Launching your technical communication career

Last time I wrote about the places you can go, or the different trajectories your career can take, when you work in technical communication.

But how do you get that first job? What qualifications do you need, and what are employers looking for?

Prompted by interview questions from a Tech Comm graduate student, and based on my experience working in the field and interviewing candidates, here are some thoughts.

montage of album covers from 1979

We listened to different music in 1979, and breaking into the field was different too.

I got my first technical writing job a long time ago — in 1979. One thing I know for sure is that your breaking-in story won’t be the same as mine. Things were a lot different then, and I’m not just thinking about the music we listened to. Companies, having realized that technical people didn’t necessarily make good technical writers, went looking for young writers who weren’t necessarily versed in the technology but who could learn it.

Armed with a double-major in English and philosophy, and having a tiny bit of experience with computers, I landed that first job with IBM.

You won’t have the same experience. Your résumé will need to look a little shinier than mine did.

What are the educational requirements for working in Technical Communication?

Follow-up question: Are certain degrees or backgrounds more sought after by employers?

When I entered the field there were, to the best of my knowledge, only 2 Tech Comm degree programs in the U.S. That’s changed, obviously, and a bachelor’s or master’s degree in Tech Comm is a big plus.

But it’s not a firm requirement. If your degree is in the domain where you hope to work, I think that counts just as much as a degree in Tech Comm.

Do you have a computer science degree? I’d strongly consider hiring you to work for a software company. Biology or chemistry? You can work in pharmaceuticals or the life sciences.

If you have a BA/BS, should you go back to school and get a graduate degree? A lot of people do that, and that degree definitely will open doors. I don’t think it’s essential, however. It’s not something I look for when I read a resume.

What skills do employers expect you to have in order to get hired?

Hand holding a pen

Effective communication is more than just writing .

Show me that you know how to communicate, both in person and in writing. Show me that you understand audience analysis, and that you can work with SMEs as colleagues and collaborators.

Know something about the domain where you’re going to work (software, life sciences, whatever). You don’t necessarily need a degree in the field, but you do need a working knowledge of the pertinent concepts, technology, and terminology. I don’t expect you to know how to write a system administrator’s manual on Day One. But I expect you to be able to read it, understand it, and know something about the world of its intended audience.

Finally, have some experience with tools. I hate job postings that say you must know this tool or that — or that you must have 5 years’ experience with a tool that’s been on the market only 2 years. (Yes, I’ve seen that.) But I want to know that you can use tools similar to the ones needed for the job. Generally speaking, if you’re adept with a CCMS, an XML editor, and a graphics program, I don’t care which specific ones you know. You can easily learn the ones we use at my company.

I’ve enjoyed answering these questions, and I hope you’ve found my answers helpful.

Feel free to ask follow-up questions in the Comments section. Your questions might be the inspiration for another article.

5 thoughts on “Launching your technical communication career

  1. mrcharly

    It is an interesting subject. I broke into the field of ‘technical writing’ by seeking out an unpaid position (essential working as an intern). I phoned likely companies, dozens of them, until I found one that would take me on. Worked for them for 6 months unpaid (as a ‘trainee technical author’) until they offered me a paid position.
    Previously I’d been a computer operator on mainframes, rising to the dizzy heights of deputy shift leader.
    Since then I have helped at least one person embark on a career as a technical author, taking them on as a graduate trainee and mentoring them. I’ve mentored other people, of course, but they were the only person who was passionate about this as a career (to the others it was ‘just a job’).
    How did I choose the person to take on and mentor? I picked the person who was obviously interested in technical authoring, rather than ‘just a job’. Then the shortlist of two candidates had to take a writing test that involved writing a brief procedure, copying the writing style of an provided example. One person had an obvious aptitude for this, the other was merely competent.
    So, passion, aptitude and ability won the job.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks for commenting, mrcharly. You made two points that I want to follow up on.

      First, I’ve often suggested doing volunteer work as a way to building up a portfolio. But I hardly ever meet anyone who’s actually done it. So thank you for sharing your experience.

      Second, I hope everyone will take to heart what you said about the importance of tech comm being more than “just a job.” That, more than anything else, is the way to open doors into the profession. Everything else (getting credentials, building a portfolio) becomes a lot easier when you have a passion for the work.

  2. Michael LaRocca, Editor

    Here’s another breaking-in story that I strongly suspect is no longer possible.

    The president of an R&D firm hired me to be her secretary in 1991. I asked for a computer, a first for someone in my position, and they ordered me a Gateway. I used it to turn my 40-hour job into a 5-hour job, then starting looking for non-engineering functions to take away from the engineers. Finally the head engineer said, “You’ve got an electronics degree. Edit our tech manuals.”

    Twenty-seven years later, I still edit tech manuals.

    Kids, don’t try this at home.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Don’t try this at home, maybe. But I still meet a lot of people — especially in the Tech Comm certificate program at Duke — who work in other fields and who constantly find themselves writing policy documents or updating websites. Many of them stay where they are and embrace their broadened job descriptions; some move into technical writing full-time.


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