Technical Writers are people – We just need to manage people.
I happened to manage a team of content writers first and then technical writers. I am using ‘happened’ in my statement as I entered into this role by chance way back in year 2000. Technical Writing was not a ‘very heard of’ word in that era. Fresh out of my college, I joined my first company as a content writer, uploading content on various publishing websites. Soon, I was assigned the task of an editor, which resulted in looking after the review work of three content writers. The role of an editor also requires a bit of people management. One needs to understand the way an author has written a document and get into his/her mind and then, edit the document. Off course, the rules of content writing also need to be applied in editing. Donning an editor’s hat actually leads you to believe that humans do commit mistakes, whether in life or content writing. The editor clearly needs to manage the technical authors (read people) to actually pass the work and get it to the final stage. The same still applies to my current responsibilities where there are engineering technical writers, required to write about the cutting edge technology. All are qualified to understand the engineering concepts as well as to understand the nitty-gritty of English language. However, as people, they still need to be assisted in moving in a directed way, as per the organization’s goals and vision. Combined together, I am referring to ‘people management’ of technical writers.
Technical Documentation as a specific skill
I am very sure that a significant percentage of world’s population has not heard of “technical documentation” as a specific skill, per se. As per Wikipedia, “In engineering, technical documentation refers to any type of documentation that describes handling, functionality, and architecture of a technical product or a product under development or use”. In general, technical documentation comprises:
- User guides
- Data sheets
- Testing methods
- Release Notes
- Known Problems and Solutions
- Quality Management
The engineering industry today demands technical writers who are expert in various engineering domains such as electrical, electronics, chemical, and software, clubbed with skills related to the language. The shortage of this skill combination leads to organizations hiring technical writers from various streams ranging from science graduates to arts and commerce graduates, to medical students and finally engineers. Engineers are a complex entity as far as people management goes and technical writers with engineering degree are an interesting mix. Technical publication managers often tend to lose their way in meeting the demands of engineering writers, which are difficult to interpret and accept at the same time. For the records, the word “engineer” is derived from a Latin word “ingenium”, meaning “cleverness”. Need I say more about people management of engineering writers!
The Shoes of a Technical Writer – the Management Aspect
Managing engineering writers seems to be a complex phenomena as you need to manage two roles – engineer and technical writer, at the same time. Both these roles are very specific in themselves and their mix results in a deadly combo. A genre of people might think that if you know how to manage engineers and how to manage technical writers, you can manage engineering writers, which is actually a wrong line of thinking. If you have engineers as technical writers in your team, the good part is that you tend to become more competitive and logical, as the engineer in you enables the problem solving skill in you while the writer in you inclines you towards the creative aspect of writing. Put together, these two aspects result in a win-win situation for you as well as for the organization.
The engineering writers in your team will criticize the problem as corrective and will eventually ask you to clean-up the whole mess. If you encourage them, it is good for them and the system but then, you will need to overhaul the whole process. On the contrary, some engineers, in my opinion, will lack the creative angle, but then, Rome was not built in a day. You need to adjust to their skill and give them time to shed their core of a technocrat and learn the nuances of a creative thinker.
If you are good enough a people manager, the engineering writers in your team can do wonders for your organization but they need to be properly nurtured and nourished, keeping in view their ambitions as an engineer, and as a technical writer.
The Financial Perspective
A recent study in the U.S. ranked technical writing as the 13th best job for year 2010, ahead of a web developer, financial planner, and aerospace engineer. Income level was one of the factors in this study and the ranking has clearly defined technical writing as a better income prospect, if not the best. As is always said, one needs to be practical in his financial evaluation. In the U.S., technical writers are paid handsomely and India is also not far behind.
If you are in an engineering domain organization and you are an engineering writer, you are definitely going to be valued more as compared to a non-engineering company but not at par with the technical experts of the organization. Same message should be made clear to the team of engineering writers and transparency should be maintained (not at the salary level) but at the responsibility and role clarity level. People are smart enough to value them compared to others and if they are not, it is our duty as managers to make them smart and see life through a clear window. In my personal opinion, engineering writers rule the roost here also because of their methodical approach and belief in practical aspects than theory.
The views mentioned in this article are solely the author’s and ABSOLUTELY NOT of the organization he is currently working with. The thoughts are NOT BIASED towards technical writers who come from backgrounds other than engineering.
About the author:
Ankur Srivastava is leading the technical documentation team of the R&D division at STMicrolectronics India Pvt. Ltd., Greater NOIDA, India. He has over nine years of experience in managing content developers and technical writers. His interests include playing cricket, badminton, lawn tennis, volleyball, swimming, working out, driving, photography, quizzing, and above all, talking to his baby daughter.
About the illustration:
The image is used with permission from Mallika Yelandur.Yelandur</a>.</em>