In this TC Dojo...
Have you ever felt like your workday is consumed by chores? Have you ever considered taking a vacation day so that you can get some real work done? You're not alone. Most of us inherit a kind of "technical debt" when we start a new role. In this discussion, Seth will confront this reality and provide strategies for how to pay down the technical debt so that you can focus on what matters and invest reclaimed energy into your professional growth.
About the Visiting Dojo Expert
Seth Park began his career as a technical writer who spent nearly all of his time operating software tools and running spell check. He learned early on that the only way to do what you love is to automate the things in your way. This path started with writing simple shell scripts and matured into an approach he calls the Information Supply Chain. Now a data analyst, Seth is applying the same concepts to automate the construction and delivery of marketing effectiveness dashboards
Watch the Video
Recorded: 1 November 2021
Transcript (Expand to View)
[00:00:00.430] - Liz Fraley
And welcome to the TC Dojo from Single-Sourcing Solutions. The TC Dojo is a public works project for the techcomm community. It's driven by you. Through the survey, you tell us what you want to learn. Instructors are community experts who are willing to share their learning on the top topics you've asked for. With the TC Dojo, we celebrate the dojo, a place of learning and meditation.
[00:00:21.310] - Liz Fraley
When we created the TC Dojo, we did extensive research to be as faithful as possible to the historic and cultural traditions and intent behind them. The TC Dojo exterior image was drawn in the Japanese minimalist architectural style. Minimalism is an important practice in technical and professional communications. It can be found in architecture, art, and music from many different traditions and cultures. We draw from these examples whenever we discuss minimalism in our training to help students connect with the concepts.
[00:00:49.690] - Liz Fraley
In the open session today, we have Seth Park. Seth began his career as a technical writer who spent nearly all of his time operating software tools and running spell check. He learned early on the only way to do what you love is to automate the things in your way. This path started with writing simple shell scripts and matured into an approach he called the information supply chain. He presented on that information supply chain in the TC Dojo several years ago.
[00:01:17.350] - Liz Fraley
Now he's a data analyst,. And Seth is applying the same concepts to automate the construction and delivery of marketing effectiveness dashboard. I'm delighted he could to return today to talk about these strategies for paying down technical debt and reclaiming our energy to promote professional growth.
[00:01:32.650] - Seth Park
Thank you for joining. I want to start by just explaining the visuals that you're seeing right now. This is an image of how you mathematically prove that the Earth is the center of the solar system. And this is something I look at often because it just reminds me how really, really smart people can do amazing things and they can do them around the wrong set of assumptions.
[00:02:01.810] - Seth Park
And I just find this uplifting because as I move through most of things in my career and my personal life, I just realized if things seem really, really, overly complicated, you probably have the wrong set of working assumptions. And so that's the way I cleanse my mind before I start just about anything like I did today.
[00:02:23.770] - Seth Park
So the presentation I'm talking about today really started as an unexpected backlash. So this summer, I posted on Facebook, I think on LinkedIn, how happy I was that I was just at the point where I would be able to fully automate my job, making the things that I was doing basically unnecessary. And I thought this was a very uplifting message to send out to the world, but I got a lot of really negative feedback, which tells me that there's something there that we really want to explore.
[00:03:02.410] - Seth Park
And so contextually speaking, this is a time where Andrew Yang is out there saying automation is going to take all of our jobs. We need UBI because people just aren't going to have jobs. It was a time that Amazon was taking all of their tax free capital and investing it in automation, further reducing workforce. There were some videos coming out from How Money Works on YouTube talking about how superfluous jobs were created basically for political reasons during the space race and the cold war.
[00:03:41.290] - Seth Park
And I just realized that it's probably a good time to just talk about this a little bit. And so some of the valuable discussions that came out of this with things like what is a job? What is the purpose of the job? What is job security? How automation impacts the economy? Is it okay for me to automate jobs knowing that it may have an implication down the road for employment for others? And on the other side, is it ethical to intentionally be inefficient in order to keep jobs around?
