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Number One Issue for Technical Writers Today: Keeping Pace with Rapidly Evolving Technology

by Tom Johnson on Mar 1, 2007
categories: general

From our virtual chat, we decided that the most significant issue technical communicators face today is keeping pace with rapidly evolving technology. Here are a few quotes from the chat:

  • "For me it's keeping up with the right technology and fighting to increase productivity without making our jobs horrid."
  • "I have trouble keeping up with the rapid pace of innovation in the IT world and the many ways to deliver content."
  • "Part of the problem about keeping pace with technology is that we often work under tight deadlines. B. mentioned the budget cuts and overtime. So at the end of the day, to learn new tools and technology, it's often on your own time."
  • "I agree and I'm willing to learn about new tools and technology. The question is, where to start, what's the right thing to get into? What do I recommend that the company invest in?"
  • "Another problem with keeping pace with technology is the sheer variety of languages, systems, tools, concepts, etc. There is so much to know. One can't know it all. But I think we have to be savvy enough to learn what we need to know at the moment we need it."
  • "The most significant challenges and changes have been the budgets have been slashed for projects/training/user communication in general. No time/budget/interest in keeping me trained in my field. That is my biggest challenge right now. Years ago, I was regularly sent by FPC to conferences/semi nars. Now it's a rare event."

I've been thinking about this question for a long time — what's the biggest issue for technical communicators today. I think the chat brought it out perfectly. There's a lot of technical knowledge to master, and the technologies are only expanding. The number of tools available has exploded. And yet technical communicators are often overworked, with multiple projects, tight deadlines, and little budgetary privilege to take technical courses and keep up.

I asked what tools the group would like to learn. The responses: Microsoft Project, AuthorIT, FrameMaker, HTML/XML, javascript to enable user interactions with content, DITA, XML, and wikis. But many aren't exactly sure what they should learn. Many still use RoboHelp and Word.

One participant commented, "In the end I think my best tool has been my analytical intellect and my ability to perform controlled tests."

Coincidentally, today I also listened to the DMN Communications podcast on "Becoming a Technical Tech Writer." Aaron and Scott explained that you have to know a lot of different programs, languages, and technologies to be a competent technical writer. And then they named quite a few technologies: Unix, Perl, XML, command-line, C++, DITA, PHP, and so on. I was pretty impressed. I didn't know they were so tech savvy, and it actually depressed me a bit because I wasn't as familiar with it all.

But they didn't mention .Net, and most of the programs at my work use the .NET. I may never need to know Unix to perform my job. In the end, it's not as if you just learn several languages or tools and you're all set. You have to be quick and intelligent enough to teach yourself the language or program that you're currently documenting. You have to be tech-savvy enough to learn quickly, to pick it up whatever it may be. What do you need to know? Learn that. Teach yourself tech. That is the real skill, because the technologies are constantly changing, and what you may need to know today will be outdated tomorrow. One project may require knowledge of X, and the next knowledge of Y. It's the ability to learn — and more importantly the love of learning — that will make you excel in the field of technical writing.

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