Technical Recruiter Shares Expertise

Review By Doug Bothwell

Andrew Davis has been a Technical Communications recruiter in the Bay Area for more than 20 years. As a former professional technical writer and Technical Publications manager, he knows the value that tech writers can add and what companies are looking for.

Thanks to Mysti Berry and Salesforce, the San Francisco STC chapter was able to book a large training room to handle the high turnout on February 18. The presentation was split into a prepared talk and a Q-and-A session.

Part 1: Make Yourself Marketable

Highlights from Andrew Davis’ presentation:

  • Mobile, Big Data/Analytics, SaaS/virtualization/cloud, Security, Open Source arenas are hot
  • Open-source companies often sell documentation–that’s how many of them make money
  • Technical Knowledge–Train yourself and become marketable. Some helpful resources include:
      • MOOCs (massively open online courses) are the answer to your prayers, and ignoring them is self-sabotage. Explore one or more of the following—register, learn, and write something using your new knowledge:
      • Trialware is the other answer to your prayers
      • Online resources for would-be API writers:
      • Write The Docs meetups in SF (or, better yet, the Portland, OR conference in the spring)
  • Opportunities and Leads:
      • Networking (still the best)
      • Recruiters
      • Job boards—Beyond the obvious choices, here are good ones:
        • LinkSV for discovering off-the-radar prospects
        • LinkUp for current, under-publicized listings
  • Employers are looking for people with
      • Excellent research, analysis, organization, writing, editing, and production skills
      • Autonomous technical learning and tool/system troubleshooting ability (aka fearlessness)
      • Deep interests in one or more technical sectors and current technical tools/development languages
      • Software experience, ideally involving some code-reading, code-commenting, and even amateur programming

Contact Andrew directly for more from his Help Me Help Your Resume document at his website

 Part 2: Q & A with Andrew Davis

“What are the skills that companies want in writers but have the most difficulty finding?”

Software development skills–folks who can develop in their own environment without any help. Many development teams are looking for someone like them (i.e., fellow developers) who can and want to write, but these candidates are difficult to find. They want people who can write documentation that gets newbie developers up-and-running with key features as quickly as possible (ie, a short TTFHW–“time to first ‘Hello World’).

“What kind of volunteering work looks good on a resume?”

Work for professional organizations related to the Tech Comm field–it shows you believe in your profession. But don’t just limit yourself to STC–there are lots of other organizations out there. For example, Write the Docs has regular meetups that are well-attended by writers in the open-source space. These folks are more focused on deep dives into technology and supplying relevant content to developers; they’re less focused on authoring tools, DITA, and other topics that are primarily of interest to tech writers.

“How do you answer the interview question: ‘Where do you see yourself in 5 years’?”

You should answer this question seriously, even if it might be kind of old-school. It’s best to say something like “I want [more of what I want],” without getting too specific. Consider this an opportunity to tell them something about you that they don’t already know, that’s not on your resume, but emphasize how your goals can benefit theirs.

“Many interviewers don’t like interviewing and are not very good at it. Their questions are often vague and not targeted. How can I help them get the information they need?”

You should be able to say, in three minutes or so: “Here is what I’m guessing you need, here’s how I can meet those needs, and here’s the proof that I’ve done so.” An audience member suggested that you ask: “What are the biggest problems you have regarding documentation?” This offers you a chance to show how you can solve their problems; Andrew agreed, but said you need to be careful not to sound too strident nor too modest. There are times in an interview when the person who talks the least wins.

“How do you handle the issue of no-reference policies that many companies have today?”

One way to handle this is to ask someone for a LinkedIn endorsement that stays unpublished until after the person leaves the company. Also, some people might be willing to provide “off-the-record” endorsements. Note: If you contact someone asking for a reference/endorsement, it’s best to do it via cell and to do it after hours.

Someone pointed out that many companies don’t give out bad references these days for legal/CYA reasons. Andrew said that’s true, but some people still give bad references off the record.

“Are companies still unreceptive to candidates from outside the industry?”

Yes, so highlight experience you have that’s relevant to the position you’re looking for. It shows you’re in touch with their requirements.

“How do you deal with people who have no idea what tech writers do?”

Talk to them in terms of the problems you can solve and the money you can save and/or make them. You need to be able to “show your stuff” and get specific about the ways you can add value. Tech writers can do a lot beyond simple wordsmithing! And everyone cares about looking good on paper.

“Where do you see the field in five years?”

Most API documentation will probably be automated in five years, though tutorials and getting-started documentation probably won’t. UI/UX documentation probably won’t be automated. A very useful skill is being able to assemble teams and get things done…but beware Tech Pubs Manager or Doc Manager roles if they don’t involve creating product-related content.

Check out Andrew Davis’ website,—it’s a huge treasure trove of valuable information for folks looking for work, and those looking for workers.

Doug Bothwell has been a technical writer since 1999 and is currently a Lead Technical Writer with Riverbed Technology in San Francisco.

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