Benefits of the Technical Communication Graduate Certificate

Upon graduation, each student leaves the department with a personal portfolio of work completed during their time at TECC program. This portfolio is a proof of practical and academic skills to show off to future potential employers. Many companies and organizations need technical communicators to be successful.

Some of the many things that technical communicators do include developing and designing web sites, explaining science and technology to the public, developing print and multi media materials, developing information management systems, designing and delivering corporate training, designing curriculum, produce documentations and deliverables and developing support systems for consumer products ranging from software for word processing or personal finances to complex data management systems.

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Focus on User not System

Technical communicators are often involved in the design of interfaces and technical systems. This is because we always have a strong user focus. In order for technology to do the job we want it to do, it must be designed in a way that supports the user in accomplishing their tasks. We also call this task-based development, as opposed to the feature-based development that we often see.

Task-based development, and consequently, task-based documentation — user guides written from the perspective of how to use the technology to accomplish one’s tasks — puts the focus on the needs of the user. Instead of just cool technology, we have technology that meets user needs and does what the user needs it to do.

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Seneca Becomes CPTC Accredited Training Organization

Seneca College has been approved as the first Accredited Training Organization for Certified Professional Technical Communicators (CPTC). We can now offer Foundation level training and the certification exam to students and working professionals.

For more information on Certification, and upcoming training sessions, contact Beth Agnew.


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Grads Go Back to School

This report from the Globe and Mail on students who go to college after university graduation highlights the advantages practical training and a co-operative work experience give you when you’re looking for a job.

A graduate certificate, like that awarded after completion of our 1-year Technical Communication program, gives new grads additional qualifications that differentiate them from other recent graduates in their field of interest. The co-op work placement provides that valuable real world experience that employers look for.

If you’re a new graduate, consider one of the graduate certificate programs at Seneca, or specifically our program in Technical Communication.

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Got Problems? Get Tech Comm!

Website problems of could have been greatly reduced with technical communicators on the job

Like most Chief Executives, President Barack Obama could have saved himself a  whole lot of trouble if he had hired a technical communicator. became a public relations nightmare for his administration due to problems with enrollment and numerous user errors as millions of people tried to sign up for government health care subsidies.

Those are precisely the kinds of problems technical communicators are trained to solve. Technical communicators are advocates for the user. They carry out extensive user testing of products and websites, and contribute to a better user experience on every project. Having such practitioners involved in development of the site would have greatly reduced the number of user errors, and made the entire process smoother.

David Auerbach writing on notes that large scale projects with multiple contractors working in isolation are not only going to miss problems, they often create them. Remember the carbon dioxide scrubber mismatch on Apollo 13?

Technical communicators concern themselves as much with the big picture as the technical details, so they would have ensured those groups communicated with each other, or at least shared information. It’s a technical communicator’s role to think each project through from beginning to end, especially from the user’s perspective — and then ask the questions that need to be answered to enhance the user experience and support user performance.

Apart from the obvious problem of heavy load, which should have been anticipated by the server administrators, subjected users to confusing navigation, meaningless error messages, a broken sign-up process, and information privacy issues.

Executives from CGI Federal, which handled most of the project, claimed testing began too late and the website rollout was premature. Technical communicators, while handling the documentation tasks related to web content and product development, begin user testing as soon as they can get their hands on a stable working version. Consequently, errors are found during early stages of development, allowing bug fixes to be made quickly and inexpensively as the product is being worked on, instead of after delivery when errors are not only embarrassing but much more expensive to repair.

Further, Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J. pointed out that the government was sending out mixed messages, telling people they could keep their policies in one place, then elsewhere telling them they couldn’t. That’s another area where technical communicators add value to an organization: they ensure all communications are clear, consistent, correct, and appropriate for the target audience.

Of the myriad issues plaguing, technical communicators could have helped with most of them. Technical writers, now called technical communicators because they do so much more than just write, have always worked to make technology easier to use and understand. Technical communication is practical communication, intended to help someone perform a task, answer a question, or solve a problem. In institutions, government, corporations, and businesses large and small, technical communicators contribute to reducing customer support costs and improving user satisfaction.

