By Dawn Stevens, CIDM Director
I’ve been thinking a lot about my legacy, lately. What do I want people to remember me for? As we transition Comtech and CIDM from their founder, JoAnn Hackos, to my ownership and leadership, I’m well aware of the shoes I’m trying to fill, the footsteps I’m following in, and the legacy JoAnn has left behind.
Whenever I am presenting at a conference or a workshop, people inevitably share their “JoAnn stories.” They still remember a talk she gave, a workshop they attended, or an article they read, that in some way impacted their career. They share how her book, Managing Your Documentation Projects, has been underlined, dog-eared, and covered with sticky notes—instrumental to their success as a manager. They tell me how lucky I am that I was able to “learn at JoAnn’s knee” and how jealous they are of that opportunity.
There is no doubt that JoAnn has been a pinnacle in the technical communication industry. Her vision and passion have shaped and established the definition of excellence in information-development management and information products of all kinds. Her legacy cuts a wide swath, as she has influenced everything from the way we write, to the processes we follow, to the standards we conform with, to the tools we use.
Her drive to leave a legacy has resulted in dozens of workshops and technical communication programs taught around the world. I personally have a master’s degree from the technical communication program she helped start at the University of Colorado in Denver, and thousands of other information developers have benefited from JoAnn’s writing, management, and DITA workshops. In particular, her Minimalism class continues to be one of Comtech’s most requested workshops as writers are always looking for ways to reduce content while increasing user satisfaction. This course epitomizes JoAnn’s desire to equip everyone who produces content in an organization with the necessary writing skills and best practices to create truly usable products.
Yet it was not enough for her to influence only the end-result writing quality. JoAnn also observed that the development processes used within an organization were excellent predictors of the final quality of the product. She found it unacceptable that the software development maturity model released by the Software Engineering Institute did not address the functions performed by technical communicators in a software organization, so in 1993, she developed the Information Process Maturity Model (IPMM) to aid information-development organizations in assessing their internal practices. With the cooperation of industry leaders and the participation of 12 best-in-class information-development departments, JoAnn defined a set of common operational characteristics that greatly influence the quality of content produced and the productivity at which that content is produced. Her legacy is seen at dozens of companies that have undergone an IPMM assessment and then worked to follow her recommendations for improving their process maturity.
JoAnn’s work in process maturity made it clear that information-development managers were often isolated and unsupported within their companies, so she worked to build a network of managers who would come together and share best practices. In 1999, she founded the Center for Information-Development Management (CIDM) to facilitate communication and collaboration among information-development managers. In the years since, her vision has brought together over 100 member companies and thousands of individuals to network, unload their challenges, and share best practices. Her CIDM legacy is seen in five successful conferences a year, regular newsletters containing hints and tips on all areas of technical communication, and monthly webinars and round tables for learning more about the latest trends and hot topics.
JoAnn’s keen involvement in and concern about technical communication has kept her constantly on the lookout for key developments that could revolutionize the industry, and in the early 2000’s, she saw the potential for a new standard coming out of IBM and immediately began to spearhead its acceptance and adoption into the community. She founded the OASIS DITA Technical Committee and chaired several subcommittees, helping to define and improve the standard with each release. Today, DITA has become the XML standard of choice in technical documentation, emphasizing the importance of topic-based, structured content to meet the needs of users, while enabling more efficient production to multiple formats from a single source. JoAnn’s legacy includes not only the proliferation of the standard, but several defining texts and workshops about how to best use that standard in the creation of documentation and training.
In fact, JoAnn leaves a legacy of seven important texts to the industry, which themselves show the broad array of subject matter she has influenced during her career:
- Information-development management. Her two management books, Managing Your Documentation Projects (Wiley, 1994) and Information Development, Managing Your Documentation Projects, Portfolio, and People (Wiley, 2006), provide clear-cut, rational guidelines to managing every phase of a documentation project from planning and development, through production, distribution, and project evaluation
- Online documentation. I had the privilege of co-authoring Standards for Online Communication (Wiley, 1996) with JoAnn to address the special design requirements of the then new and emerging electronic forms of communication. Although technology in the last 20 years has certainly changed what can be done, this early text defined underling principles that would shape the future of online content.
- Usability. Good design only happens when designers understand who will be using their product, what the users are trying to accomplish, and the circumstances under which users must work. With Ginny Redish, JoAnn wrote User and Task Analysis for Interface Design (Wiley, 1998) to define techniques for gathering this information directly from users, analyzing the results of those studies, and translating them into usable interfaces.
- Content management. In Content Management for Dynamic Web Delivery (Wiley 2002), JoAnn introduced the importance of information modeling to establish a consistent approach to creating content within an organization. Comtech still uses information modeling today as we guide companies in the implementation of XML solutions.
- DITA. Comtech has published multiple versions of Introduction to DITA: A User Guide to the Darwin Information Typing Architecture under JoAnn’s direction. In fact, JoAnn’s legacy includes contributions to the forthcoming 3rd edition which adds DITA 1.3 elements and strategies for their use.
- Translation. Most recently, JoAnn partnered with Bryan Schnabel and Rodolfo Raya to create A Practical Guide to XLIFF 2.0 (XML Press, 2015), which provides best practices for exchanging content with localization and translation vendors.
In addition to these texts, JoAnn has also been a contributing author to several ISO standards, including Content Management for Product Life-Cycle, User and Service Management Documentation (26531) and Requirements for Managers of User Documentation (26511). Through these standards, JoAnn’s legacy will continue to define the best practices for information development for years to come, and she plans to continue influencing these standards in her retirement years.
Of course, with all these industry contributions come many awards and honors. Among these are the Goldsmith Award of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Professional Communication Society; the Rigo Award of the Association for Computer Machinery’s Special Interest Group on the Design of Communication; and the Horace Hockley Award of the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators in the United Kingdom. She is a Fellow and Past President of the International Society for Technical Communication (STC).
Yes, it has indeed been an honor and privilege to work for such a pinnacle in my industry. I was fortunate that my first full-time job in the industry was working for JoAnn. From her, I learned what technical communication should be and I have spent my career trying to implement that vision in a variety of organizations, both as a technical publications manager and as a consultant with Comtech. This month, I take over Comtech and CIDM, with a continuing mission to build on the legacy JoAnn has left. Times will change and with that, the needs and expectations of our users will change, the way we create content will evolve, and the skills required to be an effective information developer will expand. JoAnn was always on the leading edge, helping our industry to adapt and grow. I can only aspire and strive to do the same.
I am sure you all join me in wishing JoAnn the very best in her retirement. I also hope that you will join me as we look to and define the future of technical communication. I promise to you, Comtech’s and CIDM’s clients, partners, and friends, to do my very best to uphold JoAnn’s vision and mission: to empower you to provide effective information to your customers and employees. In return, I ask for your ideas and your participation in the community. Let me know your challenges and your successes, what works and what doesn’t, what keeps you up at night, what makes you proud. Together, we will further hone and define best practices in technical communication. Together, we will continue JoAnn’s legacy and leave our own.