Become a Technical Communicator 2.0
I remember an intense discussion a few years ago at the local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication where members were debating the efficacy of the titles “technical writer” and “technical communicator”. Were they the same? Were they different? If they were different, in what ways? Did it matter what we thought if employers couldn’t get it? How did employers view persons who worked in technical communication?
It was interesting to me to observe how members, based on their experience in the practice, answered these questions. For the most part, those with say 15 or more years of experience clearly remembered being technical writers per se. They also recognized they were much more than that today—at least most were. The less experienced folks in the discussion mostly sat wide-eyed (not because they were impressed, but because I think they were trying to stay awake). For the most part, they saw themselves as technical communicators, but without a full understanding of that term. But, I recognize the more senior folks, including me, didn’t fully understand either.
What everyone these days seems to recognize is that technical communicators cannot just be technical writers. As Rachel Spilka puts it in the foreword to Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, which she edited: It’s not about survival, it’s about evolution. And, I believe she’s right.
Five Steps to You 2.0
Below are five steps we can take to evolve from technical writers or even technical communicators to technical communicators 2.0. A what? R. Stanley Dicks in chapter 2 of Digital Literacy (p. 77) notes that not only has the technology technical communicators use become more complex, so has the their core job of developing text and graphics. So, technical communicators 2.0 are themselves subject matter experts or must become so. Here’s how:
- Keep up on changes in the field. This seems like a no-brainer, but we’re just as busy as CEOs (although our golden parachutes are more like cocktail umbrellas). It’s critical to make time in our schedules to examine what is going on in our field: attend a conference, hop on a webinar, or, uh, get a graduate degree.
- Integrate with other teams. The idea of integrating has a sense of equality about it. I think that is often missed by technical communication professionals. We’re not below the development team or just a cost center as far as the sales team is concerned. Well, let me say it this way, we need to promote ourselves within our organizations as specialists within a practice that requires a high degree of skill and knowledge—not because we want to be but because we are.
- Learn new technologies strategically. Saul Carliner in chapter 1 of Digital Literacy (p. 45) groups technical communication technologies into three categories: authoring, publishing, and management. This is brilliant. While I’ve tried to stay up with technology throughout my career, I think I’ll now look at doing so across these categories. The key will be doing so strategically meaning I can’t keep up with all technology, but following some in each category is 2.0 thinking.
- Develop a subject matter expertise. About eight years ago I moved from high tech to science and engineering. It required me to gain an understanding of science and engineering concepts. In any given week I deal with, from a content perspective, anything from soil mechanics to geochemistry to frozen dams. Now, I’m not a subject matter expert in any of these things, but I am a subject matter expert in communicating about them, i.e., within science and engineering—and my career has never been better.
- Lead. To me, this means technical communicators have to manage not only the conceptualization, production, and distribution of communication, but also relations with departments concerned with management, product development, marketing, costs, revenue, and so forth. We’re not just writers we’re managers—or should be. Think, speak, and act like and executive and you should find yourself invited to the big table.
What else are you doing to become a technical communicator 2.0 in our rapidly changing field?