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Techcomm Today: Survey Findings

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.

Employment Circumstances

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.

Techcomm Qualifications

Techcomm Qualifications

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)

2. Engineering

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.

Table of Top Tasks, Outputs, and Audiences

Top Tasks, Outputs, and Audiences

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.

ICT Knowledge

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.

Languages

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.

Mark-up and Stylesheet Languages

Mark-up and Stylesheet Languages

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:

1. Java

2. C++

3. C

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.

Tools

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.

Top Tools

Top Tools

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.

Further Analysis

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!

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9 Responses to Techcomm Today: Survey Findings

  1. Larry Kunz October 15, 2015 at 6:25 pm #

    Thanks for compiling this data. Your findings align with my impressions, except for one thing that I find curious: even though several people say they’re involved in API documentation, less than a third of respondents use programming languages — and the languages I most often associate with API documentation, like Python and Javascript, don’t even crack the top 3. I’m not sure what to make of that.

    • Colum McAndrew October 15, 2015 at 6:59 pm #

      I think this shows the difference between the US and UK market Larry. From what I’ve seen, the three languages in the list are far and away what most ICT firms want.

      • Siobhán Ní Chatháin October 20, 2015 at 9:04 am #

        Good point, Colum. These are subjects we will continue to probe in order to understand the differences better.

    • Siobhán Ní Chatháin October 20, 2015 at 9:03 am #

      Well spotted, Larry. This definitely merits further research.

  2. Brian Lanigan October 16, 2015 at 3:10 pm #

    That’s an interesting point, Larry. I think Colum might have the right of it.

    I was also at TCUK, and API documentation came up in a couple of talks I had with other attendees (just casual chat, not part of the survey). A few people noted that API documentation seems to be a big industry in the US at the moment, but it’s not quite as high-profile in Europe. It’ll be interesting to see if that changes over time, and if technical authors will become more involved with languages (like Python and JavaScript) that are more often associated with web apps and APIs.

    Again, this isn’t based on any of the data from the survey, just coffee corner conversation. I reserve the right to be proven entirely wrong by the next comment!

  3. Anna Crowley October 19, 2015 at 8:23 pm #

    I find the rankings of the CMS category quite interesting. These top three systems are mostly web-based collaboration and document management tools, not true content management tools. For content management and reuse of existing topics and objects, these would not be anywhere near my first choice for tools.

    • Siobhán Ní Chatháin October 20, 2015 at 9:41 am #

      Hi Anna,
      The categorisation of tools is an interesting, sometimes perplexing issue, given the number of tools available and the diversity of features. We noted a lot of overlap between categories. For example, some writers use the same tools for authoring and content management. The ways in which technical communicators use particular tools and the factors involved is another aspect worthy of exploration.

  4. Martin Cooper October 22, 2015 at 9:14 am #

    A very interesting and informative report.
    However and given that TechCommsUK attracted a mainly IT biased TechComms audience I am not surprised that the ‘industries served by’ output was IT dominant. In order to give a more rounded overview and set of answers to the survey I would recommend that the TWI team also attend such as the TDW Live 2015 event to canvas a more engineering TechComms based input to your survey.

    • Siobhán Ní Chatháin October 23, 2015 at 12:12 pm #

      Hi Martin,
      Thanks for pointing us towards that conference, it looks very interesting. We are definitely aware that this is a small sample taken at a specific event & we highlighted that the results are valid for this sample group only. We have been considering rolling the survey out further, so it’s very encouraging to get your feedback.

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