The NWU BizTech Offshoring Project

Offshoring of Tech Writing: A Roundtable Discussion

Thursday, July 24, 2003, Santa Clara

A roundtable discussion was held in July in Silicon Valley (SV). Attendees included technical publications managers from some 35 Silicon Valley corporations. There were also representatives from the various technical writers organizations: Society for Technical Communications (STC), the National Writers Union (NWU), the Bay Area Publication Managers Forum (BAMPF). Two recruiting agencies were also present. We also invited the head of San Jose State University’s technical writer certification department, along with the leading SV career coach. Some 40 people attended.

The roundtable was organized by:

* Andreas Ramos, National Co-Chair of the Business Writers/Technical Writers Division of the NWU. Contact Andreas at www.andreas.com
* Walt Keefe, President of Synergy Personnel wkeefe@synergyper.com

The Goal and the Result

We organized this Roundtable because we thought we could get technical publications managers together to talk about the threat of offshoring and come up with ideas and strategies to protect our jobs. However, we learned that offshoring is inevitable and technical writers need to adapt. The speakers offered possible strategies for adaptation.

* Summary by Andreas Ramos and Linda O’Maley. This summary, including other links and material, is at www.andreas.com/techwriteroffshore.html

The Speakers

Three speakers talked about their experiences in offshoring.
Cynthia Chin-Lee (20 years experience. Currently at Remedy.)

* At I-2, the company kept 100 jobs in the USA and offshored 1,000 jobs to Bangalore. The entire Mountain View technical writing team was moved to India. Relocation was offered to American workers (relocation and Indian wages.)
* Decisions were made at CFO level. The company was in financial difficulties and had to cut costs. The move did not seem to help. Stock was once $181, and now it is $1.
* I-2 didn’t place a high value on documentation because the software was complex and they relied on consultants to install and configure the software.
* Cynthia coordinated (but did not manage) the technical publications group in India. She kept in touch through e-mail as needed and teleconferences every other week.
* There were frustrations in dealing with an offshore documentation team: The Bangalore doc team was less experienced, there was lower quality, their understanding of the technical writing process was more elementary. There were communication difficulties because of the time difference, cultural differences, network problems and intermittent phone problems.
* The Indian technical writers were new to the technical writing profession. Their skills were not as good as those of U.S. technical writers, nor was the quality of their writing. Not many technical writers seem to have combined both good writing skills and subject matter expertise. Their attitude seemed to be that technical writing is simply massage the English of engineering notes. They did not seem to "get" that it is the job of technical writers to organize and present information so that it is easily understand. Some writers were good with tools, but they did not have an in-depth understanding of technical writing processes.
* She also coordinates projects in Ireland. The documentation quality is better.

Kirsten Kuhns (Executive Vice-President at a 35-person company.)

* They have offshoring operations in Minsk, Belarus, Dubai, Montreal and Bangalore (some contracting).
* Offshoring is a nightmare: logistics, attitudes, culture. You must have methodologies in place.
* Outsourcing to other companies doesn’t work very well (low quality.) It is a better solution to build one’s own staff in India.
* Costs are generally 1/6th of American costs (84% cheaper), asides from rent (which is often close to American prices.) Services can be very bad (phone, electricity, DSL, etc.). After other costs (post-processing, management, etc.) are factored, the offshore costs are about 1/3rd to 1/4th of onshore costs.
* The Indian writing style is British and formal.
* There are sometimes problems with urgency, deadlines, follow-up, and enforcement. They are often careless, sloppy, and not pro-active or organized.
* The Americans must stay on top of project management. Everything had to be rewritten by editors in the USA. Even when the Americans write texts, these must be rewritten into Indian English.
* There is a growing stigma for Indians to work in an Indian company. They prefer international companies.
* The company avoids travel because it is expensive and not necessary with today's communications.
* They prefer Russia because they are polite and proactive.

Kate Leggett (Sr. Director of Engineering Operations at Kana)

* Kate Leggett has experience in outsourcing at three companies.
* They are consolidating their business and production processes in India. They outsource everything: engineering, documentation, QA, technical support, and so on.
* They outsource in order to stay competitive.
* Offshoring is not cheap. The first few years cost as much as here. They expect savings after three years.
* There is a long learning process. They are not very good at creating new documents. They must learn your business practices.
* Kana went through eleven different mergers and acquisitions. They could not get the various technical publications teams to use same template, so in the end, they got rid of them all. By outsourcing, they were able to implement unified processes.
* Suggestion: Don’t fight offshoring. Become part of the process. Shift your job so you are part of those writers who are retained. Jobs are turning into process management.
* What publications jobs are likely to stay in the U.S.? Those jobs requiring innovation and information architecture. There will always be a need for a documentation manager or a manager who has direct documentation experience.
* There is an offshore team, but there is also an onshore team.

