In this edition of Experts Ignite, we bring you perspectives on technical writing management, innovation, and growth from a seasoned professional Sairaj Vaithilingam. Sairaj leads the Content and Design Services (C&DS) practice at Cognizant. C&DS comprises three units: User Experience and Design, Technical Writing, and eLearning. C&DS has over 1200 associates, and is perhaps the largest such unit among peer organizations in India. Sairaj started his career in the software industry as a Technical Writer. In Cognizant, he established the Technical Writing group and subsequently expanded into the other service lines. Sairaj’s goal is to make his team in Cognizant a global leader in User Experience and User Adoption services.
How can technical writers bring in innovation and practice continuos innovation?
There are several factors that contribute to innovation. The first is the individual’s characteristic. You need to have a constant questioning mind. You need to have the mindset of looking at what you do and looking at what is happening around you, and seeing how you can make things better. Having this characteristic alone is not enough. You need to have the courage to speak up, take charge, and make things better. I’ve noticed that such people grow quicker in their career and make great leaders. The next, but equally important factor, is the office environment. The organization and leaders need to create an environment that encourages innovation and recognizes people who come up with ideas. Any individual’s spirit will be killed if he or she is constantly suppressed from innovative thinking.
How does the Content and Design Services (C&DS) team of Cognizant ensure a seamless balance between creativity and technology?
We try to provide an environment that encourages creativity and innovation. We ask our associates to constantly see how they can do things better. Technical Writing, or more specifically User Documentation, need not be a standard type of deliverable project after project. Technical Writers need to think deeply on what is required and see how best they can present content for efficient usage. With this approach, we become consultative and guide clients on what is best for the users. However, much of this is in the characteristics of individual technical writers. You can either choose to think and deliver what is best for users, or you can follow a given path.
In a large team, how do you measure the productivity of each writer? How do you map the productivity metrics to the specific business unit revenues?
Cognizant has systems that help us capture several metrics including productivity. Productivity is measured through the entire documentation cycle. For example, a project is estimated and planned based on benchmark effort figures. When work is distributed to a team, the timelines are drawn based on the planned effort. The actual effort is then tracked. There could be productivity variations among team members and this is valuable information for managers to plan training or even to understand the capabilities of individuals. Periodically, the estimation factors are updated with new benchmark productivity numbers. Productivity metrics have a definite impact on program and business unit revenues. There are benchmark numbers on revenue per employee and total headcount required to achieve a revenue target, and as business leaders we constantly strive to improve practices to better these numbers.
What are the different domains a technical writer gets to explore in your team? Also, what are the various growth opportunities for writers?
Technical Writers in Cognizant are exposed to quite a variety of domains and work. First, there is a range of industry domains like Banking, Insurance, Retail, Healthcare, etc. The thrill of technical writing is in working across these industry domains and learning so much about these businesses. Then, there is a variety of documentation types too, from User Documentation, Business Process Documentation, Quality Documentation, SDLC Documentation, etc. My team is also foraying into web content, tutorials, user assistance, user-generated content frameworks, and so much more. We look at career growth in three tracks: Technical, where a writer can choose to be a technical writer right through and mature to be consultants in the field; Project Management, where a writer can lead projects/programs; Business, where a writer can become a business leader with P&L responsibilities.
What are the main skills you look at when you recruit a technical writer and a documentation lead for your team?
The core skill we look for in a Technical Writer is strong English Language capability. Writers are writers, and should be able to write well with no language issues. The next is aptitude and the ability to understand technology. Technical Writers should have the aptitude to understand any subject and write clearly about them. A documentation lead should be a strong people-person with strong technical writing capabilities. The first aspect is required to be an effective leader and to create a motivated and high-energy team. The second aspect is required for the lead to know the business and to be an effective mentor to the team.
How has the Indian technical writing industry evolved in the last 5 years? Where do you see a technical writer’s role evolve in the next few years?
I’m not sure if I’m deeply aware of what’s happening in the Indian technical writing industry. Let me give my perception. Around 10 years back, technical writers were engaged in creating documentation for the development work happening in companies. We were largely seen as an internal support team. In the last five years, Indian software firms have been getting higher value work. Product companies too have been leveraging India better for research and development. In this context, the scope and need for technical writing has increased. From functioning as a “siloed” local unit, more technical writing teams are part of a global unit with collaboration across countries. The need for quality and the supervision of global clients of our work has significantly increased. The next few years can only get more challenging for technical writers in India. More companies would be exploring outsourcing of technical writing to India. They need to be convinced about our capabilities and quality for us to succeed in this space. For technical writing teams, there is an opportunity to step out of the shadows of the development team and take on independent technical writing work.
Do you see opportunities for technical writers to move towards user experience and eLearning areas?
Technical Writing is an interesting field by itself. However, a technical writer can choose to move into allied areas like Interaction Design and eLearning with a bit of training. A good technical writer’s information architecture and content organization skills can easily be extended into Interaction Design. The technical writer must undergo training in Interaction Design though. In eLearning, a technical writer can consider the area of Instructional Design. Here again, the technical writer needs to be trained in the theories of Instructional Design to be successful.
Could you share any interesting experiences as a technical writer and as a documentation manager?
Sometimes we have team members who overrate their skills. As a documentation manager, I had to give feedback to a team member and suggested that she goes through refresher training on the fundamentals of English. The associate was shocked as she was an MA in English and argued strongly. I then had to pick out her document and edit it right before her. I explained every error she made. Thankfully, the team member saw the weakness and worked hard to overcome it.
As a technical writer, I was in a project in the US. The client was very skeptical about my skills. When I made my first deliverable, the client called me to his cabin and said that he was very surprised about the quality of my writing. He was not sure if a person from India could write to their expected styles. This made me realize that we face the challenge of overcoming the perceptions of native speakers of English. Their concerns are justified. We need to prove time after time that we can deliver to their expectations. It is therefore all the more important that we are good at the job.
Compiled by an STC India volunteer