to find writers with sufficient language skills.

In my opinion, the variety of participants was an advantage. Our backgrounds are different enough to represent a well-rounded spectrum of issues and practices. Yet we are similar enough so our experiences resonate with at least some of the other participants. One participant even uses the software of another participant – and had a few comments about its documentation…

Joint programming

After lunch, we went into solution mode to see how tekom can support software technical communicators – and specifically which sessions at the tekom conference in October can address the issues and challenges we raised.

Here are some of the issues we’ve collected that we would want to see at tekom. Much of this is still pending and depends on whether tekom can find people to speak or discuss the issues, so there might be all kinds of changes before the following hits the official conference program:

  • How tech comm processes change when you move from a waterfall process model to agile processes
  • Integrating tech comm with GUI design for a better user experience (a similar issue appeared as “progressive disclosure” in a talk at the STC Summit in Chicago)
  • When to apply DITA and when not to
  • Norms and legal regulations in software documentation
  • How globalization affects tech comm processes and quality

Crowdsourcing benefits

I think the workshop was a great success thanks to its good preparation and well-defined goals. And I think it will turn into a worthwhile series of sessions at the conference.

For me personally, it was very good to connect and network with the German software tech comm professionals, with lots of exchanges and networking. I even felt some of the excitement and buzz that I get at actual conferences. So I think we have good reasons to look forward to tekom12. 🙂

What is a global tech comm association?

As our tech comm jobs are getting more and more global in scope and reach, it seems professional associations haven’t quite kept up with the times.

I’m a tech writer working in Germany for a Danish software company. I write in English for customers across Europe, North America, and other places. And it’s been difficult to find a professional association that represents my interests.

The options

tekom logotekom, the German association, has a regional chapter which regularly meets in my hometown. I attended several events, but found few fellow tech writers who documented software, let alone did so in English. Heavy machinery, yes. Industrial part catalogues, yes. But it’s been years since I’ve worked in German, and I’ve never written a standardized warning for life and limb. I just didn’t find I had much in common with my German colleagues. The tekom/tcworld conference does have “Associations World” where other organizations exhibit, ISTC among them, but not STC, if I remember correctly.

STC logoSTC, the American association, has as one of its goals to “promote STC as the global leader in technical communication”. But it has only 3 chapters in Europe, none in Germany, and has limited offerings and hamstrung operations for Europeans. See the discussion in the STC’s blog for details. (To its credit, the STC has sent out strong signals at last months’ summit that it understands these issues and will work to improve the situation!) At the STC Summit, I didn’t see any mention of other associations, though two tekom officials were present.

ISTC logoISTC, the British association, has a large share of people in software, and most of its members work in English, so that suits me well. It was actually coincidence that theirs was the first door I knocked on, and they welcomed me warmly, both at their conference and as a contributor to their quarterly magazine. So joined ISTC, even though it’s not present in the two countries I work. At the TCUK conference, I don’t think I saw any mention of other associations.

A modest proposal

In my opinion, there is no global tech comm association at the moment. Some are global leaders, but I don’t think any one is the global leader.

And that’s probably fine: While our scope and our customers become more and more global, we still lead local lives. Most of us have very few locales where we work long stretches at a time. That’s where we want to meet other tech comm’ers to network – or complain – over a beer, that’s where we look for jobs.

A federation of tech comm associations is my modest proposal: We probably don’t even need a global association, but existing ones should make it easier for its members to network, travel, and move. Maybe offer reduced event rates for members of other associations – as I know some of them already do.

I regularly meet with tech comm’ers in Denmark, and I look forward to visiting some in the US. The tech comm community is already international. And I think it’s time the associations also get along. Tech comm’ers do. Even their topics do! It’s the tech comm way.

My tcworld11 presentation “Getting ahead as a lone writer”

You can download the PDF slides to my presentation “Getting ahead as a lone writer” at tekom/tcworld in Wiesbaden on 19 October 2011:

My tekom presentation "Getting ahead as a lone writer". Click to download the PDF.

My tcworld presentation "Getting ahead as a lone writer". Click to download the PDF.

For alternative formats and versions, see

The presentation itself went very well, I think: It felt a bit strange at first to be presenting in English to what seemed to be largely a German audience. But the questions and answers session at the end showed that for many the language barrier was not a problem.

