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Hockey and the art of technical communication

By Geoff Hart

Previously published, in different form, as: Hart, G.J. 2001. NHL and the art of technical communication. Intercom December:44.

We Canadians often define ourselves fairly simply: “We’re not Americans.” When pressed to explain just what the heck we mean, most of us begin muttering about being kinder and gentler than Americans—not to mention more polite—and change the subject. But there are important distinctions. For example, Canadians live and breathe hockey, whereas Americans worship at the alter of football. To be fair, this simplifies the fine points of reality—I know Canadians who love football, and hockey has become increasingly American. But who wants to be fair when a little harmless overgeneralization lets me tweak my many friends south of the border? For the sake of argument, let's say that the line between football fans and hockey fans is as finely delineated as the U.S.–Canada border.

Consider the insights this generalization provides into how our minds operate. As a recovering scientist, and thus licensed to pronounce upon things I don’t fully understand, I offer for your consideration what I call the National Football League–National Hockey League (NFL–NHL) syndrome: Both leagues, like a Jungian collective unconscious, strongly influence the way their fans, including technical writers, behave.NFL football separates the offensive and defensive roles, both macroscopically (teams take turns in offensive and defensive roles) and microscopically (teams have separate offensive and defensive squads). The implicit schizophrenia of this approach becomes explicit in the behavior of NFL-style technical writers, who go on the offensive trying to make points against subject matter experts (SMEs) until the product ships, then retreat into a defensive posture until the next release. (“They never told me about that feature!”)In contrast, NHL-style writers adopt a continuously flexible approach: Hockey players assume nominal roles such as “defenseman” or “forward”, but players can switch between offensive and defensive play at any moment, as the situation demands, keeping the other team off balance. The advantages of never letting SMEs or managers know where you’re coming from should be obvious to seasoned writers.

NFL football also uses a limited and clearly defined “playbook” controlled by a coach (football’s equivalent of the product manager) that's full of cookbook recipes to apply in specific situations. In the absence of a clear game plan (the NFL equivalent of a design document), coaches apply these recipes on the basis of subjective whims, just as product managers often manage seemingly at random. In contrast, hockey players are self-directed and modify their approach on the fly; rapidly changing circumstances on the ice don't allow time to wait for a coach’s instructions. Coping with constantly changing software specifications would seem to demand an NHL-style approach.

Although football’s clear rules of conduct nominally constrain overt violence, the facts tell a different story: 5-year NFL careers are the rule, not the exception, and, as in documentation reviews, formal rules mask a brutal, dog-eat-dog world in which violent assaults and crippling professional injuries are a fact of life. In contrast, hockey players make no bones about the sport’s legendary violence, yet many routinely continue playing for more than a decade. How? By invoking the legendary and not entirely apocryphal Canadian politeness, thereby reducing the frequency and severity of truly violent behavior. One can only marvel at the potential impact of incorporating such courtesy in software development.

Finally, consider communication, a crucial component of any team sport. Football players master a complex jargon: the signs coaches use to tell the quarterback what play to call and the shouts quarterbacks use to direct players in executing those plays. As in writing, the proprietary jargon varies among teams, but football players and their writer counterparts suffer a serious handicap in the modern, increasingly global world: Because non-American NFLers are rare, communication occurs in English, irrespective of the signs and shouts that convey the information. In contrast, hockey is an inherently polyglot game: The English versus French linguistic divide that characterized the early sport evolved as the league expanded, and communication now takes on Russian, Swedish, Finnish, and Czech overtones; most players even speak American. NHL-style writers, inherently global in their thought patterns, obviously communicate better in the modern environment.

If STC would fund an appropriately intensive study of the NHL, I have no doubt we could inspire dramatic changes in technical communication; the contrasts between the NFL and NHL approaches have profound consequences for our work. At the risk of abandoning my archetypal Canadian humility, I suggest myself as the ideal study leader, so long as my knees hold out. (My great uncle retired from the old-timers’ hockey league in his mid-seventies, so I've got the genes—I’ll still be playing at the end of the decade the study would take to complete.) [A look back from 2005: Yup, still playing.—GH] In the meantime, I urge my colleagues to remember the virtues of hockey: flexibility, self-direction, judicious violence, and good communication.


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