Where do the technical writers fit?

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.

smaddox

Sarah, like all of us, is looking for a place to fit in

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)
  • Support
  • Marketing
  • 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

departments_in_advertising_agencies

This is what you’ll see if you look up “Organizational chart” in Wikipedia. Guess what? There are no technical writers anywhere.

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.

Developer Relations

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.

Image source (org chart): By S.s.kulkarni9090Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

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5 thoughts on “Where do the technical writers fit?

  1. Susan Carpenter

    Rather than “It depends,” I’d say “Wherever they fit best in a particular business culture.” I’ve landed in R&D, User Experience, Logistics, and Training. I was in an Information Development organization for three years in the early 90s. I’m in a Marketing organization now. The pendulum has swung wide over 30-some years. Each business context has its strengths and weaknesses. None are all bad, and the variety is valuable in and of itself.

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Susan, thanks for stopping by. I agree with what you said, particularly the last bit: “the variety is valuable in and of itself.”

      Perhaps a good follow-on question would be Wherever in the organization we find ourselves, how can we ensure that we’re seen as valuable contributors?

      Reply
  2. Sarah Maddox

    Hallo Larry
    Nice post! Thanks for your well-thought-out response and the additional context. It looks as if we have much the same thinking: investigate all the possibilities and then make a well-informed decision that suits your team and organisation.
    Cheers
    Sarah

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Where do the technical writers fit? | INFORMAZE

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