Re: "Software Technical Writing is a Dying Career"

Subject: Re: "Software Technical Writing is a Dying Career"
From: Simon North <simonxml -at- gmail -dot- com>
To: Gene Kim-Eng <techwr -at- genek -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 22 Aug 2015 04:23:25 +0200

I am the only technical writer in a company of more than a thousand people. When I joined, R&D was about 5 people, now it is about 60. Also, when I joined, we had 1 release every 18 months or so; now we have 2 releases every 3 months. I have been able to keep up for the last 11 years, but even my talents are limited. About 2 years, the head of R&D decided that the way to go was to make the developers write the documentation and I would manage their work. The last time this happened I was working in defence and it turned out to be a disaster.

This time, because they are not called upon to write end user documentation (I still do that to a very limited extent, but I run the wikis, handle open source licencing, and manage the release notes, white papers, a quarterly magazine, the bug fix reports, plus a lot more so I have very little time).

The point is that there are a couple of software developers who really do have a natural talent for writing. A few really enjoy it. There are also a couple who are borderline illiterate and a few who simply refuse. For the rest, it's seen as an unpleasant chore that is done unwillingly to the lowest possible standard. All of them have to be cajoled, pushed and sometimes nagged and bullied into delivering. Writing about something the first time can be seen as interesting, creative, even fun. It's a different story when they have to update something, and a totally different story when they have to document mundane details like C++ classes and methods, error messages and parameters.

We have managed reasonably well so far. The documentation is nothing to be proud of as regards quality, but it gets the job done and that's the most important thing. I'm somewhat hampered by a VP who just doesn't understand the difference between online help and "real" documentation, but that's a different issue.

We have, however, reached saturation point. More and more developers are beginning to complain about having less time for development and spending too much time on documentation. Inevitably, as the quantity of documentation increases (I have about 25,000 wiki topics on documentation out of a total 250,000) the task becomes more complex, more focused on updates and less pleasurable for the developers.

I know (and I am trying to make my managers see) that hoping to bring someone in who can converse intelligently with our most gifted developer (who works alone, remotely from the UK and who is about as communicative as a sulking teenager) from day 1 is totally unrealistic. I this situation, I would wholeheartedly agree that the basic writing ability has to be there. There also has to be a certain passion for communicating. Add those to a natural curiosity and an eagerness to learn and I think you then have the makings of a technical writer. They can learn the technical side. When I worked as a tech writer in EDA, I mentored three of four new writers and we knew that it would take about 2 years before they really understood what the software was about, the underlying principles of behavioral IC design, and how to use the software. What else could expect when all the software developers have doctorates in electronics?

I am not so sure that an English major would cut it. There must be some kind of technical foundation. There is only so much you explain, and there just isn't the time to explain the basics of SOAP, client-server application integration, or what Agile means.

I do so wish there were more odd people like me. My first degree was maths, stats and computing. I detested stats - still do - and switched after a year to my other subjects (french and english literature). Clueless as to what I wanted to do, I went into the military who trained me as an avionics engineer. When I left the military I still had no clue what I wanted to do. I worked as a field service engineer on Rolls-Royce jet engines for a while but then I discovered by accident that I seemed to have a natural talent for technical writing and from that point on there was no looking back. Nearly 40 years later, I am still doing it, and still loving it (I completed a postgraduate degree in technical communication a few years ago). I've lost count of the programming languages I've learned; I still hack code when I need to. When it comes to XML and SGML, HyTime, Schema, HTML, CSS ... I'm the man (well enough to have published quite a few books on the topics). This is not to blow my own trumpet, but merely to point out that the fact that I have been able to fall into a classification as sciences or arts that I have been able to survive as a very, very technical technical writer. I am not unique though. There must be others like me. Where are they?

Simon.

> On Aug 22, 2015, at 01:59, Gene Kim-Eng <techwr -at- genek -dot- com> wrote:
>
> In my experience, this has more to do with motivation than with any innate natural talent. Sure, there are engineers who can't write and could never be taught to write, but they are far outnumbered by engineers who could write or be taught to write, but who flat out just don't WANT to write and will never put in any meaningful effort to learn to do it well.
>
> The reason the technical writer exists as a job description is that there are people who are willing to learn how to write AND how to acquire the necessary subject matter knowledge to pry what they haven't got the time to learn themselves out of those who already know it, and who are usually willing to do it for somewhat less money than it would cost to get an engineer to take writing seriously enough to put in the effort to learn to do it well.
>
> Gene Kim-Eng
>
>
>
>> On 8/21/2015 1:19 PM, John G wrote:
>>
>> About 20 years ago, Joe related his memories of this debate in his keynote
>> address at an InterChange conference. He said that after trying to teach
>> engineers how to write for a few months, they gave up, hired some English
>> majors, explained things to them, and started getting cogent, structured,
>> and organized documents as a result.
>
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Follow-Ups:

References:
RE: "Software Technical Writing is a Dying Career": From: David Artman
Re: "Software Technical Writing is a Dying Career": From: John G
Re: "Software Technical Writing is a Dying Career": From: Gene Kim-Eng

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