Re: Baseline Skillset for Technical Writers?

Subject: Re: Baseline Skillset for Technical Writers?
From: "Alan D. Miller"
To: techwr-l
Date: Fri, 17 Dec 1999 13:20:11

Quoth Sharon Burton:

> The ability to take their computer apart to the boards and put the parts
> back together again. Seriously. I am working on an article right now about
> the fact that for the several years (4?) I have been teaching Frame and
> RoboHELP, 20% of my students cannot create a directory and copy the contents
> of a floppy to the directory. They have to be helped. And these are
> professionals who work in the field and want to get the Frame and RoboHELP
> skills.
> Small wonder so many of us have a hard time getting respect. How can we be
> taken seriously when 20% of us cannot do this simple task? This is the tool
> that we spend 40 or more hours a week with. We should know how to use it.
> Donning my flame retardant clothes. (Really, don't bother. I feel very
> strongly about this and these numbers hold out in every class I have taught.
> It is appalling. We are professionals and we cannot use our tools
> effectively!)
> sharon
> Sharon Burton-Hardin
> President of the Inland Empire chapter of the STC
> Anthrobytes Consulting
> Check out!
> See!

This is an issue that has been debated for years in the training business:
should a worker know only the procedures neede for the job or should (s)he
have a knowledge of the principles behind the procedures and tools in use?
Know that it is possible (and quite common) to use a tool and follow
procedures for years without any idea of why they work and how

A few years ago I conducted a training audit at one of our DOE facilities
(names will not be used, to protect me from the guilty). During the course
of this audit, I interviewed and examined every boiler operator at the
facility (the boilers provide steam for the nuclear processes and some
supplemental electric power). This audit was precipitated by a series of
fatal and very expensive industrial accidents (non-nuclear). I found that
the operators were very good at following procedures, as they were required
to, but had no further knowledge of how a boiler and steam plant operated.
It made no difference whether the operator had 35 years experience (as some
did) or 3 months, their levels of knowledge were the same (zero = zero).
When faced with a situation not covered by procedure, these folks did not
have the tools to analyze the problem and formulate a solution. Result? Bad
Things happened. People got hurt. Equipment was wrecked. Managers lost
their jobs. (Well, that's not necessarily a Bad Thing.) I got a gig doing
the audit. (Not a Bad Thing, either.)

This is an extreme example (my favorite kind), but it illustrates the
point. If you use a tool, you need to understand that tool to the fullest
extent possible. Things unexpected happen. You have to cope with them. If
you don't know how, could you figure it out? If you know how something
works, you probably will. You meet your deadline. The client is happy. You
get paid. Your creditors/significant other/recreational pharmaceuticals
dealer/bookie (choose all that apply) are happy. All because you know how
your computer works and what its parts are.

So, you ask, what should the Tech Writer's skill set include? Computer
maintenance? Yes. And what makes the computer work in the first place and
what its basic parts are. Likewise, the printer setting next to it. Delving
deeper, let's include a basic foundation in math and science. No matter
what technical subject you document, you need to understand the science
behind it. Otherwise you're just a scribe.

Just my dollar two-ninety-eight worth.

Al Miller
alan -dot- miller -at- educate -dot- com

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