Svi Ben-Elya on Technical Writing in Israel

This week I speak with Svi Ben-Elya, one of Israel’s first technical writers. After moving to Israel in the early 1980s, Mr. Ben-Elya developed a reputation for helping companies solve their documentation problems innovatively but painlessly, while within the technical writing community he became known for helping others. Mr. Ben-Elya’s reputation enabled him bring together all parts of Israel’s technical writing community (independent contractors, technical writing companies, and in-house writers) in Oct. 2003 to found Elephant. http://elephant.org.il.

Svi Ben-Elya on Technical Writing & Professional Empowerment in Israel

Ivan: Could you tell us a little about Elephant?

Svi: Elephant is a growing community of Israeli technical writers and similar professionals that benefit from helping each other. It began as a small networking group of very experienced technical writers who were either out of work, underemployed or in fear for their jobs at the height of the last hi-tech recession. It grew quickly and changed continually according to those who took part.

The group was established in a small town in northern Israel, but technical writers from all over northern and central Israel asked to attend the meetings. Those who came shared information that everyone wanted to know but few were willing to share: rates they charged and payment terms, companies that paid late or not at all, job opportunities that weren’t yet locked up by technical companies. We kept in touch and helped each other between meetings.

Today Elephant is the leading professional organization of technical writers living and working in Israel. In addition to over 40 full members, there is a pool of just under 200 writers and editors who share their salary and freelance rate information, nearly 600 people have login rights to the elephant.org.il site and approximately 3000 unique IDs regularly visit the site.

Our meetings and workshops are all free, with top people presenting pro bono because they believe in what we are doing. Meetings are catered “potluck” with those coming to the meetings each bringing an item of food or drink to share.

Ivan: How did a small town networking group become the central professional organization for an entire country?

Svi: Actually our small town has a major hi-tech park that is the second largest R&D center in northern Israel. Being in a small town helped open doors that would have been more difficult in a major city. For example, local industry hosted many of our meetings in their board rooms and cafeterias.

The owners of a local winery helped us open one meeting with wine tasting and free samples. That same winery later hosted two meetings and gives members of Elephant a discount on wine. Making local industry an integral part of Elephant gave us a better perspective of our employers’ and customers’ needs. The mayor of the town even took an interest and offered us the use of the City Hall meeting room after seeing 70 technical writers packed into the cafeteria of a local company.

The word soon spread and people from other parts of the country kept coming back and brought colleagues. Between meetings we originally stayed in contact by telephone and email until we eventually opened the elephant.org.il site to provide a better way to keep in contact and announce meetings.

Ivan: Have you accomplished what you set out to do?

Svi: The original mission was to get experienced technical writers back to work at reasonable rates and to keep competition friendly.

At the time, the competition for the few available jobs was so great that the friendly nature of competition and cooperation among technical writers was beginning to unravel as everyone working feared for their jobs and those looking for work found themselves competing on the basis of price only.

By working together we gave ourselves the competitive edge that we needed in order to get jobs before technical writing companies could. When the technical writing companies have the chance, they lock up available jobs with long-term contracts at low rates and then subcontract to experienced writers who needed the work at any price.

Despite the obvious conflict of interest, we invited local technical writing companies to our meetings and found ways to cooperate for the benefit of all. And it worked. Those associated with Elephant got back to work faster than others and we quickly found ourselves overbooked.

Ivan: Once the economy turned around there really wasn’t any need for this organization, was there? Did its mission change?

Svi: As the economy changed, so did our mission. We went from getting back to work, to maximizing our potential by matching people with the jobs they like most and do best. This was good for everyone: writers, employers, and customers alike. It is always much easier to justify a raise when you provide more value. We also tried to leverage the organization to arrange for discounts on courses and other things.

Our meetings began to turn into workshops and we found that we provided each other with a sort of community that helped us outside the workplace. We worked with other volunteer groups who came to some of our meetings to recruit volunteers. One of these volunteers ran the local branch of an organization that sells donated second hand items to those in need. Their policy of selling at affordable prices rather than giving things free eventually helped serve as a model for the most recent mission of Elephant – “professional empowerment”.

Ivan: What you mean by “professional empowerment”?

Svi: Providing professional services that are not economically viable for the private sector and cannot be provided reliably by the charitable sector. Our meetings are still free and there is still a place for those unable or unwilling to pay, but we also have added-value member services that are not free. Membership is inexpensive, but it is important that people pay even a small amount because it gives you a stake in the organization.

Even participants in our salary and rate surveys need to pay a small annual fee to access the results so that we can provide much more accurate and detailed information than free anonymous surveys can. Many participate without currently having access to the results because it is important to them that the information will be available and affordable for them if and when they need it. Hi-tech companies who purchase accurate information from companies like Radford and Zviran used to be in a much better bargaining position when hiring and during salary reviews. Having accurate information levels the playing field for technical writers in Israel.

