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Question: What qualities should technical writers have to work at startups?

Aug 12, 2015 • general, beginners

To excel in a startup environment, technical writers need to have a strong technical aptitude, the ability to both lead and be independent, the capacity to evaluate content strategy decisions instead of just documentation, versatility to write in a variety of situations, and stability to weather the roller-coaster ride of startup finances.

Question from recruiter

A recruiter recently asked me what traits technical writers should have for startup companies. Startup environments post unique challenges when it comes to technical writing. Here are a few thoughts about the characteristics technical writers need to succeed in this environment.

1. Technical aptitude

You need to be strong enough technically to select and implement the appropriate tools for the technical writing tasks. At a startup company, you will likely need to decide on the authoring and publishing tools and workflow, get support to make purchases, and then implement them all by yourself.

You won’t just be plugging in to an existing framework, usually. Or if there is an existing framework (e.g., Google Docs), you might need to transition it to a more robust and mature publishing model.

2. Independence and leadership

You’re often the only technical writer at a startup, so you need to be able to be comfortable working independently. At the same time, you need to be outspoken and bold enough to teach others at your company about how technical writers should integrate into the software development lifecycle, how technical writers fit into the organization hierarchy and groups, how the review process should go, and so on.

You have to train the company about how they should work with technical writers, because often they won’t really know where, when, or how to work with you.

3. Content strategy skills

You have to see the larger picture for the projects you’re documenting. What kind of content do customers need throughout the customer journey as they interact with the product? The startup probably has disjointed documentation and marketing materials written by various people with different messages and emphases, with varying levels of accuracy.

You should get a handle on this information and identify gaps, rally people to align with common messaging, terms, and style, and generally see the big picture to create documentation that serves the entire customer journey.

4. Versatility

As the only technical writer, you’ll probably wear a variety of hats. As such, you need to be able to write different types of content beyond just documentation. You may have to prepare marketing materials (white papers, use cases, conference materials), you may play support roles (responding to forum posts or other questions), you may be involved in social media (blog posts, Twitter, and awareness campaigns), you may write internal documentation (AWS setup, networking diagrams, etc.), and more.

5. Stability

Startups are wild rides. When the startup gets funding and money is in the bank, everyone is happy and full of optimism for the future of the product and company. There’s a rush of good energy and forward momentum.

However, when the product fails to generate the revenue promised to the investors and stakeholders, startups start rebalancing personnel, shifting product emphases, laying off some people and hiring others. When the business goes south, it may fizzle in a couple of years. As it declines, other employees start leaving in a steady exodus.

To ride the roller coaster of a startup, you need to have stability in your career, knowing that if your job dries up you can find another, or that you have savings to cover a period of unemployment during the transition, or that you can handle any changes and continue with the company perhaps in another role entirely (e.g., support or training manager).


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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.