Staffing Your Documentation Team with Co-op Students: A program that works
Staffing Your Documentation Team with Co-op Students: A program that works
It’s not news that technical publications teams are perpetually short on staff, short on budget, and short on time, but long on the need to produce better and more frequent documentation, deliver new types of content, follow new models and standards, and employ evolving tool sets. Rarely are you able to hire enough full-time permanent staff to meet your true needs. Contractors can be expensive, and some companies have policies against using them.
One solution you may not have considered: use co-op students. Qualified students in a well-managed program can help take pressure off more senior staff. They can accomplish useful work at significantly lower cost than most contractors, while addressing upper management concerns about expanding permanent headcount in an era of economic uncertainty. You can support the future of technical writing as a profession and preview potential future junior staff, for when those requisitions do open up.
All of these can be good reasons for bringing co-op students on board to round out your department, but they are just the beginning of a successful program. Taking the right approach to recruiting and managing co-ops can mean the difference between a solution that works, and one that you or your staff may regret. Develop a program that helps you and your co-ops achieve your respective goals.
Sybase runs an extensive cooperative program with the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. The company has a long-term relationship with the university, which has the largest post-secondary co-operative education program in the world, according to its website. The university is one of the most highly rated in Canada and attracts top students from around the country and internationally. About half of its undergrads, as well as many graduate students, participate in co-op programs.
Students in the co-op program alternate between semesters of full-time school and full-time work. At any one time, as many as half of the writers in Sybase Waterloo Tech Pubs may be co-op students. The large population of co-ops cycling in and out of the company presents unique challenges in recruitment, training, supervision, and commitment to quality, but we and our co-ops have reaped sufficient benefits that the program continues to thrive. Waterloo Tech Pubs has employed co-ops for more than 6 years; the program has an even longer history in other departments. One measure of the program’s success is the significant percentage of permanent staff in both the documentation and engineering teams who began their careers as co-op students here.
Co-ops, Not Interns
At the core of our program is the understanding that this is a cooperative effort. We expect our co-ops to do a good job for us. But we also owe them a positive and challenging learning experience. While we try not to overwhelm them with assignments far beyond their abilities, we also avoid sticking them with all of our “grunt work.” We want them to come away from their semester here with a real understanding of what contemporary technical writing entails—structured content, information models, content management system, research, testing, collaboration, and personal accountability for meeting time and quality objectives. We also want them to feel good about Sybase, so that other students will want to come here.
Business Drivers and Benefits
The program both helps us identify and recruit the best young writers for eventual permanent employment and lets us accomplish project work at a relatively low cost. In most cases we get a good return on our investment. We also find that the best co-ops bring a refreshing enthusiasm to the team and a willingness to try new things.
For students, the experience provides in-depth exposure to a career they may or may not have considered—and may or may not decide they are interested in. The program offers them opportunities to move around, to try out different jobs each semester, or return to expand on the skills they’ve already practiced. Because Sybase Waterloo hires a large contingent of co-ops (currently about 35 or 40 per term), they have a significant number of peers in several departments, with whom they share experiences formally and informally.
The university has developed a full-featured recruitment program to work effectively with its many co-op students and employers and ensure that nearly all students find appropriate placements. Likewise, Sybase Human Resources has a well-honed process for hiring what we hope will be a strong cadre of candidates each term.
Students are eligible for co-op work after one full year of study. We prefer candidates with two or more years of college, but have occasionally hired first-year applicants. For some, this may be their first or second co-op term; others may be in their fifth or sixth co-op term. Undergraduate co-ops are hired for a four-month term. When possible, we hire master’s degree students, who stay for eight months.
Human Resources hosts and administers the program, which begins with an initial meeting for all candidates and hiring managers, where we introduce students to what it’s like to do a co-op term here, get them excited—and of course, feed them pizza. Small group sessions enable managers to get to know students a bit while they do a show-and-tell about their positions. A current co-op from each team also participates and then walks students around the building. Walking with the co-op gives students a chance to ask questions they may not want to ask the manager.
Managers post their job at the university and receive resumes. HR assists with initial screening and invites applicants for a first-round interview. Managers and students then do rankings. The recruitment process is designed to match students with the employers they’re interested in most and employers with their top-ranked students. This process typically results in a good fit for both employer and student. The takeaway here is to think carefully about which students have the best potential, as you would with any hire.
What We Look For
- High marks in school. 75 percent or better overall average (equivalent to B-minus or 2.5 GPA in the US) is usually required.
