Finding a career path in technical communication can be daunting for those just starting out. Professionals who have already forged a path can be a valuable source of wisdom and advice. To learn more about prospering in a technical communication career, I interviewed four technical communication professionals, ranging in experience from novice to seasoned veteran, about their path to success.
The interviewees included the following professionals.
- Samantha Zerger is a Risk Consultant at Financial Risk Group (FRG) who has worked in technical communication for 2 years.
- Sarah Ishida is an Information Developer at IBM who has worked in technical communication for 4 years.
- Erin Friday is a Documentation Specialist at RTI International who has worked in technical communication for 16 years.
- Larry Kunz is an Information Architect at Extreme Networks who has worked in technical communication for 41 years.
Discovering Technical Communication
All of the interviewees offered valuable insights about their career paths, and there were many commonalities in their stories. Several interviewees were unfamiliar with the field of technical communication until a pivotal moment of discovery.
Erin had never heard of technical writing until college when she saw the Technical and Scientific Communication degree in the course catalog. “I took the 101 course and the rest is history,” she said. “I found that I enjoyed it and was good at it, which is still the case today.”
Samantha discovered her love of technical communication while working as a financial risk consultant, and she transitioned to technical communication work within that role. “I started off working as a software tester and slowly worked my way into completing documentation and creating training materials for clients,” she explained. “I realized that I was truly passionate about writing and teaching and loved that I could do it in the financial risk sector.”
Larry, who loves writing, intended to become a newspaper reporter. “But I found that I could earn more as a technical writer while using many of the same skills,” he said. “A year out of school, I was fortunate to land a job as a Junior Technical Writer at IBM, and I never looked back.”
Carving a Career Path
Erin shared how each position she worked in prepared her for the next. “Once I got my foot in the door with my first job in the field (which was by far the most difficult job to get), it led me to other jobs…. Each job offered me new opportunities to advance my career, my pay, and my skills.”
Similarly, Larry’s first position at IBM was just one of many he has held throughout his career. “I’ve been a team leader, a manager, a trainer, a consultant, and now an information architect,” he said. “But writing is still my favorite part of the job.”
Enjoying the Work
All of the interviewees noted that they found their work interesting and enjoyable. Larry said, “I love to write, and I’m interested in how technology never stops changing. I enjoy the challenge of explaining a technical subject so that my audience knows what they need to know.”
Sarah has found that the people she works with affect the enjoyment of her work more than the subject matter. She explained, “If you’re assigned to write about, say, mud, at first you might think it’s boring. However, if you become integrated into a team of scientists who are passionate about studying mud and who take the time to explain why it’s important and its role on our planet, you might soon find yourself also becoming a mud enthusiast. As you get to work, you might surprise yourself with how much you enjoy your role and your subject matter.”
In addition to sharing their stories, the interviewees offered a range of advice for those just beginning a career in technical communication.
Larry’s advice was to never stop learning. “Our profession evolves constantly, in terms of technology and in terms of serving our customers,” he said. “Stay curious. Stay abreast of the trends. Discover how you can make a difference.”
Samantha recommended looking for certifications or programs to further your technical communication education. “If you are looking for a job in the field, completing further education will show future employers that you are continuing to improve your communication skills.”
Demonstrate Your Value and Apply Your Unique Skills
Erin advised new technical communicators to demonstrate their value to their teams. “It took me a while to realize that telling people what I can do is not nearly as effective as showing them, so I made it my mission to show people my skills and value to the team, which continues to this day. Stay positive and trust in your skills as a technical writer.”
Sarah recommended finding ways that your skills and interests, even seemingly irrelevant ones, can apply to your career. “Play video games? Great! So do a bunch of developers. Your hobby might help you network with them,” she said. “Do you enjoy novels and find yourself getting attached to the characters? Apply that same insight and empathy to your team’s user personas and tune into the concerns of your audience.”
Erin advised building relationships with your fellow technical writers and with the rest of your team. “You all need each other for your project to succeed and being a team player will benefit you, your project, and your company,” she said, noting that one her fellow technical writers at my first job ended up becoming an invaluable mentor.
Finally, Samantha recommended joining the Society for Technical Communication.” The Society immediately puts you in contact with people who have been working in the technical communication field for many years,” she said. “Talking with them about your career goals and gaining advice from their experience will help you figure out how to get to where you want to be.”
If you are seeking a career in technical communication, I hope this post has provided some guidance. The following resources may assist you in heeding the advice provided by the interviewees.
- Society for Technical Communication – professional association dedicated to the advancement of the field of technical communication.
- STC Carolina Chapter – STC chapter serving members in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill and Charlotte regions of North Carolina, and the foothills region of South Carolina.
- STC Webinars – STC offers live and pre-recorded webinars on a variety of topics relevant to technical communicators (discounted prices for STC members).
- STC Education OnDemand – Over 150 archived recordings of sessions for past STC Summits are available free to STC members.
Kristin Robinett is a recent graduate of the M.S. in Technical Communication program at NC State University who is embarking on a new career path. She appreciates the opportunity to learn and make connections as a current mentee in the STC Carolina Mentoring Program.
“This blog post was written as part of STC Carolina’s Mentor/Mentee Program. I’d like to thank my mentor Samantha Zerger for her feedback and support.”