Searching Beyond Google: Finding legacy biotechnology news

My research work often relies less on explicit search skills and more on understanding the sorts of tracks that information leaves.

Good research is more than Google. It’s about finding the right questions, and asking the right people. And it helps to have been in the industry for a long time.

For example I did a search recently for the CEO of a firm that makes educational toys that use recombinant DNA. When we were chatting I mentioned my memory of such a toy from the middle 1980s. Naturally she was interested, and asked me to send her more information.

This was a non-trivial search. Products and events from before the advent of the world wide web are often hard to find with a simple web search. Add to this that my 30 year old memories were not entirely reliable. For example I mis-remembered the genus of the bacteria that the early kit worked with.

But, I knew it was out there somewhere. My search turned up a book from the mid 1980s, describing the social history of genetic engineering to that point. The author was an academic, still in the field. I tracked down his university page and sent him an email asking if he recalled anything like what I was looking for.

He replied with a hit: “Dr. Cloner’s Genetic Engineering Home Cloning Kit.”

With the name, I was able to track down an article from New Scientist in 1985, and several newspaper articles, all of which I sent to my curious CEO.

Hackers/Founders Meetup in Mountain View

I dropped by today at the Mountain View Meetup for the Hackers/Founders incubator. It was a good gathering. I seldom find a group of people with whom I can have conversations about the Internet of Things, software development, nursing, philosophy, virtual reality, and the biophysics of Alzheimer’s disease all in the same afternoon. Indeed, at the same table.

Not only was it fun, but I made several connections that I’m glad I was able to make. It’s a rare gathering of minds and I learned a number of new things that I plan to explore in more depth. I’ll be going back.

The Case of the FAQ

Tech support follows the Pareto Principle: 80% of the support requests involve just 20% of the questions that users have. These frequently asked questions tie up resources that could be used on other problems.

The tech support manager can see that his techs are answering the same small set of questions over and over, but the problem isn’t a support issue. Rather it’s a documentation issue: If users come up with the same problems consistently then chances are those issues aren’t addressed, or aren’t addressed adequately, in the user docs.

A technical writer can help free up the support department’s resources. The writer can work with the support techs and review their ticket tracker to identify the most common questions and learn how the techs usually address them. Then the writer can survey the existing user documentation, identify trouble spots, and create new content to help users get the help they need without a call to tech support.

Now your techs have more time to deal with the truly difficult problems. They can reduce escalation to more expensive support levels or even begin to develop a knowledge base to improve the support process overall.

The result is a more effective, more efficient technical support process.

The Case of The Unwary Salesperson

This is the first in a series of posts about how good documentation solves business problems.

It is not uncommon for sales teams to over-promise. Either because your salespeople don’t know the current feature set, or because they don’t recognize the limits of customization, they may sell your customers more than you can easily deliver.

The executive in charge of sales feels the pain in the form of lost sales and irate customers, when it turns out that what they’re getting is not what they thought they were buying. The Director of Engineering (hardware or software) feels the pain when he or she gets a brush fire in the form of a customization order for a client that simply can’t be left unsatisfied.

Both scenarios – lost sales and cost overruns for customization – hurt the company’s bottom line. Unhappy customers hurt your company’s reputation and reduce future revenue.

The solution is better documentation. Sales training materials can keep the sales team up to date on the latest feature set and when new features are expected to roll out. Reference cards can keep the information ready to hand on sales calls. A technical writer can bring the sales team and product development team together in ways that help keep everyone happy.

Silo Busting

Everyone knows that technical writers do documentation. If you need a user manual, marketing collateral, or a better website, you call a tech writer. However technical writers provide another service that is less well-understood or appreciated.

Every business with more than one person has organizational silos: business groups that compartmentalize functions and information. People often communicate fairly well within their silo, but communication is harder between silos. Different silos often have different jargons, ideas, and priorities.

This is an efficient model, most of the time, but it can lead to serious disconnects.

The technical writer is one of the few people on the project who has to understand almost every aspect of it. We can’t afford to take anything for granted, so we often ask questions that no one ever bothered to ask before.

Every technical writer has had this meeting:

Tech Writer: So how does this feature work?
Bob from Hardware: Well, it works like this….
Ted from Software: Wait a minute. It’s not like that at all!

Different silos sometimes have radically different views of a project, and may address the same problem in different ways. If these differences aren’t caught and reconciled, they may hang up the project at the most inopportune time, such as during rollout or worse, after the product is in users’ hands and tech support is giving them incorrect information.

The solution is to bring a technical writer on-board as early as possible. Simply by documenting the project, the writer acts as a filter to spot discrepancies between silos and bring them to the attention of people who can fix them early.

Scott’s Laws of Consulting

I’ve been doing this for a lot of years, and over time I’ve developed a few thoughts on consulting and on work in general. I’m using this post as a general place to list what I think of as Scott’s Laws of Consulting.

Scott’s First Law: Work is a means by which you convert your life into money. This is the most basic rule of the workplace, no matter what work you do. When you do a job, you are setting a value on your time, and your time is your life. This principle is the basis of all the others.

Scott’s Second Law: Your customer is the person who gives you money. Many people lose sight of this. Your customer is the person or organization whose interests you serve with your work. They may or may not be your friends, and that doesn’t matter. They are purchasing your efforts on their behalf, and ethically you are obliged to work for their benefit. People sometimes get confused, thinking that their customers are the people who use the goods they make, the food they serve, or the services they provide. Some contractors even treat their co-workers as customers. Those people are not your customers. Your customer is the person who gives you money.

Scott’s Third Law: Find a way to get paid for something you would do for free. This, in my opinion, is the best way to work. It’s why I do what I do. Writing and research are actively fun for me, and I know they aren’t for most people. So I find satisfaction in doing that work, and getting paid means that I don’t have to do something that I like less.

Environmental Complexities

Here’s a case of interlocking consequences that shows how complicated environmental policies can be.

California uses a LOT of water – a truly staggering amount, because of its size, population, and especially its agriculture. Three quarters of the water used in California goes to agriculture.

This water drain is causing extensive long-term damage to the aquifers in the Colorado River Basin. Our current drought, which has now run for over 10 years, has drained those aquifers alarmingly, and no one is sure how long it might take them to recharge.

The upshot is that large-scale water-intensive agriculture – the sort that supplies everything from Farmer’s Markets to Safeway – may not be sustainable in California. The policy of “buy local” may be a bad idea for now.

It’s too early to say for sure, but again, 75% of the water used in California goes to agriculture. If nothing else, that alone means that home water conservation can have only a small effect on the current situation.