RE: How are Technical Writer's Perceived (long)

Subject: RE: How are Technical Writer's Perceived (long)
From: "Wilcox, Rose (ZB5646)" <Rose -dot- Wilcox -at- pinnaclewest -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 15 Mar 2002 16:24:06 -0700

I have found a variety of perceptions throughout my years as a contracting
technical writer. These include:

1. "What is a technical writer?"

2. "A technical writer, eh? Make those documents 'pretty'!"

3. "A technical writer! Oh, I'm very glad you are here!"

4. "Hide! The tech writer is coming!"

Obviously, I have been happiest in the jobs with the third perception. In
the past, I have been able to deal with all three of the other attitudes and
eventually change the perception.

To change a perception requires 1) that I not buy into it myself and 2) that
I understand my "audience" and work to carefully bring in new
information... i.e., my attitudes and my behavior... without becoming
"brittle" like Tina in Dilbert. The reason number 1 is so important is
that I think low self esteem is the fuel that helps the defensive tech
writer's fire keep burning.

In this current job, I found a combination of all but the third item. After
months, I did not manage to change the perception. (This is unusual in my
experience. I find the perceptions common, but my inability to make a dent
of them was *new* to me, quite novel.)

Of course, I was isolated from the project team, sitting in a conference
room (just me and the other "writer"). Out in the hall. Where no one went.
I would walk through cubicle land, which was behind a code lock, once or
twice a day just to be seen. I called the conference room "the Gulag".

In addition, I had every factor in the book that techwriters have to deal
with: developer attitudes ranging from indifference to intolerance, a SEI
level 0 "throw it over the wall" attitude, a lack of championing by
management, a culture that tended to be cold/competitive/uncommunicative, a
fellow "technical writer" who wasn't really a TWer at all but a QA person
forced into technical writing against her will, a humorless crew, a shoddy
out-of-date computer, constraints on developing quality by management's
insistence that the documents would have to be exactly the same in outline
and easily maintained by people who didn't know the tool (MS Word), and
management that would rather pay me to sit around and not work than to push
SMEs to complete reviews or give me interview time.


What did I do? Like I said, I walked through the developer's area regularly
to be seen. I asked my boss for a change of location. I tried to find out
when the meetings were (and was told there are no meetings.) I varied my
interviewing techniques to match the styles of various developers (i.e., one
guy did better when you sent him a doc and asked specific questions, rather
than giving an overview.) I got myself invited to the team lunches (that I
found out about by noticing people gathering at the elevators, since I
wasn't put on the email list for them.) I met with both of my bosses
regularly to ask questions and ask for feedback. Still nothing changed.

In the past, I would've left after 6 months of this (under the theory that
if something doesn't change in 6 months of effort, then it's not going to
change). However, right around that time the job market dramatically
shrunk. I was stuck.

About a year later, a new project manager came. The QA person was bumped
upstairs to *be* a QA person, to her delight. They moved two developers
into the conference room that I used as an office, and realized that it
would be better to move us into cubicles. So things did get better.

I don't believe that the perceptions of technical writers and myself in
specific have greatly changed within that department, however. I have run
out of work in that department, but at least I had a good enough of a rep to
switch to another department where I am billable to many projects within the
company. It's not exactly my cup o' tea, but it is keeping me employed. I
miss working for companies that demanded quality, not just in spelling, but
in design of documentation. I miss the feeling when finally the developers
realized how smart I was and what I could do, and started respecting me.

To be fair, I have talked with others in this environment and many people
feel the same as I do. So I believe in this
company my problems are partly stemming from the corporate culture.

What would I do differently if I could re-do my first 6 months here? I

1) Use food and bribes more liberally to get SME reviews and information.

2) Get more help with my ensuing depression at the time. This would've
helped me be more assertive in trying to produce quality, in turn leading to
higher self esteem. It would've also avoided some of the brittleness I
experienced when the developers consistently confused me with the other
"writer", calling us by each other's names.

3) Pursue more technical training in spite of management's discouraging me
in that direction. This would increase my self esteem, make me more
marketable, result in higher quality documentation, and gain me more respect
from my peers on the development team. I would've had to pay my own money
for the training or books, but it would've been worth it (in hind sight!)

4) Went ahead and customized the outlines for different types of modules,
rather than allowing the client's requirements to keep me from producing the
highest quality per module.

That's about all I can think of now. The 4th one is more of a risk and
would've required me to read the future. But from now I will tend to resist
designing mediocrity into a document for the sake of the "writers".
However, it could be that my adherence to the manager's wishes in this case
was a "good" thing, even though it tended to increase my depression. The
culture here is very much "the manager is always right, even when wrong, and
if you mention this, you can and will get fired".

I believe technical writers are perceived a variety of ways, which I have
boiled down to four: no perception, "document formatters", very helpful
professionals, and brittle demanding difficult prima donnas. I believe in
most cultures, I, as an individual can change this, by retaining a positive
self image and using good communication skills. I believe some corporate
cultures can make this change harder than others.

Rose A. Wilcox
Project Office / Power Trading
Communication Specialist / Technical Writer
Rose -dot- Wilcox -at- PinnacleWest -dot- com

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