For more information on the Society for Technical Communication and its professional members, see To apply for the Seneca College Technical Communication post-graduate certificate program, see

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Interested in Technical Communication?

If you’re looking for more information about technical communication, or as it is also known technical writing, you can search for related items or rely on an aggregator like Alltop.

Gathering information about the profession will lead you to a number of well-written blogs, the Society for Technical Communication itself, and a list of programs that provide degrees, diplomas or certificates in various aspects of the discipline.

If you think TechComm is right for you, we’d love to consider your application for our 1-year post-graduate certificate program. It includes a co-operative education component so you can try out the field while you are learning. TechComm is ideal for anyone who loves to write, explain, and play with technology. Contact us if you want more information.

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Tech Comm Can Be Full of Surprises!

Here’s a note we just got from one of our excellent tech comm grads, Ellen Fleischer:

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m working in my field. After all, that was my goal when I went into tech comm. However, after graduation, I had to face a few harsh realities:

  1. I’d entered Tech Comm with a strong English background, but scant technical experience. Partly because of this and partly because I tend to get nervous at job interviews, I was unable to secure a co-op placement through Seneca. Instead, I spent my winter semester copyediting a textbook. Even though I loved the work and it fulfilled the co-op requirement, the position didn’t give me hands-on workplace experience in tech comm.
  2. Not having much of a technical background, the thought of working with IT terrified me.

After I graduated in August, I updated my resume and tried my best to find work in editing and/or tech comm. I started volunteering for a monthly online magazine, which led to some paid editing credits on an independent comic book (expected publication in March 2013).

I also started exploring the freelance sites. It took about three months, but I’ve just hooked up with one of the rare US-based companies (as opposed to independent employers looking for cheap short-term labor) that does not require a W9 of their independent contractors. They advertised for someone to rewrite their procedures manuals and were very impressed by my portfolio—despite its lack of IT documentation.

I’m doing freelance work for Covalent IT in Colorado. I never saw myself doing anything like this, much less enjoying it, but I do and I am.

Great news, Ellen, thanks for letting us know! Ellen is not the only grad to find that her first few technical communication assignments involved working remotely as a freelance contractor. These initial forays into the profession can lead to other more lucrative and permanent opportunities.
We’re proud of all our grads, and love to hear how you’re doing. Don’t forget to keep in touch!
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New Program Co-ordinator

After four years as co-ordinator of the Technical Communication program, Beth Agnew is handing over this responsibility to Anna Parker-Richards.

“It’s a great opportunity to get someone new involved in the Program,” says Professor Agnew. “Anna has been a strong leader in the Toronto chapter of the STC and her drive will be an asset to Seneca College and to our technical communication students.”

Having grown the program from a low of 18 students when she took over as co-ordinator in 2008 to a recent high of 42 students, Professor Agnew is still going to be active in getting the word out about this top post-graduate educational program for those seeking to enter the profession.

“I’ll still be teaching technical communication subjects and working with Anna and our co-op co-ordinator Charmaine Johnson to find appropriate work placements for our students,” says Agnew. Due to the program’s excellent reputation, there are more applicants than ever — prompting a second intake that will begin in May 2013.

Agnew thinks the program provides great return on investment. “The technical communication program is ideal for career changers because they can leverage their existing skills, background and experience into a new profession. Nothing is wasted. For new university graduates, the Tech Comm program offers a way to add to their skills while the students are still in “study mode”. It helps them differentiate themselves from all the others graduating with similar degrees.”

Tech Comm grads have proven technology and communication skills — high value currency in today’s workplace. “Plus, they’re trained to be problem-solvers,” says Agnew. “Providing solutions to customer problems always improves a company’s bottom line. That makes us very valuable commodities in any company.”

Agnew is excited about the new directions the Tech Comm program will be taking with Anna Parker-Richards as co-ordinator. “Anna is a positive leader,” she says. “She’s a master at networking and has the vision to ensure our program is meeting the needs of employers and students.”

