I spent two days on a small job to find out.
In a given week I work with the website team, programmers, content developers, animators, sales, and even our subject matter experts (SMEs) on various projects. In my time at Almon I’ve gotten first-hand experience with what they do and how they do it.
But when it comes to technical writers I know about as much (or little) as the average consumer. They write the things to tell us how to take care of the stuff – right?
When I finally got an opportunity to see just what a technical writer does I abandoned my desk, donned some steel-toed shoes, and grabbed my safety glasses. I did not hesitate to trade my laptop for a wrench, which was completely unintentional, (but I’ll get to that). Overall it was an enlightening experience. I will let you in on a little secret: These guys don’t just write the things that tell us how to take care of the stuff.
Let’s go to the shop…
When you walk into HQ’s shop, you can count on being the smallest thing there. At any given time one can view farm equipment, construction equipment, or surprise(when did we get that?) equipment, and it is constantly changing. The tires on these machines will engulf a 6-foot man in their shadow. With lug nuts the size of your fist, they entice you to a staring contest (yes, they are at eye level). And guess what — you can’t help but oblige. To make things even more interesting, what was in pieces on Tuesday might not even be there on Friday.
So what exactly do the technical writers do with these machines? While the shop is fully equipped to fix them, they aren’t broken; they came in fully operational. When you see them they may or may not be operational, depending on the machine (and the project requirements). A quick stroll through the shop will show many of them in various stages of disarray (to an untrained visitor of course). But what are they doing with these machines? I spent two days on a small job to answer this question. Keep in mind, not all who enter the shop get to have as much fun as I did (but not all want to).
Let me just say, going into this whole experience my assumption was that I would get to shadow one of the shop guys for a day or two; see what actually takes place during their typical day, ask questions, learn a few things — you know, the usual. This, however, was not the case. One does not simply walk into the shop to watch everyone else work; they do, they learn, they experience (but only after completing the shop safety course).
Day 1 started with a long hike to HQ, where I reported to Mark Hanrahan, Lead Technical Writer at HQ (watch his video Tips to Outsourcing a Technical Writing Project). They were working on a new service manual, and I was set up to work with one of the technical writers, Devin Kelly, on a task — safely and efficiently removing a fuel tank from a tractor. This sounded so easy, I bet we would only need a day. With assignment in hand, we stepped into the shop.
Our goal was to complete the “Remove fuel tank” story. But before we could start, we had to know a few things:
We analyzed the situation, talked through the questions, and discovered possible answers before we even thought about grabbing the first wrench. Once we settled on a logical starting point the first thing we did (and second most important, safety is always No. 1) was get some decent pictures. Not every step within a story requires images but it never hurts to have a few extra, especially when it comes to some of the more complex procedures. While these images do help document the procedure, they can also come in handy if questions arise later in the process, like the review phase.
Next, we jot down notes, and then we take stuff apart! This is where I was pleasantly surprised… “Grab the such and such size wrench and remove those four cap screws,” I was told. Ummm… what now?? You want me to do it? But aren’t you the professional, the one in charge here? I thought I was just here to watch and see what you do, ask some questions perhaps. This is where I traded my laptop for a wrench. Truth be told, it was way more fun to actually do the work than just watch someone. And I assure you I did share the fun.
Most of Day 1 continued by repeating the following: analyze the situation, decide on the safest, most efficient route to take, snap a few good pictures, jot down some notes, and then do the work. I can’t say how many steps were involved, or what the procedure entailed, but what I can say is we removed a lot of cap screws — that we bagged and properly labeled.
By the end of the day I had learned many good tips for projects anywhere: bag and label small parts, take pictures during the process so you have good reference points, and tag things that get disconnected so you know what goes with what. But the No. 1 most important thing I learned on Day 1: DEF fluid does not smell like roses.
Day 2 continued in much the same way as Day 1 with one exception: the tank would be out by the end of the day. We needed to remove a few splash guards, disconnect a line or two, empty the remaining fuel, and prepare to drop the tank. Due to the size of the tank, we were unable to gauge how many people would be needed to assist. So we asked around and a few were put on stand-by.
When it came time to remove the splash guards my height came in particularly useful. I was the perfect size to stand comfortably under the wheel well to complete this task. With all cap screws removed, bagged, and labeled the splash guards were set to the side and we were able to see what was left: disconnecting some lines, draining the remaining fuel, and dropping the tank.
The most time-consuming portion of this procedure was emptying the fuel tank. The guys were definitely thinking ahead and drained most of it before I showed up on Day 1, but we still had 10 gallons or so to drain. As we disconnected the lines, we drained the fuel and attached numbered tags to each side, one on where it was connected, and the other on what was connected. This ensures that anyone can join the project and make the proper connections when it is reassembled.
Since this is one of those tasks that you can’t just start and walk away from, we got comfortable and enjoyed the show. While boring, to say the least, it was mesmerizing to watch the fuel defy gravity and spiral upwards as it drained.
As we waited, the rest of the shop stayed busy. Technical writers were in and out shooting photos, taking notes, or completing steps on their own stories. Some were working on the hydraulic system of the same tractor we were. Others were working on operator manuals for the cutest equipment one could ever see. That’s right, I called construction equipment cute; they were like puppies (or kittens) of the construction world.
When the tank was finally drained, we covered and placed the fuel in the designated area, cleaned up our tools, and assembled the removal team. The final removal was relatively quick. The team was able to shout out what they needed from the other members (“tilt a little left,” “bring it down a bit,” “I’m clear!”) and out it came.
It was impressive how smooth it was with this team. I kind of want to borrow them anytime I need a couch moved! Aside from watching the fuel drain, this was the only thing I didn’t really help with. I just stayed out of the way.
At the end of Day 2 Devin sat down to begin documenting the story from start to finish. During this process, all the notes and little details were combined, steps were written, images were chosen, and everything was compiled for the final service manual. However, not everything we did made it to the final story.
On Day 1 we removed some cap screws and took off a plate, which turned out to be an unnecessary step. At the time there was no way to know, but after completing the process, reviewing images, notes, and having a second look at the tractor, it was safe to say that the step did not need to be included. It was an eye-opening experience to watch (and help make) the magic happen.
This is what I learned in my two days: When the equipment is delivered it is the job of the technical writer to find out how things happen, and the safest and most efficient way to make those things happen (e.g. fuel tank removal). The technical writers don’t have a manual to use as a reference – they are the reference. They take everything they already know and apply it to the job in front of them. They check to make sure every step is necessary, and get a second opinion if something seems a bit excessive.
Every one of the technical writers I met and worked with had different backgrounds, interests, and expertise when it came to the equipment in the shop. But in the end, they all came together to write the things that tell us how to take care of the stuff, in what order, and how to do it safely and efficiently.