Classroom Debrief: Pointers for Tech Writers Facing the Job Market in 2020

Thanks to my past thesis director, I connected with Marika Siegel, a technical writing professor at Michigan Technical University (MTU) who is using Heroic Technical Writing as a classroom reading assignment. On Monday I was a guest speaker for Marika’s Zoom-based class. I offered up my thoughts about the tech writing market on this seven-person class of seniors and fielded a few questions about the working world and my book. If you’d like to have me as a virtual guest in your virtual classroom, contact me! There’s no charge for academic appearances.

Opening Thoughts

After providing a brief history of my work experience, I shared the following thoughts.

  • I consider one’s network to be more important and useful than one’s resume. Networking doesn’t mean “sucking up” to people just so they’ll give you a job or a promotion. It’s about doing a good job for people while you’re working for them. They might come to seek you out months or even years later. The best way to improve the strength of your network is to be a good worker and be pleasant to work with.
  • Target your resumes and cover letters rather than use a “shotgun” approach.
  • Keep your portfolio of work updated, organized by type of work or deliverable, and relevant to the work you want to pursue.
  • There are a lot of jobs to be found in government or supporting government as a contractor because the government keeps growing.
  • Maintain good relations with everyone in your workplace, but especially administrative personnel. Administrative personnel (executive assistants, secretaries, project coordinators, etc.) are gate keepers and expediters; they can smooth the way for you if you have a request or they can make sure it goes nowhere fast.

Q&A

Marika forwarded me most of her students’ questions before the class, but a couple others cropped up in the course of the discussion. (I was busy talking and I didn’t take notes, so I apologize if I didn’t copy all the questions and answer below.)

I received a couple questions about making the transition from Disney to NASA. I explained that I had a three-year stint with the Department of Defense between those two, which actually helped because while Disney is very image-conscious and customer-focused, the DoD is rather top-down and process-oriented. NASA’s culture is sort of a mix of the two.

I was asked what I’m working on at present. I’m currently supporting Nissan’s corporate training academy, reviewing and editing training classes for the folks they send out to the dealerships to sell products or services the Nissan way. That job pays my bills. My side work is editing proposals and engineering documents for a commercial space launch company.

Another student asked if I’d noticed any major changes in the tech writing business in the last few years–either on the job or related to the pandemic. I admitted that I wasn’t certain how much the field or market have changed since the pandemic started due to my long-term contracts. I’ve worked remotely for both of my primary customers, so my life didn’t change much. I can see where anyone new coming in might end up conducting entire work relationships remotely, as I did with a NASA Headquarters contractor a few years ago. I got interviewed, did the work, and received the direct deposits remotely without once meeting from the company someone face to face. With so much being handled remotely, I expect that trend to continue. Also, while the basic job functions might stay the same (documentation, information management, proposal writing, etc.), the software customers use to perform them might change a few times, so expect to demonstrate a little flexibility when it comes to learning new programs.

One student who was working with a client was having challenges getting him to call back or follow up on potential writing assignments. I suggested he try to set a meeting time when he was available so he could get the information he needed to write the article. That way he can put some deadlines out there and make the assignments more “real.” I also suggested he explain that he needed input from the customer to write the article, and if he had a discussion with the customer by date X, he could provide a finished product by date Y. The goal is not to boss the customer around, but gently guide them to a point where work can be done. Sometimes solid deadlines can move a project further up the priority list. Otherwise, if there are no deadlines, there’s no pressure.

I spent a little time explaining the origins of and publishing process for the Heroic Technical Writing book. The book really consists of the sort of advice and insight I wish I’d had in my 20s. Regarding the publishing process, I started out going through traditional publishers but found the process took too long. Self-publishing with Amazon was relatively painless and much faster. I did note that I had to pay for the assistance of an excellent editor and graphic designer. I shared my “heart attack” story of discovering that the original printing had no page numbers on it.

Marika explained that the students were all working on team projects, where they were partnering with engineering students elsewhere at MTU, hoping to generate marketing materials or articles showcasing the school’s engineering work to potential funding organizations, students, or alumni. They were looking for advice on questions to ask the subject matter experts (SMEs). I suggested they try to do a little background research on the engineering projects up front so they could nail down the facts first. That way they could ask the SMEs more interesting questions, such as:

  • Why is your process different from and better than others tried before?
  • What will your project enable people to do?
  • How did you decide on this approach?
  • What problems, if any, did you encounter during the process?

For student interest articles, I suggested the following:

  • What got you interested in engineering?
  • How did you get interested in/involved with X project?

I also referred the students to the interviews I used to put together for the Science Cheerleaders for question ideas to use on personal interest stories.

For parting (Barting?) thoughts, I explained the point of “heroic” technical writing, which was partially inspired by Ayn Rand: You need to go into your work with the idea that what your customers or employers are doing is worthwhile, so you need to work hard to help their ideas win the day (examples: marketing, proposals). On the personal side of things, that means believing that your life and career are worthwhile and that you need to take action on your own behalf to accomplish your goals.

We covered a lot in an hour and 15 minutes, and I fear that I rambled a few times. (See what happens when even introverts get starved for company?) Anyhow, Marika’s class is likely to read this post, so if there’s anything I need to follow up on or provide more detail about, I presume they’ll let me know. Looking forward to the next class, whoever they might turn out to be.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2020 Bart Leahy

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
Quote | This entry was posted in book writing, education, freelancing, guest speaking, mentoring, personal, technical writing, Technology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

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