Will We Still Know Us, Tomorrow?

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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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • Brandon

    This is so true. The idea of cross-training is essential. A class/certificate in Oracle/SQL/ would have been a tremendous help with my career. (My company was kind enough to pay for said training.) This understanding is also useful for those who want to switch industries. I recently, per the example in the post, got certified as an EMT as I’m looking to switch to the Medical industry.

    Thanks for the post Michael! (And the blog, Tom!)

    • http://n/a Michael Hobren

      Thanks, Brandon. I can’t help but envision how that EMT training, along with your background in T/W, may one day qualify you as a developer and presenter of training courses for other aspiring EMTs. YOU become the SME as well as the communicator! This is precisely what I am getting at here: a modern-day job title along the line of “Emergency Medical Communications & Training Coordinator.” Sounds like a nice salary in that.

      • Anne Sandstrom

        I completely applaud getting diverse training. I’ve taken courses in various programming languages, am a certified webmaster, and have my project management certificate.

        But I’m a writer and proud of it. If being a trash collector were my chosen profession, I’d wear the title with honor and snicker at anyone who dared to call me a sanitation engineer.

        I’m successful because of what I know and what I do, not what I call myself.

  • Anne Sandstrom

    1. I think we’ll continue to be called technical writers.
    2. I don’t care. (Doctors are still called doctors, but what they do is very different from what they did in the past.)
    3. We’re always going to rely on SMEs and other sources. We’re not writing stuff we make up. We need information from somewhere, just like reporters need reliable sources (except on certain tv networks, but I digress.)
    4. If you don’t understand what you’re writing about, you shouldn’t be a tech writer.
    5. If you’re not willing to dive as deep into material as any engineer, clinician, or expert user, you shouldn’t be a tech writer.
    6. If you’re not willing to stay current with the latest technologies relevant to your area of expertise, you shouldn’t be a tech writer.
    7. If you are writing stuff you just make up (see #3), you shouldn’t be a tech writer.
    8. If you’re not willing to continue training through classes, seminars, conferences, meetings, interviews, you shouldn’t be a tech writer.
    9. If you’re not willing and able to be the smartest person in the room, (going out on a limb here), you shouldn’t be a tech writer.
    10. And since I’m being snippy, it’s “technical writers might find their skill sets ” not “technical writers may find their skill sets.” Might denotes possibility. May denotes permission.

    • Melanie Blank

      Not quite sure about #5. Since I’m not an engineer, clinician, or expert user, how can I possibly “dive as deeply” (not deep – sorry – couldn’t resist being snippy myself) into the material?

      That doesn’t mean that I’m not willing to learn as much as I possibly can about what I am writing about — within certain limitations. I do this all the time, successfully.

      The fact that I **don’t** have the same level of technical expertise as these other folks, I think, allows me to more easily empathize with users and target material for them. After all, most users are not experts.

      • Anne Sandstrom

        I’m not saying you have to actually do what your SMEs do, but you should understand it as much as possible. It sounds like you do. Too often, I’ve seen writers (and QA staff as well) rely too much on what SMEs say without investigating further.
        That’s when a tech writer becomes a stenographer (as stated in the original post).

        • Melanie Blank

          That makes sense, Anne – thanks!

    • http://tonychung.ca Tony Chung

      I enjoy being the smartest person in the room. That said, I was also criticized for my need to understand the subject matter as I write about it. I mean, how many others have had their work criticized for sounding too much like a writer wrote it? Arrgh.

    • http://n/a Michael Hobren

      I think bullets, rather than a numbered list, would have worked better with your laundry list here, but that’s just personal preference. LOL! ;-))

      • Anne Sandstrom

        Ha-ha. Once a writer, always a writer…

  • Gary

    For those of us who have focused our careers on principles, methods and structures, even though in specific fields like computing, this article reveals our demise. Despite our ability to adapt to different content areas, the question of specific credentials forces a kind of multi-discipline career that requires Madam Victoria’s scary predictions to identify.

    • http://n/a Michael Hobren

      Gary — The post does not predict anyone’s “demise” but rather the “evolution” of the T/W field. Note the comment from “Brandon” who is training to be an EMT: emergency healthcare + T/W skills! I can’t think of a more lucrative and rewarding career path — a true “ZEBRACOMM!” I have no doubt you will still be in the game 10 years from now, but the times and technology will reframe who and what you are. “Change,” ironically, is THE only “constant” we can be sure of in Life!

      • http://tonychung.ca Tony Chung

        What’s the difference between a ZEBRACOMM and a LEOPARDCOMM ? Just asking.

