Active Ownership (was getting information)

Subject: Active Ownership (was getting information)
From: Andrew Plato <intrepid_es -at- YAHOO -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 18 Jun 1999 02:25:01 -0700

> One of the most trying tasks that I've come across is getting information. I
> thought that I'd open a little discussion here...Here are some different
> angles/strategies that I've cooked up to get information. If you have any
> items that have worked for you, I'd be happy to hear about them.

Great question Michael.

In my experience, active information gathering is always preferable to passive
methods. Therefore, things like posting issues on a web site and handing out
questionnaires are rarely effective.

The best information gathering methods are to pay attention and participate.
Go to the development meetings. Read whatever material is out there. Play
with the product. Befriend the subject matter experts (SMEs). Engage them in
regular discussions about the project. Ask them what they are doing. Get them
talking about their work. Watch what is happening and who is doing what.

And you are right about being assertive (not aggressive). You must make
yourself useful on the team. Being assertive and demonstrating your ability to
contribute to the team will really make you shine. There is nothing worse than
a meek writer who wimps around all day peeping for help. You have to become an
active and integrated part of the team.

Another important aspect of information gathering is asking questions. The
trick to asking good questions, is to know the answers before you ask. If you
ask a question without knowing the answer (or at least having a good idea what
the answer should be) - how do you know if the answer is correct? THis is why
you need to know the project and related technologies as well as (if not
better) than the SMEs. You cannot just "borrow" knowledge - you must make it
your own knowledge.

Thus, never ask open-ended questions to SMEs. They will wander off topic and
tell you their personal feelings about Windows or some other useless
information. Hone your questions to be specific and lead the SME to a specific
answer. Ideally you should know the correct answer before you ask it. The SME
merely confirms or augments the knowledge you already possess. This way, if the
SME gives you an incorrect answer you can say something like "Gee, I thought it
was XYZ." That makes you look like a friggin' genius without bashing their

This is important because if you do not take command of the technical knowledge
yourself, you cannot write intelligently. It is practically impossible to write
an intelligent and useful document if you do not comprehend the technologies
and scientific concepts involved. A lot of people agree with this in theory but
they fall short in practice. Yes, you need to know how the sh*t works.

This leads back to my little crusade: know the tech over the tool. If you know
how technology works, what it does will make a lot more sense. Likewise,
nobody on the planet cares that you can format a paragraph in FrameMaker - that
is easy to learn. Knowledge of technologies, markets and business make writers

Furthermore, good information gathering skills are also derivative of good work
habits: be respectful, listen to people, be honest, say "thank you" and
"please". For example, it is impossible to learn when you are talking.
Therefore, if you want to gather info about your company's products - shut your
cake hole and listen up. If you are complaining and blathering you are not

Good information gathering takes a certain temperament. You have to assertive
and specific, yet cool and in-control. You have to gently nudge people in
certain directions. Get them to answer questions honestly and completely. You
can't act like a wimp or brow-beat people. You have to act a little dumb but
very curious. I find little things like "Wow, that is really cool" or "it is
really fascinating how you coded that to sit a top the network stack" offers
the right amount of ego massaging without pandering.

If people don't trust you or don't like you, they won't help you. So you have
to let egos soar. The best way to learn about how a product works is to
"lubricate" an engineers' natural desire to babble about what he does. In the
midst of the babble is the answers you want.

What does not work (in my opinion) are overly formalized processes for
information gathering. I have watched countless Tech Pubs groups try to
institutionalize their information gathering methods only to spend laughable
amounts of time and energy on something that can be accomplished with a brief
conversation with an engineer.

I am reminded of a client I worked with two years ago. They had a pack of
writers take 6 months to write a tepid user manual. The sales force found the
user manual devoid of useful facts so they contracted me to write a technical
manual. I had the loving help of one staff writer.

This client had these ridiculously complex series of reviews and meetings to
gather information. This was of course described to me in exquisite detail by
my loving writer friend. The writer seemed to have an astounding grasp on all
the intricacies of this process. Yet it was obvious, the engineers totally
ignored the processes.

The third day there, I was working on a section regarding NT security. I asked
the writer what the security requirements were. He had no idea what I was
talking about. So I walked over to the engineer and asked him. We babbled for
an hour and I discovered about 10,000 things the staff writers never knew.

Ultimately, by circumventing the procedures for information gathering, I banged
out a 210 page tech manual in 140 hours (about four weeks)with a 20 hour rev
cycle. Sales loved it, they started bundling it with high-end clients, the
product sold like mad, and I got about 27 other contract gigs with this client.

Invariably overly formalized procedures seem to miss one fundamental concept
about us humans - we all learn differently. They also operate on the misguided
principle that formalization will somehow make the information more valid.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. It only makes it more stale.

Therefore, institutionalizing information gathering is synonymous with setting
a schedule for your emotions. It might sound great on paper but it does not
work in reality. You have to own the knowledge in your brain.

Speaking of brains. I could use a new one. I guess I'll have to wait for Brain
2000. Shareware Brainux and BrainBSD are just to hard to install. And no way
would I get a MacBrain. They look great but, just try upgrading one.

Andrew Plato
President / Principal Consultant
Anitian Consulting, Inc.

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