What is a Technical Communicator's Job?

The technical communicator (writer, editor, graphic artist, web page designer, trainer, multimedia designer, film/video maker) who creates or maintains information products.

The technical communicator

To produce the information product, the technical communicator

The specialists are usually engineers, programmers, and marketing specialists, and the audience of non-specialists are usually managers or users of the product.

What are a technical communicator's core competencies?

The Society of Technical Communication (http://www.stc.org/) perceives three major areas:

What are some specialties within the profession?

Technical Communication is the communication of technical information. The medium tends to be writing, but visual design (diagrams, graphics, charts) and multimedia (sound, animation) sometimes play a peripheral or even a central role. Therefore, technical communicators include technical writers, graphic artists, and certain kinds of media specialists, as well as technical editors and people who write indexes to technical books.

Technical communication specialties include:

Unlike marketing and sales, the goal of technical communication is to inform, rather than to persuade. 

Unlike engineering, the goal of technical communication is to help the user use a product, rather than build the core technology of the product itself. Therefore, although technical communicators deliver products (information products), I think of them as service providers who add value to products by making products usable, by making it possible for customers to have a better “user experience”. Often, the technical communicator acts as the "user advocate" to the engineering department during the product development cycle.

Good technical communication reduces product support costs, and a growing area of technical communication is "embedded help", the fusion of technical information and product usage guidance into the user interface of the product itself.

What are the best things about the job?

§        Lifetime learning

§        Problem solving that is challenging but not overwhelming

§        Independent freedom of choice combined with frequent human contact

§        Engineering-level salary, benefits, and perks (T-shirts, free drinks)

§        A tangible product of your labor

§        Flextime/telecommuting (depends on the organization)

§        Relative ease of

§        career entry

§        growth to senior level and/or tech com management

§        exit options to product/project management, product marketing, product development, or training

§        Years of experience being viewed as a plus (whereas for developers, the employer sometimes wants rookies fresh out of college)

§        You don't have to be perfect; just do the best job you can given the circumstances

What are some negative issues of the career choice?

§        If you opt for the freedom of being an independent contractor, you might find jobs overlapping, which can be stressful, or idle time between jobs, which can also be stressful.

§        During times of economic downturn, technical communicators are likely to suffer layoffs or hiring freezes before the core engineering or sales staff does.

§        If you don’t take ergonomic precautions, you might risk a repetitive motion injury, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

§      Salary likely to plateau after 7-10 years.

§      Product schedules tend to be hectic, so you cannot always afford to be a perfectionist.

What skills and personality traits are valuable?

§        Active curiosity: ability to ask the subject matter expert (SME) questions and listen actively.

§        Ability to quickly absorb new concepts and terminology.

§        Willingness to do your homework: don’t make the SME explain the same term or concept more than once.

§        Flexibility and ability to manage several projects simultaneously.

§        Intellectual stamina and tolerance of information overload.

§        Appreciation of technology, including the product, authoring tools, and product development tools (defect tracking database, source control).

§        Ability to write about something while you are still learning it and sometimes while it is changing

§        Ability to do all you can on your own, but be able to ask for help when you need it.

§        Friendly demeanor and ability to adapt your information gathering to each subject matter expert’s:

§        mode (email, paper, face-to-face, phone, give the SME your example to edit versus watch the SME draw on the whiteboard)

§        style (informal drop-in versus formal written list of questions) 

§        Willingness to dig into documents and the product.

§        Willingness to work extra hours during “crunch times”.

§        Pragmatism: not expecting perfection from others or yourself but doing the best you can given the current priorities.

§        Consistent team-player orientation and ability to keep a low profile, but also be assertive enough to obtain the information you need to produce your deliverable with accurate information.

§        Willingness to make mistakes and learn from them.

§        Ability to negotiate and monitor your schedule: 

Where is TechCom in the Product Development Cycle?

Often, the product cycle resembles this pattern.

1.      Marketing writes a Requirements Document for a new product, or a new release of an existing product. The document specifies what the customer needs.

2.      Engineering (Software Development) writes a Functional Specification that translates the requirements into product features.

3.      Engineering writes a Design Specification that details the implementation work it will undertake. This document might include Java methods and parameters for new classes.

4.      Technical Communication writes a Documentation Plan that explains the documentation deliverables, the contents, the schedule, and the risks.

5.      The writer attends weekly product team meetings to learn who knows what, if new features are going to appear, and if the schedule is changing.
Typically, the team meetings include representative from the following departments:

§        Marketing

§        Project Management

§        Development

§        Quality Assurance

§        Technical Support

§        Configuration Management

§        Manufacturing

6.      The writer obtains the weekly build of the product. While using the product the writer acts as the customer advocate and logs bugs into a defect tracking database.

7.      The writer might have to fix doc bugs.

8.      The writer products the initial draft and gets reviews from subject matter experts (engineering) and product management.

9.      (The writer might also edit the product’s error messages or the comments in the code examples that the company ships with the product.)

10.   The writer incorporates initial reviews and produces the final draft.

11.   The writer incorporates final reviews and archives the deliverable.

12.   Configuration Management and Manufacturing package the product, including the documentation.

13.   The writer shifts to maintenance mode, and might provide input to a training course developer.

How do I begin my career transition into technical communication?

When I began my transition into technical communication, I had already been an assistant professor of English composition with a Ph.D. in English and American Languages and Literatures. My first step was accepting a position in marketing communications and technical sales. Each day, I spoke to engineers, used sophisticated computerized software and hardware, performed product demonstrations, and conveyed technical information in words, pictures, and actions. The publication of an article in an engineering trade journal helped me obtain my first job as a technical writer, which was at Oracle Corporation, the second largest software company in the world. Perhaps even more important, however, were three other factors:

·        rewriting my academic curriculum vitae into a succinct resume with an attractive visual design

·        rewriting some of the job procedures I wrote so that they had the look-and-feel of procedures in a software user's manual

·        packaging my writing samples into a portfolio that I carry in a three-ring binder with sheet protectors

·        going to meetings at the Society of Technical Communication chapter to network with people who could help me get an interview

·        contacting the hiring manager after the interview to thank her and to provide additional writing samples that demonstrated my "fit" for the job

What's my strategy for "show-and-tell" during the interview?

Because technical communication has both a communication side and technical side, you need to establish credibility as a communicator and as a technologist.

§        The communicator in you must demonstrate the ability to write clear, factual prose using industry-standard authoring tools.

§        The technologist in you must demonstrate knowledge of a technical domain and/or the ability to quickly learn a technical domain using

§        research skills

§        interviewing skills

§        hands-on experimentation.

Ideally, you demonstrate in your portfolio your ability to write clear, factual prose about a technical domain, and you do so using industry-standard authoring tools (Word, FrameMaker, RoboHelp, Quadralay WebWorks Publisher). Finally, you should demonstrate an ability to write the types of documents (genres) typical of the profession:

·        documentation plans (to manage all of the above and demonstrate an ability to manage your own projects)

·        procedures and instructions with numbered steps

·        conceptual explanations (with diagrams)

·        multi-column reference tables

·        indexes and cross-references

What are some web links for the (aspiring) technical communicator?

Technical Communications Certificate Program of University of California at Berkeley Extension

Society for Technical Communication (STC), a national and international organization
including the Salary Surveys for empolyees and contractors: http://www.stc.org/salary.html

Silicon Valley Chapter of the STC (Sunnyvale)
which offers

·        a FREE mentoring program. Contact a prospective mentor and get guidance in person, over the phone, or by email

·        a weekly list of job offerings (find out what skills are in demand)

·        monthly dinner meetings, special interest group (SIG) meetings, and workshops

·        the largest chapter in the STC

Berkeley Chapter of the STC
which has a SIG for biotech and geographic proximity to Bayer and Chiron

East Bay Chapter of the STC
geographical proximity to PeopleSoft, CommerceOne, Documentum, Pacific Bell, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory

American Medical Writers Association

TechWriter Discussion WebSite

Web page with links about Technical Writing as a profession

What Classes Should I Take?

To obtain training that might help you in your career, you can consider academic degrees, classes and certificates for working adults, and self-training.

Academic degrees

Probably the best academic background for technical writing in Silicon Valley is a dual major in journalism and computer science. Journalists know how to interview experts, gather information, and write clearly--all under tight deadlines. If you want to write about a different domain, you should gain as much expertise in that domain as possible. There are Ph.D. biologists writing in the bio-tech domain. However, there are also "writers" involved Federal Drug Administration documentation compliance who do not need such an advanced degree. Some colleges and universities offer degrees, and even advanced degrees, in technical communication.

The Technical Writing major at Carnegie Mellon is the oldest undergraduate technical writing program in the country. Technical Writing is a career-oriented major for students interested in writing for technical fields. Technical writers design, write, and edit documents for engineering, scientific, industrial, and governmental organizations. These include technical reports, computer manuals, brochures, proposals, technical specifications, educational and training materials, and marketing or public relations releases. Often, technical writers serve as researchers, managers of writing projects, or liaison personnel among the research, production, and marketing components of an organization. For these challenging tasks, technical writers need analytic and writing skills, research and problem-solving abilities, and competence in science and technology.

The major in Technical Writing is highly structured. In the H&SS General Education Program, students begin their training in research, analysis, writing, and reading. They also begin acquiring knowledge of the physical sciences, mathematics, and statistics. Their work in the Interpretive Practices courses provides a background in larger issues that affect, in various ways, writers in the workplace.

