My Writers

I teach technical communication at Seneca College here in Toronto. I am also the co-ordinator of the 1-year post graduate technical communication program, so I see these particular students for more than a full year. They are “mine”. 🙂

They often contact me before they apply to the program so that they can have questions answered. I administer a writing test and give them an orientation after they have applied, but before they have been accepted. I have taught 5 out of the 10 courses that they take during the program. I am the person they come to with all their problems — usually academic, but sometimes personal as well. I get to know them very well.

These students represent a range of ages and backgrounds. Many of them are career changers, some even in their 50s and 60s. Others are already working in some aspect of the profession but need to update their skills to become more competitive. And the third group that is typical of our applicants are younger people right out of university who need a valuable additional qualification to differentiate themselves from everyone else in the university graduating class.

Our program is very much hands-on practical writing, editing, content development, publishing and dealing with technology. Our grads are prepared to go into any company, organization or institution and be productive from day #1. They are industry-independent, a grad being as likely to go into Aerospace as Food Manufacturing or work for a non-profit organization.

In our profession they get to marry their love of technology with their love of writing and make something truly useful to others. User documentation, interface design, web content, policy writing, procedures, marketing, anything that has to communicate a message simply and clearly is our province. I tell them that if it has to do with information, communication, or technology, we should have a hand in it somewhere.

I suppose most teachers come to love their students or we wouldn’t be teachers. We get a kick out of seeing them grow and change, we like to see how they develop confidence and competence. But these particular students hold a special place in my heart. Many of them struggle greatly during the first semester. The older students may have been out of school for a very long time and now have to get back in the groove. Others are not as comfortable with computers as they need to be, and they struggle to acquire mastery of these very important tools of their trade.

It is not uncommon for a technical writer to be thrown a prototype of a new piece of software or hardware and asked to write the instructions for it, as well as contribute in all phases of its development. In the end, we find that we know more about this product than anyone else because we’ve seen it from all sides. Often, we are the only people in the company who know exactly how a product is supposed to work, and we get to see the big picture as well as all the details.

This can seem like a huge responsibility for students who are acquiring new skills and are uncertain about their futures.

I always ask them to keep in touch after they graduate. Many do. I have seen them marry, have children, move into management positions, become known in the industry for their excellence, and I have even hired a couple of them to come back and teach for us.

Some even further change their careers, using their learning experience in technical communication as an important stepping stone to something else that they want to do. Even the few who decide the program is not for them continue to let me know from time to time how they’re doing. They invariably say that the opportunity to confront what they really wanted to do occurred when they started the program.

I think you can tell how satisfying it is for me to meet and get to know these interesting people. It is truly my dream job, and one I never would have aspired to, thinking that I just wasn’t up to the challenge. But I guess the very circuitous pathway from where I started to where I am now was the route I needed to take. I am certainly glad I did!

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

FSOSS 2009 & Documentation

Concluding Open Source week in Toronto, Seneca held its annual Free Software and Open Source Symposium (FSOSS) yesterday. I was privileged to have the opportunity to speak about documentation for open source projects.

What is truly exciting about open source development is the collaborative and community aspect of it. I love the synergy of keen minds working on a collective project. Documentation too benefits from having multiple people contribute to and review it. While there is the danger of it sounding a bit like “authorship by committee” I think that problem is easily avoided by having an editor who is responsible for smoothing out the voice.

As we drift more toward topic-based writing that addresses user tasks rather than features, we can accommodate multiple writers because the style guidelines for topic writing are very straightforward. Publishing in an open source environment often involves Wikis, which are an excellent collaboration tool. Marry the idea of topics with a wiki that allows anyone on the team to contribute to the project and you have some excellent documentation that can be developed quickly.

I still encourage documentation plans, and reviews/approvals as part of the process, but generating content is much simpler.

I also still emphasize authorship, meaning document ownership. I don’t mean that someone gets to “own” the documentation in a proprietary way. Open Source is all about moving away from that idea of singular intellectual property toward a collaborative work package that represents the best a group of people can produce. Document ownership is simply taking responsibility for your contribution. Even though other people will look at it and edit it, each author does the best they can to make the documentation excellent.

Another point I brought up in my presentation was that documentation really includes all of the information, communication and knowledge around any particular product. Documentation is a way to add intelligence to the product during development to create a superb user experience. This can be as simple as putting informative labels of data fields that are to be filled in. The example I gave was of a web form that provided for a 10-digit telephone number, without hypens. The user doesn’t know that, however, until they start filling in a phone number 800-555-12 and run out of space. It takes very little effort to indicate how the user should input things like phone numbers, dates, postal codes, and so on.

Of course I recommended that technical communicators be involved in producing the documentation for Open Source projects. I know where you can get some if you want them.

The recorded version of my presentation will be available on the FSOSS web site shortly.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

We’re Growing!

This September marks our largest ever Tech Comm class at Seneca. One of the reasons for this larger class is the Ontario government’s Second Career initiative which assists people in going back to school to retrain for a new career or upgrade their skills so that they are more employable. It’s a great program, and we are benefiting from having top notch candidates enroll in TECC.

The other reason we’re experiencing a growth in numbers is that our promotional efforts are beginning to pay off. Over the past two years, we have promoted the program through the media, related organizations, and word of mouth. Our current increase in enrollment is due to stronger industry partnerships, closer connections with the Toronto chapter of the STC, increased co-operation and relationship building among departments at Seneca, and leadership that brings all of those parts together into synergy.

I always tell our students that Technical Communication is a relationship-building profession. We need to have excellent relationships with our audience, our Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), our co-developers, our employers and clients, and of course each other. Networking is strong in our profession, not only for obtaining work but for keeping up on trends and new techniques as well.

And it doesn’t hurt to have some friendships among other technical communicators — for those frequent days when being a professional gadly isn’t always as much fun as you might think.

Each of our Tech Comm classes travels through the semesters together. By graduation, firm friendships and professional bonds have formed, laying the foundation for future success. Even though this year’s class is that much larger, I am certain the same bonding will occur. It’s wonderful collaboration, and we all benefit.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Seeing the Big Picture

High tech companies have a lot of moving parts. There are numerous projects on the go, multiple teams at work, different divisions to oversee company operations, and the need to continually keep one eye on what’s going on outside the company as much as what’s going on inside it. It’s very easy to lose sight of the big picture with all those details to manage.

Technical communicators are often among the few people in an organization who really do see the big picture. The reason for that is because we routinely talk to other teams and departments within the company. Our work may be anchored in the development department, but because it has implications for other areas such as sales, marketing, customer support, and training, we have to develop relationships with these other stakeholders. We talk to them, and we find out about the aspects of our project that affect their deliverables.

When questions arise, who better to answer them than the technical communicator who not only can explain things clearly, but who literally “wrote the book” on the product. No one knows it better than we do, because we’ve seen it from the inside as well as the outside.

Technical communicators also are adept at facilitating communication. Even if the discussion is about something other than the product we’re working on, we help by ensuring understanding. We might pipe up with the questions that everyone is thinking but are too reticent to ask. It’s our nature, and our job, to be bold in order to get information for our users. In a group situation, we often act as the user advocate and take a kind of responsibility for ensuring that everyone is getting the message.

If you don’t have technical communicators in your organization, what else are you missing?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail