An observation about the writer-engineer relationship

Subject: An observation about the writer-engineer relationship
From: "Dick Margulis " <margulis -at- mail -dot- fiam -dot- net>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 12 Oct 2001 13:28:31 -0400

>From time to time on this list, we go through rounds of SME-bashing and attempts to defend the poor, maligned SMEs--all in good fun, of course. And once in a while we touch on the question of what personality types are most drawn to different kinds of work (on the grounds that this may help explicate the difficulty we sometimes have understanding each other).

I think these discussions can be helpful to the extent that better communication with SMEs helps tech writers produce documentation that is more useful for their audience.

So against that backdrop, I offer an observation that has been simmering in my subconscious and has finally bubbled up to the surface:

Of the hundred or so employees in this company, I would venture that over eighty percent have engineering degrees of one sort or another--everything from chemical engineering to architecture to electrical engineering to computer science. I'm not one of them. Had I stayed with it long enough to get a degree, it would have been in mathematics (pure, not applied). I suspect that most of our tech writers also have non-technical degrees.

Yet when it comes to dealing with any sort of mechanical device around the office--a printer or copier, a coffee maker, an adjustable chair, a the dishwasher, you name it--or any sort of software glitch--it's the engineers who stand around dazed and confused and the writer types (or the IT guys, who generally are high school or tech school grads) who walk over and fix the damn thing.

Now I know this is not unique to this company. I've seen it virtually everywhere I've worked.

The engineers here are a great bunch of people. They are available resources and real team players. So this is not about arrogance. They aren't shirking some menial task so one of us lesser beings can handle it. No, that isn't it at all. They are genuinely oblivious to the details of how stuff works. This is irrespective of age, sex, or position in the org chart. (And yes, I'm speaking in generalities; there are exceptions in both groups.)

So the question I want to throw open for discussion is this: What is the relationship between these two very different ways of being in the world and what does it teach us about the way writers should approach engineers qua SMEs in order to have a successful working partnership?

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