Documentation: Give it up; it won't happen.

by Tom Adelstein

At one point in time and not too very long ago, I fancied myself a decent system administrator with a decent resume and work history. When I finished a series of writing tasks working on technology subjects that included system administration, I thought the time had come for me to work in a shop with Linux and MS.

I put my resume up on Dice and Monster and waited for the phone to ring. When it didn't ring, I went up to see the hits. I saw six on Monster and eight on Dice. Only one company saved my data.

I don't know what possessed me to build a tech writer resume, but I did. I had enough experience and I wrote the white papers no one "got around to", user manuals, policy and procedure guides, S-1 SEC registration sections and so forth. On Monster I immediately started getting hits - something like 164 in a week. On Dice the number was something like 186. I switched back to my sysadmin resume and again I got four to eight hits. That's counter intuitive to my experience.

As a friend at JBoss once said, "gotta eat". So, I started accepting short-term writing assignments. I learned several things about the field. Aside from the massive requirements of documentation for such things like Sarbanes Oxley, HIPPA, SAS70 and warehousing of data, many companies had a trick up the sleeves. They advertised for a technical writer, but they really wanted business and system analysts they could land for $30-35 an hour.

I have yet to see a position come my way that wanted an internal writer who checked for grammar, spelling and business rules. The prospective employer wanted someone with UML, EDM, Visio and MS Project experience. They also wanted someone to back an undocumented software application into its original specs. The job requirements: Re-engineer a running application that never had functional of technical specs.

I took two projects like that at some very large companies and discovered a massive chasm in documentation and if any existed at all - a lack of updates. That led me to think about my experiences attempting to fix and document some popular Open Source projects. If large corporations with plenty of resources have neglected their docs, then what can we expect from a community whose contributing members are almost entirely programmers.

Open Source documentation has a lot in common with the corporate world. On my last assignment, I discovered a large population of wikis. Every department had at least one. At one point someone maintained those information storehouses, but almost all of them sat on the Intranet barren and abandoned. I asked people if they knew anything about their department's wiki and I found one person who even knew one existed. She maintained it daily.

Is providing Linux documentation an insurmountable task? I'm starting to think so. The major technical book publishers have dropped their efforts to recruit authors and publish sysadmin books. Instead, they have started focusing most of their attention on programming. Who can blame them. To eat, they had to publish books that sell enough to pay for the effort and provide some return on investment. That's not happening right now.

I'm not discouraged or suggesting you or anyone else stop posting information for others to find. I just see the job as bigger than me and almost any other writer. The heyday for technical writing specialists has arrived and a shortage exists. I'm just glad I took Miss Johnston's English class., where I got lots of detentions so I could stay after school and hang out with the teacher.