What I Learned in Searching for a Job

The most common questions I get on my blog are questions about finding jobs in technical writing. While looking for jobs the other month, I realized a few things that I haven’t actually recommended before. Here are a few notes from my recent job search:

  • Large companies often select candidates to interview based on employee recommendations. I have a lot of connections with tech writers (784 on Linkedin), so I had quite a few people who helped connect me with interviewers. I could have reached out to many more connections than I actually did. (Linkedin, by the way, is hands-down one of the most important tools in a job search.)
  • Once you get an interview, it doesn’t mean you’ll get the job. You need to have the required skills — usually advanced technical skills involving the ability to read programming languages. Many companies are SaaS companies (meaning, they offer services in the cloud) and need documentation for developers to tie in to their services via an API. If you can read programming code and have API experience, you’ll be extremely marketable.
  • Not everyone reads my blog. In fact, far fewer than I sometimes think. Because of this, it was great to have MindTouch’s ratings about influence to refer to. It gave me a way to pitch the value of my blog. Some people were impressed by this, while others didn’t seem to care too much.
  • More than having a blog, being able to speak to challenges employers are facing about documentation gave me an edge. I felt I could address nearly any issue with some insight. I have more than 1,700 posts on my site, and I’ve written about such a variety of topics that I can’t imagine being surprised by anything. Still, communicating this knowledge is a challenge.
  • In order to speak to documentation-related issues and challenges, it’s important to study the company’s documentation beforehand. You can gather a lot of insight and questions by looking over the way a company does documentation. If the documentation isn’t accessible, you can still gather a lot of information by reading about the company. I like to look at the way a company organizes their content, as well as any visual communication, user engagement, short guides, online help, and other documentation efforts the company is engaged in.
  • It seems that most companies aren’t entirely happy with their documentation process, from the tools they’re using to the formats they publish to the way they deliver it to customers. And there isn’t a single standard process everyone is following. Employers are definitely looking to improve on the way they do documentation. This is something I noticed in various interviews. From systems and tools to methods and strategies, companies want to do documentation better.
  • If you’re looking for work out of state, one strategy is to target a specific area, line up as many interviews as you can, and then plan a visit to the area for a week — at your own expense. It may take about two or three weeks of preparation to line up the interviews, since most companies do phone interviews first. But companies may be more willing to interview if you’ll be in the area.
  • Recruiters can be extremely helpful in job searches, since recruiters know which companies have active needs. If a recruiter believes in your ability to do the job well, the recruiter’s trust and rapport with the company can go a long way in getting you the job.
  • Before you interview with five people in a row in an on-site visit to a company, be sure you get a good night’s sleep. Seriously. I like talking with people about documentation, but after about 2 hours, I’m ready for a break. When you’re on site for half of a day, it’s grueling. A good night’s sleep helps your endurance.
  • Large companies often have slow hiring processes. There may be multiple stages, such as an initial HR interview, a writing questionnaire, another interview with the team, and then an on-site interview with everyone. This process can stretch out to 2-3 weeks. However, once you get an offer, it accelerates everything.
  • Showing enthusiasm and interest in a job makes a heck of an impact on hiring decisions. I wrote my JavaScript post partly to communicate enthusiasm. An audio book I listened to (called Acing the Interview) recommends ending each interview with the question, “I’m an excellent fit for the position. How do I get the job?” I didn’t necessarily follow all the advice, but really, I noticed that when I was evaluating realtors the other week to rent out my house, I went with the person who was most enthusiastic.

The Value of Blogging?

In looking for a job, one of my main questions was whether writing this blog was worth it professionally. To some hiring managers, the blog seemed irrelevant. The employer would have preferred me to know Java than to be the “#1 most influential tech comm blogger.” I wondered whether I should have spent my time learning more technical skills instead of writing blog posts.

Ultimately, I think both activities are important. Writing this blog is key to maintaining my interest and passion in the industry. When I combine the branding that comes from this blog with strong technical skills, it’s a powerful combination.

In the end, though, a blog has no meaning in itself. In job searches, a blog is only relevant when it gives you interesting ideas and strategies that you can communicate to others, especially as these strategies relate to challenges companies are facing.

So yes, blogging is worth it. The blog is a powerful tool for building industry-specific knowledge, innovating in interesting ways, and connecting with other professionals. But you can’t assume everyone has read your blog. You have to communicate the knowledge articulated in relevant blog posts to hiring managers.

As a side note, I haven’t published a new post for about two weeks, because I’ve been so busy relocating and settling in. Having gone so long without writing and publishing feels odd. It makes me feel like a part of me is missing or dormant. I guess that means whether the blog is professionally helpful or not, it’s an activity integral to who I am.

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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, DITA, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

19 thoughts on “What I Learned in Searching for a Job

  1. Vinish Garg

    Good to know that you have settled well at new place.

