40 years ago — on May 29, 1979 — I walked into the IBM programming lab in Kingston, New York, for my first day of work as a technical writer.
I’ve seen a lot in those 40 years. Some things about the profession have changed a lot; some haven’t changed at all.
The audience has always been the focal point for everything we do. 40 years ago, we paid lip service to that fact. Today we understood that we’re here to serve our readers, but we often struggle with how to do that. Soon it’ll be non-negotiable: If we don’t satisfy our readers, they’ll go elsewhere to get information, and they might even choose our competitors’ products over ours.
Since 1979, tech writing tools have evolved from literally nothing to the jangle of options we have today. (And the interval, from the first tool to the first job posting requiring that tool, was about 5 minutes.)
But eventually the basic principles behind text editors and graphics programs became well enough established that a writer could move easily from tool to tool. The challenge of the next few years will be mastering new kinds of tools that do new things, like building documentation portals using industrial-strength content management systems.
IBM hired me because I could write. They assumed they’d need to teach me about software, and that’s what they did. But by the mid 1980s, new-hires were expected to know the technical subject along with the craft of writing. Today, technical writers choose specialties — medical writing, policies and procedures, networking software — with which to market themselves to employers. The employers get writers with specialized skills who are already embedded in their chosen specialties; the writers risk being pigeonholed and being at the mercy of the ebbs and flows of the marketplace.
Working for yourself
At IBM in the late ’70s, the “company man” was part of the culture. Even though my colleagues and I no longer sang from the IBM hymn book, we were encouraged to think that we’d always have a home at Big Blue. Alas, that wasn’t true for my generation.
Today, whether you own your own business or accept a paycheck, you’re working for yourself. Employee-employer loyalty is ephemeral at best. While part of me misses the old culture, I think it’s healthy for us to understand that each one of us is in charge of our own professional future.
Communication: still paramount
Again, IBM hired me because I could write. The ability to communicate — then, predominantly through the written word; today, through a combination of media — remains the single factor that sets technical writing apart from other skill sets. Reaching the right audience with the right message at the right time, sometimes with stories, always with empathy: that’s what I’ve tried to do for 40 years, and that’s what we’ll all be doing as long as we’re in this business.
40 years from now
Some of you are just now entering the technical writing profession. A few of you might still be part of the profession in 40 years. What do you think your working life will be like?
IBM closed the Kingston lab in the mid 1990s. The photo is the cover image from Kingston: The IBM Years, published in 2014 by Friends of Historic Kingston.