Archive for November, 2008

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Making a business case

November 30, 2008

On various technical writing discussion lists, some regular complaints from poster include ‘my computer is slow and the company won’t pay for an upgrade’ or ‘I need some software/training/conference fee, but they say I can’t have it as it costs too much’. Typically, the real issue is that the person is complaining to their manager about how *they feel*, but they’re not getting the response they want. What the manager is hearing is ‘poor me, poor me—look at how bad I’ve got it.’ What the manager needs to hear is how spending X dollars is going to improve the bottom line for the *company*. They can’t justify (to their boss) spending dollars just to stop you complaining.

What does this mean to you? Well, for starters turn your complaint/issue into a business case. Prove to your manager that not having X, Y, or Z is costing the company money and that it’s cheaper for them to get it for you and make you more productive as that will mean the company is getting better value for the dollars they do spend. It means you have to do some research and you may need to gather some raw figures on what the cost is of you NOT having the thing you want. If you can make a good business case, you’ll save your manager some time as he or she can see straight away whether the ‘return on investment’ (ROI) is justified for the expense. You need to complain in terms ‘they’ understand—and that’s money!

Not with me so far? Let me give you an example from a few years ago…

I was running on 256 MB RAM (the developers were all on 1 GB) and it was a frustrating as hell trying to have multiple apps open. Word kept crashing, I had to keep rebooting etc. At the time, extra 128 MB RAM cards were around $100 each (yes, it seems a lot now, but it was cheap at the time…).

So I did my sums, then did them with my boss on his whiteboard. I had the RAM upgrade the next day— after some 6+ months of complaining and asking and begging. Here’s how it worked:

  1. I lose 15 mins per day (MINIMUM) rebooting my computer when Word crashes because I have to have Word + graphics app + Outlook + authoring tool + (app) + (app) open at the same time to do my work.
  2. I work three days a week for you, so the MINIMUM combined time cost per week is at least 45 mins; per month it’s 180 mins (45 x 4); per year it’s 1980 mins (180 x 11 months)
  3. I’ve been working for you for 3 years, so I’ve lost at least 5940 mins (1980 x 3) in productive time. That’s 99 hours (5940 / 60). Let’s round it up to 100 because I said this was the MINIMUM – it’s probably more.
  4. My hourly rate is $50 (for the purposes of the exercise I used $50/hour, though this technique still works well at $20/hour and much better at $100/hour!).
  5. Therefore it has already cost you $5000 to pay me for waiting for my computer to reboot, reopen Word and the other apps etc.
  6. Assuming I work for you for another 3 years at 3 days a week, expect it to cost at least that again. That makes it $10,000.
  7. 128 MB of RAM is $100; another 256 is $200.
  8. Can I please have some more RAM?

Substitute your own values for mine and I think you’ll have a compelling argument. For example:

  1. I lose 15 mins per day (MINIMUM) rebooting my computer when Word crashes because I have to have Word + graphics app + Outlook + authoring tool + (app) + (app) open at the same time to do my work.
  2. I work five days a week for you, so the MINIMUM combined time cost per week is at least 75 mins; per month it’s 300 mins (75 x 4); per year it’s 3450 mins (180 x 11.5 months)
  3. I’ve been working for you for 3 years, so I’ve lost at least 10350 mins (3450 x 3) in productive time. That’s 172.5 hours. Let’s round it up to 175 because I said this was the MINIMUM – it’s probably more.
  4. Based on my salary ($60K), I worked out that my hourly rate is $30.
  5. Therefore it has already cost you $5250 (175 hours x $30) to pay me for waiting for my computer to reboot, re-open Word and the other apps etc.
  6. Assuming I work for you for another 3 years, expect it to cost at least that again. That makes it $10,500.
  7. 1 GB of RAM is $100.
  8. Can I please have some more RAM?

You could use this sort of argument for an extra monitor etc.

It’s very simplistic, but it does put your complaint into monetary terms, and that makes it really easy for your manager to make a decision—and to justify that decision to their manager.

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Word: Automating your work with AutoText

November 29, 2008

One of Word’s most useful features is text automation. In this article, I’ll look at AutoText and some of the ways you can use it to save yourself lots of time when writing documents that have a lot of repetitive text, images, or tables.

