What You Need to Know to Do Your Job: Tech Skills

The title is a trick, since obviously every situation is different. I have been swimming in the technocracy for ten years now, and my experiences and requirements have changed with each job–partly. What follows is a general shopping list of software and hardware skills technical communicators should have touched, worked with, or at least heard of to do their job. Depending on the capabilities of the shop you’re in, your requirements might change. For instance, I have friends who still swear by WordPerfect, and I haven’t seen that in an office in–well, 20 years–while others attend The Church of Mac zealously and chastise me for my heathenish PC ways.

The list of “must-have” skills will change next year, in five years, and in ten years. It’ll probably be fun to go back and look at this list periodically for nostalgia’s sake. (There are probably people reading this right now and thinking, “WordPerfect? Huh?”)

The lists below include my own experiences plus inputs from techie-minded people I trust (Darlene Cavalier, Anthony Duignan-Cabrera, and John Ohab–thank you!).


  • Microsoft Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox, or some other web-surfing application–you’re reading this, so congratulations, Step #1 accomplished
  • Microsoft Word (Oh, hush–you know you use it–most offices can’t live without it; and if they can, they’ve got some other word-processing software with an equally Byzantine list of functions that a technical writer usually knows inside and out)
  • Microsoft PowerPoint (I keep hearing from my presentation-wonk friends that PPT “sucks,” but I’ve yet to hear of anything replacing it)
  • Microsoft Excel (or some other spreadsheet program–I understand there are a few good competitors out there, but I’ve moved from Disney to defense to NASA, and MS products still abound)
  • Microsoft Outlook or other email program (You HAVE sent an email, haven’t you?)
  • Adobe Acrobat or other graphic-manipulation/design program
    Video editing program of some sort (ashamed to say I use any, but Adobe and Mac both have one)
  • Microsoft Project or some other project-planning software
  • Facebook or other social networking software
  • Twitter
  • Really Simple Syndication (RSS)
  • Google Docs/Reader/Gmail


  • PC or Mac computer with keyboard
  • iPad or tablet PC of some sort
  • Smart phone (iPhone, Android, Blackberry)
  • Webcam
  • USB drive
  • Backup drive
  • Fax (go ahead, future reader–laugh)
  • Copier
  • Scanner
  • BlueTooth
  • DVD/Blu-Ray player
  • Videoconferencing software/hardware
  • DVR/Digital Video Recorder

Technical Concepts (phrases you should have heard of in the course of your work)

  • Voice mail
  • Telecommuting
  • VPN (Virtual Private Network)
  • Wi-fi
  • 3G/4G
  • Blog (web log)
  • HTML/XML/XHTML (bottom line being, you should have at least seen or touched some sort of computer code so when someone says “tag,” you know what they mean by it)
  • Cloud computing
  • Text messaging
  • Apps (usually associated with smart phones)
  • CGI (computer-generated imagery)
  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
  • Data visualization/mashups
  • Geolocation
  • Hashtags
  • Semantic web (“Web 3.0”)
  • Live streaming video/technology
  • “Anything mobile”
  • “Mobile, well, everything, is inevitable. So programming for iOS and all Android platforms”

  • “Also, digital tools that allow social sharing and e-commerce”

The exciting, interesting, and scary aspect of all this is that the technological “necessities” just for doing the job of technical communication keep advancing and improving. That puts the technical communicator on a dedicated course toward lifelong learning. And while I might be using some of the hot toys of the time (October 27, 2011, 9:26 p.m. Central Time), those toys (tools) will continue to evolve, which means the technical communicator must be willing and able to adapt as well. It also means that the definition of “technical literacy” will continue to evolve. There is something vaguely unsettling, sad, and Borg-like about the fact that WE must adapt to the MACHINES instead of vice-versa, but the good news about inventors like the late Steve Jobs is that some folks are dedicated to making new technologies–if not “intuitive”–at least easy to use once a short demonstration or two is provided. I remain supremely impressed that I was able to use iPhone without a manual.*

[* Personally, I’m waiting for a machine that will combine the keyboard size of a regular computer, the non-glowing reading screen of the Kindle, and the communication/entertainment functionality of the iPhone. It’d also be helpful for a writer like me to have a screen with a pen/stylus that will allow me to write/draw longhand and manipulate images from there. Obviously we’re a few years away from that yet, but a friend of mine recently proposed to his “SIRI” software on his iPhone 4S, and he was a bit disappointed when SIRI responded, “My end user licensing agreement does not cover marriage. My apologies.” I wonder what will happen when the end user licensing agreement DOES cover that!]

As I pointed out in an earlier posting, reading science fiction helps a new technical communicator–or anyone living in this age–cope with the new realities because SF conditions the reader to the notion that the future can and will change. So perhaps the most important “tool” technical communicators can take with them is an open mind–open to the possibility or probability that what you thought you knew today will be outdated tomorrow–and be ready to find new ways to communicate messages in a dynamic environment.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
This entry was posted in technical writing, workplace and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What You Need to Know to Do Your Job: Tech Skills

  1. Hello I’m itching to know if I may use this post on one of my blogs if I link back to you? Thanks.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.