Monday, June 4, 2012

Technical Writing & Technical Training Materials

Getting Started in IT
Technical Writing and Technical Training are two great jobs. If you are a teacher seeking to move into the Information Technology industry, you may want to check out technical training jobs. These jobs relate to teaching, as discussed later in this article. 

My first IT job was working as a technical writer, a career I held for about five or six years.  While working as a technical writer I wrote technical documents for the following types of companies: telecommunications (such as Nextel), systems integration (which design and build complex applications), network security, software development, etc. Although the types of documents written are the same, the most challenging part was learning the terms associated with each company type. Telecommunications terminology is very different from systems integration terminology. This is because different company types use different types of technology. For example, telecommunications companies support wireless phones and other similar products. On the other hand, systems integration companies implement systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems used to run an entire company. 
Technical trainer and technical writer jobs are closely related. A technical writer writes the user's guides, quick reference materials, getting started guides, installation guides and other technical materials. Technical trainers, on the other hand, plan and design training programs. They also write the training materials and they often stand up front and teach students. However, online training is becoming more common so not all technical trainers stand in front of a classroom and teach students. 
Technical Training Materials
While working for a systems integration company (BDM International), I had to assist with developing technical training materials as well as end-user documents. The technical training materials I created were as follows:
1)    Slide Presentation. The Slide Presentation teaches end users how to perform a task.
2)    Lab Book. The lab book includes learning objectives for each chapter. It also provides instructions on how to perform tasks associated with data already in the system. Or, it provides instructions on specific data the user is to add and manipulate. Each chapter concludes with a list of Review questions to reinforce the learning objectives.
3)    Facilitator's Guide. The Facilitator's Guide is written for the instructor. It includes the information (that should be conveyed to students) for each slide in the presentation. It also includes the answers to the Review questions. Typically, technical trainings will include time for the instructor to discuss the Review questions and provide the correct answer.
4)    Survey. Surveys are typically created to gather information the company needs to make training decisions. These surveys are usually handed out about 10 minutes before class ends so students have a chance to complete them and leave class on time.
Technical Documents versus Technical Training Materials
The key difference between the user's guide and the training materials is the user's guide provides general instructions while the technical training materials include instructions about one or more specific records. For example, a user's guide might include a topic called "Adding a Customer Record". This topic would include general instructions as follows:


1. Log in.
2. Select Add from the Main menu. The Add page displays. 
3. Select Customer from the Add page. The Add Customer page displays.
4. Enter the customer's information (including first name, last name, etc.)
Note: Fields preceded by an asterisk are required and must be completed prior to saving the record.

5. Once you have completed all information click the Save button. The record is saved and the Add Customer page closes.

Note: If you click the Save
button before you have completed all of the required fields, an error message will display. If this happens click the OK button on the error message. The error message will close so you can access the Add Customer page. Red text (required field) displays beside any required fields left blank.
The lab book (which is comparable to the user’s guide) will have the Adding a Customer Record lesson. However, the lab book will also include the learning objectives. Below is an example.

In this lesson you will learn the following:
  • How to add a customer records
  • How to recognize fields that require information
  • How to save a record
  • How to respond to an error message.
The instructions in a lab book are written differently from the instructions in a user’s guide. Below is an example of the instructions in a lab book.
Instructions:  In this lesson you are going to add Mr. Wyatt Johnson as a new customer. Please follow the instructions below to complete this lesson.
1. Log into the demo account using the following credentials:
User Name: Jane Doe   
Password:  P@ssword22
2. Select Add from the Main menu. The Add window displays.

3. Select Customer from the Add window. The Add Customer window displays.

4. Click in the First Name field. Add the following: Wyatt.

5. Leave the Last Name field blank. Notice that this field is preceded by an asterisk. This means this field is required. However, leave this field blank for now. This will give you an opportunity to see the error message and learn how to respond to it.

6. Click in the Address 1 field. Type the following:  2244 Yellow Stone Park Rd.

7. Click in the Address 2 field. Type the following:  Suite 260

8. Click in the City field. Type the following:  Pasadena

9. Click in the State field. Type the following:  California

10. Click in the Zip Code field. Type the following:  91101

11. Click the Save button. An error message displays, "You must complete all required fields".

12. Click the OK button to close the error message. Notice red text (required field) displays beside the Last Name field because it is required.
13. Click in the Last Name field. Add the following:  Johnson

14. Click the Save button. The record is saved and the Add Customer page closes.

CONGRATULATIONS: You have completed the Adding a Customer Record lesson.
Notice the lab book provide specific log in information and tells users what data to add. When a system is built and it is determined that training will be provided on that system; the technical trainer usually provides the content that must be added (if applicable) so users can use the system for training. Based on the technical trainer’s request, the developer will create a demo account that can be used for training and/or customer demonstrations. Therefore, more planning is required for training materials then for technical documents such as user’s guides.
In short, user's guides provide instructions so users can perform a task using any data the user wants to add or update, search or delete.  Technical training provides more specific direction by telling users what records to add, edit, delete or search.
User's Guides - Technical Writing
I learned how to write a user's guide by looking at various users’ guides for products on the market. To practice developing user’s guides I would go to to select and download various types of software  (i.e., change request, enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, help desk, etc.). The more I practiced; the better I got at organizing the topics. Eventually I came up with a standardized outline that I could use for the user's guide. I only deviated from the standard outline when I had to. Using this rhythm made it easier for users to understand how the topics were organized. This made it easier for users to find information. For example, my table of contents would look as follows:
Table of Contents
Managing Customer Records
  • Adding a Customer Record
  • Searching for a Customer Record
  • Editing a Customer Record
  • Deleting a Customer Record
Managing Orders
  • Adding an Order
    • Associating a Customer Record with an Order
    • Associating an Employee Record with an Order
  • Searching for an Order
    • Searching by Order ID
    • Searching by Customer Name
    • Searching by Employee Name
  • Editing an Order
  • Canceling an Order
Managing Employee Records
  • Adding an Employee Record
  • Searching for an Employee
  • Editing an Employee Record
  • Deleting an Employee Record


How it All Adds Up
Although technical writer salaries started out paying $75,000 or more (depending on experience), annually salaries have dropped. Now, on the average, technical writers earn around $75,000 - $85,000 (and that amount may further drop in the coming years). Those who earn salaries in the $90,000s have very strong technical skills and a lot of IT experience. Technical training salaries are still pretty competitive paying around $85,000 to $90,000 annually. A technical trainer with years of industry experience could probably earn more. However, people with that level of experience usually start their own technical training company to target government contracts and earn millions for their knowledge and experience.