SUMMARY: Growing a Department 3 of 3 (LONG)

Subject: SUMMARY: Growing a Department 3 of 3 (LONG)
From: Barb Ostapina <Barb -dot- Ostapina -at- METROMAIL -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 2 Apr 1998 11:49:24 -0500

Here's part 3...
Barb; At my last job, I was hired as the only/first Technical Writer at the
company. This company made
atomic clocks and other precision timing equipment and had about 150
employees at its peak. I remained
a one person writing department for the five years that I worked there. I
also have been the only
Technical Writer on a few projects at my present job.
Engineers assisted by secretaries at the first company originally
produced documentation. As the
company grew, they opened up a full-time Technical Writing position. They
did not really have a
description or even a classification for a Technical Writer. The position
was salaried but classified as
a Technician-A (techs were classified A, B, and C).
When I first started at the company as a Technical Writer, I was in a
two-person department called Product Engineering. The other member was an
Engineer. We reported to Marketing but acted as liaisons between Marketing
and Engineering. When a new product was planned and developed or an
existing product was customized, the Engineer would work on the
design/Marketing aspects and I would work on the documentation, training,
and specifications. This lasted for a year and a half.
Like many places, there was a re-org. The Engineer was made a
salesman and I was sent to Engineering. Because I had some programming,
engineering (ASEE + 1 year), teaching experience (BS in Education), and
technician experience, I became a jack-of-all trades. The documentation
was my main responsibility, but I also wrote and documented some ATE
(automated test equipment) programs, provided customer/in-house training
(which was sold with the documentation), did some PC-board layout, and even
soldiered/wire-wrapped prototypes.
The company started to expand its product line to the telecom
industry. This would more than double the documentation and prototype
needs. It was at this time that I suggested that the Engineering
department put on another writer. To put the whip to me, they said that
they could see it happening two-ways -- depending on my performance. One
way was to hire a Senior writer, classify me as a junior writer, and split
my duties between writing and troubleshooting prototype equipment. The
other way was to classify me as an Engineer-B and hire a junior writer to
write full time. In this scenario, I would be responsible for the design
and content of the documentation, but the junior writer would do most of
the writing. In essence, I would be the SME to whom the writer worked
with. I would be assisting with the prototype developments and
installation and training of our products.
Things looked good for about 6 months. I was promoted to Engineer B,
given a company credit card, writing-programming-troubleshooting-training,
being sent out into the field. I was at the point where the Engineers
would no longer micro-manage the documentation (took about 3 years to be
viewed a peer). They now just gave me a specification and said create a
test procedure, documentation, and training material from this, and let me
run with it.
However, right before hiring a junior writer, we lost what we thought
was a sure bid for a large project and our parent company bought-out and
merged us with a competitor. As a result, a third of the company was laid
off. It was decided that the telecom products would be developed out of
[city] (rather than [different city]). Anyway, I was out of work for
almost a year, relocated to [state], and started a new job. My old company
is back to having Engineers and secretaries write the documentation.
Although I wasn't the first tech writer hired by [company], I was
apparently the only real TW hired (the others were originally hired for
other jobs and did TW on the side). I was all by myself for about a year.
Developed a style guide and template. Wrote 23 books, ranging in length
from 50-400 pages. Worked all the time.
About 1 1/2 years ago, my company decided that our on-line help was
completely inadequate and needed to be updated. Knowing absolutely nothing
about on-line help, I didn't even know where to start. At this point, I
went into my boss's office and provided him with a very real picture of
supply and demand basically, that he couldn't have on-line help and manuals
unless we hired another tech writer. We hired a second TW within a month or
two. Unfortunately, he didn't work out and we were back to square one for
another month. But the second TW we hired really worked out. And we met our
deadlines, produced quality documentation and converted it to an on-line
help system that impressed my boss and our customers.
Now, we're looking for a third (and fourth by the end of year).
Incentives this time around are increasing number of manuals to support,
turn the vanilla help system into an awesome one, documentation intranet
page, development newsletters, on-line tutorials. With only two tech
writers, we can only produce documentation and on-line help. Nothing else
gets done. We still work all the time.
I've found that if you can clearly show (1) what will and won't get
done, (2) what improvements you're looking to make (it helps if your boss
is a techie), and (3) what the impact will be if you'd don't get another
TW, management is much more likely to graciously give in. It helps if
you're know to work like a dog, they already like what you're doing, and
you've proven that you don't whine and complain about every little thing.
It also helps if documentation is taken seriously.
I'm actually thinking that I'd like to start all over again in a few
years. There's nothing like knowing that you were the driving force and
creative vision behind a department (or group). It's cool.
barb -dot- ostapina -at- metromail -dot- com
...speaking only for myself.

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