This month I was called in to assist on a technical-writing project that uses old technology. Really old technology. Which got me to thinking: the variety of output formats for our content, the number of tools for developing that content, and the range of skills needed to master all of the above, have never been greater. What does that mean for the people in our profession?
I began working in technical communication around the time that disco died (thank heaven) and Jimmy Carter was wearing cardigan sweaters. Everything we produced took the form of printed documents. At IBM we used a relatively new markup language called SCRIPT/VS, with which we could control indentation and vertical spacing. The U.S. Government, then as now one of the most prolific publishers on the planet, had embraced MilSpecs (military specifications).
Most technical communicators at that time were still in the “hot lead” world, composing on a typewriter (usually) and than handing their content over to be typeset and printed on a literal printing press.
I’ve drawn a pyramid to represent the output formats and tools we worked with then. There weren’t very many of them, and the distance from the bottom of the pyramid to the top — in terms of training and skill set — was pretty small.
By the time I’d settled into mid-career, desktop publishing was all the rage. Microsoft Word (introduced in the mid ’80s) was already a staple of most Tech Comm departments. The World Wide Web, as it was then known, introduced many technical communicators to a new kind of writing: semantic-based tagging, in the form of HTML. We were excited to see our content displayed on computer screens and not just on printed pages.
The old formats and tools were still in place — although “hot lead” was fast fading from the scene. But the pyramid had become more crowded. The distance had increased from the top, where the cool kids got to play, to the bottom.
Nearly 20 years later, the pyramid has grown again. Many Tech Comm projects are still done in Word — probably more than with any other single tool. MilSpecs are still in common use. Hard-copy (or at least PDF) still predominates.
I used to tell my students they could do practically any job if they knew an authoring tool (besides Word), a help-authoring tool, and a graphics tool. But today’s jobs increasingly require new skills like structured authoring and mobile-app development.
But we’re also creating content that’s integrated with the technology, and content that displays on tablets and smartphones, using new tools that are both text-based and graphical. Today, there’s a sizable leap from the skills needed to work with the old technology to those needed to work with the new.
In the not-so-distant future, I see us making use of even more new formats and tools. Augmented reality. Wearable technology. Things we don’t yet have a name for. Yet the demand for Word, for PDF, for the older technologies, won’t go away. The pyramid continues to go higher.
So what will our profession look like?
- Are we evolving to a place where everyone is a specialist and no one is a generalist? After all, while anyone can master a few technologies, it’s impossible to be proficient in them all.
- In light of #1, how will we buck the trend toward recruiters who seek candidates based on the tools they know?
- Will certain parts of the Tech Comm business — particularly the parts that rely on the older technology — become commoditized? (For that matter, there’s significant support for the idea that the whole profession is becoming commoditized, and I can’t say for sure that it isn’t.)
- What’s the best way to train people who are entering the profession? People who are already in the profession and who want to burnish their skills?
I very much want to hear what you think. So please drop me a line (or several lines) in the comments area.