Technical Writing | Interviewing SMEs

One of the many skills a technical writer needs is the ability to form relationships with SMEs. An experienced writer talks to subject matter experts to gather insights for a document. Without their input, the writer will face difficulties producing documents. On one project, I worked with two technical writers. They had their styles of approach, and I have mine.

One of our team members, x,x, had a style and approach that rubbed many SMEs the wrong way. I have a laid-back approach. If the SME could not talk because of urgent work, then that’s fine—we can reschedule the conversation. X.X found it difficult to communicate with technical SMEs, which made it challenging to gather the information. He had never worked in the technical field coming not from a technical background, but a process background where people are polite.

Approaching and Interviewing  SMEs 

  1. Ensure you schedule a meeting with the SME in advance. Please do not turn up at their desk and expect to talk.
  2. If you collaborate with other technical writers, review the project plans and inquire whether they have contacted the subject matter expert (SME) regarding topic XYZ. If they have, verify the information is what you need. In such cases, refrain from requesting the SME to reiterate the information.
  3. I use a dictaphone to record interviews because I can always run the recording back if I have any queries. To date, no SME has objected to me recording the conversation.
    approaching and interviewing subject matter experts
    approaching and interviewing subject matter experts
    • If they DO, it will mean listening intently and writing the information
  4. Approach the Interview at the appointed time:
    • Do not be surprised if the SME cancels the meeting because of other demands,
    • If so, reschedule the meeting
  5. Always regard the interview as another knowledge-capture exercise that adds to your experience. Do not assume you know everything before you get there, even if you do.
  6. The SME will assume you understand their language; if not, stop the interview and request a less technical explanation or reassess your ability to do the job if you still do not understand.
  7. Schedule only an hour for the interview, but be clear that you will need to reschedule more time if specific points are unclear.
  8. Be transparent – there will be a peer review required, but you will let them know in advance when the document is ready for review
  9. approaching and interviewing subject matter experts
    approaching and interviewing subject matter experts

    If the SME is not aware of your role or why you need their comments to introduce the project, and if you have not already done so, introduce yourself

  10. The SME may not know everything and will refer you to another SME for information
  11. When you return to your desk, start writing the document. Do not wait for a few days, even if you have recorded the interview.
  12. Carry a pad and pen. You may need to ask the SME to draw the infrastructure.

Technical Writing | Professional vs Amateur, its a matter of choice

A LinkedIn connection shared a poster, which read: Professional vs Amateur; If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur.

In 2004 I had an interview in Watford and later Cambridge with software companies looking for a Technical Writer. During the second interview, I had this feeling of deja-vu in that it followed a similar line to the Watford interview. The hiring managers seemed uncertain. The feedback was both companies appointed an internal resource to save money.

Later that year the Watford company after a management buy-out sacked the TA because the documentation failed to meet standards. I was later contacted by an agent after the Cambridge internal appointment failed to deliver.

A previous client called as one of their technical writers had left with work to complete. Once I analysed the work, I made it clear that I had no time to rewrite the work. The manager to keep costs down employed ‘technical writers’ with negligible experience on a high-profile project for a major Telco client.

I can appreciate the fact when times are tough companies like to make a few savings. However, the difference between employing a professional vs. amateur can be stark regarding cost.

Professional vs Amateur, it’s a matter of choice

What you need to consider is the result. Do you want a professional job or a makeshift effort by an amateur? Many experienced technical writers will point out that you get what you pay for. My advice is to be ready to pay the going rate to attract an experienced technical writer who is more than capable of doing the job. In terms of time and delivery, it will save you a lot of time and energy and negate the need to pay twice for the same job.

Technical Writing | Sourcing a technical writer

When sourcing a technical writer, ensure their experience matches your requirements. The best candidate will have the correct background and expertise. Listen carefully to their answers as many like me at the interview dispense advice and why a particular route may not work. If they don’t talk through that experience, keep searching until you do.

Productive years as a Technical Writer

An experienced Technical writer can only be an asset to your team or project. The longer their career in various businesses, the broader and more in-depth their experience will be. However, the only way to be confident is to read their CVs carefully.