        • http://n/a Michael Hobren

          A “zebra” bears many stripes, all different…or so I think. But maybe you’re right: perhaps it’s a leopard that has many “spots” that I’m thinking of! Hey, I didn’t say the name was any good…LOL! It’s all just FutureSpeak. I was just trying to make a point. Obviously, if I’m ever to write for the “Zoology” world, I’d better learn some about “critters!”

          • http://n/a Michael Hobren

            Correction: Meant to say “better learn ‘something’ about critters!” Don’t you hate it when you don’t see the typo until after you click SEND?!

  • Anne Sandstrom

    I respectfully disagree, Gary. As long as you are able to be aware of and adapt to the changing landscape, you will be employable. Will you be doing exactly what you do now? No. But would you even want to?

    Honestly, I get a little tired of the doom and gloom. As a profession, we have low self esteem. As an professional, I don’t. In fact, I know I’m really good and really valuable to any organization I’m part of. How? By being aware and proactive. Don’t wait for things (opportunities, information, etc.) to come to you. A good writer walks around.

  • CBRoys

    Anne, realax. Lay off the caffeine.

  • http://blog.vhite.com/ Vinish Garg

    Whether I call myself a ‘technical writer’, an ‘information developer’ or a ‘documentation specialist’, nothing will change as long as the result is an online help at the end of the day.

    The notable shifts will be:
    – how the audience/users want to use the documentation will determine the media of how I make it available to them
    – the tools that I shall use to develop documentation
    – how I develop the documentation in *required* formats and how it is published and made available to users

    Nothing else will change!

    • http://n/a Michael Hobren

      Oh, I wouldn’t count on nothing else changing within the next ten years, lest you’ll find yourself left in the dust of today! Example: who is using DOS today as opposed to GUI interfaces? I know T/Ws who don’t even know what DOS was. And even though I was once fairly good with command-line interfaces (CLIs), many moons ago, I can’t for the life of me remember any of those commands now. One of the changes we’ll undoubtedly see in 2020 is the natural “obsolescense” of tools and techniques that we employ today as Technology continues to evolve. So perhaps a “flip side” to this post is not just what the future holds, but what we will have lost when we finally get there! Do you remember Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect? Fine tools which, in many ways, I thought were better than the Microsoft products that eventually phased them out. But alas, here we all are! There’s always something new in the pipeline…always. It’s in the nature of what we do.

      • Anne Sandstrom

        Thanks for the kudos on 1-2-3. (I was a writer, then doc manager, on the 1-2-3 team. We did do some great, innovative work. I was an integral member of the tiny team that redesigned the database query UI. And we were pioneers in including video training snippets with the product – way before Captivate.) It was exciting stuff for a writer!

  • http://eganwriter.blogspot.com Janet Egan

    I’m with Anne. I don’t care what we’re called. Calling garbage men “green recycling collectors” doesn’t change the fact that somebody needs to collect the garbage.

    Technical writing is different now from how it was 30 years ago, and it will be different yet again in 10 or 20 years. A long time ago in a galaxy far away, tech writers needed a technical background to understand enough of what they were writing about to explain it to the intended audience. The notion that tech writers are only generalist English majors only came in within the last 15 years with the focus on consumer mass market software. Plenty of technical writers were technically knowledgeable about their subject area and capable of asking the SMEs questions based on the needs of technical audiences when that’s what was needed.

    And those “Senior Move Managers”? They won’t exist in 10 years. What will they do after they have moved all the boomers?

    • http://n/a Michael Hobren

      And how do you know “Senior Move Managers” won’t exist in 10 years? Certainly an argument could be made that, as the “boomer” generation ages, that the need for SMMs may be THE career path for individuals who have the right skill set to make late-life transitions easier and more carefree, especially for the families of seniors. We can only “project” how things will be in 10 years. And what will SMMs do after they’ve moved all the boomers? I would answer that question with another one: have “hospices” vanished because some of their client-patients have now died? Behind the boomers will be the “Gen. X-Y-Zs” of today, and a second wave of SMMs will follow the work of the first. A new field will, by then, have taken firm root in the workplace…and so on, so forth!

      • http://everypageispageone.com Mark Baker

        I believe Janet is correct. There have been technical writers for a long time, but it was largely an engineering specialty, not a career for English majors. Information exists in a social context, and the demand for documentation depends on the amount and kind of information the social context can supply.

        Most of the time, the social context supplies all the information that is needed for most consumer products, office tools, etc. You learn about them growing up, from friends, from parents, from teachers, through apprenticeship, or from simply having them about. The explosion of PC software and consumer electronics in the 90s created a vast number of things for which the social context provided no information. Everything suddenly need documentation. A lot of arts grads suddenly got jobs writing that documentation.