[00:04:17.530] - Seth Park
So I had a number of things going on in my life at the same time. So in terms of mergers, I just completed a panel on managing two mergers since I've been through several of those. I'm doing my own state planning. I'm a single father of two, and so I want to make sure that all of my assets go to my children. I've been through divorce.
[00:04:42.350] - Seth Park
And if you've ever been through that, there's this process called discovery, where basically everything that you own or do just becomes public.. well not public knowledge, but it has to be revealed. I've been managing teams through downturns. I've had downsized teams. I've been through a number of reorgs. And I've also onboarded a number of people, even including interns.
[00:05:08.270] - Seth Park
And, at the end of the day, what I construct in my mind is that the crux of enabling successful major transitions ultimately comes down to creating formalized knowledge. In other words, taking the information that you have inside your head and putting it in a place where it can be used by others, right? And in my career and in your career, I would say, that there's a value to creating formalized knowledge because it allows you to transfer yourself from simply being a historian, or some people say, knowing where all the bodies are buried, into being a value creator. That's back on top of that formalized knowledge.
[00:05:58.950] - Seth Park
And it allows you to essentially untether yourself from being stuck in a certain role where you're critical just because of what you historically know and allow you to achieve some of your goals around being a future value contributor. The way that I looked at this was from the perspective of my own career professionally.
[00:06:21.510] - Seth Park
So I started a technical editor. And when I first joined there, it was because there was this massive lay off. And then there was one person left, and this one person was responsible for a huge amount of work. So she was training me. And what I learned very quickly was that the only way that I could get this knowledge was from her, and she was very busy. She really didn't have time to train me because she had all this work to do.
[00:06:47.670] - Seth Park
And then so little by little, I would be able to figure out how to do some amount of work. And everything was very informal. We also call this tribal knowledge. And so the people who have that knowledge were, all of a sudden, gone. We're trying to recreate it. And that's a very hard thing to do. And so I was constructing books using unstructured FrameMaker. And I noticed that the files that I needed were in people's old personal folders. It was pretty much an unstructured mess.
[00:07:21.090] - Seth Park
And so what my manager at that time did, which I think is a very brilliant thing to do, was she said, look, I'm going to be throwing a lot of information at you. And your first job is to document everything I tell you, because this will be the first time it was ever written down. And so the transition from an oral tradition to a written tradition was the first step.
[00:07:45.030] - Seth Park
So we got to a point where things were documented. But there were so many steps that it was difficult to do. So one of the first things that I did to try to get around that was I noticed that I was basically a human macro. I was doing the same kinds of steps over and over and over and over again to 10, 20, 100 different documents. And also, by the way, we were going through a divestiture at the time. We transitioned from Motorola to Freescale so we're doing all these rebranding things, like reapplying master pages and stuff.
[00:08:21.570] - Seth Park
So all of that was very scriptable. So I found ways to script that work. There was an application called FM Batch, which is part of FrameMaker 5.5 on UNIX, and then also some shell scripting. They would move files around, check them in and out of the configuration management system, and that kind of thing.
[00:08:41.610] - Seth Park
So I got to a point where I was able to script things enough that I had time to think about better ways of doing things. And then ultimately, the goal was to move all of the procedures that were scripted into a more formal workflow, which would essentially automate a lot of the, at the time, book building. And then what I was doing with the recoup time was moving us into DITA, right?
[00:09:11.250] - Seth Park
But the thing is, as you move up the pyramid, there's a necessary thing that happens, which means you have to apply some kinds of constraints to the information coming at you. You can't structure unstructured content in an automated way. So as you move up this pyramid, it means that you're starting to engage more and more with the people who supply you with information and making sure there's some amount of rigor on there.
[00:09:43.230] - Seth Park
And so there was this point where I was able to automate the building of these very complex books. And some of the people would say, well, you're basically building a GIGO machine. I was like, oh, what's a GIGO machine? It stands for garbage in, garbage out. And I said, you mean, I built a system that takes exactly what I received and delivers a representation of exactly what I put into the system?
