Andrew Davis, formerly principal of Synergistech Communications and now a recruiter for Content Rules (formerly Oak Hill Corporation), provided valuable insights (both live and remotely) at our March 2011 meeting. A true champion of the candidate, he reads a lot of job descriptions and resumes, and made clear that a great portfolio (and approach) is your best chance of landing a job in technical communications in the current environment (which, perhaps surprisingly, is becoming more and more favorable to the job seeker).
You can’t just have a resume anymore; you need hard evidence to back up what is on it:
- Provide proof that you understand your audience, really know your tools, and can organize, write and deliver.
- Have you mastered the three types of software documentation content (procedural, conceptual, reference)?
- Have you mastered the three basic delivery types (linear prose, task-based help, instruction)?
- Have you developed concrete doc plans?
- Have you demonstrated a master of doc organization (TOC, concepts, procedures, reference, glossary, and even the index?)
Well, have you?
So what sells in the current market?
- Clean, friendly prose with the end user clearly in mind
- Illustrations, useful screen shots
- Code examples
- Complete instructions
- Use cases and implementation scenarios
The audiences for each of the above are different, but the aspiring applicant who can demonstrate mastery of most of the above stands the best chance of success.
And when you are on the spot in front of your prospective employer, what wins?
- An effective presentation, with information that is accessible, relevant, and in a meaningful context: what were the conditions, constraints, and strengths and weaknesses (yes, those) in how you succeeded — or not?
- How did you approach similar challenges?
- What did you deliver and why?
- What did you learn?
- How did you succeed in the end?
- What was your role in development?
- What were all the circumstances you encountered and how did you deal with them?
- What would you do differently next time?
In short, be the best narrator you can, and leave nothing to chance.
So how does one deliver success stories these days? Many use the ubiquitous and affordable LinkedIn (which also hosts a “Creative Portfolio Display” section). Or develop a private website in which to hang your best work with a narrative. For the transfer of large files to your prospective employer, use box.net. Or use private directories (password protected, of course) and even (duh) email (for files that are not too large).
But, you say, all my examples are proprietary? Well, if you don’t deliver something, employers will assume you are bluffing if you just say, “Sorry, I have great stuff — just can’t show it.”
Too bad for you.
So how do you deal with the sticky issue of proprietary information? Here are Andrew’s suggestions, in increasing order of difficulty:
- Ask the prospective employer to sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA). Companies ask others to do that all the time, so don’t be shy. It shows you are a mature negotiator as well as a respector of (eventually their) intellectual property rights.
- Neuter the content. Do search and replace on a variety of key words.
- Redact key sections, as Acrobat Pro allows (Acrobat Standard may do this too). However, even though you can black out words and lines, be sure to lock the file against further edits!
- Ask your ex (or currrent) boss for permission. Your judgment call here.
- Contact your current (or previous) legal department for permission. Your judgment call here.
- Ask for the names, addresses, and SSANs or the reviewing parties. Your judgment call here. (Success stories would be interesting to hear.)
In the absence of success in any of the above, or even if you have no current examples of the types of documents you would like to write, you can always take a public-domain document or public-domain information and rewrite and reorganize it, demonstrating your clear command of information management. Demonstrate your command of a technical subject area, as well as of your understanding of your audience.
Finally, avoid the classic “I am such a quick study, just teach me anything I need to know and I will learn it.” Well, that does not work in the current environment. No employer wants to hire a liability, and your inexperience should not end up their problem. Hiring managers are terrified to make a wrong hiring decision, and will instinctively minimize their risk any way they can.
So demonstrate the following with concrete examples: initiative, motivation, a master of subject matter sufficient for the task, an ability to overcome gaps in information and other challenges. Most of all, make it crystal clear that you will be a good investment.
It is as simple as that.
For additional information, don’t hesitate to contact Andrew at email@example.com. Your success and his are intertwined.