    As regards your comment as ***The employer would have preferred me to know Java than to be the “#1 most influential tech comm blogger.****, I wonder what would the employer do with your JAVA skills alone if the employer cannot know or evaluate your tech comm skills. A blog such as yours tells a lot of about your all-round skills. and this includes technical skills as well.

  2. techwriterkai

    Thanks, Tom, for sharing your job-hunting insights so candidly!

    It sounds like you met really helpful recruiters. German recruiters occasionally contact me through LinkedIn (or xing, the German competitor), and many obviously didn’t even bother to read my full profile, much less understand what a good tech comm’er can do for their clients.

    You write: “I wondered whether I should have spent my time learning more technical skills [Java] instead of writing blog posts.” That makes me wonder whether you would enjoy it as much to work for the company who needs you to know Java as for a company who appreciates having a cool, influential tech comm blogger in their midst?

  3. Chris J

    I always thought that you could go in for a job interview and reply to any “Do you know how to?” question with:

    “Well i don’t know how to yet, but if you give me the chance ill write a manual and teach it to myself. I am a professional technical writer, that’s what i do. I learn fast and explain clearly.”

    Thanks for the post!

  4. Eileen Bator

    Contratulations on a new and exciting position!

    You wrote:

    “Recruiters can be extremely helpful in job searches, since recruiters know which companies have active needs. If a recruiter believes in your ability to do the job well, the recruiter’s trust and rapport with the company can go a long way in getting you the job.”

    Recruiters are probably very different around the country. Here is Maryland, I have yet to find a recruiter who understands what Technical Writers do. Let alone have enough connections with companies who need our services. Around here, recruiters serve programmers, engineers, and developers, rarely technical writers. I haven’t found them to be very useful in my job searches.

  5. Rachael Sarah Williams

    Tom, thank you SO much for this post. I’m halfway through my MS in Information Design & Communication (at Southern Polytechnic) and have recently begun to test the job market. With my previous experience *and* my new training, I can offer employers a lot, but haven’t been sure what to emphasize in “elevator pitches” and interviews…especially when recruiters (as Eileen notes in her March 5 comment) are usually focused on hiring engineers and programmers. They don’t know how badly they need tech comm people. It’s up to us to *show* them. :-) Your post helped me see where I can build up my skills, and how I can change job search strategies.

    And as we’ve talked about before, it’s a shame more tech comm/info design/UX-IZ people don’t blog. I’ve learned so much from I’d Rather Be Writing; I look forward to seeing the updates in my Inbox. Glad to know that you value writing so highly, even if there are people out there who aren’t aware of how valuable it truly is.

  6. Alok

    I believe, the recruiters are looking for a fine balance between technical and writing skills these days. Java or UNIX skills come handy when one is interviewing with a small start-up. Their developers are spread thin across different projects or tasks so it comes handy if the writer knows about the web services or deployment. This way, writer can deploy the software and can write most of the stuff on his own rather than depending on the developers. Going back to my web services example, let’s say you have to document a web service API in the integration guide. If you can check-out the REST XML and see its contents you can get most of the information from the code comments, then all you are left with is the conceptual information for which you can pair up with the developer.

  7. L

    Thank you for this wonderful Web site. I’m hoping to make a career change into tech communication after many years in banking.

    I’ve picked up a few programming languages over the years but, when you say it’s good to know how to read code, which languages do you think are the best to learn?

    Cheers and best of luck with your new move!

  8. Gary Laidlaw

    Thanks for your excellent column, Tom. In it, you say “Employers are definitely looking to improve on the way they do documentation”. That may be true, but it’s like Mark Twain said about the weather – everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Employers have been talking that way since I started as a writer in high tech back in the early 80s. Now, tech companies use dozens of specialized “languages” for their products and dozens of specialized “tools” for their documents, and each one of them wants you have lots of experience in “their” language(s) and “their” tools. How do you “improve” documentation processes with that sort of mish-mash?

  9. Erin

    Great post! I’m finding that the lines between tech writing and social media/marketing are blurring more and more frequently – especially if you are freelancing or working as the sole writer for a small company.

    1. tjohnson

      Erin, I agree that the lines are blurring between these two fields. Especially as companies start to realize that tech writing can be leveraged as assets in search engines and blogs, tech writers and marketers will work more closely together.

  10. Val Swisher

    Hi Tom, I’m absolutely thrilled that my company was able to help you find your new job. I know I speak for Andrew Davis, too, when I wish you all good things!

    We are now neighbors and if there is anything more I can do to help you please holler. I lived in Santa Clara for many years before moving to Los Gatos and might be able to make connections and recommendations for you.

    Best of luck at Badgeville. And if they need contractors, I sure hope you’ll recommend us!

    1. tjohnson

      Thanks Val. I really appreciate you hooking me up with Andrew. His depth of knowledge and area-specific experience were invaluable to me.

      It’s cool to know that you lived in Santa Clara for many years. We really like it here, as well as California in general. Los Gatos is just 10 miles down the road.

      Thanks again for helping me find a job in the area!


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