Professor-Sadagopan - Director-(President),-IIIT

30 Jul 2007

How about a career in Tech Writing? Prof Sadagopan in The Times of India

Article authored by Prof. Sadagopan and reproduced in toto. The writer is the director, IIIT-Bangalore. These are his personal views. He can be reached at ss@iiitb.ac.in

MOST students who are graduating with an engineering degree in India seek jobs in the IT industry. India is one geography that has perhaps the largest number of jobs in the IT industry today. For example, the top four Indian IT services majors TCS, Infosys, Wipro and Satyam alone are likely to recruit nearly 100,000 IT professionals (mostly freshers) in the year 2007-2008. It is but natural that most graduating students look at the IT industry as their preferred choice; the added advantages of higher compensation in IT industry, better working environment and even a higher status in the society only act as the icing on the cake.

When a young graduating student thinks of the IT industry he/she is stereotyped to think in terms of programming as a career. It is true that programming skills are important and most of the job advertisements frequently mention c/ c++ / c# / Visual Basic / Java. Yet there are plenty of jobs that go beyond programming even within the software industry. If you include the hardware industry also within the broad IT industry, programming constitutes a rather minuscule part, though most companies use a programming test to filter out entry-level candidates. One such area that goes beyond programming is technical writing often referred to as tech writing. Even many experienced IT professionals could find tech writing an interesting career option.

What is tech writing?

Simply put, tech writing is writing about technical products software, hardware, gadgets, services and systems. Often the focus of such tech writing is end users of the technical products and not necessarily the creators of technical products.

In software parlance, what comes to ones mind immediately after the mention of tech writing is user manuals. Unlike the 90. when manuals like MS-DOS manuals were read with great attention and stacked carefully by the side of the desktop computer for immediate reference, these days most users do not read user manuals; yet when the same user is stuck in some task, he/she expects to find a way out; either the user reads the manual or some tech support person (may be at the other end of the globe) has to read and master the user manual before he/she can support the hassled end-user. So there will always be a need for user manuals. There are other related items such as installation guide quick reference guide and troubleshooting guide that many hardware and software systems would need. Widely used software products call for white papers, user case studies often written by scholarly reports (with the help of tech writers).

Going past the print medium, tech writing enters the online world and morphs into online help, context-sensitive help, tutorials and multi-media flash fliers that need the expert hands of a tech writer.

At the highest end are demos that accompany product launches. With elaborate and expensive product launches (like the ones that accompany the release of Apple iPhone on June 29, 2007 or the billion dollar launch of Windows 95 on April 24, 1995 by Microsoft), demonstrations that must be given live by high profile CEOs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates test the limits of the capabilities of tech writers

Why is tech writing so important?

With products becoming rich in features (and in the process becoming complex) end users are increasingly finding the real need for high-quality technical writing. The gamut of end users go all the way from the hassles of a housewife struggling to use a sophisticated washing machine that has fuzzy logic control to the non-geek who purchases a high-end phone with zillion features, and finally, an inexperienced pilot navigating a new generation aircraft like Boeing 787 dream liner. It is important that end users find sufficient information in a structured way so that the users learn effortlessly the features of the product; and find the right information in right time, preferably all the time!

 

Who can be a successful tech writer?

Anyone who likes writing can be a good tech writer; often one has to love technology, technical gizmos and products and a flair to experiment (get under the hood as they say). Good tech writers constantly want to keep abreast of new developments so that they can relate the product features to technology developments. Often it is important to develop the user perspective and to see the other side. Many technical experts are too lost in their infatuation with the features they built into the products that they fail to see the complexities and difficulties that the users (particularly first time users or a non-sophisticated user) are likely to experience. Fundamentally tech writing is a communications function and good communicators are likely to be good tech writers as well!

How good are the growth opportunities for tech writers?

Tech writers are well compensated and starting from a junior tech writer one can expect to rise to senior tech writer, project lead, project manager and graduate into a KM (Knowledge Management) expert and ultimately a director. Since tech writers have to prepare documentation before the product is released, tech writing can be fun too, as they get the privilege of using the products much before most people. Look at the satisfaction of being one among the first 50 users of a glitzy phone (like Apple iPhone) that would ultimately be used by tens of millions of users. During the career progression one gets to move from writing simple manuals to sophisticated demos using very powerful tools (including today. Web 2.0 tools). Naturally tech writing can be financially rewarding and professionally satisfying. If you include the challenges of tech writing to address the needs of special users, illiterate users, users who are not sophisticated, users who are visually or physically challenged, foreign language users and users with diverse cultural and institutional background, tech writing can be very challenging.

Tech writing is an area that is welldeveloped and accepted in developed worlds, particularly USA and in an infancy stage in India. There are 100,00 tech writers in US vs just about 3,000 in India. Naturally, you will have an early bird advantage if you enter tech writing in India today.Senior professionals too can switch to tech writing if you enjoy writing, working with users, working with early version of products and enjoy work.

The Writers Block (TWB) in Bangalore is focusing on tech writing in India. Arlington, Virgina, USA based STC (Society for Technical Communications) is the largest professional body of professionals interested in tech writing. If you are seriously interested in tech writing, these two could be your starting points.

Best wishes on an exciting tech writing career.

– S Sadagopan

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