Read the CV, and discuss the project. My rule is this: if you cannot see it on my CV, then I haven’t done it. That does not mean I will turn down unfamiliar tasks.

Do they use Social Media or have a website?

Check out LinkedIn for their profile; If you cannot find it or a website describing their experiences, what have they be doing?

During the interview, did they communicate?

During an interview, be wary of a candidate who sits, listens, and says very little. An experienced TW will respond to your questions and offer suggestions on elevating the project with innovations you may not have considered.

Effective communication

An essential part of our job is communicating with SMEs to gather the right level of detail for the documentation. If you have a TW and the documentation appears vague, it might be time for a chat.

Do you want a contractor or permanent TW?

Do you want to build a team that includes a TW to keep the documentation up to date, a person who will grow into the environment? However, I caution against hiring a permanent Technical Writer unless you are sure there will be ongoing work.

Work cycles can dip, so be careful how you use the Technical Writer. During one of my earliest contracts, the project engineer referred to me as a secretary and treated me as one, as did the rest of the team. In a much earlier role, my line manager used me as a general dogsbody.

A proactive Technical Writer between writing, researching and interviewing could improve the company’s documentation. However, once they get on top of the tasks, the role could become routine and repetitive. There will be an odd spurt of activity within the working life cycle; hence, the position of Technical Writing lends itself more to contract work than permanent work.

To summarise: if you hire a permanent Technical Writer to ensure you have plenty of contingencies to avoid your TW developing itchy feet, I suggest you discuss additional tasks that may add value to their experience. Allowing a member of staff use them for jobs for which you employ an office junior will not go down too well.

A word of caution

Unfortunately, our profession attracts its fair share of triers. You can reasonably expect CVs from candidates who have had minimum experience preparing ad hoc documentation on projects at work. Unfortunately, that minimal experience does not translate to full-scale projects requiring a technical writer. In many cases, it turns into an expensive flop.

Many recruiting agents have a minimum expertise sourcing Technical Writers. When they speak to prospective candidates, they hear a few buzzwords and place candidates forward for a role for which they are not suitable. Be sure to check that they have the right experience and background.

To avoid problems, apply the following advice:

Be careful hiring a Junior Technical Writer or one that has worked in a permanent position for the last five years.

Why: a permanent position can be very repetitive, which limits the Technical Writer’s experience. That also goes for junior writers. For high-profile projects, hire a seasoned contracting professional who can talk through the project with you.

Finally, budgets – ensure you are buying the experience you need. In the world of Technical Writing, the price you pay determines the standard you accept. Hiring the wrong candidate could be a costly mistake.

Where else can you source a Technical writer?

You have found me. However, I may not be suitable for the role. Check LinkedIn, Social Media sites and online Job Boards. Ask other companies and fellow professionals if they have used Technical Writers and, if so, what was their experience. They may have recommendations that, in the long run, could save you money.

Technical Writing | The risks of poor document management

The risks of poor document management stem from managing multiple types of documents in different formats, workflows and updates. If the documents, which are in constant use have no defined structure it will lead to an uncontrolled and unmanaged repository. This haphazard approach to managing the document Lifecycle impedes employee productivity.

The scenario is this: you are sitting at your desk when your boss requests the latest version of a critical policy document. When do want it you ask?

The risks of poor document management
The risks of poor document management

Now is the reply as she has an urgent meeting. It is located on the company’s shared drive. Your search starts with your department folder.  However, it is not there. You decide to perform a search and type in the title. Your face falls flat when the search returns 100s of potential matches. You open up the most likely and find they are not current.  Panic sets in and your boss is now calling your desk phone, as she is late for her meeting.

We have all been there, as intuitively as we think we have organized our company “shared” network folders, documents get lost and frustration sets in. Whether it is neglecting to archive or delete the outdated version of documents, images, files, assets, etc. or employees using confusing naming scheme for the folder structure – the point is this archaic means of organising and managing documents/assets isn’t working for your company and it is costing you.

