Re: Background

Subject: Re: Background
From: nancy ott <ott -at- ANSOFT -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 3 Nov 1994 10:17:53 EST

> Date: Wed, 2 Nov 1994 15:44:20 EST
> From: Don Sargent <sargent -at- OTTER -dot- TEMPLATE -dot- COM>
> Subject: Background

> I am currently trying to fill two Senior Technical Writer positions to
> work on the documentation for an object-oriented software development
> environment. The development environment provides a proprietary object-
> oriented language, predefined class libraries, and editors that give you
> a simple, visual way to create portions of an application. The technical
> complexity of the product ranges from moderately complex for
> the editors to very complex for the language.

> One of our minimum qualifications for the Sr. Technical Writer position
> is coursework in a programming language such as PASCAL, C, or C++. Extra
> programming experience or a Computer Science degree really grabs our

> As you might expect, nearly all the resumes and candidates we interview
> fall into these categories:

> o Technically strong, weak technical writing
> o Strong technical writing, technically weak in programming concepts

> We've passed on some candidates who appeared to have the skills
> to write very good documentation. However, by our estimates and their's,
> there would be an extremely large learning curve--if they caught on at
> all.

> Do you have any suggestions that might help us judge candidates? Are
> we being too stringent? Both writers in the group have English/Journalism
> degree with Computer Science minors and the learning curve for new features
> is still very steep.

I'm in kind of a similar position -- I am the lead tech writer for a
company that develops electric field, magnetic field and circuit
simulation software. The technical complexity of the products that I
document varies from a couple of fairly simple modeling packages to a
full-blown suite of simulators that enable our customers to simulate
everything from electrostatics and DC current to high frequency
signals from antennas, PCBs and the like. The learning curve here is
very steep -- new writers have to figure out how to use the various
software packages *and* learn enough background theory to be able to
write sensibly about them. Product updates come thick and fast, and
it's a constant struggle to keep up to date. Did I also mentioning
that we're migrating to on-line docs?

Basically, we both work in an environment where it's well-nigh
impossible to hire a person and have them produce RIGHT NOW. You are
going to have a learning curve associated with *anyone* you hire, no
matter how competant. There are very few people who can just walk
into a highly technical environment and be immediately productive.

Having said that, don't compromise on the people you hire. I learned
this the hard way when I hired a writer who just couldn't keep up
technically. She unfortunately had to be fired -- it cost the doc
department too much time and effort to cover for her mistakes and
inability to learn. Are you confident that these writers will come up
to speed eventually? Or do you think that they lack the capability to
do so? Make sure of this before you make any offers.

You sound like you need a way to test writing and analytical skills
during an interview. Have you thought about giving writers an
assignment to complete after their interview, that would be based on a
walk-through of your company's product? I give prospective writers a
short writing assignment (400 words) that they can complete at home,
which is based on a walk-through of one of our simpler software
packages. I pay close attention to the questions they ask during the
walk-through, mainly to determine if they know how to elicit
information from people. When judging the writing assignments, I look
for an understanding of the basic functionality of the package, a
clear writing style, and whether the writer has bothered to follow the
directions given on the assignment sheet. It's been a decent
predictor of success -- I figure that anyone who can write
intelligently about a complex product after a quick walk-through has
the analytical and verbal skills to succeed.

- nancy

nancy ott....ansoft corporation....pittsburgh, pa -dot- -dot- -dot- -dot- ott -at- ansoft -dot- com
This message contains 100% recycled electrons.

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