A Chat with Dave Lee about MadCap Flare and Tech Comm

Dave Lee is probably the most knowledgable user of MadCap Flare I know – take a look on the Flare forums and you’ll see his helpful comments plastered all over the place. A while back, I got the chance to have a little email chat with him about Flare and technical communication in general. I’ve turned it into this interview piece, which you may find useful if you’re wondering how others get into the technical communication profession, and what sort of things crop up along the way.

Q: How did you get into technical writing as a career?

DAVE:

My first proper job in my 20s was working in a very small software company (6 people) near Newcastle. I did all-sorts; testing, customer demos and training, designing the packaging and website, plus writing the help. I liked the writing side of the job, so I contacted an agent who arranged two Technical Author job interviews in London. Both interviews were on the same day, and and to my surprise I was offered both jobs. So in the space of two weeks, I ended up starting a brand new career 300 miles away, almost without having time to think about it.

CRAIG:

That’s quite a change you made. Did you find there was a big learning curve when you got to London, or had your previous technical writing work put you in good stead? I’m talking about the learning curve with work, here, not coming to grips with Cockney talk and jellied eels and all that, guv’nor.

DAVE:

I was confident with my writing ability, but there was a steep learning curve because my manager (and only other author in the company) left after 3 months, leaving me in charge.

Q: In a recent survey, technical writer was ranked in the top 20 high salary, low stress roles. What’s your take on that?

DAVE:

I’d agree that the job itself is not inherently stressful, say like bomb defusal, but you can get stress from external factors where you work.

It’s probably a higher than average salary across the board, but is definitely average compared to other jobs in software development.

The report quoted an average tech writer salary of £60k. I don’t know any technical author in an employed role on anywhere near that amount, although I’ve seen a couple of jobs in London advertised at £50k. My personal take is that any job can be stressful – depends on the individual and other external factors, as you mentioned.

I took a £10k pay cut to move from London back to Newcastle, but if I’d stayed in London I wouldn’t have paid off my mortgage!

Q: I once read a developer’s reply to a technical writer – “You’re not an expert in anything so you are a writer, not a technical writer”. Where do you stand on the ‘Needs technical knowledge’ vs ‘Generalist technical writer’ debate?

DAVE:

Knowledge is the most important part of the job. In order to write anything, you need to know (a) what you’re writing about, and (b) who you’re writing it for. So you need to be expert enough to write confidently about a subject, and know what information is relevant to the reader.

As for that developer, when people ask me what a “technical” author does, I just tell them we don’t write saucy romantic fiction.

CRAIG:

I think there’s a caveat with that – you need to know what you’re writing about at the time of writing. Some people argue that you need to be an expert in a particular field before you can write about it, but really you need to know how to research. I know I’ve started a new job and known nothing about the product at the start of the day, but could write an accurate section by the end of it – just from knowing what needed to be learned, what the audience needs to know and what is irrelevant to them etc. Knowing the audience is vital though, without that, you have no idea what level to pitch it at.

Q: As you are an employee, do you get to work on lots of different projects? If not, how do you cope with the inevitable groundhog day syndrome?

DAVE:

I’ve been in my current job 13 years, but I’ve moved around various teams and projects, which has helped keep me sane. If you’re going to be an employee, you need the opportunity to work on different kinds of projects.

CRAIG:

I worked in the same company for 16 years, on the same product for the vast majority of it..it was hard going, but luckily I was able to go part-time and try copywriting and other things on the side. When there’s no scope for working on anything else, it can be really difficult to keep going.

Q: If you could go back in time and give advice to your younger self on day 1 as a technical writer, what would it be?

DAVE:

Don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions at every opportunity. It’s the only way to find out what you need to know, and to find out what other people don’t know.

CRAIG:

Ha ha, a man after my own heart. You really can’t afford to have an ego in our line of work – there are times where you have to come across as gormless, just to get the information you need. I kind of like that…being underestimated appeals to my nature for some reason.

Q: I sometimes feel our work is undervalued. Have you ever experienced a dismissive attitude from others about our work?

DAVE:

I’ve never experienced dismissive attitudes, but a lot of people don’t understand what authors actually do and how we work, and it’s up to us to tell them.

CRAIG:

Really? That’s a first! Most technical writers I’ve known have been dismissed at some point. My personal favourite was being called ‘a glorified typist’ by a project engineer.

Q: Technical writing – labour of love?

DAVE:

I’d describe it as a platonic friendship.

CRAIG:

For me, it is like a sibling. It can be rewarding, but it can be a pain in the arse too, and you kind of feel you can’t turn your back on it.

Q: What are your favourite tools and why?

DAVE:

Flare.

CRAIG:

No surprises there!

Q: Something I’m often asked about is the career path of technical writers. For me, it was tech writer > senior tech writer > career path blocked. There was only one more step to go to lead tech writer, and to be honest, it just involved a small level of management that I don’t really care for. Have you experienced other paths/problems?

DAVE:

When I was a newbie author in my first full time authoring job, my manager (a senior author) left after 3 months. I was left in the deep end, but I took charge and was quickly given a ‘senior author’ title.

I’ve now been in a senior author role for nearly 20 years, and I’m happy with that.

CRAIG:

Would you be happy with the next step up – a documentation manager or a similar post? I’d hate it, personally. Writing is the part of the job I like best. Reducing that for more time dealing with people and their day-to-day issues? Ugh. That can be a problem if you are stuck at a salary level in a senior role, though. It was definitely a factor in my decision to go freelance.

DAVE:

I’ve been a manager of one other person before, and line management doesn’t really appeal to me. Mind, I’ve always worked in companies where my experience counts, rather than being a manager.

