Today I’d like to provide four tips for technical and marketing writers who need to interview engineers about a piece they are working on. One of the sad things about technical writers and interviewing is they may not realize that it is an important part of their jobs, and they do it all the time. Anytime you ask for clarification, you are interviewing.
Tip #1: Prepare Questions – Don’t send an email or an IM every time you have a question, but prepare a list. This can help you clarify what you need to know and save time. It also helps you build relationships with your engineers. They will like you more if they see that you respect their time, especially when you are new to tech writing or to a company.
Tip #2: Listen – A normal human response is to chatter on when you are nervous and feeling insecure. This was the hardest lesson I had to learn, regardless of the type of interviewing I was doing. Once I realized this and changed my focus, interviewing became a whole lot easier.
Tip #3: Ask Dumb Questions – Once you are listening, you will feel more secure about asking what you consider “dumb” questions. I used to actually admit to this outright, and it usually elicited a sympathetic response. The trick here is, again, to listen — and also not to overdo it.
Tip #4: Educate Yourself – Oddly enough, the more you learn, the more interesting tech writing can become for you. I started out in a very high tech company that created system software for huge IBM mainframes, so I took a course in the mainframe operating system at NYU and quickly realized that it was like a nine-ring circus. Luckily, we only wrote for one ring, which was comforting.
Later I went to work for a company that made telecom equipment and took the weekly course for new telecom engineers taught by a local college professor, even though I was already in marketing. I usually didn’t stay for the second hour where the engineers got into the weeds, but the first hour was often fascinating. I learned how the old landline phone system worked, which made it a lot easier to understand the new IP-based phone system we are moving to today.