[00:10:11.730] - Seth Park
Oh, yeah, that's what that means. I said, Perfect. That's a great starting point for a quality in quality out system. And just mechanizing all of the pieces that would have taken my time allowed me to focus a little bit more on making sure that the quality coming in was correct so that I could know that I got quality going out.
[00:10:36.210] - Seth Park
So fundamentally, take a step back, what is a job and what is job security? I don't care what your actual role or job is. At the end of the day, your job is to create value. Period. Therefore, job security is becoming known as a value creator. It doesn't matter what you're doing, if you're creating value, you're doing the right thing.
[00:11:02.910] - Seth Park
And so, so many people were offended when I said, I'm out there to automate jobs away. I'm not saying I want people to be unemployed. I'm simply saying that people spend too much time doing what I call chores, which are just the tasks that you do that don't serve your business, and they don't serve you professionally. And what I used to do with my employees when I was managing fairly large teams was the exercise I'm showing you right here, which is what I call a roadmap to job security.
[00:11:36.990] - Seth Park
How do you prove to yourself and to anybody else who looks at you that you are a value creator? And so I would sit down with them during their business planning phase or performance management phase. And I would make them pull out their resume and say, let's say that you were let go today, what would you say about your time here in terms of accomplishments on your resume? That's a tough job to do. And they come up with something, right?
[00:12:07.530] - Seth Park
And then you have to look at those and you have to say, did you have a bunch of bullets about I worked really hard. I worked long hours. I did whatever people told me to do. Well, that's useless stuff on a resume, right? On a resume, you want to have actual quantifiable achievements. And so I'd say, okay, well, after you're done with this job, and you go to your next employer, what would you like to say about what you achieved and what you accomplished while you were here?
[00:12:42.690] - Seth Park
And so that was a much different conversation. And so it was couched in these terms of, what are you getting from this? But at the end of the day, that's exactly what your business wants you to be doing anyway. We want you to be doing these accomplishments that really speak to adding value. And then I would take it one step forward to say, okay, now you've left this job entirely. Think about the next job. What is that job? If you can't think of something, just call a new job.
[00:13:15.450] - Seth Park
But if you have the right amount of vision, you can figure out where you want to be, put that job title in there. That's that job title. And then what are the accomplishments that you want from that job? So having them looking forward and thinking about what they do at the company in terms of how it benefits them also satisfies the business requirements because they're thinking more about, what is the value you can add and not how do I just want to spend my time.
[00:13:45.330] - Seth Park
And for all of the bullet points that you have are basically around, I spent a lot of time. I did a lot of dive and catch. All of those chores that you're doing, I believe that that fundamentally comes down to generational work debt. And so work debt is derived from technical debt. It's the idea that there are shortcuts that are made in a coding perspective, which results in long term cost, because the short term solutions weren't really optimized to be scalable, durable over the period of time.
[00:14:23.010] - Seth Park
Well, I think fundamentally, what happens when we have business processes is that we do the same thing. We realize that something may not be working, so we throw a patch in it. We fix the document by editing the PDF sometimes. There's all these little things that we do, these little workarounds that create this generational work debt.
[00:14:46.770] - Seth Park
And I think you can realize that you're in the swamp of sadness if you find yourself saying things like, "I'm glad I'm finally getting some help, but I don't have time to train her," just like the situation I was in, or saying things, "I have so many things to do. I don't have time to do my real job, "or "I'm answering the same questions day after day." "I spend too much time looking for stuff."
[00:15:09.030] - Seth Park
And then for me, like I said, I was hired as a technical editor, but whenever I would imagine my resume saying, yeah, Motorola Semiconductor. I was a technical editor. What did I do? Number one, I didn't edit any files. Number two, I ran spell check, but then somebody emailed me a new copy of the file, and all my work is gone, anyway. Then I just push crap out the door. That is not what I wanted on my resume. That's not what I wanted for me.
