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The Proximity Problem for Technical Writers

by Tom Johnson on Sep 23, 2011
categories: technical-writing

Last year I wrote a series of posts about moving from the sidelines to center stage. In the series I described how I transitioned from a low-key, hardly-speaking project member to a key player on the project team, someone with a voice that mattered in project decisions. But recently, with some projects, I've come full circle, moving back to that initial position of a fly on the wall.

The changes had a lot to do with location. Previously, each technical writer was embedded in a specific group. Most of us were stationed on different floors, in proximity to the developers, interaction designers, quality assurance engineers, and project managers for each project.

This proximity was useful for staying in the loop with project information, but it did nothing for our technical writing team. We used different tools, didn't follow a common style guide, and came up with our own processes and content models.

Because we wanted to try to build some momentum towards standards, we decided to consolidate our group, sitting together in the same row of cubes. We were no longer embedded within specific project teams, but rather centralized as technical writers in a common location and shared throughout the organization.

In the previous embedded-writer model, I looked longingly towards our once-a-week meeting with technical writers, holding it as the highlight meeting of the week. But now that we were sitting together, it was like a team meeting all day long. Coordination and morale skyrocketed.

As the weeks passed, we started to form some standards. We decided to standardize our toolset, first of all, so that in case one writer won the lottery and left the organization, another writer could seamlessly fill the gap. After weeks of research, and through the luck of another group that already purchased the solution, we adopted and implemented a new help authoring system. We then attacked our style discrepancies, and quickly adopted a 42-page guide of stylistic decisions.

We were gaining momentum fast, and acquired our own servers to run help, injected a documentation template into the project manager process, formulated a content model for help, designated a team member to be the tools administrator, and more. We were flying as a team. We even stopped holding team meetings because anytime we needed to meet, we could just swivel our chairs and raise an issue. Our close proximity led to a brilliant flow of communication.

In the back of my mind, I knew that we had lost some rapport with the project teams that we no longer sat next to. But it didn't hit me how detached I had become until, about a year later, I attended a two-hour meeting with one of my projects and found that I had nothing to say at all.  All the momentum I had previously accrued as a key project voice seemed to slip out from under me.

Proximity and Communication

Sitting silently in the project meeting, not contributing towards interface text, nor quality assurance, nor jumping in on broken functionality, nor even on training strategies, I realized that my sacrifice of proximity with the project team had resulted in my impotence on the project team. I no longer had the same voice, nor was I someone anyone paid attention to. I had become that quiet fly-on-the-wall technical writer, the one whom no one expects anything from except a help file.

I've learned that proximity to any team makes an incalculable difference in the role you play with that team. Grouped together with other writers, we actually formed standards for the first time in years. We  felt like a team. And separated from project teams, I fell off their radar, and they off mine.

This, then, is what I'm calling The Proximity Problem. The closer you are to a group, the more you interact with that group. But you can't be everywhere at once, so you have to choose the group that gets priority. Given these dynamics, is it better to be embedded within project teams or within a technical writing team?

Comparing and Contrasting Benefits

Embedded within project teams, I did much more than technical writing. I logged bugs, critiqued designs, guided project managers with feedback from users, and was generally go-to guy for new team members who want to ramp up on the project. I became a subject matter expert on the app itself, which led to my being a key member with a voice at the table.

Embedded within the technical writing team, I didn't get sucked into all of these secondary roles. I could focus on my primary contribution: the help material. But not having involvement in other aspects of the project, such as the design, testing, interface, planning, and so on, made it harder to write help. I was often a latecomer to information, finding out at the last minute about upcoming releases and stumbling into new pages with changed functionality.

Sitting with my colleagues is heavenly. We understand our kind. We engage in heated debates about style controversies, and sometimes crack jokes about how bad interface text is. We ask each other questions about Author-it and Camtasia. One of my colleagues even brings in peaches to share, and has his own candy store. It's comfortable to sit with them, and share in the camaraderie.

But in the larger scope of agile development, this isolation from the project conversations that are happening on an ongoing basis seems to have negative consequences. The isolation away from other writers, as I sit near developers and other IT members, might be worth it for the end result. The problem is that projects are often short durations, so I would need to be nomadic for the model to work, moving from one project group to another as my project load shifted.

Perhaps nomadism would be ideal for help authors. When working on project X, sit next to project X. When working on project Y,  sit next to project Y. And yet, even despite the improbability of such an open seating model, it seems archaic in a day of virtual collaboration and remotely located workforces. Why insist that maximum productivity is only gained by rubbing elbows with your team all day long? Surely asynchronous methods of communication, real-time online interactions, and regular meetings using a VoIP service (sponsored link) or the telephone can compete with the benefits of nearby seating.

Alternatives to the Dilemma

Despite the logic of embedding myself with a project team, where very likely I'm the only technical writer present, I'm not ready to give up our new-found team momentum. We're making a lot of progress towards standards and tools, processes and styles. Once the dust settles, we may return to our former model in which we're embedded in project teams.

Still, perhaps I'm holding out for another reason: I'm not convinced that proximity is essential to keeping up with project information. I'm not persuaded that there aren't equally viable ways to gather the same data and interact, because if nothing else, the Internet has shown us how remotely distributed people can be closely connected with each other. The Internet has pulled us loose from our physical relationships, distancing us from those immediately around us and drawing us closer to others whom we never see or speak with. Email, instant messaging, Internet Relay Chat, webinars, podcasts, blogs, websites, text messages -- all of this enables communication to take place despite physical boundaries. Theoretically, proximity shouldn't be a problem. But teams who already enjoy proximity have no need for virtual communication tools, so outsiders often feel the need to participate in close proximity model to keep in loop.

It's true that proximity does lend itself to more immediate updates. When you're sitting next to a developer and he makes a shout of joy when he gets something to work, you're updated. When you're sitting next to a tester who groans each time she finds another bug, you're updated (that is, if you ask what the commotion is about).

But it's still possible to stay updated sitting remotely, away from project teams. And this is precisely because nearly every team in most IT groups uses some form of bug tracking tool, such as JIRA, Team Foundation Server, Fogbugz, or something else. Nearly everything gets logged somewhere, and if we take the time to stay close to it, to follow it as carefully as we might read a novel, tracking comment threads, attending meetings, reviewing sprint plans and roadmaps, checking IRC logs, design and requirements documents, listening each day to scrums -- if we did all this, we could circumvent the proximity problem and perhaps even stay more aware than team members in the same cube aisle. That is, as long as distance doesn't deafen our ears, make us forget our priorities and workloads, and lull us into a false belief that nothing much is going on.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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