Failure to treat business documents as vital assets can lead to:

  • Diminished document utility
  • Decreased business efficiency
  • Increased operational risk and cost

Effective Lifecycle management

The management of Documents continues throughout their useful lifespans ensuring businesses meet compliance and regulatory requirements while preserving the productivity of employees and agility of business processes:

  • Quick access
  • Frequent review and updating
  • Distribution
  • Conversion
  • Archiving

Document management

The risks of poor document management
The risks of poor document management

If your document library is growing with no control consider creating a Document Management library to store and manage your documentation.

The growing influence of ISO and ITIL requires documentation to contain elements which relate to its History, Versioning and sign off, all of which are easy to incorporate. Going forward your staff should know how to manage the documentation in the absence of someone dedicated to the role.

Technical Writing | Disaster Recovery Plan

Document the Disaster Recovery Plan

Remember, to be effective you must be prepared to document the plan. Without the documentation you risk the possibility of NOT recovering from a disaster, therefore placing the entire company at risk.

If you have no existing documentation that describes the functions of the company’s servers and their hosted Applications, consider writing relevant Operating Document. In the event of a disaster, without knowing the role and the purpose of a server, as well as the Operating system – it could delay recovery.

A list of your critical systems

All companies will have a set of applications hosted on servers, which, are crucial to the business such as financials.

List your servers by priority and the criticality of the hosted Application – that is the amount of time the server and its applications can remain non-functional before it severely disrupts operations.

Create a disaster recovery plan for each critical system

This returns to the Operating document. To recover the system during a Disaster could take time, more so if the Owner is not available during the disaster to help login and failover the system then failback the system.

Therefore Keep documents simple, direct and to the point and written in such a way that anyone can understand the process, not just the SMEs who designed and built the system.

Who is responsible
Delegated participants must know and understand their responsibility should a disaster happen. Engage them in areas where they will know what to do and act accordingly. When compiling such lists make sure there are Team Leads, and Deputies should the first choice not be available during a disaster.

Make Backups
In this context be sure that if you use allocated drive space that your staff are backing up valuable information and documents to that allocated space.

Do you have an Off-site backup
Store all data in an Off-site Common.

Store Backups off-site in a location away from the same grid as the originals.

Test the Plan
On completion of the written plan, you enter the test phase. Make a plan to failover your infrastructure and then failback the infrastructure.

Take notes along the way to strengthen the areas in the plan which need more validation. Note where there is a need to access backup data time how quickly it takes to restore the system.

Keep the plan safe
Store a paper copy of the plan in a safe place. Remember: during a Failover, the online version could be unavailable.

When it comes to planning your Disaster Recovery strategy, do not forget the disaster recovery documentation. It may be the last project on your mind but could prove to be your company’s one lifesaver.

Disaster Recovery never stops and undergoes modifications every six months or twelve months.

Technical Writing | Technical documentation vs Helpdesk

technical documentation vs helpdesk
technical documentation vs helpdesk

Technical Documentation vs Helpdesk – Despite the reluctance to invest in technical documentation, many managers bypass a proven way to cut back on calls to the Helpdesk. No doubt many helpdesks provide an excellent service and manage the demands of the users. The problem with most technical documentation including user guides is that it is incomplete and full of gaps. Documentation needs to flow and provide practical tips on how to get the best from the software.  If your customers had well written and comprehensive documentation you could substantially cut back on costly calls to your helpdesk.

Technical documentation vs Helpdesk

technical documentation vs helpdesk
technical documentation vs helpdesk

I have experience in manning a premium line Helpdesk and have spoken to many angry customers whose subjective complaints about the company and the guilty software lead to comments such as:

  • The product is bordering on rubbish, and it doesn’t work, is it bugged?
  • annoyed with the company because the software is garbage
  • I can’t follow the user guide because it doesn’t belong to my version of the software
  • I can’t follow the instructions

When documentation fails to deliver the answer, the Helpdesk records a steep curve in calls. Customers who feel forced to call the Helpdesk Support can hold mixed feelings about the product and company.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

technical documentation vs helpdesk
technical documentation vs helpdesk

Customers are the lifeblood of any organisation, and their demands can vary.  To facilitate their requirements, I created a feedback option to enable internal and external users to point out where the documentation appeared vague.

