Tag Archives: technical communication

STC Intercom – themes and advice wanted

I’m quite flattered and humbled (and more than a little bit intimidated) to serve as leader on the STC Intercom advisory panel for this coming editorial year. We’re five people from different backgrounds and perspectives, tasked with preparing 10 themes for issues by August 2008. We’ve got academia, consulting, work-aday, future thinkers, and the only gap in our panel would be someone with regulatory or government limitations, er, opportunities for their content (applications for the open position, or suggestions for contacts are welcome!)

At our first informal breakfast meeting, Ed Rutkowski, Tom Johnson, and I brainstormed themes and topics for articles. Here’s our starting long list that we’ll work from and add to – and please, feel free to add to it in the comments!

Ideas

  • Agile
  • Security (such as online identity and blending that with our user assistance systems to provide online community features)
  • Biographical or semi-celebrity feature articles, such as “how did I get to be JoAnn Hackos or Jared Spool or… fill in the blank”
  • Mobile and wireless effects on tech comm
  • Gadgets and devices (get nostalgic about the Selectric? and then move towards the gadgetry of today, hardware or software? Roll up keyboards?)
  • Outsourcing, crowdsourcing, friendsourcing
  • Eco-friendly or green themes, how do you save the planet as a tech writer?
  • Career planning
  • Location awareness – cultural sensitivity but also could be online help that knows where the reader is located geographically or awareness of where a cell or mobile phone is located
  • Messaging and brand awareness
  • Collaboration
  • Virtualization
  • Future forwards thinking, not just trends and trendsetting but really out there like flying cars kind of concepts
  • Alternatives to online help
  • Social networking
  • Usability for online help
  • Audience considerations, especially in industrial settings, high risk settings, regulated settings
  • Patterns – design patterns are used in object oriented programming but they started with architectural patterns (entry way is a solution to the problem of entering a building and a room and so on.)

I’ve also identified some areas of deficit where I’m not quite sure how to fill the void. One is, there are no Gen Nexters voices that I know of in STC yet, and I’d really like to change that somehow with STC Intercom. Gen Nexters are age 18-25, just starting out in our profession. Since now is the first time in history that four generations are in the workplace, I’m striving to find those tech writers who are just starting out but have a passion for their career choice. From what I’ve read, Generation Next is made up of 18-25 year-olds (born between 1981 and 1988). Generation X (that’s me!) was born between 1966 and 1980 and ranges in age from 26-40. The Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, ranges in age from 41-60. Finally, those over age 60 (born before 1946) are often called the Greatest Generation. Please, contact me if you are of Gen Next or could tell me of someone who I could talk with for input on our themes and perhaps contributing to an issue.

Advertisements

A recent graduate talks about her experiences getting a masters degree in technical communication

In my previous post, I interviewed Diane Fleming who had completed a graduate degree in technical writing later in her career. Today’s interview is with Melissa Burpo, who has completed the coursework and internship portions of the graduate program but still needs to write up her internship report (an equivalent assignment to a master’s thesis) before graduating. I was especially interested in the most current graduate’s perspective and Melissa graciously agreed to answer all these questions.

Melissa Burpo’s Interview

Anne: Could you give me a little bit of a bio – your employer, how long you’ve been there, what you do there?

Melissa: I work for Dovetail Software (www.dovetailsoftware.com), a CRM software vendor. Before I was hired as an intern in October 2006, Dovetail had never employed a writer of any sort, and I had never been employed as a fulltime technical writer. Because both the company and I are new to this whole “technical writer” thing, my job duties can be somewhat nebulous. Common tasks include rewriting, reorganizing, and redesigning legacy documents; writing end-user documentation for new functionality alongside a small agile development team; and lately, moving all of our scattered documents into AuthorIT, a single source content management system. I also occasionally handle marketing tasks, such as writing, designing, and voicing product demonstrations; designing product and company brochures; and producing graphics as needed for other marketing purposes.

