Training for tech writers

I just rediscovered John Hewitt’s excellent PoeWar blog, and I found a great article about trainers as a powerful resource for tech writers.

If you want help creating documentation, get to know the trainers. I am frequently amazed at how little communication some companies have between the training and the documentation departments. In many cases, the training departments develop their own materials…. More than once I have sweated over creating a procedure, only to find out later that it was already in the training materials.

Trainers not only get to know the company’s products, they get to know the customers. For many (shortsighted) companies, the trainers are the closest thing you have to a usability team. They walk through the product in front of the clients, who inevitably have questions about the process or come up with scenarios that point out the limitations of the product.

Hewitt’s opening paragraphs reminded me of two recent gigs, and the contrasts in their relationships between the trainers and the writers.

At one company, the tech pubs manager arranged for a special training class just for us writers and editors. The entire department attended and we had a custom presentation about the upcoming release and the overall product line. We got to pepper the trainers with our particular writer questions about the customers and how the docs were really used (or not used).

At the other company, a large corporation with a broad product portfolio, we were essentially denied any chance to interact with a trainer at all. The company had an extensive “university” with many training courses and instructors that traveled to the various corporate campuses. Unfortunately our department policy only allowed us to take courses that were free. All of the live training classes had a cost associated with them. But these were internal, inter-department charges. The money didn’t leave the company. Nevertheless we were limited to watching prerecorded tutorials or narrated PowerPoint decks with no opportunity to ask questions.

At the first company I was able to hit the ground running with a good view of where my project fit into the company portfolio and into the overall customer experience. At the second company, it was much harder to know how the features I was writing about were relevant to the customer.