Results of the 2009 Technical Writers Training Needs Survey

The results are in. Despite the economic challenges facing the global marketplace today, technical communication professionals are in need of training. The problem is finding the money for the classes (and more often than not, the travel), as well as finding and the right class (see below), at the right (low) price, in the right (nearby) location, from the right (trusted) provider.

Based on the responses of more than 500 technical communications professionals who answered The Content Wrangler Technical Communication Training Needs Survey, the top five hot training topics for 2009 include:

  1. Writing topic-based content for reuse (44.2%)
  2. Darwin Information Typing Architecture aka DITA (36.4%)
  3. Moving to unstructured to structured content (32.5%) – most often from unstructured to structured FrameMaker
  4. XML authoring (28.1%) – in general
  5. Simplified Technical English (20.1%)

The top five software training classes needed by technical communication pros include:

  1. Adobe Technical Communication Suite (19.9%)
  2. Adobe Captivate (15%)
  3. MadCap Flare (14.2%)
  4. Adobe e-Learning Suite (11.8%)
  5. Adobe RoboHelp (11%)

While they didn’t make it into the top five, nearly one in ten survey participants said they need Author-it (9%) training.

The demand for these classes doesn’t always translate into sales, as any trainer will tell you. We asked survey respondents to describe “how likely” it is that they could obtain funding to attend necessary training in 2009. Only about 10% of respondents said getting funding is “no problem” (2.8%) or “should be easy” (7.6%), while the majority said obtaining funds is “not likely” (35.4%) or “impossible” (21.9%) in this economic climate. That’s not the complete picture, however. About one in three technical communicators surveyed said they may or may not be able to get training dollars for needed training classes. This group answered “obtaining funds for training is just as challenging as obtaining funds for any other service” (27.9%).

Whether related to the economy, or to other factors, the most desirable time of year for training classes appears to be evenly split between Fall and Winter, 2009, with Summer a close third. While Summer has traditionally been viewed as a horrible time to plan events, survey data suggests otherwise, with nearly a third of respondents saying they’d like to take courses this Summer.

Factors that most influence selection of classes include:

  1. Training is not provided by a salesperson who works for the vendor
  2. Training is taught by experienced industry expert
  3. Training helps us create (or get started with) our own content
  4. Training is coupled with post-training telephone support and consultation
  5. Training is web-based

This survey was not a scientific examination of the entire universe of technical communicators. Like all industry surveys, this one was designed to capture feedback from respondents—this time about the training needs among those who elected to respond. It also served to provide participants with an opportunity to share their anecdotes, comments, and suggestions (we provided a text box after most questions to allow respondents to share additional information with us).

Here are a few of the more than 400 anecdotes received:

  • “The case to show necessity will have to be stronger than in past, but once the case is made, the funding will be there.”
  • “I would not say that obtaining funding for training is either easy nor difficult. As in years past, I must show how the cost of the training will improve my job performance. The cost of training must be less than the anticipated improvement.”
  • “Our training budget is flat rather than cut.  We will need to provide justification for all training as our budget is shared across the department.”
  • “Our company is being very selective and is utilizing webinars to maximize our training dollars so that multiple folks can attend and we can eliminate travel expenses.”
  • “I’ve stopped looking at materials on any training that costs money, because I know there isn’t any. And there’s no time for the free ones!”
  • “Funds for training held locally probably wouldn’t be a problem, but anything else would be nearly impossible.”
  • “I was already able to get an 8 hour training course paid for this year.”
  • “We can attend training and the company will pay for it, but they won’t pay for the travel, hotel, meals, or any other expenses. None of us can afford to attend unless it is in our home town or close by.”
  • “It all comes down to price. It seems anything over $999 is considered too expensive.”
  • “I will still be continuing to go to training, but I am looking carefully at each training opportunity and cutting back on some that I would have done previously.”
  • “Obtaining funds is the easy part, finding affordable training is another matter!”

Keep an eye out for our next survey on “Web Content Management and Marketing Communication”. Coming soon.

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9 Responses to “Results of the 2009 Technical Writers Training Needs Survey”

  1. Sharon Burton April 14, 2009 at 10:13 am #

    MadCap Software is offering free tools-neutral webinars on these topics. We also record them for future training.

    For more information on upcoming topics or to view previous recordings, go to

  2. RJ Jacquez April 15, 2009 at 8:55 am #

    Hi Scott, great work as always and your survey results are right on, as our customers also report the same challenges regarding training in this tough economy.