Anne: First of all, tell me what your undergrad degree was in?
Melissa: Bachelor of Arts in Communication from Oglethorpe University, with a minor in Sociology

Anne: What led you to a graduate degree in tech comm?
Melissa: An undergraduate professor suggested that I look into tech comm after I finished my bachelor’s degree, but it took me three years to find my way to the MTSC program at Miami University. At first, I was turned off by the idea – I thought tech comm meant writing instruction manuals all day. Eventually I figured out that there was a very cool side to it as well – tech writers are constantly learning new things, exploring new technologies, and then figuring out how best to communicate that information to a user base. It seemed like a fun and innovative space to work in, so I decided to get the degree.

Anne: What other degree programs did you consider?
Melissa: I briefly looked at degrees in Professional Writing and Literary Nonfiction, but tech comm won out in the end.

Anne: What did you learn in the degree program?
Melissa: I learned how to practically apply technical writing theory to real-world problem solving contexts. Almost all of my school projects were for real clients in a variety of industries. For example, I collaboratively put together a website for a waste water group, wrote and designed a procedural reference card for nurses at a local hospital, and wrote a white paper about a local environmental issue for the university.

Anne: What do you wish others had told you about technical writing before you got a job in it?
Melissa: I wish someone had warned me that being a technical writer is just as much about building successful interpersonal relationships as it is about writing and designing good documents. Forging a good relationship with your SMEs is vital, because they are your information resource. Everything works a lot better if he or she is happily willing to share information.

Anne: What do you consider to be the “value” of the graduate degree – in monetary terms, employability terms, and general learning?
Melissa: I don’t see the value as the degree itself, but instead, I see the value as the experience I gained while in the program. The experience translates into a full portfolio, a well-rounded resume, and the ability to find and secure a good job.

Anne: Do you think the degree has paid for itself?
Melissa: Yes, absolutely.

Anne: How well has the education “aged,” meaning, are the subjects you studied still current for the field?
Melissa: So far, so good – of course, I’ve only been out of the program for a year : )

I do want to mention one thing, though. The technology I studied has already been replaced by new versions and new innovations. But that’s okay, because one of the greatest lessons I took away from my program is the ability to quickly learn new technology as needed.

Anne: Do you think that an undergraduate degree in tech comm offers the same results as a masters degree in tech comm?
Melissa: Yes. If the undergrad degree has a practically-based curriculum that prepares students for a professional career, then there shouldn’t be much of a difference. I needed the graduate program because my undergraduate degree was unfocused. It didn’t prepare me for a career.

Anne: If you hadn’t gotten the master’s in technical and scientific communication, speculate about what might be different for your career path and job prospects.
Melissa: In the one year since leaving the program, I’ve already completed two contract jobs and an internship, and I now work in a regular full time position. I don’t think any of this would have been as easy or possible without the experience I gained in my graduate program. If I hadn’t gotten my MTSC degree, I would probably still be struggling to establish myself as an employable, valuable professional.

Anne: What would you advise others who are thinking about pursuing graduate work in technical communication?
Melissa: When looking for a program, find one that gives you practical experience in the field. This will not only start you off with a great portfolio, but it will also give you the knowledge and confidence to move into a real job. Also, keep in mind that studying a specialty area is important. For example, if you want to work in the pharmaceutical industry, you’ll probably need to know something about human biology, drug chemistry, regulatory issues, etc. This should be reflected in your studies, whether it’s before, during, or after you enter the tech comm program.

Should I get a graduate degree in technical writing? Interviews with those who have

It’s no secret that I have a masters degree in technical and scientific communication from Miami University. With all the hype about Web 2.0, outsourcing, crowdsourcing, and social media like wikis, an interesting question that I get asked occasionally is, “should I get a graduate degree in technical writing?”

I’ve had quite a few interesting online discussions while seeking interviewees, and I’ll post two interviews this week, and then try to discuss all the complexities in answering this question in a third post.

I emailed questions to two current technical writers in the Austin area who have masters degrees in technical writing. This first post is an interview with Diane Fleming, a Senior Technical Writer at NetQoS. The second interview is with Melissa Burpo, a not-quite-graduated degree candidate who’s working as the only technical writer at DoveTail Software.

