Several people on social media have asked about my experience with the Technical Communication program at Simon Fraser University (SFU). Recurring questions are what exactly is technical communication, how many hours a week on average did I spend on course work, did I need to prepare in any way before enrolling, and if I would recommend it. I’ve decided to answer those questions here, along with some tips for anyone considering enrolling in the future.

What is technical communication?

Technical communication is all about making information usable and accessible to people who need it. A technical communicator might write about technical topics, such as software or medical devices. They might create non-technical material that benefits from clear language and good structure, such as a work procedure or a policy manual. They might make web pages, videos, help files, or user guides. It’s a wide scope, but the common thread is that a technical communicator is always trying to provide the right amount of information at the right time, in the right format.

SFU’s Technical Communication Certification

SFU’s Technical Communication Certification is intended to be a 2-year, part-time online program, although you have up to 5 years to complete it. It covers all the core competencies identified by the Society for Technical Communication.

Can you accelerate it?

Yes. I started the program in January and graduated in December with a very aggressive course schedule. I spent between 10-20 hours per week on each class, and about 40 hours per week on the final project. So, for the few weeks when I had 3 classes overlapping, it was tough… I had some very late nights. If you’re working full-time, I think planning to complete it in 2 years is more manageable.

Who is a good fit for the program?

The SFU website says this:

If you think logically, value clear, concise communication, learn well independently, and enjoy the challenge of mastering complex information and explaining it step by step, you need to try our Technical Communication Certificate.

I agree. I would add that you need to be a strong writer, and having a natural aptitude for computers certainly helps.

My classes had a wide range of people from across the country, and even some international students. There were very few recent graduates; it felt like most classmates were upgrading their skills for professional reasons and were working full-time while taking courses. For example, some classmates in the government and health care sectors were taking courses with tuition subsidized by their employers.

What software do you need?

Over the course of the program, I used:

  • MadCap Flare
  • Microsoft Word
  • Adobe InDesign
  • A couple indexing programs
  • Some open source software (Screencast-O-Matic, Greenshot) – but that was just me

For MadCap Flare, you are issued a student trial license that’s good for the duration of the course. You also have the choice of trialing some different indexing software. You are responsible for getting access to Microsoft Word and Adobe InDesign yourself (but if you ask nicely, Adobe will give you the student subscription rate).

Incidentally, I would have said prior to the Word course that I was a Microsoft Word power user… but it turns out there was a ton of functionality I wasn’t using. I was a bit humbled, frankly. From a software perspective, the program was very helpful.

Any tips?

Think ahead. If you have some idea of the type of technical writing that interests you most – software, instructional, medical, etc. – start thinking now about potential projects and clients. For instance, if you’re thinking about software, see if there’s an open source community that interests you and start building relationships on the forums. Learn what people need as far as documentation goes. That way, you’ll have a treasure trove of project ideas when you need them, as well as people willing to help you.

Take TCOM110 and TCOM240 first. I recommend you take TCOM110 (Concepts and Practice of Technical Communication) and TCOM240 (Microsoft Word for Technical Writers: Advanced) before any other courses. They give you a strong foundation for the rest of the course work. Once they’re done, complete your 100-/200-level courses in any order, followed by the 300-level courses and the final practicum. A few classmates I spoke with thought they had to wait and follow the courses in numerical order, which isn’t the case at all.

Participate, participate, participate. You get out what you put in to the program. Contribute to class discussions, stick to the schedule as best as you can, and (please!) participate in group work whenever it’s assigned. Online learning can be lonely at times, but if you’re active on the boards and support your classmates, you will get a lot more out of the program and you won’t feel isolated.

Would I recommend it?

While a lot of it is common sense, the program has definitely improved my skill set. I have become aware of the importance of using plain language, and I now do far more prework in consideration of my audience and my client before starting a draft. Making sure my chosen format and my words deliver the very best experience possible to my users has become my top priority. And from the professional side, I have seen an uptick in freelance projects since I’ve been promoting my certification to potential clients.

So yes, if you’re serious about becoming a technical communicator, or even if you just want to be more structured and concise in your communications, I would recommend it.