Re: Bryan Chafy's hello

Subject: Re: Bryan Chafy's hello
From: "Doug, Data Librarian at Ext 4225" <engstromdd -at- PHIBRED -dot- COM>
Date: Mon, 25 Apr 1994 11:56:04 -0500

To Cheryl and other's intersted in Bryan's questions:

I sent Bryan a private and somewhat longer message; this one is for Cheryl and
the "lurkers" on the list. Feel free to share anything here you find valuable
with others on or off the list (there, I covered the copyright issue.)

This year I've been sending out resume's to various prospects in hopes of
finding some kind of technical writing co-op or summer job. What I have found
is that I have been entered into numerous six-month databases. When a potential
prospect does find an interest in me, it is almost always because of my computer
science knowledge and not my techical writing knowledge.

Obviously, a technical writing coop position is ideal, but if I were you, I'd
take what I can get. *Any* professional experience will make you look better
when you apply for a full-time job on graduation. Besides, intern/coop
positions are usually pretty flexible, and if you volunteer for some writing
assignment, I doubt anybody will fight you for them.

Should all future technical writers be double majors?

Not a bad idea, really. Most journalism schools require their graduates to have
a second major, a minor, or an area of concentration. This is based on the
theory that journalism by itself is basically a course on presentation
techniques, and really isn't "about" anything; the ability to analyze content is
a skill that can be developed only while analyzing the content of a study area.
Technical writing has pretty much the same dynamic.

If so, would that really benefit me in finding a job as a technical writer, or
would that just get me more inquiries about my computer science knowledge?

I'm not sure that in the long run that's going to be a meaningful distinction.
It's my belief (and lots of people will disagree with this) that the barriers
between "developers" and "documentors" and "systems analysts" are rapidly
breaking down under pressure from downsizing, the evolution of integrated CASE
tools, and on-line help.

Furthermore, it's the "low end" jobs in this process (grinding out revsion 164
of either COBOL code or the "gray wall") that are most threatened by automation,
subcontracting to Third World countries, or simple elimination. On the other
hand, design and planning, and the use of automated tools, are very difficult,
if not impossible, to strip out of the organization.

Thus, there's an opportunity to "swim upstream" and apply knowledge of good
design principles and communication techniques to the whole process of system
design and development. That's my theory, anyway, and I believe in it enough
to invest four years of nights and weekends in getting a second, more technical
bachelor's degree.

Also, how can I keep my resume out of the six-month database and into a hiring
manager's hand without knowing the name or title (excluding the title "hiring
manager") of that manager?

Obviously, you need to know the name and title. This is a part of the age-old
"how do I get past Human Resources without hacking them off" problem that has
plagued job hunters since we stopped going down to the marketplace to stand
around and get hired to work in vinyards and orchards. (The process is more
complex, but hey, we get air conditioning and free coffee in addition to the
silver Denarius. But I digress.)

Having hunted for a few jobs and helped other people hunt for a couple, I have
some suggestions:

1) Sending out a truckload of resumes is not very efficient or effective. I
know lots of people who say "Gee, I sent out 40,000 resumes and didn't get a
single interview." When you ask how many follow-up calls they did, they look
blank. They've expended all their effort in bulk mail, and don't have anything
left to pursue the most promising leads.

2) Apply to advertised jobs that you really want. Unless the ad specifically
states "No calls," call and ask about the job first. If you have time, do a
little research on the company--what does it make, who are its customers, where
is it positioned? (scrappy newcomer, serenely dominant, struggling middle tier,
prosperous niche, etc.) If possible, find out who the position will report to.
Then, write a letter *to that company* explaining why you want *their job.*
This makes a far greater impression than an one-size-fits-all cover letter.

Also, remember that your cover letter and resume are pieces of professional
writing--they should be the best you'll ever do. Prospective employers will
assume that you'll never do better for them in terms of organization, grammar,
spelling, etc. than you do when writing for yourself in the cover letter. (I
mention this only because I've seen a lot of really bad cover letters lately.)