        That boom is over. The social context for PC software and consumer electronics is full of information — more than ever, since the information has gone online and the social context is global. The tech writing bubble has burst.

        However, hard core business-to-business tech writing is still what it always was. It hasn’t gone away. In fact, it is probably growing. But it requires more than an English degree. Many of the people who got into business-to-consumer tech writing in the boom times have certainly found their way into business-to-business tech writing (I’m one of them). But they have had to acquire some depth of technical skill to make the move.

        As for a lot of the new titles, they seem to me to be more marketing titles than tech comm titles. It makes sense that many tech writers are migrating to marketing roles. It is a good use of their communications talents and also makes good use of the technical background they have acquired in tech writing. But a migration of people from one role to another is not the same thing as the development of the role itself.

        • http://n/a Michael Hobren

          Good comments, Mark. I’m really amazed at the responses my little post has sparked, some rather vitriolic. Personally, I think it is refreshing to have such dialog rather than the same old topical subject matter, such as Flare’s latest feature or some such thing. This is all good “news you can use” of course. But I like to read people’s own thoughts and ideas, even if they vary widely from my own. One thing is clear to me: everyone who’s posted a comment as a result of this post is very passionate about what they do, and has a strong opinion about their place in the general scheme of things. This is a good thing, because passionate people produce quality workmanship. And in the end, isn’t this what we’re all after?

        • Anne Sandstrom

          You’ve captured the reality of the tech writing career here, Mark. Like in many professions, we have to become more specialized as what we write about becomes more technical.

          I’ve long resisted writing the “Click Delete to delete the blah” type of doc. Instead, providing information like “if you delete the blah, you can recover it by …” is much more useful these days.

          And my apologies to those who interpreted my passion as vitriol. I am indeed passionate about what I do. I’m also very demanding – more of myself even than anyone else. What we do as a profession falls short of my vision of what we can do. I see us as being dynamic, integral members of our teams, adding energy and value to whatever we’re working on, not simply cranking out standard documentation.

    • Melanie Blank

      A long time ago (1990?), in a galaxy far away, when I was in a “marcom” (hate that word!!) position in a horrendous company that made highly technical electrical/power control systems, my less-than-good boss at the time mentioned that I could “never be a tech writer.” That’s because he thought all tech writers had to have an electrical engineering background and work on (to me – horribly boring) things like wiring diagrams. I fooled him – hahaha! I document software, and I’ve never been a programmer. Hasn’t gotten in my way ’cause my target audience is not programmers and s/w architects.

      • http://n/a Michael Hobren

        Melanie, I certainly get your point: not all end-users are programmers or s/w architects. But I have seen T/W jobs posted, specifying that the “writer must be able to read electrical schematics.” These employers are looking for someone who can “speak their language,” who can step easily into their world; writers who are not writing to Everyman but to savvy users of some pretty complicated stuff. Hence the thrust of my post: ancillary skills expand one’s scope and employability (did I just invent a word?). Specialization via education, outside the Communications field, may become a real need for us as the tech. world demands more and more of us.

        • Anne Sandstrom

          Oh, but I think we’re already there – and have been for a while. I’ve been in interviews where the dev manager asked me to write SQL queries or Java code on the spot, in my head. (Somehow, I find it difficult to do this without a keyboard :-))

          Having said all this, do I love the technology? No. But I think that’s what makes me a good writer. If I loved it, I might not understand how someone could be less than enamored with my subject matter.

        • Melanie Blank

          Michael – I agree completely, and I’ve seen plenty of those job postings. They wouldn’t interest me, and I wouldn’t qualify for them.

          It’s interesting, though, how I have managed over the years to create documentation in areas I am really not all that familiar with. One of my contract positions mostly had to do with service documentation for laboratory analyzer hardware. I am not at all mechanical, in the sense of doing mechanical operations myself, and a lot of my work had to do with re-organization and putting drafts into SMGL format and ensuring the proper use of a limited English vocabulary. But I was definitely able to improve the actual content at times. If something didn’t make sense, I would say to the service engineer: “Could I please watch exactly how you do this process? I might want to change your description a bit, and then have you approve the changes” And that worked out well fine.


          • http://n/a Michael Hobren

            Melanie — You sound like a good technical writer…and one who’s in the same position that many of us are: using your verbal skills, as well as your interpersonal ability, to communicate with end-users in such a way that they can easily understand and apply the product or service being deployed. We are, to my mind, the glue that binds our employers with their consumer base; we build the communication bridges, without which a lot of people would be left standing around, scratching their heads.

  • Melanie Blank

    That said, the products this co. makes are complex – not mass-market, consumer software.

