Re: Chicken and the Egg

Subject: Re: Chicken and the Egg
From: Andrew Plato <intrepid_es -at- yahoo -dot- com>
To: Tim Altom <taltom -at- simplywritten -dot- com>, TechDoc List <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 13 Jun 2000 09:29:04 -0700 (PDT)


"Tim Altom" wrote...
> Come now, Andrew...structure can exist quite nicely without content, thank
> you very much. SGML and XML aren't theories, but actualities, and they both
> operate on the principle of structure being utterly independent of content.

Yes, but without content to use them on there is no purpose to have them.

> For that matter, HTML is also (weakly) a structuring system that does not
> depend on content for its existence. Content holds up nothing.

Yes it does. You just have abstracted it in your brain. HTML was invented as a
better way to structure text on pages. If HTML was never used and implemented
against content - it would be utterly useless.

> It is the
> filling, not the shell. If you've ever designed a DTD, you'll know the
> difference.

I have designed lots of DTDs. But always after understood what the manual was
about. It is inconceivable for how somebody can write up a document structure
without understanding what the document is about.

> Actually, almost any designed system can have structure without content. A
> database can exist as a schema, without data point one. A network node can
> exist without data, but with hardware, software, and protocols that permit
> it to act as a node. To use your own example, a building can stand very well
> on its own with no inhabitants at all. Look at the pyramids of Egypt as an
> instance. Structure and form, no contents.

Yes - all these things can exist. And they have little to no value unless used
and making a difference. Databases, network nodes, whatever - if they just sit
around being admired by STC judges, they are useless.

> OOP programmers often design software with storyboards, complete to the
> level of methods and attributes, without a single electron changing state or
> line of code springing into existence. Again, structure exists without
> content.

They must understand the application they are coding (or the module, etc) and
what it is supposed to do. That is their content.

> This is not a mere quibble, but a serious design issue. I personally believe
> that our profession has been enormously disserved by the "ready, fire, aim"
> attitude that many of my colleagues espouse.

I personal believe that process freaks and people obsessed with order are a
significant drain on large organizations. Organizations would do themselves a
huge service to get rid of these people and hire some intelligent, hard working
people who can build processes and procedures holistically and naturally and
not forced, overly controlling processes.

I've seen lots of Level 3 shops where the writers just sit around saying things
like "that is not in my job description." and "I am waiting for approval on
that" and "I sent and email and I can't do anything until so and so follows
up." Basically, they avoid work. They avoid learning anything by using the
process as an excuse why they CAN'T do something.

"Well, so and so didn't obey the process, so I can't do my job." Every time I
hear that excuse from somebody I want to strangle them.

Lazy, ignorant, clock-watching twits who hide and tap-dance inside their
processes, procedures, and rules. These people can't write a grocery list, let
alone a complex technical manual. They have been lulled into a false sense of
"professionalism" because they have some "internationally recognized" system in

I say - never be complete. I say - stick to the basics and the smart will
survive. I say - forget the process and focus on what really matters - helping
people and getting the job done.

> We don't engineer documents; we let them
> grow, like meadow flowers. Or we apply our own singular personalities to
> them and crow like roosters about it.

Docs should be engineered by people who understand what it is they are talking
about. What appalls me are writers who sit in front of me, and tell me they
don't know how SQL works when they are supposed to be writing a document about
a database. These same people will then go on to shout how they don't need to
learn this stuff because they have a process! Sorry, I don't want an ignorant
doctor who tells me about his wonderful "Doctor Process 2000".

Hey - implement processes and remain ignorant. A process is not synonymous with
intelligence and experience.

> If we do not produce documentation methodically, we can't fix problems with
> it. We can't identify what works and what doesn't. We can't justify
> expenditures.

Yes, Tim. You are right. We need to be careful, methodical, and get our work
edited. I agree.

But we also need to be smart about the stuff we document. You are right, Tim.
But you're on the down-hill side of this argument. If you tried to implement
your trademarked process on a bunch of tech writers who were total idiots -
they would fail. Methodical stupidity is not productive. If you put garbage
into a process, you get garbage out.

Also - you need to get a few things correct about my argument:

I never said "content good, process stupid."
I do think processes have value. But only when they are used with good content.
I do think organizations are well served with structure. But only when that
structure is built holistically by people who understand the nature of the
business (products, technologies, etc.)
I am not advocating chaos and some "shoot from the hip" department.

I advocate holistic, natural development of structure. I support processes
built by people who understand what it is they are processing. I've seen and
talked to lots of places that don't use any internationally recognized system,
and they write great stuff. They work from their intelligence and build a
system naturally and gradually. They also tear it down and do something else
if it stops working.

I am talking about PEOPLE, Tim. You are talking about non-living entities. I
put PEOPLE as the primary and most important aspect of all endeavors. I have
no idea where you put them, but apparently it is after your process.

Andrew Plato

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