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!


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?


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.


Pretty but Useless

Usually when companies need web sites designed, they call a designer. It’s no wonder — they are thinking about the look of the site and how it will represent them and their brand. But more important than the look and feel is the site’s usability — does it allow the visitor to accomplish what they need to do to meet the objectives of the site?

Often, that question is never asked. Designers are not anchored in the content or the functionality of the web site. They can deliver a beautiful web site that might even win design awards. Your users will be impressed by its glitz and glamour. But will those users take the action you want them to take when they visit your site?

Content is what drives the visitor to place an order, call for an appointment, or contact you for more information. Navigation must support the content so the users can find what they’re looking for.

As an example, let me cite what happened with one of my clients. They had paid thousands of dollars to have their website redesigned, and one of its features was a very cool bit of Flash that zeroed in from outer space onto the company’s building. This trinket was on the Contact page and was supposed to help you find the company’s offices if you ever wanted to go there.

Where are we?Where are we?

Well, good luck with that. While the Flash was impressive, the end result was a pointer on a named street near cross streets that you HAD TO KNOW were in Saskatoon. Zooming in from space you got a vague impression that you were going to the prairies, but without any way to zoom back out to situate yourself it was impossible to tell even what city you were in. Addition of the street address was some help, but the user would still have to look up that address using some map program. Why not save the $$ it cost for the Flash and just embed the link to Google maps? That would provide far more functionality for your visitor, at almost no cost.

As technical communicators, we are experts at making sure information — content — is delivered to the user in a way that helps them accomplish what they need to do with that information. We often find ourselves as the bearers of bad news to clients who have invested in beautiful design or fancy development without any consideration of the content on the page.

When you need a website, be sure to ask your designer or developer what they know about making content usable. Better yet, hire a technical communicator who will spearhead that project for you, and ensure you get a site that works. It’s a better investment of your dollars, and it will still be pretty.


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!


Learning to be a Technical Communicator

Few careers for writers pay as well, or provide as much ongoing challenge and satisfaction, as the profession of technical communication. It is not unusual for an experienced technical communicator to make close to $100K per year, depending on the type of company in which they work. Many enjoy salaries in the range of $65K to $85K, and there is the potential move into management within this career field.

Technical communication is a broad discipline encompassing technical writing, technical illustration, web development, content development, information architecture, usability, customer experience management, technical publishing, and policy writing. It includes virtually all aspects of non-fiction writing.

At Seneca College, our graduate certificate program in Technical Communication prepares students for careers in any area of the profession that suits their background and interests. Over the course of one year, students receive practical, hands-on training in the key areas of technical communication such as technical writing, technical editing, documentation development and design, and web-based training. They become familiar with the tools and techniques used in the profession such as Adobe FrameMaker, Single Sourcing and DITA. During a Co-operative work term they receive workplace experience as technical communicators.

If you are a good writer, with a facility for technology, and a passion for lifelong learning, a career as a technical communicator might be for you!