Jack of All Trades, Master of All

  The study detailed in Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World, by Blythe, Lauer, and Curran (2014) features the perfect quote to summarize technical communicators at this moment. It comes from an online comments forum where an individual, presumed to work in technical content management, notes of technical writing, “you must branch out and be a master of many skills and tools.” That’s right, a master, not just someone who can dabble, but a sophisticated, knowledgeable user. What Blythe, Lauer, and Curran (2014) ultimately find from their study is those working in the technical and professional communication (TPC) field utilize a wide range of writing styles, audiences, and technology to accomplish their role. Coincidently, Rachel Spilka’s (2010) book Digital Literacy for Technical Communication reflects and discusses the impacts technology has had on the technical communicator. Saul Carliner‘s “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century” presents the radical changes the technical communication professional has gone through since the late 1970s. The changes have all directly been impacted by technological evolution. Carliner will conclude that in today’s workplace, the challenge technical communicators face is ultimately being outsources. Content development needs are dwindling, but this, from my experience which I will later discuss, is due to the vast amount of technology now required in the workplace. Technical communicators simply cannot know it all, but, we are almost required for job security purposes. As Blythe et. al. (2014) found, gone are the days of specialized skills, replaced instead by the Swiss army knife approach. One unit, or person, that does everything. R. Stanley Dicks will also expand on this in his chapter “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work”. Dicks (2014) states in his opening sentence, “With the rapid and intense increase in digital literacy, technical communication is, by many accounts, in the midst of a seismic shift” (p. 51). Economics, management, and methodologies, as they affect management theory, have aided in the shift. From web techniques like single-sourcing, so productivity management, such as scrum, Dicks discusses emerging norms altering the workplace landscape. Ultimately, Dicks will lean on education as a solution for assisting in the ever-evolving responsibilities of the technical communicator. Education is important and plays a critical role in preparing individuals for the field. What I would like to emphasize in the second part of my post, a professional reflection, is the extent of continuous education required once practicing as a technical communicator.

 Professionally, I deal with a wide range of requirements working in a technologist role. It is not enough to understand the basics of any programs, we’re expected to know everything. From novice to expert, my knowledge must be able to run the gamut to effectively perform my job. I must know the learning management system (LMS) our campus uses inside and out. Additionally, I must understand all of the extensions that go into using the LMS. As Covid-19 has shifted our classrooms into more virtual spaces, I must also understand the virtual conferencing applications we use. Video is also in high demand right now and so I often find myself training on video editing, embedding, and linking. Just this week, I offered two trainings on a new accessibility tool. Additionally, I developed documents aiding instructors in understanding FERPA requirements that relate to their classroom. So in a given week, I may assist instructors with troubleshooting their online courses, write manuals supporting tools, edit videos, train on accessibility, and FERPA, all while answering calls and emails about other niche technology issues. I can’t count out all the other ad hoc issues thrown my way on a given day. Now, don’t let my reflection fool you into thinking I’m complaining. I absolutely love what I do. Learning new technology is one of my favorite activities, so I’m overjoyed to learn more. What I’m trying to showcase is how broad and varied my day-to-day, even hour-to-hour can be working in technology. I certainly have my specialties on the team. I am the designer of the group. So if instructors have design issues related to their course, both with instructional design or graphic design, they also come to me. Yes, I am literally a human one-stop-shop with technology software, applications, and tools. Which is both amazing and also a tad bit daunting. On top of this, my team and I are always looking to the future, from Technology Trends for 2021 to upcoming Learning Trends. Let’s add a cherry on top of this giant sundae as we’re also busy keeping up with the ever-changing offerings of the programs we currently use. Microsoft Teams is a great example of this. Here is what was new in Teams for September and here is what was new in October. Next week, I’ll have another new release coming of features and upgrades to familiarize myself with before my clients encounter them. Our readings this week, certainly shed light on how much the TPC field has grown with technology. The benefit of how comfortable most people are with technology is also the challenge. Our clients are engaging deeper into tech which leads to more programs and software use. It also leads to more training and more ways to ensure the options their choosing ultimately meets the needs of the end-users. Accessibility is always a major concern in my world and so not only must my client be trained on using the tool, they must understand how to navigate that tool for end-users with disabilities. The TPC field is so multifaceted requiring continuous training and educational growth. As the title of this article states, we are expected to function as a Jack of all trades, master of all.

