May 2015
By Dave Gardiner

Image: © racorn/ 123rf.com

Dave Gardiner is a technical communicator with expertise in XML publishing technologies, and has a background in print and ebook publishing and redrawing scientific illustrations. He has developed online Help using DITA with an interactive visual user interface, and has published articles in US and UK journals. He holds the tekom first-level certificate in technical communication.


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tekom technical communication training and certification - an insider report

Dave Gardiner shares his experiences studying for certification through one of the most prominent technical communication training organizations.

I had been looking for some formal training in technical communication, and after considering courses in the US and New Zealand, settled on the German tekom first-level certificate in technical communication. It was a good move. Delivered online by TCTrainNet, the course provides training and tests for basic competencies in a range of subject areas. The training leads to certification with an exam, and is well worth the investment as an introduction for new technical communicators or as a refresher for those already in the profession.

The certificate is designed for technical communicators wishing to check that their skills and knowledge are aligned with the expectations of the profession. There is also an advanced certificate on offer for experienced practitioners. You will see on the TCTrainNet website all the sub-modules to study, with a few of these freely accessible with a guest login to give you a taste of the training. I studied with students from Germany, Austria, India and China. The discussion forums are an excellent way to learn from others’ experiences as you respond to the training and practical tasks—you are studying with your group for several months and get to know how they do their job and how technical communication works in different industries.  

The course eases you into study for the first few weeks, then you plough through one sub-module each week for approximately six months. Nine main modules comprising 24 submodules take you through the essentials of professional writing, layout and visual design, managing translation and localization, online documentation, the DITA standard for technical communication, terminology management, information development, structuring and standardization with XML, and legal requirements and international standards. You must complete all modules to qualify for the certification exam.

 

The material is mostly theory and concepts of various aspects of technical communication. Every week there are small practical exercises to consolidate learning, such as setting up style templates in Microsoft Word, or using a trial version of oXygen XML Editor to produce a few pages of a document with DITA markup.

Each sub-module (you do one each week) has a recorded webinar of 30 to 45 minutes to introduce the key issues of the topic – a TCTrainNet presenter speaking to a PowerPoint slideshow that introduces the sub-module’s material. Then you work through the online interactive training – click through each slide, or tap on boxes, move pieces of text around to complete sentences, click on web links, and watch short animations to get to the next slide and successfully complete each week's learning notes (it's interactive so you keep engaged with the material). There are also links to a moderate amount of reading material such as tcworld articles, websites or PDF documents that give you different aspects of the material from a practitioner’s viewpoint. After the interactive training there are one or two small exercises where you research a topic, and post your answer in the discussion forum. It is a great way to collaborate on exercises and compare answers, discuss alternatives, etc. Finally, there is a short quiz to test your learning. This keeps you busy for an average of eight hours each week that the course recommends.

 

At the beginning of the course – for the first month or so – you wonder why you are learning theories about reading and comprehensibility and so on. But it gradually falls into place, where later modules build on the knowledge of the first several ones. You need to stick with the learning because you come across some really interesting modules with XML, translation, terminology management, information development and online Help. It's a good course to consolidate the experience you already have with documentation.

 

The international course has been developed from the German-language course, which has run for many years. The material is still very German-centric, with discussion about DIN standards, German studies and experts in documentation, etc. But treat this as a stepping-off point to research your own country’s practices and standards – it helps to answer each week’s exercises from your own perspective so other students gain from your experience. (Recounting your experience also helps when taking the certification exam.)

You need to apply to sit the certification exam, the cost of which is included in the training. Then you have several weeks (in my case it was three months as we all tried to settle on an exam date) to finish off exercises, do quizzes you missed and revise the training material (and there’s lots of it). The certification is held online with the other students and is split into two parts: practical tasks and an oral exam. With the European students sitting the exam early on a Saturday morning, and me in the early evening, we were emailed two tasks in Word documents. We had 90 minutes to rewrite instructions in a machine disassembly/reassembly task, and restructure a manual’s table of contents to reflect task-based topics. A break, then the oral exam by webcam – questions focused on definitions, concepts and hypotheses. It was an intense four hours.

I got an email two days later – I passed with a ‘B’. So now I am no longer a book editor with a little technical writing experience – I can call myself a technical communicator. The certification is international recognition that says I can be a competent member of a documentation team. And it’s recognized by national organizations as professional development. tekom certification is not as hard as you might think.

P.S.: Since gaining certification, I landed my first technical communication contract. In my application and interview, I cited learning from the certificate course about 'writing from the user's perspective' and ISO standards, which no doubt helped me win the job. Without this training, I think it would have taken me much longer to slowly gain experience to enter the profession.