Re: Career path in the third and fourth decades?

Subject: Re: Career path in the third and fourth decades?
From: Monica Cellio <cellio -at- pobox -dot- com>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 23 Nov 2005 11:14:43 -0500 (EST)

Thanks to everyone for the feedback, both posted and private.

I have found myself in an interesting niche professionally; in my
current company I was hired as a technical writer (to document APIs)
but I've taken on a larger role in defining those APIs as well. (I
had a lot of prior experience documenting APIs and was a programmer
before that -- which is what let me get my foot in the door.) I'm
the tech lead for the SDK component of our product, and I also supervise
one other writer. In principle, this team could grow to include writers,
trainers, and programmers, which would be really cool. Helping to
develop technology while making it comprehensible to people is exciting;
"making it comprehensible" has thus far largely taken the form of
documentation, but it needn't stop there. I've filed my share of
usability bugs too, and the programmers have learned to just include
me in the design reviews up-front to reduce hassle later.

When you go out looking for a position, though, it seems that it can be
hard to create that kind of niche. Companies seem to want to hire people
who fit into neat "slots" like technical writer or programmer; they don't
always grok hybrids. Small companies do and I prefer small companies
anyway, though there are a lot fewer of them now than several years
ago. :-) My limited experience with large companies is that they look
at the "education" part of my resume (despite its antiquity), see a
degree in technical writing, and look at that pigeon-hole.

I will, I predict, not retire from my current company. This led me to
wonder whether I'll be able to create the kind of position I have (and
want) in the future, or if I need to plan for a bigger change in
direction. I do know, from salary surveys and conversations with
peers, that if a company thinks I'm "just" a tech writer it will
likely decide I'm too expensive. Getting them to agree that I can do
more is the ideal, of course; they also have to be willing to hire such
a person and not just hire against the posted job description. (Again,
this works better with small companies.) Some of you had some excellent
suggestions about specialties that set people apart, such as toolsmithing,
usability, and QA. These are good additions to a portfolio of skills.
(I actually have some of those but hadn't thought to call them out as
such.)

Some of you suggested contracting. I admire your fortitude. :-)
Seriously, though, I know I don't have the right kind of business sense
to make that work for me, so I'm hoping to continue to be an employee
rather than an independent contractor. I'm also drawn to being able
to see projects through for the longer-term; I'm proud of a lot of
work that I've developed over years and that those companies wouldn't
have given to contractors. Contractors are more expensive in the
short-term, so if you have a long-term project you hire an employee
instead. Or at least that's what I've seen locally; is it different
elsewhere?

If I can continue to find API-specialist positions, I could keep doing
the work I enjoy. (There *is* something I think I'd enjoy even more
(not in writing or technology), but chasing new dreams has challenges
of its own.) Failing that, from your comments it seems that a
doc-manager position would let me grow and continue to write. Some of
you suggested teaching, which is a good way to transmit the craft to
those just getting started. While I've been a programmer in the past,
even if I thought I could crack the age/currency barrier there I don't
think I'd go back to that full-time. (I do some programming now,
because you need to actually *use* the product you document and I
document programming interfaces.)

Geoff Hart was one of several people who made this point:
> But the biggie is number three: Why would anyone want to keep rising
> throughout their entire working life? Only hot air, grease, and other
> unpleasant things keep rising along with the rising water level. If you
> love what you're doing, and are being fairly compensated, why not
> simply accept "good enough"?

Personally, I'd love to keep doing what I'm doing and not try to climb
a ladder. My concern is about sustainability, but it's quite likely
that I've fallen for some brainwashing here about the need to keep
climbing, and I thank you for pointing it out.

Dick Margulis wrote:
> 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.
> [...] The main thing I want to suggest to you is that all skills are
> useful.

An excellent approach; thanks for articulating it.

Monica

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Follow-Ups:

References:
career path in the third and fourth decades?: From: Monica Cellio
Career path in the third and fourth decades?: From: Geoff Hart

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