Re: tech communication career

Subject: Re: tech communication career
From: Stuart Burnfield <sburnf -at- au1 -dot- ibm -dot- com>
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
Date: Mon, 3 Jul 2006 15:06:05 +0800

Roy said:
> I am considering technical communication as a career...
> Technical writing, at least from my brief overview,
> seems like a very interesting career, something that
> would fit my personality well. And, it appears to pay well.
> So, here are some questions:
> 1) What is a typical day like?

Some combination of writing, rewriting, checking facts and concepts with
SMEs (Subject-Matter Experts) such as engineers or software developers,
organising reviews of my work, reviewing other people's work, planning,
installing software, testing software, creating or updating illustrations.

> 2) What are hours like? Do you find it takes time
> away from your family beyond 50 hours a week or so?

I've mostly worked on an hourly or daily rate, so my hours have been very
flexible. More when things are busy, less when not... I've worked from home
a fair bit, which had many pluses but also some minuses from the family
point of view. Which brings me to:

> 3) What are some of the major pluses and minuses of
> the career?

As a contractor I have to pay for my own education and for any time off. I
don't get paid for sick days and holidays (and for time spent writing
e-mails :^). Other than that I won't cover the +s and -s of being a
contractor as these apply to most contract work and not just tech writing.

TW pluses: Learning new stuff all the time. Variety. You tend to work on
multiple projects. More feeling of progress--every day or week you can feel
that you've completed something tangible. (When I was a programmer, I
typically worked for months on something that didn't work, and if all went
well at the end of that time one day it would all finally work, then I'd
let out a big tired sigh and start work on the next thing that wouldn't
work for several months.)

TW minuses: Many TWs complain of a lack of respect from their colleagues
or managers. I haven't experienced this--or to put it another way, if you
feel satisfied with your own work and you have the respect of people whose
opinion matters to you, that more than makes up for a lack of respect from
other people whose opinion doesn't matter.

> 4) What are typical entry level salaries and later
> salaries? Are you happy with your compensation?

Salaries vary a lot by region. Check with the STC chapter that covers where
you plan to work.

> 5) What is most exciting to you about the job?

Working with very smart people on interesting, useful projects.

> 6) How vital is a degree in technical communication?

Not vital but becoming more important. In my first year as a programmer I
worked with programmers whose qualifications were in physics, mathematics,
engineering, economics, naval architecture, and so on. (Mine was a Bachelor
of Business with a major in Information Processing.) Relatively few people
had straight computer science degrees then. These days I think it would be
rarer to find programmers without a programming qualification. I think TW
is heading in the same direction.

> Is competition for jobs intense?

Depends on the state of the economy in your area.

> I ask this since while I have some technical knowledge,
> I am sure it is not enough to start a career in technical
> communication right off the bat.

Roy, you write well and you ask good questions. That's a great head start.
Don't think that TWs have to be experts in everything they write about. The
secret is that you need to be able to grasp concepts quickly at a general
level, then plan, ask questions, check your understanding, and deliver.

If you're really hopeless at picking up technical knowledge that's
certainly going to limit your prospects, but there is still documentation
work around that doesn't involve gnarly science/ICT topics.

> I would need a certificate at the very least, plus an internship.

All you need is to present yourself as slightly better qualified than the
other applicants. If they all have a certificate and experience and you
don't, you'll probably miss out. If you're competing with people with no
experience, you have a good chance of getting that first job. And once you
have that first happy client or employer, as Jerry Pournelle said in a
different context, you're half-way to anywhere.

Having said that, it would help you a lot to at least start a TW course,
read some good TW books, and build up a portfolio of samples. For guidance
on all these things, see the techwr-l archives.

> 7) How is the career undergoing changes, and in what
> ways will that impact the job market for technical writing?

A few years ago it was printed manual => online information. Recently
there's been an effort to move information from standalone manuals and help
systems into the product interface. In future I think documentation will be
treated more as a kind of database of information chunks, organised by
information type and assembled into different formats for different needs.
Look into Author IT and DITA for two different approaches to this.

Good luck.

Stuart Burnfield


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