Microsoft Word has some in-built AutoText entries, but the real value comes in creating your own. Let’s say you work for VeryBig Corporation, Inc., and you are responsible for creating a lot of documents that include the company’s name.

Notice that this company name has title capitals (as most do) as well as a capital B in the first word, and that it also has a comma after the name and a period after the Inc. Every time you type the name you have to type around 25 characters, as well as remember to press the Shift key four times to get the capitals correct.

How would you like to just press two or three keys, and get the company name correctly typed, in full, EVERY TIME? Interested? Let’s go…

Creating an AutoText entry

Word 2003

  1. Type the words, in full, with correct punctuation and case anywhere in a Word document. In the example, you would type VeryBig Corporation, Inc.
  2. Select all the words for the AutoText entry.
  3. Select Insert > AutoText > New from the menu. (Note: New is only available if you have selected some text.)
  4. In the Create AutoText window, type one or two letters to represent this AutoText entry, then click OK. In this example, you would type vbc.

The AutoText entry is now created and is ready to be inserted.

Word 2007

  1. Type the words, in full, with correct punctuation and case anywhere in a Word document. In the example, you would type VeryBig Corporation, Inc.
  2. Select all the words for the AutoText entry.
  3. Go to the Insert tab, then select Quick Parts > Save Selection to Quick Part Gallery.
  4. In the Create New Building Block window, type one or two letters to represent this AutoText entry in the Name field, select AutoText from the Gallery list, paste the text you selected at step 2 into the Description field, then click OK. In this example, you would type vbc in the Name field.

The AutoText entry is now created and is ready to be inserted.

Inserting an AutoText entry

This process is the same for Word 2003 and Word 2007.

  1. Type the AutoText entry code (for example, vbc) where you want to insert the full details.
  2. Press F3. Like magic, the words you originally typed are inserted into your document.

AutoText works wonderfully well with single words and phrases. But don’t stop there—you can also use it for entire paragraphs, images (such as logos), and tables formatted just the way you want. In fact, AutoText can be used for almost anything you can select in Word, and should be used for anything you do repetitively in Word.

[This article was first published in the December 2002 CyberText Newsletter; steps updated for Word 2003 in January 2008 and rechecked and updated for Word 2007 in September 2008]

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Acrobat: Capture web pages

November 28, 2008

Here’s how to capture web pages and save them as PDF documents to read offline or to distribute to others. As with all new techniques, experiment first.

Example use: A client’s software product had received a great review in a online magazine. They knew that the review would not be “up” forever, so I created a PDF of the web page that they could distribute to their potential customers. I kept the headers and footers so that the potential customers could see where the review had come from.

Notes:

  • If you are capturing pages from a website or a directory that is not on your own computer, then you must be connected to the internet or your network.
  • You must have the full version of Adobe Acrobat—you cannot do this with the Reader.

This web page capture function has been available in Acrobat since v4.x; the instructions below are for version 6.x—steps in other versions should be similar.

  1. Open Acrobat, then select File > Create PDF > From Web Page from the menu to open the Create PDF from Web Page window.
  2. In the URL field, type the web address or click Browse to search for a local HTML file.
  3. Select your Settings options for downloading the web pages. Be careful—if you don’t know how the web site is structured, there could be hundreds, even thousands, of pages! By default, Get only [x] levels is set to 1. This means you only get pages at the same level as the one you specified in the URL. DO NOT select Get Entire Site unless you know the site intimately.
  4. Click the Settings button.
  5. On the General tab, select HTML, then click Settings.
  6. Use the options on the General and Fonts and encoding tabs to tell Acrobat how to display the web page content. Click OK when you’re finished.
  7. On the Page Layout tab, set the page size and margins.
  8. Go back to the General tab and select some or all check boxes in the PDF Settings section. Click OK to return to the Create PDF from Web Page window.
  9. Click Create. Acrobat finds the web page(s), downloads them, and creates the PDF document.
  10. Check the document. If you don’t like the fonts or page layout, then close the file without saving and repeat the steps above. Note: If you click on a hyperlink for a web page that wasn’t downloaded, Acrobat will automatically download that page and add it to the end of the document—that includes links to external sites.
  11. When you’re satisfied with the PDF you’ve created, save it.
  12. You can now use the normal functions of Acrobat to add your own pages, delete unwanted pages, create bookmarks, and so on.

