I’m attending tcworld India 2016 in Bangalore. Alyssa Fox gave a presentation entitled “From Byways to Highways: Accelerating Tech Comm Career Paths”. These are my notes from the session. All credit goes to Alyssa, and any mistakes are my own.
Alyssa started by describing how job ladders can help technical writers in an organisation plan their career paths. It helps people know the expectations for their job level in a particular job ladder, and how they can aim at promotion to the next level. It also helps managers allay people’s confusion caused when comparing their own performance to that of other people.
These are the areas that Alyssa’s company focuses on in their job ladder:
- Technical expertise and product usability. This includes things like product knowledge, and how the person applies that knowledge, tools, and user experience. Alyssa described how a junior employee’s skill may differ from a more senior employee, for example in the field of product knowledge. The team encourages writers to do more than write PDF documentation. She explained that this is good for the writers’ careers too. She encourages writers to take part in and conduct UX (user experience) studies on the product itself. This helps prevent the team having to document around bad UI. The latter is not a good use of writers’ time or customers’ time.
- Quality. This covers content improvement (for example, no typos, good structure), product improvement, understanding customer needs, and quality of writing. Again, the writer’s contribution differs depending on their level. A junior write may just produce good writing, while a more senior writer may offer suggestions on how to improve quality, and even drive processes for quality improvement. To move up the ladder, think about how things could be done better!
- Functional expertise. These are the nuts and bolts of tech writing: putting a schedule together, process, defining a project, results. A junior person won’t be setting schedules – that’s the task of the lead writer, who’ll also coach the junior team members on how to estimate timings and create a schedule. Similarly, Alyssa has very different expectations about what a junior level person puts out in comparison to a senior level person. The important thing is that they’re learning.
- Communication and teamwork. Alyssa said that Bangalore traffic is one of the best examples of communication that she’s seen. 🙂 Thinking about how we communicate (a soft skill) is a huge part of our job. It’s vital to our success as technical communicators. Things that the job ladder takes into account: communication style, communication scope (how often you communicate with people outside the tech writer team, and what type of value you provide), teamwork, interpersonal skills. Junior writers will probably talk to only members of their immediate team, whereas more senior writers speak to people of other disciplines (such as marketing). Writers even have contacts outside the company, such as by attending and speaking at conferences, or making presentations to the team or to a wider audience.
- Leadership. Alyssa emphasised you don’t need to be a manager to be a leader. It has to do with the way you carry yourself, the ideas you bring forward, your self motivation. Alyssa looks for initiative. Things on the ladder: Planning, interviewing, team leadership, change management.
Alyssa mentioned that getting promoted is great, but often people don’t necessarily want to be promoted. You can grow horizontally by expanding your skills, without necessarily wanting to progress up the ladder. UX is an obvious transition point for technical communicators. Another option is to become the team’s tools expert. Technical communicators can also move over to product management. It’s a different skillset, but the foundational knowledge that we gain as writers gives us a good start.
A focus on editing skills is an option for horizontal growth. Or information architecture. Similarly, a technical writer’s project management skills can be transferred to a full project management role. Marketing is another opportunity. Technical writers can sync up with the marketing team, to ensure a clear path for the user from the marketing content to the technical content.
In Alyssa’s job ladder, there are 7 levels of technical writer. From junior information developer (level 1), through lead information developer 1 (level 4), to senior information architect (level 7).
Thanks Alyssa for an energetic, information-packed presentation.