Category Archives: Professionalism

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? Continue reading


Technical Communication: Oh, the places you’ll go!

A Technical Communication graduate student recently interviewed me for a project she’s doing. She asked great questions, and (with her permission) I thought I’d share some of my answers with you.

What does a career trajectory look like in technical communication?


Your career in Tech Comm, and possibly after Tech Comm, will be uniquely yours — shaped by your interests and talents.

Follow-on question: Is there lots of room for growth, or do people need to transition to management after a certain point?

There is lots of room for growth. Just as people follow many paths into Tech Comm, they find a lot of paths to follow once they’re here.

It’s like Dr. Seuss said: you can go almost anywhere.

Where you go in Tech Comm — or where you go from Tech Comm — depends on what you’re especially good at and what you’re most interested in. Continue reading

Why your idea didn’t fly — and how you can give it wings

Roseate Spoonbill in FlightRemember that great idea you had at work? You knew it would make a huge difference for the company and its customers, that it would pay dividends long into the future.

You pitched it to your boss, or to the C-suite. You put everything you had into it. But they just yawned. Nobody caught your enthusiasm. Worse, when a different, shiny idea caught their eyes, they forgot all about your idea and backed that one instead.

What happened?

Seth Godin provided some answers in his blog this past Super Bowl Sunday. Seth examined why cities spend hundreds of millions on stadiums while projects with a better return on investment — like building roads, improving education, or investing in technology — go wanting.

Learn the dynamics of corporate decision making

Seth sees 5 dynamics at play in decision making at the city or state level. I’m convinced that they also bear on your situation at work.

  • The project is now. It’s yes or no. There are no subtle nuances, no debating the pros and cons for years. We either build the stadium, or our team moves to Vegas.
  • The project is specific, easy to visualize — in contrast with, say, “investing in technology,” which each person is likely to visualize differently.
  • The end is in sight. When you build a stadium, the stadium opens and games are played. With other projects, it’s often harder to visualize the end state.
  • People in power and people with power will benefit. Enough said.
  • There’s a tribal patriotism at work. “What do you mean you don’t support our city?”

So what was your idea? Were you proposing that the writing team embrace structured authoring? Did you want the company to adopt a content strategy?

Why did your bosses toss your idea aside? Maybe you didn’t frame it in a way that took the 5 dynamics into account.

Make your idea fly

How can you improve your odds when it’s time to sell your next idea? Ask yourself these questions.

  • Is it clear cut? Can I create an unambiguous, shared vision in everyone’s mind of what will happen if my idea is adopted — versus what will happen if it isn’t?
  • Can they visualize the results? It might help to tell a story: meet Joe, who just bought our product. Here’s how my idea will improve his life and turn him into a more loyal customer. Or here’s Sally in Tech Pubs, and here’s how she’ll be able to create better content for Joe and others like him.
  • Is the end in sight? Can I describe what the results will look like in a year, or in 2 years? Or am I trying to sell something that brings only gradual improvement? Similarly, can I describe the win criteria: what specific things need to happen for this project to be measured as successful?
  • What’s in it for the executives? This might go against my altruistic nature, but the bosses won’t really listen (although they might pretend to) unless they see some benefit, tangible or intangible, for them.
  • Am I appealing to company spirit? Can I paint a picture of customers waving banners with the company logo, or of the CEO on a stage talking up this idea before a cheering audience?

Try framing your next idea around these dynamics, and you might see a better result. Because people are people, whether they’re a city council or the C-suite at a corporation.

Don’t give up

anoseate Spoonbill, Birding Center, Port Aransas, TexasYou’re probably thinking: my idea can’t score on all of these criteria. By necessity, it’s a long-term solution with no clear-cut success criteria. Or it addresses issues that are internal, “under the hood” — nothing that the CEO would ever talk about onstage.

In that case, go ahead and pitch your idea anyway. Just be aware of the forces that are at work, and be willing to address them. “I know this isn’t something we’ll be able to tout to our customers. But you (Mr. or Ms. CEO) will have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve made your employees happier.”

Seth, unfortunately, used the word losers in the title of his post. He was saying, I think, that basing decisions on those 5 dynamics is a losing proposition — that cities would see better outcomes (better infrastructure, better education, better quality of life) if they could get past the limitations imposed by the 5 dynamics.

I look at it differently. I prefer to say that Seth has shed light on some basic aspects of human nature. Rather than simply abandoning our less-than-shiny ideas, we can succeed when we understand those aspects and turn them to our advantage.

