SUMMARY: Growing a Department 1 of 3 (LONG)

Subject: SUMMARY: Growing a Department 1 of 3 (LONG)
From: Barb Ostapina <Barb -dot- Ostapina -at- METROMAIL -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 2 Apr 1998 11:48:44 -0500

I recently asked the list:
Has anybody out there...
* been the first ever tech writer/communicator hired in your company,
* stayed the "lone ranger" for a year or two,
* recognized the need (vs. desire) for additional tech
* tried to make a case for turning yourself into a department and
hiring additional staff,
* and been successful?
If so, would you mind sharing your story? Especially the successfully grew
a department part. I'll publish a summary if there is interest. Much
First of all, a great BIG THANKS to all who replied. And since there was a
GREAT deal of interest, here's the summary (in three parts due to
Barb - I was in exactly this situation about 3 years ago. I was the only
tech writer for almost two years, they finally brought another on board to
help with the workload, he left after 7 months (didn't like being a tech
writer), they not only replaced him but also hired a third, and had plans
to bring in a fourth.
We were unofficially a "department", with me pretty much running the
show. I was interfacing w/engineering, training & marketing managers, etc.,
assigning projects and coordinating work efforts, interviewing candidates,
editing, etc., etc. Our group reported to the Manager of Engineering
Services, a youngster who had absolutely no experience or knowledge of tech
pubs, and he relied on me to get the job done.
I left the company because I was extremely underpaid for the amount of
"managerial" type responsibility I had and because they would not bump me
up to team leader/supervisor/manager (my manager's manager - the Director
of Engineering - kept saying it wasn't needed). It stunned them when I left
and they re-evaluated the situation and ended up splitting off the tech
pubs group into its own department. As manager, they selected a writer that
I had hired just before I left - the reason I wanted him is because I knew
I was leaving and believed he had the abilities to be a good manager. Now,
three years later, I am seriously considering returning to this same
company, as Sr. Writer, reporting to the same guy I hired! (Isn't life
On the other hand, I am also talking to a company where I will be the
only writer. It's a new company, with a new product, and I will be fully
responsible for designing, authoring, and producing their information
products - everything from quick-reference cards and user guides to
technical reference manuals, WinHelp, web-based tech alerts, etc., etc.
I've been there, done that, and know what kind of effort this job entails
and am a bit loath to take this on all this responsibility w/o due
compensation. Unfortunately this company doesn't seem to think the job is
worth what I think it's worth - they're offering about 8K less than what I
am asking, so I will probably pass on it and go with my former employer
(who's offering the same salary, better benefits, and far less
responsibility and workload, plus the commute is half as far as the other
Sorry I can't be of more help in your quest, but the best advice I can
give is "stick to your guns". Try to find a respected ally in your company
who has had experience working in other companies with full-fledged tech
comm groups and see if he/she will go to bat for you with management. Like
I said, my former employer didn't take me seriously in my quest for
"department" status, then when they started hearing it from my successor,
they realized I wasn't just blowing smoke.
Also remember that since very few senior managers have had any direct
experience with tech comm groups, they don't realize the effort involved,
and therefore tend to undervalue it. (Unfortunately, there are still way
too many managers who view us as "glorified typists".) You will have to
work hard to convince them of your group's value to the company.
Hi, Barb. I was the lone tech writer for 9 months. I found out
serendipitously (!) that the company was advertising for another tech
writer to document internal processes and do "code documentation." I
queried the techwriters' list for exactly what code documentation would
be/require. I got very valuable feedback which I transmitted to my
management and strongly urged the management to find out exactly what
code documentation meant to them.
At the same time, I told them we needed to hire a contractor to work
on documenting a new product for users, as I was overbooked.
Results: I was given final say in hiring a tech writer, who was to be
under my supervision. He has, in one month, completed the internal
documentation assignment and is now working on my overflow and the new
It really helped to outline the projects I was working on, the time
required to complete those projects and projected completion dates
(working alone), the value-added benefit of having better quality
documentation (our sales people are using the manuals for prospective
clients, and our clients are pleased to have better documentation - they
had even requested it as one of the highest priorities at the last
client conference). I surveyed clients to find out their precise needs
in documentation, something which had never been done here. I outlined
what the new hire would initially work on, and then work into.
Greetings, Barb! Well, what you describe is basically what I've done about
five times:
first real tech writer in the door, work by myself for about 1-1.5 years,
convince upper management that more writers would be more productive,
create a department, and then I get bored with the smoothly operating
environment and move along. By the way, I'll be glad to share this with
you, but there is no need to summarize for others. Should they want the
information, they can ask for it just like you did. And rather than bore
you with the same tale five times over, I'll only tell one.
In 1985 I joined a software company in Atlanta as their first official
tech writer/"documentation
expert." Previously, doc had been developed by the company owner's wife
(who was very sharp to begin with),
although her primary expertise did not lie in developing doc. Company
produced about 15 different products,
all which relied on the same integrated database. Doc was adequate, but
lacked polish, uniformity of
