Three Reasons the Future Needs Technical Communicators

Technical communicators–not just technical writers and editors, but also technical illustrators–are in a sweet spot in the “new economy” of the 21st century. There is serious (or at least comfortable bill-paying) money to be made as a tech writer because the future needs you. That’s because the primary drivers of global economic growth are and will continue to be science and technology.

Reason #1: People Still Need Online Help

One reason technical communicators (or tech writers, I’ll use them interchangeably)  will be in demand is simply because there are a whole lot of people out there who don’t understand science and technology. Many of them vote. Some of these people are elected to public office. Nearly all of them will be using some gadget or other, and there will come a point where they just don’t get it. If their tech-savvy relative or ten-year-old isn’t on hand to talk them through it, they will get desperate enough to go online or crack open a book and RTFM (Read The Frickin’ Manual). Someone has to explain the technology in English. That someone would be you, Ms./Mr. Tech Writer. If you don’t do it, guess who will? That’s right: the engineers or programmers. Many engineers tell me up front that they despise writing. I tip my hat and thank them for providing me with job security.

Reason #2: The Public Needs to Know About Sci-Tech Issues

If you look at many of the world’s biggest hot-button issues, nearly all of them have a science or technology component to them. A prosperous, high-technology civilization requires access to plentiful, low-cost energy; in the past 50 years, we’ve also realized that it would be good for that energy not to kill us or to cause irreparable harm to the environment. How do we get that energy? What manufacturing methods are required to build the machinery? How much energy will we get from source X and how reliable will it be? What are the tradeoffs of using source X vs. source Y? These are all questions and answers that need to be articulated clearly to the general public, which will have varying levels of interest or knowledge about the topic.

People worry about climate change–not just temperatures rising or falling or changing sea or ice levels–but also other effects. There’s more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now than there was 20 years ago–what does that mean, and what needs to be done about it, if anything? What are the costs or effects of the actions we take? Again, this is a place where technical communicators–literary and visual–can step in and provide clarity.

From a job-hunting point of view, big technology means big opportunity. Pick one side or the other; pick neither. Science or tech journalism or blogging provide necessary (or sometimes counterproductive) inputs into public conversations. Being fluent in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) can open multiple opportunities at large scientific or technical firms to government-based policy formulation to non-profit advocacy.

The goal, of course, is ethical communication about the issue at hand. If you get paid to write un-(or semi-)truthfully about a topic, well, it might earn you a paycheck, but also perhaps a troubled conscience. Your call.

Reason #3: People Need to Understand How Technology and Society Interact

We are becoming a more “wired” (or wireless) society, with technological and social effects we are only just beginning to understand. The future is going to need people who have their fingers on the pulse of technology as well as social discourse. For example, this week a Facebook poster said to be Bashar Assad’s 11-year-old son taunted the U.S. and President Obama. Stock markets rapidly rise and fall based on the actions of semi-autonomous computer programs. Wonders, atrocities, and hoaxes are transmitted worldwide by the internet in seconds and individuals are finding ways to argue or collaborate in unprecedented ways. Inventors can get killed working with their own hardware. How do we make sense of any of it? Liberal arts-focused English majors can provide the imagination that connects the social to the technological and provides the clarity we need to understand an increasingly complex society. Think of yourself as a philosopher of the Internet Age.

From a job perspective, any technology from smart phones to the internet to individual apps will require documentation, process descriptions, product reviews, legal notices, marketing materials, press releases, and all the rest. There’s an obvious place for pundits in the blogosphere–how much better would it be if more of those bloggers were actually informed about how certain technologies work? And do you want anti-grammar engineers writing content meant to inform the public? Computers and software are good, but they are not yet smart enough to write that content themselves in a way that humans will find useful.

Side Note for my engineering readers: I do value what you do because I can’t do a lot of it; however, the feeling of “I’m glad I don’t do that for a living!” is mutual. I also understand that not all of you hate writing or are incapable of doing it. But really, there are enough of you out there that I’ve got pretty good job security, so thank you!

Bottom line–and I’m looking at you English Lit majors who don’t want to “sell out” because I used to be one myself–you can still write the Great American Novel in your free time. But wouldn’t it be better if you could write that novel in a comfortable place of your own? Regardless, the world needs good writers, if only to explain to others what’s going on in the worlds of science, technology, engineering, and math. You might even have a little fun while doing so. Go forth and conquer: the future is yours!

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 advocacy, blogging, careers, documentation, job hunting, philosophy, science, technical writing, Technology. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Three Reasons the Future Needs Technical Communicators

  1. Matt Russell says:

    Great post!

  2. Sarah Jurina says:

    I actually wrote a paper about possible causes of red tide. It was a great way to hold an unbiased perspective in a highly charged political arena. Your post was great. I hope employers are reading this 😉

  3. “philosopher of the Internet Age” nifty phrase, that!

    • Khrisstian Burns Shafer says:

      I’ve noticed this phrase becoming increasingly popular. The number of topics to philosophize on are endless. Everything from home life to communication to fashion to attitude has changed for the globe. The philosophizing comes in to describe how these changes have developed, and what they mean for the future.

  4. Bill says:

    As a technical writer with about 15 years of experience, I’ve seen the discipline change and narrow with each passing year. Yes, they need us, now more than ever. However, I’ve seen more and more organizations press their engineers into doing their own writing. I would love see you do a piece on how the skillset requirements have changed. Being good at writing and deciphering technical material are really not enough anymore, at least in my experience. More and more I’m seeing web development being rolled into it.

    • The quick response version is yes, I’m seeing more and more ads for “engineers (or programmers) who can write” rather than professional communicators with a knowledge of technology. I think that’s short sighted because a professional writer will provide a better product most of the time. Lacking programming skills, I was still able to write documentation for the Disney IT department by “getting smart” on the content and by looking at the work from the user’s perspective. Thanks for reading! I’ll give a longer post more thought while I’m on vacation.

  5. Korlyn Bolster says:

    A great article to help us understand what contributes to job security! Thanks, appreciated!

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