Tech Writers should train on Open Source projects

This post was written by marc on May 17, 2005
Posted Under: Technology

Here’s an idea that I think would work out well. Why don’t we get colleges who are training tech writers together with the open source community and have them work together?

The problem as you know is that a lot of open source software is great – but the documentation and user interfaces suck. That’s because people are doing this work for free and the documentation and program polishing isn’t as much fun as new features are.

These writers in training can be assigned open source projects and work with the developers to create good documentation. It would be part of their training requirements to take the project to documentation perfection. This would not only involve writing the docs – but also working with the developers to request better screen prompts and features that make sense. Often the developers don’t understand what the end user needs. And the developer never had to actually learn the software.

Additionally the student(s) could conduct software usability tests where they round up a bunch of new users and sit them down in front of computers and watch them learn the software, encouraging them to verbalize their struggles and frustrations as they work. Additionally students would also moderate tech support message boards and interact with end users who are struggling for answers so that they can fully understand the problems people are having implementing the software. This feedback is then used to correct the documentation and polish the software till it gets to the point that new users say, “This is great – it just works!”

After a student takes a project to the “It just works!” stage they are ready for the job market with the open source project as part of their resume and a reputation already developed. These people would be instantly employable having real world experiences and accomplishments to show. And – they would be developing a broader skill set than just a writing class would teach. They would learn how to interact with developers and end users on a personal level and develop the real world skills needed for getting real work done in the real world.

And of course – the developers get a big boost too in that someone else – a professional writer – does the documentation and assists the developers in ways that they might otherwise miss. This frees the developers to develop and to be creative knowing that the grunt work is taken care of. Their software will be more accepted and more widely used because it just works which will attract donations, other developers, and a community around their project. And good free open source software saves many hours of time which benefits everyone in the long run.

Even proprietary software vendors get a boost in that they can hire these writers right out of school and they are ready to be productive from day one. This makes them more profitable because good writers who can work with developers to get the product perfected allows support staff to be cut. If the software “Just Works” then you don’t need a lot of people to support it.

This is an idea where everyone wins and it makes me wonder what someone has to do to make it happen.

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