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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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!

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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.

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Ideal Second Career

Changes in the economy often mean unexpected layoffs and situations that prompt one to think of a career change. Technical communication is a profession that allows you to leverage your prior background and training into a new career.

No matter what industry you worked in, you can take those skills and reapply them in a new way, by becoming a technical writer, a usability specialist, a content provider, or an instructional designer.

Has the market for bakers shrunk? Consider the equipment used by professional bakers, and others in the food service industry. It all needs documentation. Manufacturers of food service and restaurant equipment need website content, interface advice, and even training materials.

With existing knowledge of any field, you can transition easily into a new career writing and developing information about that industry.

Technical communication relies on skills that involve plain language and procedural writing, researching, interviewing, audience analysis, and project management. Good communication skills are necessary, but do not have to be Governor General’s Award-winning calibre. It is sufficient to be able to write clearly, concisely, logically, and appropriately. It is more important to target information correctly for the audience than select a poetic turn of phrase.

The writing and facility with technology can be taught. Seneca’s 1-year program in Technical Communication teaches the basic skills, tools, and approaches needed by technical communicators. The certificate you receive upon graduation from the program indicates to employers that you have the processes, skills and understanding to communicate complex, technical information to a range of audiences, no matter what the industry.

In good times or in bad, communication is always required, and practitioners who know how to get a message across to the target audience are always valued.

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