Diane Fleming’s Interview

Anne: Could you give me a little bit of a bio – who is your employer, how long you’ve been there, what you do there?
Diane: I currently work as a Senior Technical Writer at NetQoS. I provide all documentation for SuperAgent, an end-to-end performance monitoring tool. Because the Training and Technical Writing departments are combined at NetQoS, I provide product docs (pdfs and online Help) and curriculum for customer training.

Anne: First of all, tell me what your undergrad degree was in?
Diane: It’s a BA in English from SUNY Buffalo.

Anne: What led you to a graduate degree in tech comm?
Diane: I had never heard of technical writing as a profession (this was in the late seventies), but a graduate of RPI’s technical communications department offered a one-night seminar at a local college entitled, “A Career in Technical Writing.” After taking the seminar, I discovered that a high school friend of mine had also graduated from RPI, so I started exploring their degree program. At the time, I was working at the Poughkeepsie Journal and they had a very open tuition reimbursement program. They agreed to pay for my degree at RPI, though it required that I work full-time and commute to Albany to complete the degree (a two-hour commute in each direction).
But I couldn’t pass up the free tuition.

Anne: What other degree programs did you consider?
Diane: None, though later I began work on an M.S. in computer science (which I never completed).

Anne: What did you learn in the degree program?
Diane: I don’t remember the exact titles of the classes, but we learned writing and editing, project management, and computer programming. One of the classes required that we work as a team to produce a piece of documentation, which unfortunately required an extra weekly commute to Albany for me. We also took a communications
class, which entailed a general review of communication theory.

Anne: What do you wish others had told you about technical writing
before you got a job in it?
Diane: I’m not sure anyone could have told me, but I always regretted not pursuing computer programming in lieu of writing because of the greater respect programmers garner – tech writers have to constantly remind others of their value. Sometimes it seems like a losing battle. With offshoring, the message seems to be, if you can speak English, even minimally, then you can be a tech writer!

Anne: What do you consider to be the “value” of the graduate degree — in monetary terms, employability terms, and general learning?
Diane: My degree opened a lot of doors for jobs I’d otherwise be overlooked for. I’ve managed to stay employed as a tech writer since 1988, and I’ve been paid well.

Anne: Do you think the degree has paid for itself?
Diane: Absolutely! Especially since my employer paid for the degree. Even if I had paid for it, the degree was worth its cost. It’s enabled me to put two sons through college and to support my family.

Anne: How well has the education “aged,” meaning, are the subjects you studied still current for the field?
Diane: The skills that have aged well are writing, editing, and project management. But as technology changes, my skills degrade. New programming languages, wikis, agile development, blogging, browser-based interfaces, so on and so forth – all these innovations require that I keep learning new things to stay current.

Anne: Do you think that an undergraduate degree in tech comm offers the same results as a masters degree in tech comm?
Diane: Probably. When I got my M.S. degree, lots of teachers were retraining to become technical writers. In fact, the original program at RPI was geared toward teachers. RPI ran summertime institutes so that teachers could retrain during their time off. The masters degree enabled people in other professions to retrain in a couple of years. But for someone coming right out of high school, an undergraduate degree should suffice.

Anne: If you hadn’t gotten the master’s in technical and scientific communication, speculate about what might be different for your career path and job prospects.
Diane: I doubt I would’ve become a tech writer – I’d tried to “break into” IBM for many years – it was the major employer where I lived, even minimally, then you can be a tech writer!

Anne: What do you consider to be the “value” of the graduate degree – in monetary terms, employability terms, and general learning?
Diane: My degree opened a lot of doors for jobs I’d otherwise be overlooked for. I’ve managed to stay employed as a tech writer since 1988, and I’ve been paid well.

Anne: Do you think the degree has paid for itself?
Diane: Absolutely! Especially since my employer paid for the degree. Even if I had paid for it, the degree was worth its cost. It’s enabled me to put two sons through college and to support my family.

