Conferences or webinars devoted to discussing technical documentation are held on a regular occasion. However, there is still a gap in the discussion for debating the specific problem of estimating and tracking efforts for technical writing projects. Why? Unlike time and effort tracking for programmers, testing engineers and other software developers it is particularly technical writer’s effort tracking that provokes this debate. Let’s find out why.
Managing documentation development projects
Sooner or later the range of software products and product versions the company develops becomes so large that all changes and updates cannot be annotated by software engineers themselves. Technical writers provide full documentary support to new products and update releases, whilst continuing to support old versions.
Technical documentation projects are managed very differently from company to company, but in most cases the general consensus of project management in this case runs like so. The product owner or project manager sends a request of documentation to the head of development, whose role is to control and manage software engineers assigned to the products or projects.
Why is it so difficult to track efforts of technical writes
Technical writers often act as part of the development team as well. So, is there any difference in estimating and tracking the efforts of software engineers and technical writers? Yes, and the main difference is that technical writers are rarely assigned to only work on a single product at one time. It is usual for the documentation to be produced for several products at once according to their release schedules. While all products are managed by different product owners, the documentation may be requested at any development stage, during product testing or even a few months after the product has been launched. So the timeframe and workload expected of the technical writer to produce quality documentation may differ accordingly. If the product is on the early development stage, you may need more consultations with the product owners and subject matter experts (SME), more reviews and further document amendments. An example of this could be when the final UI design may vary from the earliest decision, and you need to update product screenshots before the final release date.
It is beside the fact that tasks always come from different departments and a different set of managers, some managers even fail to include documentation of the development stage into the project plan. This often makes it difficult, even if they do include the documentation they often forget to put in a timeframe for evaluation and verification for completed work. It is then down to the technical writers to handle this problem as well, this may often lead to rushing projects and working overtime.
The difficulty of documentation development very often does not correspond with how many technical writers you have at your disposal in your company. If you have more than two writers, the hope is that all tasks arrive on their manager’s desk. Life of a writer then becomes a lot simpler, but life of their team leader becomes harder, this is the only difference.
How to clear up tracking and counting the efforts of technical writers? (our experience)
Believe it or not, it’s actually very easy. I’d like to share our experiences on how we overcame these issues. We recently decided as a company to evolve by using our corporate simple project management software solution, Actionspace. This now allows us to manage technical writing projects more efficiently.
Assigning tasks and time planning
Imagine you have two technical writers, their team leader and several product owners in your company. When a request for the documentation comes from any of the product owners, the team leader enters Actionspace via any web browser from the PC, laptop, tablet or phone. In just a few simple clicks, the task for producing a set of documentation can be created; a deadline can also be set, attaching files and providing a link to the feature request in the Team Foundation Server (TFS) or any other version control solution your company uses. Using the ‘To’ field the team leader can select the name of the technical writer they would like to assign to this task. Within the ‘CC’ field the name of the manager who requested the documentation can be indicated, and in the field ‘Planned Time’ he can enter the number of hours allocated to this job.
If the task includes producing a set of documents, it could be split and allocated between several technical writers, each writer assigned to certain set of documents. In addition to this you can also specify effort estimations for each subtask. The job will only be considered as completed when all the documents in the set are created and the corresponding subtasks in Actionspace are marked as completed.
Pic.1 Assigning several writers to the project
Working on tasks and time tracking
The technical writer receives an email notification about a new task, enters Actionspace; from here they can review the task, evaluate the scheduled deadline and time estimations. If there is enough information to start working on the document, the writer accepts the task which triggers the task status to change to ‘In Work’, which allows the manager to see its progress and assure that the writer has started the work. Furthermore, the technical writer can inform the manager about issues with the task or delegate the task to a colleague. At the end of each working day, the technical writer reports actual hours spent on the task in the specified area and all of this data is automatically stored in the system.
If a technical writer has any questions, these can be added as comments; from here the team leader will be notified by email. The technical writer can also send tasks to the team leader or the product owner. For example, the writer can allocate the time for document reviews and evaluation, ask for help in installing a new software or even ask to be introduced to the product they are tasked to annotate.
Progress tracking and issue control
The technical writer together with their team leader can view all planned tasks in the Actionspace calendar and schedule work based on certain dates. Prior to the scheduled date, the system will automatically send a reminder to the employee concerned. In addition, the team leader can continually track progress of the developing documents, add comments or extra files. The product owner can also track the task progress.
When all the documents are created, the technical writer logs the actual time of the completed task. The team leader receives an email notification and an in-system notice about the task completion; from here, they can check up the actual efforts.
Pic.2 Progress tracking via dashboard
Reporting and performance evaluation
When it is time to count labor costs and efforts (for example, to calculate employee bonuses) the technical writers’ team leader simply enters Actionspace and generates a report. This process will include start dates and end dates, as well as estimated and actual time for all projects in the chosen period. With filters, the team leader can generate a report on all employees, a specific employee, on one or all of the projects, over a specific period and on one or all of the tasks allocated.
Pic.3 Employee performance reports
Generated reports can then be exported to a Microsoft Excel format and forwarded to upper management for further use.
What results we received
Actionspace’s simple tools have enabled our managers to avoid the monthly manual routine of counting technical writers’ efforts on all active projects. This in turn helps to evaluate employees’ performance and compare time spent on projects.
From our experience, to help satisfy all needs and improve effectiveness of technical writing projects the solution should be easy to use. However, it must also have features robust enough to create tasks, set deadlines and responsibilities, plan and track time and efforts, and generate performance-related reports. The solution should not be too expensive and, preferably, it should be web-based to allow for remote working. A working example of this is the online web-access to Actionspace that has allowed us to use it for geographically distributed projects. Team members can be connected in different local offices, even home offices, and the team leader manages the process from our headquarter. This is a very efficient way of working.
In summary, the proposed approach to tracking time and efforts of a technical writer may not be ideal; however, it has already significantly helped us to streamline the development of software product documentation. It helps us to remember to allocate time for document review and evaluation, and to arrange more effective collaboration within geographically dispersed teams of product owners and technical writers located in different offices.