Posted on November 1, 2020, in Social Media and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Kim Smith mccroryk0613

    Hi Emily,

    You’ve given us a really good real-world, first-hand example of the “swiss army knife” resumé employers are expecting. I have done a ton of interviews in my career, and this highlights the importance of hiring for the right mindset as much as the right skillset. The catch-22 of ‘you can’t get a job without experience and you can’t get experience without the job’ is so much more daunting with all these niche skills.

    I firmly believe that attitude and formal skill are a 50/50 split. I think they’re both equally important, though I’ve had colleagues disagree with me in each job I’ve held. Hiring someone with your ambition for learning new technology is just as important as hiring someone that has training or experience with existing technology. In fact, I’d be willing to extend the onboarding and training for a candidate with a stellar attitude and drive to learn. The bonus to doing that is that you don’t have to undo as many bad habits if you get to do the initial training!

    • I totally agree with your assessment of that catch-22. It’s harrowing to keep adding to the list of skills I should have or be ready to learn if I want a job that pays the bills, the loans, and offers insurance. I went to college with the hope I could learn a trade and be cog in a desk in the production machine of the games industry, which is still a possibility but extremely difficult to come by and get hired for because of the entry skill requirements and expectations keep growing as many of the working conditions remain terrible (something now widely referred to as the passion tax).

      I don’t even know what job I’m going to school for anymore, I’m trying to keep my skills varied and keep an open mind looking ahead. I’m now mentally very far from the high school idea of “go to college for X to get X job” because it’s just so much more complicated in reality.

      • Jackie,
        I have never heard the term “passion tax” before but, oh my, does that exist and resonate with my career. I also see that resonating with art students who I’ve worked with in the past, particularly in instructional design. It’s such a broad field with some students specializing in bike design, while others are further engaged in digital interfaces. With so much diversity in their field, I couldn’t imagine all the various software and skills they would have to learn just to start within the field, let alone transition their careers over time.
        Game design, as you mentioned, also seems like a very challenging field to break into. Many of the game design students I’ve met in the past ultimately had plans to relocate post-graduation. I suppose leaving home and space you’re comfortable with is also part of that passion tax. Thanks for the new term!

    • Agreed! I actually just had this debate in a committee meeting – the notion of hiring someone who has yet to develop bad habits! Another catch-22 of having experience with dozens of software/platforms is an individual may not have used those in the same way your company or organization does. So their digital literacy, although extensive, is actually in some ways very limiting. You bring up great points, Kim! I appreciate your reflection.

  2. Emily,

    I really identified with your post this week, and appreciate that you used yourself as a real life example. While we were writing our midterms about our home/work situations, it had become apparent that not only are the lines between work and home being blurred, but expectations are also being blurred. Without the quick in office chats, and hallway follow up conversations, tasks are nonchalantly being designated – sometimes to those who may have a lot on their plate or aren’t sure exactly of what to do. I’m so glad you love your job and the responsibilities that come with it; especially because it sounds like you are stretched pretty thin! When I went to UWEC for my undergrad my dad told me, “get a job doing something you’ll love and you’ll never work a day in your life”. Well, to agree with Jackie, I don’t even know what my dream outcome is anymore, because I feel as though the lines of job expectations are blurred. In the job I’m doing now, I’m doing a small percentage of what I have experience to do, and the other large part is maneuvering through new tasks and trying to master those so I can put it on my ever growing resume. It’s exhausting.

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