The onshore (inhouse) team includes:

* Documentation manager: Write and manage the release plan. Coordinate technical reviews with engineers.
* Information architect: Style guides and planning documents must be clear with lots of comments.
* Editors: review the results: completion, quality, accuracy, style compliance. Use editor checklists. Editors are paid $50/hr as contractors. Generally one editor for six writers. There are two editorial passes: first in India and then in the USA. Unless documents are being sent to Ireland or Canada, there will always be a need for editors. Be prepared for multiple rewrites.

The documentation process must be clear:

* Style Guide
* Templates (must be standard and easy to use so that offshore writers can follow to the letter)
* Planning documents
* Other technical publications business practices must be in excellent shape
* Metrics to evaluate documents
* Incentives and penalties
* Plan on doing a post-mortem of both documents and the planning process.

Points in the Discussion

* Offshoring is inevitable, due to globalization and computerization.
* The decision to move publications offshore is not made at the publications manager level. They are based on costs and made at the CEO/CFO level. Often, the savings were negated by the expense in rewriting and fixing the documentation.
* In India, there was a two-year cycle: the top performers got experience, quit, and went to other companies for higher pay. Next trend seems to be to go to China to find cheaper workers there.
* If India rises to American levels, will this stop the offshoring of jobs? No. There are many more available countries: China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and so on.
* One person spent three weeks at mentoring her replacement and was then downsized.
* Technical publications managers will be held more accountable. They must have clearly defined processes and exert more control in order to implement the process better. The job is going to be much harder.
* The more organized your technical publications department is in the U.S., the easier it is to move documentation to offshore. (The way to increase the likelihood of success in moving publications offshore is to have all processes in place and well organized.)
* What does moving publications jobs offshore mean for new technical writers and for their training? This may attract fewer writers to the profession, which could eventually drive up the cost of salaries if there are fewer writers for positions. Currently, there is a greater demand for writers than editors. If there is an increase in moving publications offshore, there may be a greater demand for editors than writers.

Possible strategies

* Software is commodifying and spreading into other industries which we once did not think of as high tech companies. Now, they have IT departments and they need documentation of software and manuals for their employees. But they don’t think of this as technical writing. So technical writers should be more flexible with the job title. Non-high tech companies don’t understand what a technical writer is, so they might not advertise with this job title or job description.
* Work with San Jose State U and other SV universities to develop curriculum to help technical writers and managers to transition into new jobs.
* Establish cooperation between the BAPMF, NWU, and STC.
* We should encourage technical writers in other countries to join the STC or NWU. (At present, India has 70 members in the Indian chapter of the STC.)
* The engineers are currently interested in unions. Perhaps technical writers should also be interested in unionizing. We can also reduce L1 and H-1B visas to create jobs in the USA.
* Prepare a white paper or case study (to be published by the STC or similar) to address the economic and non-economic issues in exporting docs. Show the value of onshore documentation (quality, etc.) Distribute these documents to CEO, CFO, VCs, and others.
* Legislative Actions: The IRS tax code allows companies to deduct the business expense of offshoring. This in effect subsidizes the downsizing of American jobs. This business deduction should be stopped.
* Legislative Actions: Work to stop the offshoring of government jobs. Furthermore, companies that supply services to the government should use onshore workers.
* National Security: American farmers receive subsidies and this is justified on the basis of national security: The USA must be able to grow its own food supply. The same argument can be made for high tech work: if the USA is going to lead as a technologically innovative nation in the 21st century, if technology is the essential job skill of the future, and if national security is based on technological competence, then the USA must keep research and development in the USA. (This point was supplied by a participant after the conference.)
* Create a website and chat list for interested persons. See www.andreas.com/techwriteroffshore.html
* Volunteers are welcomed to work on this issue. See www.andreas.com/techwriteroffshore.html
* The NWU will work on strategies. Contact Andreas at andreas@andreas.com for more.

