On Being an Individual Contributor

On Being an Individual ContributorFor someone who has the job of “technical writer,” I spend very little time writing. It amazes me how quickly the day fills up with non-writing tasks. Meetings, reports, issues — they seem to surface again and again at work, requiring my attention. I sometimes try timing myself and find that if I can get in three hours of writing during the day, that’s good. This seems utterly ridiculous to me.

I get a lot of satisfaction from writing. These days I spend the majority of my time writing articles for our organization’s technology blog. I’m not writing nearly as much content as I would like, but I plan to spend more time doing it. It’s very easy to expend a lot of effort managing assignments with other writers (mostly volunteers), attending endless strategy and planning meetings, dealing with approvals, and doing other non-writing activities.

But if I’m doing those activities all day, and not writing, I feel a bit empty inside. There’s something about writing, the immersion in it for extended periods of time, that I find fulfilling. I can’t entirely explain it, but I’m guessing that other writers who follow my blog might feel the same.

Although most career trajectories lead one to move from an individual contributor to a manager role, I am not sure managing suits me, even managing volunteers. Managing means figuring out projects and workloads, making assignments, following up, resolving concerns, connecting workers with information they need, making plans, generating metrics, defining goals, and establishing “vision.” Sometimes I’d like to just close the door on all that and write in seclusion.

I like identifying stories, gathering information, writing articles and submitting them for review. I submit the content through the approval process, and then publish the articles, and respond to comments, and syndicate the titles across social media channels. I gather the metrics, compile the articles into a newsletter, and share them with others. It’s quite engaging.

If possible, I’d like to minimize my meetings and do more writing, living the day as an individual contributor. Not only might I be more effective this way, I’d also enjoy it more. When the day reaches its end, I’ll have created something. I’ll have made something that might have impact. (Again, I’m talking mostly about web articles for a technology blog, not documentation, though the two sometimes overlap.)

Writing on a corporate blog is not as dull as I once thought. Each post or article is its own, unique work. First I feel the rush of a scoop, and then the excitement of the encounter with a subject matter expert who shares new information. I list all known facts and brainstorm ideas. At some point, I organize the information and write out a first draft. The draft gets edited by a handful of others around me, including the product owners. I publish the article, wait for the reaction, respond to comments, and move on to the next story. It’s a constant rush of ups and downs. A roller coaster of writing and publishing and responding.

Documentation, in contrast, usually consists of a steady body of dry, procedural material that one writes week after week, building toward a release months away. You don’t have the constant ups and downs of frequent publishing, the rush of feedback and the possibility of controversy, or of breaking something big. (Well, maybe agile development aligns more with this, but documentation rarely receives the same feedback as web articles.)

Some years ago, when I was a new technical writer, I had a manager named Adrienne who had a PhD in biology. She was one of my favorite managers, because she was such a good listener. I trusted her judgment entirely. One time while we chatted during a one-on-one meeting, she mentioned nostalgically how she missed the days when she was an individual contributor. She said she liked to put on the headphones and type away at the keyboard, completely immersed in the writing and oblivious to anything going on around her.

As a manager, though, she no longer had opportunities for extended immersion in writing tasks. Managers have meeting after meeting. Their daily schedule, shifting from one meeting context to another, precludes them from entering their writing zone and creative cores. They never get the needed amount of isolation from interruption so they can enter an immersive writing experience.

It’s unfortunate that management takes the best individual contributors and converts them into managers. It’s our system of reward and recognition that ironically re-allocates resources in unproductive ways.

It may be an unwise career-move, I know; but for now, I prefer to be an individual contributor.