3) Once the letter and resume are sent, follow up in a couple days with a phone
call to ask if your stuff arrived, if there is anything else they want
(transcript, references, etc.) and when you can expect to hear from them. This
has several effects, all good. First, you make sure your stuff is on the right
desk; both the US and internal corporate mail have been known to lose things.
Second, it's another indicator to the company that you are intested in their
job, not just any job. Third, it gets you noticed, since they will probably
have to sift through the pile and pull your stuff out to verify that it's there.
Finally, if they indicate at that point that you're out of the running, you may
be able to get them to talk about why (thus identifying weaknesses that may be
correctible) and to talk about other job opportunities they know about in other
companies (because they feel bad and will want to help you).

4) Remember that regardless of a company's formal policy, it is almost always
true that the best candidate does not get the job; the *safest* candidate will
usually get the job. Consider it from the hiring managers perspective. If the
candidate is hired and does well, this is considered largely a function of the
candidate's merit, not the hiring manager's wisdom. If the candidate is hired
and performs as expected, the hiring manager is percieved as simply doing his or
her job. However, if the candidate fails (particularly in a dramatic way) the
immediate question is "Who the hell hired this person?" In almost all
companies, the internal incentives function make managers much more interested
in eliminating the worst candidates than finding the best ones. That's one
reason for the premium on experience. While it's true that experienced people
are generally somewhat more productive than the inexperienced, their real
attraction is that they blow up less often.

5) Join STC (Society for Technical Communication) and avail yourself of the
following services:

* Attend local chapter meetings faithfully. Meet people, talk about their jobs
and companies. Find out who is growing, even if they are not necessarily hiring
at the moment. Maintain close tabs on growing companies that you like; make
sure they know you're available, but don't beat them over the head with it.
When openings come up, you'll be among the first to know.

* Check out the STC BBS for an on-line posting of job opportunities. Dial up
Arlington, VA at (703)522-3299. I think there are some internship positions
there occasionally.

* Get to know the job bank coordinator in your local chapter and the chapters
in cities you want to live in. I'm not sure if there's a central listing of job
bank coordinators or not, but if you write STC headquarters at stc -at- tmn -dot- com, I'm
sure somebody there could tell you. (or call them at (703)522-4114.)

* If you are interested in a nationwide job search, attend the international
conference in Minneapolis this May. I'm told there will be a jobs booth and
some companies will be interviewing. At a minimum, it's a chance to rub
shoulders with lots of potential leads.

6) Don't underestimate your college placement office; my first two technical
writing positions came from ads in my alma mater's job bank.

Are there any companies that hire technical writers as part of their staff or
are almost all tech. writing jobs contracted out?

Actually, I don't know of any company that contracts out more than a small
portion of their tech writing. In my experience, contractors may be called in
for a special project (like gearing up for ISO 9000 certification) but the
day-to-day work is handled by full-time employees.

Finally, if anyone could share some of their experiences about what it's like
being a technical writer (do you you like your job, pay, co workers, etc) or if
you are searching like me, let me know. Any input would really help.

I took up technical writing when I left the Air Force in 1988, chiefly because
it paid better than journalism and I was really sick of PR work after doing it
for 3 1/2 years. Also, after having hurled several user manuals for AF computer
systems across the office in frustration, I was convinced I could do better than
the people doing the job at the time.

Six years, three companies and four positions later (I had an internal transfer
late last year) here are my observations on the career:

I've liked all my jobs. Each one had certain exasperating aspects (all jobs do)
but I've generally been given professional respect by team members (although
professional respect from management was a problem in one position; I found new
management) communicated well, worked hard and generally enjoyed myself. Since
I'm now working for a stable company that I really like, doing something I
really like to do I'm hoping to stay here for quite a while.

The pay, while not in the same league with say, successful sales reps, has
always been adequate, raises have been regular, benefits good, and I've never
been unemployed for more than two days (and that was self imposed; I had the
job and just didn't start it.)

I enjoy the company of both technical writers and developers. They tend to be
smart, funny, watch Star Trek and have read the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy
series; all important qualifications. I think you have to like people a bit to
be a good tech writer, and maybe that's why tech writing groups tend to be good

Anyway, enough musing.

I hope you find this helpful,

ENGSTROMDD -at- phibred -dot- com

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