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Doug Davis on the Job Side of Technical Writing — Location, Industry Experience, and Salary

Feb 15, 2007 • general

I read a few STC articles from Doug Davis on the business side of technical communication today. He had some interesting things to say.

The following 15 cities are where 50% of the technical communication jobs are found. So if you're looking for a job, you might have better luck living in one of these locations:

San Jose, California ( Silicon Valley)
Boston, Massachusetts
Seattle, Washington
Washington, D.C.
Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota
Chicago, Illinois
Atlanta, Georgia
Denver, Colorado
New York, New York
Houston, Texas
Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Portland, Oregon
Los Angeles/Anaheim, California
Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Research Triangle)

Second, Davis says that tools are no longer the most important qualification on your resume. Instead, industry experience is now the most significant factor an employer looks for. I found this surprising. Here's Davis' rationale:

Why is that? Well, technical communicators were using a lot more tools ten or fifteen years ago. That made it pretty tough to find someone who knew the exact tool set that employers needed. Now, if you know Word, InDesign, and Flare, you should be good to go.

... tools are just easier to use and more powerful than they were back then. So, a typical employer's expectation is that technical communicators worth their pay should be able to catch up on almost any tool pretty quickly. The net result is that it doesn't cost an employer very much to train a new person to use a tool. Maybe it means a day or two of less-than-usual productivity; that's it. What costs employers a whole bunch of money is training new technical communicators in the industry about which they're going to be writing.

I am mixed about his opinion on the tools. The transition from RoboHelp to Flare proved to the technical writing community that tools are transient and always change. Your core skill is not your knowledge of RoboHelp or Framemaker or the advanced functions of Word. Your core skill (one of them, anyway) is your ability to learn new tools, to get up to speed quickly, not to be intimidated by the necessity of learning something new, especially if it is technical.

For example, when I applied for my job, I was required to know RoboHelp. Nevermind that I had just built an entire site out of Dreamweaver. So I downloaded a trial version of RoboHelp, played around with it for an afternoon, and made a dummy help file. I posted it on the web and my employer was impressed enough. That small ability with a tool was acceptable. I think the more important demonstration was my ability to quickly learn a tool. In fact within 6 months after taking the job, I mastered the tool and totally redesigned the RoboHelp skin, adding custom buttons, a custom pop-up, and other tweaks that conformed with a corporate branding scheme.

On the topic of industry experience, Davis says that industry experience is important to employers, but particularly the following industries:

Health-care and medical technology. As the populace ages and health-care spending increases, technical communicators with general health-care and medical device know-how will be in greater demand. In fact, experience in any industry that develops technology for the human body will be in great demand over the next five to ten years.

Biotechnology. Advancements in DNA research and the use of living organisms to solve technological problems will continue to move to center stage. The fascinating biotechnology industry will need loads of new documentation as it grows and becomes more mainstream.

He also mentions alternative energy, manufacturing, and hospitality.

I agree that healthcare industries are going to be hot. Within the last two years, my father-in-law's doctor's office has been converted to an entirely digital setup. He said he has four flat screen monitors—one in each exam room and one at his own office. Even more impressive, he says he often looks things up on Wikipedia and WebMD in the exam room to show patients that in fact what he's saying is true. For some reason people believe what they read on the Internet. He can show you the symptoms online and I guess it's like getting a second opinion right there. (It's odd because he is also cautious of patient self-diagnosis via the Internet.)

Finally, Davis mentions the average salary for technical writers in the U.S.:

Pay. The average annual salary for a technical writer in the United States is $56,000 per year.

I find salary surveys to be problematic. How do they take cost of living into consideration? For example, if I made 56K in New York City, it would be like making 25K in Florida. Also, what if one job pays 50K, but provides full benefits, whereas another job that pays 60K provides no benefits at all?

Although I like the attempt at these salary surveys, I think Payscale is a more accurate measure.


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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.