Avoiding Mission Impossible technical writing projects

Photo by Aaron Mello on Unsplash

I’ve had the great fortune in my career to work on some very tough projects — in what I like to call documentation unfriendly environments — and won some and lost others but learned so much about technology and how to work independently as a technical writer.

Before I accepted my current position, I had the opportunity to speak to an organization which has what I quickly came to ascertain what could be a “Mission Impossible” documentation project where there would be more chances for things to go wrong than there was to go right.

After speaking to the recruiter who set up the meeting for me, I began to think how had I won the mission impossible projects versus being “the previous technical writer.” Keys to success include:

Strong technical team

A strong technical team — not to write the documents mind you — but like it or not the IT industry is peppered by a lot of smart people and a lot more people who think they are smarter than they are. If you have genuinely knowledgeable and capable people in the critical technical roles, then half your battle for extracting technical information is won in my experience. If the wrong people are in critical roles, the holes and gaps that sometimes happen in technical documentation can expose the shortcomings.

Proper technical writer/developer relationships

Relationship with the technical team where you as the technical writer isn’t an unnecessary drag on personnel or other resources. Technical writers who need their hand held or can’t work independently are only going to be set up to fail when it comes to a mission impossible project.

Product management and developer collaboration

Strong product management and technical team cooperation and communications. If Product Requirements Documents (PRDs) or stories are just being thrown over the transit without much dialog between product management and the senior members of the technical team, then the hijinks can ensue.

Access to test environments

Access to test systems and the bug tracking system because reverse engineering of technical documentation does often occur especially if the document efforts begin well into the development lifecycle.
Reality vs. vaporware can also come into play on such document projects. If for some reason, you are continually denied access to the system, don’t take it personally, but be on guard that the product may in whole or part not exist except for visions in an executive’s mind.

What are your keys to success on “mission impossible” documentation projects?


My name is Will Kelly. I’m a technical writer and content strategist living and working in the Washington, DC area. My current focus is thought leadership and technical marketing content. I got my start writing user guides, administrator documentation, online help, and later moved into SDLC documentation. My articles about enterprise mobility, BYOD, and other technology topics have been published by IBM Mobile Business Insights, Samsung Business Insights, TechBeacon, CNET TechRepublic, and others. Follow me on Twitter: @willkelly.

Microsoft Planner: A lightweight project management application for the Office 365 enterprise

Image from Microsoft Image Gallery

I had to learn Microsoft Project years ago because I was the only one on the team who had the time and inclination to learn it. The software developers on the team would have nothing to do with the application. Good news is that the same thing can’t be said for Microsoft Planner, lightweight project management application that comes with Office 365.

Microsoft Planner joins Asana and Trello in what I like to call the lightweight project management tools category. These tools are simple yet powerful enough for team leads and individual contributors to update their progress during the project. Gantt charts were a common complaint I would hear about the application back in the day. Developers didn’t understand them. Stakeholders claimed to understand them. Since that Microsoft Project experience, I’ve been a proponent of the democratization of project management data. Microsoft Planner includes:

To-dos

The heart of any lightweight project management application such as Microsoft Planner is the To-do. Microsoft Planner uses the concept of a “bucket” to organize To-dos. You can assign To-dos to team members. There are also the other usual fields you’d expect behind a task in a to-do application.

There’s not much new here, but that’s OK. I was hoping to see some provision for custom fields but didn’t see anything about that in the application.

Charts

Going back to my history with Gantt charts and MS Project, it was a first attempt at visualizing project data that never met the needs of the growing audience that needed to view the progress of a project. Microsoft Planner includes a Charts view that offers the following information:

  • Status
  • Members
  • Tasks
  • To do
  • Completed

Planner Hub

One of the areas where Microsoft Project and the previous generation of desktop project management applications went wrong was it was hard to organize different projects in a central location. Microsoft Planner includes the Planner Hub which provides one-click access to all the plans you create in Microsoft Planner.

It’s a simple yet elegant organizational tool that prevents you from hearing “where’s the plan for our project” and hopefully does its small part for encouraging team updates to your projects. It just so happened to generate plans for each of the SharePoint sites I setup while brushing up on Office 365.

Planner mobile app

There’s a mobile client app available for iOS and Android. While I use a mobile client app extensively with Trello, I can see where getting a mobile client app and the required access rolled out in some organizations could run into some bureaucracy.

I’d like to see more organizations make project management apps part of their standard devices for employees. At the least, the Microsoft Planner should be available in an enterprise app store for download to corporate owned and BYOD devices.

Office 365 Integration

While Asana and Trello both offer new integrations all the time, Microsoft Planner is rooted deep in the Office 365 platform. While the move makes sense, it’s not without its downsides. Too often, lousy SharePoint experiences haunt users well into new jobs and contracts. Microsoft Planner as part of Office 365 could be lost on some users who don’t want to use the platform.

Part of me wonders if Microsoft will ever offer Microsoft Planner as a separate option outside of Office 365. It could be an appealing option for SMBs and freelancers who may not need SharePoint in all of its glory.

Final thoughts

We live in an era where lightweight project management tools are growing in importance and popularity. Microsoft Planner includes a lot of the right things, but it’s for the Office 365 ecosystem only. Whether that makes it more competitive against Asana and Trello, I really can’t say. What I can say is that Office 365 implementation plans will need to account for Microsoft Planner or teams may miss out on this useful application.


My name is Will Kelly. I’m a technical writer and content strategist living and working in the Washington, DC area. My current focus is thought leadership and technical marketing content. I got my start writing user guides, administrator documentation, online help, and later moved into SDLC documentation. My articles about enterprise mobility, BYOD, and other technology topics have been published by IBM Mobile Business Insights, Samsung Business Insights, TechBeacon, CNET TechRepublic, and others. Follow me on Twitter: @willkelly.

Moving your team from email inboxes to online collaboration

khurt-williams-9387

There is a dizzying array of online collaboration applications available today.
Even in 2017, you still have to write your own migration plan to move your team from email inboxes to an online collaboration platform.
A proper collaboration platform migration is agnostic — these tips can apply to most any cloud or on-premise collaboration

Continue reading “Moving your team from email inboxes to online collaboration”

The gentle art of project documentation control

gaelle-marcel-8992
Managing project documents can be an underappreciated art in some organizations. It’s an area where a technical writer should take charge. I’ve seen document control of all stripes throughout my career. Document control that works. Document control that didn’t work. Even document control that caused a near staff rebellion. I’ve even seen no formal document control practices.
While compliance programs like COSO and Sarbanes Oxley require document control over project documents, it also makes good business sense.
Here are some tips for implementing document control within your project team or organization:

Continue reading “The gentle art of project documentation control”

The 7 deadly sins of project leadership

fabian-blank-67318

Project team leadership is an even more important skill in today’s tight economic times making it even more of a shame when new, and even some experienced project leads fumble the ball in the name of their muddled agendas.

While doing more with less is quite a mantra these days, there are seven deadly sins of project leadership holding back once successful project teams from continuing to thrive.

Continue reading “The 7 deadly sins of project leadership”