[This article was first published in the March 2002 CyberText Newsletter; steps last checked January 2008]

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Amazon’s Black Friday Sale!

November 28, 2008

For some amazing Amazon deals, check out Amazon’s Black Friday Sale—it’s only on for a VERY short time (Friday 28 November 2008 in the US)

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Money Strategy #10: Manage Surplus Funds

November 27, 2008

This article is part of a series of eleven short articles on managing money. It is aimed at freelancers and independent contractors. Before you read this article, make sure you have read the disclaimers etc. in the introductory article about my money management rules.

Strategy #10: Manage any surplus funds

If you have few expenses, steady clients (and thus a steady income stream), or an income stream that has some very high peaks, you should be in the position of having surplus funds in the bank account. This is a good thing.

Make sure you set aside any money required for expected expenses such as taxes, insurance premiums, known bills, replacement of equipment, a three-month salary buffer, and the like.

In Australia, company tax is calculated on the profit you’ve made for the financial year, taking into account any taxes already paid (such as the GST) and remitted to the tax office. If you haven’t made a profit, then you shouldn’t get a tax bill. But you’re not in business to make a loss—the whole point of business is to make a profit (see Rule #1). So, if you’re in a position of profit, how can you reduce the profit on which you’ll be taxed?

In the profession of technical communication, there aren’t a lot of deductible expenses if you’re working from home or from the client’s site. Obviously your salary, equipment, software, insurances, internet connection, phone etc. are deductible, but you may still be making a tidy profit. Well, you could pay yourself more, but then you could push yourself into a higher income tax bracket (Australian company tax is 30% but personal income tax may be more).

One option if you don’t need the extra income for yourself right now or in the foreseeable future is to is to ‘salary sacrifice’ into your retirement fund (called Superannuation or Super in Australia). Contributions to Super are taxed at 15% and you’re building up your retirement nest egg. This is not the required Superannuation Guarantee Levy; rather, an extra pre-tax drop into Super. If you’re getting close to retirement age, this could be an effective strategy for legally reducing tax all round — your personal income is less, thus keeping you out of a higher tax bracket; your company profit is less, thus reducing the amount you have to pay in tax; and you get the benefit of the lower tax break in Super as well as putting money away in a compounding interest environment. [Note: This article was written before the Global Financial Crisis of 2008/2009.]

What you do with surplus funds is up to you, but your age, future plans and the like will have an impact on your decision. I strongly recommend that you seek advice from your accountant in the first instance (see Strategy #1). They should understand the implications of using business funds to invest, or can refer you to someone who does.

Strategies

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Money Strategy #9: Billing Method

November 26, 2008

This article is part of a series of eleven short articles on managing money. It is aimed at freelancers and independent contractors. Before you read this article, make sure you have read the disclaimers etc. in the introductory article about my money management rules.

Strategy #9: Decide on a billing method

As a freelancer, there are two main ways to bill clients for work done:

  • by the project, or
  • by the hour.

Most of the companies I work with want me available to do whatever they throw my way that’s within my skills and available time. As a result, everything I do is by the hour. If I had to quote by the project, I’d spend much of my day updating quotes, chasing up sign-offs for scope changes etc.

To keep the accounting easy, my hourly rate for a client is the same no matter what sort of work I’m doing for them; for example, creating a website, editing a newsletter, writing an installation guide.

Periodically, I increase my rate for new clients though existing clients tend to remain on their original rate for some time.

I log my time in 15 minute blocks and provide the client with a detailed invoice that shows how long I spent on a task. Detailed invoices reduce the likelihood of a dispute over an invoice.

Here’s an example of a detailed invoice:

Strategies

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Ah! The fame!

November 25, 2008

I received an email from Guy Kawasaki‘s team the other day telling me that this blog has made it into the Alltop directory for Technical Writing. Woohoo! I even get a little badge to put on the sidebar saying that this is one of the ‘best of the best’ blogs in that category.

I have no idea how I got on this list, but their ‘About‘ page tells me a bit about the process.