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Will We Still Know Us, Tomorrow?

May 10, 2011 • general

Will We Still Know Us, Tomorrow?
Michael Hobren

This is a guest post by Michael Hobren. Michael is a technical and "marcom" contract writer, as well as a fictional novelist. He resides with his family in the Tampa, Florida area.

As a technical writer, I don't think my late father ever quite understood what I do for a living. I would try to explain to him what I did, but to no avail. Despite my best efforts, my explanations were typically met with dad saying, "You know, you should go into television, like Dan Rather or one of those guys."

I never took my dad's remark as a slight, however, but rather understood that — for his generation — the world was a much simpler place. He served for more than 20 years as a cop. In his day you were simply a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker: easy-to-understand job descriptions.

Beyond the nuts & bolts of what we technical writers do, the tools we use, and the emerging technologies we gallop to keep pace with, I wonder what we will be called within the next 10 years. As things become more specialized and job requirements evolve and are reclassified, I do not think we will be called Technical Writers for much longer. Simply put, this static handle just will not fit the wave of new development that is already upon us which we, as communications professionals, will be tasked to work with.

Rachel Zupek, writing for CareerBuilder.com, came up with a short list of job titles that did not exist ten years ago: Bloggers, Content Managers, Green Funeral Directors, Interior REdesigners, Patient Advocates, Senior Move Managers, Social Media Specialists, User Experience Analyst, and Virtual Business Service Providers.

According to another article appearing on Monster.com, "labor-market forecasters believe that tomorrow's new jobs will have unfamiliar titles, such as Visualization Specialists, Social Network Analysts, Parenting Counselors, and Corporate Jesters, who will be paid to tell their leaders important truths that they don't want to hear."

One example of a new job title to emerge in the healthcare field in recent years is that of "Informatics Coordinator." Healthcare ICs – who are typically RNs – work with the resources, devices and methods needed to optimize the acquisition, storage, retrieval and use of information in health and biomedicine. These nurses are nouveau writers who use many of the same tools as technical writers, combined with their background in clinical nursing, to help bring the ever-growing Mt. Everest of healthcare data into some useful focus. The days of nurses sporting white caps and uniforms, taking blood pressures and dispensing medications only, are now a distant memory.

So What Will Tomorrow's Technical Writers Be Called?

While some of these new, euphemistic terms are already popping up on the job boards – such as Content Managers and Social Media Specialists – we still have a ways to go. So what will technical writers become in the dawning decade? Will this broad job title be phased out to make room for a new, more descriptive title? Two driving forces will foster the need for new job classifications within the next ten years: specialization and education.

A present-day example of this is how the daily news is reported. Today, large media sources, such as the Wall Street Journal, retain staff writers who hold double degrees in Journalism and Business Administration. When a full-time staffer is unavailable, a "contributing editor" is brought in to do the job, e.g., Dr. Richard Besser who regularly reports for ABC News on health-related matters, and former NSA counter-terrorism expert Richard Clarke on matters of national security, just to name two.

The technical writers of tomorrow will need to have backgrounds other than writing and a general Liberal Arts education in order to be knowledgeable and effective. An English or Journalism degree, combined with ancillary training as a Medical Technician, will be a good inroad to writing for the healthcare field. A cross-section of technical writing and Data Processing training will better enable technical writers to interact and contribute within the computer world.

Enter the 'ZebraComms'

Of course there is a down side to becoming multi-discipline Zebra Communicators who bear too many stripes. Tomorrow's technical writers may find their skill sets too narrowly focused, and consequently jobs that perfectly fit their profiles may be hard to find. Still, the trend toward specialization, and the education needed to stay abreast of new developments, is not going to reverse itself. As former Disney CEO Michael Eisner said, "When you're trying to create things that are new, you have to be prepared to be on the edge of risk."

If we continue to remain communications generalists, relying on product SMEs and others to "tell us" what needs to be communicated to a well-informed consumer base, then we relegate ourselves to being glorified stenographers with no real understanding of what we are writing about. As we move forward toward the 2020 mark, becoming ZebraComms will be the only way that we will be able to stay in the game, and to become valued strategic stakeholders in what we produce for our clients and employers. Of one thing we can be sure of, even now: time (and technology) waits for no one.

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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.