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Technical Writing and Agile Scrum: Where’s the Fit?

by Robert Spielman

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Fitting in with the Agile Scrum Development Team

Technical writers must become part of the Agile Scrum team. This is a departure from the old way of thinking about the separation of teams and responsibilities. No longer can technical writers wait in a different department for robust requirements documents or massive updates about a quarterly release because none of those things exist in a mature Agile Scrum development shop. And, as most IT departments and CTOs are striving to move their teams to a mature Agile Scrum process, technical writers must adapt as efficiently and effectively as the development personnel. This new Agile Scrum process demands that knowledge and information dealing with software or product releases are only sparingly documented upfront, making the job of information gathering for the technical writer much more challenging and dependent on people over requirements.

Because of this, the modern technical writer needs to be part of the Agile Scrum team and closely aligned with the meetings and deliverables contained within each sprint. Writers should attend and participate in each daily standup for which they may have deliverable responsibilities. Daily standups are the lifeblood of the Agile Scrum process inasmuch as product owners and developers/engineers make most of their functionality decisions within these meetings. Someone must be there to document these decisions; these are the new requirements in the Agile world. In addition, most team and customer documentation needs will present themselves within the standup and sprint review/demo meetings.

The sprint review meeting generally takes place at the end of every sprint. They give all stakeholders (customer service, product, development) the opportunity to see what has been completed during the sprint and what will most likely be delivered to the customer either immediately or in the near future. This meeting provides an opportunity for the technical writer to not only document what has changed through the demos, but to also document stakeholder feedback for use by the development team.

Attending the Agile Scrum meetings and becoming part of the development team is the logical way for technical writers to fit into this fast-paced and adaptive new way of creating product. Not only has the technical writer’s place in the world changed, but how and where to document has changed as well.

Documentation in an Agile Development Cycle

The days of verbose user manuals written in Microsoft Word or other static word processing software are over. Now, technical writers must learn to be as adaptive and agile as their development counterparts by writing in XML-based tools and staying ready for the next change. As described above, the only effective way to stay abreast of these changes is to be part of the Agile Scrum team; however, it is also important to keep the documentation as changeable as the requirements.

Today, there are many XML/Topic based authoring tools that enable technical writers to document in reusable and easily edited chunks of knowledge. Software such as Madcap Flare and Adobe FrameMaker are a couple of examples of these types of tools that are used to create reusable content. The benefit of creating reusable content is that if a requirement changes (which happens all the time with the Agile Scrum process) the technical writer can make the change in one place instead of having to search countless documents and changing each document individually. This type of documentation also makes content review more manageable within the time confines of a one or two-week sprint cycle.

Another trend in documentation that takes the Agile Scrum process into consideration is the advent of context-sensitive help. This type of help provides small chunks of information that is related to the immediate needs of the user. This type of help is usually interwoven within the user-interface code of the application and available on-demand or within a help tour. Again, because context-sensitive help is part of the development process, it’s crucial for the technical writer to be part of the development process.

Keeping documentation light and reusable is only part of the answer to keeping technical writers engaged in the new Agile Scrum approach. Communication within the development team is also paramount. It is now the technical writer’s responsibility to engage and elicit feedback in every part of the development life-cycle, from daily standups, to sprint reviews, to UAT testing, and final product sign-off. The answer to the question of what is required for technical writers to fit in to the Agile Scrum process is the same as it is for all other members of the development team; they must be able to adapt.

About the author

Robert Spielman has a Technical and Professional Writing degree from Metropolitan State University. Rob has many years of experience as a developer, quality assurance analyst, and technical writer with a variety of companies in the Minneapolis, MN area. You can connect with Rob through Writing Assistance, Inc. at www.writingassist.com or sales@writingassist.com.

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