Techcomm education was a hot topic at the recent Technical Communications UK conference (TCUK), fuelling two panel sessions and many conversations outside of the formal programme. At the event, we conducted a survey exploring the qualifications, skills, knowledge, and experience techcomm practitioners bring to and use in their roles.
About Our Findings
We encountered great interest and enthusiasm for the subject of techcomm education and were delighted with the response rate. Over a third of the 170 technical communicators who attended TCUK took part in our survey. We present the key findings below, based on these 62 responses. Note that the results we present here are valid for this sample group only; where this is not explicitly stated, it can be assumed throughout. While we don’t claim that our findings can be extrapolated to
the whole techcomm community, comparing them with similar surveys we think they provide a useful indicator of patterns and trends.
According to our survey, the typical technical communicator:
- Works for a company where techcomm supports the main activities of the company
- Operates within a team of technical communicators
- Works full-time, in the office (or partly from home)
A smaller proportion of respondents are freelancers, who work independently or support the work of techcomm teams on a contract basis.
Qualifications and Experience
The technical communicators attending TCUK are highly experienced; the vast majority (70%) have over 10 years’ experience in their industry areas. Interestingly, most respondents do not hold a techcomm educational qualification.
We found that respondents are more likely to have a qualification relating to the industry in which they work, than a qualification in techcomm. In cases where respondents hold industry-related qualifications, these tend to be at a higher level than their techcomm qualifications. The predominant industry qualifications held by respondents are undergraduate or postgraduate degrees, whereas the most common techcomm qualifications are graduate certificates or unaccredited courses.
Typically, rather than holding formal qualifications, respondents bring transferable skills and knowledge to their roles, engage in on-the-job and self-led learning, and undertake training in specific tools or skills as required.
Industries Served by Techcomm
The top three industries for which our respondents provide techcomm services are:
1. Information and Communication Technology (ICT)
3. Banking, Financial Services, and Insurance (BFSI)
The high proportion working in or providing services for the ICT sector is consistent with the findings of a recent Data Conversion Laboratory (DCL) survey. The status of engineering as the second most significant industry employing technical communicators also reflects the findings of that US-based study. However, there is a difference in the third place ranking: more of our respondents serve the BFSI sector than the DCL research found to be the case amongst its sample.
Tasks, Outputs, and Audiences
Our survey confirms that technical communicators carry out a wide range of tasks in their day-to-day work and produce a variety of documentation outputs for diverse audiences.
The top three tasks our respondents carry out, outputs they produce, and audiences for their outputs are presented in the following table.
Despite the multiplicity of activities carried out by technical communicators and the fast pace of change in the techcomm workplace, we found that we can identify a core set of duties and work products that are relevant to the majority of respondents.
The key target audiences indicated by our respondents are reflective of the primary industries in which they operate. The prominence of manuals and help systems in our survey is similar to the DCL study. A point of contrast, however, is that the production of installation guides is an important component of our respondents’ roles, but did not appear as a content type in the DCL findings.
Knowledge, Skills, and Tools
This was a particularly interesting area for us, especially when compared with findings in other surveys.
Key areas of technology-related knowledge that our respondents require or find beneficial in their work include:
1. Agile development processes
2. Cloud computing
3. API documentation
This finding reinforces the significance of ICT as an industry requiring techcomm services. Moreover, it indicates the extent to which ICT overlaps with other industry areas, given that several of those who provide techcomm services for industries other than ICT also highlight the relevance of these areas of knowledge.
The prominence of agile as an area of knowledge relevant to our respondents is interesting in light of a 2013 survey by The Content Wrangler. That study found that the majority of technical documentation teams had not adopted an agile approach to creating and publishing content, while successful agile implementation was even more elusive.
Our results highlight the continued and growing importance of the HTML and XML mark-up languages, which the majority of our respondents use in their work. CSS stylesheet language is also widely used by respondents.
Fewer than a third of our respondents use programming languages to some extent in their work. The most popular programming languages amongst the respondents who use them are:
While the relative positioning of C++ and C differs, the top three programming languages used by our respondents are consistent with the IEEE Spectrum ranking.
We found significant diversity in the tools used by technical communicators. This was particularly notable in relation to content management system (CMS) usage. Two thirds of our respondents stated that they use at least one CMS in their work, and they identified a further 20 types of CMS in addition to the options we provided in the survey. Thus, while Alfresco and Apache Subversion jointly hold the third place ranking in this category, they do not enjoy widespread usage amongst our respondents.
Likewise, although PTC Arbortext and XMetal Author are tied in third place in the XML category, this result is not indicative of extensive usage amongst respondents. MadCap Flare is far more popular amongst respondents who use XML authoring tools.
Overall, we found that Adobe Acrobat maintains a strong position at the top of the pile of authoring tools, and is more widely used than any other tool across all categories. Bear in mind, however, that we took a similar approach to that of the Writers User Assistance (UA) tools survey in excluding Microsoft Word and other Office suite products from our list, due to their ubiquity. Our perception that almost all technical communicators use these tools (or open source equivalents) to varying degrees alongside other tools, was endorsed by the many respondents who referred to Word.
The following table presents the top three in five categories of tools our respondents use in their work.
Our results endorse recent US research on tools usage, notably DITAwriter’s analysis of the Writers UA survey. All but two of the top tools identified by our respondents are amongst DITAwriter’s top ten ranked tools. The main differences are that Notepad++ did not appear to be relevant to our respondents, in contrast to the DITAwriter ranking of Notepad++ at number eight.
Another outlier is Adobe Flash, which came in at a number 49 ranking in DITAwriter’s breakdown. Flash continues to be used by a proportion of our respondents who employ multimedia tools in their work, but it is significantly less popular than TechSmith Camtasia and Adobe Captivate, and its usage is quite low overall.
These findings provide an evidence basis for understanding current industry conditions and educational requirements, obtained from a sample of those working as technical communicators today. We are feeding this information back to the stakeholders involved in designing academic techcomm courses, and through this blog series we are sharing the key results with the wider techcomm community.
We think that many practitioners will find these survey results a useful measure against which to benchmark their own qualifications, knowledge, skills, and experience. We also believe that educators will find it helpful to have up-to-date information about requirements for the techcomm graduates of tomorrow.
We would love to hear your reaction to our survey findings. How do they relate to your experience? Which results did you find the most interesting? Did any of our findings surprise you?
The next post in this series will explore responses to our survey findings and continue our investigation of techcomm education in more detail. In the meantime, we look forward to hearing from you!