Re: Tech Writer Lawsuit

Subject: Re: Tech Writer Lawsuit
From: "Tim Mantyla" <tim -dot- mantyla -at- gmail -dot- com>
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
Date: Fri, 30 May 2008 10:44:11 -0400

It seems like one causative problem discussed here is that new tech writers
especially, and perhapsmost of us (as a reflection of society) work in
"field[s] …plagued by last minute afterthought planning…"

The concept both of you may be inadvertently dancing near is systems theory.
Smart workers find a way of looking at an organization, process, company or
industry as a system, and find ways to work better and better within it. If
they have or increase their power to redesign the systems as managers or
influencers (using proposals, persuasion and education, for example) within
the organization, that works to their advantage and the organization's.

People I've worked with, including me, have worked hard to do that in
various workplaces. It's a tough road if management has a hard time seeing
the forest for the trees—but ultimately better for the organization and the
systems thinker/worker if they can push their ideas through to better manage
the forest.

The oxymoronic "afterthought planning" is an almost universal problem--until
it gets better organized by system-oriented thinkers and doers. A well
organized system of product development, one that folds in the documentation
at the outset, is a good example of system thinking and planning that would
largely prevent Ned's "full palette" of unsavory options to deal with the
lack of it.

An experienced worker, tech writer or other, often can see the bigger
picture and can work around and better within it, as a result of seeing
things globally instead of just his/her little piece of the company
pie. Better
results are likely to follow when workers think in terms of the system
around "my job."

Does that skill make someone more "professional?" Maybe, but certainly more
marketable. It may foster--out of sheer need to survive in a disorganized,
at times insane world--an intelligent assertiveness through the effort to
improve your piece of the pie. It helps you fit a high-quality effort into
an impoverished series of courses that drag down the entire meal and fail to
nourish the customer, in the end.

The legal framework would benefit as well from systems thinking, as
evidenced by the Sun lawsuit mess. If legislators took more time to study
the intent vs. the ramifications of the laws, maybe this conflict could be

"Think globally, act locally" is more than an environmental clarion call.
It's a wake-up call and slogan every organization (and person) should adopt
to get along better in every phase of life.

The US Constitution may be a good example of systems thinking applied to
law. It is based on sound moral principles that all can benefit from, yet
provides checks and balances to divide power among the representatives of
government, and allow a balance of freedoms and responsibilities--ideally,
that is.

Unfortunately, systems thinking is not generally taught in schools—at least
not schools I attended, including the much lauded University of
Michigan---though it should be, and weighted as important as reading,
writing and arithmetic. So people learn it along the way, through hard

Ned's "Outward Bound kind of program to teach: Survival Skills as Professional
Values" would fit into such a "real world" systems curriculum.

Gene certainly employs systems thinking into his product management and
documentation process, from what he's stated in various posts.

This is a highly valuable discussion, from the activity on the list! I'm
enjoying the pieces of it that I can, with my busy schedule.

-- --
Tim Mantyla

Communication - Creativity - Innovation.

Post your comments and innovations at

> From: Ned Bedinger <doc -at- edwordsmith -dot- com>

> 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?

> 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.

> >> 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.

> Maybe someone from a tech writing program will weigh in about how
> to instill 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.

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