TechWhirl (TECHWR-L) is a resource for technical writing and technical communications professionals of all experience levels and in all industries to share their experiences and acquire information.
For two decades, technical communicators have turned to TechWhirl to ask and answer questions about the always-changing world of technical communications, such as tools, skills, career paths, methodologies, and emerging industries. The TechWhirl Archives and magazine, created for, by and about technical writers, offer a wealth of knowledge to everyone with an interest in any aspect of technical communications.
My terrible client... Technical Writer Horror Story Number 3056
Subject:My terrible client... Technical Writer Horror Story Number 3056 From:Yvonne Harrison <yvonne -at- IHUG -dot- CO -dot- NZ> Date:Thu, 10 Oct 1996 08:35:51 +1300
Hi All - -
At my current level of frustration with my client I could quite easily chew
my own arm off before throwing myself off a bridge... So I had to get it off
my chest - and you guys are the only ones who are going to understand. (By
the way, this posting probably has obvious typos and grammar mistakes in it.
My current state of mind is really messing with my ability to use the English
I knew it was coming. I've been feeling it for months. The general unnamed
level of dissatisfaction from the client. Odd questions such as, "But why
does it take so long?" ("Well, it's been sitting on your desk for seven weeks
to review...") and statements like, "We practise continuous improvement, so
let's just get the manual out there..." ("Which bit of the manual would you
like to be wrong?")
I don't quite know what goes wrong sometimes. I've been in enough situations
to know that despite a lot of companies saying they have a commitment to
producing quality documentation, most don't really understand what that
means. They just know they have to have it because everyone else does. So
I'm careful. Before starting I always peform and Analysis and Design. This
one took about four weeks. I interviewed every person I could in the
department, I found every piece of existing documentation they had (all 800
pages), I read every page, I interviewed Team Leaders, managers, even more
managers. In the end I was able to produce an 80 page A&D which offered a
number of solutions based on what I'd been told by the Project Sponsor and
others, offered a writing methdology (IM), told them why I thought we should
go for paper based and not on-line (the information was mission critical and
included subjects such as how to recover fileservers. Having that sort of
information on-line on a fileserver defeated the purpose...). I even used a
risk management model so I could show them by using weighted scores against
known factors why the project might run into some difficulty. (Incidentally
I rated the project at having a 40 - 50% chance of having severe problems and
that proved to be accurate).
I then made sure I had sign-off sheets for every draft so I could trace who
reviewed and how long reviews were taking. I started writing and found...
1) A Team Leader who although he appeared committed to the project and
although he had sat there nodding his approval of my approach, actually
didn't care less. He would assign SMEs who didn't know what they were doing
(one draft entailed me having to interview *five* people to find the right
SME). He was antagonistic to any technical personnel outside of his group.
If I had to find a SME for information from another area he would refuse to
sign the draft. The fact that his staff did not know the process didn't seem
2) My drafts started to uncover the fact that there were a lot of poorly
defined processes and in fact some processes didn't even exist. One such
draft involved the processes and procedures for handling incoming stock (this
department handled a lot of laptops and PCs that were then distributed to
departments). I went to the manager and pointed out that they actually had
no processes to prevent theft. I said it in a nice way - "look I'm not
insulting the people who work here. I'm sure they're honest. But you've got
no way to trace what happens to this equipment once it leaves here. What
happens if something goes missing? This department will be responsible."
The manager replied that up until now he didn't think there was any problem
however a laptop had just gone missing... However, another manager (also
involved in the department) hauled me into his office and said,"how dare you
imply that my staff are dishonest!" I noticed that every time I started a
draft, huge gaping holes in the processes would appear. Nobody really knew
what happened. Sending equipment away for transportation involved, " writing
something on the consignment note. It doesn't matter what we put on it, we
just have to get the account number right".
As the drafts wore on, with me trying to pin down information and processes
(and the time for a complete draft taking up to two weeks) I noticed the Team
Leader getting increasingly agitated. It seemed that my constant questioning
was making him look bad...
3) The managers, despite my requests for help, despite my protests, took
very little notice. My expertise was ignored in favour of the Team Leader
who spent a lot of time telling people my documentation failed because his
people wouldn't read it. I pointed out that I could't actually force anyone
to read the documentation but apparently this was my fault as well.
4) Managers who said they supported the process couldn't care less.
When I raised concerns about the direction the project was going in, I was
ignored. When I asked for help with my SME problem I was ignored. One
manager threw a hissy fit saying he hadn't been kept informed of what was
happening despite the fact that I'd sent him 2 e-mails at the time (and tried
to contact him but he was a manager always 'in meetings'). Luckily I keep my
e-mail and was able to show him a copy. Unfortunately his response was that
we should have known that he didn't have time to read his e-mail.
Hmmmm.... I'm sensing a pattern here.
5) The phrase 'continuous improvement' used as a convenient excuse. It
seems that at this client site continuous improvement works like this: let's
just get that thing out there. So it's a bit wrong. We'll fix it up later.
Unfortunately a lot of the products and support are internal (i.e., they
don't support paying customers). My cries of horror were ignored. I tried
using analogy (now would you accept a programmer telling you their code is
only 90% correct but that's okay?). I tried to demonstrate that quality
would reflect how they valued their internal customers. No such luck.
6) The Team Leader's favourite catch cry was, "we're in an ever changing
industry and the technical writers need to keep up with what we're doing".
In other words every two months or so he would decide that the documentation
we were producing wasn't important enough. He had far more important things
that needed documenting. He constantly gave the impression that somehow his
bunch of LAN support specialists were in a league of their own and that the
industry was so fluid that the all had to re-learn their jobs every two
weeks. A lot of managers bought into this delusion and his constant whining
about the sad state of affairs in his department were taken very seriously.
It was everyone else's fault... Just not his.
7) And finally... I was originally brought in to try and dig them out of
the hole they were currently in. Their technical people were producing the
documentation. It was never spell checked, it was never re-written and a lot
of it was just plain wrong upon review. It took them three to four weeks on
average to write three pages. Now they want to do this again. They don't
need technical writers. Technical writers are too slow. They've decided
that what they really wanted after all were a bunch of checklists so they can
tick the boxes and that will let everyone know they're doing their jobs.
(Fine for experienced people, what about the entry level people...).
Management is supporting this with the continuous improvement excuse. They
have stated that they "just want it completed" and want their technical
staff to feel that they're good writers so the drafts will not be edited.
They will be signed off by the Team Leader and then issued. No standards,
not style guide, no editing, no nothing...
Yes folks, the words STUPIDITY and DOUBLE STANDARDS comes to mind. Here's
another example of a company who can trot out all the right buzzwords, who
spends thousands of dollars sending their people on Edward De Bono courses,
Stephen Covey courses, whose mission statement involves using the word
'quality' a lot. And yet...
Well, I'm finishing up a manual for another department at the moment. This
has been a far more enjoyable experience as they're really into the process.
I'll at least have one success before I leave.
Sorry to rave on but this situation has just become intolerable - but of
course, not entirely unexpected.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention - I'm looking around for another contract :-)