Perspicacious Priyadarshi

Thoughts, Observations, Interpretations

Archive for June, 2007

Looking back…

In 2002, when a journalist with India’s primier IT weekly-Express Computers, contacted me for a story on Technical Writing, I had already been retrenched twice.  When I began my tryst with the IT industry as a Journalist, I had absolutely no knowledge of Technical Writing. I wrote cover stories, interviewed prominent IT personalities, reviewed IT books, and covered IT events. However, just one year later I joined a CMM Level5 IT services company as a content writer and got an opportunity to write for project documentation. Fortunately, I have been involved in all the activities in the IT industry that require writing and editing.  Technical content writing, web content writing, end-user documentation, marketing communication collaterals, presales and bid documentation, knowledge management, etc.  In between 2000-2002, I lost two jobs. Thanks to the downslide of the IT industry. Finally, I managed to get a stable job with a decent designation and salary at HCL – the Indian IT major. When this story was published I was comfortably positioned at HCL and had documented for a couple of international projects. Here’s what Express Computer had published on Technical Writing as a Career Option.

Technical Writing as a Viable Career Option

-Punita Jsrotia 

Ever thought about what goes into creating the user manuals or instruction brochures of your music system, mobile phones or even the car maintenance guides? Most of us just manage to glance through the item, leave alone going into the technical details.

Since such information is meant for the layman, simplifying the jargons associated with any particular product or process is the key function of technical writers. A bridge between technology and its users, technical writing is also the ‘science’ of designing, validating, and packaging the information created to meet a certain objective. The irony of the situation is that in spite of playing such a crucial role, not much work has been done to assess the number of technical writers in the country. The IT industry, which absorbs a major chunk of technical writers has also shied away from giving due credit to this work.

In today’s customer-centric business model , the very process of acquiring and losing deals depends on the effectiveness of the technical writers. According to Priyadarshi Tripathi, consultant, HCL Infosystems, “Any organisation that is conscious about the information/messages catering to its customers, employees or business partners employs technical writers who are specialists. ” Pradeep Henry of Cognizant Technology Solutions adds, “ For a software services organisation, its user manuals and technical write-ups act as its public face and reflects its level of professionalism.”

Technical writing as a niche profession

At a rough estimate, there should be at least one technical writer, for 30 programmers. But in spite of their growing need, not much has been done to popularise this profession. Although, technical communication has been in existence for a long time, its emergence as a niche profession is only a recent development. According to the figures furnished by the Society for Technical Communication (STC) there are roughly 1200/1500 technical writers in India, while US has over a lakh of technical communicators. Many experts cite the lack of awareness as a key reason (both among the corporates and the individuals) to make it a potential career prospect. Technical writing as a field has various segments, like documentation specialist, instructional designer, proposal writer, resume writer, copywriter, marcom specialist, or even a technology journalist. But not many people are willing to make it a full-fledged profession.

According to Tripathi, in spite of having an abundance of talent, the problem is the lack of a proper organised system or infrastructure to groom them into potential writers. “Unlike the West, here the emphasis is on ‘on-the-job training’. We hardly have any institution offering certified courses on this subject. And this hampers the growth of the profession,” he says. Anissha Aggarwal, assistant manager-Technical Communication, TCS (Delhi), agrees. According to her, the lack of certified courses increase the initial training period of the individual considerably. The veterans in this field generally have a background in English literature with a technical background, because of the popularity of on-the-job training, technically qualified people are preferred over people from other fields.

For rest of the article, please visit: http://www.expressitpeople.com/20020805/cover.shtml

But that was then. Five years later, the Technical Writing professions in India has grown leaps and bounds. Every jobsite in India has hundreds of postings for technical writers. Organizations, not just IT companies, but also those in to Banking, Retail, and other areas are employing Technical Writers.  Definitely things are upwardly mobile.  

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Smart Business Communication Strategies for Small Businesses

You have fructified your idea. You worked hard. You now have a business, small in size but big with ambition. If you assume that a smart execution of your idea would do the talking with the world and bring you business, think again. You need to adopt some smart business communication strategies. Please go through my friend: Andrea Morris’ 101 Ways to Market Your Small Business.

Here’s a snippet of what Anrea has written in her enriching and powerful prophecy:

Are you a small business, consultant or entrepreneur? Looking for ways to market your services to bring in more sales?

I don’t need to tell you that a big reason 8 out of 10 US businesses fail is because they don’t have sufficient sales to sustain their business – I’m sure you’ve heard that a million times.