Ivan: Could you tell us a little about your background and how you got started as a technical writer?

Svi: After completing my military service in Israel I needed a job and  two of the founders of a data communications company in northern Israel needed technical documentation in English. They were willing to train me on the job because the shortage of native English speakers  was so great. These were some of the best and the brightest in their field; they knew the product, the technology and the market well. Since that time I have nearly always been in a position of opportunity to experiment and learn by trial and error because whenever a new challenge came along everyone else had just a little bit less relevant experience.

During the first 10 years I mostly documented hardware and firmware. I worked with all departments and prepared everything from data sheets, user guides, site preparation, test instructions and electrical drawings to presentations to potential investors.


Ivan: Can you actually make documentation a “painless process” for programmers and engineers?  Where did your technique come from?

Svi: In the early 1990s I became heavily involved in product design and development as part of a small team charged with developing an off-the-shelf hardware/software product for time & attendance and access control that could be sold to and self-installed by small businesses. As the product’s design and features were discussed, I prepared user documentation based on my understanding of how I thought the product would work.

This made it easier for other members of the team to flesh out their ideas. The document was updated constantly and was ready with the product. All information was gained “painlessly” — without, for example, requiring programmers to explain what they had already done. I’ve basically used variations of this process ever since.

Ivan: What variations?

Svi: In some cases I interview the developers and prepare the relevant documents. In other cases I gather most information from existing documents, separate out the unnecessary information and forward questions to the relevant people. Then there are cases where I simply help developers prepare their own internal documentation.

Currently I am working as part of team of experienced writers that prepares service documents for complex and very expensive medical equipment. Medical equipment is a highly regulated field, so the documentation process is nearly as important as the documentation itself. Each member of the team has things to learn and teach the others. My special contribution to the team has been to introduce automation into the documentation process, while other members of the team have taught me a thing or two about document management in a regulated environment. A lot of work is spent making sure each document is perfect because after the release to the field, preparing an updated version is time consuming even for the most minor of changes.

And last, but not least, I spend a lot of my time learning. In many ways I am a “professional student”. I am paid to learn, and put what I learn into a document that teaches others what they need to know.

Ivan: US technical writers have suffered in the recession with many still out of work. What opportunities are there for technical writers in Israel? Has the IT industry been hit as hard as in the US?

A: Israel is a small country with the 2nd largest number of startups worldwide and the highest concentration outside of the Silicon Valley which means that demand for experienced technical writers is high. Technical writing in Israel is probably more varied than in the US and other places around the world because our skill set also includes “providing English-language services”. This provides entry level opportunities that don’t exist in an English speaking country, alternate uses for technical writers during slowdowns and cutbacks, and opens doors to experienced technical writers that wouldn’t normally exist because their input is often needed by others in the organization that wouldn’t otherwise consult them.

  • Both Sillicon Valley and Israel share energized entrepreneurial spirit, informal work atmosphere, pioneering risk-taking ethos and a large number of high-quality immigrants.
  • 400 Israeli start ups emerge annually, more than any European country.
  • Funded startups has doubled since 2000.
  • Next to the US, Israel has more stocks traded on NASDAQ than any other country. High tech (which is minimally vulnerable to terrorism and political instability) accounts to 50% of Israel’s exports – about $15BN annually.
  • Israeli companies have easier access to Asian markets, since they are not perceived as a commercial threat.See http://www.vccafe.com/2007/12/10/israel-second-largest-concentration-of-startups-per-capita-following-silicon-valley/#ixzz0euk0s69m

Top technical writers at the high end can command the same respect and even salaries as development team leaders, even as lone writers. During a high-tech recession like the present one many Israeli technical writers are better positioned than their US counterparts to fulfill additional functions until the storm blows over, but they are definitely hurt by the recession. Many have either lost their jobs or had hours and benefits cut back.

Salaries and freelance rates have dropped somewhat, but the impact has not been as great as expected. My theory is that newcomers to the field and inexperienced technical writers have been hardest hit, with more experienced writers replacing them at more or less the same rates. The technical writing companies seem to have been hit harder than independent contractors because they usually have less experienced people and it is easier to cut back on work to a company than an individual.

Furthermore, Israel has not yet been hit as hard by the recession as the US. The financial papers are full of explanations as to why. One is that Israel is such a small market that all of its high tech is export oriented, and North America is not its only target market (though it is the largest). Other reasons include the relatively conservative policies of Stanley Fisher who heads the Bank of Israel and bank reforms that led to higher mortgage equity rates well before the current crisis.

