Sunday, January 3, 2010

Facilitation, or What I really do

I've worked for clients who've brought me in as a technical writer and expected me to figure out what needed to be written; I've also worked for clients who brought me in, assigned me a "tech guy" and expected me to figure out what needed to be written. Both assignments are based on the idea that I was hired because I "write well." It's hard to explain to my clients that both of those arrangements create the wrong team for the job.

I mentioned Joe Boyd in an earlier post (he's sort of a personal hero) in reference to using the OODA loop. A different part of Boyd's career provides a shining example of what the "right" team for a tech writing assignment is.

In the early 60s Boyd was a member of an group called the "Fighter Mafia" who had tremendous influence on the development of the F-15 (Eagle), F-16 (Falcon, informally called the Viper), and F/A-18 (Hornet--Navy/Marine) fighters. That influence grew out of Boyd's Energy-Maneuverability (EM) theory which provided a way of describing and comparing the performance of fighter aircraft in mathematical terms. Fundamentally, the theory took a limited number of features of an aircraft (weight, the difference between thrust and drag) and generated the "power" of the aircraft at any velocity. Aircraft with lower weights, higher thrust, and lower drag would have higher power ratings at any velocity than heavier aircraft with lower thrust or higher drag.
To put it another way: The highest performing fighter plane would consist of a pilot strapped to an engine: low weight, high thrust, low drag (as long as the pilot didn't sit up, at any rate). Not surprisingly, the program that the Mafia participated in (and that resulted in the production of the three fighter planes listed earlier) was called the "Lightweight Fighter Program."

I do have a point and I am getting to it.

At the start of the development process for the fighter that became the F-15, the USAF had been concentrating on creating interceptors--fast climb or fast flight aircraft--to take out nuclear bombers. The replacement of nuclear bombers with ICBMS devalued interceptors. The USAF had also been looking at engagements where fighter pilots might never actually see the enemy and only engage at long range with missiles. However, the feedback from the Vietnam war indicated that close range fighting was still the primary form of air combat. Coupled with the move away from interceptors, this meant that the ability to dogfight become more important than speed, ability to gain altitude, long range firepower or even targeting enemy aircraft at a distance.  

For dogfighting, what the pilots wanted was faster transients: The ability to change speed, altitude, and direction quickly. With the EM theory, Boyd (working with the mathematician Thomas Christie) came up with a way to express those desire in a way that was meaningful for the engineers designing planes. Boyd and Christie established a way for the engineers designing planes and the pilots who would be flying those planes to communicate.

Effectively, Boyd and Christie (a fighter pilot and a mathematician) found a way to describe what pilots wanted and do it in terms of gaining and losing energy (which is what engineers understood). Pilots could predict, based on the entry speed and altitude that an enemy aircraft was at when entering a maneuver, what the aircraft's speed and altitude would be on exiting the maneuver. If the pilot could transient horizontally (low drag) and vertically (high thrust to weight) faster than the enemy then the pilot would be able to out maneuver the enemy and  "get inside" the enemy's OODA loop. Eventually, the enemy pilot would find that nothing they could do would improve their position.

Don't give up on me: I've finally gotten to my point.

As much as I respect Joe Boyd, it's doubtful that he could have derived the math in the EM formula without Christie (it's also likely that he couldn't have proved the math without massive amount of computer time that he used without authorization). It was the combination of a practicing subject matter expert (Boyd) and a technical expert (Christie) that made the change possible. It was the result of two people from different fields creating a common form of communication that resulted in dramatic changes in the USAF.

As a technical writer, this is also my job: To facilitate a means of communication between the tech guys (subject matter experts) and the audience (customers/users). My expertise is in finding a way for these two groups to talk to each other--not to "write well" (though I do that pretty good, too). Because of my experience in software I can, on occasion, dispense with the tech expert and count on my ability to interview the experts as the mechanism for getting the technical information.

What I can't do without is having one or more members on the team who will actually be using the results of my work: end users. And, strangely enough, end users are often the hardest people to get assigned to the team. "Oh, you don't need them," my clients say, "They don't know anything. They haven't even touched the product yet." What my clients don't realize is that we need these members of the audience because of what I don't know: the world of the reader. While my clients are often likely to elevate a "tech guy" to the role of technical writer they'd be far better off to elevate an end user to the job: the end user is more likely to find a way to communicate with the tech guy than vice versa.

And, by the way, Joe Boyd wrote the first manual on jet fighter combat, so he was a technical writer, also.

For a great book on Boyd's contribution to military strategy see Science, Strategy, and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd.

Reading or read

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

J-14 stealth fighter air-to-air missiles:

J-14 stealth fighter air-to-air missiles: