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28 Years: Lindbergh to Armstrong

Time is shorter than what it used to be, and we need to adopt strategies to adapt.

By Tony Self

Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the Moon, was born just twenty-eight years after Charles Lindbergh, who was the first person to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean. In just one human generation, technology had progressed from fabric covered craft with a speed of 130 mph and a range of 4,000 miles to a liquid oxygen powered rocketship that travelled at speeds of up to 25,000 mph on a trip that covered 500,000 miles.

Technological change is not new, but the pace of change in some fields is breathtaking. Battery technology is one example, and photo-voltaics is another. And of course, technology associated with reading is experiencing a dramatic rate of change.

How do people cope with rapid change in their fields? Neil Armstrong learned to fly in 1945, when the sound barrier was considered to be an impenetrable barrier. By the time of his first posting as a US Navy pilot in 1950, the sound barrier had been broken, and the first jet fighter squadrons had been formed. In 1957, Armstrong flew a rocket-powered aircraft for the first time, and by 1960, had flown at close to 4,000 mph (six times the speed of sound) to heights of 120,000 feet. Armstrong managed this transition as a pilot by continually learning. Over 10 years, he progressed from subsonic jets, to transonic jets, to supersonic jets, to rocket aircraft. Each step was relatively small, but overall it was a giant leap (to quote a phrase Armstrong later used when he stepped from Apollo 11).

We can apply the same approach in technical communication. The change from typewriters in 1980 to laser printers in 1990, from text only Web browsers in 1993 to the embedded movies in 2003, or from HTML in 2003 to XML in 2013, are big leaps in themselves, but are made up of small steps. Moving from typewriters to augmented reality is a monumental task. But as they say, to eat an elephant, you take one bite at a time.

The Apollo 11 story can provide another lesson for technical communicators. As the name implies, Armstrong's Apollo 11 mission was the eleventh in a program of 20 missions. The program objective was landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. Each mission was part of a broad strategy... part of a far-sighted plan. Big projects only reach their goals if they come with a comprehensive plan. Like many projects, there can be hurdles and disasters. The Apollo 1 spacecraft exploded on the launch pad, killing the three astronauts. The next three missions were unmanned flights to test systems. Each mission validated a different system. The unmanned Apollo 5 orbited the earth. Apollo 6 tested the Saturn V propulsion. Apollo 7 was a manned orbit. Apollo 8 circumnavigated the moon. Apollo 9 tested the lunar module, and 10 was a dress rehearsal. In documentation, this might be called iterative development. Unit testing is another IT term that might apply.

For large documentation or training projects, an Apollo approach is a good model. Meticulously plan, set achievable budgets and deadlines, clearly state business goals, develop a content strategy, create prototypes and proof-of-concepts, test and choose the right tools, keep training and encouraging your team, continually check progress against the plan, and think big. Looking back, you'll see how those small steps became a giant leap.

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Originally published...

This article was originally published in the IconLogic I Came, I Saw, I Learned blog and newsletter in August 2014.