At 16:56 -0800 7/11/06, Hales-Crotchett, Nicole wrote:

>A question unto the list: When interviewing a technical writer, what kinds of 
>questions do/would you ask?

Ho ho... this should produce an interesting thread... here's my starter for ten.

Over the years I've been to countless interviews, and, rather amusingly, I 
don't think anyone's ever asked me the key question: 'Can you write' ;-) Ok, 
it's a closed question, and as interviewers we were trained not to ask closed 
questions, but when the inevitable answer of 'yes' is given, you then ask for 
justification and examples.

When the tables were reversed, and I was doing the interviewing, we often used 
a testing system to assess writers: some sort of simple, fairly short but 
demonic writing test, such as 'Describe how to use a telephone [or a bicycle] 
to someone who's never seen one before'. To distill that into a general 
question, it might be something along the lines of 'Given the yah-de-yah 
[describe loosely] writing assignment, describe the steps you would go through 
in planning and executing the project'.  Or... 'What do you think are the key 
skills of a technical author?'... and look for what they leave out.

Basically, you need to know if the person can get the job done, so are they 
capable of planning and organising their actions? You also need to determine 
whether they have the people skills to extract the required information from 
technical staff who have other things to do. This is key: the tech writer who 
sits in the corner scribbling but doesn't engage with key staff tends to 
produce large amounts of the wrong material. I have seen it happen.

One thing to guard against: try to weed out the obviously competent tech writer 
who's competence lies completely in areas that aren't relevant to you, as they 
may find it difficult or impossible to adapt. For example, someone who's spent 
the past decade writing spares manuals for Boeing might find it hard to write 
an approachable user guide for financial software. I think of this as the 
'locked in skills' syndrome. I have great respect for folks with narrow but 
deep competences, but they're not what you want if you need a generalist.

Far too many interviewers and recruitment agencies are obsessed with tools 
skills. I once attended an interview with a large financial organization in the 
City of London where I was set a FrameMaker test that took at least half an 
hour to complete, while two interviewers watched my every mouse-click via a 
video projector. Bizarre. Of course, if it's a FrameMaker job, it helps to have 
FrameMaker skills. However, someone who's already used a tagged writing 
environment, for example Interleaf, should be able to adapt quickly.

Another story: a few years ago, a tech writing contract not far from where I 
live was advertised by no less than thirteen agencies as requiring 'Pagemaker 
skills'. More out of curiosity than anything else, as the company was a 
telecomms start-up, I applied. At interview, I asked my interviewer why they 
were so specific about wanting Pagemaker skills. 'Oh, someone told us we should 
do all our documentation in Pagemaker'.

I wrote several quite complex technical guides for them - in FrameMaker ;-)


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