Anne: How well has the education “aged,” meaning, are the subjects you studied still current for the field?
Diane: The skills that have aged well are writing, editing, and project management. But as technology changes, my skills degrade. New programming languages, wikis, agile development, blogging, browser-based interfaces, so on and so forth – all these innovations require that I keep learning new things to stay current.

Anne: Do you think that an undergraduate degree in tech comm offers the same results as a masters degree in tech comm?
Diane: Probably. When I got my M.S. degree, lots of teachers were retraining to become technical writers. In fact, the original program at RPI was geared toward teachers. RPI ran summertime institutes so that teachers could retrain during their time off. The masters degree enabled people in other professions to retrain in a couple of years.
But for someone coming right out of high school, an undergraduate degree should suffice.

Anne: If you hadn’t gotten the master’s in technical communication, speculate about what might be different for your career path and job prospects.
Diane but at the time, I was told that women were secretaries and that was that. I had worked as a temp secretary at IBM, even with an English degree. It wasn’t until I received my masters degree that someone would interview me for a tech writing job at IBM. I might’ve eventually pursued a computer science masters degree in order to become a programmer. But if I hadn’t done that, maybe I’d still be at the Poughkeepsie Journal doing graphic design for retail ads.

Anne: What would you advise others who are thinking about pursuing graduate work in technical communication?
Diane: Check out certificate programs first – RPI offers a HCI certificate (human-computer interaction), which might help you find work as a tech writer. Also look into current technologies – are companies using wikis? What kind of technical information do you want to document? If you’re interesting in writing about programming interfaces, you might get an M.S. in computer science to complement an English degree – this might be of more value in the long-run in terms of pay scale and promotability. Also look into distance learning – schools offer low-residency programs in technical writing, which enable you to keep working and pursue your degree at the same time. Also look for a program that’s tied into a particular industry. RPI was associated with IBM, which really enhanced their program. I think more academic programs are less useful. If the program seems to focus on a lot of theory, it’s probably not going to help you be a good tech writer, though it might help you teach. Also, see if you can talk to a tech writing manager at a local company and ask them what they recommend to become a tech writer.

Best practices in technical communication for customer feedback

Many technical writers pride themselves in being customer advocates. What are some best practices for connecting with customers?

For another part of an informal series about best practices in technical publications, I want to discuss customer interaction with writers and getting customer feedback about your technical documentation. How can technical writers ensure they are making the right customer connections to best help a company succeed? A few of the best practices listed in the “Tech writers as sales reps?” that the panel referred to for our Austin STC Meeting in October 2005 that are related to customer interaction are:

#7: Encourage technical writers to meet customers.
#8: Use customer advisory boards to get feedback on documentation.

Q: Customer interaction – let’s discuss the constraints on really making this happen. How have you made it happen?

A: These managers had done a lot of things to get customer feedback, from customer surveys to online feedback forms embedded in the online help. Bill Hunter guest-blogged about online feedback forms previously .

All the manager panelists liked the concept of a customer advisory board, citing that as a great best practice. Also scheduling your writers to have lunch with customers when they’re on site for training is a great idea.

One manager said from her experience that she finally understood why it wasn’t always a good idea to have writers talking directly to customers, due to the issues that a writer may not be able to resolve to the customer’s satisfaction because the politics are out of their realm of expertise or influence. Also, our curious nature might lead us to ask questions about our own tools that might not have the best answer, leading to awkward, shoe-shuffling moments. So, in this manager’s perspective, she felt that writers should not meet directly with customers unless they are trained on how to work with customers and guide discussions so that you answer questions correctly or help with things that are fixable (and realize not all perceptions can be fixed). If you’ve worked in IT for any amount of time, you know about these perceptions and what can and can’t be fixed.

Getting customer feedback can be a best practice to put into place, but you may not always get an immediate positive result. You have to ensure that your doc team can succeed by setting expectations for the requests to avoid unrealistic requests based on time or resources available. Still, any time spent with customers helps us take a walk in their shoes and should offer both participants valuable insight into the other’s position.

This post continues the series about best practices in technical communication where I blogged about:

Questioning technical publications best practices

Best practices in tech comm for fit in the organization

How to implement a document or records management system that meets ISO standards