What do you think? Has Seth given you a way to bring your ideas to fruition, or has he convinced you that your ideas will never gain traction?

Can you share a story of when you got an idea approved by appealing to these aspects of human nature?

The best gifts I’ve received

Gift-wrapped packages

I like gifts. Just don’t say “free gift.” That sets my teeth on edge.

In this gift-giving season, I pause to recognize some of the people who’ve given me gifts during my career. There are lot of them, but these stand out.

The manager who invited me to bring any and every problem to him — as long as I also brought a solution. My solution might not, in the end, be the solution we chose. But it started our conversation, and — most important — it got me focused on fixing, not dwelling on, my problems.

The public-speaking trainer who, early in my career, assured me that my audience wants me to succeed — not make mistakes they can pick apart. To prove his point, he asked me what I want from a speaker when I’m a member of the audience.

A colleague’s advice that speaking or teaching is a form of gift-giving — that my words are something of value, a gift for my audience. People like to receive gifts, he said, and you should enjoy giving them too.

Plastics scene from The Graduate

Just one word: DITA

The team-lead, at IBM in the early 1980s, who encouraged me to learn a precursor of DITA that was just coming into use. Think of Benjamin Braddock and “plastics” — except that I took it to heart. I embraced the idea of structured authoring before I could become too set in my ways as a technical writer. I’ve benefited ever since.

Finally, numerous managers who saw farther than I could and helped me prepare for what was coming — whether it was a new technology or a department-wide layoff. And other managers who took a chance on me, and then — when I didn’t get it right the first time — took a second chance.

I’m grateful to all of them.

I’d like to hear about gifts you’ve received that helped you in your career. Share your stories in the comments.

Letting the team decide

Do you manage by consensus? Do you invite your team to come together to make decisions? Not all decisions, of course, but the many choices that — while not mission-critical – affect the team’s day-to-day work and its esprit de corps.

I admit that managing by consensus isn’t my preferred style. But having worked on teams where members are invited to participate in decision making, I’ve come to see the advantages:

several hands claspedBuy-in: When the team chooses, its members are much more likely to be comfortable with the choice – and with the results of that choice.

Empowerment: Team members feel like their opinions matter, like they’re being heard.

Results: Because it represents the team’s collective wisdom, often the decision is better than anything you would’ve come up with yourself.

Making it work

Before you try managing by consensus, you have to cultivate the right environment to make it work. From my observation, here are some ways to do that.

Assemble a team that’s knowledgeable and trustworthy. You’ll be better able to empower the team when you trust their wisdom and their motivation.

Sometimes – most times, in fact – you won’t get to pick who’s on your team. People are assigned to you, or they come onto your team through reorganizations. What then? You might have to start slowly, until the team (with your encouragement) has established that level of knowledge and trustworthiness – not to mention establishing the ability to trust each other.

Create a framework in which managing by consensus can take place. Obviously, the team can’t make every decision. Decide up front what’s not negotiable, and what kinds of things you’re comfortable letting the team decide. Some of the non-negotiables will be handed down from Corporate. Others will be areas where you have latitude, but about which you feel strongly. Examples might be working hours, or basic rules for professionalism and mutual respect.

Give up your need to be in control. When I’m the person in charge, and I know I’m accountable, this one is hard or me. I can solicit advice, I can ask for feedback – but my buck stops here” mentality makes me want to call the shots. Yet I’ve learned, as I said earlier, that letting the team decide often results in better outcomes than when I decide things myself.

Make sure everyone has a voice. Insist on a culture where one or two people don’t dominate, where everyone feels like they have a chance to contribute. If someone becomes too vocal, or isn’t vocal enough, remind them in a one-on-one conversation that everyone is expected to contribute and everyone has a right to be heard.

Realize that sometimes it’s messy. Life becomes more complicated when you’re no longer calling all the shots. Sometimes, when you ask the team to make a choice, it takes them a while to figure out what they want. There might be strong disagreements along the way, and even healthy disagreement can cause stress. Although you might have to play the role of facilitator, or even referee, resist the temptation to lapse back into the role of boss.

Have you worked successfully on a team where decisions were made by consensus – either as the leader or as a team member? What were the factors that contributed to that success? What benefits came from using the managing-by-consensus approach?

Why do people mangle the language?

confusedAt the recent Australian STC conference, Neil James was asked why people write Manglish, or mangled English. I very much like what he had to say.