The developers and helpdesk provided a more detailed solution based on their knowledge and experiences. I created a FAQs knowledge base (or Wiki) for external users and placed the information in the back of the document. The internal staff received the content via a RoboHelp *.chm file.

The FAQs were a success and helped cut calls to support by 80%. I had created searchable information that was easy to find and accessible to all staff.

Experienced technical writers can produce audience focussed documentation that helps customers maintain productivity.

Technical documentation vs Helpdesk

Always treat your documentation and your information as an asset’ and invest in the necessary resources maintain the documentation. The savings could be significant meaning satisfied customers.

Technical Writing | What is technical writing and why you need it

What is Technical Writing?

Technical writing is a skill and should you hear a Project Manager or Subject Matter Expert say: ‘anyone can write so “why do you need a Technical Writer?” continue reading.

Technical Writing like many jobs has many facets. The fact you see Writer in the job title suggests to the uninitiated that primarily we write. You could not be more wrong! The writing takes only a fraction of the time allocated to the project.

Let’s get to the point

Our time is taken with analysing content and listening to Subject Matter Experts.

Our Writing is concise and to the point. We are not novelists describing a beautiful character down to her laughter lines. A poorly written novel will not hold the attention of a reader; the same goes for poorly written technical documentation. A user wants to read the document and understand say – the function of multiple servers and Operating systems within a significant infrastructure. Know how to follow a process or service within a few sentences. We can create a document from the viewpoint of the reader by listening to the user and offering document(s) based on the best solution.

Technical Writing is – as it explains in the box – technical. We speak to Subject Matter Experts and translate their language into content that a technophobe will understand.

We produce documentation in several formats in such a way, to get the message across to our many audiences. What I have written – you too will be an expert. Give yourself a hand.

Key elements of technical writing

Using a consistent language with regards to terminology.

Creating Glossaries to help readers understand the terminology used within the document.

Formatting document headers with the same font size and tables and drawings labelled the same way are important.

From using Excel spreadsheets, Template creation, document versioning, documentation content and types of material, clear document titles and subjects – working with either a shared drive or a document management system and talking to SMEs every day your average technical author is a ‘rare breed’ indeed.

If you have not already read my post titled “Technical Authors are not easy to find’ we do not attract many candidates.

Technical Writing | Hire a Technical Writer sooner, rather than later

As a Technical Writer with over Twenty Years of experience, I need to address a problem which haunts documentation projects. I aim this at Project Managers who scope such projects as part of a more comprehensive project.

Have you ever planned a project (PCI, GDPR, ISO27001, ITIL, Policy and Process) where documentation is critical? If so, how did it go? Crucially, did the project deliver ALL the documentation? If not – do you know why the plan failed?

First: Did you speak to a Technical Writer for a realistic appraisal of the expected outcomes?

Second: was your budget a few pennies short?

A collective failure of technical / process documentation projects is the lack of knowledge and expertise during the planning and discovery phases. Many project managers do NOT grasp the reality of a documentation project.

If the PM does NOT know the difference between a written process, a documented plan, and the purpose of a policy and its processes, your project could be in trouble.

The planners do not understand the lifecycle of a document, from the initial draft through various reviews and sign-off. The process takes much longer than expected.

How long does it to write a document? My default answer is “I do not know”. Technical Policy and Process documentation, depending on the project (PCI, GDPR, Operations, ITIL), will have many requirements and factors which delay the following stages:

      • the information gathering,
      • the interviewing
      • opinions
      • the writing,
      • review stages,
      • amendments
      • opinions, and
      • sign-off.

The likely reality of writing a 30-page A4 process document containing:

      • VISIOs (3 or more) comprising between 10 to 30 steps
      • Process narratives (3 or more) of between 10 to 30 steps
      • Appendixes (2 or more)

It will take at least 8 – 12 weeks of effort before the review stage. My advice is not to plan such a project without professional help.