However, if you’re like most entrepreneurs the thought of “selling” makes your stomach churn. When we do a word association with “salesperson”, most of my clients say things like “sleazy”, “untrustworthy”, “pushy” or “unethical.”

In fact, a recent Gallup Poll indicates that sales people really do have a bad rap – with sales/marketing being 3 out of the 4 least trusted professions.

So you NEED to sell and you don’t want to be a salesperson. Easy enough. Read More>>

A simple yet extensive list of items you should initiate to market your business initiative. I am sure you will be successful. Communication certainly empowers businesses. Big or small. Andrea believes so. I too.

Forget Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit.

Read this story. Snowcapped mountains appearing as if they are fresh out of the drycleaner. That’s the only beautiful part. Cliffs stooping like a predators, treacherous weather, sub-zero temperature, less oxygen, avalanches, frost-bites, arduous and energy-sucking tracks. At the summit, you cannot jive on a Bollywood melody there and take snaps to post on Orkut. One misstep, you will be dropped dead.It takes something extra to become the first Indian civilian to scale the toughest mountain in the Garhwal, Himalayas. A long treasured dream, a never dying spirit, love for mountains, teamwork, patience, dedication, and perseverance. A little extra is required in everything that takes to achieve something as mammoth as this one. My friend Rupesh Khopade just did it . >>

<Here’s a first person account by Rupesh Khopade. > 9th June 2007: Our adrenalin kept rushing upwards, heartbeats kept pounding faster and heavier, a feeling of joy and achievement was embracing us, as we were moving inch by inch towards the peak. As the time machines ticked 2.15 PM, we were at the top of the world with our feet firmly on the summit of Mt. Shivling, 6510 meters above sea level. We did it. As chilly winds blew, standing atop Shiva’s abode with a backdrop of snowcapped Himalayan ranges was a moment to cherish for life time. That was the moment we were waiting for the last two years.  Mt. Shivling, one of the world’s most beautiful and famous peaks, the towering sentinel to the Gangotri Glacier and the holy source of the River Ganges, is visited by number of climbers from all over the world every year. The technical difficulties involved during the journey and the dangers of avalanches during the ascent, give it the name — “Dream Mountain”. It becomes a forbidden fruit to even some of the best mountaineers of the world. It was a grand dream. A dream which was not only the tallest in our lives, but also extremely dangerous to realize. But we were stouthearts. After leaving Pune on 15 May, we established our base camp at Tapovan (4600 meters) on 21 May. It snowed heavily on 24th May (around 2ft). With such heavy snowfall there were chances of sliding and avalanches. Still we traveled to the advance base camp (ABC) on 25 May. Thereafter, as lady luck shined on us, the weather became favorable and we steadily progressed on our journey. We kept advancing from Camp1 to Camp 2, and finally the summit camp (4th June). The route from Camp 2 to Camp 3 was tough and treacherous. There were three stages of tough rock climbing (called as Chimney). At these stages there was a drop of 5,000ft. Any object dislodged from this point would have hit the ABC. No need to say what would happen thereafter. After the summit camp, climbing the “Ice Wall” was the toughest. It was a 300 ft. wall slightly overhanging (at 100 degrees). Taking on this portion at an altitude of 6000 meters was extremely difficult. At this altitude, because of the deficiency of oxygen in the environment, human efficiency goes down to 75%. Three days of tiring and exhaustive efforts opened the wall for us and ultimately we were on top of it. From the “Ice Wall” to summit was a ramp of ice of 70 degree gradient. Finally we reached the summit completely exhausted. The journey demanded excessive physical hardships and mental strength.During this expedition we faced various difficulties such as extreme cold conditions (subzero temperatures) in the morning and extreme hot (more than 45 degree Celsius) in the afternoon, low oxygen conditions, avalanches, heavy snowfall, etc. But with the blessings of the Almighty and well wishes of supporters we made it safely. There was heavy snowfall when we left the base camp. Rest of the days, the weather was clear and made favorable indications. In the Himalayan region, such a clear weather is a miracle and when we returned to the base camp again after summit, the whether started worsening. We find ourselves so lucky for such favorable conditions. Thank you God!  Rupesh is a member of PLM Services-Education (Courseware) team. Rupesh is a certified mountaineer from the prestigious Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, India.

Proposals: Effective Executive Summary

What are the essential elements of an executive summary? This has been a common question in all the interviews I have appeared for the position of a Proposal Writer. I have a readymade list to answer this question. However, some questions sprout in my mind as a reflex action. Is the Proposal Writer actually the owner of the executive summary section? When should be the executive summary written at the beginning or end of the proposal development process. Who reviews the executive summary? And so on.

