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Developing Technical Curiosity -- A Marketable Skill
2003, Q3 (February 21, 2007)
By Michael Harvey

Michael Harvey
Michael Harvey

Every technical writer should have strong writing skills. Just as important, in my judgment, is a keen sense of technical curiosity. As a hiring manager, I look for it in every job applicant I interview. If you do not have this sense naturally, you can develop it.

How do you know if you have a natural sense of "technical curiosity?" When faced with an unfamiliar technical term (for example, SCSI), how do you react? Do your eyes glaze over? Does your head feel as though it is stuffed with straw? Or, instead, do you feel a slight tingle of excitement? Do you feel as if you've opened a compelling detective novel and you're eager to find the clues? If you have the latter reaction, you show a natural technical curiosity.

I did not always have a strong sense of technical curiosity. Before I got my first technical writing job, I would space out at the mention of anything technically forbidding. With the help of a patient mentor, I overcame this inclination and developed technical curiosity. I discovered that once developed, this sense requires regular exercise. Like any natural or acquired skill, the strength of your technical curiosity depends on how regularly and effectively your work it. Try these exercises to develop a sense of technical curiosity and, once developed, keep it sharp.

  • Drill down. Take an unfamiliar technical term and render it into something that any educated person can easily understand. Use on-line resources, such as the TechWeb encyclopedia (http://www.techweb.com/encyclopedia/) to gather definitions. Take those definitions and translate all the terms within them into understandable words.
    For example, consider the term SCSI. First of all, ask yourself is this an acronym, or an abbreviation, or what? When you go to TechWeb, you will discover that it is an acronym for "Small Computer System Interface." You will read that it is a standard hardware interface between PCs and peripheral devices. Reduce the term "hardware interface" into words that anyone could understand, for example, "a computer program that allows peripherals such as disk drives and the central processing unit of a PC to communicate." You will see diagrams and crossreferences in the definition of SCSI. What do the diagrams tell you about the way a PC and peripherals communicate? Where do the cross-references take you? The definition of SCSI also will include terms such as "host adapter," "IDE," and "RAID." What do those terms mean? Reduce their definitions into simple words. Keep drilling down until you have a single, complete, simple definition. This may take time, but it's time well invested.
  • Draw a picture. Whenever someone starts to explain something complicated to me, I ask them to draw a picture on my whiteboard. A diagram can explain more about the relationship of the parts of a system on a single page than several pages of text can. If you have difficulty drawing a picture to explain an idea or a process to someone else, it shows that you need to read more, or consult someone else, or in some other way fill the gaps in your understanding.
  • List the steps. A flow chart can make the steps of a procedure easier to follow. If you are creating such a chart, it can expose gaps in what you know. What happens first? What happens next? Does the outcome of one step influence or determine another? How? If a question mark appears anywhere in the chart you create, you need to do some more research.
  • Study existing pictures or drawings - they are valuable maps If you are installing hardware, find a photograph or a line drawing of it. First, try to comprehend the whole. Then focus on specific parts.

For example, my group is responsible for a setup guide for a NAS server. (Here's a test: what is NAS?) We have line drawings of the components, diagrams of how the components cable together, and drawings of how the cabled components fit inside a rack. When you're following a procedure, a line drawing can be more helpful than a photograph curiosity continued because a drawing can strip away parts extraneous to a particular step.

These techniques apply not only to what you read but what you hear. Think about what's involved with drilling down. Whenever a technical expert uses an unfamiliar acronym in a conversation, I will ask point blank what the acronym stands for, and will discover that they don't know either. I'll go look it up, report what I find, and gain some respect from the expert.

Most of you probably recognize the exercises I've outlined as basic research techniques, applicable to any systematic investigation of any topic. I learned them in graduate school as I studied cognitive psychophysiology. I've used them ever since. Now, so can you. These exercises are surprisingly effective at developing and sharpening not just technical curiosity, but also technical knowledge. As you gain technical knowledge and use it on the job, you become more credible to your manager, your peers, and your subject matter experts. This credibility makes you more marketable, even in a tight job market.

Michael Harvey is Editor of the Carolina Communiqué. He can be reached at mtharvey at yahoo dot com. End of article.

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