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!


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.


Teaching Professionalism

I was asked how it is possible to instill professional identity into technical writers. My response was that professionalism can indeed be taught, and we do that very thing here in the Seneca Tech Comm program.

Simple things such as document ownership, good project management, displaying integrity, building relationships (with SMEs and others), using good communication skills for more than just documentation — all of these are taught and/or enhanced in our program. They all add up to professionalism, and I firmly believe that when you conduct yourself in a professional manner no matter what the circumstances, you usually engender respect for yourself and your position.

Professionalism includes being proactive — if a deadline is at risk, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a school assignment deadline or a documentation deadline, learning how to handle that is part of the job. Working with difficult people? We throw that at them too, in plenty of group situations where students do not always get along like chums but a high pressure project still needs to be delivered.

Our students also have to confront ambiguity of instructions, conflicting priorities, changing expectations, occasional lack of resources, and other situations that mirror what they’ll find in the workplace. Hands on education means exactly that — they’re at the wheel going very fast and they’d better learn to steer. The obstacles occur not because we’re disorganized but because a) it’s life, and b) we build in challenges that allow them to see what can occur when real world projects go awry.

Granted, our program is post-graduate so students are expected to have some degree of maturity upon admission, but they still could be right out of university with no work experience. Mostly I tell them to trust themselves, have confidence in the skills that they’ve learned, and to take charge of their work assignments. In the 11 years we’ve been graduating technical communicators, our students have turned out to be pretty successful at doing that. Professionalism certainly can be taught.


No Gender Bias

Technical Communication is a profession that is practiced equally well by women and men. For many women working as technical writers in the ’60s and ’70s, our entrée into some male-dominated high tech fields came through the door of technical communication. We were accepted on teams in aerospace, engineering, automotive, and manufacturing because our skills were needed to communicate vital information about these subject areas.

In the 21st century, any barriers have fallen even further. Technology is no longer the province of only one gender, though some industries remain more heavily weighted toward males. For technical communicators, it has never really mattered whether you are male, female, or unsure. Our work has always been independent of its creator, and it will continue to be so.

There is no better profession for writers who love technology, no matter what your sex.


STC Awards

The Society for Technical Communication (STC) is the professional organization that represents technical communicators around the world. There are annual publication competitions, as well as other opportunities for recognition of the work that groups, individuals, and chapters do on behalf of the profession.

The local chapter, STC Toronto, held their Annual General Meeting on June 11, 2008 and presented a number of awards to members and friends of the STC. Among those receiving awards were Vivian Aschwanden, Michele Marques, the team of Andrew Steer, Michael Lush and Mark Liddell from Rogers Communications, Veronica Kutt from FrontRunner, and Jennifer Paton Smith.

A graduate of the Seneca Technical Communication program, Sheldon D’Cunha, received a President’s award for his work as the Volunteer Manager for the chapter, and Beth Agnew, the Seneca TechComm program co-ordinator, received a President’s award “For actively guiding and supporting peers and junior technical communicators to meet their technical communication goals”.

It is always gratifying to receive recognition from one’s peers, especially for any effort that is given out of commitment, passion, and professionalism. Congratulations to all the award recipients!