The executive summary section which appears as the first chapter of a proposal is like a web portal’s home page. Its stickiness will only ensure the readers’ continuous attention through the subsequent sections that may be running through hundreds of pages. The executive summary is like an editorial of a business magazine which essentially introduces all the highlights and important articles or news items of that issue. The executive summary plays a critical role in deciding the success of a proposal. A proposal may be having different categories of audience. If the reader is a CIO or from the topmost level of management who does not have enough time to read all the pages should be able to understand the soul of the proposal by reading the executive summary. If the reader has time and reads the proposal from cover to cover, the executive summary will help to understand what is available in detail in the subsequent sections.

As a Proposal Writer, writing the executive summary is the most challenging sub-task while publishing a proposal. You need to assume that you are the editor of a magazine and based on what you write in the executive summary the audience will react. And the reaction has to result in a win. Otherwise the week or month-long effort of putting together hundreds of pages of information will go in vain. Here are some of the important things you should keep in mind while drafting the executive summary:

  • The proposal's executive summary has to contain a sales orientation. To make it so, you have to think like a sales person and act like an editor.
  • Present abstracts of key ideas or solutions you are proposing to the customer in logical flow. Each idea should be present in at the most two or three sentences. 
  • You can give links or references to sections where the ideas are presented in details. Give the linkages in such a way that does not require to much of effort to manage last minute changes. Otherwise, you will have change the links every time there’s change in the number of pages, etc.
  • Use the right word, right statement, and right flavor in your writings. Your writing should reflect clarity of thought, logic and sans redundancy of unnecessary content.
  • Use heading and subheadings judiciously. Try presenting a long list of information in bulleted list. 
  •  Avoid repetition of ideas, jargons, phrases, ambiguity.
  • Read, re-read and if possible rewrite the executive summary before sending it for review by others.
  • Try writing at least two or three different executive summaries and choose the best among them.
  •  Avoid using graphics or information that requires graphics to understand.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of the customer and read the final executive summary. Do you see it addressing all your concerns for which you had invited bids? If yes, you have written the right stuff. If no, rework.
  • Finally check grammatical and spelling errors. Check for consistency in tense. Ensure parallelism. Stick to one version of English language (US, UK, Australian or whatever). You must have set the language well in advance though.

Proposal Writer’s Problems

As a writer/editor in a presales team, you certainly have the responsibility of publishing the right kind of persuasive message and ensure the “winnability” of a proposal. Proposals vary in size, number of pages, complexity, technicality, business domains, pricing, type of customer, etc. Sometime the only thing that you require to do is to replace the name of the customer from an old proposal and publish it for a prospect. However, this is not the case always. Many times, you are required to work on proposals that are unique. Here are the challenges that a writer/ editor face while working for a proposal:

  • Tsunami of information from stakeholders. This leads to information anarchy. As a thoughtful communicator, you need to rework and rearrange the information so that it serves the requirements of the prospect.
  • Lack of processes. Who send what to whom and when. These are the eternal questions asked by the presales team members from beginning to end of a proposal development lifecycle. Don the role of an information manager and design a feasible and scalable information process flow. This will help you control the problems to a certain extent.
  • Just correct the English. That’s what I have been asked to do at the penultimate hour many a times. I would suggest a technical writer to take complete control on the content quality in a proposal. Apart from grammar, ensure that the information is persuasive and helps you win the bid. You also have to work on the logical flow, usability and visual appeal of the proposal.
  • Not much time left. Half a day for reviewing and editing a proposal prepared by ten people. How can somebody achieve this feat? I would suggest you to use the smart strategy of content reusability. Prepare generic sections like details about your company and customer, quality, project management, intellectual property issues, infrastructure, case studies, resumes, etc, well in advance, adopting a particular standard, style and template. Ask the presales team to use the information. The only thing that should be focused thereafter is customer specific information like the parts of executive summary, solution details, pricing, etc.
  • Formatting and reformatting. Your word template goes on a toss when it is handled by people who are not much bothered about the formatting sensibilities. A majority of your time goes for reformatting the proposal. Train people on how to use templates effectively. Propose a well defined template. If possible use a good publishing tool that uses single sourcing concepts.
  • Change management. When a team works on a proposal, this is a common situation. Too many versions of information, last minute reviews, rewritten information, etc. Change request coming in mails, in multiple formats, in chat messages, and even by telephone. All these demand great attention. You need to insert the latest and correct information in the latest version of proposal. Suggest a new-age content management system or at least a file naming convention to have some amount of control.

(Unedited, scribbled, list not in order of priority)