Q: Have you ever worked in an agile environment? What’s your take on that? Do you think it works well for tech writers?

DAVE:

Yes, I’ve worked with agile for a few years and it’s worked well. It works if the writers are integrated into the team, just as much as developers, testers, etc.

CRAIG:

I think I was lucky – I only worked for a couple of years in a documentation team before they disbanded it and had us working in the development teams. That worked so much better (it wasn’t agile though, there were no stand-ups or anything like that). I’m not sure anyone had even heard of agile back then. Being in a documentation team created a real them and us atmosphere that made it far more difficult to get information from SMEs. When you are in their team, you’re one of them. Since then, I have worked in agile teams. It can be helpful, but I do find all the stand-ups to be a waste of time sometimes.

Q: Any embarrassing moments on the job you’d care to share? No pressure 😉

DAVE:

Publishing some web-based help, then discovering I’d left in some unfinished topics which just read “blah blah blah”.

CRAIG:

Ah, I’m sure we’ve all done that at some point. When I first started, I used to sneak in comedy characters’ names into content to see if they would get picked up in the proof-reading. I’d always remove them before finalising the draft, and to be fair, they were all spotted. Apart from one time when I was a smart arse and sneaked Albert Steptoe and his son Harold into a screen shot and forgot about it. That did get noticed and I had to stop mucking about. Never went outside the company though, so I don’t know what all the fuss was about.

Q: What are your favourite types of project?

DAVE:

I guess any project that’s a departure from normal work, like messing around with CSS and javascript for our web-based help.

CRAIG:

See, I find that is something I have to do, but don’t enjoy doing. All the tweaking I’ve done in the guts of Flare – most of it involving or inspired by your good self – has been borne out of the fact that Flare doesn’t provide the functionality I needed. I’d love it if i never had to deal with all that stuff again, but I know that day is a long way off.

Q: Any industries that you’d quite like to work in, but haven’t had the opportunity yet?

DAVE:

No idea. The Barbados rum industry.

CRAIG:

I hear the pay is lousy 😉 I seem to have an interest in medical stuff, but I don’t know why. I did some work for an NHS provider, and there’s something about medical equipment and processes that tickles my fancy.

Q: When you retire, do you think you’ll still be tempted to get involved with the profession somehow?

DAVE:

Probably not, as I have other interests. Whilst I do like to share knowledge, like answering questions on the MadCap forums, I can’t see myself being involved in tech authoring in retirement.

CRAIG:

The MadCap community will wear black arm bands that day. I can’t see myself being involved either, but I do have an urge to help that won’t go away. I’m hoping I can just put that into looking after dogs or something and can stop writing, but who knows? Arthritis might have stopped me writing by then anyway.

Q: Working from home, working on site, a mix of both – what’s best and why?

DAVE:

I work on site and rarely work at home. I would say that people who work at home can be “out of sight, out of mind”, and often get missed out of the loop.

CRAIG:

I’ve experienced that, to a degree. It can be frustrating. But then, I really hate commuting and work much faster at home. I like a mix of both, but circumstances mean I need to be mainly at home.

Q: When did you first start using Flare and what made you/your company make that switch?

DAVE:

I started using Flare v2.5 in 2007. The company was moving from printed manuals produced using FrameMaker, and wanted web-based documentation. My job was to evaluate Flare vs RoboHelp, then teach myself Flare and import/convert all our existing documentation.

CRAIG:

You’ve been with Flare a long time then. I think it was 2011 or 2012 when I first started using it. What made you choose it over RoboHelp? I’ve been in the industry for 20 years, and still have never used RoboHelp (although I’ve used loads of other Adobe products).

DAVE:

We’d used RoboHelp (as well as FrameMaker), but RH had changed ownership and had an uncertain future. Flare offered single-sourcing and multi-platform outputs.

Q: What are your top 3 Flare features?

CRAIG:

For me, I’d say it is snippets, variables, and then probably concepts. Those are the main ones I use, especially snippets.

DAVE:

  1. Single sourcing – conditions and targets.
  2. Snippets.
  3. Skins and skin component proxies.

Q: Have you had a look at MadCap Central? What did you think?

CRAIG:

I thought it was pretty good and easy to use, but I’m hearing the price point makes it more expensive than github and other tools that software devs use.

DAVE:

I’ve not looked at Central very much. We use TFS for source control, and have no particular reason to move to another system. From what I can tell, Central uses GitHub source control and provides an online build service.

Q: If there were 3 things you could change about Flare, what would they be?

CRAIG:

I’d like a built-in accordion menu (as you know!), better control over every part of the customer facing interface, and either faster build times or an improved preview.

DAVE:

  1. A proper find and replace. For example, there’s not a simple way to find and replace a style, condition, or a HTML tag or property.
  2. More types of proxies, and a way to develop your own proxies (and transformations); so you can add your own components and widgets to the output.
  3. Analyzer should be included with Flare as standard. Flare doesn’t give you enough tools to diagnose and fix problems, and reports are a poor substitute.

CRAIG:

Good one. I just had to upgrade Analyzer, actually. You’re right there – finding errors from Flare’s limited diagnostics is hard going. Some of the error messages could do with attention too.

DAVE:

I’ll add a fourth – stability. Flare crashes more than any Windows program I have ever used. It’s flakier than a certain type of chocolate bar.

 

Thanks Dave for your time and insight. You can find Dave Lee at his site https://ukauthor.wordpress.com/ and he’s always on the Flare community forums too.

About Craig

Freelance Technical Author Craig Wright

I am a freelance technical writer and I can help your business to deliver documentation that helps your customers and reduces your support costs.

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