  • Melanie Blank

    Whoops – obviously I meant SGML above!!

  • http://n/a Michael Hobren

    I don’t think my point is getting through. Yesterday I wrote a comment (that wasn’t posted for some reason) about “Doctors.” Yes, doctors will always be doctors, and I suppose we can say that tech. writers will always be tech. writers, come what may. However, I recently encountered an MD who was a Neuro-Radiologist. This MD had a double specialty in both Radiology and Neurology, a pretty specialized professional to be sure! Back in the day, when there were only X-rays to read, Rad was probably a simpler field in which to toil. But today, with all the technological advances in that field (CT scans, MRIs, PET scan, etc.), these MDs have been pressed to know so much more than they once did. In the case of my MD: yes, certainly he’s a doctor, although he probably sees scans more than he does actual people. But this is someone who went to Med. school, interned in Radiology, and then stepped outside of that box and did an additional rotation in Neurology! That’s a pretty specialized profession, but not uncommon in healthcare, which is one of the fastst-moving consumers of high-tech today. I do not think T/W has gotten to that same point yet…that’s all!

    • http://everypageispageone.com Mark Baker


      The only caveat I would make to this is that I don’t think we are looking at technical writing becoming more specialized so much as we are looking at it becoming less generalized. The bedrock of vertically specialized B2B technical writing has always been there. In the nineties it was covered by a sandbar of horizontally focused B2C technical writing. That sandbar is now being washed away again (and, it would seem, much of the sand is drifting in the direction of marketing).

      The bedrock of vertically specialized tech pubs is still there, with, perhaps, some sandstone deposits here and there.

      What is clearly frustrating for many tech writers who learned the trade in the horizontally-focused B2C market is that they are being turned away by people hiring in the B2B market because they lack the specific vertical knowledge that the field demands. They are used to thinking of technical writing as a general skill that is equally applicable in any environment. That was never true in the B2B market, but this was not apparent to people working in the B2C market, until those jobs started to dry up.

      • Anne Sandstrom

        I guess I saw this trend coming a long time ago. I knew I needed something to differentiate myself. I’d already done work in several programming languages, so picking up SDK work was a natural. Is it glamorous? No. But it pays the bills and can be interesting in its own way. (Although I went to a conference a couple of years ago that had a session about getting into SDK work. I laughed that I wanted the session to tell me how to get OUT of it :-)).

        I think that Michael’s point (please correct me if I’m wrong) is that our communication skills are valuable, but to make them viable requires additional skills or knowledge.

        • http://everypageispageone.com Mark Baker

          I find SDK work absolutely fascinating. A good SDK is one of the most complex and elegant pieces of design work you are every likely to see.

          It is, in essence, the design of a virtual machine, and, as such, has all the power and elegance of a real machine. But because it is virtual, it is only through the documentation that the machine become apparent and usable.

          On the other hand, I rather have a root canal without an anesthetic than document a GUI.

      • http://n/a Michael Hobren

        Mark — A great observation and something I was thinking of myself regarding this post. I started out in mass-comm. writing B2C materials, but later moved into tech. writing where the clientele was well-informed B2B. This was quite a transition, going from generalized to very specific writing, or as you said, horizontal vs. vertical. (I like the sandbar metaphor, BTW!) So how did I adapt to the B2B world? Basically, at first, through a lot of OTJ, learn-by-doing “osmosis.” Eventually one gets to know the company’s product line and, consequently, the industry. I will say that, way back in the late ’80s, when PCs were still pretty new, there was perhaps (for lack of a better word) more “patience” on the part of employers to “shepherd” their newbie T/Ws along and support their efforts — nobody was quite too sure what T/W really was anyway. Things have changed since then. The workplace is a tough place now days, in more ways than one. And in today’s employer-driven (applicant-glutted) market, hirers can afford to have numerous expectations of what a T/W needs to bring to the table to be considered. I see so many ads for “must have human resources background,” “must have background in finance,” and in some cases, even have TSC/SC security clearances before being considered. Secret is not as hard to obtain as Top Secret, but once again, a previous military background is the shortest path to breaking into DOD-style communications work. And oh yeah, in those jobs you must already be familiar with the DOD’s “style guide!” Yes, the fed has its own style guide, and you either know it or you don’t.

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    • http://n/a Michael Hobren

      LOL, yes! “Why…when I was your age I would sit, SIT I’m saying, in a low-rise chair, banging away at a keyboard all day…and we had deadlines and policies and procedures WE had to follow if we wanted to keep our jobs! You kids now-a-days just have it too darn easy, that’s the problem!” LOL! Too much!

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