 

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS, email, or another method. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

21 thoughts on “On Being an Individual Contributor

  1. Oana

    Excellent post Tom! Congratulations for your choice if you listened to your heart.
    I’ve been technical writer (and more) for the past 8 years. Last year due to the lack of technical writing tasks within the company I work for, I was attracted to other careers in the technical field as well.
    While writing documentation I found myself many times wondering “why should I do this” and thinking about a management career.
    In my childish thinking being Manager was very cool…. As I expressed my desire for a career change, the company I work for assignment me Project Manager for two small telecom projects for Kuwait and UK.
    After the projects ended, I definitely decided that there are persons born to be managers and I was not one of them.
    You say managers “never get the needed amount of isolation from interruption so they can enter an immersive writing experience.” It depends on how managers best suit own responsibilities.
    Going further, sometimes writing documentation is not enough…what is missing? I need more but what? I created own website together with a friend of mine…and I would like to have more time to search for subjects and write more content….still not enough…Only recently I found something that covers the empty space within… create marketing collaterals….
    How did I fill the empty space? Quite interesting I could say… On a very crowd sourcing site, bidding for a project related to creating marketing collaterals.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Oana, thanks for sharing your experiences into management here. They were interesting. You said, “there are persons born to be managers and I was not one of them.” I’m just curious, but what was it in particular that turned you off about management? Or were there too many things to list?

      Re finding creative fulfillment through marketing collateral, I think I have similar experiences by writing posts for our corporate technology blog. You’re right that it fulfills just enough of the creative desire to round out the technical writing career. I find writing documentation kind of boring, but web articles for a blog are much more fun. It makes the days when I’m writing documentation go by a bit faster.

  2. Prasenjit

    Thought provoking and insightful. True that if you are pulled into managing stuff, you get lesser opportunity to write, but there are things that I have found fun in or found them to be exciting and relevant to my career. Some of them being:

    1. Ability to visualise the deliverable/output at a very early stage
    2. Apply insight gained from past experience to planning and estimating
    3. Ability to take ownership and accountability for your convictions
    4. Ability to inculcate discipline in writing habits that allow you to conform to your overall delivery plans

    I have penned my thoughts in more detail on my new blog at http://ilearniwrite.wordpress.com/ and would look forward to hear counter points to my arguments

    1. Tom Johnson

      Prasenjit, I always like to see responsive posts like this. Thanks for including the link. I commented on your post, but I’ll add my comment here as well. I like the points you make here. You’re right that there’s a lot of creativity, conceptualizing, and analysis in management. I guess I overlooked these. I should probably seek to maximize these points and minimize the aspects of management that I dislike. Thanks again for your post.

  3. Jim Reardan

    Tom,

    In general, people seek autonomy, mastery, and purpose in their work. Creative (individual contributor) work, such as writing, typically allows people to realize those three objectives. Unfortunately, “management” work, particularly in larger organizations, doesn’t often enable the realization of any of the three. That’s why I jumped off the management ladder. I would encourage you to continue to look at “management” with a very critical eye. The road to becoming a sovereign worker has far fewer potholes than any middle-management career track.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Thanks Jim. “people seek autonomy, mastery, and purpose in their work.” This is an interesting insight. I hadn’t heard these three elements defined so specifically. I agree. I think some managements might object that some aspects of this couldn’t be found in management. As an individual contributor, are you not sometimes carrying out the sole vision of the manager? It’s not as if one has free reign to create whatever he or she pleases. Sometimes the manager has a greater degree of autonomy, right?

      1. Jim Reardan

        Tom,

        Yes, management positions do sometimes offer a few opportunities to work autonomously, with purpose, and to master the science and art of management. But in larger organizations, line/middle managers spend most of their time mastering the art of staying awake in unproductive meetings.

        And unfortunately, as you suggest, individual contributors in large organizations are often carrying out their interpretation of the typically superficial, unqualified, and unquantified “vision” of their immediate supervisor’s interpretation of their supervisor’s “vision.” And so on up the corporate ladder.

        It’s a slowly-dying work model – driven by new technologies that will, sooner than later, move more of us to becoming independent contributors. Daniel Pink’s book, “Free Agent Nation” spells it out better than I can describe. In any case, “cubicle captives” are about to be freed!

        Jim Reardan

  4. DiSc

    Hi Tom,

    I agree, management is not for everybody, and most surely not for me. I had a very short experience when I was asked to lead a small group of three people – technicians, not writers. At first I was enthousiastic, but I soon began to hate it. I was always on the line for whatever happened, had no way to control the outcomes of other people actions and I totally lacked people management skills.

