What Do We Learn? Skills. When Do We Learn Them? On the Job or Whatever!

Working as a technical communicator over the past two years without an undergraduate grounding in the skills, methods, and research tools has been enlightening. While it has given me a greater appreciation for the work being done by my coworkers and others in the field, it has also caused me to reach out to sources like the Society for Technical Communication and a master’s program in order to secure essential skills and new tricks to show off to supervisors and future employers.

What exactly am I looking for, you may ask? Social media, content management systems, Adobe Creative and Technical Communications Suite, User-Centered Design, and Project Management, to name but a few. Beyond the skills that I have a personal interest in or am curious about, I find that trolling through job descriptions to look for what will impress and keep me relevant in a community that is designing, defining, and streamlining what technical communications means and what is necessary to work in the field.

One of the key skills I am looking to pick up from the MSTPC program and put into practice is learning how to learn, and I have found that it is definitely a critical skill that I’ll need on my side moving forward.

Image result for technical toolkit

Source: (http://masstapp.edc.org/communications-toolkit)

As Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski (2010) said, “search and retrieval – or findability – as well as navigability become increasingly important as the information age produces more documents than ever. As the volume of information increases, designing for storage and retrieval becomes more important in the planning stages of writing. After all, information that cannot be easily retrieved when needed is useless” (103).

Now this makes sense when you’re talking about the basics of the technical communications field. Authoring, editing, designing, displaying, distributing, and analyzing all the content constantly put out by companies, universities, social networking sites, and academics takes a lot of time and effort by practitioners and academics under fire by Chief Financial Officers Wading through the amount of content that

When it comes to us as a class however, my mind starts thinking about how we as technical communicators work to gather, study, and disseminate information. Learning how to read, analyze, and write papers for my English undergrad along with internships for my Journalism minor made me an attractive, moldable candidate for the Technical Editor position I got shortly after graduating, but that position did not offer anything in the way of training documents or files.

It was entirely a mentor-based position. That was both a positive and a negative, I came to find as I delved into the world of technical editing. It was great to work side by side with practitioners who had years of experience in the field and in the government contracting sphere; I was exposed to a lot of insider information that no one bothered to write down because it was industry standard or specific. There were breakdowns in email content based on the office I was contacting and the military or civilian title in front of the person’s name.

Image result for mentorship

Source: (http://tweakyourbiz.com/finance/2015/03/16/top-online-business-mentorship-advice-resources/)

I learned quickly and started keeping my own folders and Word docs with acronyms, workflows, and Department-specific language no one would ever use (and I would get graded down for if I showed any of it to one of my professors).

The problem was that as soon as I was hired, the company started to lose employees. When I was hired I was told it was a stable contract with no turnover but everyone was leaving so all of the great mentors were jumping ship and it was up to those of us who were newer to train employees and help them learn the process.

So while we were learning we were also training new people, designing SharePoint sites, and teaching classes to government employees. Needless to say, the situation could have better. It was enjoyable to take more of a leadership role with incoming coworkers and I also got the chance to design a few training sites and standard operating procedures. Whatever problems I may have had with the company, it was clear that I had been allowed to really grow into a role and put on the different hats expected of me by the field.

My next job was a different story. I had walked into a great company with an understanding boss, but the work itself functioned on a sink or swim basis. I was expected to dive into the work and start working. No real oversight. Clear cut design and structural rules to follow but how I got there was all up to me. Yes, I was encouraged to reach out with any question but I wanted to make a great first impression so I just got my hands dirty with the research, writing, and designing of technical materials and documents for client approval.

The chapters talk about information design, content management, and the rhetoric of technology, but how do we use this in our full- or part-time job lives? For me, it’s become critical to seek the keys to staying up to date on information, technology, communication, and other trends essential to my work and moving forward in the field.


Spilka, Rachel. (2010). Digital literacy for technical communication. “Information design: From authoring text to architecting virtual space. Taylor & Francis Group. New York, NY.

Posted on October 2, 2016, in Digital, Social Media, Teaching, Technology, Workplace. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I like that you discuss the mentoring aspect of tech comm jobs because it’s one of the reasons we don’t teach specific software suites or tools. We know that they will vary from company to company and/or programs/tools will change. As for job ad keywords, I need to make sure we are reading the Lauer et al article that provides a study of what position descriptions have been including since the Web 2.0 boom. I think as long as you’re versatile and a strong communicator, you will continue to go far.

    Side note: I’m spoiled as a faculty member on a laptop campus because my machine is updated every 4 years and I always have the latest version of Office and Adobe, but with the latter I’ve never been given instruction in how to use all of it.

  2. Thanks for this post. I liked the title! I find that to be very true. While education is certainly important, on the job training and just learning skills on a day to day basis is exceptionally effective in my experience. Don’t get me wrong–I am grateful to be receiving such a great education. And learning that the employers of technical communicators are looking for traditional degrees in technical and professional communication gives me hope that all of us will find our niche during or after our graduate programs. I think there are many different ways to skin a cat, personally. I’ve been a student for my entire life whereas my husband is a firefighter paramedic, so he only had to go to school for a year and everything else is applied on the job and learned while working. There are different types of personalities–some people just have to be hands on a learn as they go whereas others, like me, have to work through the coursework in order to take that information and apply it to a field. I think the combination of on the job learning and having a knowledge of communication theory is a great combination for people interested in becoming a professional communicator.

  3. Whenever I take a class or go to a conference, I wonder how I will use the information in my current role. Each job is so different that having a strong foundation in technical communication can benefit almost any position, considering each job is going to take a different angle.

    One of the things in your article that I wanted to comment on is the findability of information and your point that very important and informative documents are useless if they can’t be found. I think that software, technique, and preferences will always change. Companies will always have their own “take.” But one thing that will remain is the importance to focus on getting the information to the user.

  4. I like how you mention mentoring! That is always very essential as our field keeps changing so often because of the technology.

    I notice that more often, technical communicators come from a variety of fields before they become a technical communicator. Whenever I go to conferences, I hear about my colleagues’ story as how they became a technical communicator. It rather surprises me that they studied things like chemistry, biology, computer science, or something that wasn’t communication, journalism, or English. I like how we technical communicators gravitate to this field and how we get here is interesting.

    I hope you get to learn some new tricks in the field (this class and others in the MSTPC Program) that you can use while on the job. I feel there is so much to learn and getting a taste of different aspects of technical communication. I know I am looking forward to learning more about my own field and I even went to college to become a technical communicator.

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