In December’s Spotlight, we feature Vancouver Island’s Gabriel Forbes. He currently serves as the STC Canada West Coast chapter Coordinator for Vancouver Island. A senior technical writer who boasts a wide array of in-depth experience and leadership insight, Gabriel has worked with Trimble, MDA, and Sierra Systems, and is now with Victoria’s Reliable Controls. STC CWC is delighted to have him on board and get his take on the industry this month.
Question: What is your current work as a technical writer?
My current work takes me to Victoria, with Reliable Controls Corporation, a company specializing in technology that monitors and controls building heating, cooling, and other functions. The company started from grassroots as a local hardware engineering company, and is now competing in the international market with some very cool building controller technology. All of this activity requires a set of deliverables that run the gamut of online and print documentation, e-learning, videos, and social media components.
Question: What is your writing philosophy?
I see my role as a bridge between the design of complex products and their use in the real world. Another way of looking at it is like being an intermediary between two worlds: the world of the internal development team and the world of the end user. You have to understand both, and translate between them. If you can do this well, you can have a substantial, positive effect on your environment. That’s worthwhile in itself, but if I were to boil it down, I’d say my philosophy is continuous learning. It certainly helps that technical writing is a learning-rich environment.
Question: What was one of the most interesting project/s you have ever worked on?
My current position at Reliable Controls has some of the coolest projects I’ve been involved with. Besides the hardware technology aspect that appeals to my inner nerd, I’m also interested in the nature of the technology. Whether you call it Smart Buildings, Internet of Things, or Direct Digital Control, the latest batch of technology is moving us towards a more energy-efficient world. With 39% of CO2 emissions coming from buildings, smart building controllers can have a big impact on building efficiency, and the rate of climate change.
One of the latest products I’ve worked with is a wall-mounted building controller with a touch-sensitive screen that can control and monitor devices throughout your house, providing real-time feedback. Since it can be connected to the internet through wi-fi and accessed using your mobile device, it’s a lot more than your garden-variety thermostat. In putting the user guide together, I worked with hardware designers, electronics technicians, HVAC experts, firmware developers, software developers, UX experts, and graphic designers, among others.
The guide itself is written for HVAC equipment dealers, electricians, and end users. Working with each of these professionals is a lot of fun, and collectively working towards building energy-efficient products, that’s very satisfying.
Question: What skills should those interested in technical writing develop?
With online media shaping how documentation is created and delivered, it can be a huge benefit to spend time investigating current web technologies. Inevitably, web technologies profoundly affect our work as technical writers. For example, desktop publishing tools like Framemaker or Word can shield you from having to know about markup languages and CSS formatting. That is, until you have to publish online, or move to an HTML-based editor like Madcap Flare. Chances are, you’ll need those skills eventually. I believe this is the same with social media and video. Eventually it will deeply influence how we distribute our content, so as technical writers, we need to be on top of what our audiences want to see.
Question: What have you learned from volunteering with STC Canada West Coast?
How to make a difference with my profession. It’s inspiring to work with others willing to give up their free time towards the mutual benefit of the tech writing community.
Question: What advice would you give to those starting out as technical communicators?
When I started out, I benefitted a lot by reading technical content produced by others, and noting what made them good. Also, make yourself familiar with the Microsoft Manual of Style, Strunk and White, and the Chicago Manual of Style. These are basic tools of the trade.
Question: What are your outside interests?
I’m a creative person, and I dedicate time to practice something creative every day. What I practice has changed drastically over the years. Right now I’m building my chops as a rock drummer. I’ve also been known to play bass in salsa bands, do art installations, and run organic farms.
Megan Alford has a certificate in Technical and Business Writing from Vancouver Community College, is a graduate of the Office Administration with Technology Program from BCIT, and has a Major in Creative Writing and a Minor in English Literature from Concordia University. She’s currently program assistant for BCIT’s Technology Management program.