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Agile Development and Technical Writing

For additional information regarding Waterfall/Agile development and how it impacts technical writing, please refer to previous blog posts written by Eric Sedor and Shaun Kelly.

Moving a product out the door to capitalize on market demand is a necessity – it’s simple economics! Consumers demand constant product improvements. This “out with the old, in with the new” mentality has led many successful companies to switch from Waterfall development  to Agile. What does this mean exactly? For the uninitiated, use this simple analogy. Waterfall development can be compared to a marathon. All software features are built in one long process and then errors are fixed. Agile development is more like a series of sprints. Software is released in a series of small iterations. Each release includes a few added features, and errors are corrected along the way rather than at the end. As you can imagine, the switch to Agile development completely shatters the status quo and roles of people associated with the development teams. This led us to wonder: Specifically, how does the switch to Agile impact the role of technical writers?

Omniscient Player
The reality of an Agile development process means churning out high tech products at record pace. Large projects are broken down into smaller, easier to attain segments. Adobe develops PhotoShop using this method. Each iteration requires cross-functional teams to work together to meet strict deadlines and be as efficient as possible. For example, while the guys in research and development are coding new software improvements, the marketing team is analyzing customer feedback to suggest improvements for the next iteration, all the while finance is crunching numbers to determine profit/loss.

In this chaotic environment, the technical writer has to be involved with all teams at every step of the process. Technical writers must consult the change history daily to make sure they are current on all of the progress across functional teams and have documented this progress accordingly. This is done through observation and asking lots of questions – What was changed? Why was it changed? Does the change affect the user interface? How is the change an improvement on the current system? You get the drill. An effective Agile team has a certain level of transparency. In Agile development there is no time for “surprises.” Members must be very blunt with each other about problems, roadblocks and progress made in the development process so these problems are recognized early on and can be tackled. Because transparency is crucial for the success of an Agile team, meetings called stand-up meetings are held daily. In these meetings members state problems they might have encountered, changes they have made, etc. These meetings are important because they guarantee that everyone on the team is on the same page. Technical writers must attend these stand-ups so they can update the documentation supporting the product.

Outside Perspective
Experienced technical writers can offer an outside perspective that is critical. It is very common for technical writers to be testers for upcoming software releases. It is their job to document any changes, and make sure the software works like it should. During this testing phase technical writers are able to provide feedback to the developers. What may make perfect sense to the people coding may be extremely unclear to outsiders. Technical writers are able to communicate these problems and other inconsistencies to developers so they can be corrected before the release date. The technical writers’ feedback as an end-user is very valuable. Including technical writers in development may foster better ideas for the entire team by eliciting conversations that otherwise might not have happened.

Technical writers are an integral part of an Agile development process. They have the potential to increase the efficiency of the development team while also making the documentation more cost-effective. In terms of documentation, Agile is more cost-effective because technical writers are included from the beginning. They have a deep understanding of each change, so documentation changes can be incorporated immediately. In Waterfall, a technical writer might be hired during the final phases on a project. Documenting an entire project at once can mean countless hours spent learning the process before the writer even begins the documentation phase. This is why technical writers should be included as trusted members of a development team from the beginning. Part of the reason Agile development processes are so successful is because they encourage a high degree of transparency among team members. The success of any team member depends on access to information. Failure to incorporate a technical writer in this environment early on means delays and potential mistakes in the documentation.

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