- Relevant studies. The rhetoric and professional writing program focuses on technical and business communication. Some of our best co-ops come from other arts programs such as psychology and history, where students do a lot of research, reading, compiling, and synthesizing of information. Occasionally we get computer science students. Math students may need to justify why they are seeking a technical writing job and why it is a good fit. Language students are likely to know syntax and grammar.
- Relevant activities. Did they write for a student publication or do anything else that involved extensive writing?
- Writing skills. If they send a cover letter or e-mail or provide other writing samples, are those well written?
- Good attitude toward learning. Enthusiasm for learning and ability to learn are often better predictors of success than prior business writing experience.
Training resembles what you would provide for any junior writer, but because these are students, there is a bit more similarity to a classroom situation.
A co-op welcome guide is the starting point. Co-ops are important contributors to this guide, adding their own notes as they complete their term.
We provide resources on technical writing, especially as it differs from the academic writing students are accustomed to: active voice, minimalism, task orientation, and so on. Students complete individual and collaborative writing exercises, then peer edit each other’s work. They then return to the original resource document and discover what they missed. (“Oops, I forgot all about active voice…”) We use this exercise to assess their progress and determine how much additional guidance they need. We give them more reading material on DITA and discuss what they’ve read to be sure they understand it.
Other writers demonstrate the content management system (CMS), and assist with hands-on training. Much of the training is learn-as-you-go. Co-ops also follow authoring guidelines and complete training modules they can download from our departmental wiki. We may point them back to those exercises once they’re actually working in the CMS, when it means more to them.
We also provide basic product training. We give them an oral overview and have them read product documentation. Co-ops ask questions, talk to developers, and gain a high-level understanding of the product they will work on. As they begin researching and documenting features, they explore their aspect of the product in greater depth.
It takes at least two weeks before co-ops start working with real content, a full month before they’re actually productive. They typically learn from their mistakes after being shown them a few times.
- Recruiting the right people.
- Employee churn. Co-ops leave every 4 months. We don’t always get them back; our returnee rate is currently only about 20 percent. Masters students are only eligible for one round; some students may be graduating. The most common situation is that students want to try something different.
- Competition from other local employers. We compete for top candidates by trying to make the experience fun and by giving students real, challenging work to do.
Best Practices and Critical Success Factors
Supervision. Assign a local person to be co-op students’ primary supervisor. This person could be their manager or a senior project member. The supervisor or manager should meet one-on-one with each co-op weekly, in addition to holding weekly team meetings and being available for informal sessions as well. If co-ops need to work with employees in remote locations, ensure that they meet frequently with those employees by phone or web meeting. Regular check-in and check-up are key.
Training. Learning is ongoing and iterative. Provide the right resources to help students understand their role, processes, standards, as well as tools, product, and writing basics. Review progress, and don’t assume that they’ll pick it all up the first time.
Fun. Make the experience enjoyable as well as educational. Sybase Waterloo co-ops have a social committee that organizes events in and out of the office, barbecues, and fundraising for charity. These activities give them a sense of belonging to a group and to the company.
Integration. Our co-ops appreciate that they are not alone. “Here you feel like an employee,” they say; elsewhere as a single co-op, you can feel very isolated.
Feedback. Co-ops tell their classmates and friends about their experience. A positive report is a crucial component of your ability to recruit the candidates you want.
Challenge. When you hire students from a top-tier school like Waterloo, you need to give them the opportunity to live up to their potential. Don’t stifle them by giving them only simple tasks or menial or make-work projects. Challenge them and guide them, and they’ll produce for you.
Printed with permission of Sybase, Inc., an SAP Company.
Sybase, an SAP Company
Tim Bishop is Senior Technical Publications Manager at Sybase, an SAP Company, based in Waterloo, Canada. Tim has a number of years of industry experience, 12 of which have been spent in lead and management roles. Tim is a graduate of the University of Waterloo’s Rhetoric and Professional Writing program, which he strongly endorses. In his role with Sybase, Tim manages both full-time staff and co-op students, overseeing the development of documentation for a spectrum of products.
Sybase, an SAP Company
Judy Kessler has worked in technical communication for more than 30 years, as an author, editor, manager, and information architect. As Senior Staff Technical Writer for Sybase, an SAP Company, she helps Sybase Tech Pubs teams follow best practices as they transition to DITA and content management. Judy has presented at CMS Strategies, published articles, and contributed a chapter on developing information models to “Virtual Collaborative Writing in the Workplace: Computer-Mediated Communication Technologies and Processes” (IGI Global, 2010, Beth Hewett and Charlotte Robidoux, eds.).