Become a Technical Communicator 2.0

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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?

Posted on September 27, 2015, in Digital, Literacy, Technology, Workplace. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Your question, “How did employers view persons who worked in technical communication?” made me think of similar ones I heard asked at the 2014 STC in Phoenix, “What is it that we as technical communicators do? What are the various job titles out there?” A board was put up and throughout the conference attendees were encouraged to look for their job title and if it wasn’t listed, to add a post-it with their title on it. The board was COVERED with post-its after 2 days! This exercise stemmed from this STC talk, http://lanyrd.com/2014/society-for-technical-communication/sctczb/, and you’ll read more about in Week 11, but I wonder if, given your discussion of “evolution,” you’ve had a similar experience with changing job titles?

    • I remember that board! It was a very intriguing exercise.

      I’ve had an interesting set of job titles for sure. At my first job as a technical writer, my employer didn’t know what to call me or where to place me. They decided on “policy and procedures specialist” and put in the human resource department. I’ve also been a technical writer, marketing communication manager, copywriter, and corporate communication manager and architect (mouthful).

      It took the powers that be at my current job a year to agree on my current title: technical communication manager. I started as a senior technical editor, but folks weren’t identifying with that title and I do much more than editing. The difficulty in nailing down a title reflects, I believe, the general sense that our field is nebulous.

  2. Hi Aaron,

    Thank you for posing your question to make it easier for me to focus my response to you. 🙂

    I will happily share my little secrets with you, and with anyone else who reads these comments.

    – Built a portfolio*

    Have an online portfolio and also carry around a hard copy with you too. You never know who you may run into, and sometimes, not everyone has their reading glasses with them to view a tiny screen. Additionally, sometimes a hard copy is much easier to hold and view in one take.

    Free websites exist or look for discount codes online. Carrying a black portfolio can make you look even more professional, so it is a win-win.

    – Carry business cards

    If you are a graphic designer, showcase your best work*. Duh, this should be obvious, but many choose not to do this.

    Even if you are not a graphic designer, have a friend create something for you or hire someone for $5 to at Fiverr (http://www.fiverr.com). Since I am very frugile, I suggest getting your business cards from VistaPrint (http://www.vistaprint.com). I have always been happy with their service and quality.

    – Get your name out there

    I have mentioned in several postings already some of the great ways to get your name out there and to start making money with your work. I need to cut this posting short to get to bed, so here is a quick run down: Fiverr (http://www.fiverr.com), RedBubble (http://www.fiverr.com), Dice (http://www.dice.com), and HubPages (https://hubpages.com/user/new/). You may want to check to see if HubPages is still paying writers. They were still paying last year, but things can quickly change in a year. For example, Yahoo Contributors Network and eHow used to pay writers, but their programs are dead now.

    *Before I forget, before including anything in your portfolio or business cards, make sure that you have the permission of the company who hired you to create that document or whatever. Sometimes things are confidential or what you created was done as “work for hire” (see http://copyright.gov/circs/circ09.pdf). Once you sign the contract for “work for hire,” you no longer own the copyright.

    • Thanks for the reply and additional information. I would add, especially if you are engaging online for freelance or contract work, to be careful not to allow your work (or our field) to become a commodity. And, be sure pay a wage that matches the value of the services needed.

  3. HI Aaron,

    Your “Five Steps to You 2.0” is a great breakdown of the steps technical communicators should take in order to stay relevant in the field. I think by now, the idea that we need to embrace technology and evolve has been pretty well ingrained in our minds. However, the appropriate steps to take to accomplish this have been less clear.

    From your list, two of your points jumped out at me- “Develop a subject matter expertise” and “Lead”. I would argue that these two points are especially relevant when keeping up to date in technical communication, let alone any profession.

    1). Develop a subject matter expertise

    Through finding a niche, you not only develop a specialized area of expertise but it also helps you stand out from the crowd. This in turn will help you adopt technology strategically and hone in on skills relevant and related to your job.

