April 2016

Image: © Tono Balaguer/123rf.com

Leah Guren is the owner/operator of Cow TC. She has been active in the field of technical communication since 1980 as a writer, manager, Help author, and usability consultant. She now devotes her time to consulting and teaching courses and seminars in technical communication, primarily in Israel and Europe.


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Building bridges with TechComm: a ray of hope in troubled times

As I sit down to write this, a troubled and challenging 2015 has just drawn to a close. It has been a difficult year filled with terrifying violence and outrageous acts of intolerance. Whenever another hateful act of terrorism filled the news feed, I would find myself despairing for the future of humanity.

Luckily, all I had to do to return to a more optimistic frame of mind was to remember what I do: creating orderly meaning out of chaos and making life-changing technology accessible to users. I make things better. In fact, all of us as technical communicators (TCs) make things better.

And what makes this even more optimistic is that most of us do so in an environment of open-minded pluralism. After over 35 years in hi-tech, I can honestly say that I have been exposed to endless examples of optimism, creativity, generosity, and other fine characteristics that raise the human spirit. I can think of few professions that so consistently build bridges of international cooperation than the technical fraternity of software and documentation.

At the beginning of my career, I worked for a small software startup in southern California. The company developed highly technical software for signal processing. That meant that the SMEs (software developers, designers, etc.) included many PhDs in physics, as well as some of the most cutting-edge coders available. They came from all over the world: at one point, we had twelve different nationalities all working together to solve problems and make the products work. The lunch room was like a mini-UN, with many strange pairings of nationalities that would normally be at odds with each other: China and Taiwan, India and Pakistan, Israel and Egypt, France and Germany. Politics, religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and skin color simply didn’t enter into the equation. It was one long collaborative process conducted in heavily accented English. At times, two developers from the same country might launch into a fast and furious discussion in their native language, but it was always peppered with "FFT," "VAX/VMS," and other terms related to our project.

It was my first exposure to the pure joy of working in a meritocracy, where status and respect came from one’s knowledge and abilities. As the only TC working on a major part of the project, I was given great autonomy for all things related to documentation, usability, design, clear writing, etc. In return, I naturally deferred to the SMEs for all technical issues. They had a distinct understanding of who was the reigning expert on any particular issue. Jenny might have the last word on FORTRAN overlays, while Mansour was the go-to man for voice signal analysis. There was remarkably little concern for official job titles or a person’s position in the corporate hierarchy. We worked long hours, argued a lot, laughed a lot, and celebrated the solution to each tricky problem.

This was not a unique experience. I have seen the same atmosphere of cooperation and equality in many hi-tech companies, particularly small start-ups. Despite often feeling at odds with the SMEs when it comes to prioritizing documentation, most TCs working on software products are still part of this progressive and optimistic environment.

Sadly, this atmosphere is not present in all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) areas. In a recent article about the dearth of diversity in the 2016 American Chemical Society Award, STEM Women talks about the Matilda Effect, in which research conducted by women is undervalued or ignored. Clearly, not all science and technology fields are the same even playing field that we enjoy in TC.

Just take a look at the tcworld conference (or any other TC-related international conference). You will see men and women from all over the world, of different races, religions, and nationalities, all sharing ideas to make the documentation process better. We talk about improving the usability of the product through better information; we talk about optimizing our workflow through better tool usage; we talk about improving the localization process to make information more accessible to more people, while saving our companies time and money. And we share ideas freely and generously. Almost all TC-related social media sites are also places where people can safely share ideas and help each other in the spirit of encouragement and bridge-building.