Re: Technical Writers and Programming Skills

Subject: Re: Technical Writers and Programming Skills
From: Chris Hamilton <chamilton -at- GR -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 13:56:37 -0500

Mike Collier - SSG wrote:
> What level of programming knowledge is required of you in your work ?
> For example, are you required to be able to read blocks of code and
> explain what it is doing, and/or do you write code samples for use as
> examples?

At my current job, I'm not expected to be able to do much of anything
with the code. But because I used to program, I understand it maybe a
little better than someone else who didn't program. The most important
programming knowledge that I have is the knowledge of the process the
programmers go through. It gives me credibility with them, helps me pick
things up faster, and makes them more willing to spoon feed me when I
need it (because I don't need it very often). Right now we're creating a
multi-tiered environment for distributed application development. It
ain't rocket science, but it can be kind of complex at times. If it
weren't for my programming background, I'd be drowning.

> If you've recently learned a programming language, have you been able to
> learn effectively and apply what you've learned from books of the "Learn
> [whatever] in 21 Days" variety? What other means have you used to learn
> programming?

I programmed for about five years. I went to a class during that time to
learn Ada (YUCK!). Since then, I've picked up little bits 'o C and
OpenVMS as needed (again, because I understand a lot of the concepts).
For Java (which our project uses a lot), I did about half of the 21 days
book for Java. If you understand what programming is, apart from the
language, I'd say that's a good way to learn. If it's your first
language, you should be prepared to have some holes in your knowledge.

> What is more important to spend your time on-- developing and refining
> programming skills, or other technical writing skills, such as using
> document production software and writing and editing ?

Of the two choices you list, without a doubt, technical writing skills.
I'm not a programmer any more (hooray!), so I don't develop those
skills. I do spend some time, however, trying to understand what the
programmers are doing and how they are doing it. For instance, I
understand what a java interface is and I even know how to set one up
and use some classes to implement it, but it would take me forever to
program it. You need to know just enough to be able to do your job. That
means you have to be able to explain things and you have to be able to
work effectively with the developers. If they won't talk to you unless
you can program, you need to learn that (or polish your resume).
Otherwise, you need to be able to talk and write intelligently about it.

> If you (or if you would) hire technical writers with programming skills,
> how would you evaluate their skills in a job interview (e.g., explain
> the inputs and outputs of a block of code, comment a block of code,
> write a simple program, etc.)

I'd just talk to them about what they did and know and how they apply
that to the technical documentation. In my mind, it's the application
that's the most important thing. I have programmers already; I'm hiring
you as a technical writer.

> I have seen some help wanted ads looking to hire technical writers who
> can write user documentation straight from the application's source code
> (I assume without analysis, design or other project documents to use as
> reference). Isn't this asking too much, even of a skilled technical
> writer with modest programming skills? If you've done this, how did it
> go?

It's not asking too much if you can get it. Personally, I wouldn't take
a job like that unless I had to. The code tells you what happened, but
the developer is often the only one who can tell you why. I've
maintained some COBOL code that was absolutely spaghetti (And COBOL's
usually pretty easy to understand). I was a programmer in that (easy)
language and I struggled with (and eventually rewrote) it. Unless I was
faced with a choice between it and joblessness, I wouldn't take a job
like that. IMO, there's just too much you can miss.


Chris Hamilton, Technical Writer
Greenbrier & Russel
chamilton -at- gr -dot- com

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