Featured Technical Communicator: Sarah Bichan

September 2022

A photo of Sarah Bichan smiling - she's wearing her dark brown hair half up and half down, and a royal blue top with a white flower patternSarah Bichan is a Senior Technical Writer working for Streamliners. She has an impressive collection of skills and experience from previous roles that really lend themselves to technical communication.

Sarah shares her story.

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

I’ve been working as a technical writer since May 2021, but my work leading up to this role has been really varied.

My undergraduate study was in French and Linguistics and I carried this through to postgraduate level by doing a Masters in Translation in Edinburgh and, later on, a Masters in Linguistics in Auckland.

I’ve done a lot of language-related jobs, such as translation, translation project management, linguistics research, teaching French, teaching ESOL, web editing, freelance proofreading and writing, communications advice, workplace literacy … plus other less language-related roles such as community development advice, citizenship application processing, and signing up Greenpeace members! I’m also a mum to a six-year-old and a three-year-old.

I’ve lived in Christchurch (where I’m from), Tours (in the Loire Valley of France), Edinburgh, Maidenhead (near London) and then back to Christchurch, then Auckland, and finally back to Christchurch again.

I don’t have technical writing qualifications per se, but Streamliners recognised and valued the diverse range of skills and experience I had to contribute and took me on as a beginning technical writer. I wasn’t sure that it was a field I wanted to get into, but it ticked so many boxes for me. I get to write, edit, and layout words all day, as well as using and learning about really powerful technology that helps me do my job very effectively and efficiently.

What does a typical work day look like for you?

I start super early, so that I can pick up the kids at 3pm. So, I begin my day around 6.30am with emails, then checking my to-do list and prioritising what needs to be done first. The tasks I complete range from creating first drafts of web pages to updating existing pages, quality checking others’ work, communicating with clients, attending planning meetings, liaising with tech support, working with the writing systems team to improve the product, looking at ways to integrate te reo Māori into our NZ site, and various other tasks. Every day is different.

What kind of content do you create?

The product I work on is called Stronger Schools in the UK and Leading Lights in NZ. It’s web-based information that provides guidance for teachers and school staff to help recognise and respond to the health and wellbeing needs of primary school children in NZ and the UK.

Stronger Schools

It has been developed by local educators, support agencies, health professionals, GPs, clinicians, other education and healthcare professionals, and specialist writers. Local information is incorporated into nationally consistent guidance.

The subject areas our sites cover include:

  • physical health
  • mental health
  • child development
  • behaviour
  • learning
  • health and education systems
  • support services.

Are there other technical communicators in your workplace? How many?

There are around 110 people working for Streamliners, and about 60% of those are writers.

Do you work with subject matter experts or product owners? How?

Yes, I work with SMEs who are experienced in education and healthcare. We have product owners in the business, but we’ve only just started developing a product owner role for Stronger Schools, as it’s a fairly new product.

Did COVID-19 change your role? If so, how?

When COVID-19 hit I was still on parental leave, but it has affected the way we work now. We’ve had to be really flexible in terms of where and how people work. Many of us have been working from home since the beginning of the year. That has meant a change to the way we work, especially for managers, who have needed to broaden their skills to include remote people management. I think it’s so important for employers to be flexible with how and where their teams work. I’ve really appreciated this flexibility within my workplace, especially as a parent.

What tools do you use to do your work? Are there any you recommend?

I use and love Author-it. It’s such a powerful tool: it’s amazing how much you can do with it! We also have an in-house system called Dot which allows us to communicate with clients and colleagues as well as triage, prioritise, and keep track of work. Asana is used by many within our business, and we’re starting to use Miro (a visual collaboration platform) too.

Which parts of your role do you enjoy the most?

I really like untangling language puzzles. How can I express this content in the simplest way? What’s the most effective layout? How can I bend Author-it to my will?

I also like working with people, both when it comes to collaborating and delivering a really high-quality product, and also when it comes to just having a laugh and catching up on non-working life. It’s meant that working from home has felt a little isolating at times, but it certainly has its benefits as well.

Do you user test any of your content?

For my particular product, we don’t really do user testing, no. But this is something I’m looking into for the future.

How much focus does your team put on using plain language?

Plain language is really important for my product, especially. HealthPathways (the main product our business produces) needs to employ clinical language, as it’s used by medical professionals. But Stronger Schools is used by educators and other school staff, who don’t necessarily understand clinical terms. So, it’s really important that we use very accessible language and link to content that is also very accessible.

Can you tell us about a rewarding project you've been involved in lately?

I’m really enjoying working on a new page about Nurturing Wellbeing in the Classroom. It’s exciting because we’re trying to reflect the principals of Te Tiriti o Aotearoa in this page by weaving Te Whare Tapa Whā (a Māori health and wellbeing model) into it. So the page incorporates a lot of te reo Māori terms as well as aspects of te ao Māori. It’s a challenge because we need to balance building in wellbeing outcomes from the government’s Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy Framework as well as the principals of Te Whare Tapa Whā. We’re also replacing a lot of English words with Māori kupu because educators use te reo Māori on a daily basis, so it makes sense to reflect this in our content. We’re now changing more and more of the words we use to te reo Māori ones throughout the NZ site, especially ones that are commonly used and understood. For terms that aren’t as familiar, we’re in the process of building a glossary tool.

Te Whare Tapa Whā

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

Well, I think having an open mind is really important. I never saw this as a field I would get into. I naively thought it would be boring: it’s anything but! There are always new challenges and puzzles, and it’s really satisfying shaping content and getting words to fall in line. I’d also say that you don’t necessarily have to have technical communication qualifications to get into technical writing. It is useful, of course, to have qualifications and/or experience that relate to technical writing or the subject area you’ll work in.

I’d also say that it’s important to do other kinds of writing, if you’re interested in that. I belong to a writers’ group and this group encourages me and reminds me to keep broadening my expertise and to just keep writing. Personally, I’m interested in adult and children’s fiction. I think having experience in other kinds of writing can enrich your technical writing skills and it also means you won’t be pigeon-holed if you ever decide to change direction and try something not so technical.

Ngā mihi nui, Sarah!

You're a fantastic example of how someone's previous skills and experience can translate well into a technical communication role. Your work sounds super interesting and rewarding. Thanks for sharing with us!