Tech Comms Today panel viewed from behind
29. February 2024 - Felicity Brand

Tech Comms Today Discussion Panel

Report from Write the Docs Australia 2023

When I submitted the idea for this panel to the conference committee, I thought we’d be discussing the hot topic of the moment: AI. How wrong I was! Generative AI barely rated a mention amongst the more foundational topics that arose, like how we can prove the value of docs, and the best ways of collaborating with others. Having three women on the panel meant we were well-placed, at the end of the session, to dig into an unscripted question from the audience about discrimination and representation in tech.

I was proud and privileged to host a discussion at the Write the Docs Australia 2023 about the trials and tribulations of technical communication and working in tech. I was especially fortunate that Open Strategy Partners sponsored my time to be involved with the conference. And that experienced conference hounds like Jeffrey A. “jam” McGuire and Tracy Evans gave me their insight, tips, and tricks for hosting a panel.

I love hearing what industry experts think about the domain of technical communication. I helped hand-pick and curate the panel to offer a broad representation of roles within the industry:


OSPea, Felicity Brand, hosted a discussion panel about the current state of technical communication at the Write the Docs Australia 2023 conference.

The discussion ranged from how to prove the value of documentation and better integrate it into project planning and executions, the best ways of collaborating with others, and an audience question about discrimination and representation in tech.

Felicity Brand sitting in a chair, holding a microphone
Felicity Brand in full moderation mode.

The importance of caring

I started off by asking the panel, “What advice did you wish you had received when you were starting out?”. The overarching theme was the importance of caring—caring about what you do and who you’re doing it for. 

Claire said that it's important to care about whom you’re writing for: “Don’t waste their time and don’t make them feel stupid.”

Mel echoed this idea, “Take the time to care about your user and really understand their pain points so that you can craft your work to solve their problems.”

Sarah called for people to “Look for things you really enjoy in your job.” She explained that when you enjoy your job, you’ll do it well and that results in better quality output which is great for you, your readers, and the organization you work for.

Showing the value of documentation

Project planners frequently forget to include technical communicators during decision-making—sometimes even until all the development work is done, and a critical launch is around the corner. Although we have spent years telling people otherwise, documentation seems to be seen as some kind of necessary evil. Despite the fact that we think they should already know better … How do we get people to see the value in documentation, that it is not an afterthought or a nice-to-have? What good arguments can we use to get management to invest in the docs, too?

The key is positioning documentation strategically, tying it to business success metrics, and emphasizing its role in the overall product experience. Here are some tips from the panel:

  • Leverage user research: Conduct surveys. Asking directly how documentation impacts users. Demonstrate how it helps them overcome obstacles.
  • Be proactive: Suggest useful questions for user research.
  • Assume value and make them prove otherwise: Don't accept the premise that you have to justify documentation's worth constantly. Flip questions back on executives to explain their goals.
  • Focus on outcomes: Do high-quality work focused on user needs. Demonstrate the value through continuously improving docs rather than arguing.
  • Link docs to business priorities: Identify problems executives care about and show how documentation helps address them. Solve the CEO's anxieties.
  • Treat documentation like a product: Give documentation a product manager, resources, and inclusion in key meetings. Position it as a core product surface alongside UI, API, SDK documentation, etc.

Working with others

Surprisingly to many, writing is not often the main part of a tech writer’s job. Technical communicators work with many stakeholders, and knowing the best way to bridge some of these gaps and make connections can be a superpower. 

Claire spoke about collaboration between technical communicators and marketing teams. There is frequently a divide between the two groups who don't fully understand each other's roles, and we should strive for mutual understanding rather than judgment. Claire advocated for more empathy, mutual learning, and coordination between technical communication and marketing to enable accurate, consistent outward-facing messaging that serves user needs.

Sarah discussed collaboration between technical writers and UX teams. Often, there is a lack of understanding between the two groups about each other's strengths. She recommended identifying and building upon complementary strengths through cross-training. There is a lot of overlap between our expertise and fields, and we can learn a lot from each other—not least sharing data about users and their habits.

Mel discussed her experiences as a developer advocate working with tech writers. She highlighted the value of blending the technical writer's ability to produce polished instructional content with the developer advocate's deep understanding of the user's mindset and pain points. The collaboration enables creating content that speaks directly to solving the developer community's problems.

Women in tech

The Write the Docs community is known for its diversity and inclusion, and the conferences embody that. We received a question from the audience about representation. 

The tech industry is still very male-dominated—even though here in this conference, we have a lot of women … we have a lot of representation. How has it been for you all working as women in tech? Do you have any advice or tips for women looking to get into the tech space? 

This question prompted impassioned responses from the panel, keen to share how their personal experiences shaped their perspectives on this issue. Each panelist acknowledged that their own privilege may have sheltered them from some discrimination. Their personal experiences, choices, and emotional responses varied.

Everyone agreed that diversity and advocacy are crucial. The panelists were united in their emphasis on advocating for women and other underrepresented groups, even if they hadn't faced the same challenges personally. Mel said this kind of camaraderie is important. “When you see someone do good work, who is from a marginalized group in your industry or workplace, you highlight their work. Because often they don’t get the same kind of spotlight that other people get.”

Calling out workplace biases is hard but important. Claire shared a story about speaking up in a recent all-hands meeting. “Can we not always hold tech bros up as markers of success in technology?!” She said she only felt comfortable doing that because she was in a safe workplace.

Women still face inequitable treatment in tech workplaces. The panel agreed that discrimination is an ongoing battle, and constantly confronting bias is exhausting. An audience member offered some suggestions around this:

  • Research companies through platforms like Glassdoor for insight into work culture and policies around health and safety for women.
  • When interviewing, remember that you’re interviewing them as a company.
  • Take the time to ask them what they have in place, because seeing what their policies are and seeing what they have reveals a lot.
  • Directly ask about safeguards for inclusion and wellbeing.

The Future is Bright

The technical communication field continues to evolve and grow. We continue to welcome passionate writers coming up and moving sideways into technical documentation. While challenges remain, the passion and care demonstrated by professionals like those on my panel give me great hope. People in this industry care—a lot—about our readers, our craft, and the value of what we produce.

We also care about each other. Working together can promote inclusive and ethical workplaces where all feel welcomed and empowered. The breadth of knowledge shared at conferences like Write the Docs inspires me. Our community brims with insight and humanity. I'm thrilled to have been a part of this discussion, and I can't wait to hear what we talk about at Write the Docs Australia 2024

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Image credits

Panel comic by Anghard Neal-Williams. Conference photos by Write the Docs Australia 2023.

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