Project Management and Doucmentation

The quality of project management has a direct impact on technical documentation, a fact project managers overlook . This article looks at the areas where the relationship between project management and technical documentation intersect. 

Put a plan around a project or a project around a plan

Technical documentation will suffer if the project is floundering without a project plan. A document project without a plan is always at risk of failure. There is a tendency by those with no documentation experience to change the goalposts and and add to the project because in many cases they did not listen to the experience and advice of their technical Writer. 

While documentation cannot compensate for the lack of a plan, it can help to revive a troubled project. This method of catching up through documentation will extend timelines, but will serve the project better by mitigating risks and strengthening the overall product through documentation analysis.

Frustrated

An experienced technical writers can certainly find their frustration peaking when the project timeline isn’t workable, or the Project Manager fails to listen to advice. THis happens when:

  • working with staff members who have no experience working with documentation and assume its an easy straightforward task
  • unworkable deadlines that sacrifice documentation quality and lead to frustration among internal parties

It is worth bearing in mind the following: 

  • when scheduling technical documentation tap into the TAs knowledge to help plan the timeline for documentation.
  • Writing or migrating content is not an instantaneous process; a failure to work with the writers could led to counter productive problems. 
  • If the timeline is genuinely tight, develop a list of documentation priorities in order for users to adopt the product.

A typical breakdown for a technical writing project includes:

  • Research time to learn the project and other elements, such as the underlying technology and related issues required for the documentation effort.
  • Dedicated time for writing.
  • Dedicated time for editing. copy editing and editing for style, clarity, and other issues.
  • Dedicated time to review the technical accuracy of the documentation. Never assume that a document is correct. Always create review time for accuracy by SMEs.

Allow sufficient ramp-up time

Technical writers need sufficient ramp-up time to become versed in the product. While ramp-up time is relative depending on the writer, a project manager can support the writer:

  • Provide ready access to necessary hardware and software so the technical writer doesn’t have to waste time waiting on equipment required for documentation projects.
  • Provide the necessary system access, usernames, and passwords.

Allow technical writers ramp-up time is more than a learning curve; it’s having the resources in place so they can perform their jobs with minimal downtime, which is billable when they are on-site waiting for corporate bureaucracies to deliver the resources they need.

Review the reviewers

While technical writers must have a stake in the technical accuracy of the documentation they produce, there is often a need for technical reviewers to review the documentation. Take into account this review time  in the overall project schedule, including:

  • Scheduled time for technical staff, project managers, and other reviewers to go over the documentation.
  • Time for the technical writers to add the revisions to the documentation.

Can project managers and technical writers get along?

The documentation component of a project requires input from technical writers to help ensure quality technical documentation. A working collaboration between project managers and technical writers can help organisations reap the benefits of better design (because it’s documented), and better customer support through documentation. A self-sufficient customer who doesn’t call customer support is like money in the bank for your company.

Technical Writing | General Data Protection Regulations

GDPR

On the 25th May 2018, the new General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) came into force.

Companies outside the EU

If your Company actively trades within the EU and stores, processes or shares EU citizens’ data, then GDPR does apply to you.

Compliance and documentation

One of the primary rules is that under GDPR Process activities MUST be documented.

Companies are required to maintain a set of Policy, Process and Plan (PPP) documentation to ensure you have evidence to support your claims should the ICO investigate any complaint or breach of data.

Note that the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) could demand to see the written documents

What do you need to consider?

As a technical writer, with experience writing compliance documentation, what can I tell you?

If you are still struggling to start

My Blogs are clear, writing one document, when there is a substantial list to be completed from scratch to sign off is a lengthy process. Even if your department has documents that can be reused, it will still take a long time. Compliance projects are manually intensive and documenting GDPR will need dedicated resources.

My experience could be necessary to help you write and manage those documents. The sooner you contact me, the sooner we can start the road to compliance.

  • Create a standard template with – Statement, In Scope, Version Control, Change History, Distribution Lists, Roles and Responsibilities
  • All PPPs must adhere to GDPR – include in the document ‘The purpose of the document’, ‘The Scope’ and add a list of the GDPR compliances relevant to the PPP you are writing and explain the WHY the company are complying along with the HOW the company will comply.
  • The documentation must be relevant to your business. Generic documentation outlining a PPP will NOT suffice
  • Complete the documentation – do not start and leave a document incomplete then sign off; an incomplete document could fail a Compliance Audit
  • Maintain the detail – do not half explain a process or policy
  • Structure the documentation to avoid duplicating information over several documents
  • That the documentation may need to be ISO 27001 compliant

Does Your GDPR Project need documentationClick To Tweet

 

Technical Writing | Project Managers and Technical Writers

Project managers and technical writers, two distinct roles. One of my many skills as a technical writer is organisation. We juggle many tasks and switch between them with ease. People skills are important as we speak to coders, engineers, and technicians of various shades. In the meantime, we manage a ream of documentation while taking instructions from SMEs. Occasionally we meet a project manager who has had minimal exposure to technical documentation as part of a project.

techwriting
Project Managers and Technical Writers

If you lack experience planning the technical documentation component of a project I suggest you consult with your technical writer. A working collaboration between project managers and technical writers can help organisations reap the benefits of the project (because it’s documented), and provide better internal and external support through documentation.

