The other day Sarah Maddox posed the question Where do technical writers fit in an organisation? It’s a question my colleagues and I have bandied about for most of my 30-plus years working in technical communication.
The answer has evolved during those 30-plus years. And it’s tempting simply to throw up my hands and give the standard consultant’s answer: it depends.
Sarah doesn’t advocate for any one answer, either. Instead, she deftly states the case for including technical writers in each of these parts of the organization:
- Engineering and product management
- User experience (UX)
- Developer relations
Here’s what I make of it.
We’re not an island
There’s one place in the organization where the technical writers definitely should not be, and that’s off by ourselves.
I didn’t always feel this way.
Early in my career, when technical writing was still being defined as a profession, it was important for the writers to establish an identity as a team and emerge from the backwaters of wherever they’d been placed on the org chart — usually in product development.
In companies that formed separate technical writing teams, the writers were better able to collaborate on tools, training, and best practices. Their managers could fight for a place at the table alongside development, marketing, and support.
The separate-team approach was what I experienced at IBM, and it wasn’t until maybe the mid-1990s that we, as a profession, had evolved past it. By then technical writers had established a secure and well-defined identity. The separate-team approach had made us more visible, but now it was working against us: isolating us from the rest of the organization at a time when we were looking for ways to collaborate.
Engineering and Product Development
Since then I’ve been comfortable with placing the technical writers in the same group as the product developers — especially now that we’re emphasizing our skills as people who can contribute to the product’s design. If we’re involved in designing user interfaces or creating message-text strings, it makes sense for us to be in the same group as the programmers and engineers.
If there’s a separate UX team, we certainly should collaborate with them. But I don’t recommend merging the technical writers into that team and placing a “UX” label on them. UX and technical writing, while closely related, aren’t the same thing.
The same goes for Support and Marketing. They’re closely related, but they’re distinct in terms of mission and goals.
Until Sarah mentioned Developer Relations, I hadn’t thought about it as a home for technical writers. In a software company, this group acts as the liaison with business partners and customers who use and build on the software products. This group maintains things like APIs, SDKs, and libraries.
Technical writers also act as a liaison between internal developers and external partners and customers. So, in a software company, this could be a very good home for the technical writers.
Five years ago I don’t think Developer Relations was a thing. Or if it was, it was more ad hoc than it is today. It was found only in a few forward thinking companies. Today, at least in the software industry, it looks like a good answer to the question Where do technical writers fit?
Which goes to show that the answer to Sarah’s question, having evolved over the last 30-plus years, hasn’t stopped evolving. Maybe it never will.
What do you think? Leave a comment here or on Sarah’s original blog post. And thanks to Sarah for posing the original question.