October 19, 2005

Well it's been a little while, but I've been busy! Since we announced LabVIEW 8, the add-on modules have been running through their own crunch mode as they finish the new versions. I helped out with some of the Datalogging & Supervisory Control (DSC) module documentation. I took 3 help files through the requisite signoff processes and edited a Dev Zone document about the new Domain Account Manager in DSC 8. Also last week I attended three days of training on control design, system identification, and simulation theory. As you probably already know, NI has LabVIEW add-ons that address each of these areas. The course was for people who hadn't had a control design course in awhile. Seeing how the math comes together with theory really helped me understand more about my products. I suppose it was the equivalent of a semester or two in college, although if you count the differential equation math involved, it might have been longer.

The push for two of my products is ramping up as the Simulation Interface Toolkit 3.0 was announced to the world a couple days ago. I've been involved with numerous last-minute documentation updates and changes. Some of the stuff is okay to defer until the next release of the toolkit, but I am somewhat of a perfectionist and like to get things as right as possible the first time. It's difficult trying to consolidate so many different edits from so many different people in such a short amount of time. And as I'm receiving these edits, I'm thinking about how I don't want to be the one holding up the software release. Hopefully there will be only minimal differences between the documentation and the software itself ;-)

Tomorrow and Friday is NI-TC, which is an internal conference for the entire Tech Comm department (at least, those of us in Austin). The three Tech Comm departments include technical writing, documentation production, and localization. Doc Pro are the folks who help us writers out with art, page layouts, formatting, templates, and the like. They also send printed documents to the printer. I don't have any printed documentation in any of my toolkits (it's all either a PDF on a CD or a bunch of CHMs), so I don't interact much with the printer team. Of course I lean on the Doc Pro team heavily, especially with all the equations and engineering block diagrams in my documentation. Localization takes care of translating our documents into the five languages we support. Again, none of my documents are localized, so I don't deal much with localization, or L10N (so named because of the ten letters in between L and N).

Anyway, don't get the idea that we sit around discussing grammar and punctuation preferences - we save that for the style guide committee meetings :-) The conference consists mainly of the tech comm members presenting to each other about technologies we use, trends we've spotted, products we're working on, features we like, and processes we find either useful or hindering. There are also some tangentially-related discussions, like a showcase on how we recruit for the department and tips for ergonomic working. It's also a good chance for us all to get together in the same room and chat for two days. At the end of the conference is a demo fair, where we physically demonstrate products and/or technologies. For example, we have two writers showcasing some upcoming products that none of us have really seen. We can pick each others' brains about functionality, usability, and of course the coolness of everything we see :-)

And speaking about recruiting, next week I'll be heading down to UT San Antonio with another writer and a manager. We'll be presenting to several classes and talking about what NI does, what tech writers deal with on a daily basis, and things like that. I'm looking forward to it, because I've been wanting to get more involved in the recruiting machine. I hope to get a chance to plug that fact that NI was chosen to test the controllers for the Xbox 360! That's a way better example of test & measurement than talking about cell phones and motorcycles, although motorcycles are still pretty cool. And of course the Shiner brewery runs on NI software, too.

October 3, 2005

Two more links for the day ...

- Today NI officially announced LabVIEW 8. This is the framework for most of the upcoming add-ons, so we've all been working with version 8 for awhile now. As far as I'm concerned, however, the most important part of the announcement was the free breakfast tacos we all got this morning :-) Mmm, bacon and egg.

- The newest issue of Wired has a great profile on tech-writing superstar (hah!) Tim O'Reilly. The article talks more about his personal philosophies and his industry prescience than it does about technical writing, but some relevant talk still makes it in there. What, is tech writing boring or something? Heaven forbid! :-)

Anyway, O'Reilly books are probably the benchmark for all third-party manuals out there. I've read/used several, and I know other R&D employees here have copies of one book or another. The article is a fun read on how his business got started.
Formatting nuttiness! The next version of MS Office will include support for Adobe's PDF format. Brian doesn't mention what "native support" really means, but I imagine there will at least be an "Export to PDF" button or a similar option in the Save As dialog box.

There are a bunch of things to talk about with this move. Is this a shot across the bow at Framemaker? No, probably not; everyone knows that MS Word can't handle the organization and printing of huge documents the way Framemaker can. But this announcement is definitely aimed at Acrobat. Is this a shot at OpenOffice.org? Most definitely - exporting to PDF is listed as a primary feature of OpenOffice.org Writer. The capability is certainly one of the reasons I use OpenOffice.org at home. Now OOo has one less differentiating feature. But hey, it's free, and the good ol' city of Austin uses it too!

PDF support also puts MS software back in the running for the state government of Massachusetts, which mandated that all government employees must now use open-format office software. MS Word's .doc format doesn't qualify under that rule, but the PDF format sure does.

What remains to be seen is how PDF support will affect Metro, MS's own easily-accessible-open-everywhere format. What advantages will Metro have over PDF? Instead of simply equalling PDF's functionality, Metro now has to differentiate itself. Could be tricky; could be interesting. Certainly the inclusion of fun transparent "Aero" graphics can't be enough, nor can the "rights-management" functionality MS plans to include.

I doubt things will change much here at NI, where we use Framemaker for the PDF documents. I think this move is solely to placate governments (both local, state, national, and international) that do not want to rely on a single software vendor for access to creating and reading the majority of official documents. Massachusetts was just the latest example; more are sure to follow.