Starting a career in technical writing?
For those of you who may be considering a career as a technical writer in software development, I can share a few insights that could be helpful in making a decision based on my career.
I became a software technical writer mainly because of my curiosity in learning how things work. Initially, I was curious about what makes television and radio possible. This led me to a brief career as a TV and radio newswriter. While it was exciting to report on dramatic and late-breaking news events, I became dissatisfied with the lack of depth for each news story that I wrote. The problem was how much could I explain about a new technology (such as the Internet) within 30 seconds? At that point, I decided to explore other career options where my intellectual curiosity could be satisfied and I could help the reader understand the technical details.
My exploration consisted of checking out a dozen professional organizations to see which one would best help my career. At the end of my search, the Society for Technical Communication (STC) stood out. I felt that technical communicators were less ego-driven and more willing to share their knowledge with others. Having chosen STC, I immediately joined the local chapter in my area (San Gabriel Valley STC) and volunteered to build the chapter’s first website. By chance, Shauna was also in the chapter. So we learned HTML together and launched the first version of the chapter’s website in 1997.
STC Has Been Instrumental in My Career
STC has been instrumental in developing my career in so many ways. From its monthly magazine to international conventions, and its job board, I’ve benefitted from being involved with fellow members. It has given me the skills to work for startup companies that went successfully to IPO (Selectica, Inc), large public companies such as Cisco Systems, and also a few that went defunct (they shall not be named).
The two big lessons I’ve learned about software technical writing are:
1) Be Flexible
Because the technology space changes so rapidly, it’s important to adapt to the changing conditions of the marketplace. That’s where flexibility helps you survive the twists and turns that occur daily in a software development house. I’ve seen people who have had to leave the technical writing field because they did not get used to new methods of software development (such as going from a waterfall model to an agile/scrum).
2) Keep learning
Continuous learning is key to your ability to not only survive but also thrive in the current workplace. In the past 20 years as a technical writer, I’ve had to learn about almost a dozen authoring systems (including FrameMaker, MadCap Flare, Confluence, DITA XML and Sphinx) along with at least a half-dozen code repository solutions (such as CVS, Subversion, Perforce, ClearCase, Git). To increase your chances of getting hired and also staying hired, it pays to keep up to date with the current technology in the documentation field.
STC is More than a Society
STC is more than a professional society. STC is the group of people that I could go to shape my career, answer questions and learn how to apply skills. I have taken selected friendships and lessons from my time in STC forward with me in my career.