May 2, 2006

Stacks of reading material

Kathy Sierra at the Creating Passionate Users blog offers several tips on how to manage "information anxiety" in "The Myth of Keeping Up."

Before getting to the tips, she explains that it is impossible to keep up with information in the way we'd like, offering an example of how even the Sun Java engineer can't be familiar with everything in the API's standard library of 3500 classes. She mentions that technical writers may be part of the problem, in how they write exhaustive manuals and don't provide a system to wieght the relevance of the information.

As an avid participant in support forums for media professionals, I see the expression "Read The Fucking Manual" (RTFM) employed quite a bit. It's a reasonable complaint directed at people who post simple questions that could be answered by a few minutes of searching. But it's often used in a way that irks me; usually by angry old-timers who hate it when new blood are getting paid to work without even a 10th of the experienced professional's expertise.

Yet despite the inappropriate anger, I tended to agree with the sentiment. "RTFM" is a basically sensible idea, right? Surely it's reasonable to expect a professional to at least read the entire manual for a software product they're using to make a living?

But while reading Kathy's article, I realized that the "RTFM" attitude is archaic and unreasonable. It's not only entirely possible and reasonable for a video editor to work successfully without reading the manual, it's an acceptable norm. The editor stands no chance of being completely familiar with the existing manual, let alone exhaustively keeping up with new and related info that's emerging all the time.

It's a paradigm shift. The effective modern media professional is adept at acquiring information; she is proficient at learning quickly. She may not know, off the top of her head, how to constrain movement of the bezier handles in the After Effects speed graph, but she knows how to figure it out quickly. As an employer, that's the person I want to hire. Someone claiming to know it all is clearly lying or doesn't know enough to know that he doesn't know everything.

(With the possible exception of Chris and Trish Meyer or Adam Wilt, of course)


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