[00:15:39.370] - Seth Park
What do you do about it? So I think there's three categories of things that you can do about. The first one is formalizing knowledge. We talked about that. The next one is optimizing your personal workbench. And then the last one is having a roadmap towards automation to recoup those times.
[00:15:57.430] - Seth Park
And so the first piece, when it comes to formalizing knowledge, I think it really is helpful to think of yourself as a one person service provider for your company. And I think it makes sense to talk about the people that you service through your role as your clients. I think just that little mental shift puts you in a different footing, where instead of specific names, like if you need editing services, email Jim, right?
[00:16:32.290] - Seth Park
No. As a service provider, you have a business front. You have a storefront. And so create that storefront. If you're like a SharePoint site person, then you have a SharePoint site that's technical editing. And then on that site, you build it up with a storefront with the list of services that you offer, links to things, links to training, all those kinds of things. Try to take yourself out of the process as much as possible. Now you're going to do the work, you'll get the credit for the work, and to blame if you mess up.
[00:17:08.470] - Seth Park
But the point is that you are putting forward something that can be transferred. It's not just about you. And then also you start thinking about the work coming at you. How do you deal with the work coming at you? I think a large part of the time that we spend doing chores are unnecessary chores, especially in this particular industry. I think we are so eager to please that we don't often check in enough to ask, is this really going to add value to the bottom line or the top line? And we just do it because we like to please.
[00:17:48.070] - Seth Park
So if you think about all the things that you do as projects, if you are an independent contractor, you would have something that looks like an SOW for everything you do. And you would document the expectations, the timelines, the resources needed, requirements, then you have a record of what you've committed to. And this is super, super important because you're going to get, and we do get a lot of ad hoc requests. And then we also are subject to a lot of scope creep if things aren't formalized in some written agreement.
[00:18:26.350] - Seth Park
And the nice thing about this is that you can start training other people to not pile on technical debt upon you because you can simply say, that's a really great idea. Let me work with my management to see if we can expand the scope, using that language of saying, okay, this is in addition to what we've already committed, right?
[00:18:47.830] - Seth Park
And then it also sets up your manager to be an effective manager, right? I think a lot of middle management gets swept up in appeasement missions just trying to make everybody happy. But whenever you're organized enough to say that this is an addition to scope, if I do this, that means something else needs to come off the table that really helps him or her start flexing those management muscles that maybe haven't been flexed enough.
[00:19:22.270] - Seth Park
And the other thing that I would say here is a lot of this came from the idea of being always merger ready. And I'll tell you as you're being through a number of mergers, the side that is most organized and has the clearest description of the services provided will often become the way of work. Even if the other solution may be superior, if you can't communicate it, it doesn't exist.
[00:19:52.990] - Seth Park
And so having your storefront set up like this is extremely important whenever you go into mergers. And then like I said earlier, if you've ever been recognized, maybe at a team meeting, or town hall, or something like this, where they recognize you, thank you for spending your nights and weekends, and giving up your holidays to do this fabulous dive and catch, that is not the kind of recognition you want, right? The kind of recognition you want are the kind of things that you can put on your resume's bullets, like you decreased operational expense by 15%. Those are the kinds of things that you want to be rewarded for.
[00:20:32.050] - Seth Park
And having this slightly different mindset really focuses you towards honing in and owning the value that you can create. And again, at the end of the day, this does make it easier to hand off this work to somebody else. So it also means that you can scale up, you can scale down. Just removing yourself and really focusing on being a business entity will help you conceptualize how to formalize the knowledge. And this is just some notes for this slide deck.
[00:21:09.250] - Seth Park
The next piece is optimizing. Actually, can I take a quick pause here before I move to this piece? Are there any questions so far?
[00:21:18.250] - Liz Fraley
We have one question. What's an SOW?