Central to the program in Technical Writing are the writing courses taken beyond the H&SS General Education Program. These courses emphasize exposition, rhetorical studies, writing for specific audiences, and writing in the different forms of business and technical communication. Students who maintain a B average in writing courses usually take an internship during their senior year. The internship provides approximately 100 hours of professional experience as well as an exposure to the work technical writers will do after graduation.

Equally important to the training of technical writers are two courses in visual design and various courses in mathematics, science and technology. To fulfill their science and technology requirements, Technical Writing majors must have at least one course each in computer science, statistics, calculus, biology, chemistry, and physics; a second course in statistics or calculus; and four additional courses in any of these disciplines or in engineering. The total is eleven courses: four that are taken in (and may be simultaneously counted toward) the H&SS General Education Program (one in statistics, one in calculus, and two in physical/ natural science, engineering or computer science); two that may be simultaneously counted toward the College's 2-course science/ mathematics/engineering degree requirement for B.S. candidates; and five others. In choosing their science and technical courses, students should go at least three courses deep in a single discipline; especially valuable are additional courses in computer science. This wide-ranging work in the humanities, natural sciences, technology, and social sciences helps to develop the skills, vocabularies, and methods of thinking that enable the accomplished writer to translate technical information into effective communication.

You should take classes that will help you obtain the job you want, and advance in your job. 

Certification programs:

§        U.C. Berkeley Extension http://www.unex.berkeley.edu/cert/techcom/

§        U.C. Santa Cruz Extension 

§        DeAnza College Technical Communication http://www.deanza.fhda.edu/depts/language/teco/

§        San Jose State University Professional Development http://galaxy.sjsu.edu/Catalog/PdHome/

Classes that enable you to progress in these areas:

·        portfolio development (classes that guide you in writing technical documents)

·        technical publication project management

·        authoring tools

·        Microsoft Word

·        Adobe FrameMaker: http://www.adobe.com

·        e-help corporation's RoboHelp: http://www.ehelp.com/ehelp.shtm

·        computer literacy (HTML, operating systems such as Windows and UNIX/Linux)

·        one or two specific technical domains in which you gain depth over time

·        database (relational database management systems, such as Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, and Microsoft Access)

·        medical imaging (to work at Varian, Acuson)

·        biotech/bioinformatics/genomics/proteomics/cheminformatics (to work at Genentech, Chiron, MDL Information Systems)

·        telecommunications/data communications (to work at companies like Cisco and Lucent)

·        computer networking

·        e-commerce and XML (to work at companies like Ariba or CommerceOne)

·        software programming (Java, C++, JavaScript, C)

·        embedded operating systems (to work at Wind River Systems)

What can I teach myself?

If you cannot find classes for these skills, it might just as well to teach yourself. The ability to teach yourself tools and technology is essential. For example, you might teach yourself:

·        conversion and screen capture tools

·        Quadralay WebWorks Publisher (FrameMaker to HTML): http://www.webworks.com/

·        Screen Capture tools

·        PaintShopPro http://www.jasc.com/

·        PhotoShop http://www.adobe.com/products/photoshop/main.html

·        HyperSnap http://www.hyperionics.com

What are some good books on technical communication? 

§        Managing Your Documentation Projects by JoAnn T. Hackos (Wiley, 1994), ISBN 0471590991; $39.95

§        Developing Quality Technical Information : A Handbook for Writers and Editors by Gretchen Hargis (Prentice Hall, 1997), ISBN 0137903200; $39.40

§        Making Money in Technical Writing by Peter Kent
Format: Paperback, 288pp.
ISBN: 0028618831   Publisher: Hungry Minds, Incorporated
Pub. Date: October 1997   $16.95
“Today professional and aspiring authors everywhere are turning to technical writing - writing about computers and software - as a way to make good money with their writing skills. Peter Kent, himself a prolific freelance technical writer, explains how to get started in this rapidly expanding field. Included is information about getting training, going freelance, setting rates, evaluating contracts, and networking for more business.”

§        Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-scale Web Sites by Louis Rosenfeld & Peter Morville, 1st Edition February 1998, ISBN 1-56592-282-4, O’Reilly
221 pages, $29.95

§        Read Me First! A Style Guide for the Computer Industry, Sun Technical Publications (Prentice Hall, 1996), ISBN 0134553470; $23.95, includes CD with FrameMaker templates

§        The Elements of Style, available free at http://www.bartleby.com/141/index.html

§        Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications, Second Edition, 1-57231-890-2, includes CD with Help system for quick look-up

§        JoAnn Hackos resources http://www.comtech-serv.com/resources.htm
 include the Dependency Calculator: http://www.comtech-serv.com/dependency_calculator.htm

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