presentation, and what I refer to as the "duh" factor: the ability to
replicate and accommodate the
confusion an initial user may have with the system. So for the next 10-12
months I basically worked about
10 hour days to define a standard appearance for all doc (this was with
WordPerfect), to create
documentation updates for existing products and develop doc for new
products as they came out (about 2 per
year). Lots of what I did was administrative stuff, which would provide the
structure for growth. Since
this was a smallish company, I did a lot of wandering around and getting to
know all sorts of people, which
was one way to get additional sources of information.
Although I had quarterly "conversations" with my manager about how
things were going, I also produced
a quarterly "state of the documentation" report which I distributed to the
VPs of Marketing, Sales, Product
Development, and to other folks indicating how we might improve our
documentation in general. These were
very concrete and concise plans, focused on next quarter, so that we could
more forward quickly.
As the number of products grew and the demand for my services grew
(because I also did a lot of volunteer editing of materials for other
groups to demonstrate what a trained documentation person might do for
their deliverables), I began to include proposals for a documentation
group: several other folks like me who would provide similar services to
the company. After working by myself for almost two years, I got approval
to hire five additional writers, who would report to me. Challenging
prospect: the human resources person suggested I hire three initially, and
then two more, but I decided to bring all five in at one time. That was a
major bit of work in a very short amount of time. I advertised through the
local STC chapter and received about 125 resumes. I sorted those out to 25
possibles; four or five of those possibles eliminated themselves, and I
conducted 20 2-hour interviews. I made offers to five; five accepted. And
then the work began.
I was obviously not going to have lots of time to supervise these
folks, so I deliberately selected
skilled obsessives: writers who were internally driven to do a good job and
who knew what to do from the
get-go. My role was more to provide overt guidance rather than
micromanagement. And that worked like a
charm for the next 3 years. We were able to not only standardize all
product documentation (developing
a library of five or six standard deliverables for each product), but we
also developed a series of
WordPerfect macro-based menus to automatically format the work we'd get
from other people into the
look-and-feel we used. We also developed a very detailed Documentation
Policies and Procedures guide
(which described precisely how we did the all the things we did) and a very
detailed Standards Guide.
The whole process was a ton of fun, and probably would have continued
on for quite some time had
the company's owners and backers not decided that they needed to get a
better return on their investment
and sold the company. The subsequent regimen instituted extensive
cost-cutting policies, one of which
included eliminating the documentation manager (since they already had
those cool books that told anyone
how to do all the things we did).
Fortunately, I kept track of all the folks I worked with, and was able
to rehire them for a group
I work in now. They're still great folks, and I still enjoy working with
So, what made the whole thing go? Management who knew enough to not
micromanage me; lots of extra work on my part to demonstrate the
value-added trained doc folks could bring to the table; consistent
marketing (via reports and casual conversations) of areas of potential
improvement; and my desire not to fail.
Barb, When I started my first full-time permanent position as a technical
writer four years ago, I was the
only tech writer in a production department at [Company]. I began rewriting
their documentation,
which had been written and maintained by engineers, technicians, production
operators, and managers of
various levels of education and various degrees of English literacy.
Originally, my charter was to rewrite
the documents so they were at a consistent reading grade level (about
8th-grade). During this project, I
discovered that most of the material was completely inaccurate, often
lacked important detail, and was
simply delivered in a format that wasn't optimal for communicating
technical information. The job
eventually expanded until I was managing the department's entire body of
Simply to maintain the documentation with the number of changes coming
in, I had to get another person. Fortunately, I brought someone in who was
also interested in the same agenda as I. Since I started, I had been
pushing for a conversion to a better system for online documentation. The
two of us together began to plan for this new system and took steps to take
the department in this direction. This step gave our efforts high
visibility with management, and they began to see other needs for both
documentation and training. I prposed a new structure within the training
group for a documentation team composed of two writers and a supervisor. My
colleague moved into web-based instructional design with the training
group. I was promoted to supervisor, and I hired two new writers.
All of this took place in about three years, during which time we also
put up a new web-based document control system and helped set [Company's]
future course for document management. I left a year ago, and the writers I
hired have taken over both the supervisor and instructional design roles,
and two new writers filled their vacancies. Given Micron's current
precarious state, I think the department I was in saw a definite value
added by having our group and allowing it to expand as it. Every proposal I
made began with this in mind. In any case, the documentation is now more
accurate, easier and faster to use, and much more professional looking than
it was when I started, AND engineers and managers didn't have to take time
out of their jobs to do work they weren't qualified to do anyway.
Hope I don't sound like I'm tooting my horn too much, but I guess I'm
pretty proud of my accomplishments there.
barb -dot- ostapina -at- metromail -dot- com
...speaking only for myself.

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