[00:21:21.250] - Seth Park
I'm sorry, that stands for Statement of Work. And it's basically, anytime you're in any kind of consulting engagement, there's a formal document that is basically a contract of the service where you detail things. Now, when I say you should have an SOW for all of your projects, I don't mean it has to be in the SOW template. It doesn't have to be that detailed. But you just need to have some kind of receipt for what you've committed to.
[00:21:54.610] - Seth Park
And so in terms of optimizing your workbench, I won't spend too much time here because I want to get to the next thing and we're already kind of into the time. There are tools that you just have to learn. We live in a world that is dominated by spreadsheets. It doesn't matter what you do, you're going to have to deal with spreadsheets, so get over it. Bite the bullet. Learn some stuff.
[00:22:17.770] - Seth Park
There is a really cool tool in Excel called Compare Files. It's really hard to find. A lot of people don't know about it. But it is amazing in terms of, if you get two versions of a spreadsheet, you don't know it's changed. You can run that tool and get very specific, detailed, difference reports. It's amazing.
[00:22:39.190] - Seth Park
Just Excel itself, learning how to do some of the more advanced things. There's one feature I use almost every day, which is called text to columns. So you have a URL, let's say, and you have a part of the URL that you need to pull out because you need a report of those, say, GUIDs, the globally, unique identifiers.
[00:23:04.450] - Speaker 3
You can very easily parse that out just with a really simple operation in Excel. There's so many things you can do in Excel. And so if you have problems managing spreadsheets, there are solutions for that. You're not the only one. So take some courses on Excel. Be good at it.
[00:23:23.110] - Seth Park
The other tool that I'll put here is the one that I've been geeking out on for the last year. It's called Power Bi. It's free to Windows users. I was getting in a situation where I was getting, let's say, a ticket report from a program manager. And she would ask me, add another column and put the status of your work in that column.
[00:23:49.450] - Seth Park
And so I would start doing that. And then she would send me a copy of another copy of the spreadsheet and said, oh, we'll use this one instead. And I would give her on the next day. We'll use this one instead. Well, Power Bi has this really amazing ability to join tables across different worksheets.
[00:24:05.050] - Seth Park
So I found this way of working where I had my own spreadsheet, where I managed my status. And I was able to tolerate all these different new versions of the spreadsheet coming in all the time because I was using Power Bi to join those tables. And so every time their lack of process didn't disrupt me. So there's tools out there. Just be really good at what you do in terms of managing some of that churn, because that's not going to necessarily go away.
[00:24:40.150] - Seth Park
And now to the big piece. So how do you automate your job away or work yourself out a job? This is a graphic that I've shown before. And so this is a high level view of the information architecture for two critical semiconductor document types. On the left, you have reference manual. On the right, you have data sheet. It's a bad name because those are 300 to 500 pages.
[00:25:08.650] - Seth Park
And then it shows in the middle all the different design sources and flows that we require in order to produce these different documentation sets. I draw this because I want to, first of all, let people know the complexity of the situation we're dealing with, but also to serve as a roadmap. So everything you see that's green here used to be red because we didn't have any automation. We didn't have structure for any stuff.
[00:25:40.330] - Seth Park
So over time, we've made them green. But for example, I've drawn a circle around this one little piece. Because if you try to look at this whole picture, it's way too complex to deal with all at once. You'll never succeed if you try that. But if you just take one piece like, hey, let's figure out how to streamline the pin flow.
[00:26:02.590] - Seth Park
Sorry for the fuzziness here. But I worked with the people that were either consumers or suppliers of pin information. And we mapped out the value chain, the business process flow. On the left, you can see there's a lot of complexity, and there's actually some loops in there. If you follow it closely, you can find the loops.
[00:26:25.210] - Seth Park
And working with that team, we realized there's got to be a much better way to do this. And not just to get documents outdoor quicker and more accurately, but also to provide cleaner, more efficient, timelier information to the design processes themselves. They were not talking amongst themselves. They had a problem they just slowed down to us.
