Re: Tech Writer Lawsuit

Subject: Re: Tech Writer Lawsuit
From: Ned Bedinger <doc -at- edwordsmith -dot- com>
To: Gene Kim-Eng <techwr -at- genek -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 29 May 2008 13:51:03 -0700

Gene Kim-Eng wrote:
> ----- Original Message ----- From: "Ned Bedinger" <doc -at- edwordsmith -dot- com>
>> But what I was working at addressing is the conceptual gulf between
>> technical writing and engineering, in an effort to close off avenues
>> leading to your rhetoric about the Sun lawsuit, where tech writers are
>> either engineers or secretarial help. It doesn't capture tech writers
>> very well. Neither engineering, with its well-known path through
>> physical science, or secretarial help, with its well-known
>> administrative and support roles, has the concepts necessary to
>> describe commercial technical writing.
>
> Business adminstration, marketing and accounting probably don't etiher,
> and yet people working in those fields don't seem to be suffering from
> any inability to think of themselves as
> professionals.

I think your point is that compared to engineers and others, some tech
writers don't seem to be able to think of themselves as professionals.
Let's say that means they don't assert independent judgement.

I'd like to see how this plays out in a tough tech writing scenario. So
let's take one I know well, a classic situation from my history as
software tech writer: the project starts off without the technical
writer among the team members. From the fist meeting, the team is
drawing white board diagrams, learning the architecture and design, and
not documenting it--they don't have a printing white board, each person
just gets their own piece of the understanding. Then the tech writer is
called in at the end of the project, and has to catch up.

I gather that the Professional Tech Writer you're developing or looking
for will act in a characteristic way at this point. I know what I would
do, but I'm not sure I'm seeing the full palette options. Here are the
choices I would see:

1. Complain bitterly about being doomed from the start,
update resume, work 40 hr week.
2. Bootstrap myself into the project as best as I
can, work long hours.
3. Refuse to take on the work. Quit if necessary.
4. Curse management beneath my breath, create
illusion of normalcy, spin substandard
results to stakeholders as fixable in next cycle.
5. Trust management not to assign impossible tasks,
accept eventual result as my professional standard,
take blame for failure.

If such a scenario is possible for professionals, how would a
degree-holder from business adminstration, marketing and accounting, or
an engineering program handle it? What would make a techwriter any
different?

> Before entering the field of technical writing,
> I would have expected that people who put in the four years necessary to
> achieve a bachelor's degree in English or journalism would walk out of
> the door with diploma in hand and the ability to see themselves on the
> same professional level as an engineer, but for some reason that often
> isn't the
> case if they're technical writers.

This effect might be something from the design problem they're working
on. If I come on your job and appear to be lost because the project has
no written specs or engineer assigned to brief me, I have to solve that
problem before I can even begin doing my tech writer work. If I'm a
recent grad, I don't have any ideas about this problem. All I know is,
I'm here to get started and you're not ready for me. If you simply
expect me to get started, I might look unprofessional, I guess.

>
>> Oh, unless your field is plagued by last minute afterthought planning
>> for documentation, absence of formal project specifications, schedules
>> based on fantasy, budgets based on wishful thinking, and staffing
>> based on what is available at the last minute, yeah I guess you could
>> say software is in a world of its own.
>
> Compared to environments in which every last minute change means
> scrapping months of qualification tests and starting over,
> I'd say so.
>
>> Not society. Engineering.
>
> I would maintain it's society. Why else does a teacher have so much
> less earning potential than an engineer with no more (and in some cases
> less) education?

It might come down to the public sector job versus private. Private
sector doesn't take on jobs that don't produce profit, while public
sector does things that are social duties, profitable or not.

>
>> Sure, you've often said, in so many words, that you yourself wouldn't
>> take work that didn't meet your standards. I interpret that stance as
>> an assertive one, possibly not in the range of stances available to
>> some tech writers.
>
> Maybe for writers who never worked for me. Those who have cannot claim
> that they've never had the backing to be assertive about their
> place on a development team.

A good tech writer under good management isn't likely to end up looking
lost. Without good management, a tech writer might need to be
exceptionally resourceful in order to kickstart the flow of source
material, reviews, etc.

I tend to equate "good" tech writers with "experienced" tech
writers--they know the game well enough to make the right things happen
without calling out a lot of support from management.

It sounds like you cultivate that sort of capability in your tech
writers, and I agree with you, that's a good thing. If you have tech
writers who don't get it, I might agree that they're not seeing
themselves as Professionals, but that doesn't seem to me to be something
they've neglected to learn in school.

Maybe someone from a tech writing program will weigh in about how
toinstill the Professional identity in technical writers, but to me, the
sort of Professionalism that copes effectively with vagaries of the tech
writing job environment isn't classroom learning, or if it is, it would
be something for an Outward Bound kind of program to teach: Survival
Skills as Professional Values.

>> Do you think the root cause of the Sun lawsuit lies off in the
>> direction of unassertive tech writers? I don't have any real
>> information about the circumstances, so I'd rather not speculate on
>> whether she should have asserted independent judgement.
>
> It's hard to say exactly, since Hoenenmier's statements and those of her
> lawyers seem to point to different possible root claims. Her statements
> seem to claim that the cause is that Sun required salaried professionals
> to work mandatory OT, which would run counter to Sun's claim that the
> writers exercised "independent judgement;"

I'm not so sure we've heard all the facts or that they will point to a
conclusion that she's throwing a $100K job away because of a few lost
weekends. My guess, based on what I've heard, would be that the the job
had a bad passive-aggressive problem in general: "Do what I say or you
won't be allowed to work independently." The weekends issue might be
just the last straw.

her lawyer's statements seem
> to claim that the cause is that tech writers should not be exempt
> employees regardless of whether they exercise that judgement or not.

Laws and lawyers, I'd just don't know. Maybe they've already donned
armor, mounted chargers, and are running full tilt toward each other in
the main joust event. But I rather imagine everything we've heard from
both sides at this point is calculated to evoke without tipping the hand.


Ned Bedinger
'doc -at- edwordsmith -dot- com
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Follow-Ups:

References:
Tech Writer Lawsuit: From: Darcy Rumbold
Re: Tech Writer Lawsuit: From: Ned Bedinger
RE: Tech Writer Lawsuit: From: Bonnie Granat
Re: Tech Writer Lawsuit: From: Gene Kim-Eng
RE: Tech Writer Lawsuit: From: Bonnie Granat
Re: Tech Writer Lawsuit: From: Gene Kim-Eng
RE: Tech Writer Lawsuit: From: Bonnie Granat
Re: Tech Writer Lawsuit: From: Gene Kim-Eng
Re: Tech Writer Lawsuit: From: Ned Bedinger
Re: Tech Writer Lawsuit: From: Gene Kim-Eng
Re: Tech Writer Lawsuit: From: Ned Bedinger
Re: Tech Writer Lawsuit: From: Gene Kim-Eng

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