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Pith & Vinegar: Reinventing Myself
2007, Q2 (July 29, 2007)
By Michael Harvey, STC Associate Fellow

Michael Harvey
Michael Harvey

My most difficult task as a manager was to face colleagues, friends in many cases, and deliver the hard message that their position was being eliminated. Sometimes it was because of business conditions. Other times it was due to reorganization or rebalancing. Every time it was gut-wrenching, for the person getting the news and for me, the person who gave it.

Recently, I got the message. And so I am now engaged in a job search.

I began my career with my former employer as a Senior Technical Writer, responsible for TCP/IP and X.25 manuals. I became manager of my group a few years later. My employer rode out a lot of turbulence in the technology marketplace, but not without significant downsizing. A few years after I became a manager, my employer was acquired by another company. The new regime stabilized some uncertainty, but not all. Some years I could hire, other years I had to let people go. Some years I had over a dozen direct reports, other years, I had two or three. By the time we parted ways, I was the only one in my group who was there when I started.

I stayed with the company as long as I did because I was always given a chance to stretch professionally and grow personally. I never wanted for a challenge. I could work with and hire exceptional individuals. Tempted on occasion to take a position elsewhere, I stayed because I got opportunities to play to my strengths and do things I loved doing in the workplace.

Things changed. My organization could not sustain as many senior managers as it had. Tag, I’m it.

{img src="img/wiki_up/coworkersByBoromirAragorn.png" alt="coworkers" desc="Networking
(photo by Boromir Aragorn)}
I was given thirty days to find another position within the company. If at the end of that time I had not found one, my active employment would end. I got generous help from my Human Resources representative in dealing with the shock and planning my next steps. Most appealing and appropriate positions were out of state. Moving was not an option for my family. So here I am.

It has been disorienting not to make the commute I had made for the past 19 years, and unsettling to realize that, in all likelihood, I will never drive it again. It has been sad not to see the folks I saw every day, exchanging small talk and tackling big problems.

After taking a couple of weeks to decompress, I reentered the job market. I met folks for lunch, networked, and asked for advice. I gathered information about other companies, what they do, how they do it, what they foresee for the future. I reached out to new groups, like TriUPA, the Triangle Usability Professionals Association, and to familiar ones, like STC. I answered the call of a friend and colleague to run again for president of our chapter.

I took advantage of my company’s engagement with a career services firm to learn how to manage my job search more effectively. They coached me on how to fine tune my resume and prepare for interviews. They gave me access to a wealth of resources about how to market myself effectively to an intelligently assembled list of target companies. An effective job search will require me learning and doing new things. It will require reinventing myself from a “Senior Manager, Engineering” for my employer to a “Technical Communication Professional.”

One of the exercises that firm had me do was to survey my professional environment. In other words, understand the trends having an impact on my profession so that I could “avoid dangers, identify opportunities, and make the right decisions about where (I) will best fit.”

In surveying my environment, I repeatedly found that “technical communication” as a profession is in the process of reinventing itself. In a previous column, I wrote about how and why we need to reexamine our job descriptions. A white paper I came across made a similar point. It said:

Technical writing teams face complex challenges as they struggle to help their companies get products to market faster. Increasingly sophisticated technical products and the need to deliver clearly written documentation in multiple media formats and languages are forcing them to work under intense pressure. …managers of technical writing teams have to contend with the widely held perception that the documentation team itself is a cost center and needs to be constrained. ...By adopting an approach that combines single-source technologies, information reuse standards such as DITA and innovative sourcing strategies that include offshoring and outsourcing certain tasks, technical writing teams can leapfrog the perception that they are merely cost centers and prove themselves a source of competitive advantage for their organizations.

In surveying my environment, I repeatedly found that “technical communication” as a profession is in the process of reinventing itself.
We have to prove ourselves a source of competitive advantage. We have to market ourselves and our product in a different way. We have to partner with offshore colleagues, not wish that companies realize an error in engaging them. They won’t — geographically distributed teams are here to stay and some tasks are going to be performed by less costly workers elsewhere from now on. Adapting to our changing profession will mean learning and doing new and different things.

A by-product of my personal reinvention is that I’m now approaching my circumstances positively. My current full-time job is to find a new position where I can play to my strengths and do things I love doing in the workplace. Find a position where I can never want for a challenge, and where I have a chance to stretch professionally and grow personally. It is out there — I will find it.

As I continue my search, I will draw upon my experience and on my research to serve our chapter in the coming year. Even after I find my new position, I will continue to serve as best I can. I now have a keener appreciation of our STC community and the excellence therein. I want to be an active part of it as long as I can.

Michael can be reached at mtharvey at yahoo dot com. End of article.

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