Ireland has ingredients to become world leader in technical writing

One of the leading experts in the field of technical writing says Ireland could be a world leader in the discipline, which employs thousands of people globally.

Patrice Fanning, chief executive and founder of Technically Write IT, a Cork-based start-up company, says a combination of English as our primary language, time zone and “Irish peoples’ skill as very good communicators” are distinct advantages.

“We are also one of the few countries in the world offering a university degree which specialises in technical writing and we have a good reputation in the area of technology,” says Patrice. “Around the world, there are 330,000 people working in the field of technical writing and I don’t see any reason why Ireland shouldn’t be leading the field in this area.”

Technical writing is about communicating in a clear and concise way that users understand: “It’s about taking something complex and breaking it down for people. Particularly when you look at technology, it’s only really useful if people can understand what it is about, what the benefits are and how they can set it up and use it,” says Patrice.

However, it’s not just about producing a manual for the end user; very often this is the last stage of an exhaustive examination of systems.

“Technical writing starts with an examination of a product itself and trying to make it as useable as possible from the outset,” says Patrice. “If we take a piece of software, for example, that would involve looking at the labels on the screen; the progression within a process to see if it’s logical — the steps that you follow and the results which are generated from each process and whether that makes sense to someone.

“Effectively we examine the user interface and we try to make it clear; inserting onscreen explanations, error messages, etc.”

Patrice explains that very few people are prepared to read user manuals and look at the manual as the last resort. “So we would look at the screen itself and FAQs [frequently asked questions] and quick start guides; basically we try to give people as little information as they need to perform the task at hand… The idea is that if all the preliminary steps are carried out then the user guide will be more simple and shorter.”

Having graduated from University of Limerick with a first class honours degree in Applied Languages with Computing, Patrice spent a further three years at the university teaching technical writing, software localisation and introductory computer programming.

In 2005, she joined global enterprise software giant SAP as a technical writer to produce user-friendly help and training material for a new solution for mid-sized enterprises, Business ByDesign.

Based in the Rubicon Centre at Cork Institute of Technology, Technically Write IT last month picked up a Genesis Award for their success so far. Operating as a sole trader since summer of 2011, Patrice registered her company in Nov 2011 with a great degree of confidence in what she was doing.

“I believed there was a market for our services, I worked with SAP, who have a huge in-house team of writers, but they also work regularly with external agencies when they have big projects to work on but don’t have the capacity to meet them before deadline,” she says. “I knew there was scope for external technical writing companies and I started doing contract work for SAP.

“Then I started thinking about the SME market where many would not have the in-house expertise and would need to outsource the function.”

For the moment, Patrice is maintaining a tight operation with just her, a business administrator and a part-time accountant on board. She is not as such creating jobs but creating work for contract writers which she considers to be her most valuable resource.

“We are working with other freelance writers on a contract basis, which gives me the chance to see what their writing skills are like: that they can meet deadlines and the quality of their writing is good enough. It means that if someone underdelivers I’m under no obligation to hire them again,” says Patrice.

With an international focus, most tech companies will produce documentation in English first, and Ireland is a good place to have a business in technical writing.

“It’s significantly cheaper to develop documentation in English first and then translate it to follow-on languages, and we have a huge cost advantage in that respect,” she says. “Ireland’s time zone lends itself to working globally as well. We’re are currently working on projects in Germany, Brazil and China and there are parts of the day where time zones overlap. We are targeting a mix of multinationals as well as SMEs and we would look in the longer term to target non-English speaking countries, so the main area where we see growth is in Asia, where a lot of technology is being developed in India and China, for example, where they have development skills but not the English language skills for good documentation.

“Ireland really is a great place to do technical writing. As well as being English speakers and with the benefits of the time zone, Irish people are very good communicators.

“Quite often, we are dealing with quite introverted developers who don’t like talking all that much and as good communicators the Irish are very good at extracting the information they need and make people feel comfortable about giving them the information they need.”

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