Technical Authoring – in or out of fashion?

Much has changed for me since I last blogged. So this entry – and those to follow – will be based on my new experiences.

In October I found myself facing redundancy. It didn’t surprise me, I am afraid to say. A new CIO had been brought in late in the summer, and he didn’t seem as supportive as his predecessor. It was reported to me that he had been heard to say “Technical Authoring – that’s a bit old fashioned, isn’t it?”

I prepared the ground to persuade him otherwise by beginning to pull together a presentation on the Information Management issues facing the IT department. My slot in the Senior Management Meeting was cancelled with a week to go, and a few weeks later the news of the redundancy came out. So had I been given the opportunity, what would I have said?

I suspect – although I will never know for certain – that the CIO believes Technical Authors write manuals, and nothing else. In fact, while the company had many customised and bespoke systems it used to operate its business, these had never been documented and I wasn’t employed to do so. What I was in fact brought in to do was to help identify areas where information was not being well managed, and to improve the processes and tools used to do this. This was what I was going to base my presentation around, citing examples of my work with the Project Management Office and the Architecture team.

I think most Technical Authors know that the communication, analysis and presentation skills we develop in the course of our career give us a very useful toolset that can be used more broadly across the business environment[1]. Communicating this to our colleagues can sometimes be a real challenge. I know in twelve years of permanent roles as a Technical Author I’ve run up against this challenge time and time again. Now, as a contractor, I’m finding things are very different… but that’s a subject for another blog post.

I’d be interested to hear your experiences. How easy have you found it to expand the perception of your role as a Technical Author? Or, like my friend Content Tactician , have you found yourself drifting into the role without realising it? Do you think we have a fashion image problem? How would you improve it?

[1] To quote (from memory) Roger Hart during his Spork/Platypus Average presentation at TCUK10: “A Technical Author’s toolbox of cool things is a Content Strategist’s toolbox of cool things.”

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  1. #1 by Karen on February 21, 2011 - 10:47 pm

    You nudged a few brain cells. I think what I do is be straightforward, helpful, and interested in all my dealings with colleagues. It’s “Karen” they get to know first. Then they find out I am a technical writer (over here in Denmark, we use the American English term). You could call this being an ambassador for the profession. I also mingle with people from all sorts of industries and professions. (Very inspiring and nice, I might add!) Again, I’m “me” and they learn what I do and put the label on last.

    These thoughts were formed as I read this post. I never thought this through before. This is really a long term approach. It’s quality, though. People do remember what I do when I tell them. It does start discussions about the need for and the tasks for a technical writer. Often, the discussions reveal those doing the work without the title.

    And by the way, I drifted into technical writing years ago. I was in one department and another department in the same company needed a technical writer. The HR boss contacted me directly and told me she thought the job was made for me. The rest is history.

    • #2 by jk1440 on February 22, 2011 - 8:41 pm

      Thanks for the reply, Karen.

      I can see how that would work. As Tech Authors/Writers we have many analytical and creative skills that can be usefully employed throughout a business, and if we are in an environment that lets us demonstrate this we can flourish.

      I’d be interested to know whether you’ve ever found yourself in a less than sympathetic environment, and if so, how did you go about challenging the perception of your role?

  2. #3 by Colum McAndrew on February 21, 2011 - 10:59 pm

    All roles I’ve had have had a perception issue in varying degrees. However over time, and by demonstrating results, I have managed to win people over. I often wonder how much of technical writing is “writing”. I guess it depends on the seniority of the role and the amount of influence inside the company. But I’d say I write less than 50% of my time with the remainder all about design and strategy. Not sure if this is typical. I believe the 50% of my role that is not writing has evolved into more of a content strategy position. This was planned but with a small “p”.

    • #4 by jk1440 on February 22, 2011 - 8:46 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Colum. “Perception issue” is a good way of putting it. I’d agree seniority is a factor, as is getting sponsors or advocates of your work at the highest level possible.

      I suppose it’s a matter of picking the right battles. It’s a shame it has to be confrontational, but I don’t suspect that’s exclusive to our profession.

  3. #5 by Content Tactician on February 22, 2011 - 11:39 am

    I don’t have the job title ‘Technical Author’ or anything similar. I’m a ‘Product Management Assistant’, though most of what I do could come under either heading. My job title being vague means that people don’t pigeon-hole me as someone who just writes manuals. They understand that it’s one aspect of my job, but there are all sorts of other things, too. Unfortunately not having anyone obviously dedicated to documentation does tend to reinforce the notion that it isn’t important.

    • #6 by jk1440 on February 22, 2011 - 8:49 pm

      It’s a two-edged sword, isn’t it? Without the job title, you have the flexibility but documentation isn’t necessarily given the weight it should be. With the job title, you run the risk of being pigeon holed.

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

  4. #7 by DJ Towne on February 23, 2011 - 7:52 pm

    Now that I look back at my experiences as a technical writer in the computer software industry, I realize that as a group we have not communicated the benefits that we bring to the companies we work for. I’ve seen the various technical publications groups work hard to update previous documentation as well as create new manuals and online help. We move forward with our own departmental initiatives, such as structured writing and single sourcing, and pat ourselves on the back when the project is completed. But we as a group could do a much better job at advertising our accomplishments beyond the software development team that we work with. We need to make better use of company resources that are available, such as Wikis, internal newsletters, blogs, or even our internal technical publications website. As a group we need to coordinate our efforts to communicate what content or deliverable was improved with a new release, describe how what we have accomplished will help the customers do their job, point out how far we, as a group, have moved forward to support company goals, and let the other departments know what we are working on for future releases. We can help to break down silos between departments by communicating how technical writers want to work more closely with the staff in other departments, such as support, marketing, QA, or translation. So my advice is to get the word out, brag a bit, and become more visible within the company.

    • #8 by jk1440 on February 26, 2011 - 6:06 pm

      Thanks for your comment.

      I fully agree that Tech Authors (Writers, Communicators, whatever we choose to call ourselves) need to aggressively market our skills to our employers. Sometimes the environment makes this very difficult. Perhaps sometimes the only answer is to move on, but by staying alert and positive perhaps such instances can be minimised.

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