    Because of this, my teams and I have taken the initiative to help our customers get started as quickly and inexpensively as possible with the latest versions of our Adobe Tech Comm and eLearning products through ongoing live and recorded eLearning sessions.  However, unlike the poster above, we don’t try to disguise our eLearning sessions under “tools-neutral,” but rather all of our sessions go right to the point and are promoted as Adobe product-specific eLearning sessions, rather than traditional informational-based Webinars, so they include hands-on practice simulations for example.  If your readers are interested, I have recorded quite a few thus far and all links can be found here:

    Also, for those interested in learning how to “dynamically link FrameMaker 9 files in RoboHelp 8 in Adobe Tech Comm Suite 2,” more information can be found on my blog for this session, which will be held live on April 24th:

    Thanks for your excellent work in Technical Communication and keep up the good work!


    RJ Jacquez

  3. Sharon Burton April 15, 2009 at 9:59 am #

    Hey, RJ! Good to hear from you. I have a few clarifications, to make sure people understand what MadCap is doing.

    In the last recession, I remember (far too well) that Tech Comm professionals had several issues to face: Job uncertainty and training needs with no budget. It was tough out there.

    MadCap Software decided to help. Our success is because of the Tech Comm community and we decided to give back. Out of this, we developed our very successful Free Webinar Series.

    This free webinar series provides tools-neutral training on relevent topics in our field. The point to our free webinar series is that you can take that training and use it in any tool you are currently using OR you can be educated in a topic that might come up in a job interview.

    So, for example, we’re doing a 5 part series over the summer on CSS with Mike Hamilton (our VP), a Guru on CSS. Regardless of the tool you use, you’ll learn about the possibilities in CSS. (As a warning, in the last webinar in that group, we’ll probably have to use Flare to show you things but every thing we show you should be do-able in any CSS-based tool you use.)

    And that’s the value we see we’re adding with this series: regardless of the tool you are using, you’ll gain knowledge and, hopefully, learn ways to improve your workflow.

    Of course, we also have MadCap tools-specific training we do, such as live demos, Jump Starts, and others. Those are always clearly identified in the titles of the presentation. So if you don’t use MadCap tools and don’t want to learn about them, you don’t have to.

    But if you are looking for a job, looking for ideas to work smarter, or looking for training in these tough times, our free webinar series should help.

    It’s great that Adobe is providing free training on their tools to help people with their products. I just wanted to clarify RJ’s comment about MadCap’s “tools-neutral” training so that people wouldn’t be confused.

  4. Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler April 15, 2009 at 10:49 am #

    I applaud the fact that vendors are using video and webinar-type sessions to interact with people interested in learning more about a topic or a tool set. This is good news for consumers and evidence that the world of “text-only” marketing information is coming to an end.

    However, I wish marketing folks at software companies would obtain and use a dictionary. As it stands, it’s not clear that they know what the words “neutral” and “training” mean.

    Let me clarify. The word neutral is “bait” used to attract prospects—folks who don’t currently use a toolset, but might (hopefully) become customers in the future. Attaching the word to “tools” is a clever marketing tactic, but neither word makes the session any more or less valuable to those who are attracted to the topic, for whatever reason.

    For example, I might find a session valuable because it’s on Cascading Stylesheets. It may be provided by your competitor, JustSystems. I may NEVER intend to use their tool, XMetaL, but I still might attend their webinar, and if I’m lucky, I’ll find my participation valuable. I still might think their tools suck, but again, I might find their free information of value.

    This is not what the company providing the webinar, in this example, JustSystems, is hoping. They hope I’ll find the information they provide of value—enough that I’ll become a customer. They don’t do webinars (or free “training”) because they love and care about our well-being. You don’t either. You do it purely to help increase brand awareness and to increase sales, if you are lucky. Any other purpose (like “helping” us through a tough economic time) is not only non-sense—it’s a lie.

    As for the word “training”—this term is misused (and embarrassingly so) in our profession. A 45-60 minute presentation (online or in person) is generally NOT considered training. Perhaps it could be, if you were teaching a very granular topic (creating a GoogleDoc spreadsheet, for example). But this is usually not the case. Just ask any trainer.

    So, keep up the good work Adobe and MadCap. It’s great that you are helping folks find new and exciting ways to learn to create, manage, and deliver content. Kudos to you for using new technologies and techniques to reach us. And, a “high five” for using your own technologies to deliver the information to us—the same technologies you want to sell to us to deliver content to current customers and prospects alike.

