Re: Knowing prog. lang. +s to a TW's $? (long)

Subject: Re: Knowing prog. lang. +s to a TW's $? (long)
From: Elna Tymes <etymes -at- LTS -dot- COM>
Date: Mon, 13 Jan 1997 10:43:52 -0800

Rebecca Phillips wrote:
> If you know a dozen programming languages, you don't know what it's like
> not to know any.

On the contrary. I run a company that regularly hires interns, and we
train people who come in knowing no programming languages and very
quickly have to be able to understand programming and other technical
concepts. Our success rate speaks for itself: in three years, we've
been able to help our interns learn a variety of languages and other
computer-oriented tools and become highly desirable in the Silicon
Valley marketplace.

In one job I held, I had to let a technical writer go
> because she didn't know the first thing about programming.

I agree that there are people who simply can't grasp the basic ideas
behind programming, but it doesn't take a formal course for most people
to learn these basic ideas. If you can learn BASIC, for instance, you
have a grasp on many of the fundamental ideas behind programming. And
most people learn BASIC on their own. In fact, these days many kids get
some exposure to BASIC before junior high school.

> 1. There is nothing like writing a program to make you understand
> logical mathematical and hierarchical flow.

The same could be said for constructing a spreadsheet. To be fair,
spreadsheets are fundamentally a very graphic representation of
information in a database, so a case could be made that when you're
constructing a spreadsheet, you're manipulating within a database.

> 2. Knowing a bit about programming helps you know what effort is
> involved in creating and debugging features. <wonderful example snipped>

I'd posit that simple experience in documentation projects will give you
similar perspective. Every industry has projects that need development
time of one sort or another, and have problems that salespeople can't
predict. If you've been in program development projects for more than a
year, you develop a health skepticism about the meaning of "just this
little change" and "streamlining the code" and other catch-phrases that
set off your own alarm bells. I don't think these kinds of perspectives
are unique to programming backgrounds.

> 3. If you can talk the talk, the programmers like you better.

No question. But that's true of any industry. Most technical writers
pick up "the talk" fairly quickly, because part of their job involves
translation from the project jargon into the kinds of standard English
that an ordinary user will understand. Again, it doesn't take knowing a
programming language to learn the jargon.

I'm glad you've found your programming background useful. As I've said
before, I haven't found mine particularly useful except during the
screening process in an interview.

My company just acquired a new contract, incidentally, to help document
a new Java tool for a major software company. We DON'T have to
understand Java in order to write the manuals - in fact, since this is a
package where the user will be creating Java in an environment with a
lot of point-and-click tools (as opposed to creating Java in a bare
coding environment) it helps that we maintain a "naive user"
perspective. Here again, programming background isn't particularly
useful - what is going to help is knowing that there are ordinary users
out there who want to be able to do things in Java, and our job is to
help them get productive as quickly as possible.

I want to be very clear here -- I'm not discounting your experience and
hence your perspective. I'm glad you feel so strongly about your
background and its use. However, my own experience - and hence my
perspective - leads me to believe that knowing programming languages
doesn't necessarily make one a higher-earning technical writer.

Elna Tymes
Los Trancos Systems

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