Search icon Looking for something?

Career Advice for Technical Writers
2011, Q1 (March 29, 2011)
By Sheila Loring, Carolina Communique Editor


Peggy Harvey (2010-2011 chapter membership manager and treasurer) recently learned some invaluable lessons on her quest for a new job opportunity. She shares her experiences in this interview.

Why did you choose technical writing as a career, and how long have you worked in the field?

Like many of us, I originally fell into technical writing through the back door. In the mid-90s I went to a job fair in Silicon Valley, thinking I’d like to get into Web design and development. A recruiter looked at my resume and said I didn’t really have the skills to be a Web developer (yet) and suggested I might want to consider technical writing. That was the first time I’d heard the term “technical writing.” When I went home I started searching for jobs in technical writing, and I ended up getting a six-week position at a small software company, filling in for someone on leave. My job was to convert FrameMaker documents to PDF as part of the company’s initiative to move away from hard-copy documents to an electronic presence. I’d never worked with FrameMaker or Acrobat before but I learned quickly, and the company ended up hiring me full-time when the 6 weeks were up.

You recently went back to school to get an advanced degree in technical communication. Would you recommend this?
I found most of the jobs I applied for through looking on local companies’ websites, job sites such as Indeed, through STC Carolina Twitter postings, or from people who knew I was looking emailing me about job openings at their company.

Going back to school to get my master’s in technical communication was the right decision for me at the time, but I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. If you’re currently unemployed (as I was when I went back to school), then considering a degree or a certificate program to boost your resume and give you more to talk about during an interview might not be a bad idea, if you can afford it (financially and the time commitment). If you’re currently working as a technical writer, though, you probably don’t need an advanced degree since the experience you’re gaining will be equally valuable. That said, it never hurts to take classes occasionally and keep up with technological trends. While I was earning my master’s I also took continuing education and community college-level classes in XHTML, JavaScript, and PHP, and I attended a pre-conference workshop on WordPress at the 2010 STC Summit.

You were recently on the job market. What did you do on an average day to find job openings and future opportunities?

I found most of the jobs I applied for through looking on local companies’ websites, job sites such as Indeed, through STC Carolina Twitter postings, or from people who knew I was looking emailing me about job openings at their company. Whenever I found an interesting-looking position on a company’s website or a job board the first thing I’d do is go to LinkedIn and search for a connection at the company – either someone I knew or a second-level connection (someone connected to someone I knew). Most companies require you to submit your resume and fill out their application online so I’d do that, but I always tried to connect with someone who could tell me something about the position and submit my resume directly to the hiring manager, too.

In most cases, I’d say specific tool knowledge wasn’t that important.
What skills were most employers looking for? Did they focus more on tool knowledge than writing skills?

Most employers wanted to know how I would approach a project—what steps would I take to learn about the product and how would I gather information and work with subject matter experts. Almost everyone required writing samples. In most cases, I’d say specific tool knowledge wasn’t that important although there were exceptions: One place I interviewed with was looking specifically for someone with extensive FrameMaker experience. In most cases, though, I think employers realize that tools can be learned. It does help, however, to be able to say you’ve worked with representative authoring tools, such as FrameMaker, RoboHelp, or an XML editor such as Serna.

What was most frustrating during your job search?

No doubt about it: Searching for a job is frustrating any way you look at it. One of the most frustrating things I encountered was what seemed to be a common desire among hiring managers for domain knowledge over experience as a technical writer. I got the feeling that many companies were looking for people who had prior experience with their industry, regardless of technical communication skills or experience. I don’t know how to overcome this other than getting a degree in a particular field (no thanks).

How long did you look for a job?

From the time I submitted my first application to the time I started my current job was about six months. I was still finishing up my schoolwork during that time, however, so my job search wasn’t always my primary focus. I also had two four-week contract positions before starting my current position.

Do you wish you’d done anything differently?

I can’t say there’s anything I personally would have done differently, but everyone’s situation is different. If you don’t have a lot of previous experience, I’d definitely recommend looking at contract jobs over permanent; people hiring short-term contractors aren’t always as competitive as long-term employers (particularly if they’re hiring through an agency), so they can’t be as choosy regarding domain or industry knowledge. Doing contract work is a great way to gain experience and build up your resume to make you a more competitive candidate in the future.

If you’re a student, I’d also recommend taking advantage of internships while you can. I already had experience as a technical writer when I went back to school, so I didn’t feel the need to take on an internship myself; however, most of my classmates did. Often internships can lead to permanent employment after you graduate, and even if they don’t you’ll probably get a great reference out of it to offer future employers.

Do you have any final advice you’d like to give current and future job seekers?

For future job seekers: Always be prepared. In today’s day and age a layoff can happen to anyone, no matter how secure you may think your job is. That doesn’t mean you should walk around with a cloud of doom over your head but it does mean you should be aware and somewhat prepared if it does. Keep your resume up-to-date and make note of milestones and accomplishments in your current job. When something you’ve written is published and public, capture it as part of your writing sample portfolio. And take the opportunity to network with other technical writers now, while you’re not looking for a job: If you find yourself in the job market later it will be a lot easier to contact people you’ve already built relationships with versus having to start conversations saying you’re looking for a job.

For current job seekers: Network, network, network. I applied for a lot of jobs and had several interviews, but the job I ultimately took was through networking. The position was never posted and someone I knew contacted me about it directly. In today’s job market knowing people—and their knowing you—is the best way to beat the competition to hear those magic words: “We’d like to offer you the position.”

Peggy Harvey can be reached at dpharvey3 at gmail dot com. End of article.

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