While catching up on some of my recreational reading, I found this lovely description of system engineering, a profession that is similar to technical communication:
Electronic engineers devise electronic circuitry, gengineers tailor biological organisms, civil engineers designs bridges and dams and space habitats, software engineers write programs, and so on–but systems engineers mostly do not create systems.
Mostly they ask questions.
What are all the functions a system must perform, and are there tradeoffs between those functions? What other systems will this system interact with, and what is the nature of the interactions? Who will use the system, and how foolish are the users against whom this system must be proofed? How reliable must the system be, how will that reliability be achieved, and how will the system behave when, all efforts to the contrary, some pieces break? The only thing other engineers found worse than these interminable questions was deploying a system and then realizing that the questions should have been asked. — “A New Order of Things,” by Edward M. Lerner, Analog, May-September 2006, p. 16; republished in InterstellarNet: New Order
The author, Lerner, brought his background in both science and technology to writing, so he understands that a question, properly asked, can be as powerful–if not more so–than the answer. It can prompt a new direction for thought, which can improve the product and how the user experiences it.
Technical communicators know how to ask a lot of questions, and it’s seldom more obvious than at a monthly meeting. Our February and March meetings featured lively discussions prompted by probing questions of both video as a medium for communication and food as technical subject matter. Our April meeting with Andrew Davis will also prompt questions and discussions in yet another direction; LinkedIn takes networking to new levels and new dimensions. May will bring as an early look at a new tool for managing content and access to it across documents; it’s certain to draw more questions and discussion.
Technical communicators work in so many different areas with so many different tools and so many varieties of subject matter that at times, it’s hard to believe that we share the same profession. However, we do all share one skill: how to ask those important questions.
I’m looking forward to seeing you soon at a meeting.
Marie McElravy, Editor