Go With the Flow: A Technical Communications Education / by Sarah Mathews


My mother told me that, when she was employed as a technical writer [she prefers I not specify the number of years ago] they had to have a degree in English (maybe not even that, previous communication experience would do) and a solid knowledge of desktop software. Throw in a dash of SGML, and voilà, you had arrived. Everything you really needed to know you learned on-the-job.

Well, out with the old, in with the NEW! According to the WebWorks whitepaper, “The Changing Role of Technical Communicators” (www.webworks.com), writers must not only keep up with technological advances in order to stay employable, but also to assist in adapting content management and online help to the future of user-collaborative authoring. The definition of a technical writer, like the industry, has become fluid.

So where should I begin my career? I scanned the New York tech com job posts and found that no two were alike. This was discouraging because my list of skills, essential to an academic program kept expanding. A comprehensive education seemed impossible; I might have better luck attempting to travel back in time to add a Computer Science minor to my Drama major.

I pared down my list to three areas: (1) instruction in technical writing, editing and authoring tools (2) affordability and (3) flexibility. Numbers two and three turned out to be the most important because it might be necessary to take a lot of classes - electives at community colleges, STC seminars, maybe even another degree - in order to join and keep up with the field. So I started with Austin Community College’s (ACC) Continuing Education Technical Writing Certificate track because it met my requirements in a distance-learning program.

The ACC Technical Writing Certificate

You can complete the certificate in one year if you enroll in four to seven classes over two, 16-week semesters. Students control their pace and take classes in any order; I started with FrameMaker. Because of my day job, I complete only one class a semester. [Not fast enough. If I continue at this rate I’ll finish in 2015. I really need that time machine.] So far I’ve completed:

Documentation writing and publication processes are core practices of all the classes - structured authoring, online help authoring, procedural writing and revisions. You have an advantage if you have previous experience with the software programs similar to the ones that are taught. I picked up FrameMaker faster because I was familiar with Microsoft Word styles and templates. And XML would have eluded me, had I not finished an intermediate HTML web authoring class, also through ACC.

Instructors communicate through a variety of web platforms, which immerses the students in social media and strengthens our online presence. External class websites, the ACC Blackboard, WordPress, Google Drive, and Gmail fuse our interaction. In my current class, certain assignments are due in tweets. (I’m not sure if document-control software has been incorporated into any of the classes; it would be great if SharePoint were introduced.) In addition, a live or recorded weekly lesson, viewable through Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro Meeting, accompanies each unit of the syllabus. Unfortunately, there are occasional problems. Such as when the instructor says “Sorry, everyone, I’m having mic problems again; we keep losing sound. I will re-record this and send out the link tomorrow”. We always receive the recording within 24 to 48 hours.

Some of benefits of taking certificate classes over, say, a massive open online course (MOOC), are oversight of the instructor, academic credit and the creation of a portfolio. The portfolio is part of the Capstone credit, or final course of the program: Careers and Professionalism.

From Web Authoring and Design to Programming Languages

The ACC Continuing Education department offers a slew of short courses that concentrate on website development. In my experience, the classes are very self-regulated, more like tutorials or MOOCs. The difference is that the work is reviewed and can be applied toward another certificate. I think of them as “snack classes”. They are no more than a month long, and yet you fulfill, or get familiar with, programming and web design. I created a website about literary tigers, by modifying a CSS template, and studied Intro to Programming. The C programming language fundamentals will come in handy before tackling my required computer information systems electives.

Teamwork and Project Management

What’s it like to query an SME or a programmer? I have an idea, but no practical knowledge. The biggest hurdle of distance learning, or perhaps continuing education in general, goes back to my mother’s words: on-the-job experience.

Last semester, my Documentation Process and Content Management class sought to work with the designers of a small application. We were going to write the documentation, but the opportunity fell through. We completed our user guide; however, the application documented was a PM tool the instructor had created. He became our ubiquitous expert and the process a bit homogenous. The Capstone course integrates career development: students are supposed to shadow a professional technical writer and develop interview skills along with the portfolio. But what we novices want, of course, is to participate in a meeting, join a live authoring project and use our software knowledge.

I’m doing what I can to get some on-the-job experience. The community volunteer group at my job needs someone to help develop a newsletter to advertise upcoming charity events. They want three deliverables - a hard copy distributed to desks, a soft copy via email and a website - probably accessed in SharePoint. I volunteered to help and I told them I was new to SharePoint, but I can learn.