At the recently concluded TWIA conference in Melbourne, I met a few lecturers from my Grad Dip in Technical Communication. I have been in touch with some of them over the years and it was good to see everyone together again.
Catching up with them took me a little down memory lane, back when I took the Graduate Diploma at Swinburne University. I am definitely happy that I took and completed this course back then.
The Graduate Diploma in Technical Communications has ceased to exist for the last few years, though I know (and have worked with) a few Technical Writers who have good memories and positive experiences of this course.
I was working part-time as a Data Entry Operator while studying for my Masters, when my team lead asked me if I was interested in helping the development team over the summer break with testing a product the organisation was developing.
Along with testing, I was also asked to update (and where required create new content for) the user guide that shipped along with the product. I have always been interested in writing, but those 2 months of testing and documentation experience got me interested in the whole documentation process – gathering information, updating, reviews and final publishing. Not without its share of usual issues though – SME unavailability, lack of clear feedback and review etc.
It was during my brief role as a Client Liaison Officer with the same organisation that I had a chance to work on a large database project, a directory that contained information of all hospitals, medical centres and other health services throughout Victoria. Along with managing the communication templates (email and fax), I enjoyed creating some Help/FAQ pages for the service directory, and these documents were well received by the end-users.
Now having progressed to a Data Specialist role, I was working on cleaning, parsing and analysing data while trying to work out the most efficient way to perform these tasks. A fair amount of this work was repetitive, though the nature and type of data varied, which made it possible to document the instructions on how to perform the tasks to clean, parse and outputting the data.
I readily put my hand up to update the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) because it gave me a chance to do something that I had only briefly dabbled in the previous years – technical documentation. I had certainly enjoyed the experience then and hopefully could get to do more of this.
While my Masters of Business provided an ideal base for understanding how businesses look at information systems, I was looking for certification or a university course that gave me a core understanding of the technical communication process, tools and practices. Although there were a few online courses that caught my eye, the Graduate Diploma in Technical Communication at Swinburne University fitted my requirements perfectly, primarily because it was local and the curriculum
Looking back now, the Grad Dip at Swinburne was a really well designed diploma. The most interesting (and bit of an eye opener for me) fact was that technical writers come from all sorts of backgrounds. There is no prescribed path for a technical writer.
In our very first semester, we had people from journalism, IT Support and Programming backgrounds who wanted to learn more about technical writing. It was a very close-knit group, consisting of about 5 people in the first semester, and got even tighter, down to 2, by the last semester rolled off.
Tools, Docs, Prototypes and Projects
Kylie Weaver taught us about the 5 Cs of writing, creating effective technical communication and how to go about managing the documentation development cycle in relation to the waterfall model. Agile and scrums were not so much of a thing then.
Sonja McShane delved deeper into the document development process, and got us creating Information Plans, Content Specifications and other technical and project documentation over the semester. I still start off any project by creating an Information Plan that outlines the scope, deliverables, audience understanding and a suggested topics structure. Old habits die hard.
Andrew Lockton took us on a grand tour of the tools involved in creating documentation. From MS Word to Dreamweaver, RoboHelp to Framemaker; it was a really good insight in to how tech writers use different tools to achieve more or less the same result – usable documentation.
Tony Self taught us how to arm and disarm HTML documentation, creating online help for applications. Using his vast knowledge of the hyperlinked world, he showed us how to go about creating structured chunks of information, assembling them together and making them behave via hyperlinks. He also showed us how to go about embedding our deliverables with the product code, while playing along nicely with the developers and testers to get it done.
In the second year, Gerry Gaffney got us thinking about usability and user centric design. In his own encouraging style, he made us look critically at websites, how content was delivered over this medium and how effective the content was. We got our hands dirty, using affinity diagrams, prototyping and creating usability reports for a fictional case study. I absolutely loved the project we created and delivered, because it gave us a very practical understanding of usability principles.
During the last semester, we (having dropped from a promising 5 to a bare minimum 2) were entrusted with the task of managing a documentation project. This involved using all of the knowledge gained over the preceding 18 months and coming up with an Information Plan, a technical document (User Guide or Online Help) and submitting a final report around the project milestones and deliverables. We tracked resources, timelines and milestones using Microsoft Project, collaborated on ideas for products and delivered a comprehensive project report as our final assignment.
2006-2015. And beyond.
While I was in my last semester, I got my first official gig as a Technical Writer, creating compiled help content for a radiology information system.
2015 and I am still here, creating technical documents and loving it.