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Do you have to relocate to an urban tech hub to find a technical writing job?

by Tom Johnson on Apr 27, 2018
categories: general

To find high-paying jobs in tech comm, many technical writers move to urban technology hubs because companies want their workers on site. Living in an urban tech hub usually involves high costs of living and the sacrifice of a more rural, suburban lifestyle. It's unclear why the digital revolution doesn't motivate more companies to welcome remote workers.

Danielle Villegas at TechCommGeekMom wrote an article that caught my attention the other week. In Tech Comm and The State of Urbanization, she laments how so many companies today require their tech workers to be on site, usually in large urban hubs. She explains that the industrialization era brought people from rural farms into city factories, and the digital revolution unnecessarily seems to be doing the same. She writes:

Millennial are willingly flocking to the cities to hopefully provide manpower needed, but even they can have issues with living in the cities simply because of one thing: cost. I know I’ve read where you can’t even afford to live in the San Francisco Bay Area/Silicon Valley, even on the generous paychecks they dole out there, even if you live hours away.

If you look at the 2016-2017 STC Salary database (which is arguably the most valuable publication the STC provides), it shows some interesting data. Here are the highest-paying cities for tech writers:

(Click the images for the full sizes. “MSA” stands for metropolitan statistical area.)

It’s no surprise that San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara (aka Silicon Valley) tops the salary list, and this is one reason I moved out here about 5 years ago.

As far as tech writer populations, San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara ranks fourth in the number of tech writers. New York - New Jersey area ranks first:

What’s interesting is that, even despite the seeming job mecca for tech writers in Silicon Valley, the number of tech writers in San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara has decreased:

This means jobs are even more present in these areas. In contrast, here are some up-and-coming tech cities that are growing their tech writer populations:

In short, although San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara would seem to attract more tech writers due to the high salaries and jobs available, this number is decreasing (by about 15% in 2016), no doubt because the cost of living is so high. It is really difficult to buy a home in this area.

Villegas writes:

Why would I want to try to get a studio apartment in San Francisco or Silicon Valley or New York City for USD$1-2 million when I can get a three-to-four bedroom house in a nice neighborhood, have some green space/a garden, a good school district for my child, for a fraction of that? Why should I have to sacrifice my time with my family and other obligations I have to my community by commuting four hours round trip every day, and sacrificing my physical and mental well-being at the same time?

Keep in mind that San Francisco and San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara are quite different. San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara is much more suburban and family-friendly. But a single-family home is still expensive. A 1,000 square foot home built 50 years ago will cost at least $3k a month to rent, or around $800-$1 million to buy. You can calculate out whether the higher salary offsets the cost of living, but it seems, at least based on the STC’s research, the departure of 15% of the tech writer workforce provides the answer.

Villegas says:

I can’t speak for everyone, but as for myself, I find it very difficult to think that the only way for technical communicators to get jobs is to uproot themselves—and in some cases, entire families—for jobs in the cities, and that includes contract jobs.

In my case, I actually still own my home in Utah (because the housing market wasn’t so great when we left). So despite all the money I’m paying in rent, I am at least building equity in a house somewhere, though I don’t know if I’ll ever move back to Utah. Maybe. Or maybe Washington.

Villegas wonders why companies are so inflexible with remote workers:

Why is being in the city so important in the digital age? Is it because that’s where the financing is found? Is it because of corporate offices being in a city? I’m sure it’s yes, on both accounts. But when you really stop and think about it—why, in this digital age, are we having another flocking to urban areas? This doesn’t make sense to me.

I, too, can’t quite understand the reasons why tech workers need to be on site. This trend of on-site work increased in recent years when Yahoo and IBM restricted some of their remote worker policies. Given the online tools for communication (email, chat, conferences, wikis, repos, and other mediums), what’s the benefit of having someone on site?

Actually, these small teams make it much more difficult for technical writers. Here’s why. When small teams are physically grouped together (as agile would have it), it means teams can make decisions based on impromptu meetings, such as during times when engineers collaborate in their cubes or during standups, or otherwise. Well, guess what. Unless you’re right there with them, this information gets missed. Changes start taking place in applications, and as a tech writer, you often aren’t kept in the loop. Documentation drift starts happening.

For engineers grouped in small agile teams, this isn’t much of a problem. But for distributed workers like tech writers, who support 5-6 agile teams or more, we are not usually physically embedded in these engineering teams’ spaces. I know I’m not. I support a few products that have lots of different teams located in many different buildings, cities, and countries. I really appreciate it when engineering teams post information online, in detailed JIRA tickets, sprint plans, and other written artifacts because it allows me to see what’s going on. Fortunately, engineers are usually excellent in documenting changes through tickets (unlike other groups, such as Marketing, that rarely use ticking systems).

Personally, I think companies are going through a transition. In Silicon Valley, what will companies do when they can’t find an API tech writer to come into the local office every day? Tech writers are already a scarcity here. I know because I’ve seen attempts to hire an experienced API tech writer go on for months without being filled — there simply aren’t qualified candidates locally available. It’s even more difficult for smaller companies to attract top-notch engineers. The big tech companies have lured them away with higher salaries and perks. For example, would you rather work for a half-baked startup that has an 80% chance of folding in three years, or a big tech company whose name every one will recognize and which provides a wide variety of commercially interesting products?

Some companies like Automattic (which makes WordPress) do have digitally distributed workforces. My hope is that we’ll gradually see more and more companies welcoming remote workers as they see the model be more successful. But right now, you kind of have to live in a tech hub (or commute into one) if you want to thrive as a technical writer. (Fortunately, not all tech hubs are high-cost-of-living nightmares.)

Despite the high cost of living in San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara, and its crowdedness, it is somewhat of a paradise here. A bike-friendly city with an abundance of green parks, natural resources (forests, beaches, hiking trails), as well as community resources, I like it. My kids are in excellent schools, with diverse student bodies and strong academic programs. Would I prefer to live in the country? Probably not. I prefer cities anyway.

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