A typesetter, an analytical thinker, and an unfocused student walk into a bar…and realize they have all become technical communicators. If you are a professional in a non-techcomm company or a student studying a different major, you too, can be a technical communicator because most professionals do not study techcomm, they enter the profession from other related jobs.
This was the topic of STC-PMC’s fall webinar, Getting Started in Technical Communication. Hosted by chapter president, Jen Heller Meservey and handsomely attended by a multitude of experienced professionals, students and new graduates, the panel of five industry experts spoke about their start in technical communication, which wasn’t techcomm as we know it today. All of the panelists expressed they are better technical communicators because of their different start in the industry.
Lori Corbett began her career as a typesetter for Columbia University’s student newspaper. After graduating with a degree in Economics, she became an assistant math & economics editor at Academic Press working with staff writers for college texts. As her career progressed into the 1980s, she began to work on display screen typesetting machines, the precursor of current day word processing. As her typesetting skills advanced, she wound up fixing errors by other technical writers. Around this same time, she took a grammar course, paid for by the company she was working for. Lori had the highest score even higher than the technical writers she was working with. When a promotion was rejected, she quit and started working as a contracted employee, and soon joined STC. As a new member, she volunteered to write the newsletter, which led to her other volunteer positions as Treasurer, Vice President and President. Through her connections in STC, Lori found work as a technical writer. She has been an STC member for over 30 years. Lori’s advice: “Always volunteer. The reward is greater than you could ever imagine.”
Tim Esposito has been in techcomm for more than 20 years. His journey began as a college student working in the computer lab helping people print documents. When UNIX-based email became prominent, he became the “go-to” guy and when Windows email was introduced, Tim wrote e-mail instructions, which were copied and distributed to professors and students. During that same time, Tim taught himself HTML, leading to the creation of his own college website comprised of one page with a list of links. That website got him noticed by someone in school who recommended him for a job as a webmaster for Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia. Tim noticed that he had a talent for translating material to functional and readable web information. Today, Tim heads the curation of documentation and books for Oracle. Tim has been a member of STC for over 10 years. His volunteer work and attention to detail has earned him the current position of Board Secretary for the Society. Tim’s advice: “The success of being a technical communicator is taking info and displaying it in a way that people know how understand it. You need to be organized, know where you’re going with things, and how other people need to view things.”
Karen Levine began her career at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard working on shipboard electronic systems like radar, computer, data, and communications. She then moved on to support Navy pilots with computer system integration, logistics, and using her technical knowledge to edit user and service manuals. This led to her working as Deputy Support Manager for naval mission planning for the Navy and Marine Corps. After 20 years, she wanted to move on and entered Drexel’s MS of Technical Communication program. She now works at a medical device company managing a small group of technical writers for the neonatal care department, writing and editing user manuals for the medical device equipment for the labor and delivery neonatal equipment. After earning her MS, she joined STC and took a training seminar through the NY Metro Chapter. She was quickly recruited to input competition entries. After a few years, she became involved in the Phila. Metro Chapter doing the same thing. Since then Karen has held several prominent Board positions, and in 2019 she was honored as a Fellowship Associate. Karen’s advice: “Volunteer wherever help is needed. The reward outweighs the work, and the friendships, both regionally and nationally, last a lifetime.”
Ellen O’Brien wasn’t looking for a job in technical communication, either. While studying for her BS in Communications, she was doing some mass communications and AV work but wasn’t sure what she wanted to do – maybe something in PR, magazine or editorial work, and the summer before senior year, she wanted to live with her sister who lived in Atlanta. Ellen got a job with IBM in its Information Development group, and after returning to college for her senior year, Ellen knew she wanted to work in the computer industry because it paid more than PR. She knew it was a good start not knowing where her IBM training would eventually lead her. Using her writing skills and natural analytical mind, it led her down a path to technical communication. It was natural for Ellen to take complex information and explain it in a simplified way. The company she started with after graduation merged and was acquired several times, and through the years she became more versed in what is now technical writing. Left a company while working in mainframe computer industry. After being laid off in 2015 for 10 months, she joined STC, which was a huge resource, and it led her to her current position. Ellen’s advice: “As a technical writer, you need to learn new things, new technologies and talk to people about it. Interpersonal communication, interviewing, backstroking, and all-around communication is essential in the profession. Engineers don’t necessarily have the soft skills that tech writers do.”
