Sunday, 22 March 2009

An apology to developers

I've been told that my earlier post on The best place for technical writers was critical of developers. I appeared to be suggesting that they weren't interested in customers, or in the "customer experience" around their product.

One correspondent wrote:
I read your article, David, and I'd have to disagree. In fact, your article came off as a bit... angry. Evidently you've had some frustration with developers as of late, because implying that they only care about customers as far as their paycheck takes them is just insulting.... of the "pure" developers I've worked with over the years, all of them were just as interested in a positive user experience as anyone, just in a different way. Developers are very left brained - they understand code, they read code, they talk code. They want the customers to use their code, and have no problems - no errors, no lag, no conflicts between systems. In this way, they hope to produce the perfect user experience...

If that's how people, particularly developers, read my blog, I apologise. What I actually wrote was this:
Marketing are interested in pre-sales - getting new customers in. Customer services are interested in post-sales - keeping existing customers happy. Development are interested in engineering and in code. Did you notice the subtle difference there? Development aren't really interested in customers. Of course, in general terms they want the company to have customers because they know that's where the money to pay their salaries comes from, but their day-to-day focus is not on customers. The tech writers' focus is on customers, or at least it should be.

I wasn't writing about individuals, I was writing about departments. I admit I was a bit casual in my use of prepositions, referring to "development" (a department) as "they" (implying a bunch of people), but I think that can be forgiven in a blog. I am sure that there are many individual developers who care deeply about the product users and the user experience, and I have had the pleasure of working with many of them. It's just that in my experience of a wide range of enterprises, it is often the case that the prime focus of the development department as a department is not on building customer (or user) satisfaction. Therefore I have found, and again this is my experience, that the technical writer can feel like an outsider in that department.

Another of my correspondents was passionate that the best place for tech writers was in the development team:
Most [tech] writers have to fight like hell to get onto a development team simply because their management doesn't see them making a positive contribution. If a capable TW does manage to get onto a team and does manage to make a significant contribution, it builds the profession....I believe too often we aren't willing to be aggressive enough in trying to make our little box larger.

I have a good deal of sympathy with this view. It is often the case that if a tech writer is outside the development group there is no chance of them learning enough about the product to be able to do their job, so being part of development is a great step forward. But I'd like tech writers to be aware of the way their work focus needs to differ from that of their developer colleagues.