Re: career path in the third and fourth decades?

Subject: Re: career path in the third and fourth decades?
From: Dick Margulis <margulisd -at- comcast -dot- net>
To: Monica Cellio <cellio -at- pobox -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 22 Nov 2005 10:55:38 -0500


This is a well worn discussion topic on techwr-l, and you are likely to find a variety of interesting posts on the subject in the archives, in addition to whatever input this thread generates. My comments below are based on my own peculiar perspective and should not be taken as representative.

Monica Cellio wrote:


It's my impression that even the best technical writers will hit a glass
ceiling long before they complete a 40- or 45-year career, unless they
adjust their careers away from technical writing.

The word _career_ carries a lot of baggage in a twenty-first-century postindustrial economy. I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that all you mean is that you expect to have to work to support yourself for at least that many years--not an unrealistic assumption. The reason I say that is that I don't view technical writing as a career in the more traditional sense of a calling that occupies and supports someone for a working lifetime, the way, say, medicine or law might. I see technical writing as a job, often a good job, open to people with particular interests and talents. For the most part, those people are flexible and have varied interests (and often a short attention span); so there is no incentive to stay in technical writing if demand lessens or if better opportunities arise in different jobs.

(If you know of places
where that's not true -- where, say, a 30-year veteran can continue to
advance in salary while remaining a technical writer -- please let me know.)

In the Civil Service, perhaps? Some people have a more strongly felt need for guaranteed job security than others. The government may not pay as well as private industry, and working conditions may be quite different (better or worse, depending on your point of view); but the tradeoff is long-term stability and a predictable career advancement path.

I've got a pretty good idea of how the first 20-odd years of a
tech-writing career can play out,

WOW!!! Can I discuss my stock portfolio with you?

but am interested in hearing from
people who are farther along.

Today there are all these college and university programs in technical communication turning out shiny new tech writers. For most of us who have the length of experience you're supposing we have, though, technical writing is something we fell into after some years working in other capacities. That's not to say that nobody has more than twenty years of experience as a tech writer, only to say that most of the people old enough to have that much experience don't. In my case, I've done a number of interesting things in my life, about fifteen to twenty years' worth of which I could call tech writing if I stretched a bit. Some of that time was in good jobs, some in not-so-good jobs. But they were jobs--a way to earn money--not a definition of who I am as a person. This is an important point: You are not a technical writer. You are a person who may, from time to time, do technical writing for a living. Learn that lesson so that the first time you get laid off--and you will get laid off if you don't go the Civil Service route--you bounce out of bed the next morning and look for jobs in a wide range of fields with a positive attitude rather than moping around waiting for the economy to improve so you can remain true to your chosen career path.

What changes in direction did you make to
stay marketable while using the skills you've acquired? I see a few possibilities.

I approach every job as an opportunity to apply everything I've learned in my life to date and to learn new stuff that I can apply tomorrow. As a volunteer cook at the local firemen's fair, I learned how to make better burgers at home, how to use copious amounts of cheap beer to stay hydrated in a hot working environment, and a host of other useful skills. As a tech writer I applied programming skills and language skills I picked up in high school and learned my way around the Internet well enough that now I run a Web-based business from home. Most employers see a broad skill set as better than a narrow skill set, because as business needs fluctuate they can assign the more broadly skilled person to a variety of tasks.

Many people go into management, which works at companies large enough to have sizable doc departments.

It also works, in a general way, anywhere managers are needed. If you truly learn management skills (managing people toward a goal rather than managing a project toward a deadline), you can apply them in any workgroup, at the company you started with or at another.

I'm not sure where doc managers go
to be promoted -- perhaps to maangers of larger groups encompassing doc, training, support, consulting services, and so on (managers of managers)? That's how it played out in the one case I've witnessed.

I think that part of what's tripping you up is that you're thinking of a documentation department as a staff department rather than a line department. That varies from place to place. If you're in an organization where you're in a support (staff) role and your output is not seen as adding to the bottom line, then, yes, the management ladder is only going to take you so far. If you are in an organization where product quality drives market penetration, then presumably there is no limit to how high you can rise in management (although these days most CEOs seem to come out of sales or finance rather than product development). But now you're talking about management as management, not as a natural outgrowth of tech writing skills.

Technical writers who are domain experts might transition into working
in that domain. A writer of programming documentation, for instance,
might shift from technical writing to being a programmer.

Wrong direction. Programming is largely a young person's game. You don't want to go into it as a middle-aged person. There are biological considerations in terms of the way our brains age. But your point about domain expertise is well taken. Writers often transition into product management or business analysis. But there are other choices, too. You may find yourself doing a fair amount of marcomm and then decide you're attracted to marketing and eventually sales (lots of salespeople are former engineers). Salespeople often go into some type of management (sales, purchasing, product) at a company they've been selling to. Or you may decide to teach. There really are no limits. (You mentioned several of these; I'm just confirming that they are realistic.)

The main thing I want to suggest to you is that all skills are useful. If, five years from now, you decide to buy a sailboat and run charter cruises in the Galapagos or take up professional skateboarding, every skill you acquire and every bit of personal growth you experience as a tech writer will prove useful in your new career.

Dick Margulis


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career path in the third and fourth decades?: From: Monica Cellio

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