Matt Reiner was in community college studying Computer Science but and didn’t know what to do after graduation so he worked as a college peer tutor in Math, Science and English. His job as a tutor was not to teach other students but to connect them to the resources around them. This was the start of his career in techcomm, only he didn’t know it at the time. When transferring to a university, he worked as a technical assistant cleaning out computers at an elementary school. Along the way he built a database of every computer in the school district with the details of each computer including the operating systems. He knew there was value in this information. After college he held several jobs including a project manager for a networking company and a software application writer for a software development company. This is where he introduced Confluence to the company, became a SCRUM master and learned DITA. His current job gives him a more meaningful connection to technical communication. Matt’s advice: “Every experience you have is a very important experience, even though you do not realize it at the time. Always focus on how you can grow in a position, even if you don’t like it.”
Q & A
1. What is the most challenging thing about starting in technical communication or the most challenging thing now in your career?
Ellen – “Some of the challenges are about dealing with other people that you need information from. Many people in the technical field are not typically good communicators. They prefer the coding, etc., they have interesting hobbies, but more than not, you have to go more than 50% in the communication exchange because you are able to.”
Tim – “In every job I have been in I have always been placed with the person that is the least communicative. You have to try to make a connection so they open up to you and make things happen.”
Matt – “I assumed the other employees didn’t see the value my work so it took me some time to understand how to legitimize my role as a technical communicator and the value it has for users. Finding ways to show people how technical documentation helps the company.”
2. Do you have any advice for new grads with a degree in English or tips for breaking into the tech comm field?
Karen – “All the tech writers that work for me have degrees in English. They didn’t have technical backgrounds and managed to get jobs with tech companies. Getting involved in STC or other organizations specific to tech comm, where you can meet new people, talk to them and pick their brains, is important. Volunteering in the organization will help you learn more skills.
Lori – “When I graduated there was no such thing as tech comm, but I backed into it. Working with folks who were doing other things and helping them do their job better, is a skill. Don’t say ‘No’ to any opportunity.”
Ellen – “Now there are opportunities. There are more technical chops that you have learned: writing a blog, creating a personal website, working for yourself or volunteering, tech comm encompasses all that. Our job, however, is more portfolio based.”
Matt – “Google is doing Season of Docs. There is a paid stipend for technical writers to work with a community on creating documentation to an open source project. There is an evaluation process, but how cool would it be to have your work approved by Google?”
3. Do I need to seek other programs if I have a background in Journalism for Government Agencies?
Karen – “For PR documentation and PR projects, I recommend Drexel’s Tech Comm program. They cover a lot of ground and have independent study. STC has certification programs if you have no experience in technical communication. Look at your experience and see how you can frame it to relate it to tech comm. You don’t necessarily need a degree program, learn some certification skills or tweak your current skills.”
Ellen – “Journalism is an excellent background to tech writing. It forces you to be thoughtful and break things down. Technical writing and Journalism are both fact-based writing. You are telling a story essentially. And if you see a posting that interests you, apply anyway. Lack of experience of a specific tool is low on the totem pole.”
Tim – “Don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone. Open up and learn new things. Be adaptive. Most tools have a free download. Usability goes hand in hand with UI design.”
Lori – “Be open to learning new tools. In every job you encounter you use new tools.”
Matt – “Move into UI text writing. If you’re not a UI designer you can still fix a problem. If you don’t like what the app gives you, see how you could rewrite it so it’s easily understood. Document your own problem and solve it.”
4. Certification programs?
Matt – “Google just released Technical Writing I and II. They are online materials. These are courses used at Google on how to do technical writing.
5. Work Life Balance
Karen – “There are times when you launch a new product and everyone is working like crazy, but there is a good work/life balance. I don’t have a lot of stress. There is never enough time that you want to do the job perfectly, but perfection is not necessary. If you get the communication to the user on time, then you can balance the time between the two.”
Ellen – “There is a lot of freedom to manage your time for releases. Time management is critical.”
Lori – “Never be afraid to leave a job for better work/life balance.”
Tim – “It depends upon how supportive your manager is. Your manager should know what your job entails and the process.”
6. Share a favorite about being a part of STC.
Karen – “The people – not just for the networking but these are really good people.”
Lori – “Developing the network and connections with all people.”
Tim – “The weird satisfaction of helping people. Making connections and helping people from all over the world. Explore what the process is and improve upon it.”