The discipline of a profession (overview)

The discipline is the same for every profession:  To consistently identify, specify, design and deliver the right product for the right price.  What is different for every profession are the tools and techniques applied to each of those steps and how long it takes to acquire the starting point knowledge.  For example, a doctor has to study longer than an accountant and the range of tools a doctor uses is much larger than an accountant.  But for this overview, we will look only at the way the discipline of the profession applies to accountants, lawyers, doctors and technical communicators.

Read more: Discipline overview

Professional Development: not for everyone?

The very young, the very old and other similar categories probably don't need to think about professional development.  But everyone else should.

Why?  Because of how loosely the word professional is bandied around.  Lots of people think anyone who is self employed is "professional".

Anyone who can see the value in consistently identifying, specifying, designing and delivering the right product for the right price is already interested in professional development.

Why?  Because that is one of the labels people apply to learning how to consistently identify, specify, design and deliver the right product for the right price.

In the trades, the learning process is called an apprenticeship.  In Medicine it is called internship.  In Law it is called a professional year and so on.  At the end of each of those learning periods there is a formal assessment.  The people who pass those assessments are allowed to call themselves professionals in those fields because an independent authority decreed they are.

The lesson to be learned here is: if you know the discipline of your profession, certification is straightforward.

The Right Price

The Right Price comes out of the Identify and Specify procedures.  And sometimes out of the Design procedure if the design leads to Identify and Specify revisions.

Until the project is finished, all predictions are based on estimates.  If you do not have a collection of statistics about your past projects, how can you estimate with any confidence?  The answer is NOT "you can't"!

The first thing you do is search for published statistics for producing content in the field or industry where you are working.  There will be data somewhere on the Internet.

The second thing you do is make use of the societies and forums you have joined.  (Or will join!)  Ask if anyone knows of industry statistics for producing your kind of work.

Between those two, you will find numbers you can use, and references, to show your estimates are not based on wild guesswork.

The third thing you can do is to promise to start collecting data from your own future work:

  • How many writers on the project?
  • What tasks did each writer perform?
  • How good were the estimates compared to the actual numbers?
  • What was the degree of difficulty of the work? (You need to use a Degree of Difficulty calculator to answer this question.)
  • How many pages were produced in total during the total time of the project?
  • What was the average number of hours for each delivered page for the project?

If you cannot estimate properly, you are doomed to work long hours to make your deliveries and not make much money (if you are working for yourself).

The irony is you are quite good at estimating:

  • What is the length of your lounge room?
  • Do you know the weight of some people just by looking at them?
  • Do you know how tall some people are, just by looking at them?
  • Do you know how fast a car is travelling, just by looking at it?

Why are you able to make reasonable estimates about these things, but not about producing documentation?  Because you have a lifetime of experience estimating height, weight and speed.

So all you need is either your own historical statistics or at least a reliable source of industry statistics.

The Right Price is the amount our company or our customer will pay.  That means every now and then, no matter how well you can estimate, the price will be more than the amount in someone's budget.

Always remember, you can bring a high price down (but you can rarely put a low price up).  So if you want to bring a price down, despite your estimate, the question is: how much of your own time do you want to risk as extra, unpaid hours if your estimate is more guesswork than science?  

In that situation, you either need to re-examine your Identify and Specify work.  Can you find another way?  What can do differently, or cut out?  Have you over-specified the content for the documentation project?  If have no good reasons to change your estimates, don't be afraid to walk away from that particular job.  


The Right Product

The Right (documentation) Product comes out of the IdentifySpecify, and Design procedures.

The Right Product is the one that satisfies the customer's needs.

The Right Product is:

  • Fit for its purpose
  • Used correctly when needed
  • Produces the right outcome.

How many ways can you think of for the so-called "right product" to become a lemon?

For example, if someone has to repair something overhead, using both hands, how will they know what to do next?

 Last century Donald Norman (The Design of Everyday Things) said that the sign Do not step here points to a design flaw.  Gause and Weinberg (Are your lights on?) said when you have a solution, test it on a foreigner, a blind person or a child or make yourself foreign, blind or child-like. Jerry Weinberg knows - he was the architect for the Mercury Project's space tracking network and designer of the world's first multiprogrammed operating system.)

Now review your Identify, Specify, and Design outputs.  Do you need to ask more Identify questions?  Add more detail to the specification?  Modify the design?

When you have performed those tests on your documentation solution, you are probably getting close to the Right Product.

And of course you must test the documentation product.  Otherwise, how will you know it works as intended?  And who said testing had to be long and expensive?  Be practical and be realistic.  Read Weinberg's Perfect Software and other illusions about testing.  It is all about reducing risk for the person who makes decisions using what we have written.

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