Is technical communication the job for you?

Every so often, I get asked about being a technical communicator, mostly by people wondering if they should sign up for college classes to learn to become a technical communicator.

I like it a lot for a lot of reasons, but this is one of those “It all depends” situations. I’m going to tell you about all the good and all the bad I can think of to give you as complete a picture so you can make a fully-informed decision.

What Is Technical Communication?

Before anything else, I want to try and nail down the idea of “technical communication” (or “TC” just to save my wrists) so we’re talking apples and apples.

The first thing that most people think of for TC is technical writing. Technical writing is creating product and user manuals, online help, FAQs, tip sheets, product spec sheets, maintenance documentation, knowledge bases, quick reference guides, training materials, APIs and programmer references, and installation instructions. You can work in any number of industries doing any number of things, too. The software and hardware industries are big users of technical communicators, but there are many other kinds of technical writing. Here’s a sample of technical communication in a variety of industries:

  • automotive–those manuals that come with your car, maintenance manuals
  • medical–retail and professional medical supplies packaging and instructions, medical equipment operation and maintenance manuals
  • consumer electronics–installation, operation, and maintenance manuals
  • industrial equipment–operation and maintenance manuals
  • manufacturing–documentation for car seats to beds to stoves to plumbing fixtures to sewing machines
  • food–someone has to write the recipes on the back of cake mix boxes
  • government–anything the government produces, from tax instructions to drivers license manuals to landscaper training materials

As you can see, TC covers a lot of ground. Any time you see words in a row that describe how to do something, it’s TC and some grown person somewhere got paid to do that. (Even when you don’t see words in a row and it’s just graphics, such as with IKEA instructions or airplane safety cards, it’s still TC and some grown person got paid for it.)

What Are Technical Communicators Like?

Technical communicators (TCers) are an odd bunch. For one thing, there’s a high percentage of TCers with Asperger’s Syndrome. Not as high a percentage as, say, programmers, but enough that you’ll notice the lack of a sense of humor in some of your compatriots. In addition, the majority of TCers are introverted, which is neither good nor bad, but it’s important to be aware of. (Old joke, equally true of technical writers and programmers: “How can you tell a technical writer is introverted?” “He looks at your shoes when he talks to you.”) If you’re an extrovert (like me), you can either assume that your jokes aren’t going to always be understood or that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Both are equally true.

Good TCers tend to be very focused on details and have at least fair organizational skills. Most TCers do not do office politics well, in large part because they don’t read people as well as they might.

As a final comment, I’d like to point out that Tina the Brittle Tech Writer in Dilbert is a real person. No, I don’t mean she’s real like we all know someone like that, I mean that Tina is modeled after one, specific, live human being who you could actually meet in person. There’s a story that hangs on this as you might well imagine and it’s not my story to tell and I’m not gonna. (So there!) But she really is real. And she really is exactly like what you see in Dilbert.

What Kind of Educational Background Do You Need?

Some TC jobs require specific skills; for example, if you’re documenting medical equipment, you may need to have specific training or background. On the other hand, you might not need any background at all except for the ability to write. Taking writing courses is pretty much always a good idea, as there are basic planning, writing, and organizational skills that every TCer will benefit from.

If you have no background in TC, look for a TC certificate program at schools in your area. You can also take remote classes in TC from a number of colleges and universities, either as single classes or as part of a TC Certificate program. Check out the University of California, Riverside Extension program for both live and online classes. They have a great certificate program, too.

In my experience, the best TCers have come to the field from other places: people who were chemists or accountants or musicians or whatever. The additional life experience gives them background to work with, particularly if they’re doing writing in the field in which they have personal experience. There are many TCers who have degrees in TC specifically, but it’s not necessary. The person I talked to that sparked the idea to write this post has a background in industrial engineering, organizational management, writing training materials, doing training, and several other things in general business environments. She’s going to be a dynamo as soon as she gets even a few good technical writing courses under her belt.

Note: You don’t necessarily have to have any training at all to be brilliant. I’ve got a high school diploma. I attended college briefly but I was a complete washout academically. The most important training I received after high school was a CETA program that taught me to type, how to use a variety of office equipment, the basics of accounting, and entry level programming. From there, I got a couple dozen temp jobs, then became a programmer, then started writing documentation, became a technical writer, and things just sort of blossomed from there. So by way of reference, I’ll stack my career up against anyone’s at this point, but I don’t have a college degree or writing training. (Damn, I’m good. I ain’t humble, but I’m really good!) I can’t honestly say that I’d recommend doing it this way–it’s hard at times!–but it’s possible to do it if you wish.

What’s the Money Like?

The money’s not bad. If you’re working captive for a company, you can get anywhere from $40-75K as a TCer. Freelance writing can get you anywhere from $25K-$100K or even more depending on the type of writing and how good you are at marketing your skills. (If you’re looking for more money in a technical field, consider programming, which earns as much as $100K captive and as much as $150K freelance.)

Do Technical Communicators Get Respect?

There is very little respect to be had in TC. I don’t care how many degrees you’ve got or how fast you can whip stuff out; TCers don’t get respect. Part of this is related to the introverted personality type of TCers, but a lot of it is situational. Here’s how it works.

Most jobs in a company are vertical. Sales, Development, Marketing, Testing, and Support are all vertical with tightly defined relationships. Work flows in from and is handed off clearly specified people or positions. Technical Publications, on the other hand, is horizontal. Technical Publications cuts across all the other groups of the company. Work can come in from anywhere in the company and be handed off to anyone in the company… or even outside the company. It is possible that a single TCer could talk to a shipping clerk, the receptionist, a developer, and the company’s CEO in the same day for the same project. (Think about it and I’m sure you’ll be able to think of a scenario yourself.)