For more information on the Technical Communication program, and to apply, see


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First Certified Professional Technical Communicator

Professor Beth Agnew, Seneca College, has become one of the first in the world to receive the new Certified Professional Technical Communicator (CPTC)™ designation from the Society for Technical Communication.

“It’s a great step forward for our profession,” says Agnew. “For 40 years our organization has been trying to hit the moving target of what it means to be a technical communicator. Our skills have changed rapidly along with technology and the many ways of communicating it. Finally, this past year the STC settled on our core competencies.”

Certification requires expert evaluation of demonstrated skills in 9 areas that cover user, task and experience analysis, information design, information development, information production, and process management. It includes a commitment to honour a code of conduct and professional ethics.

Long a skilled and qualified professional, Agnew and others awarded the CPTC™ are now recognized on a par with MCSE, PMP, CGA, and other “Registered” or “Certified” experts.

“It’s exciting that our professional organization now can grant official acknowledgement of our skills that employers and clients can rely upon,” she says.

“Our profession is very broad,” says Agnew. “We deal with all aspects of usability, user assistance, product and content development, customer relationships, and information architecture. That’s a tall order. Technical communicators make significant contributions to improving a company’s bottom line by reducing customer support costs and making technology easier to use and understand.”

Technical communicators are industry independent, working as easily in aerospace and engineering as banking, manufacturing and science, though some specialize in their particular areas of interest.

“Practitioner backgrounds are as varied as our workplaces,” notes Agnew. “Ideal for career changers, your existing knowledge and experience are leveraged into communicating about technology to achieve specific results.”

Agnew’s background?

“Fine Arts,” she laughs. “Specifically, Fiction Writing, but that hasn’t hindered me working for NASA, the Geological Survey of Canada or MDS Sciex.”

Professor Agnew is the co-ordinator of the Seneca College one year post-graduate program in Technical Communication and teaches courses in information technology, web-based training and multimedia. The program is focused on giving students a solid foundation in the areas that will be required for certification when they’ve met the experience requirements.

“All you need are an affinity for technology and some writing ability. New grads facing competition for jobs from all their classmates with the same English, Liberal Arts, Computer, or Science degree can take our program in technical communication and quickly differentiate themselves from their competitors. Plus they get co-op work experience that helps launch their new careers.”

Since 1998, the Seneca Tech Comm Program has been graduating skilled technical communicators who have gone on to work for companies such as IBM, RIM, Siemens Milltronics, TD Bank, Mount Sinai Hospital, engineering firms and government ministries.

“Technical Communication is a very rewarding profession,” says Agnew. “When we do our jobs right, it’s completely transparent. We work behind the scenes, and few realize there’s been a technical communicator involved. The only evidence is that products are easier to use, information much easier to understand, and customers are more satisfied with their purchases.”

“Every company can benefit from having a technical communicator on the payroll.”

For more information on the Technical Communication Program, and to apply, see Contact the Society for Technical Communication at

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Awards from STC Toronto AGM

Seneca College’s Technical Communication Program was acknowledged with a Silver Sponsorship award for providing support to the 2010 Career Day event held by the Toronto community of the STC.

In addition, we were delighted to see one of our grads, Noor Hussain, win the Distinguished Service Award for Students for his outstanding contributions to the Toronto chapter—for inspiration, enthusiasm, creativity, and quiet dedication to the Toronto STC community in organizing networking events and encouraging student participation.

One of our faculty, Bernard Aschwanden, was recognized with the Rennie Charles Award for his leadership and support in the tradition of Rennie Charles, much cherished by the Toronto technical writing community for the “ideas, support, advice and mirth” he shared with them.

Other recognition and Community Service Awards made at the STC Toronto AGM can be found on their site.

Congratulations to all award winners! It is this level of dedication that has made the STC Toronto Community truly one of excellence.

