Subject Matter Experts
On this project, I provided formatting and editing support for a group of subject matter experts (SMEs) who were putting out a new product. There were several difficulties involved with the project. To begin with, the subject matter experts were not particularly interested in the project. While the product would be new to the market, it had been in development for several years, and most of the experts were now working on a newer revision of the product. In other words, the version that was going to market would immediately be obsolete, and most of the work now focused on the next step rather than the current piece.
Another challenge was that no one was willing to step up and be the document owner. This problem was deeply frustrating for my supervisor, who has been dealing with these documents much longer than I have. The document consisted of three volumes containing ten chapters apiece. While the individual chapters had SMEs who were responsible for them, the overall document had no leader to take charge of putting the book together and making sure that the SMEs, who viewed the document team as a nuisance and said so, to provide the required support.
My task was to go through each of the chapters and make sure they conformed to the boilerplate. The boilerplate was a set list of sections and section content that each SME had to match to their piece of the product. I had nothing to do with the development of the boilerplate, and I did not have a particularly high opinion of the way it had been set up, but I had to enforce it.
The other difficulty with my part of the project was that this was my first exposure to this product. It was a highly technical piece of hardware, and there was no time for me to devote to learning about it. My job was to go through each document, fix what I could, and put notes by anything I did not know enough about to fix on my own.
Another challenge was that the SMEs had frequently strayed from the boilerplate. The boilerplate had 21 different sections, only one of which was optional. In almost every chapter, the document had both missing sections and sections that were not part of the boilerplate. I would insert any missing sections (with notes about adding content) and flag any non-boilerplate sections. I would also give my best guess to the SMEs about where the information belonged. Finally, I made sure everything was in the correct order.
After I dealt with the section issues, I focused on the content issues. For example, one section in consisted of sets of tables. The SMEs had a choice between two sets of tables they could use to input key product data. If their part of the project used items from the A list, they were supposed to use table A. If their part of the product used items from the B list, they were supposed to use table B. In almost every case, the SMEs used the wrong table, leaving gaps where their information did not conform to the columns of the tables. In each case, I had to reformat the data to fit the proper table. This process was complicated because each item table linked to a summary table through a series of FrameMaker cross references that were dependent on paragraph types. Each paragraph had to change when the tables changed, and so I had to recreate all of the cross-references.
Finally, there was the issue of conditional text. Conditional text is a Framemaker feature that allows writers to designate text to be hidden or displayed under specific circumstances. By doing this, you can use the same files to print out documents for different sets of audiences. In this case, we used conditional text to set levels of security. For example, highly sensitive information could be set to internal. Information that would go out to our corporate partners, but not to the public, could be set to secure. Publicly viewable information would be unconditional. This is just an example. In our case, we could apply about fifteen different conditions we could apply to text. According to the boilerplate, each section required at least one of four different conditions. I had to go through the document and reassign conditions until the documents conformed to the boilerplate rules.
Because the SMEs were neither eager to work with me nor compelled to work with me by someone on their side of the document, getting them to give me information was often difficult. It was even harder because, as a contractor, I have almost no authority. This meant that if I did not get a response I had to then escalate to my supervisor, who had to call the SMEs or their manager or their manager’s manager until we finally got a response.
As you can see, this was far from an ideal documentation project, although it is closer to the norm that most of us would like to think. As a contractor though, poorly planned, managed or executed projects rarely upset me. I have no stake in the outcome of the project. When I was a regular employee, watching a project go wrong would make me worry about my job and about the company as a whole. As a contractor, I only care about doing the best job I can for the client, no matter how misguided or mismanaged the project. If the client wants me to take ten weeks to accomplish something that should take a week, I can take ten weeks. After all, they pay me by the hour. Such is the life of a contractor.