What’s Shakin’ in Tech Comm?

Andrew’s May 18, 2016, presentation What’s Shakin’ in Tech Comm? provided an up-to-date survey of what you need to do to enter and stay in the field. This meeting was summarized by Doug Bothwell.

A major theme of tonight’s presentation was The Present vs. The Past (that is, before the tech crash starting in 2000). Andrew made the following points:

  • It’s much harder to get into the field now. There are far fewer entry-level jobs. Most people now come into tech writing with a strong background in a technical field such as software engineering. Tech Pubs managers have much less say over budgets or staffing. Writers are now hired by committee, and one No vote is enough for you to not get the job.
  • Non-technical writers are easiest to hire offshore. Venture Capitalists have told Andrew that their preferred market for technical writers is India; they only hire locally if they can’t find the candidates they need overseas.
  • Teach thyself. Don’t count on on-the-job training. You need to have the skills employers BEFORE they hire you. Mentors and on-the-job training opportunities are much more limited than previously. There are lots of online resources for learning in-demand skills and technologies. You can also get trial downloads of popular authoring tools. “Army-of-one” types, people who can handle all aspects of creating a help system or deliverable, are very much in demand.
  • Get technical–the more technical you are, the better. A degree is mandatory, preferably in a technical field. Know the technology, the audience, and the tools. Once you’re on the job, you’ll need to learn the technologies you’ll be documenting yourself as much as possible; you can’t lean on Subject Matter Experts as much anymore.
  • Online help is the standard format for documentation now; PDFs are passé. Online help is often embedded in the software, which can make it hard to provide writing samples.
  • Open source organizations are leading the pack for software development in terms of innovation. There are many volunteer opportunities for writers looking to contribute to open-source projects. When documenting a particular project or library, one primary goal is to write a good overview and introduction that provides a short TTFHW (Time To First Hello World). Try to write something that gets the user hooked in 10 minutes or less.
  • In-demand skills include:
    • MadCap Flare.
    • FrameMaker, WebWorks, and RoboHelp are nothing to boast about.
    • Flare has supplanted FrameMaker, and there’s no excuse for not knowing Flare. XML authoring tools such as oXygen and XMetal. Multinationals and wanna-be multinationals are increasingly going to DITA or some other XML-based formatting.
    • Markdown format: ASCII text with very limited formatting. This is very easy to learn and widely used. There’s no excuse for not knowing it.
    • Content Component Management Systems are commonly used in the industry, but there’s no dominant player (yet).
  • Site generators such as Jekyll, Readme.io, and Swagger. Employers will be impressed if you can talk about these.
  • Fully offsite jobs are increasingly rare. Employers want you to be onsite until they trust you.
  • One piece of good news is that there aren’t as many people coming into the field as previously. Many of today’s would-be tech writers are techies who want to transition into something else.
  • Consulting can be more profitable than permanent positions, but are also more lonely and high-risk. You can easily go down the wrong path and specialize in something that becomes obsolete. In a permanent job, you have more opportunities to shape-shift and prove your versatility.

Q-and-A Highlights

“What about medical/biotech writing?”
Andrew doesn’t work much in this area, but said that you can make very good money, IF you have the right education, background, and connections. There’s a lot of work for writers who specialize in an in-demand niche. Most medical writing is contract work. A good resource to consult is the American Medical Writers Association.

“How do I get technical and keep myself marketable?”
Get into the in-demand areas such as security or open source. Work your LinkedIn network for people in those fields. Look for volunteer work to write in a hot field. Offer to write, organize, and contribute whatever skills and talents you can offer. Get the trust of someone who appreciates what you can provide. The ultimate goal in open-source work is to become a “committer”–someone who can commit changes into the official Github repository for a particular project. Not many have this status, but the ones who do have great status. Don’t try to to do this with an old-school, non-open-source, enterprise product. Recruiters are now looking on Github as well as LinkedIn for good writers.

“If I’m working in a proprietary field, how can I develop content that can be viewed publicly?”
Try to come up with a few chapters, such as reference or concept chapters, and “neutralize” the content. Get permission from someone in your organization to include it in a portfolio. Make your portfolio available online. Include an introduction that describes the context, the tools you used, and how you wrote it. There’s more advice on Andrew’s website.

“How do I avoid getting sideswiped in my career?”
Andrew told the story of a friend of his at a large, well-known software company. He was very comfortable: his job was stable, he liked his job, he thought he was safe…and then, suddenly, he wasn’t and got laid off. He’d gone too far in the manager space and had no real writing samples from the past seven years. The lessons?
Stay away from Tech Pubs manager roles that don’t involve any writing.
If you’ve been in the same company doing the same thing for many years, without keeping your skill set current, it can be very difficult to claw your way back if you get laid off.
Make sure you know the tools and technical areas that are in demand. Learn Flare, oXygen, markdown, and some of the more open-source authoring and publishing tools. Tom Johnson’s blog, “I’d Rather be Writing,” is a good resource for keeping current with the latest trends in the field.

About the Speaker

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 and the skills that employers are are looking for. For more information and resources, see Andrew’s website: http://www.synergistech.com.

About the Author

Doug Bothwell has been a technical writer since 1999. He has documented a wide range of topics such as optical network planning, TCP analysis and troubleshooting, WAN optimization, web transaction analysis, and application performance monitoring. He is currently a Senior Technical Writer at AppDynamics.

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