I want to thank the attentive and helpful venue staff and sound technician for their professional, attentive help! They made me feel welcome and in good hands.

Auditing Documentation and Processes at tcworld11

Auditing your documentation, and your processes, can help you to gauge estimates and issues as you prepare for localization or content migration. That’s what I learned in Kit Brown-Hoekstra’s useful 2-hour workshop at tcworld (tekom’s international half).

You can easily do the audit yourself: Take a little time, step back from your documentation, and identify weaknesses and areas for improvement. Acting on your audit results, you can

  • Improve customer satisfaction
  • Decrease localization costs
  • Establish a baseline and a direction to develop your documentation
  • Calculate costs and benefits of changes

If you don’t have an express mandate for the audit, it can be worth it to do sort of a “draft audit”. It may come out a little patchy in places, but I think it can give you a first idea of where you stand. With the initial results and measures you can more easily get the time to do an in-depth audit. (But don’t be surprised if colleagues or managers hold you to the improvements you’ve uncovered… :-))

What to audit

The organization level

Perform a strategic SWOT analysis of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats of your role in your organization. Internal strengths and external opportunities (mainly) will give you useful arguments to get buy-in from management for changes and further developments you plan. Internal weaknesses and external threats (mainly) help you to assess and manage risk as you proceed.

  • Strengths, for example, may include technical expertise and an understanding of user needs and tasks.
  • Weaknesses, for example, are poor self-marketing or resistance to change.
  • Opportunities, for example, can include agile development (which gives writers a better position in the process) and social media (if you adapt to them and moderate augmenting user-generated content).
  • Threats, for example, might be smaller documentation budgets or social media (if you do not adapt or cannot keep up with user-generated ontent).

Note how threats can be turned into opportunities, if you tackle them wisely! Or vise versa…

The process level

Assess your documentation process through all stages:

Requirements > Design > Writing > Review > Edit > Localization > Publication > Feedback > Modification > Deletion

Answer the following questions:

  • Are all stages well-defined?
  • Is it clear when and how you get from one stage to the next?
  • Do all participants in a stage know what to expect and what to deliver?
  • Can you measure the success of your process?

For the sake of an efficient process, imagine each hand-over between participants or stages as an interface and try to define what’s handed over when and how as well as possible.

The product level

Identify qualities and issues of the product you document to distinguish them from those in your documentation. Weaknesses in documentation often mirror weaknesses or issues in the product, e.g., a poorly designed user interface or a workaround that’s required to complete the user workflow.

You need to know about these issues separately, because they hurt your documentation, but you usually cannot fix them yourself. You can only supply band aid.

The documentation level

Assess the structural quality of your documentation (not the quality of a manual or each topic). Answer these questions:

  • Do you have a suitable information model? This is an architecure that defines the structure of your documentation on the level of deliverables (such as a manual or online help) and on module level (such as a topic or a section).
  • To what extent does your documentation comply with that information model?
  • Do you write documentation so the topics or sections are reusable?
  • Do you reuse topics or sections to the extent that is possible?
  • Do you write documentation so it is ready and easy to localize?
    • Do you use standardized sentences for warnings and recurring steps to minimize localization efforts?
    • Do you leave sufficient white space to accommodate for “longer” languages? For example, German and Russian require up to 30% more characters to say the same as English.

Also assess the content quality of your documentation (now look at some manuals and topics):

  • Is it appropriate for your audience and their tasks?
  • Is it correct, concise, comprehensible?
  • Remember to audit localized documentation, too.

It’s usually enough to audit 10-20% of them to spot 80-90% of the issues.

Audit for efficiency

  • Be objective. …as objective as you can, if you’re auditing your own documentation.
  • Collect issues. You can use a simple spreadsheet to collect your findings: Enter the issue, its impact, its current cost, and the cost to fix it.
  • Prioritize improvements. Ensure that a lower future cost makes the improvement worth doing, after you’ve added up the current cost and the cost to implement the improvement. Start with changes that cost the least and will save you the most.

Bonus tool

To really dive into quality assessment of your documentation, you can totally combine Kit’s audit process with Alice Jane Emanuel’s “Tech Author Slide Rule” which focuses on content quality. Use both and you have a good handle on your documentation – and more improvement opportunities than you can shake a stick at!

Your turn

Do you find this helpful to audit your documentation? Do you know a better way? Or do you think it’s not worth it? Feel free to leave a comment.