[00:26:53.110] - Seth Park
So by working up stream and fixing this, we came up with a much cleaner flow, which ultimately centers around single sourcing, so you're in the right place here. And we got it down to basically, two novel inputs were required in order to create a combined data model from which we could generate everything that anybody needs, right?
[00:27:19.510] - Seth Park
And so I would say, start with the high level information architecture map, find the pieces, especially the low hanging fruit pieces, and start to design like a 2B process. Even if you don't know how to achieve any of the arrows where all the action happens, even if you don't have resources to do it, I would say it's your responsibility to have a plan to fix these problems, even if you don't have the capacity to do it, just so it's on the shelf.
[00:27:55.510] - Seth Park
Because if you're working in a downturn, one day downturns become upturns, and you need to always be able to answer the question, what would you do with $10,000? And if you have quality issues that come back to you, this kind of gives back to the previous presentation, if you have quality issues that come back to you and your quality organization gets involved and say, well, how can we solve this permanently? You need to be able to pull out that plan and say, this is the way to do it.
[00:28:31.690] - Seth Park
All we need is the funding to do it. So have those shovel-ready automation plans on the shelf and just always know what you would wish for if you were given the chance.
[00:28:43.330] - Seth Park
So it's Q4. 2022 planning is in process. If not, it's coming very soon. So I would just encourage you to take these ideas to that planning session with your management and make sure she knows about these technical debt issues. Maybe she doesn't know. Maybe it's one of those, if it ain't broken, don't fix it situation, where if documents are going out the door, she's happy, doesn't want to know. But start bringing these up because there's good reasons, too.
[00:29:19.030] - Seth Park
And then also the other way to service debt is through bankruptcy. And so from that concept, realize that you do have some power to renegotiate things. And so, for example, I noticed that I was doing a lot of work, where I felt like people weren't actually using my output in a valuable business way. So I worked with my management. I said, well, I'm just going to stop doing this and see what happens.
[00:29:49.630] - Seth Park
And that's what they call a scream test in IT. So IT will say, this server doesn't seem to be doing anything. So they change the IP for a while. And then if nobody screams for a certain amount of time, then they assume that it's okay to unplug permanently. So I think you can use that approach.
[00:30:08.110] - Seth Park
And then we'll just jump on real fast. So when you're talking about the benefits of identifying, addressing, and creating a lane of bandwidth in order to address process issues and to service that debt, bring the principal down, just make sure that your management knows that you're doing this, not because you want to get away from work, but you want to have more time to focus on the valuable work. And that should be something that she wants you to do as well.
[00:30:38.950] - Seth Park
And then the ability to scale up and then scale down also, if you have a good enough relationship to admit that we do have people who are here simply because of the inefficiencies of the process. And then the other thing is, as an ethical person who joined a team, inherited a mess, it's almost unethical to let that mess convey to the next generation of people who are going to be doing this role. I mean, it's almost like the Native American tradition of leave everything better than you found it.
[00:31:19.250] - Seth Park
And if you have enough respect and clout security with your management, I think it's perfectly acceptable to say, look, I don't plan on being here forever, but I would like to make sure that I don't leave the same mess that I inherited. That's why I need this lane of bandwidth to focus on these things. And in order to have this lane of bandwidth, that means there are these other things that we need to stop doing, and we need to exercise.
[00:31:53.190] - Liz Fraley
Every month, we go out and find experts willing to share their expertise based on your votes in the TC Dojo survey. Why should we tell you what to learn? You should tell us. So be sure to vote at survey.tcdojo.org. The TC Dojo is our pleasure to host. See you next time.
View the slides
You might also be interested in...
About the TC Dojo
At the TC Dojo, you pick the topics and we find the experts.
You can't ask questions of a video, so be sure to join the TC Dojo and never miss attending live: http://join.tcdojo.org
Vote on future TC Dojo webinar topics here: http://survey.tcdojo.org