“Had one of those Technical Authors in the back of my cab…”

Of all the places I ever thought I’d discuss the value of Technical Authors, I never thought the back of a taxi would be one of them.

Yesterday afternoon I was on my way to the local train station by taxi when the driver asked me what I did. “I’m a Technical Author,” I replied, watching the rear-view mirror for the puzzled look I usually get when I announce my profession [1].

Following the expected look, I explained: “I write manuals, specifications, any sort of technical documents.”

This immediately got his attention, and he began what I can best describe as a polite rant.

Turns out he used to be a senior engineer for a firm that sold shower units and cubicles. They began importing products from China, which unsurprisingly were supplied with Chinese manuals: no good for their customer base. Rather than employ a specialist, they set him the task of writing an English manual from scratch.

He tested the first draft himself, and found it wasn’t suitable. So after a rewrite he gave it and a shower unit to a couple of people in the Admin department for testing. Turns out more rewriting was necessary. Overall he spent several days trying to get the manual right, and that was just one manual for one product.

I commented on the waste of resource this represented, and he agreed wholeheartedly. He immediately saw how employing a Technical Author with the necessary skills could not only have saved his time – which would be better spent actually being a senior engineer – but would also have cut down on calls to the support line by customers confused with manuals not written by a professional author.

He dropped me off in town and I went on my way pondering the following question: if a skilled plumber turned taxi driver can see the value in a Technical Author, why is it sometimes so difficult to persuade our colleagues of the same?

[1] You know the one: mystification tinged with disbelief. As if you’ve said “I’m a Marmalade Consultant”, or “I yodel professionally”.

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  1. #1 by Russ on October 24, 2010 - 10:25 am

    I suspect the answer to your question is that he has first-hand knowledge of what happens when you get some random person to write documentation. He’s seen that it’s not as easy as a lot of people think, so he recognises and values your expertise.

    • #2 by jk1440 on October 24, 2010 - 9:29 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Russ.

      I agree that this is the case. However, what mystifies me at times is that I have encountered (and heard of) scenarios where colleagues who have worked with Technical Authors still find it very hard to think of us as genuinely adding value. I suspect this comes down to self-promotion, communication and marketing our skills. In other words, we have to take responsibility for the problem.

      • #3 by Russ on October 25, 2010 - 7:40 am

        Ah, right. I hadn’t realised that people who had worked with technical authors didn’t appreciate the work you do. Maybe you should let them write their own documentation for a while? Give them the chance that your taxi driver had to realise that it’s actually a skilled job.

  2. #4 by Gordon on October 27, 2010 - 7:21 am

    Is this simply down to PR? Is it just that people in our organisation don’t fully appreciate the range of skills we have, and what it takes to produce a good document?

    Or, as Russ suggests, maybe a “day in the life” approach would be better, see how they like that! πŸ˜‰

    • #5 by jk1440 on October 29, 2010 - 1:44 pm

      It is sort of about PR. We do suffer from the perception of being a cost rather than a useful resource that adds value. Also, I have found that trying to apply skills gained in other areas can be met with disapproval, or accusations of being a generalist.

      I do like the idea of a Day in the Life. I’d hate to see the resulting documentation though!

  3. #6 by Peter Hornsby on October 28, 2010 - 7:30 am

    I get the same look if I use the term “user experience”, hence why I normally resort to “I just play with computers a bit.” I suspect both UX and technical authoring suffer similarly from every man and his hound thinking they can do it, but falling into a big hole when it gets used in anger. Hey ho πŸ™‚

    • #7 by jk1440 on October 29, 2010 - 1:45 pm

      I often think about how your field and mine do overlap significantly. Can you recommend any good and accessible reading on the subject of UX design?

      • #8 by Peter Hornsby on October 29, 2010 - 6:08 pm

        The standard one most people will point you to is Steve Krug’s “Don’t make me think!”. it’s not bad; I have a copy if you’d like me to send it up?

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