Our identity and our future as technical communicators

I like to say, at the beginning of every new year, welcome to the future.

2019, a brand new space with freshly waxed floors and newly painted walls, awaits our arrival. As we enter in, let’s look around for a moment. Let’s think about what we’ll make of the new year.

Our day in the sun

Start with the 2018 STC Summit, where keynote speaker Carla Johnson called technical communicators “the linchpin between people, information, and technology.”

pencil drawing a bridge between two cliffs

Bridging the gap (Source: eurodiaconia.org)

We’re uniquely positioned, Johnson said, to help our companies succeed by influencing the way they interact with customers and prospects. All because we bridge the gap between, on the one hand, products and technologies, and on the other hand, voice, branding, and messaging.

Pretty heady stuff! If Johnson is right, we technical communicators are about to have our day in the sun. Soon everyone in the organization will look up to us.

Back to earth

Yet, at the same time…

In so many of the major trends in content creation, it seems as if technical communicators are being overshadowed by other kinds of professionals.

API documentation is perhaps the fast-growing segment of technical content. Many of the people who create API documentation don’t consider themselves technical communicators.

Everyone’s talking about chatbots. Many of the people who create chatbots don’t consider themselves to be technical communicators.

User experience — UX — is in the spotlight as never before. Many of the people who design and create the UX don’t consider themselves to be¬†technical communicators.

More people than ever are consuming visual communication, like videos and augmented reality. Many of the people who produce videos and AR don’t consider themselves to be technical communicators.

So what’s going on? Is that “linchpin” talk just an illusion? Are we being overshadowed, or pushed aside, by software developers? By UX specialists? By visual communicators?

A bug in our makeup? Not really

For as long as I can remember, technical communicators have battled an inferiority complex, yearning to be accepted as equals by other professionals. Have our hopes been in vain? Is there some kind of “bug” in our makeup that dooms us to second-rate status in the professional worlds that we inhabit?

No, and no.

What seems like a bug, you see, is really a feature.

At long last, technical communicators have left their cloister and become active, contributing members of countless other professional communities. The software-development community. The UX community. The visual-communication community.

We’ve made it. We’ve been accepted.

Dog being honored in a parade

Caption: “Well, every dog has his day.” (Source: The Far Side by Gary Larson)

We’re not being overshadowed. We’re simply taking our place alongside professionals who have different — or more specialized — skills. In so doing, by applying our special perspectives and abilities, we enrich the work they produce.

Unlike Rex here, we technical communicators might never get a parade down Main Street. But we’ll get something better: the knowledge that we’re fully accepted in, and contributing to, the professional worlds we inhabit.

And that, as we stand at the threshold of 2019, is the future of technical communication.

9 thoughts on “Our identity and our future as technical communicators

  1. TechCommGeekMom

    Hi Larry,
    Happy New Year! I hope you are right. When I look at the job market, I don’t necessarily feel like the full respect it there yet. They still want to get our knowledge and skills–if at all–at a discount. While there might seem to be more technical communication positions, we’re not always treated or paid what we are worth, I find. The struggle lives on! I also worry about economic situations, especially here in the US. We were tossed out less than a decade ago as a frivolity and deemed expendable by many companies. We finally are back–but for how long? And to catch up on all those skills you listed above? It makes my head spin. Which one is going to be most prevalent going forward? Which one will yield a better position for me? Time will tell. After dealing with the volatile nature of the job market for so long, I enter this year very carefully, with no expectations.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      That’s an excellent point, Danielle. Thanks for contributing. Ironically, although we’re more respected for our contributions to a variety of fields, many people now view our traditional core strength — technical writing — as a commodity. I suspect another blog post might be needed: one about how we should market ourselves. Perhaps you or I will write that post.

  2. Mark Baker

    Are tech writers less valued than engineers and designers? Probably. Is this justified. Probably. It is all very well to say your work is essential, but everyone’s work is essential. Companies don’t routinely hire people to perform functions they don’t need. Every job is essential. The real question we should be asking is, which jobs are the differentiators? Which jobs create the thing that differentiates a company from others in the market, and therefore give it its reason to be?

    There can be different answers to that in different industries. In tech, though, it is engineers and designers. In some cases, it is marketers. But in no cases is it technical documentation. Documentation is essential, but it is not a differentiator.

    The differentiators have higher prestige in every organization. If you are not a differentiator, you will not be as highly valued as those who are. That’s life, and there is not much you can do about it. There are lots of organizations in which writing is the differentiator, though. In publishing, the writers are the differentiators, and sometimes the editors. The printers and the distributors are essential, but they are not the differentiators. Writers and editors, therefore, have greater prestige.

    I suspect that where the tech comm inferiority complex comes from is that tech writers work so closely with designers and engineers — the people who are the differentiators. We are more acutely aware of the different regard in which they are held than, say, the bookkeepers who don’t interact with them everyday. The allure of all of these other things that writers want to dabble in instead of writing, it that they feel closer to being differentiators.

    There is great privilege and peril in being a differentiator. Your failures and your successes are both far more consequential. There is rather more safety and comfort in a role that is essential but not a differentiator. It is a solid comfortable place to make a living, and there is not a thing wrong with that. But if you want to be a differentiator and a writer, there a plenty of fields where you can be just that. Tech comm just isn’t one of them.

    1. Vinish Garg

      “I suspect that where the tech comm inferiority complex comes from is that….” True but to an extent. Because it depends on whether the organization and peers trigger this inferiority complex, or it is self-induced (self-realized).

      In all (but one) of my jobs so far when I was employed and when I worked as a contractor (a rank outsider to the product team in such cases), my first step was to make the product team realize that I am indispensable to the product success (the team’s success for product delivery and their team goals PLUS the business goals – combined). So, I always enjoyed the *differentiator status* in all my teams. Even if the more glamorous roles disliked the attention or respect that I got from the decision makers, it meant that I was so important in the team.

      1. Larry Kunz Post author

        Thanks, Vinish. There’s a lot of truth in the adage that life is what you make of it. Your experience shows that when you capitalize on opportunities and demonstrate confidence along the way, you’ll gain stature in the professional world.

    2. Larry Kunz Post author

      Hi, Mark. Thanks as always for sharing your insights. While we may not be differentiators to the degree that engineers and designers are, I’d say that we’re more so than we were 20 or 30 years ago. I’d also say that some our colleagues — maybe not all of us, but some — are positioned to move even higher on that scale in the next decade. For example, as artificial intelligence gains traction, some of the people who’ll make it work will be technical-communicator-cum-programmers who’ll know how to code the scenarios and the if-then-else trees that guide the “intelligence” through its activities.

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