Early in my career I believed that Tech Writers were a interface role to Marketing and Sales. As a product focused developer, I didn’t understand the true value of Tech Writers beyond cleaning up content to make it customer friendly as in the places where I worked this is the role they most often took. I now see them much differently and I wanted to write a bit about what changed my mind.
For me the big turning point was at Safe Banking Systems when we embarked upon SOC2 compliance. This process involves creating a mountain of documentation and so to facilitate this we included a seasoned tech writer to focus on the project. It was in working together that I realized the depth of the value of what a good Tech Writer brings to the table.
Maybe the most important facet of Tech Writers is that they can get information out of the heads of tech folks who would otherwise not write documentation, due to lack of time or other “reasons”. A Tech Writer will sit with them and interview taking extensive notes, and then write up the results. The interviewee then only needs to review and tweak their work for accuracy. This removed a ton of friction from the process and we ended up generating a lot more documentation and much more quickly.
For those who do write documentation, Tech Writers can free up your developers to get back to thinking about hard problems and writing code. Are there any parts of your process that require extensive documentation on a regular basis? Working a full day to make a nice document becomes an hour or less to get the information out. A good Tech Writer can get this work done much more quickly than a typical dev. This similarly removes friction and leads to more documentation actually getting written.
When we had completed SOC2 our seasoned Tech Writer stayed on board, and her value only grew as she better understood the product and the team. We generated more and more documentation and, as you probably have seen, eventually just keeping the documentation organized became a problem. Thankfully one of our her naturally evolved to provide organization and structure to all of this documentation that would otherwise have become a big mess. One hard won lesson here is that without some way to provide this structure it doesn’t matter how good your documentation is, because no one will be able to find what they’re looking for anyway.
Tech Writers also can facilitate the updating and regular review of documentation by to ensure accuracy. Before we had tech writers our documentation was in pretty bad shape, often written by more junior people as a way to learn, and it was rarely updated. At first they helped us ensure product changes were making it into the docs, but also as we grew they helped us implement processes to ensure freshness and compliance.
Finally, Tech writers can facilitate important writing projects that you otherwise would put off or leave undone. When I led the Model Validation Working Group our goal was to help banks better understand and integrate our machine learning driven technology. None of our competitors had similar technology and so it was all quite alien to our customers, and in a regulatory domain like accounts and payments screening thus required a whole lot of explanation. I knew we would have to build a massive document detailing every facet of integration, customization, tuning and maintenance. With two Tech Writers we were able to complete this project in about six months. Without them it never would have happened.
Tech Writers are often overlooked because of their nature as a supporting role. It’s harder to see their impact. They can however make the hard easy and sometimes even make the impossible possible, and so shouldn’t be overlooked. I now believe every team over a certain level of maturity should have at least one Tech Writer to support their team. If you don’t already have one on staff, consider hiring a Tech Writer to facilitate your own team’s growth.
I wrote this post with fond memories of working with Cindy Orwig and Abby Friedman, both of whom I worked with at Safe Banking Systems. Abby runs Marketing Solutions Consulting, and is available marketing and tech writing work.