Winning the Lottery Versus Getting Hit by a Truck

lotto ticket -adventuresinanalog on flckrThere’s an old joke that takes place in a lonely cemetery with a few grieving relatives gathered around an open grave, umbrellas open in the cold drizzle. A man in a trench coat sidles up to the widow and murmurs: “I know this is an awkward time, but did he mention anything about source code?”

A lot of people think about disaster planning and imagine dramatic events: Your server room gets flooded, the container with your prototype slides off a ship’s deck during a storm, the hyenas stampede a herd of wildebeests through your office suite – that sort of thing. But when I think about disaster planning, I imagine people who know important things moving on to other jobs, and their knowledge is lost. One of the great underexploited skills of technical writers is the creation of internal documents that are crucial for that sort of disaster planning.

I once began a job by interviewing an engineer about a whole lot of stuff that had never been written down. We spent about a day and a half working together, and then he precipitously walked into his boss’s office, resigned on the spot, and was never seen again at the company. I could have easily spent another week taking notes on what he knew! From this I learned two things: (a) Pray that no one notices a correlation in engineers quitting their jobs right after you interview them, and (b) Don’t get to the point where “a whole lot of stuff” isn’t written down. This means creating internal documents all the time, even when there’s someone currently on staff who already knows it all. Lovers of jargon call this “knowledge retention and transfer.”

Since these are Rosetta Stone documents, use keywords in the file name that people are likely to look for, and don’t assume that conventions are static: Five years from now, G4SWP might not mean Group Four Software Planning. Better to have a slightly longer name that doesn’t rely on today’s acronyms and other codes. Just last week there was a thread on TECHWR-L about software versions in document names, and Rebecca O. commented: “Our filenames and doc titles aren’t short but they are unambiguous!” Amen, sister.

I am absolutely not the kind of person who would exploit this topic for a Word vs. Frame point. But if I were that kind of person, I would mention that, years ago, an expert Whirler described a situation where his company went into a tizzy when he left, since he had his company’s sole knowledge of FrameMaker. Yes, you can always hire another Frame user, but anything in Word is by definition more accessible to more employees. You might say, more hands in the document to muck up the formatting, and you’d be right; but also, more hands to throw in useful tidbits that you didn’t know about.

Oh, and in case you were wondering: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that 283 pedestrians were struck and killed by large trucks in 2013, whereas TLC’s “The Lottery Changed My Life” claims that over 1,600 people win at least a million dollars in lotteries every year. So, regardless of how you feel about that irreplaceable engineer, s/he’s more likely to be taken out by a Powerball than a Peterbilt. Besides, “What if you win the lottery?” just sounds a whole lot friendlier.

Dan Goldstein

Dan Goldstein was born and raised in Ithaca, New York, known to its denizens as “ten square miles surrounded by reality.” In tenth grade, Sylvia Mintz taught him everything he knows about writing. Years later (thirtieth grade, approximately), Neil Churgin taught him everything he knows about technical writing. Since 2002, Dan has specialized in Regulatory Affairs and Quality Assurance for medical devices, which is actually a lot of fun.

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