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Employing not Exploiting Students

I’ve recently had another request from a company with a tight budget to engage some of our students on a worthwhile project. I’m very keen on helping students get involved in real world projects while they are still studying. There is great value in that for them. They get experience and the opportunity for a good reference. Frequently, they also get a portfolio item, something they can point to and say, “I worked on that.”

Unfortunately, the latter is often the only thing of value that is offered them when a company seeks student labor to do something they would ordinarily have to pay a professional to do. I advise students against doing something solely “because it will look good in your portfolio!”. They have many opportunities to create something for their portfolio through school projects and co-op placements.

What is more valuable to them is a legitimate work experience, not an exploitative one. Students have up to date skills that they are bringing to the employer, skills that they’ve paid a great deal in money, time, effort, and often stress to acquire. They should be paid for their time. Our co-op employers not only pay students a fair wage, but they provide other opportunities such as on the job training, mentoring, and occasionally bonuses.

Exploiting students because you have a tight budget is simply not acceptable. Be creative; pay them something and sweeten the pot for them. Can you provide bus passes or free products/software? Will they get extraordinary access to senior people in your company to learn things we cannot teach in school? Will you commit to giving them a reference, and refer them to other companies for better paid work?

Make it worth their while to help you out, and you will not only get top quality work from eager and motivated people, but you’ll be establishing a valuable relationship as well. See the opportunity as an investment in their future AND yours. Your reputation will grow as well. In this climate of widespread social media, you want people as connected as students to say good things about your company and help build good will. You can’t put a price on that, and it’s worth every penny.

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The Website Triad

Who is the first person you call when you need a website? It should be a technical communicator. Often described as a web content developer or web writer, a technical communicator with knowledge of the important disciplines of web usability and user advocacy will save you thousands of dollars when building or enhancing your web presence.

Most people contact a web development firm that may or may not include a technical communicator on the team. Web developers are necessary for building a website. Their job is to make the website work. They code the HTML, XML, Javascript, or Flash, they build the links, they ensure the page loads quickly and that the meta information is correct.

A web designer might be the first call you make when thinking about your new site. Their job is to make the website look pretty. You want an up to date look and feel for your site, you want the colours to be attractive, and the overall design to be inviting. Designers create or modify CSS and page templates, create the visual images needed for the site, and give the entire site a pleasant, uniform look.

The efforts of those two professionals give you a site that looks nice and works well. There are no broken links. Images don’t overlap. The site is attractive and functional.

But does it do the job you need it to do? Can customers or potential clients find the information they need? Does the user interface (UI) support the user in achieving their goals? Is it usable?

If you had called a technical communicator first, that individual would not only project manage the site’s development and co-ordinate the activities of the web developer and web designer, but they would ensure your content is well written and makes sense. They would ensure any user of the site is able to navigate to what they want easily, and is prompted to take the right action. They would ensure your website meets the objectives you have for your web presence. They would review and improve the work of the designer and developer, pointing out any potential bugs before the user sees them. And they would keep you from spending money on bells and whistles that may make the website cool but contribute nothing to the value the site offers visitors.

Getting a good website requires having each member of the website triad — the technical communicator, the web developer, and the web designer — work together to make a site that does what you need it to do. Whether you want your site visitor to buy something, pick up the phone for an appointment, or just get necessary information quickly and effectively, the way your site merges functionality with design in a way that leads the visitor to take that action is largely the result of the technical communicator’s skill in unifying the development and design efforts.

Web content also needs to be optimized for search engine results (SEO), something a good web writer or content developer can accomplish as well.

Usability for a website means that the visitor can accomplish the goals they had when they came to the site. If customers leave without buying because they couldn’t figure out how to navigate to the product they want, or they get frustrated because they cannot read the faint gray type on the web page, your site has failed, no matter how much money you spent on it. If you are hiring a creative agency, make sure they have someone with technical communication skills assigned to your project.

Technical communicators save companies money, time and headaches no matter what jobs they are asked to do. Helping make websites that work is just one of them.

Bad Websites — poor usability, interfaces, navigation or content
Good Websites — great usability, pleasing interfaces, efficient navigation, and purposeful content.

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