If you are one of the many Project Manager who has never worked with Technical Writers, remember we are professionals.  We will not tolerate the viability and quality of the technical documentation to satisfy the needs of others.

Techwriting
Project Managers and Technical writers

So, if you have no direct experience with documentation or Technical Writers consider:

  • Talk with your TW(s) because their experience will provide you with a much-needed background in document management.
  • To help plan the documentation, avoid creating timelines as you progress the project.
  • TAs cannot pull documentation from a hat or generate a document from code.
  • Speak to the TW(s) to gauge how long it will take to review/write/edit a document. In my experience, many project managers overestimate the timelines or worse underestimate the deadlines. Always build in flexibility to allow for problems in the documentation process
  • Reviewing a document intended for transformation containing more than 20 pages plus will take time (the general rule of thumb is one hour per page).
  • The time required for writing
  • Peer reviews
  • Time to have the content technically reviewed

Technical Writing | Passive vs Active Sentences

What is a passive sentence?

A Passive sentence is a grammatical voice prevalent in many of the world’s languages. In a clause with a passive voice, the grammatical subject expresses the theme or patient of the main verb – that is, the person or thing that undergoes the action or has its state changed.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passive_sentence

Passive vs Active

I can already hear readers asking, what is a Passive Sentence?

Here goes!

Compare these sentences.

  1. The Application is used to collect data (passive)
  2. Use the application to collect data (active)

or

  1. The key was used to open the door (passive)
  2. Use the key to open the door (active)

or

  1. The wire is fed through the box by the electrician (Passive)
  2. The electrician feeds the wire through the box (active)

Using the active voice, sentences provide a clearer more effective message in technical writing and business writing. The active voice identifies the action and determines who performs that work. For clear examples of passive voice look at government documents, which gives the wording a dull, bureaucratic tone.

Over time, writing in the passive voice becomes a habit, one we should all work to change. Of one thing I can be certain, despite the debates, I will continue to use the active sentence.

Technical Writing | Interviewing SMEs

Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are essential to enable you the technical author to write that document. Without their input you will struggle. So, how does an experienced technical writer consider approaching and interviewing SME?

I base my advice on my personal experiences of talking to and working with SMEs. You will no doubt find, like me, that some SMEs are difficult while others are happy to help.

Approaching and Interviewing  SMEs 

  1. Make sure you schedule a meeting with the SME in advance, do not turn up at their desk and expect to talk. Most SMEs are busy and might work on an important task.
  2. Make sure you know the SMEs area of ability and their role within the company
  3. If you collaborate with other technical writer’s check any project management plans or ask if they have already spoken to that SME
  4. If yes check the information to see if it applies to you. It will save time asking the SME twice for the same information and prevent any stern reminders that they have already discussed ‘XYZ.’
  5. I use a dictaphone to record interviews because it means if I have any queries I can always run the recording back. 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
  6. 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
  7. Always regard the interview as another knowledge capture exercise, which adds to your experience, do not assume you know everything before you get there, even if you do.
  8. The SME will assume that you know what they are talking about; if not – stop the interview, and either request a less technical explanation or if you still do not understand then you need to reassess your ability to do the job.
  9. Only schedule an hour for the interview but clarify that if there are any points which are not clear, you will need to reschedule more time
  10. Be clear – there will be a peer review required, but you will let them know in advance when the document is ready for review
  11. 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 you if you have not already done so introduce yourself

  12. The SME may not know everything and may need to refer you to another SME for information
  13. When you return to your desk, start writing up the document. Do not wait for a few days, even if you have recorded the interview
  14. 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 author, ensure their experience matches your requirements. You need to source one who has the right knowledge, background and expertise. At the interview, they should talk through that experience; if not 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 tenure, the broader and more in-depth their experience will be. However, the only way to be confident is to read their CVs carefully.

Do they use Social Media or have a website?

Check out LinkedIn for their profile; If you cannot find one 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 may offer suggestions on how to elevate the project with innovations you may not have considered.

Read the CV and be prepared to discuss the project. I have arrived at an interview to find the interviewer has not read my CV. I have a simple rule regarding my experience; if you cannot see it on the CV, then I have not done it. That does not mean that I will turn down unfamiliar tasks.

Effective communication

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

Do you want a contractor or permanent TW?

You may build a team, and you need a Technical Writer to keep the documentation up to date; a person who will grow into the environment. However, I would caution against using a Technical Writer permanently 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 to shift boxes and to clean the stock room and 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 the odd spurt of activity within the working life cycle; hence, why the position of Technical Writing lends itself more so to contract work rather than permanent work.

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

A word of caution

Unfortunately, our profession can attract its fair share of triers. You can reasonably expect CVs from candidates who have had minimum experience preparing ad hoc documentation. Unfortunately, that minimal experience will NOT be enough to perform the job.

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.

Applying the following advice may help you avoid problems:

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 means the Technical Writer’s experience may be severely limited. That also goes for junior writers, for high-profile projects hire a seasoned contracting professional, who can talk through the project with you. In my experience, there is a world of difference between a contract Technical Writer and one who has chosen permanency.

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

Where else can you source a Technical writer?

If you prefer to source a Technical Writer, you have found me. However, I may not be suitable for the role. Check LinkedIn, Social Media sites and the 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 which 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.