Meet Paul Kastle, Senior Technical Writer at MSC Software, and see how he is working to make MSC Apex an intuitive, user-focused platform of the future.
Can you describe your role at MSC Software?
I am Paul Kastle, a Senior Technical Writer for MSC Software, and my primary responsibility is creating the documentation for MSC Apex. I hold a Bachelors and Masters degrees in Mechanical Engineering from UC Irvine. I have worked for MSC Software since 2001 and with the launch of MSC Apex, I was given the opportunity to build a new help system from the ground up. My job is to make MSC Apex easier to use and self explanatory, wherever possible.
As a Technical Writer, I anticipate questions users may have and make the answers readily available, as well as highlight particularly unique or useful functionalities. Simple things such as keyboard shortcuts and mouse gestures become great time-savers once users are exposed to them and new users often rely on our help system to show them these things for the first time.
My job is unique because it is focused on finding and developing new ways for our software to explain itself so that users of MSC Apex will have the information they need to quickly achieve productivity, without spending a long time in formal training. I help users solve problems and learn about new features within a product and I make sure the information is available in multiple formats to suit the learning styles of different users.
How were you involved in the development of MSC Apex?
For MSC Apex, we knew we wanted an online help authoring system as well as a help system that is tightly integrated with the delivered product. When we investigated available solutions, we didn’t find anything that met our needs so we worked with the Apex product development team to create a parser that pulled help data from the database directly into the Apex deliverable. I was able to write and customize the modules to achieve the look, feel, and functionality we wanted for the help system.
We had the additional requirement of delivering a copy of all of the help with the product, which was different from SimManager. I found a way to crawl the help pages and generate HTML that we could ship with the product. I wrote code to integrate this process with the database parser from product development to create a one of a kind help delivery system.
As the product evolved, there have been many updates that were made to the help system, such as adding workflow instructions to the content. To implement this, I worked with the developers to investigate our options and modify the database parser to include this additional information. There are often similar situations where I must work with the developers to figure out what is possible and come up with solutions for how to deliver help.
What are some of the challenges you face?
The biggest challenge I face is determining what information users will need and how to make this information available to them at the time and location that is most pertinent. Making sure that valuable information doesn’t get buried among unrelated content is an important and difficult task, especially when trying to document a product with such a broad and expanding scope such as MSC Apex.
I stay up to date with the latest functionalities by being part of the product development team. I am aware of new features prior to development and I follow their evolution as they are implemented. Once they are functioning as specified by the design team, I begin to work on documentation. This content is very helpful for the end user because sometimes the very nature of what MSC Apex does is so different from conventional CAE products. It is worth noting these specifications to make these revolutionary new features easier to use.
Another unique challenge was the localization of the help system. I helped implement entity translation to create a version of each item in the help system for each supported language. This includes tool tips, images, help pages, videos, and tutorials. Each of these items has a version created by MSC translation team members in local MSC offices for each supported language. Currently MSC Apex supports Japanese, Chinese, German, and French in addition to English.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I would have to say that I enjoy the variety in my work the most. No two days are the same, but I also get to work on very different tasks that appeal to different parts of my personality. I enjoy figuring out logistical solutions, writing code to manage data, but also appreciate the chance to do something more creative, such as producing a video. I also really enjoy that my job is focused on teaching people things, even if it isn’t in a traditional classroom.
How is MSC Apex paving the way for engineering and CAE software?
As a CAE product, MSC Apex is unique in that it has a modern, user-friendly interface that does not rely on the knowledge of analysis-specific terms. As far as the help system, it incorporates video tutorials into the application to show how features work and makes these videos easily accessible from the user interface itself. The written help is also unique because it is collaboratively authored in an online system, making it easier to get information from subject matter experts.
I feel that the future of engineering involves engineers being able to perform a broader variety of tasks. Analysis tasks that previously were handled by specialized departments are being transitioned to mainstream engineers and designers. This means learning new software tools but because of time and budget constraints, they often do not have time to dedicate to formal classroom training. Software applications, like MSC Apex, that are intuitive and self-explanatory wherever possible will allow engineers to achieve productivity across an increased breadth of subjects. Future CAE software must be designed to be easy to use with a flatter learning curve so that engineers can solve problems faster.