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Sunny forecast for North County tech writers

North County's booming high-tech and biotech industries have created a strong demand in San Diego for skilled professionals to perform ancillary tasks that once were under-appreciated but now are regarded as essential.

Good technical writers are among those who are highly prized as companies recognize the importance of good documentation to bridge the gap between scientists, developers, engineers and the end users.

This wasn't always the case and in the past, engineers were often tasked with writing technical manuals. The result was hard-to-understand documentation that often caused more confusion than coherence.

The frustration of dealing with a poorly written manual is an almost universal modern experience. Whether it's setting the time on your VCR's clock or changing Internet providers, the head-scratching that goes along with many modern conveniences is one of the touchstones of the digital age.

Documentation can take many forms such as user manuals, policies and procedures, proposals, training manuals, assembly instructions and online help.

For many end users, bad documentation amounts to nothing more than an inconvenience. But for companies, the results can affect the bottom line in terms of overloaded help lines, reduced revenues from dissatisfied customers who won't come back and increased liability.

A recent study for Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) found that effective documentation can save a company with multiple products up to $3 million a year by reducing costs associated with telephone support calls.

In another example, John Deere & Co., in 1986, settled for nearly $1 million in damages in a case where the plaintiff claimed that appropriate warnings and instructions were not included in an operator's manual for a crawler loader.

Businesses have learned the hard way that materials that accompany a product may be legally considered essential parts of the actual products themselves and that companies may be held liable for poor-quality information. Even the best products can fail if the documentation is bad.

In an effort to demonstrate the importance of good documentation, my company, Technical Standards, holds an annual Worst Manual Contest. The purpose isn't to embarrass anybody, but to raise awareness in the business community of the importance of good documentation. We've received entries from coast to coast and even as far as Canada, attesting to how universal the frustration is. Submissions run the gamut from exercise equipment manuals to human resource policy guides.

Among communications professionals, the contest provides an outlet to share their horror stories of some of the extreme examples they see. Excerpts from winning entries can be viewed at www.tecstandards.com.

Effective documentation writing is a complicated task that requires a blend of excellent communication skills, analytical thinking and technical knowledge that not everybody possesses.

I learned firsthand that rewriting technical subject matter for a general audience verges on an art form. I was one of those engineers forced into the role of technical writer. While working as a full-time pilot and part-time electrical engineer, I was given the tasks the full-time engineers didn't want -- writing the documentation.

I started Technical Standards, a San Marcos documentation staffing and projects company, in 1993, based on the notion that other companies didn't have trained writers on staff to create their documentation and that finding the right person for a particular job was not a simple task.

The presence of several technical writing firms in North County demonstrates the need for such professionals and the growing demand for higher quality documentation. Growth in this niche also is testament to the strength of the high-tech and biotech sectors in our region.

Even in an economic downturn, when technical writers are often among the first to go, companies still need good documentation to support their products and services. Many businesses turn to technical writing firms to hire temporary technical writers or outsource their documentation needs. Companies are able to reduce payroll and overhead costs by only using technical writers on an as-needed basis.

No matter what the economy, hiring the right technical writer requires more than throwing an ad in the paper. Although writing is the most fundamental skill, we see a growing demand for people who possess experience with specific technologies. Finding a writer with arcane knowledge can be a time-consuming and difficult task. In many cases it makes sense to consult with a specialized staffing firm that has a large stable of writers with diverse backgrounds to choose from.

The need for specialized technical writers is growing, especially for those with expertise in biotech, software, telecommunications, engineering and government work. According to a recent study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of technical writers and editors is expected to increase faster than average for all occupations over the next 10 years. The study also found that rapid growth and change in the high technology and electronics industries result in a greater need for people to write user guides, instruction manuals and training materials.

Desmond is president of Technical Standards.

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