Looking around in the world of technical documentation, you easily get the impression that systems such as ST4 are only suitable “for larger Technical Documentation departments”. Is that really true? iTAC Software AG decided several years ago to implement ST4 for their one-person Technical Documentation department. Mr. Rohde studied Technical Writing at Hannover University, and has been working for more than 20 years in this job, 12 of which at iTAC AG. In our interview, he explains how they reached this decision and why small and large Technical Documentation departments can profit by ST4.
Mr. Rohde, you are technical writer at iTAC Software AG. Please tell us in a few words what kind of software your company makes?
Basically we make one software product, a so-called MES system. MES systems control and monitor production processes, they collect production data and make them available for further evaluation. Our software is modular, i.e. it consists of various different partial functions. This is mirrored by the number of different documents. Our core documentation consists of about 50 different documents in each language. All in all, we maintain a body of documentation of about 30 000 pages in three languages each.
You are the only technical writer in your company. What particular challenges are there, being all alone?
In the beginning I was indeed alone. About a year ago I fortunately got a colleague to support me. In principle, most ST4 maintenance tasks land on my desk: compiling documents, translation management, terminology, layout, system maintenance, new concepts, etc. The challenge as a one-man Technical Documentation department is having to do everything yourself from A to Z. Personally, I like this mixture of writing and organizing/managing.
Where did you come into contact with ST4 for the first time? And since when have you been using ST4 for your authoring work?
I came across ST4 in 2006 when I was looking for an component content management system. Back then, everybody was talking about “single source publishing” and the associated cost savings. I wanted to make use of that – especially since I, as a one-man-show, wanted to save myself the additional effort for creating an online help. Internal calculations confirmed that the cost of acquiring a slim content management system would quickly pay for itself. In 2007 I convinced our management to conduct a market analysis, and ST4 won.
Standardization is one of the important aspects for ST4. Is that even worth it for a single technical writer?
In my opinion, yes. As a single technical writer, you basically have the same requirements in creating documentation as a larger Technical Documentation department would. For example, the authoring assistance in ST4 often prevented me from creating something that already existed in a different form. Even if you work alone, the authoring work becomes much more structured, and the end product significantly more unified and standardized when using a content management system.
What is the biggest advantage of ST4 for you personally? And do you also see disadvantages in using a CMS?
I see three main advantages. Number 1: I always have an overview of the information status. As we have a very complex product, it would be impossible to maintain an overview without a system. Today, without ST4, I couldn’t say for sure which documents or information modules are affected by a certain content change, or make a valid statement in regards to their translation status.
Number 2: Another big advantage is the efficient assembly of customer-specific documents. We first created “reference documentation” in ST4, with all maintenance dialogs, all configuration parameters, all API functions, etc. But customers would be overwhelmed by this amount of information, so I tailor the documents to our customers’ needs. For example: The customer needs the maintenance dialogs A and D for one of his use cases, the configuration parameters 6, 45, and 88, as well as the API functions II and VI. I compile this content into a document and am (almost) done with the individual use case document. Personally, I’m motivated by this modular approach.
And a third point: In contrast to the past, we have almost no layout effort any more.
When we have a new release, almost all core documents are newly produced (as PDF and online help). In the past, I had to check the documentation page by page. Today, spot checks are enough. That alone saves us at least 20 days of effort a year.
I can’t really think of any disadvantages. For us as small Technical Documentation department, working with ST4 is perfect.
One final question: Do you have a bit of advice for other one-man Technical Documentation departments that are looking to implement ST4?
Don’t be afraid of making mistakes with your modularization! When in doubt, you can always split up nodes that are too large into smaller modules. What I consider to be very important: If you don’t already have one, create a style guide for working with ST4. Over time, a good deal of checklists and rules will be created (e.g. for handling graphics, standard phrases, formatting rules, etc.). This is helpful even for single technical writers, because nobody can remember exactly how he did certain things in the past.