    2). Lead

    Likewise, this point does a nice job of integrating the previous bullets on your list and is appropriate to be placed last on the list. It means keeping your finger on the pulse of things while working well with others plus embracing new technologies on top of developing a strong understanding of a particular area. This rock star combination of skills should enable you to become the best technical communicator you can be. In terms of sink or swim, it means not only swim, but at Michael Phelps speed.

    Lastly, I wanted to compliment you on your postings layout. Through varying the type and chunking the text into sections it really helps the reader quickly decipher the information. These techniques definitely draw from the readings on perception and design that we are learning about in Visual Rhetoric.

    • Thanks for your reply. I think these are very important steps too and ones that I am continually paying attention too. Thanks adding insight to them and for the vote of confidence.

  4. Say “technical communicator” at my workplace and all eyes go to instructional designers and instructional technologists. No one thinks of a writing or editing expert. Everything we do is through, via, or enhanced by, technology; there’s little room to consider the technical writer. We don’t have one on staff since the legal department is the expert on written communication, and “everyone” at the college writes.

    It’s going to be interesting to see the transition and progression of the technical communication field, and the off-shoot professions affected by the influence of increased technology. Enjoyed your “Five Steps to You 2.0.” Well defined and applicable to most professions.

    • I hear what you are saying. A member of our executive team remarked upon hearing technical communicator: “What you mean as in ‘Beam me up, Scotty’?” Of course he was joking. But, it does show a lack of understanding or exposure to our field.

      Because communication as a practice is broad, it can be difficult to define. I argue that it is definable though. For example, “engineering” is broad but we don’t question it as a profession although I’ve learned that there are dozens of different kinds of engineers: civil, rock mechanics, soil mechanics, electrical, chemical, geochemical, geo-environmental, and on and on and on. Same with attorneys: corporate attorney, family attorney, divorce attorney, intellectual property attorney, and so on. Makes me think we should start using a similar approach.

      • Good points about the other fields and using a similar approach to technical communication. The main difference I see is all those attorney and engineer categories all have the main word attached to the title. In technical communication, job titles are many and varied – editor, graphic designer, technical writer, documentation team lead, communication consultant, documentation specialist, information developer etc. That is the fundamental problem in defining this field, and having employers see it as a stand-alone profession worthy of investment. They figure anything similar is the same.

  5. natashajmceachin

    Hello Aaron,

    This was a wonderfully revealing post! Since I’m new in the technical communications field, I’m still building my skill set and experience. Right now I am looking into formal graphic design training and building a portfolio. Hopefully, after a few years in my current position, I can move up in management and lead a small group of writers. Regardless, I know my evolution is imperative.

    Great post!

    • Hi Natasha,

      I envy your graphic design skills. I’m a hack at best, but after this degree, I plan on taking some classes to formalize what I know and fill in the gaps. It’s nice that you’ll have skills in both areas.

  6. Mary Van Beusekom

    Hi Aaron, I might add another strategy or two to this thread. First, make sure that your managers know about all of your work experience. I’ve learned the importance of this firsthand. I recently started to work with a new manager who is new to the company. It soon became apparent that she knew little or nothing about my capabilities or experience–and she told me she assumed I was at least a generation younger than her, when I’m only two years younger than her and have a wealth of experience. The second thing is to not be modest; it’s the people who “toot their own horns” who get noticed.

    • Mary, thank you for sharing this strategy! It is absolutely spot on. Now that you mention it, the same thing has happened to me. A couple of years ago, a principle (partner) where I worked suggested that I shouldn’t be working from home one day a week because “we reserve that privilege for senior staff.” I had to draw the line. I’m at least a few years older than he is, have managed departments twice the size of his, and report directly to our CEO (and have reported to two others). I got an apology and our relationship improved, but I must admit I felt like I was being awkward doing so. But, I did realize it was up to me to “market” myself within my organization. Now, I will on occasion offer a lunch-and-learn which has helped staff know more about me and my capabilities. At the same time, I try to attend when others do the same.

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