    I stepped down after a matter of weeks and I promised to myself that, whatever I was going to do in my career, that should never involve climbing any corporate ladder of any kind.
    It was at about at that time that technical writing started to sound interesting – hey, no chance of a career anyway!

    And now I can finally “type away at the keyboard, completely immersed in the writing and oblivious to anything going on around” me.

    I should add that stepping down did not make me very popular in my previous company and was interpreted as a lack of commitment to the organization. Which, in the end, was true. But I guess refusing a managing career a priori takes some explaining.

    Keep up the good posting,

    DiSc

    1. Tom Johnson

      Diego, interesting experience. I think it would be a hard decision to “step down” from a management role, but ultimately if it’s not very engaging or appealing, and especially if financial incentives aren’t there, there’s not a huge reason for doing it. Thanks for sharing your experience. Very interesting to read.

  5. Paul Proteus

    “It’s our system of reward and recognition that ironically re-allocates resources in unproductive ways.”

    Yes – it is unfortunate – but this phenomenon is certainly not limited to hi-tech.

    In the field of education, the best teachers are “promoted” to become principals. And then the best principals are “promoted” to a job like supervisor.

    It would be a different world if compensation systems were designed to keep people in jobs that they excel at and enjoy.

  6. Susan Moore

    I know EXACTLY what you are saying and there was a book written on this subject: The Peter Principle. That book changed my life–I no longer am trying to climb that ladder but instead trying to find the career sweet spot (and I think I have found it) where I’m happy, productive, challenged and (most importantly) paid fairly for my contributions.

  7. Vinish Garg

    Tom, you articulated your thoughts well, with perfect blend of facts and emotions.

    I went through the same *feelings of dryness* when the actual writing task was assigned to my fellow technical writers. I would merely prepare documentation plan, or do with emails, meetings, reviews and release plans.

    After two months, I felt the craving for writing instructions. And I started preparing documentation plans to *accomodate* a chunk of topics, for myself.

    Now on all of our projects, I have a small chunk of topics to author while the other writers complete the majority of authoring work. This gives me the required satisfaction (of writing instructions and staying connecting with following style guide), and the team raised their standards for accuracy of instructions (since the documentation manager also writes some procedures).

    1. Tom Johnson

      Vinish, thanks for your insight. I hadn’t thought management could wear both hats — that of a manager and an individual contributor, but you’re right. Probably the best types of managers are those who wear both hats. It helps to keep one foot grounded in reality and practice.

  8. Aneesha

    As a technical writer/editor I have to keep on emphasizing in my interest on continuing as an individual contributor, but there is something called “Evolution” that forces you to evolve to the next stage which is usually team management. I am handling a team of three people and I find that it eats into most of my time and energy. Till now I have managed to keep the writing spark alive by keeping some work aside for myself, as well as through thorough reviews. Another approach that I take it is – lead by example – that is whenever a new writing/reviewing task comes our way, I make it a point to spend 2-3 days actually working on the assignment like an individual contributor, so that I know exactly what the team is doing and what issues they can face. And of course, it helps me to understand their questions, and help them plan their work effectively. So, I am trying to make the best of it!!!

    1. Tom Johnson

      Aneesha, thanks for your comment. I agree that playing a hybrid role between manager and contributor is best. Managers who strictly manage lose touch with contributor reality; contributors who only write probably don’t see the larger picture.

  9. Will Kelly

    Tom–

    Great post! I’ve had similar thoughts lately about where I fit as a technical writer since I am not doing a lot of writing in my current position. For me, it seems I work best as a solo technical writer working directly with programmers and engineers handling the project’s writing tasks from end to end. My current contract is due to end in the near future and I look forward to getting back to more of a writing role again.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, Will. I’ve run into a lot of people who more or less said the same thing — they want to return to writing. We were recently hiring, and this was one of the most common reasons people gave for applying.

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