Tech Writers Without Borders: Helping Others Communicate During Times of Crisis

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In this column, I introduce you to Stuart Culshaw, co-founder of a global community of technical communication professionals known as Tech Writers Without Borders (TWWB). The members of TWWB volunteer to help charities, humanitarian organizations, and other nonprofits improve the quality of the documentation and educational resources they use to train and support their staff and volunteers.

Scott: Stuart, thanks for making time to talk to us a bit about Tech Writers Without Borders. Before we dive in, tell our audience how you came to technical writing?

Stuart: I'm originally from England but have spent my entire working life in France. My first job was with a French software start-up near Paris. I discovered my affinity for technical writing and later completed a professional certificate in technical communication at The American University of Paris.

In my 25-plus years as a technical writer, I've worked for several French and international software companies. Over that time, I've gradually moved away from software documentation to more general internal communication and training development roles.

I served for many years on the Society for Technical Communication France chapter board. Since I first learned to code HTML in 1994, I've been creating and managing websites for various nonprofit organizations.

Scott: Your career trajectory landed you in an exciting place during these challenging times. I stumbled across your work with a group in which many of our readers will be interested. Tell us a little about Tech Writers Without Borders. Who was involved in its creation, and what were your original goals for the organization?

Stuart: The idea for TWWB took shape in 2015, when a friend and former colleague moved from Silicon Valley to Mali, a French-speaking country in sub-Saharan Africa, to help run science and technology summer camps for kids. Aware of my previous work with nonprofits and my involvement with STC France, he reached out to translate their lesson plans into French.


Someone in our community suggested reaching out to Translators Without Borders [TWB], a global collective of volunteer translators that help nonprofits with their translation needs. We reached out to TWB and got everything translated in time for the first summer camp.

Inspired by the TWB concept, I began to formulate the idea of doing something similar for technical writers.


Scott: Was there a specific aha moment that led you to recognize the need for an organization like Tech Writers Without Borders?


Stuart: Yes, this came a couple of months later when my friend in Mali reached out again to share some of the challenges he faced getting their summer camp program off the ground. It turned out that, while the lesson plans had been well translated, many of the local teachers, for whom French is already a second language, had struggled to understand the guidance.

That was when the light bulb went off. We set about forming a pilot project to help rewrite and adapt the curriculum materials to the teaching team's needs ahead of the following year's summer camp. We suspected that many nonprofits are struggling with similar content issues that impact their ability to do great work. If we could bring together like-minded technical communicators, we felt we could make a difference while offering engaging hands-on learning opportunities and showcasing the profession's value.


The concept inspired my former STC France board members, Toni Ressaire and Nancy Larbi, so the three of us cofounded Tech Writers Without Borders as a stand-alone nonprofit association in October 2016.

Scott: What challenges did you face (if any) attempting to get the organization off the ground?


Stuart: If anything, we somewhat underestimated the complexity of managing technical writing projects with groups of remote volunteers. Since many volunteers work or study full time, they can only fit so much volunteer work around their day jobs and family life.

Because translation work differs significantly from documentation projects, we had to invest some time in rethinking how we might make a volunteer-based technical writing program work. Before we could divide the work among the team and begin writing, we had to figure out how to handle all of the issues you might expect in a traditional documentation project and agree on a project methodology.


We also worked to ensure that we left the staff of the nonprofit organizations we serve with the ability to update and easily edit the content we created for them. As a result, we had to rule out any sophisticated content management system that one might encounter in a corporate setting to simplify the collaborative authoring process.


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Scott: We often learn lessons only after we attempt to implement our ideas. What lessons did you later learn about your original ideas, and what types of changes have you had to make as a result of learning those lessons?


Stuart: We spent far too much effort exploring how to scale our operations by considering various potential project management approaches, authoring platforms, and governance models. As a result, we got tied up in these issues and hesitated to take on any significant new projects. In 2019, the team hit the pause button and took a step back to reevaluate our approach.

I continued working with several organizations, one of which was Professionals Doing Good [PDG], a social enterprise based in Cambodia that, similarly to TWWB, works to connect skilled professionals with local nonprofits. Luisa Gentile, PDG's founder, and a former corporate HR professional, was kind enough to share her advice for managing successful volunteer engagements in return for my help in improving her website. PDG is now partnering with TWWB to identify new virtual volunteering opportunities suitable for TWWB members among the organizations that PDG serves in Cambodia.


Scott: While an organization like TWWB could provide a variety of services, what is the current mission of the organization, and who are you attempting to serve, specifically?


Stuart: Our primary focus is on boosting grassroots organizations' capacity by developing communication and training assets to help them streamline their operations and improve the skills of their staff and volunteers. This focus includes nonprofits and social enterprises based in developing countries and those in our communities.

The types of requests for assistance we receive vary considerably. Organizations ask us to assist them with things like transferring classroom training materials to an online learning platform, scripting a video for a crowdfunding campaign, creating documentation for an open-source software project, or developing or proofreading grant proposals.

Scott: Is your most significant challenge getting volunteers to work on projects, finding the projects needing volunteers, or something else?


Stuart: We've certainly not had any problem finding willing volunteers. We currently have over 800 people in our LinkedIn community, which continues to grow daily. These members are based worldwide and represent a wide range of skills from across the field of technical communication.


We need help in identifying projects in need of volunteers. We've started working with partners such as Professionals Doing Good to help identify new projects, but we're always looking for new opportunities.


Scott: University technical communication programs seem like potential partners for TWWB because students need practical experience and real-world examples to fill their portfolios before entering the labor force. Have you seen any interest from college and university programs?

