How does it feel to be a Jack of all trades?

Evolution. Paradigm shift. Keeping up. Catching up. Transformation.

These are the key themes that jumped out at me from this week’s readings. What do they all mean for us as technical communication professionals? They mean that we are adaptable. Or, we try to be, anyway! I know many of us have expressed that we feel we are “sufficient” with newer technologies, like social media, but not experts. I know I definitely have felt like I can barely keep up. Every day there’s a new app or new website to check out, and a billion new Facebook posts and Tweets to read. After the readings this week, though, I am starting to feel a little better because I think our profession has gone through a huge change, especially in the last decade or so. And, as a result, it is one of the most diverse, multi-disciplined professions out there.  Before I explain further what I mean, let me tell a little story to help set the stage…

When I was a senior in high school, I was all set to graduate mid-year. I had all of my required credits and I was ready to get out of the small town I had called home for 18 years and move onto bigger and better things. My high school guidance counselor convinced me to enroll in a couple of classes at the local two-year college so that I would technically still be in high school but would be able to get away a few afternoons a week by going to classes at the college. I ended up taking a Visual Basic programming class. Very challenging, but also very rewarding. In fact, after I graduated high school, I fully intended to go into something technology-related. Upon enrolling at UW-La Crosse, I was a computer science major. Well, that lasted all of two minutes when I realized how much calculus and math I would have to take. Yuck.

So, I ended up majoring in communication studies as I felt like I was “good with people” and had decent writing and speaking skills. At the time, I thought it was at the opposite end of the spectrum from computer science. What I didn’t realize, until just recently, is that a communications degree actually calls upon multiple disciplines, including technology, so it was the best of both worlds. And this continues to be the case many years later, more than ever. Like we read in Chapter 1 from Spilka (2010), traditional job titles of “writers” or “editors” have evolved into “software engineers” because the advent of technology required that the disciplines meld together (p. 24, Table 1.1).

This blending of disciplines – communications, writing, editing, designing, technology, and content management – has meant that we have to be a Jack of all trades. We’ve had to take on more responsibilities, learn new methodologies and technologies, consider new audiences and even reinvent our craft at times. Here are the principal areas where I think we’ve had to adapt and grow:

  • We’ve had to become better communicators and relationship managers.
    • Due to fewer face-to-face interactions, we have had to learn different ways to communicate and forge relationships. For example, my clients are scattered throughout the entire country. I do not make in-person visits, so all of my interactions are via phone, email or webinars. Despite this, I have developed some incredible, loyal relationships because I’ve learned how to use these different communication mediums to my advantage.
    • The next generation relies more heavily on technology, many forms of which we are not as familiar with. This forces us to go outside our comfort zone in order to learn ways to reach this different type of audience.
  • We’ve had to expand our toolboxes.
    • First, we’ve had to learn new devices and various options AMONG those devices – computers (PC vs. Mac) and then laptops; cell phones and then smartphones (Droid vs. Apple); there have also been pagers, tablets, digital cameras, MP3 players, and other electronic devices.
    • Second, there are so many different types of software and programs we’ve had to learn – PowerPoint, Publisher, Flash, WordPress, PhotoShop, Dreamweaver, etc.
    • Third, there’s the Internet and all of the online capabilities – search engines, social media, social networking, discussion boards, blogs, wikis.
    • Last, there are so many different options available for crafting our technical communications. I’m referring to fonts, graphics & images, design layouts, software options, videos, color schemes, hyperlinks, content & language. Because of this…
  • We’ve had to become better writers/designers/communicators.
    • In addition to understanding all of the tools available to us for creating our work, we have to be aware of all the new routes available for delivering our messages. We have to be aware of them and know which ones to use, and when to use them. There are traditional forms like print documents, but now there’s also texting, email, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, YouTube and blogs. As described by Baron (2008), do we use asynchronous or synchronous routes of communication? (p. 14). Meaning, do we need them to see the information immediately, in real time, or can it wait until they open the message? Also, are we communicating one-on-one, or do we need to send a message to a large audience.
  • Finally, we’ve had to become better information gatherers.
    • With so many resources available – blogs, wikis, traditional websites and news sources – we have to be selective and know how to recognize credible sources.