Summary

Due to globalization, competition, and sharing of knowledge, business experience, and best practices, SV corps will offshore as much as they can to Southeast Asia and other countries. The American economy continues to transition into the Information economy. This is inevitable and these jobs will not return to the USA. We live in Internet time and this process will be carried out through the next two to five years.

The profession of technical writing will generally disappear in Silicon Valley and the USA. This includes both technical publication managers and technical writers, both staff jobs and contract jobs.

* Managers and writers should understand why these changes that are happening and how the profession will change.
* Technical publications managers should retrain into documentation managers and information architects.
* Technical writers should retrain into editors.
* There may be opportunities in writing process documentation (software, hardware, training, and similar) in other industries as these industries start to computerize. American technical writers should also look into writing white papers, business plans, and similar.

Notes

(I’ve attached a few notes on these new job descriptions. – Andreas)
Salaries

* Documentation manager: $75-$110K at a high-tech company, lower in other fields.
* Information Architect: $65k-$100+K dependent on the field and experience.
* Editors: $50/hr as contractors. Usually one editor per six writers.

Information Architect (Job Description)

(Here is a job description for an Information Architect. See also http://www.asis.org/Bulletin/Oct-00/parolek1.html – andreas)

By applying a user-centered design approach, the Information Architect (also called an “User Experience Architect”) analyzes the features and content to define the product’s structure. The Information Architect uses principles of information design, interaction design, and user interface design to develop navigation flows. The Information Architect designs an interface that is well structured, intuitive and functional. The Information Architect leads a user-centered methodology that translates a set of defined user behaviors into the structure and elements of online, interactive media. This involves producing user scenarios, information structures, navigational diagrams, working prototypes and written specifications.

Determine the structure and user experience of project by translating client business rules and practices into functional requirements for large complex projects. Key responsibilities include creating blueprint documentation contributing to the overall strategic direction and vision of project, analyzing and scaling project scope, defining site functionality, navigation, and interaction, analyzing and developing user tasks, task asset management, and change management. This individual is also responsible for managing individuals in career aspects such as new hire integration, staffing, training, formal feedback, compensation adjustments, career development and role growth. Qualified candidate will possess strong Human Factors usability background. The Information Architect defines the approach to efficiently capturing and representing both business and software system information in terms of a consistent set of concepts. The Information Architect determines and specifies high level approaches and modeling guidelines for system and enterprise level application solutions. This includes identifying opportunities for the sharing and reuse of information. The Information Architect helps bridge the communication gap between the users and developers by defining a common terminology based on core business concepts. The Information Architect prepares and presents requirements and analysis reviews. May act as Team Lead and supervise the activities of Information Modelers.
Job Responsibilities

* Creates information structures through content hierarchies, site maps, and navigational models that are aligned with the defined user experience and business requirements

* Define the logical data model recommend the most appropriate object-oriented software development method provide guidance with the correct use of the object-oriented software development method identify tasks and track progress within area of responsibility.
* Review functional requirements document define initial ontology and common terminology to be used throughout the project lifecycle define appropriate approach for mapping object-oriented models to relational or other models
* Draft a set of wireframes that illustrate the initial flow, layout, navigation controls, and information relationships of the interactive design
* Work closely with creative and production (development) personnel to formulate the product concept, interface design, and content presentation
* Writes high-level creative and technical documents articulating how the proposed experience architecture solution addresses the strategic, business, user and functional requirements of the proposed solution
* Define, refine, and ensure the integrity of the future state information architecture
* Model and document the current information and data representations
* Define transition steps from the current to the future information architecture, including integration with existing data stores migration strategy
* Deliver the Information Architecture specification
* Identify the layers and semantic boundaries of the Information Architecture
* Mentor staff on requirements specifications techniques and business object modeling
* Collaborate with a cross-disciplinary team to deliver client solutions
* Recommend the most appropriate functional requirements specification technique

Qualifications, Experience and Skills

* A master’s degree in Information Science, Human-Computer Interaction, or related degree a plus
* A minimum of three years of related (information architecture) work experience
* An understanding of the effect of market strategy and business operations on the structure and design of the product
* Experience with requirements analysis and creating information structures
* Demonstrated experience at translating complex concepts into interactive experiences
* Ability to articulate user experience and design principles to team members and clients
* Strong interpersonal, presentation, written communication, and facilitation skills
* Familiarity with technology platforms, collaborative, and prototyping tools

© nwu.org 2003

 

OffShoring Engineering