Featured Tech Communicator: David Tran - Airways New Zealand

April 2021

David Tran standing outside with some small trees in the back ground. He's crossing his arms, smiling, and wearing a maroon short-sleeved shirt with blue stripes. David Tran is an Information Design Manager at Airways – New Zealand’s air navigation service provider, based in Christchurch. He caught up with Megan Bennett recently to chat about his role at Airways and what it involves.

How long have you been a technical communicator and how did you start out?

I’ve been a technical communicator for 13 years. I joined Airways in 2008 while I was finishing my GDID. I applied for the job near the end of that and I actually did my internship there. Airways was my first full-time job and I’m still there.

Note: the GDID is the Graduate Diploma of Information Design from what was then the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (now Ara Institute of Canterbury). The final paper was an internship.

Do you think the GDID prepared you well for your Technical Writer role?

I think so, yeah. Back then, from memory, it was fairly broad – lots of principles, but also practical things like a usability study and writing samples, and getting feedback on those. It wasn’t very focused on specific tools, which was fine because that changes depending on your job. It was definitely a good foundation for researching, interviewing, writing, usability testing – things like that.

Looking at your role at Airways – what does it involve or what does a typical day look like for you?

I’ve recently moved into a leadership role. I lead a team of two – myself and another. Our team normally works with policies and procedures for compliance. Airways is in the aviation industry so it’s highly regulated – we’ve got to make sure we follow proper processes and procedures for changing documents.

We’ve got two main internal customer groups:

  • Air traffic services or air traffic controllers – they talk to pilots and make sure planes stay safely apart.
  • Technical/technology – engineering and maintenance, in both hardware and software.

Prior to last year, our team focused more on the technical side. Airways has a lot of infrastructure around the country – radars, radio stations, networks, computer systems. We work with engineers, technicians, electricians, and software engineers.

Last year we also took on the air traffic services side. Airways has multiple air traffic control towers around the country with tower controllers who help planes take off and land safely, and radar controllers in Auckland and Christchurch who look after planes as they fly around the country.

On the air traffic services side, documents are still quite print focused – we work with Word and PDFs, and print hard copies and send them around the country. Whereas our technology side transitioned away from that a few years ago – it’s more web-based/online.

A lot of the policies and procedures are pretty well established. So some changes are fairly small – tweaks – which is on the easy end of the scale.

At the other end it can be more involved. It might be changes to a business process or introducing a new type of technology. For instance, for a business process, a manager might say this is the sort of thing they want to do – the outcome they want to achieve. And then as they flesh that out with the different SMEs, we draw up a flow chart and clarify – this is who does what from start to finish. We can then go through multiple rounds of consultation, writing, reviews, and changes. It sometimes takes months or years to actually finalise and publish it.

Did Covid change your role? You mentioned your team working more on the air traffic side of things.

Yes. Our new team was formed because of organisation structure changes. Because we were in aviation we were affected. There were restructures and a bit of streamlining of staff numbers. That’s why our team picked up the air traffic side of documentation.

Is that the main transformation that’s been happening?

There’s a lot of change happening at Airways! Our team has started a project to digitise the air traffic services side of documentation – move it to more online/web-based content. We plan to put it into a CMS like Author-It and do things more efficiently.

The idea is to cut down on paper, and make things easier – users can search, it’s easier for us to update, more efficient, and more sustainable. It’s a worthwhile change that supports Airways’ wider strategy, but it’s going to take a bit of time to do.

In terms of tools, you mention that you use Word and create PDFs as well as web-based content. Are there any other tools that you use?

Our company’s a Microsoft shop so we use Word and Adobe Acrobat. But on the technology side, for our web-based stuff, we use Author-It for content management and other supporting tools like Snagit, and Visio for diagrams.

Any tools that you prefer?

Author-It is really good for managing complex information for single sourcing, reusing content and also publishing to multiple formats. And Snagit makes it nice and easy to play with images and screen shots.

Are there other technical communicators at Airways?

We’ve got other people who do tech writing part-time in their jobs rather than as a full-time role. For example, our technical training team writes instructions, and other teams write corporate policies and procedures.

What advice would you give to someone starting out as a technical communicator?

Three points:

  1. Soft skills are important – think about how you work with other people, how you interview them for information, while also building a long-term working relationship.
  2. Be a user advocate – I think this comes naturally to technical communicators to keep the end user in mind. But also understand the need from the business or customer. You’ve got to keep things in perspective. Your customer might have slightly different needs or priorities, and you need to work out the right balance.
  3. Be curious and don’t be afraid of asking more questions – if you show interest, most people are happy to help and share information.

Thanks, David!