(As quoted in Sarah Maddox’s blog, ffeathers. Emphasis mine.)

  • At school, we imbibe the notion that complex writing is better writing. Waffle gets reasonable marks, provided it’s elegant waffle.
  • Early in our careers in the professional and technical workplace, mastering and using the technical jargon of our field gives us a stronger feeling of belonging.
  • When we learn the tech vocabulary of a particular industry, it’s difficult to adjust to communicating with a lay audience.
  • Institutional culture reinforces the language patterns. Large organisations move slowly. It’s hard to change their processes. When you do successfully introduce change, the organisation moves steadily along the new path.
  • Language is used as an expression of power. Sometimes, people deliberately use jargon to protect their financial interests or to manipulate public opinion. An example is from the airline industry, when people use the term “loss of separation” of two planes, which means the two planes collided.

What do you think? Have you experienced a “loss of separation” with some mangled English lately? What might’ve caused it, do you think?

Go ahead and let them see you sweat

Don’t let them see you sweat.

I’m sure you’ve heard that advice. Even when you’re not sure what to do, even when you feel scared, it’s best for you, as a leader, to wear a veneer of invincibility.


An oak seedling: vulnerable but strong

For years, that’s how I tried to be. Not the superhero who shoved everyone out of the way and said “I’ve got this,” but the calm, steady, implacable one who never let anything ruffle him and who (especially) never admitted to needing help.

And what did that get me? Respect, maybe. But not the loyalty or affection of my team members. I think most of them saw me as aloof, above it all — able to connect with them only on a superficial level.

As I’ve grown wiser I’ve learned that vulnerability isn’t a bad thing. A couple of weeks ago, the Twitter #PoCchat conversation (every Monday at 11:00 a.m. Eastern) focused on vulnerability in leadership.

I like the definition Randy Thio offered during the chat: Being vulnerable is the deliberate absence of any barriers that may protect you physically and/or emotionally.

In other words, vulnerability is about your being open. Honest. Transparent.

Without vulnerability, you might come across as solid, dependable, even invincible. But you’ll also come across as distant and unsympathetic.

When people think you’re incapable of relating to them, it’s hard for them to trust you or feel loyalty toward you.

So try being the person you are rather than a superhero — indestructible but unrelatable — or a robot — steady and dependable but aloof. Try removing your mask.

When you remove your mask you can relax, because you don’t have to devote your energy to playing a role. You’re more confident, because all of us are better at being ourselves than at trying to be someone else.

Yes, you’ll be more confident. Seem counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Many of us associate vulnerability with having less confidence — with quaking in our boots, with trying not to let them see us sweat.

Although it might seem that way, it turns out that vulnerability and confidence complement each other. An insecure leader is almost never vulnerable: the last thing they want is for people to see their imperfections. It takes more confidence to be vulnerable.

It’s important that you get that. You don’t want your people to see you as a superhero or a robot. You do want them to see that you’re confident. Confident that you and your team can bring about a good outcome. Confident enough to take off your mask and let them see that you’re human too.

If you’d like to work on your vulnerability, I can suggest two things: tell your story, and be true.

Tell your story

Don’t be a man or woman of mystery. Be approachable. Make it easier for other people to relate to you.

If you’ve been in the working world for a while, you’ve probably had experiences that bear on the situation you’re in now. Share those experiences with the team. Even if you think of those experiences as failures, focus on what the failures taught you and how they prepared you for today’s situation.

As Randy Thio observed, telling your story invariably exposes you to judgment and criticism, further demonstrating vulnerability.

Be true

You already know that a leader should value the truth and should never act deceitfully.

Courage isn't the absence of fear, but the triumph over itDoes that mean that when the situation turns really bad, when you see everything falling down and you’re losing heart, you should be open and candid about absolutely everything?

Yes and no. Yes, but be careful to keep things in perspective.

Since you’ve likely experienced a similar problem or crisis before, you can lend insight that’ll help you and the team deal with today’s situation. Help your team see beyond the immediate; help them see the bigger picture.

Maybe you feel anxious, even frightened. Instead of expressing those emotions publicly, acknowledge them to yourself and then ask yourself whether they’re really warranted. No matter how bad things get, the sky isn’t really falling.

Once you’ve worked past those emotions, talk about how you did it.

Keep your poise. Don’t be the one who spreads panic.

And if you need help, be honest about that too. Asking for help doesn’t mean you’ve failed, or that your confidence is wavering. It simply means you’re no different from everyone else.

