The Technical Communications Certificate at George Brown College changes with the times
Advances in technology, including email, smartphones and a seemingly never-ending parade of new software, have made it easier to communicate, and work, with colleagues worldwide. For some, these advances, and the subsequent amount of accessible information, have expanded their employment opportunities and added new responsibilities to their job titles. Technical Communications, once a field made up almost exclusively of technical writers largely responsible for creating manuals, is an industry affected by both the shift in the way we do business and the ever-expanding amount of information available.
"It's so much more than just writing instructions. Technical communicators are now more and more involved in product design; we are involved in the development of the product; and we are getting more and more technical," says Andrew Brooke, president, Society for Technical Communication (STC) Toronto. "With the Internet, we're developing more documents for online storage. The rise of smartphones and tablets, the practice of chunking information and the increased need to be concise has altered how technical communicators do their work."
The new, multi-faceted role of the technical communicator also prompted changes to one of Toronto's original technical communications education programs. The Technical Communications Certificate, offered through Continuing Education at George Brown College, underwent a significant program review before a 2009 re-launch. Under the watchful eye of the program's advisory committee, it continues to evolve as the industry continues to change.
"Our advisory committee is comprised of people in the field, experts in electronic learning and representatives from the business sector, so we are equipped with good, fresh advice moving forward," says Lynne Kurylo, Chair, Liberal Studies, School of Continuing Education, George Brown College. "By matching the development in the industry and re-launching our certificate program, we continue to be the leader in bringing technical communications training to Toronto."
"The certificate has several advantages for students," says Sumedh Nene, trainer, writer, editor, mentor and instructor in the Technical Communications Certificate. "Included in that list are evening classes that run once a week for 10-13 weeks, without a full-time commitment, and in-class instruction which provides essential networking opportunities through interaction with other students and the qualified faculty."
“By matching the development in the industry…we continue to be the leader in bringing technical communications training to Toronto.”
All of the instructors are active members of the industry and the students greatly benefit from the real-world experience they bring to the classroom. Five compulsory courses provide skills considered essential to the routine duties of a technical writer/communicator. The first course, Technical Writing and Analysis, is a great introduction and provides opportunities for students to develop their writing portfolio. Managing Documentation Services is an ideal course for students looking to work in a corporate environment and for those considering freelance work as it introduces documentation-related project planning and management. Writing for Software Products and Technical Editing and Production focus on computer and software-related documentation, including software and document development lifecycles, end-to-end documentation as well as the editing process. Design and Illustration for Technical Publications introduces various imaging tools and the basic concepts of graphic design.
"All of the course outlines are regularly reviewed by the instructors. Based on the latest developments in the industry, outlines are tweaked and adjusted," says Nene. "In fact, we recently adjusted the length and curriculum of some courses to properly align them with the demands and requirements of the industry."
Meeting the requirements of the industry is all part of the program's goal of producing workplace-ready individuals who have a keen understanding of how various documents should be planned, structured, written, reviewed, edited and maintained. And with an examination of the different documents used in a variety of settings and industries – as well as the modes, media and technology used to shape the technical communications industry itself – the certificate prepares students new to the field as well as those already working as technical communicators.
"Many companies have started requiring certifications for promotions and George Brown's program does a great job at bridging this gap for those students," says Nene.
While the basic definition of what technical communicators do (making complex and technical information clear, understandable and available to those who need it) hasn't changed, the scope of projects they now work on has changed drastically. They still design and deliver training courses and ensure the professional quality of materials, but now technical communicators also plan content that appears in software products – including screen and field names, on-screen instructions and error messages. They work with content management systems (CMS), convert information from print to online format, help programmers create clear, self-descriptive names for internal software elements (fields, values, objects and classes), give feedback on product design, test documents and procedures for ease of use and accuracy and much more.
“Many companies have started requiring certifications for promotions and George Brown's program does a great job at bridging this gap for those students.”
The expanded scope of projects has also expanded the scope of individuals entering the technical communications industry. While Brooke knows that an obsession with words, with language and with attention to detail will always be needed in the industry, he acknowledges that they are not the only desirable traits. The new reality is that the industry is drawing an even wider pool of candidates.
"Any transferable skill that a student has can help immensely. For example, those with customer service or sales experience are generally good dealing with people; those with scientific minds have good technical abilities and can pick up technical aspects of documentation fairly quickly," Nene says. "I know many of the students who have come from other industries and completed the certificate program have successfully made the transition to technical communicators during the course or shortly after completing it."
In addition, the technical communications industry has an organization that advocates for its members to help those students and other professionals transition into a career in the field. The Society for Technical Communication (STC) is an international organization, with chapters in many of the world's major cities, that publicizes the field and its members, and acts as a valuable resource for those already working in the industry. In addition to producing newsletters and publications, the STC has a great online presence – offering valuable webinars and workshops on various topics, tools and techniques in technical communication.
"The STC is a great starting place for anyone considering the field of technical communications, as it is a great resource for experienced writers to remain well connected and be in the know," says Nene. "It provides a superb opportunity to meet the who's who of technical communications in a given region. One of the first things I do when starting a new semester at George Brown is to introduce my students to the STC."
While the employment background of the students entering this fast-growing industry continues to change, the relationship between the technical communicator and the audience remains the same.
"We are end-user advocates. We are the intermediary between the developer and the end user," Brooke says. "Technical communicators have a desire to help the end user. If I see a solution that isn't clear, it bothers me. And it should bother other technical communicators as well. For the companies that employ technical communicators, the goal is to reduce calls to technical support. If our documentation answers questions from the end users that saves a significant amount of money."
For more information about the Technical Communications Certificate offered through Continuing Education at George Brown College, visit www.coned.georgebrown.ca/techcomm, call 416-415-5000, ext. 2092, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about the STC, visit the Toronto chapter online at www.stctoronto.org.