28 Years: Lindbergh to Armstrong
Time is shorter than what it used to be, and we need to adopt strategies to
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.