TC: The Madonna of career fields

If Madonna had stayed a “Material Girl” and never made “Confessions on the Dance Floor,” she likely would not have an active 40-year entertainment career. Technical communication has also continued to evolve to stay relevant. The key to success for technical communication is not getting too hung up on the name.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines the profession as “Technical writers, also called technical communicators, prepare instruction manuals, how-to guides, journal articles, and other supporting documents to communicate complex and technical information more easily. They also develop, gather, and disseminate technical information through an organization’s communications channels.” The Bureau of Labor also predicted the field will grow 11 percent–faster than the overall average–in the next 10 years because it will be “driven by the continuing expansion of scientific and technical products. An increase in Web-based product support should also increase demand for technical writers. Job opportunities, especially for applicants with technical skills, are expected to be good.”

In her anthology Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, Rachel Spilka (2010) said her collection “points to the critical need for evolution” (p.3). And Saul Carliner’s (2010) essay “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century” illustrates how the field has been able to embrace new technologies to provide better support for customers. However, as the field continues to evolve, professionals in the field may not be called “technical writers” or “technical communicators.”

Eva Brumberger and Claire Lauer (2015) investigated the evolution of the field in their article “The Evolution of Technical Communication: An Analysis of Industry Job Posting,” which was published in November 2015’s issue of Technical Communication. The researchers analyzed 914 job postings from over a 60-day period for a variety of jobs to include content designer, information architect, social media developer, technical editor, technical writer, UX researcher, and web writer (p.  The researchers only kept listings whose primary duties were rhetorical in nature, and divided the jobs into five fields: 1. content developer/manager; 2. grant/proposal writer; 3. medical writer; 4. social media; 5. technical writer/editor (pp. 228-229). In their analysis, Brumberger and Lauer (2015) discovered that all five fields place a strong emphasis on written communication [at least 70%] (p. 236).

According to Carliner (2010), technical writers in the 1970s were primarily producing written content to help customers understand their newly purchased mainframe computers (pp. 22-25). In current times, Carliner (2010) said, software engineers perform the roles of technical communicators (p. 25). Brumberger and Lauer (2015) reported almost 40 years later, technical communicators are expected to be strong in written communicators [75%] (p. 236).

While technical communicators first created books, most technical content today is found online, according to R. Stanley Dicks (2010) who wrote: “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work” (p. 51). So, while a lot in the field has changed over 40 years, the core competency of written communication has not wavered. The emerging media platforms have given the field an opportunity to produce more meaningful written content because it has better communication channels with its audience. Dicks (2010) wrote that companies cannot hide common product issues because they will show up on product reviews, blogs, and message boards (p. 57).

Madonna has remained relevant for 40 years because she was able to keep a pulse on what was current. Technical communication has performed a similar feat by evolving but also by keeping audience analysis at the forefront. As long as the field continues to perform audience analysis and adapt, it will be a viable career opportunity for years to come.



Posted on October 29, 2017, in Digital, Literacy, Social Media, Technology, Workplace and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I appreciate your consideration of the naming issue. Titles and job descriptions carry a lot of weight (and, not to self-advertise but that was part of my reflection this week). As far as Human Resources is concerned I’m a Technical Writer. The HR folks simply could not process any title or job description something closer to what I actually do which is Document & Content Administrator. For whatever reason, their matrix of matching job duties and job titles along with salary analysis just couldn’t handle anything besides “Technical Writer”.

    This has affected how I do my job. For example, I do a lot of Business Process Analysis using the Visio tool. There have been more than a few situations where the project sponsor or meeting facilitator has had to explain why a Technical Writer was included in the project.

    What term do you prefer?

    • Great question. I’ve never been in the field, but I think technical communicator is a good fit because it encompasses more than just writing.

      I’m sorry to hear the naming convention has had a negative impact on you.

      Thanks for sharing your insights.

  2. As a communicator, sometimes it is overwhelming to keep up with the changes brought on by technology. However, I was recently pleased to find some very useful online help. Wondering about some uncovered medical charges on an insurance statement, I would have liked to just ask someone, “why weren’t these charges covered?” The phone number provided, however, just led me to a series of recorded messages that eventually told me to log into my online account for more information. This part of the process was frustrating. However, once I grudgingly logged into my account, I was able to find the explanation I needed, which had to do with a differing copay for out-of-network charges. So, while I was frustrated with the paper statement and phone line, some clever information designers did find a way to help me out online. Part of making this process work was my willingness as a consumer to adapt to new tools – my own digital literacy.

    • Hi Dan,

      I am happy to hear you were able to find your answer regarding insurance online. Although it’s not good your insurance company sent you on a wild goose chase to find that information. I think your story sound like more of a customer service failure from your insurance company than your own digital literacy. It also sounds like the company doesn’t have or can’t support a large call center.

      I’ve notices some companies are really easy to access by phone, e-mail, or online chat, but others are nearly impossible to get in contact with? Have you ever tried to contact Amazon? It’s tough!

      Thanks for sharing your insights!

      Jennifer R.

  3. Wearing my pop culture scholar hat here, I appreciate the Madonna reference, but I think outside readers will need more convincing since you haven’t described what it is that Confessions on the Dancefloor did in terms of production value and how it did in the charts compared to subsequent releases. Is just releasing a new album enough? Is she still relevant now? Why? Once those factors are defined, the connections to tech comm will make more sense and strengthen your “keep a pulse on what’s current” argument.

    • Thank you for your feedback Prof. Pignetti. You’re right. I think Madonna’s last big splash was “Ray of Light” or maybe her cameo in “Die Another Day.”

      I chose Madonna because she is known for her recreations, but I did not think to take a closer look at her more recent work. Madonna was the first pop star I knew and recognized from MTV, so to me, she’ll always be famous.

      • Oh I agree that Confessions was a big moment for her tho I think Ray of Light might have been more innovative. I just thought the post could use more stats to explain that to an outsider. 🤓

  4. Love the Madonna analogy! The emergence of technology has changed so many fields. My sister–in-law did data entry for 25 years for a Milwaukee medical records company. A few years ago, the company reorganized to be more efficient and she was let go. Unfortunately, she never took it upon herself to be more technologically literate. She dislikes it so much she doesn’t have a PC and still has a flip phone. She struggled looking for a new job because applying for employment online was not something she was willing to do.

    • Thanks for the compliment, and thank you for sharing your experiences. That’s too bad about your sister-in-law. As we’ve learned this semester, technology has some downsides, but when it comes to a livelihood, I think it’s important to be a little flexible.

      Like I’ve mentioned, my Grandpa is active on social media but still has a flip phone. He almost got a dumb (as in opposite of smart) phone with a full keyboard, but changed his mind at the store. Too intimidated. Change is hard, but we can adapt gradually.

  5. I really enjoyed the Madonna reference. I did not think about it before but technical professionals definitely need to work hard to stay relevant, much like pop cultural icons. There is a lot of research and self-education, we cannot keep doing the same thing over and over and be successful. I really do wonder what the future will look like in terms of jobs. With all the self-driving, automated and connected tools we are getting in our future, the jobs will change drastically as well.

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