Information Programmers

The New Wave of Technical Communicators

Patrick Morrow

As technology advances, processing and organizing information quickly and efficiently becomes crucial. While participating on a research project for IBM Corporation in Rochester, MN, my focus centered on simplifying information to enhance product viability.

Over the past decade, technical communicators evolved their skills from traditional writing to information programming. Usability specialist Richard Sit says, "We integrate information in programs, such as web sites or software. . . . Itís not distracting to the user. Itís there when they need to use it." Technical communicators must incorporate this new concept into their writing. Writers must evolve into software engineers or information programmers. Many writers who have earned that respect now receive the same salary as programmers and engineers.

Writers must know programming languages in order to condense information and improve user interface. Visual designer Jerome Donney states that programming knowledge emphasizes the "technical requirements to deliver the information innovatively and interactively to the user . . . because youíre responsible, basically, for creating, formatting, printing, publishing, and delivering the book to the customer. In the past, this was all done by a publishing house. Now, writers, at least online writers, have taken on that full responsibility."

First, to adapt to the new concepts and demands of the job, writers must know and understand the tools available to them, such as HTML, XML, JavaScript, and RoboHelp. Programming may either refer to the coding of these applications or to the writerís ability to create and design information technologies like wizards and advisors. Wizards, similar to install programs, direct the user through a series of panels (next, next, finish). The computer completes the task when the user finishes the steps. Advisors either walk the user through a series of customized worksheets or they generate trouble-shooting tables. Rather than executing code, advisors deliver information based on specific criteria.

Second, writers must understand their environments by considering concepts like visual design, usability, discover-ability, system requirements, and delivery mechanisms. By understanding their environments, writers can convey information accurately and effectively enough to make suggestions or write small programs that simplify complex tasks required by users. Tammy Peterson, manager of e-Business Information for IBM in Rochester, characterizes IBM writers as "CNN journalists" in their attitudes toward researching the best ways to document products by identifying and diagnosing issues surrounding them.

As complex technology increases and the amount of information continues to grow, technical communicators must become information programmers by adapting to and learning to use the latest advancements available to them.


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