The following is a guest post by Ivan Walsh.
I didn't get on a plane until I was 21. I'd grown up in a small town in the west of Ireland with the unfortunate moniker ‘Slash City'. Not the most exotic place in the world. So, when I did start to travel, I moved a lot.
The reason I could do this was mostly due to the mobile nature of technical writing and the opportunities gave me to travel. For most of my twenties I went from one contract to the next. London, Glasgow, Amsterdam, Berlin, San Francisco, Sacramento, New York… and then Taiwan. Well almost…
What brought you to China?
In the 90s, Taiwan was hot. Hard to believe today but it had tons of technical writing work back then. And still does but to a lesser extent. So I decided to go… but changed plans and went to Beijing instead with some friends. It just seemed more ‘exotic' and in the 90s was still not as explored as today. Since moving there, I've worked in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing.
Is the IT industry in China growing rapidly?
It's exploding especially in the area of mobile devices, ecommerce (now that credit cards are available) and gaming. Chinese love gaming. :)
It is also driven by a new middle class who have the funds to make high-end purchases, e.g. diamond-encrusted mobile phones, and other status symbols. China is very brand conscious, which partly explains the demand for fake items.
One of the misconceptions about China is that it's a communist country. In reality, there is a very strong class structure and as Deng said, ‘to be rich is glorious.'
Most of the IT development is located in:
Shanghai also has satellite towns dedicated to outsourcing with very modern infrastructures.
Beijing is the admin centre like Washington, DC in the US.
What cultural traits work for and against the Chinese technical writer?
You can look at it from different angles:
How do Chinese technical writers get training?
Some are English graduates who move into Technical Writing. I don't know if any universities on the mainland teach tech comms modules. I could be wrong. Most learn from:
Is there a particular style guide writers follow in China?
Not that I'm aware of, though I've seen many copies of the Microsoft Style Guide For Technical Publications in different offices.
Is outsourcing a trend that you see growing or increasing in China?
Manufacturing has taken a hit recently due to increases in salaries and currency exchange rates. Also, countries like Vietnam are positioning themselves as better value, i.e. low cost, alternatives to China.
From an IT perspective, Shenzhen and Shanghai are leading the field.
BusinessWeek believe Shanghai is the No. 2 city for outsourcing specialties, such as business analytics, finance and accounting, product development, research and development, and testing. Service Providers include Accenture, Cognizant, HP, Infosys, Wipro, and Unisys. (See Top Emerging Outsourcing Cities.)
Likewise, ‘…the offshore service outsourcing business that Shenzhen enterprises undertake has exceeded 5 billion U.S. dollars for the first time; the contract value has amounted to a record of 5.08 billion U.S. dollars, which ranks No.1 in the country… other services outsourcing enterprises such as IBM, Evans, Da Zhan, Peng Kai, Freeborders, and CS&S are accelerating the expansion of business in Shenzhen' (Shenzhen Becomes China's Largest IT Service Outsourcing Base).
What cultural obstacles do you struggle with in working with the Chinese in a tech comm setting?
The perceived value of Technical Writing is very low in China.
What this means is that most local firms will not invest in Technical Writers and use developers instead. Or get a graduate with an English degree to write the guides but the end result is less than satisfactory.
Another factor is that in Asia it's not uncommon for technical documents to be more focused on diagrams, i.e. images rather than text.
In Japan, I saw some wonderful documents — like the Google Chrome User Guide — that were mostly illustrations and helped you see what needed to be done more quickly. So, there may be cultural issues here as well.
Cost is also an issue.
Most Chinese IT firms are very spartan and cost-conscious, looking for ways to reduce costs at all times. So, paying for tech docs can be hard to justify with local firms.
Personally, I worked mostly with US firms that were short of trained writers on the ground or (occasionally) did bespoke consultancy for a few Chinese firms, but that was mostly to return favors rather than for financial reasons.
How long do you plan to stay in China?
We moved back recently so junior can go to high school in Ireland. He learned to read and write mandarin while we there, so it's time for a different adventure now.
My suggestion to any Technical Writers thinking of going there is to link up with US firms, e.g. Intel, Microsoft, and IBM, and try to get a contract. Stay in the larger cities as you'll be able to get creature comforts that ease the transition and also find it easier to navigate.
An alternative is to contact Chinese firms that have floated on the Nasdaq/NYSE and see if they need writers in their local offices. Sina and Sohu are two of the most prestigious – both based in Shanghai.
Finally, before you move… visit for a few weeks especially off-season and see if you like the vibe. It's a great place but you have to take it on it's own terms.
Ivan Walsh shares technical writing tips, tricks and tactics on http://www.ihearttechnicalwriting.com.
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I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here. You can also contact me with questions.