Hiring Technical Writers for Start-Ups
(This article is a guest post by Mugdha Vairagade. See the end of the article for more information about Mugdha.)
If your start-up is considering hiring technical writers to document its products or services, then read on. Having a technical writer onboard to prepare professional and well-rounded documentation is important, when:
- you have a major release of a product or service, targeted at large number of enterprise or end users
- you are offering APIs or frameworks to other developers for further development
- your product has frequent releases requiring extensive Release Notes and Readme files
- and so on…
This article tries to put together the points you need to consider and the actions you have to take to hire technical writers for your start-up. This article provides advice relevant to start-ups, because a start-up’s hiring needs and budgets differ from those of an established organization.
This article assumes that you are hiring technical writer(s) for the first time, and your start-up does not have anyone onboard with documentation know-how.
First, you need to determine what type of documentation your product or service requires. Here are major documentation types, along with examples of the applications they are suitable for:
- Online Help: Documentation published online. Suitable for enterprise application documentation, where the documentation is extensive and is to be made available on the corporate intranet. For example, Help for ERP systems.
- Application Help: Context-sensitive documentation integrated with an application. Suitable for desktop applications, where users need to access context-sensitive help for specific application area. For example, Help for Microsoft Office applications.
- Print Documentation: Printed or ready-to-print documentation. For example, Installation guides for servers, mobile phone user manuals.
- Wiki: Documentation published as wikis. Suitable for internal and collaborative documentation. For example, MediaWiki Help
- Videos: Suitable for task demonstrations and walkthroughs. For example, Dropbox demo
The documentation type tells you what tools and skills are required to prepare the documentation.
Identify the documentation tools you can provide to the technical writer. As already explained, the tools to use are determined by documentation type. The candidate should have mastery of these tools.
Commonly-used proprietary documentation tools have hefty license fees. However, these tools are reliable and come bundled with support. Some examples are Adobe RoboHelp, Adobe FrameMaker, and Author-it.
However, if you have budgetary constraints, you can opt for any suitable Open Source and free documentation tool. These tools, albeit with fewer features, are as capable of authoring and managing documentation as the licensed tools. Some examples are MediaWiki, OpenOffice Writer, and Wink.
Note: If your documentation tool is uncommon, then your technical writer may require some training to learn using it.
Most likely you’ll hire only one technical writer, given budgetary constraints. In this case, you need an experienced candidate who can take end-to-end responsibility of any documentation project. A technical writer, who has two to four years of experience working in minimum two full project lifecycles, fits the bill. Also, that technical writer should either have expertise in the documentation tool you chose, or should be able to quickly learn using the tool.
Tip: You can take in entry-level technical writers as trainees in return of stipend and/or experience certificates, depending on the volume of documentation required. These trainees can work in supervision of the experienced technical writer you hire. Contact the technical writing institutes in your city that are looking for “live projects” for their students.
After determining documentation type, tools, number of technical writers to hire, and their experience level; write a job description based on the information. The job description must clearly define the requirement (domain knowledge, skills, experience level), what responsibilities a hired candidate will have in your organization, any training you will to provide after hiring.
A well-written job description is crucial in gaining a potential candidate’s attention and confidence.
Share the job description over social network sites LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook etc. to attract potential candidates. Also, proactively search for the technical writers, whose profiles match the job description, and invite them for the selection process. This will significantly cut down the time you’ll otherwise spend sifting through CVs provided by placement consultancies. LinkedIn groups and Twitter public lists of technical writers are great places to go looking for candidates and checking out their profiles. You may want to focus on city-specific groups like “Technical Writers in Pune, India”, if you need to recruit only the local candidates for speedier on-boarding.
Note: Set the candidate’s expectations right at the beginning. Tell them that your organization is a start-up. Brief them about your product/service, the documentation tools you’ll provide, whether they’ll get to lead small teams (of trainees), and what they’ll learn if they work with you. This way you’ll be able to exclude any candidates who are not comfortable working in such an environment.
Tip: Consider hiring women technical writers with requisite experience, who are returning to work after a gap. They can bring in the documentation expertise at a lower cost, in return of flexi-time or part-time arrangements. They are also less likely to job-hop. Find listings of women technical writers seeking flexi-time jobs here: http://www.fleximoms.in, http://www.littlewins.in.
Organize on-campus tests for short-listed candidates. In the tests, ask the candidates to write on a topic relevant to your product/service using the documentation tools you specify, within a stipulated time (usually 2-3 hours, depending on complexity of the topic). Check the resultant writings for grammatical correctness, structure, and succinctness.
Editing skills are crucial in technical writing. An experienced technical writer is able to edit own documents and those prepared by others. The on-campus test can include one or more editing assignments. Alternatively, you may invite only the candidates with good performance in writing test for the editing tests. Here are some editing tests for your reference:
- Editing for Clear Communication
- Interactive Grammar Quizzes
- About.com Grammar Exercises > Editing Exercises
You can search for more editing tests online.
Your technical writer must have basic understanding of copyright and intellectual property laws. To test this, allow the candidates online research during the writing assignment, and check whether they copy content verbatim from other websites.
Being a start-up, you may not have a documentation style guide or documentation template in place. If so, during the interview check whether candidate has knowledge of industry standards of documentation style, such as Microsoft® Manual of Style for Technical Publications and The Chicago Manual of Style.
An experienced technical writer should be able to prepare a documentation template with professional look and feel from-the-scratch. You may give test assignments to candidates to check these two points. You can find few examples of documentation templates for your reference here.
Note: If you plan to use any readymade templates bundled with your documentation tool, are using Wiki, or have plain-text documentation (such as release notes, Readme files), then you can leave out the test for document template.
After hiring, ensure that your technical writer saves all her work in a centralized repository with version control system. For documentation in huge volumes, use a content management system. Almost all documentation tools support integration with such systems, making the technical writer’s job easier. The benefits of such arrangement are twofold. Documentation versioning is useful for keeping track of updates for multiple releases. Also, if the technical writer decides to leave your organization at any point of time, you’ll have access to work they finished with the update history. This will help another technical writer to start where they left off.
These points sum up the major considerations you need to make while hiring a technical writer. If you have any more questions about technical writing or hiring technical writers, you can reach me at mugdha at techatom dot in.
About the Author – Mugdha Vairagade
Mugdha is a senior technical writer with over 9 years of experience and software development background. She has authored numerous well-appreciated articles and white papers on IT-related topics.
Mugdha presently works with a Telecom product development company based in Pune, India. There she documents Ordering and CRM products.