Re: Careen Path

Subject: Re: Careen Path
From: Robert Plamondon <robert -at- PLAMONDON -dot- COM>
Date: Sat, 1 Feb 1997 08:05:36 PST

Well, I've risen to President and CEO of a corporation, but maybe the
fact that my wife and I are the sole stockholders has something to
do with my rise to top managment.

In the wider realm of publishing, the progression would be something
like: writer, editor, managing editor, acquisitions editor, executive
editor. The responsibilities would be (roughly):

* Writer: writes things on assignment from an editor.

* Editor: verifies and corrects the publishability of the writer's
work, correcting small problems and sending large ones back for rework.

* Managing Editor: An editor who also manages, hires, and fires. May
have some role in defining the projects in addition to implementing
them. Also has budgetary control of his department.

* Acquisitions Editor: Decides what needs to be written to achieve
the publishing house's goals, and arranges that such material
is created. Has budgetary control of his activities.

* Executive Editor: Sets goals and is generally in charge of everything.

In all the the most enormous enterprises, the editorial functions will
be collapsed into fewer than the four levels.

(It's usual for every one of these people to be a reasonably competent
writer who still writes things from time to time.)

Now compare this to what I believe is typical in Silicon Valley's high-tech
companies:

* Technical Writer: writes according to the assignments from above.

* Marketing or Engineering Manager: Pretends to manage the writers, but
in fact doesn't know how to do the work, and thus is unable to come up
with a sensible document plan, budget, or list of requirements; doesn't
know how to make documentation trade-offs, and can't fix problems when
they occur.

* Marketing or Engineering VP: More of the same.

In this structure, none of the decision-makers is equipped by training
or experience to make decisions about documentation. The writers don't
have the training, experience, or authority to make these decisions,
either. Many of the gripes, grumbles, and expressions of distress you
read in TECHWR-L are the result of this fundamentally broken and ineffective
structure.

The fix is to insert someone into the editorial slot. In high-tech
companies, this fix is so rare that the word "Editor" does not appear
in job-title surveys. But the titles "Technical Writing Manager,"
"Technical Publications Manager," and even "MARCOMM manager"
are in common use, and will serve.

The minimum recipe for success is to have a writer in an editorial
role, with control over the definition of the documents, ownership
of the contents, control of the document-creation process, control
of the budget, and a peer relationship with the company's management.

These results can be achieved even in a one-person documentation
department.

To have a career path that doesn't much resemble a drunkard's walk,
you should either seek out firms that already have fully functional
documentation departments (paying careful attention to the requirement
that its management should all be practicing writers), or you should
acquire the knack of creating them. The former option might be best
for writers starting out, though personally I always started out as
the first and only writer at each company I worked for.

If you are in the first-and-only-writer position, you should get
project management, budget management, time management, negotiation,
and leadership training. I found this invaluable, and it gave me
both the skills and the nerve to insist to my employer that it was
time to promote me to management and give me control of the things
that I had been de facto in charge of for some time.

To summarize:

* Many companies have dysfunctional tech pubs management structures
that prevent writers from taking charge of writing projects while
providing no real guidance or assistance from above. Such places
are bad for your career.

* Companies with fully functional departments are good for your career.
You are actually allowed to do good work, and you have potential role
models and mentors to learn from.

* Companies with no tech pubs department at all can be a golden opportunity
or a hideous trap, depending on their willingness to invest you with
authority, and your ability to wield it successfully.

* In all cases, it's best to be seen by management as a peer, rather than
a subordinate (I mean management in general, not just your manager).
If you look around, certain people in the company
fit into this mold. They aren't necessarily fast-trackers, but they
are comfortable around managers, look out for them, and are willing
to talk to them when other employees hide whenever the boss is near.

-- Robert
--
Robert Plamondon, High-Tech Technical Writing, Inc.
36475 Norton Creek Road * Blodgett * Oregon * 97326
robert -at- plamondon -dot- com * (541) 453-5841 * Fax: (541) 453-4139

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