Compliance projects such as PCI and GDPR generate a lot of policy and process documentation. If you are starting from scratch, the list of required documents could exceed 60 or more. In timing terms, you are looking at 12/18 months of work. To be safe, let’s say 24 months. If you have partially written documents, DO NOT expect timings to diminish to a few months. If the papers are scattered throughout various drives, the technical author must first attempt to get the documentation into a consistent state. That could take months of work.

Finally, there must be a management agreement to help the PM and TA find the resources to succeed. Any failures will multiply costs.

Hire a Technical Writer

My advice is this: If you have a project that requires documentation, hire a Technical Writer, not a Business Analyst, for advice from the start of the project, NOT when the end date is in sight and when the budget is running out. The TW can highlight issues, risks, and bottlenecks and help you manage expectations within the allocated time assigned to the project.

The Technical writers will need:

    • to assimilate the project
    • Time for training on any tools
    • access to Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

Add in contingencies for illnesses, holidays and unplanned absences, and resignations from the project. They happen.

If the budget and the timelines become fixed (in stone) with multiple documents to complete in a short period, then produce quality rather than quantity.

To ensure quality, rank the documents across the set:

    1. Required
    2. Nice to have
    3. Not important

Or use The MoSCoW method.

    • M – Must have this requirement to meet the business needs
    • S – Should have this requirement if possible, but project success does not rely on it
    • C – Could have this requirement if it affects nothing else on the project
    • W – I would like to have this requirement later, but delivery won’t be this time.

Additional Points

    • Travel: Will the TWs need to travel abroad or nationally?
    • References: Identify any useable archived documentation.
    • Reviews: decide who will review and who will sign off a document
    • Scope: Could there be any changes which will add to or change the size of the project

In summary,

Documentation projects fail due to:

    • poor planning
    • the lack of experience and
    • not allowing enough time to complete the documentation.

In contrast, documentation projects succeed due to:

    • excellent planning
    • understanding of documentation lifecycles
    • allowing enough time to complete the documentation.

Finally: If the project’s success depends on the documentation (Disaster Recovery Plan, PCI/DSS, BCP and ITIL)—why do PMs and SMEs allocate so much of the budget to non-documentation resources?

Technical Writing | A brief guide to documentation projects for Project Managers

A brief guide to managing documentation projects for Project Managers will demonstrate that when done correctly will produce long-term benefits.

Here are some examples to help keep your documentation on track.

The original writer is not the best person to check their documentation because they very rarely spot their mistakes.

  • Arrange for a peer review and/or technical review of all changes
  • establish a review process to make sure the documentation is both factually correct and consistent.

All documentation requires ongoing review once or twice a year.

  • If your company use a Document Management system to store documentation, make use of the “metadata” windows to describe the content changes to make the review process easier and consistent.
  • If you are so inclined adding an index to your document, especially when it is a large document will enhance the documents usability

Like everything else, documents become living information that:

  • Maintaining the documentation represents a significant challenge
  • Without a management policy or agreed procedure, the Documentation you are creating will cease to have any value if it is not updated
  • Documentation requires dedicated resources, in which some companies will not invest
  • In other words, use or contract an experienced Technical Writer

Technical Writing | Why your business needs Technical documentation

Managers underestimate the purpose of technical documentation until they discover they have no relevant documentation. Listed below are 6 reasons why you need technical documentation

  1. Without technical documentation you have no historical record of any project ever completed within the company
  2. You have no metrics against which to measure current projects
  3. You have no information which outlines the lessons learned and the lessons failed
  4. During an upgrade project the team relies on guess-work to get things right . . . it also means the project will take much longer to complete stretching the budget
  5. What documentation there is lies scattered over several drives and only makes sense to the author
  6. Your valued tech staff have left the company taking information with them in their heads

Now you know why Technical Documentation is important; if you recognise one or more of the points above . . . what’s your next move?