Ivan: To those considering contracting or possibly re-locating to Israel, what advice would you give? Are there websites that offer technical writing jobs, or recruitment firms that specialize in technical communications?
Svi: Immigrants, especially from English speaking countries. actually make up the bulk of Israeli technical writers. Many people go into technical writing after moving to Israel or in preparation for a move to Israel. Hebrew is often important for gathering information, but there are many technical writers who barely speak Hebrew and still manage. Even Israeli-born technical writers write mostly in English. Russian speakers also have an advantage because many of Israel’s technologists immigrated from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.

As freelance rates and salaries for technical writers increase and approach US levels Israel may have already become an attractive place for foreign contractors or relocation. However, most relocation of technical writers to Israel is not for financial or career advancement, but for personal reasons.

Israel is a small country with many people who truly want to help. The most important advice that I can give is to make contacts before even coming to Israel. There is even a government ministry whose sole job is to make it easier for new immigrants. To get a feel for some of the absurdities of life in Israel and the difficulties you are likely to encounter, you may want to take a look at http://elephant.org.il/columns/chelm/ or http://elephant.org.il/life_as_a_tech_writer/ .

If you are looking for freelance work, try contacting potential customers and building up a local reputation while still abroad even though you are not likely to actually close with a customer before you arrive. One way to build up a local reputation is to join Elephant and write a column about a professional topic that you know well, or to take part in some of the mailing list forums in Israel, like CIWI, Techshoret, Digital Eve or COandPI. For a more complete list, see http://elephant.org.il/salarybenefits/freelancers_toolbox.html.

Other resources that you might want to look at are:

  • STC-Israel Chapter
  • Computer Jobs in Israel
  • AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel)
  • Employment Index of Nefesh B’Nefesh (Nefesh B’Nefesh is a private organization promoting Aliya from North  America (US & Canada), and England. In the US and Israel, they work together with the Jewish Agency to streamline  the process and provide additional resources including financial assistance and post aliyah support (social services and job hunting assistance) above and beyond those of the Jewish Agency.)
  • Gavahim (Gavahim project’s mission to encourage a growing number of talented professionals to make Aliyah by assisting graduates from foreign universities with the job hunt. Gvahim charges a fee for some of their services.)
  • Israel Business Directory of Hareshima
  • Digital Eve (email list for Israeli businesswomen, but also useful for men)
  • Working Moms in Israel (Email list focusing on jobs that are part time or offer flexible working hours)
  • Janglo (Jerusalem area) and Tanglo (Tel-Aviv area)
  • www.toshav-hozer.co.il (for former Israelis who want to return)
  • www.science.co.il (Israel’s Science and Technology Home Page; links to a wide range of industries such as banking and finance, biotech, academic institutions, etc.)
  • Israel Life Science Industry’s site (contains a listing of companies in fields such as biotech, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, etc.)

Ivan: Scott Able makes the point that, “we don’t even do much technical writing any more. And, we’re not going to. We’re consultants, strategists, advisors, teachers, trainers, and more. Content is what we care about, technical content, or otherwise”.

How do you see the role of technical writers changing in the next 5 years? Do technical writers need to see themselves as more than just a ‘writer’ or look at other ways that can add value?

[Scott comments are here: http://www.ivanwalsh.com/2009/10/top-50-technical-writers-on-the-web/]

Svi: I think the profession will continue to grow and change. For many of the high-end technical writers Scott is correct; we message the organization to produce the documentation more than actually write it. In many cases we actually impact on the product to make it more intuitive and maintainable with less documentation. I think that this trend will change, along with more emphasis on non-textual and non-print media.

Globalization and EU requirements that documentation and UI be in the local language will push us toward more non-textual documentation, like the little one-page foldouts in Japanese made products. Short movie clips can played nearly everywhere on laptops, cell phones and even iPods. Knowing how to create a clip will become as common a skill set as typing, so our added value will have to be knowledge of what to show and how to organize the information for the target audience. This really is no different than what we really do now. Any idiot can write “step 1… step 2…”, but identifying the needs of the target audience and separating out the trivial from the useful information is a professional skill.

Ivan: Finally, what advice would you give to those, for example, colleague graduates, considering a career in technical writing?

Svi: Technical writing is a young and constantly changing profession. If you have a talent – use it. I know of one technical writer with such a sense of humor that she can make even the more boring topic memorable. If I could combine her talent with a cartoonist I would make service manuals that people would read in their spare time, and remember exactly what to do and what not to do. On the other hand, if I had her talent I would probably write sitcoms. The point is, that…

Thanks again, Svi, for taking the time.

You can read more about Svi here: http://elephant.org.il/who_are_we/svi_ben-elya.html.

I hope you enjoyed this interview. If you’d like to be included – don’t be shy! – please drop me a line. Please sign up for our Newsletter (top right of page) and get the best Technical Writing tips into your inbox every week.

Image credits: thanks to Jaime Silva