With tight job markets, unique skills requirements, and risk-averse hiring managers, finding work in the world of technical communications is not what it used to be . . . no more mirror test.
However, the world of contract and contract-to-hire can still be rewarding for individuals who have precisely what a company (often a young one) needs with respect to skills (often intangible), but also with respect to attitudes that often go beyond those required by old-school corporations. In short, “skills” and “experience” are not enough — at least in the common use of those terms. As a major recruiter for Content Rules, Andrew Davis has accumulated a lot of understanding of the contemporary job market for technical communications skills.
Desirable Intangible Skills/Experience
What are those intangibles?
- Do you understand the business goals and business model of the hiring company?
- Do you have entrepreneurial experience (which comes in handy in a startup environment)?
- For a given product or service, do you understand the audience’s context, needs, and priorities?
- Can you visualize and design customized content deliverables?
- Do you understand what it takes to translate/localize content successfully and at least cost?
- Are you experienced in making a business case for content initiatives?
- Do you understand the latest tools and can you demonstrate their use?
- Do you have project management and consensus-building skills (which also come in handy in a startup environment)?
Desirable Empirical Skills/Experience
In the area of contemporary tools, Andrew lists the following:
- Hot are HTML5, EPUB3, or iBooks Author: In a multiplatform environment, eBook conversion and delivery can be paramount, through XML, XSL, XSLT, XSL-FO, DITA, DocBook, structured authoring tools such as Arbortext Editor (formerly “Epic”) and XMetaL Author, and (to a much lesser extent) Structured FrameMaker, Author-it, and MadCap Flare.
- Of particular importance is video production (iMovie, etc.) or screencasting experience (Captivate, Articulate, etc.)
- Can you implement a Wiki, after convincing an employer of the value of one?
- Have you demonstrated skills in interface/user-experience (UX) design, especially for mobile applications?
Andrew lists what is not, and what is not, with degrees of temperature in between.
Hot Industry Niches for SF Bay Area Content Developers
This is what employers are willing to pay for, at least for today:
- Data analytics
- IP security
- Big data (Hadoop, MapReduce, NoSQL, etc.)
- Mobile/GIS (iOS, Android)
- SaaS-ified apps
- Data center optimization/virtualization/cloud
- Open source
The following areas are not suffering, but they are just not as hot:
- SQL/data warehousing/business intelligence
- Enterprise applications (non-SaaS)
- Development tools
- Content translation/localization/internationalization technology
- Medical devices
- Storage (SAN/NAS technology)
- Networking (including videoconferencing) – noncloud
Here we can see how the world we used to know so well has changed:
- PCs, tablets, smartphones (hardware)
- Manufacturing (most)
- Infrastructure (transportation, etc.)
- Graphics (hardware, software)
- Clean/green tech
Consistently Hot Tech Comm Roles
If you have demonstrated skills in the following areas, you should be fine until the next paradigm shift:
- Developer-oriented content creation (API references, developer tutorials)
- Video (scripting, creation) – not just scriptwriting, podcasting, blogging
- UX design
- Structured content design/migration (part of “content strategist” work)
Not-so-Hot TC Roles
And here are the old-school skills that you may have, but that employers are not so interested in:
- Publications manager
- Proofreader, indexer, formatter
- End-user doc (for consumers and nontechnical audiences)
- System/network administration doc
- Proposal writer
- Business analyst
- Trainer (nontechnical, but in recent years also the technical variant)
- Instructional designer (nontechnical)
How to Get Hot (a One-Page Primer)
Here are Andrew’s tips for success in the current talent marketplace:
- Avoid academe (with few exceptions, schools are out of date, and more degrees and certificates are not a substitute for specialized experience).
- Download (and immerse yourself in) trial versions of your niche’s tools (the entry cost is cheap).
- Participate in open-source projects (this will take a bit of looking around, but the rewards are there).
- Build a portfolio online and link it to your LinkedIn profile. The portfolio demonstrates initiative, mastery of tools, and subject-matter awareness/interest. Make it easy for your target audience to get the info it wants.
- Study how others do it, then emulate the best.
- Intern or subcontract – or just volunteer (for a written reference).
- Conduct informational interviews (solicited through LinkedIn).
- Sell your services to the young companies, who really need your experience.
- Network! Do it in person through meetups (Andrew likes svnewtech a lot), and also use LinkedIn and corporate alumni networks (and even STC!).
Upsell Your Core TC Skills
In marketese, nothing beats repackaging what you have to offer so that it rings with currency in the ear of the beholder. Could you find yourself wearing the following hot terms?
- Content Strategist (cf. Information Architect)
- Content Marketer
- Community Liaison
- Corporate Storyteller
- Toolsmith (for wikis, structured content authoring/migrations, mobile content, content management, etc.)
User Experience (UX) Designer (not UX Engineer)
- Terminology Manager
- User Assistance (UA) Expert
- Content Manager (SharePoint administrator, process/workflow optimizer)
- SEO Expert
- Niche Analyst/Blogger/Tech Gadfly/Content Curator
- Conference Organizer
- Ghost Tweeter
- Demo Builder (involves scriptwriting, animation, and marketing)
And Try Successor Careers
Below are all “titles” that you may be able to wear after your years of service — which was not just about “docs,” was it?
- Business Analyst
- Project Manager
- Program Manager
- Engagement Manager
- Marketing Communications Manager
- Corporate Communications Manager
- Localization Manager
- Executive Communicator (speechwriting, spokesperson work)
- Technical Sales (including recruiting)
(As for management, Andrew cautions, it can often be a trap, so wear two hats and keep the managerial skills — but be able to produce content as well.)
Following the 2001 tech wreck, Andrew tracked the fields into which a number of experienced technical communicators moved at “Career Paths for Tired Tech Writers” (http://www.synergistech.com/career-paths.shtml), and he would be happy to connect anyone interested in reaching out to these individuals.
Just be ready for the next paradigm shift, and if you find work that works, take it. (For a copy of Andrew’s slides, see http://www.stc-northbay.org/meetings/presentations/pres_2012-05_Emerging_Roles_and_Hot_Markets_for_Tomorrows_Tech_Writers.ppt).
Andrew thrives on inquiries and feedback, so give him a call:
Andrew Davis, recruiter
408-395-8178 ext. 105