Who Am I?
Posted by lisamrohloff
The Ever Changing Role of Technical Communicator
Since the 1970s, the role of the technical communicator has changed drastically. This change has been caused by the increasing role of computers, and by the shift from publishing in print to publishing online. Technical communicators have had to ride out the new waves of increased automated production, evolution to desktop publishing, the new Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs), Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. These changes happened rapidly and technical communicators have had to learn to use new tools, adjust to a different mindset in their business, and determine what their value is in this new digital age.
Because their role has changed so much in such a short time, they’ve experienced something of an identity crisis, and so have their coworkers and organizations. In chapter 2 of Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, R. Stanley Dicks writes,
In many organizations the main culture and mission are dominated by those other groups of professionals, who often do not understand exactly what communicators do, or how they do it, or how they add value to the bottom line. (2010, Spilka)
My Personal Experience as Technical Communicator
A few years ago, I experienced this technical communicator role confusion first hand. After applying for a job as an Administrative Assistant, I was offered a position as a Business Analyst. At first I was confused by this. Then I was told that, based on my writing experience and my desire to do some technical writing, I’d be a perfect fit as a Business Analyst in an IT Project Management Office. I was then told that 50% of my work would consist of technical writing. Translation: the company needed an IT technical writer and I had just enough writing experience to qualify for the job.
I really had no idea what being a technical writer entailed, but I was about to learn. I began working with a Cyber Security expert who had several technical degrees, and with other IT Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). My job was to write user instructions for the new anti-virus software that the organization would be using. I was honest and told them I had no IT experience. They were okay with that because they wanted me to learn from the SMEs and then write the instructions in a way that the average non-IT person could understand them. It was a great experience, but some of the SMEs told me I was not really a technical writer in the true sense of the title. So, I thought to myself, “Who am I?” When people would ask me what I did for a living, I’d say something like, “My title is Business Analyst, but I’m not really a Business Analyst – I’m more of a Technical Writer.” Looking back, I can see that nobody I worked with or for really knew if I was truly a technical writer either. They had a need and I filled it. Then they called me a Technical Writer.
History of a Technical Communicator
Since that time, I have perked up whenever the topic of Technical Writer comes up, particularly in the Master of Science in Technical and Professional Communication program I’m in. The book Digital Literacy for Technical Communication provides the best explanation of this role that I have ever found. But, more than that, it goes on to help readers understand why there’s been some confusion around this role. I’ve learned that the following changes throughout the last few decades have contributed to the fluctuations in this role:
1970s Technical Writer
- write instructions, draw illustrations, edit product specifications and create reference materials and user manuals using typewriters, pens and paper
1980s Technical Writer
- Mini and personal computers are beginning to be used
- Customers receive technical support through service contracts
- more 3rd part software is being used by companies
- Word processing and desktop publishing are available
1990s Technical Writer/Communicator
- Role splits into two:
- Software Engineer – design and create interactions, and
- Technical Writer – documents and provides instructions
- Personal Computers are the norm
- Internet is used and many documents are published online as opposed to on paper
2000s Technical Communicator
- Web 1.0
- Web 2.0 technologies have given us the tools to do much of the work ourselves
“When billions of people came into the possession of digital computers and Internet connections, however, a new mode of production began to emerge…the means of both production and distribution were no longer limited to capitalists when the workers themselves could own these same means” (2012, Reingold).
- Increase in content published online
- interactive capabilities of computers
- Content management systems
- Social networking
- Learning Management Systems (LMS)
- working as part of a cross-functional project team that collaborates with digital media
- Flexible work schedules and working remotely
Technology has evolved quickly, and we’ve had to evolve with it. Sherry Turkle described this rapid evolution well.
“This networked culture is very young. Attendants at its birth, we threw ourselves into its adventure. This is human” (2011, Turkle).
With all these changes, it’s no wonder there has been some confusion as to what a technical communicator is. However, the role is still hard to define because the job description for this role can vary by organization and needs, and because the atmosphere is still changing.
“Technical communicators are now in a similarly disruptive, revolutionary era when several aspects of their work are changing at the same time… The methods we use for managing projects are changing, in some cases quite radically. the tools and methods for developing, storing, and retrieving information are also evolving rapidly. While the period ahead may be at times unsettling for practitioners and educators alike in the technical communication discipline, it also promises to provide the kinds of challenges and rewards that such periods always yield” (2010, Dicks).
As long as we continue to evolve along our technological journey, we can expect roles such as technical communicator to continue to change.
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