RE: Technical Writing Tests

Subject: RE: Technical Writing Tests
From: "TEA Lanham, Kevin" <Klanham -at- aus -dot- telusa -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 14 Feb 2003 11:48:41 -0600

I've seen many messages recently about the advantages and disadvantages of
writing samples.

What is striking to me is that the target audience seems reversed.

Many opinions reflect what the individual writers prefer or think is logical
or reasonable about whether or not to gather writing samples. Much of the
input seems to reflect the way the candidate feels having been asked to
offer such samples. I think the discussion could be better aimed at the
hiring managers from their perspective, not from the perspective of those
tested. Then maybe some of them will see your good idea and use it.

The hiring manager sits in the chair where the buck stops. In the end, the
company is asking the hiring manager to assess an individual and make a
hiring decision with limited information and limited time. Many of these
same companies promote star writers into the manager role but "save" money
by not sending them to any management or leadership training. So some hiring
managers have lots of experience from previous lives at other companies, and
some have little to none. Then some candidates become the leadership
laboratory for these newbies until they gain more experience.

The typical system of hiring forces managers to make many decisions in the
same way that Engineering groups must make design tradeoffs, but for hiring
we get less time. So in my opinion, design and hiring are both more art than

The hiring manager must take in the information that is gathered during the
limited assessment phase, filter what they perceive through the lens of
their experiences, draw out the input of others included in the process, and
make a judgment about another person.

Some companies allow more time for "dating" the candidates before making a
"commitment" while other companies allow for about 1-3 hours. Hiring
managers are sometimes judged for their own ability to quickly judge and
make hiring decisions. When a hiring manager makes a string of such
decisions that don't work out the manager may be counseled about turnover
"divorce" rates. On the other hand if they hire well, they are judged as
successful by some management cultures. Even if this is not an issue in a
particular corporate culture, the effect of poor decisions is real to any
company. It is more efficient to get it right the first time. The cost in
time, money, and emotions are high when the decision is wrong.

My point is that all the arguments about comparing conducting a writing
sample to the real environment are based on the premise that the hiring
manager could see how the candidate interacts with the real environment and
all that goes with it. That sounds like a pretty cool situation. Tell me
where to find it. The typical hiring process is not perfect. Those in the
role of judging others within this system are not perfect. When you offer
opinions about the best way to gather information about candidates and
assess them for a fit with a particular job, you are more likely to offer
great ideas if you do a virtual usability test first. Vicariously assume the
hiring manager's role, and try to empathize with the requirements placed on
that person. Then write your help ideas.

Targeting the audience helps. Virtual usability testing may help. But
perhaps your time budget for the task of responding to the list was
insufficient to get to this level of quality.

To help with the usability test, I offer the following quote (I lost the
source, sorry).

"The first rule of engineering is that everything is about tradeoffs.
Tradeoffs are usually good for one element, but bad for another, because
good engineering is not always about "purity," it is about managing
tradeoffs for the solutions you're trying to reach. The generalized mission,
intent, goal, or objective of any given project [including hiring a writer]
involves a list of specific requirements, whether consciously understood or

So we'll probably go back and forth some more on this, but in the end the
hiring manager has to make a decision with imperfect information. So writing
samples are one tool on the continuum of assessment options that range from
lousy-to-perfect. I am not aware of many things we can do at the perfect
state, but I'm all ears for ideas that approach that end of the spectrum.
Hiring managers don't have the luxury of saying that assessment idea X is
not perfect so I won't use it. They tend to look at any ideas that give them
more insights, however imperfect, so they can improve their chances of
making the best hiring decision. If you just want to vent, have at it. But
if you want to influence the way the process is performed in the future,
think it through and think up some content that can be used.

Maybe the hiring manager for your next gig is reading the list. That's my
two cents for today.



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