Re: Not Wanted--Technical Writers

Subject: Re: Not Wanted--Technical Writers
From: Chuck Melikian <chuckm -at- MDHOST -dot- CSE -dot- TEK -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 19 Dec 1997 16:36:11 -0800

It was written:

# After reading the Washington Post article, I completely agree with the
# attitude of Michelle Flaum. In my experience, many writers who claim to be
# "experienced" are inflexible, obsessive, and lazy. Many of them are deeply
# entrenched in form, style and fonts and completely ignore subject matter,
# technical accuracy, and audience needs. Likewise, many of these so-called
# "experienced writers" lag way behind the technology curve.

"Experienced writer" simply refers someone who has written before and
done a fair amount of writing (however you define a fair amount :-) ).
It does not refer to someone that writes well.

# I remember one "experienced writer (10 years)" I worked with who ardently
# refused to document anything that ran on a Windows system. In his opinion,
# Windows was for losers and he shouldn't be forced to work with such useless
# technology. Needless to say, I ended up writing all the Windows docs and he
# got fired. He went on to sell used cars for a living.

If he said that in 1985, he was right. :-) But, things change. As did

Years ago, analog electrical engineers balked at the new-fangled
digital technology and now, many of them aren't working as designers

Programmers have balked at learning object-oriented programming. They
may not be programming in a few years.

Mechanics balked at learning about new-fangled fuel-injection systems.

Refusing to learn new methods is an old human trait. Sticking with the
familiar is common in any field you can name. It is a trait that is limited
to those with experience, because those without experience can't stick
with something they don't know.

# [snip]

# I hire subcontractors for work, and I prefer inexperienced, recent college
# graduate applicants to "experienced" writers. In my experience,
# less-experienced liberal arts students are more motivated to succeed and
# learn new things. Moreover, these people are far more creative when it comes
# to describing complex technology. Because they are not burdened with years
# of bias toward older technologies, they can look at difficult issues with
# new perspectives.

If I am hiring a contractor, I will hire an experienced writer, preferably
someone I have worked with before. I do not prefer inexperienced writers.

If you haven't read Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder, there is a point
in the book where the program manager says (roughly) "I like to hire
new engineers with a C average instead of an A average, because the guys
with the C average don't know it can't be done." Granted, experience can
get in the way, but how many of you want a someone with no surgical training
removing your appendix?

I recall reading a book by Howard Gardener several years ago. The book was
about the development of artificial intelligence. The story this thread
reminds me of was about some research that was done to determine whether
experience was actually valuable. In the experiment, several newly minted
physics PhD's and several experienced physics PhD's were given a problem
to solve. The problem required some sophisticated knowledge of physics,
but it was knowledge that any PhD would have. The PhD's were timed to
determine how long it took them to solve the problem. In every case, the
experienced PhD's solved the problem significantly faster. The conclusion
drawn by the researchers was that there was no substitute for experience.
They theorized that the experienced PhD's solved the problem faster because
their experience allowed them to discard fruitless potential solutions
sooner than the inexperienced PhD's. They concluded that experience provided
an additional kind of knowledge that simply could not be taught. That
kind of knowledge could only be gained through experience. Hiring people
with no experience deprives you of some kinds of knowledge.

# With 8 years experience as a writer, I am keenly aware of how entrenched I
# have become. Just last week someone showed me a Java application - which I
# immediately discounted as a cute toy rather than a useful application. That
# kind of attitude is dangerous since that cute toy could become the next
# Windows NT. While I mock it, others are embracing it and making a lot of
# money doing projects documenting the cute toy.

Just because some people are making money on it does not mean it will
be viable in the long run. People used to make money off CP/M. Amiga
made money at one time. Java may well be the next big thing. It may also
turn out to be a flash in the pan. Name a major application currently
written in Java that the average user can buy off the shelf. I don't know
of any. I'm sure they will come. But I don't know they will succeed in
the long run. This does not mean I am entrenched. Deciding Java is not
the next big thing does not mean you are entrenched. What does it mean
if you go for Java in a big way and it flops? Does it mean you are a moron or
does it mean you predicted wrong? There is a difference between blindly
refusing to do something and chosing not to do something for well
considered reasons. Blindly not doing something is always dumb. Not doing
something for well considered reasons is rational. You may wish you had
decided differently later on, but that doesn't mean you made a stupid choice.

# I think it is deathly important to remember that technical writing, like
# most disciplines, is not a unmovable object. It requires constant attention
# to all the details and possibilities. There are no single solutions to all
# problems. There are no tools or technologies that are good for all jobs.
# The process of producing good documentation is requires a willingness to
# learn and explore new ideas.

Anyone that thinks things won't change is deluding themselves. Change is the
only thing besides death and taxes that is inevitable.

Experience is valuable. Depending on the situation, hiring someone with
no experience can be utterly stupid. I simply do not believe that you
can hire someone with no experience and give them a five-manual, 3000
page project and expect them to do as well as someone with a lot of
experience. The problem is not people who have experience, it is
people who have an attitude. And that can be a problem with inexperienced
people just as easily as with experienced people.

Chuck Melikian

chuck -dot- melikian -at- tek -dot- com

"My opinions, not theirs.", or

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