    In the future, feel free to use the comments field on this blog to leave brief comments and links to useful information, relevant to our readers. But, don’t copy-and-paste the same marketing info you’ve been sending to techcomm mailing lists here. It’s embarrassing and it’s not fair to those companies that value this site (and its audience) enough to support it financially. That’s what ad / marketing campaigns are for.

    And, I won’t tolerate it any more. If another post about how fabulous a company is makes its way into this comments section, deleted it will be. (Several have been deleted already!)

    To my readers, I apologize. I realize you are intelligent enough to see through the haze of marketing mumbo-jumbo seemingly intelligent marketing folks spew at you through as many channels as they can muster. Maybe one day they’ll just be honest enough to call a big fat commercial what it is—a commercial.

    By the way, I am one big fat commercial, in case any of you were wondering… smile


  5. Bonni Graham April 15, 2009 at 11:47 am #

    Referring to the last anecdote in the article – I’d be interested in seeing a survey that helps define “affordable”. I agree – I can get funding in individual instances. Where I get the pushback is in prices. I can’t necessarily argue with the training providers about price. Seminars are not cheap to produce. But I *would* be interested in getting a baseline about what “affordable” means to bolster my argument.

  6. Scott Abel April 15, 2009 at 2:01 pm #

    I agree. I’ve started some research in this area. So far, $999 is the price point for most training events (two day, hands-on seminars, for example). I’ve been talking to trainers and potential trainees. Reasons for this price point seem valid: 1) $999 is just under the threshold many corporate credit card holders can spend without going through “procurement” procedures; 2) $500 a day doesn’t seem crazy to those who have paid for an attended training previously; 3) Also in line with my experience running events (A/V, materials, food, marketing, rental fees, etc.) all add to the cost of in-person events.

    That said, training can be much cheaper, but as the price goes down, the desire to teach the in-person events goes down (trainers need to make a living as well). Online classes certainly can help with the pricing challenge, but as far as I’m concerned, while e-Learning technologies exist, the skills of most online training developers is NOT up to par with most good in-person experiences. And, there’s the issue of humans and face-to-face contact.

    I took a class at Indiana University online that SUCKED! And, it came from a university. So, I have a negative experience clouding my perceptions.

    One thing is certain. Everything—including training—is changing. Let’s hope its for the better.


  7. Mike Starr April 15, 2009 at 4:45 pm #

    As a senior-level technical communicator, I make my living training myself on somebody else’s product with very little external input. When it’s time for me to add a new tool to my trick bag, I do the same. I start it up and learn how to use it… I sometimes even RTFM (if there is one) but most of the time, I just dive right in and I’m able to be productive with a new tool in an afternoon.

    Nobody’s offered to send me to training for any of the tools I use and I’ve never felt the need to ask.

  8. Nita Beck April 15, 2009 at 8:29 pm #


    In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a user of both RoboHelp and Flare. I am also an independent contractor who has to make careful decisions about which tools I purchase and what training I partake of.

    I have attended many of the “tool-neutral” webinars offered by MadCap. I have found them for the most part, to be “as advertised.” I have not found them to disguised sales pitches for MadCap’s products. I can apply the principles discussed equally as well to the work I do using RoboHelp as to the work I do using Flare. I could apply them equally as well if I were using some entirely different topic-authoring tool.

    Frankly, I am downright grateful, in the current economy, for MadCap’s making these webinars available to the tech comm community. I am happy to get whatever extra training/professional education I can within my modest independent contractor means. And if a recent webinar’s list of attendees is any indication, tech authors in multi-million dollar corporations are grateful for the webinars, too.

    Now, do I think that MadCap isn’t hoping to garner some sales—or at least a good deal of customer loyalty? Of course not. Of course these webinars are part of MadCap’s marketing campaign. But that does not offend me, and MadCap has earned my trust by not trying to sell me anything by way of the webinars.

    Them’s my two cents…

  9. Bonni Graham April 16, 2009 at 11:01 am #

    Mike, good point, and that’s what I, as a senior technical writer, documentation & user experience manager, and business owner do, too. But as a manager and business owner, I’d *like* to be able to offer my junior writers the kind of career development I had to do the hard way on my own. So I know what I consider to be affordable in dollars, and I’m interested in finding out what others think.

    Thank you, Scott – this is the kind of info I was interested in. And I’m sorry to hear about your bad online experience – as an online instructor for UCSD, I work *hard* to make sure my students don’t have the same experience you do. I’m so sorry.

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