Casting the Right People

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Casting the Right People

The key to hiring the right people for a documentation project is to thoroughly understand the task at hand before asking your HR department to hire. Since documentation projects can require various types of backgrounds, differing levels of experience, and knowledge of different authoring tools, it does not suffice to simply hire a “typical” technical writer.

With the exception of specialized needs that a company may have, most technical writers will fit into one of these categories:

– Technical Documentation Consultant
– Senior Technical Writer / Engineering Technical Writer
– Mid-Level Technical Writer / Technical Editor
– Junior Level Technical Writer / Editor
– Documentation Specialist / Administrative Assistant

The project manager may want to consider different levels of technical writers to perform the various documentation tasks at different times during the project. In some cases, a mix of full-time employees and consultants may provide the best results.

I. The Technical Documentation Consultant helps to establish the documentation requirements and objectives for the project. The documentation requirements may include which documentation types or titles may best represent the product or system being documented. A TD Consultant can also help establish the collaborative process between the documentation team and the engineering staff. Other contributions by the TD Consultant may include selecting and assigning the tech writing staff, establishing the scope of effort and milestones for the documentation tasks, and setting up the review cycles, and determining (with client/management oversight, of course) when a document has been successfully completed.

II. The Senior or Engineering Technical Writer is primarily responsible for gathering the technical data to be assembled and massaged into the document’s content. The Sr./Eng. Tech Writer is expected to have a strong technical background sufficient to reasonably comprehend the project’s technical data. Clearly, this writer’s technical understandings will be critical in assembling content that satifies the document’s title, and formulating questions to the engineering staff that will facilitate better content. The most successful Senior / Engineering Technical Writers are able to relieve the engineering staff of as much documentation burden as possible, and having an ability to fully comprehend the subject matter accomplishes just that.

III. The Mid-Level Technical Writer commonly serves as the researcher by obtaining data from the Senior / Engineering Tech Writer and organizing it into the document form. This writer may also develop the graphics, format any images, coordinate the tabular data, and perform proofreads on the content. Since the Senior / Engineering Technical Writer is the choreographer of the effort, the document will likely result from close collaboration between the Senior and Mil-Level Tech Writers.

IV. The Junior Technical Writer or Documentation Specialist typically performs the administrative work on documentation projects and is often shared by several different projects. This writer can add great value to the effort by providing a grammatical review and verify the compliance with any applicable formatting requirements.

One of the objectives many managers seek in hiring technical writers is to relieve their design engineers from as much of the documentation work as possible. This is very easy to achieve with a carefully documented design process and a planned approach to document development. The following points should be considered when considering a technical writer to assist with a documentation project. It may also be used as a partial interviewee evaluation checklist to helpin determining and quantifying a technical writer candidate’s experience. Modifications to these items should be made to better reflect your specific staffing needs for your project’s requirements.

1) Has the candidate ever written the types of documents we need? 
_____ On-line Help
_____ User Manual
_____ Design Specification/Document
_____ Maintenance/Repair/Troubleshooting/Installation
_____ Other

2) If part of a team, which phase(s) of the document’s development
will this technical writer candidate be responsible for?

_____ Initial outline and document organization
_____ Research/Engineer or User Interviews
_____ Customer meetings/reviews
_____ Final document review
_____ Technical writer group supervision

3) Has the candidate written documents for our type of system before?
_____ Software Application
_____ Hardware Product/Component
_____ Electronic Component (Integrated Circuit)
_____ Large Integrated System (Multiple position/Hardware and Software Integration)
_____ Other

4) Does the candidate have experience reading and understanding any of the following in developing a technical document?
_____ PDR/CDR viewgraphs and handouts
_____ Technical proposals and RFPs
_____ Source code (which languages)
_____ Unit development folders/design notes
_____ Documents from similar or pre-existing systems

5) Does the candidate have experience and knowledge of the following:
_____ Documentation processes
_____ Engineering design practices and concepts
_____ Our type of system or project
_____ Our project or customer
_____ The relevant specifications being applied

6) Does the candidate have a demonstrated ability to quickly learn the operations of a new system?
_____ Has an inquisitive mind and a desire to “play” with the system
_____ Has a strong knowledge of the basics (i.e. home computer, Windows OS, etc.)
_____ Has ‘real world’ job experience as a former user of a similar system (e.g., military field operator, repair technician, etc.)

7) Is the candidate familiar with our particular customer and his environment?
_____ Dept. of Defense (DoD) / Military
_____ Commercial gov’t agency (non-DoD)
_____ Medical / bioscience
_____ Commercial Product Development and Sales
_____ Other

8) What are the documentation tasks that need to be accomplished?
_____ Outlining
_____ Formatting
_____ Developing graphics (technical illustrator)
_____ Writing original content
_____ Copying/collating/binding
_____ Other

Achieving the right mix of Technical Writers depends on a solid understanding of the documentation objectives, an understanding as to how you want to approach the documentation (budget, personnel, level of effort, schedule, etc.), the technical complexity of the subject matter, and what roles your project can support. Don’t make the common mistake of hiring multiple junior writers to save money over hiring one Technical Documentation Consultant. If the junior writer does not know what to do, he/she will look to you for direction.

Having the right knowledge and experience for the documentation job at hand will produce the best results for the lowest cost every time.

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