What it boils down to

Vulnerability. It boils down to your objective as a leader: do you want to appear invincible, or do you want to earn people’s trust and loyalty? Is leadership all about you, or is it about the people you lead?

For me, vulnerability is part of what it means to be a servant leader. I’m not all the way there yet. I’m still learning.

Be confident. Be steady and consistent. But don’t try to be something you’re not. Be vulnerable.

A new vantage point

Around 1610, Galileo Galilei, pointing his newly invented telescope at the sky, became the first person to see bulges on both sides of the planet Saturn. He didn’t know what they were. It took 45 years before another astronomer, Christiaan Huygens, figured out that they were rings surrounding the planet.

For 350-plus years since then, every view we had of the rings came from the same vantage point: from outside.

Until last month. For the first time, the Cassini spacecraft slipped between Saturn and the rings, turned its camera away from the planet, and started taking pictures from inside the rings.

Cassini flying inside Saturn's rings
This illustration is part of a NASA animation that shows Cassini’s trip inside the rings. The inset captures an actual image that Cassini sent back.

Following Cassini’s example, I’ve begun considering how I can look at things from new vantage points. If I’ve always looked at something in the same way, have I really seen it in its entirety? Maybe not.

Here are a few things I’m trying to see from new vantage points.

Mergers and acquisitions

My company, Extreme Networks, has acquired parts of 3 different companies over the past year. As a result, our technical writing team is growing rapidly. New people, with all sorts of different backgrounds, are learning our tools, our workflows, and our corporate culture. A lot of anxiety comes with the experience of being part of an acquisition.

I actually have experience with this. I’ve seen things from the other side of an acquisition. Now is a great time for me to remember how it felt — and thereby to help make it easier for the newcomers to our team.

Starting out

My recent participation in the STC Carolina chapter’s mentoring program has given me a new appreciation for how hard it is to break into the technical communication field — from finding a specialty (software writer, e-learning developer, scientific editor) to creating a personal brand to simply landing that first job.

Colliding worldviews

Look at the current world scene and you’ll see people with fundamentally different worldviews. More and more, those worldviews seem to be colliding — and the more they collide, like particles in an accelerator, the more sparks seems to fly. The greater the differences seem to become.

I’m still trying to grasp that. More important, I’m trying to understand the people whose worldviews are different from mine. If I can understand the people on the other side, maybe we can find something in common that we can use as a basis for moving forward together. Maybe that’s too much to ask. I don’t know. But I do know that talking beats shouting, so that’s what I try to do.

(If you’d like to try, too, Jesse Lyn Stoner recently shared some practical tips for taking a stand without polarizing others.)


Cassini has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. On Friday its mission will reach its grand finale when it dives into the planet’s atmosphere. When it transmits its last data from inside Saturn’s clouds — a vantage point no one has ever seen — humankind will gain more knowledge about Saturn’s atmosphere than ever before.

How have new vantage points helped you in your professional life? Can you think of other vantage points you’d like to gain?

It’s not your text

Hey, wow. I was looking on the internet and — what do you know? — I found a list.

Yes, I realize that the internet is full of lists. Many of them exist simply to entice us to click. A few might entertain or inform, and then I forget them in 5 minutes.

A very few are worth recommending. One such is this list of rules for editors, compiled by the Baltimore Sun‘s John McIntyre. If you’re in any part of the writing business, hurry on over to The Sun and take a look.

I lingered long over Rule 4: It’s not your text.

You are in the middle of things. You have a responsibility to assist the writer in achieving their purpose. You have a responsibility to the publication to maintain its standards and integrity. You have a responsibility to the reader, the party most commonly overlooked in these operations, to meet their needs of clarity and usefulness. Your personal preferences are subordinate to these responsibilities.

quill penSo it is with editors, and so it is with technical writers as well. We have a responsibility to the company we represent, to maintain its standards and integrity (to the extent it has them), and to present its products in such a way that our readers can use them effectively.

We also have a responsibility to the reader, to meet their needs of clarity and usefulness. This is our paramount responsibility, because this is the one we have to get right. We might get away without perfectly reflecting the company’s style or brand image, or without perfectly describing the product’s features. But if we don’t meet the reader’s needs, so that they stop reading and walk away (or dial tech support), we’ve failed completely.

stone bridgeI’ve heard the technical writer described as the bridge between subject-matter expert and reader. I used to bristle at that metaphor: I thought it implied a passivity on the part of the technical writer, as if we were nothing more than a conduit carrying information from one actor to another. “People walk on bridges,” I remember complaining.