Stuart: Absolutely. Providing a real-world experience for students and recent graduates of technical communication programs has been part of our mission. We've helped several students find internships with our nonprofit partners and have recently developed ties with several European academic institutions interested in integrating charitable project work into their course curricula. We'll be working on this initiative over the summer, intending to roll out a pilot project this fall.


Scott: What projects would volunteers have worked on before the COVID-19 crisis interrupted life as usual? Has the coronavirus pandemic created an influx of requests for help? And if so, what projects do you see as a result?


Stuart: In many ways, the coronavirus pandemic has been instrumental in kick-starting our activities again after a long period of reflection.


In March of 2020, when the speed and scale of the virus's impact first overwhelmed healthcare authorities across the globe, numerous grassroots initiatives sprung up to address the urgent need for personal protective equipment [PPE]. A project to develop documentation and specifications to help gain regulatory approval for a low-cost ventilator came to the attention of TWWB co-founder Toni Ressaire while working with Technically Write IT [TWi], a documentation services company based in Ireland. Toni's relationship with TWi led us to develop a coordinated effort to fulfill similar requests for help from those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.


We sprang into action by putting out a call for volunteers. Toni and her colleagues set up a data-gathering chatbot that allowed nonprofit representatives and tech writers to register for volunteer services. TWi supplied project management and technology services to coordinate the work effort. Within two weeks, we had almost 200 volunteers registered.


With the pandemic raging, we continue to receive requests for assistance. Our volunteers transform hand-sketched equipment designs into technical specifications, document engineering processes, produce web and social media content, and write and edit regulatory compliance documents, safety notices, signage, and user instructions.

One group in Ireland, Comfort4Covid, provided digital tablets to the elderly and isolated persons in long-term healthcare facilities like nursing homes. Volunteers developed simple instructions to help residents use messaging services such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Skype to communicate with their families.


Given the urgency of the situation, there was no time to plan. Much of this work was improvised, yet the results have been substantial.

Without our volunteers' rapid intervention and hard work, many of these initiatives would have struggled to get off the ground quickly.

These are excellent examples of how reliable content processes and the skills and dedication of technical communicators can bridge the gap between good intention and real impact.

Scott: Running a nonprofit with good intentions is great, but it's sometimes hard to determine the best strategy for moving forward. What do you need today to help you meet—or exceed—your goals for the organization?


Stuart: That's certainly something with which we struggle. Our recent experience with the COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to rethink our original approach. We are moving forward with several new initiatives and partnerships without overthinking things. Our new strategy: "Just do things!"

We're actively seeking to recruit a larger group of core volunteers to help drive these new initiatives, drawing from the vast pool of talent we've built up over the last couple of years.


One urgent question that we now need to address is revenue generation. We've not had many expenses until now. Still, as we ramp up our activities, we will need to generate revenue to cover growing expenses and ensure we can become sustainable in the long term. We're looking into various options in this area.

Scott: Would a software platform (like a project management system) or a customized interface of a proprietary tool benefit your organization as it grows?

Stuart: Yes, we would certainly be interested in exploring project management and collaborative editing platforms that could assist with project execution.


Scott: Leadership is often one of the main stumbling blocks to the growth of nonprofits. Have you a need to have leaders join the group who might have relevant experience and adequate time to dedicate?

Stuart: Yes, we're actively seeking to expand our leadership team. Access to an advisory board would undoubtedly help us grow and scale our operations.


Scott: Women in Localization has a robust mentoring program to create future women leaders. They assign members who participate in the program an experienced mentor, and then they put them in charge of leading real-world projects that they can tout on their LinkedIn profiles and resumes. Can you see value in mimicking their approach?

Stuart: Yes, this is an excellent initiative. Mentoring is a critical component of the academic collaboration project that we are currently developing. I can see us developing other mentoring efforts in the future to help build future project leaders.


Scott: If you could speak directly to a community of technical communication professionals, what would you like to say to them about TWWB?


Stuart: Join us! Use your professional skills for good. Volunteering is a great way to gain experience in a related field—something that you might not get a chance to do as part of your day job—and can help boost your career potential.

If, like many others during these challenging times, you find yourself "on the bench" or otherwise without work, volunteering can be a great way to maintain and develop your skills while also improving your network, all of which can lead to new opportunities.


One of the reasons I find the "Without Borders" moniker so appropriate for our profession is that, as tech writers, we can use our core skills in various related disciplines. If you've hesitated or not found an opportunity to do so in the past, then volunteering with TWWB could be an excellent way to expand your professional horizons.


Scott: If our readers want to get involved, what's the best way to do that?

Stuart: Start by joining our LinkedIn group. You'll be able to network with a great crowd of like-minded professionals, and you will be the first to learn of new volunteer opportunities. If you already work or volunteer for a nonprofit or know of organizations in your community that could benefit from more help, introduce them to TWWB.

Scott: Stuart, I'm afraid we've run out of time. Thank you for your volunteer efforts and for sharing the story of Tech Writers Without Borders with our readers.


Stuart: Thank you, Scott, for everything you do to promote the discipline of technical communication and for the personal interest you have taken in Tech Writers Without Borders and our goal to provide opportunities for tech writers to use their skills for good.


STUART CULSHAW (stuart.culshaw@twwb.org) is the Communications and Enablement Lead for IBM's Chief Privacy Office and Tech Writers Without Borders Cofounder. Based in Grenoble, France, Culshaw holds a bachelor's degree in European business studies from Groupe ESC Bordeaux/the University of Humberside. He also has a Professional Certificate in Technical Writing from the American University of Paris. Connect with Stuart on LinkedIn.

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