Because TCers talk to everyone, TCers are the ones that hear that the product Development is creating, which leans sideways and is painted green, is being eagerly anticipated by a Marketing department that has been telling everyone that this thing stands on its head and is painted blue. Because TCers are the first to identify these disconnects in a company, TCers are also the ones who have the painful obligation of pointing out these disparities in goals. And TCers, ultimately, are the ones who are ritually slaughtered as the bearers of bad news. (In “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” you never hear what happened to the little boy that points out the Emperor’s nakedness after the story ended. TCers know from personal experience.)

As a result of all this, there’s a situational problem with getting respect on the job. And that’s okay, you know: if you’re aware that you’re unlikely to get respect, you won’t be looking for it. Unfortunately. many TCers get wrapped around the axle about why there isn’t respect and start making waves to get validation. That’s their choice, but there’s just no winning in this situation. Respect is not a coin that TCers get paid in. I’m fond of saying that, if you want a career with respect, you should become a nurse or a school teacher, because both those professions get a lot more respect than TC.

What’s the Career Path?

Typically, you progress to senior writer, group lead/project manager, writing manager, and possibly even director of communication. There are many offshoots from basic technical writing leading to related fields such as technical marketing writing, web content development, corporate communication, executive presentations and white papers, user experience expertise, and training. TC is noted for having a very thin glass ceiling; generally, the higher up you go, the higher the ratio of women to men.

Other Types of TC to Consider

Besides manuals and documentation as I’ve already described, you can try your hand at non-fiction books (which you’re probably already interested in, because that’s what this blog is about) and magazine articles. There’s lots of material about books elsewhere in this blog, but I want to mention that magazine articles pay very well for a relatively small amount of work… and they’re fun. (I’ll talk more about writing magazine articles in a later post.)

If you have a business background, you can try being a business analyst. Business analysts go into companies and figure out what needs fixing and how. The skill sets for business analyst and TCer are about the same, but there’s something you should know about business analysts: they tend to make a lot more money than TCers and they get treated with lots of respect. Yeah, they’re probably the bearers of bad news, too, which doesn’t make sense; that’s just the way it is. But it’s fascinating work if you’re interested.

Freelance Opportunities

TC has many opportunities for working freelance. Virtually all the jobs I’ve described can be done remotely and/or freelance from the pleasure of your own home office.

Are You Interested or Still Not Sure?

I’ve tried to present many of the pluses and minuses of TC here without spending too much time doing it. (And I’ve probably gotten a few things wrong, too. Comments are welcome.) I certainly like it: writing is a fun way to make a living. The hours are tolerable and there’s no heavy lifting.

If you’re interested at this point or would just like some more information, I encourage you to hang out at a few meetings of the local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication. Chapters vary dramatically in size and focus, but you can rub shoulders with people who do this for a living and see if you like it.

8 Responses to “Is technical communication the job for you?”

  1. What Is Technical Communication – You’re taking a very end-product view of the role, when there are a good number of TCers working in strategic roles as well.

    What are TCers Like – Nail on the friggin’ head! (In case anyone wonders, I’m an extrovert too.)

    Education – Right, it’s all over the place, though the current trend seems to lean toward a TC or related degree. Still, that will change – again – with time.

    The money – Indeed, it’s all over the place; I’ve known quite a few captives earning well above the $75k mark (and many well below the $40k mark).

    Respect – Here’s my unpopular though entirely well-founded opinion: The only reason TCers don’t get respect is because they don’t earn it. Respect is not a given, and it’s not something you can demand from anyone. If you’re in an organization that you simply cannot win over, then it’s not the TC role that brands you with a scarlet “L” (take a wild guess what it stands for) but the organization that’s the problem or it’s a bad fit for you, personally. Respect is earned, period. If you’re unfortunate enough to be severely introverted and Asperger’s-stricken, there may be little hope for winning respect unless the organization fits your personality (though either way you’re likely not going to notice enough to care). But if you’re extroverted, lively, and work in a like-dispositioned company, the respect is there to be won and then some.

    Career Path – Not mentioned are tangential careers such as UX, training, QA, engineering (yes, I’ve seen it happen multiple times) and hopefully one day in my case, beer brewing (yes, it’s tangential, damnit!).

    All in all, it’s an interesting career and definitely one that’s constantly evolving and expanding. Now more than ever, content is king. Race for the crown!

  2. Char James-Tanny

    For a “flip side of the coin” story…

    I’m an introvert. (I usually call myself an “extroverted introvert”, but I am most definitely an introvert. Most people don’t believe me ;-).)

    Introverts can earn respect. I’ve done it. I’m currently working as a consultant writer/editor for a standards organization. The folks in the committees, working groups, and task forces create the initial drafts of various specifications, and after they’re finished, the docs come to me for final formatting and editing (both technical and copy-editing.)

    I’m now listed as the final authority for everything related to content 🙂 The teams have requested my presence at F2F member meetings and concalls. (This is a global organization in every sense of the word…I work with people from Finland, France, Austria, England, Germany, Italy, China, and Japan on a regular basis. So in addition to “regular” editing, I also get to edit ESL.)

    Basically: don’t divide us into “introverts” and “extroverts”, any more than you’d divide us by any other categories. Except for “good” and “not so good” 😉

  3. You must be technical or at least like technology. You must be aggressive enough to leave your cubicle and chase down answers (and people!). You must have excellent written language skills (way better than you think) plus strong logic and reasoning. This is not a field for the faint of heart!

  4. Craig Cardimon

    I agree with what everyone has said, especially Leah. I think you also need to have a sense of curiosity. What happens if they push this button first? I worked for the college newpaper, and learning to chase people down for answers is a big help now. Working in a newsroom also taught me about deadlines. We all know about deadlines and deliverables.

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