The trending value of tech knowledge, at STC Summit

This week I’m attending STC Summit 2019, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication (STC). I’m blogging my notes from the sessions that I attend. Thanks and all credit go to the speakers. Any mistakes are my own.

Tom Johnson presented a session titled Tech Comm Trends: Providing Value as a Generalist in a Sea of Specialists.

Tom kicked off his talk by remarking that posts on his blog about trends have way more clicks than other posts. So he decided to dig deep into this topic. Find the trends that we should dig into, what we should pay attention to.

Trends, innovation, and what to focus on

Companies come and go. Some of them are big for a while, then disappear. Could the same thing happen to our role as technical writers?

One of the reasons companies fail is because they stagnate. They don’t pay attention to innovation. Maybe we, as technical writers, should ensure we don’t coast and that we look towards innovative techniques.

OK, so how do we decide what we should focus on? Which areas of innovation are important? For example, perhaps we should look at the trend towards focusing on user experience (UX) design. Some say technical writing is dying out because all products now have great UX design, thus rendering docs unnecessary.

The growth of technical writing roles

Tom showed some stats from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics over a period of five years that show technical writing roles growing by 8.2%. In the same period, software development roles have grown by 15.7%.

Growth projects over ten years show the ratio of technical writers to software developers will stay more or less the same (1/33 in 2016 as opposed to 1/35 in 2026).

Yet technical writers feel that the number of engineers they support grows year on year. Also people have questioned the methodologies used to collect the data, and whether things like off-shoring have skewed the picture.

How our role is evolving

Tom quoted some content from Ellis Pratt’s Cherryleaf podcast. 92% of technical writers agree that our profession is changing. But where are we headed? Just a few of the recent trends include:

  • Wikis
  • Semantic web
  • DITA
  • Content strategy
  • Chatbots
  • Docs as code
  • AI
  • Augmented reality
  • And more

We need to make some kind of decision about what to focus on, so that we can prepare for the next few years of our role. How can we sort transient novelties from reliable trends? Do potential employees value a broad skill set and a flexible outlook

Some sources of information

Job ads. if no-one is looking for technical writers with a particular skill (such as chat bot content) then that skill is not in demand, at least for now.

Research. Some academics publish thorough research on trends in our industry.

Looking at the above sources, Tom pulled out some conclusions:

  • Some job ads focus on professional competencies like written communication, project planning and management, etc.
  • Another focus is on subject matter knowledge. Many of the job ads emphasize experience in the subject area rather than tech-writer-specific skills. For example, candidates should know a particular programming language such as C or Java. You may even need to show examples that prove your knowledge. So, being willing to learn is not good enough.

Technical versus writing skills

People with technical knowledge, such as proficiency in a programming language, are often favored over those with writing skills. Tom posited that this could be because technical skills are easier to measure than writing skills.

There’s now a distinction between developers who write docs and technical writers. Another term is technical technical writers. There’s a feeling that, when publishing developer-focused docs, it’s more engaging for the audience to have developers writing the docs.

Is this the future we’re heading towards – the distinction between technical technical writers and technical writers? And why might this be so?

Tom discussed the fact that technology stacks have exploded. In 2005, there were a relatively few large vendors offering single systems. Now we have an explosion of development tools, vendor systems, and APIs. This complexity makes employers value technical knowledge more highly.

Learning technology

Given the increasing technical complexity, we need to figure out how to learn a new technology.

The Pomodoro technique involves using a focus app to learn for a specific period of time such as 20 minutes, then take a break and start again.

Learning creates a plastic mind. Tom said perhaps it doesn’t matter that much what you’re learning, provided you’ve created a learning mindset in yourself.

Do companies know what they need?

There may be a disconnect between what companies say they want and what they actually need. Compare the quote about Henry Ford and customers who want a faster horse!

Tom argued that companies need a technical writer who can analyse the customer experience and the audience and create the docs that address those, rather than focusing on the technology aspects of the product. This focus on customer experience is what excites the business executives in the company!

In conclusion

Thank you Tom for a well-thought-out presentation on the complexity of our roles and environments.

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 7 May 2019, in STC, technical writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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