Now, in my old age, I’m more comfortable with the bridge metaphor. Maybe I have a higher opinion of bridges: some of them are engineering marvels, and even the simplest ones are mighty useful. But mostly, I think, I better understand that it’s not my text.

Yes, I play an important role in the transaction between expert and reader. But it’s not about my personal preferences. If I want my name on something, I should write a novel.

My job is to make the information good, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. But it’s not my text.

Finding your own community and security

Last week I described a bygone day of two-way loyalty between companies and their employees. While I doubt that day will ever return, I proposed a few ways in which managers can give their people a healthy, realistic sense of community and security.

Maybe you’re not a manager or a leader. You’re a rank-and-file worker, and you’re not in a position to try out any of those things I talked about.

Today we’ll look at it from your point of view. What can you, as a worker, do to increase your sense of community and security when there seems to be too little of both?

Here are a few ideas. Leave a comment and tell me what you think.

Do new things

Network switches in a rack

Happy ending to the video: the switches are installed in a rack.

Last month I made my first live-action video (as opposed to screen shots). The video shows how to install network switches in a rack. It won’t win an Academy Award, but it’s taught me a lot about writing scripts, planning video and photo shoots, recording audio, and editing the whole package. I know those new skills will serve me well on other projects.

Try doing new things whenever you can. You’ll increase your value to your employer, and you’ll add new skills to your repertoire.

The idea is not to make yourself indispensable (as if you could). The idea is to make yourself flexible so that you’re ready to take on new roles or, if need be, to land a new job.

Don’t be a wallflower

I know. You’re introverted. So am I. You won’t see me in the middle of the action at the next company party. But I’ll be there, and I won’t be hiding behind the potted fern either. I hope you’ll be there too, because you can’t feel like you belong to a community if you don’t act like you belong to the community.

Flowers along a wall

Wallflowers are pretty. But they don’t reflect — or inspire — loyalty.

When I mentioned loyalty, remember that I described it as two-way loyalty. You want to know that your company’s loyal to you, while you’re being loyal to your company.

Loyalty to the company doesn’t just mean following the rules, showing up on time, and always speaking well of Good Old Spacely Sprockets. It also means — it especially means — being loyal to the people who make up the company, the people who work alongside you, the people who might want to feel like they’re part of a community too.

So say hello to them. Chat with them at the water cooler. And for heaven’s sake, don’t pass up the company party.

Know yourself — and trust yourself

Maybe, even though things look the same, your workplace has changed. Your car’s in the same parking space. Your cubicle walls are the same shade of — what color is that? But you know things are different. There was such a great vibe when you hired on, but today — for whatever reason — all the joy is gone.

Maybe the management team changed. Maybe a merger or an acquisition upended the culture. Maybe the company’s slipping in the marketplace and everybody’s stressed out about it.

It’s normal to feel uneasy, even helpless, in the face of changes like these. Yet it’s vital to keep your balance. How? Make sure your center of gravity is secure. Take stock of yourself. Remember what’s really important to you. Decide what you are, and are not, willing to do.

I once joined a company I admired for the high quality of its work and for its generosity of spirit. Over time, through a series of setbacks and managerial changes, I saw those good attributes fade away.

Eventually I saw that I was part of a company that cut corners and tried to squeeze as much money as it could from customers and employees.

How long would it be before I was called on to do something that went against my values? Before I was asked to betray a client’s trust by passing off poor-quality work? I had to decide what mattered to me: which lines I could cross and which ones I couldn’t, even if it meant losing my job.

Fortunately, I never had to make such a drastic choice. But by drawing those lines, by determining that I wouldn’t cross them, I empowered myself. I gained a bit of control over my situation — and with it, a sense of security. I knew that, even if things around me went sideways, I could stand firm and hold onto my integrity.

I also kept my resume up to date and constantly checked job postings, which gave me an additional sense of control — hence, again, a sense of security. I kept in close touch with my professional network, so that they became my community. Eventually it paid off: I found a new job in a much better situation.

This work — this taking stock and drawing boundary lines — is something you have to do for yourself. You can’t delegate it. You can’t get it from reading a book or a blog post. It’s uniquely yours. Don’t neglect it, even if right now you’re happy with your situation.

Things change. Make sure you’re ready.