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The Information Developer in a Nutshell

Part I -- What exactly IS an Information Developer?
Most information developers produce technical information. This information may be used for in-house training or for dispensing to the end user. Either way, information developers write it, edit it, embellish it, whittle it down, dress it up, process it, translate it, create graphics for it, and produce it in hard copy, soft copy or digital training. They process information for manuals, handouts, Web pages, CDs, presentations, and online help. The product of the information developer (I.D.) is destined to instruct clients, users, investors and employees, teaching them "how" to do something technical, something they most likely did not think they would ever need to know twenty years ago.

An information developer might create a DVD user's guide, write a press release about a technical marvel, build an interactive online training program for new customers, or rewrite engineering specifications so members of the board understand what they're voting on.

Often, an information developer is also a technical writer, but the I.D. umbrella is larger than that. Information development includes the work of technical writers and editors, instructional designers, website developers, desktop publishers, graphic designers, trainers and localizers. For the most part, information developers produce task-oriented documentation, where product information is presented in the most opportune fashion for teaching the interested and even the technologically challenged how to do something technical all while keeping the audience engaged.

Part II -- Why aspire to be an Information Developer?
It is good work that is always in demand. This field offers plenty of overtime when deadlines loom, is great for those who love computers, and most companies allow I.D. personnel to telecommute at least 20% of the time. A few I.D. positions are 100% remote, which for some of us, is just great. Positions in technical writing, website development and instructional design may not pay as well as programming and development positions, but they do pay very well. Despite the recent layoffs by many technology companies, there are still plenty of openings for information developers. Why? Because any company selling a technical product or service needs information developers, often a whole department of them.

Employees who work in I.D. come from varied backgrounds. Ask fifty of these people what they were doing ten years ago and you may get ten different answers. But they do have a few things in common: They know how to write well and they know how to use computers to accomplish their work. Most companies looking for new I.D. personnel inquire first about an applicant's knowledge of certain computer platforms and applications. Many employers and recruiters are more concerned about the candidate's technical knowledge than his / her background in grammar or writing. This isn't always the case, but it happens often.

Information developers are paid to transform raw data into something easily digestible and understandable by the general population. By raw data I mean the information generated by programmers, engineers, developers, biologists, and project managers. When these people communicate with each other, they can speak in partial sentences and techno-jargon while fully understanding each other, but important as their information is, what they generate is usually not going to help consumers much. Information developers bridge the gap between the highly technical people and a more general audience.

For the career information developer, manipulating these technical words and phrases into something destined for a less technical audience is "fun" if not actually fun, then hopefully it is fulfilling. Okay, it keeps them out of trouble.

Part III -- What writing, creative arts, and computing skills do Information Developers need?

Writing and Creative Skills: First and foremost, the I.D. candidate should possess a good working knowledge of the English language (or Deutsch, if you happen to be in Deutschland), including grammar, spelling, syntax, and punctuation. This is a given.

Beyond that, information developers should know how to write "tight," that is, they should know how to write conservatively. They need to know how to create uncluttered art, concrete directions, straightforward sentences; they need to know how to create conservatively, as though each word and each stroke extracted a price from the company. In a way, that's true. Companies do not want to have to include a 500-page user's manual with each product they sell. The writer who can offer the customer the same information with fewer words is in demand, as is the instructional designer who can teach the same information in two hours when it used to take four.

Writing sharp, focused and concise prose takes practice, as does creating a lesson that teaches without wandering around the subject. Concise communication does not have to be stoic, but it should be frugal. Filler words are fine in fiction and multi-mega pixel artwork looks great on our desktops, but neither of them has much place in technical information, where cost is often the bottom line.

I.D. workers will be expected to judiciously edit their own writing. This includes being able to back away from their writing and objectively hack away at phrases they like. Like them or not, if the words are not necessary, they need to go.

Computing Skills: In order to meet stringent publishing and training deadlines, information developers must be able to work "fast." This means more than just writing or drawing quickly; it means the ability to work on the computer with the speed that comes from lots of practice. Working fast on a computer does not just mean typing fast, it also means knowing keyboard and application shortcuts, working quickly to open and close documents and applications, working without hesitation, and rarely stopping to consult software manuals.

As mentioned above, some recruiters and employers place heavy emphasis on how well an information developer knows specific applications. Some companies take the attitude that one writer or artist is as good as another, so why not hire one who is well acquainted with their applications. By hiring someone who knows their applications, employers do not have to wait for the new employee to get up to speed.

As a result, an information developer's resume is likely to spotlight more computer skills than writing experience. Right now, that seems to be the nature of the market.

Part IV -- What personality skills contribute to success in this field?
The following abilities with take a person far in the world of information development. (These traits are not offered in any order of importance.)

a. Curiosity
If I.D. workers are not curious about how things work, they are not going to be interested enough to ask themselves the type of questions that help produce quality information, questions like: How does this really work? What's behind it? How can I best describe this to someone who has never seen it before? What do I already know that is something like this? What is the developer or programmer trying to accomplish with this application?

b. Self-discipline
Information development can be a lonely affair. Some companies have developed teams in such a way that I.D. personnel get more conversation every day than they know what to do with. But some companies lock their I.D. workers in a closet, expecting that they will not come out until their project is complete. Without self-discipline, it would be impossible to sit at the same desk day after day, staring at the same information, writing and rewriting and editing, designing and redesigning until the thought is worn out. Like being a lineman for the county, it's not for everyone.

c. Eye for consistency
I.D. workers are expected to improve on the "product" created by the engineers, project managers, doctors, programmers and developers, who generally sit too close to their production to see the broader view. Information developers must view the project from every angle, in and out, near and far, certifying that the information flows smoothly and that they presentation is consistent.

d. Sense of humor
Without either a sense of humor or the ability to keep everything in perspective, deadline pressures and last minute changes will be enough to tie most information developers in knots. One month your project can be the most important thing in the department, and it absolutely must go out on time or the world as everyone knows it will end. Three months later the same project may be placed on the back burner, nearly forgotten. If I.D. personnel didn't know how to smile about events like this, they may make comments that hurt their future.

e. Willingness
Information developers must be willing to do whatever their manager wants, even if it is not in the job description, even if it is not related to the pressing project on their desk, even if it does not seem make much sense. Willingness means being willing to perform most any duty that is remotely related to any project ever worked on or conceived of -- past, present or future -- and not needing to know why.

f. Ability to multitask
In the technology arena, everyone multitasks, it's just the nature of the business. For the I.D. this means working on one project, answering calls about another project, preparing for meetings on a third project, helping test a project you didn't work on and have never seen before, all the while composing excuses for why another project deadline needs to be pushed out.

g. Love for technology
Primarily, information developers should thrive on technology, particularly online technology. Good information developers pay attention to technology commercials, read computer magazines at the dentist's office, check and answer e-mails numerous times a day, love wireless gadgets, wish they had one of everything offered by Fry's, CompUSA or RadioShack, and probably talk about bandwidth with most everyone, even their dates.

Part V -- Conclusion
Even though programmers, developers, technical writers and other technology employees are being laid off in record numbers this year, there are still plenty of jobs out there for the flexible information developer.

Why? Because every time a technology company produces a new widget, someone has to produce documentation and training materials to explain how it works and why consumers just cannot live with it.

by Ann Gordon, Assistant Manager
Consulting and Independent Contracting - SIG

Published as a Chapter in an online book, 2005

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