There was a question raised at a 2007 technical writing conference: “What if technical communication were to merge into other disciplines and lose its identity as a field?” (Spilka, 2010, p. 5).

I think, we, as technical communicators, only make ourselves more valuable by being multi-disciplined. Being well-versed and knowledgeable in many areas – having a broad digital literacy – gives us more opportunities to work in different fields. Being too specialized makes you obsolete!

toolbox and toolsPhoto source: Rott, L. (2013). Toolbox image created in SnagIt.

Posted on September 29, 2013, in Literacy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. evelynmartens13

    Hi Lori:

    This was the perfect week for me to read about your toolbox analogy because sometime over the past few days I turned a corner from feeling intimidated (threatened?) by technology to feeling somewhat “empowered.” I am actually starting to think of social media, technology, “foreign” apps (foreign to me) as my friend — as tools that will help me and that I will master, rather than being a passive bystander about to be run over, a victim, if you will. I’m even thinking about buying an ipod, which has my children’s jaws dropped to the floor.

    You did a nice job of summing up what’s in our toolboxes, how we’ve had to become better communicators AND information gatherers, which I think tends to go unacknowledged.. My readings in English 700 this week really helped to define, describe how technical communicators are doing symbolic-analytic work and lay out the challenges we face in defining who we are and where our value is located (it’s not in the “innards” of a computer).

    In thinking about “tools,” I have already brought a few items to the table in my workplace which have impressed (and amazed!) my young staff because I have always relied on them to bring me along with regard to technology. So, now that I am sharing with them concepts and abilities I’ve already learned from the program, they are so excited and supportive of me (we’re a happy team). It’s also taught me, in my discussions with them, that I have been painting all “youngsters” with a broad, misleading brush. Some of them are, in fact, very intuitive, but some struggle just as I might.

    Nice work — and thank you for the reminder!

    • Hi Evelyn,
      I’m glad you liked the toolbox analogy! My toolbox graphic, unfortunately, has left much to be desired. I was trying to create something myself so I can avoid copyright stuff. I’ve become somewhat paranoid about that sort of thing lately. I actually had to contact a company yesterday to ask them to remove content that belonged to us (that they didn’t have permission to use).

      Thanks for reading!

  2. I agree with everything you said in your post. Technical communication keeps changing because the way we communicate keeps changing. I reached a stage with Microsoft Word where I would consider myself near proficient, but now we are converting our documentation over to HTML based. This is a significant change for our team, but it allows us to use minor interactive features in the documentation, which has already increased document usage among the users. When we started down this road, I had zero HTML coding experience. My current level is still very small, but it is growing every day. The more time I spend working with the code, the more comfortable I start to feel with it.

    I feel confident in this field, because unlike some, technological progress likely means more work for us rather than less. We just have to be ready to adapt to the changing climate.

    • Yes, I think you are exactly right – technology means MORE work for us!

      I am intrigued about your switching of documents to HTML based. I’d like to hear more about how you are doing this, who your users are and how they get access (via the Internet or an Intranet). I have a little bit of HTML knowledge, so I’d love to know more about your project, if you wouldn’t mind sharing!

      • Lori,

        One of our very own MSPTC students Lisa Topper works with Tim and is writing her field project on the WORD to HTML shift, so if you can wait until December or perhaps after the new year for the library database to gain access to her research paper, you can learn all about it! 🙂

  3. Having just read your literacy narrative, I appreciate this extended look at your life as a communicator, this time applying the week’s assigned reading. Yes, the field of technical communication seems to grapple with defining itself and its professional identity, but I agree that the more versatile and interdisciplinary we are, the better!

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