Search icon Looking for something?

Twenty-Five Years of Technical Communication
2004, Q2 (February 21, 2007)
By Larry Kunz

Larry Kunz
Larry Kunz

In the spring of 1979 Jimmy Carter was president, disco ruled, and folks were fuming about the high price of gasoline. (Some things never change.) That spring twenty-five years ago, I began my career as a junior-level technical writer at IBM in Kingston, N.Y.

It dawned on me recently that twenty-five years is a long time. Although so much has changed during that span — my personal circumstances, my working conditions, the kinds of documents I create, the tools I use — it doesn't feel like it's been that long. Maybe it's because I still like what I do, and because I have no intention of stopping any time soon.

Proving Value

In 1979, the majority of technical communicators hadn't been formally trained in the profession. (I double-majored in English and Philosophy in college, and IBM promised to teach me everything I'd need to know about software.) Perhaps for that reason, we struggled to find an identity and gain recognition from subject-matter experts as colleagues and peers.

We knew in our hearts, and knew we could persuade most people, that good documentation was important and that we were making a real contribution. But we didn't know how to measure that contribution, and we couldn't prove that we added value, in dollars and cents, for the people who employed us.

In 2004, we know much more about the technologies we write about and we've gained widespread acceptance from a new generation of subject-matter experts. Just as important, we can articulate, in terms like cost savings and return on investment, why we contribute real value and why high-quality documentation and usability are good investments.

Responsible for Our Own Careers

Twenty-five years ago, most of us worked for large corporations and expected to be doing so for a long time. A person's employer — a corporation, a university, or the government — was a big part of his or her identity as a professional.

Today, of course, we all work for ourselves. Even though some of us draw a regular paycheck, everyone is responsible for managing his or her own career. No one expects to work in the same job indefinitely, and each of us focuses on making sure that we — as individuals — remain viable in the job market.


Twenty-five years ago, the tools of our trade were rudimentary. Desktop publishing was years in the future and even tag-based markup languages were only beginning to take hold. Many of my colleagues at my first IBM job still had typewriters in their offices; some actually used them.

A few technical communicators disdained the idea of learning new tools, thinking that it was enough just to be a good writer. Later, the pendulum swung the other way, and some writers defined themselves by their tools. (Do any of you remember the PageMaker and Ventura wars?) Most of us still list tools on our resume--a necessary evil because employers use those lists to filter candidates. I hope this necessity will disappear soon.

Today, most of us understand that tools are a vital part of our skill sets and that everyone is responsible for staying up to date. However, it's not our tools that distinguish us as professionals. A carpenter had better know how to use a hammer and saw, but it's not the hammer and saw that separate the good carpenter from the great one.

The Next Twenty Five Years

What hasn't changed in twenty-five years? There are a couple of things--things that aren't likely to change in the next twenty-five years either.

Technical communicators will always have to prove the value of what they do. We'll discover new ways in which to contribute, but the need to prove our value will persist. We must, therefore, understand the business context in which we work. We like to say that technical communication is an art form or a craft, but, realistically, each of us operates as part of a business. Technical communicators will always be distinctive. We might know a lot about programming, but we're not programmers. We might know a lot about the natural sciences, but we're not scientists. We serve as a bridge between programmers and scientists on one side and someone trying to use those programs or that science on the other. Let's continue to prize the things that make us special: appreciation for the well-chosen word and the well-drawn image, and passion for communicating the right information to the right people in the right way at the right time.

Here's to the next twenty-five years.

Larry Kunz is a past president of STC Carolina, and is an STC fellow. He can be reached at Larry dot Kunz at symantec dot com. End of article.

More articles like this...
Comments powered by Disqus.