Pay no GREAT attention to that man behind the curtain

Alan Pringle / Opinion3 Comments

Every department has its resident tech wizard: the maintainer of the templates, the DITA Open Toolkit, the wiki, and so on. What happens when that wizard flies off to a new kingdom?

Companies have preparedness plans for natural disasters, and they should have one for important personnel, too: the departure of a key technical resource can be debilitating.

To ensure your department doesn’t experience complete brain drain when the techie leaves, here are two things you can do:

  • Choose another technically savvy employee as a second resource.  If you are implementing a new publishing process, have the primary system maintainer and another employee attend the training on the new system. When the maintainer makes changes, the backup should either observe or even help with the modifications. Managers need to account for the time and money it will take for the backup to be involved in training and process modifications. If the backup isn’t involved in training or maintenance, you have a backup in name only—and that’s not too helpful to the department (or fair to the second-line resource). Also, designating a backup doesn’t mean waiting until your tech expert leaves and then telling someone, “You’re it!”
  • Document your system. Most of the folks reading this blog entry are somehow involved in creating content. We know how to explain things with the written word. Apply those skills and create internal user guides, readme files, wiki entries, code comments, or whatever to document your processes and tools. When changes are made, update the content accordingly. Don’t dismiss the documentation of internal systems as overhead “you’ll get to later.” Later will be too late. Guaranteed.

I know these suggestions are commonsensical. However, common sense is often the first casualty in the heat of implementing a new process—or when you’re reeling from the announcement that your primary technical staffer is leaving.

Thinking about the departure of your technical resource before that happens and implementing a backup strategy is essential. At some point, you will need to replace the (wo)man behind the curtain.*

Leave your own departure-preparedness suggestions in the comments below.


* Hat-tip to Leigh White, who left the phrase “(wo)man behind the curtain” in a comment on an earlier post.

About the Author

Alan Pringle


Content strategy consulting. Publishing (electronic and print). Eating (preferably pastries and chocolate). COO at Scriptorium.

3 Comments on “Pay no GREAT attention to that man behind the curtain”

  1. Great advice. I especially appreciate this statement: “I know these suggestions are commonsensical. However, common sense is often the first casualty in the heat of implementing a new process.” It’s so true. People often make fun of me for crazy note-taking and an abundant source of follow-up documents, but it never hurts to have more information available than you think you need. My husband’s a programmer and we talk often about how he wishes some of his colleagues would comment their code!

  2. Yes, great advice. I find myself in exactly the same predicament: the writer who set up DocBook in our company is on maternity leave, and I, as her backup, know very little about the DocBook XSL. I now pray during every build that everything goes fine – if it does not, my only help is a 500-page DocBook manual on my desk.

    And yes, of course doumentation is the last place people want to spend money and time on. The system is not documented – intentionally so, I believe – and I am a poor designated back-up (“You’re it!”).

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