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Asserting your expertise as a SME in the workplace: Q&A with Jennifer Mallette and Megan Gehrke

by Tom Johnson on Feb 15, 2019
categories: academics-and-practitioners

In the workplace, why aren't technical writers recognized as SMEs with the same credibility and respect as engineering SMEs? Why do PMs and others often override the judgment of technical writers on matters of language and docs? This post explores the challenges that technical writers experience as SMEs in the workplace, and strategies they can implement for asserting their expertise. The format is a Q&A with authors of a CDQ article, with a survey at the end.


I was recently reading an article in Communication Design Quarterly (CDQ) when an article about expertise in the workplace caught my attention, in part because it meshed with previous themes I’d been exploring. CDQ is the publication of SIGDOC (“Special Interest Group for Design of Communication”).

In Theory to Practice: Negotiating Expertise for New Technical Communicators (CDQ 6.3. 2018), Jennifer Mallette and Megan Gerkhe explore the kinds of expertise valued in the workplace, surfacing the question of why technical writers aren’t often respected as SMEs while engineers are. Here’s the abstract of their article:

In technical communication, discussions on how to best prepare graduates to meet workplace challenges range from responding to changing technology and occupational needs to focusing on creating flexible workers. Part of this conversation centers on expertise: what kinds of expertise are most valued and how can graduates be trained to be experts? In this article, we explore our field’s understandings of expertise by focusing on a recent master’s graduate and practitioner, Megan. As first an intern then a full-time employee at HP Inc, Megan experienced clashes between the classroom and workplace, which she sought to reconcile. In addition, she also had to learn to assert herself as a subject matter expert (SME) while working alongside SMEs. This navigation was not something her education necessarily prepared her for, and when compared to surveyed graduates’ experiences, may be something programs could emphasize. We conclude with recommendations for how academic programs can incorporate conversations about expertise and equip students to assert themselves as communication SMEs and build on that expertise after graduation. (Theory to Practice: Negotiating Expertise for New Technical Communicators)

I decided to engage the authors in a Q&A. With some of the questions, both authors Jenn and Megan responded. In others, just one author responded.


What were the main findings of your research in this article?

Jenn: We began the article with the question about what influences practitioner success after they leave programs — and how tech comm connects to other disciplines, what communicators should do to remain relevant as technology rapidly changes the nature of tech comm work, and what skills programs should focus on to ensure professional success. We ended up focusing on two primary areas: the role of expertise in the workplace (and how communicators can use rhetorical knowledge and training to leverage that expertise) and the tension between workplace and academic settings.

One main finding is that it matters how we explain our own expertise to ourselves and to the people we work with, many of whom are outside of technical communication. Megan realized that she asserts herself as an SME (a term not typically used for a technical communicator), calling on her expertise to support choices and argue for approaches to projects. She learned to assert her expertise because of her experience in the field and her rhetorically grounded training in technical communication. This ability to assert expertise also helps a communicator demonstrate value to the larger organization, which can be a challenge as both Megan and the survey respondents discovered.

In addition, professional development is key to maintaining expertise, yet organizations often don’t make that development accessible for employees. Thus, we offer recommendations for programs to find ways to address what “expertise” means, help students understand how workplace constraints may impact their work as professionals, and encourage students to advocate for better pay and support for professional development.

What prompted you to research this topic in the first place?

Jenn: I saw the CDQ call for proposals for a special issue focused on preparing technical communicators. This CFP reminded me of some research that Megan had done in my class the previous semester — the focus on rhetorical theory was also a conversation we had been having as I saw Megan a person who accepted the rhetorical focus (where others in the program focused more on specific program or technical skills and resisted rhetorical theory). I was also curious about the impacts of the program on students’ experiences post-graduation, and we both noticed the skills versus theory debate happening again and again.

We got together to bounce around ideas and sent in a proposal, which was accepted. In between, as we began conducting research and drafting the article, it went a different direction, but we kept coming back to this idea of expertise. This idea of expertise was compelling and one that helped us make sense of what we were seeing in the scholarship, what Megan was experiencing in her workplace, and what I was seeing in the graduate courses.

It turns out that “expertise” in a field like technical communication is problematic for a lot of the reasons we explore in our article, whether because folks outside of tech comm don’t really understand the field or because we ourselves sometimes struggle to assert expertise in a clear way. It’s a topic I’ve since taken up more as an instructor since this article was published.

In this article, you decided to take a unique approach by focusing in on one student’s experience. Was that a risky approach in an academic context where critics might say that Megan is an outlier, or someone who doesn’t represent the general experience? Even with the follow-up survey, were there enough participants? I’m surprised to see Kimball’s article dissecting the responses of just 6 participants.

Jenn: When we proposed the article, we proposed it as a practitioner profile, so we were thinking more in terms of a case that might surface interesting questions. We never saw Megan’s case as something that would be a generalizable experience, though much of what she (and the survey respondents) point out might ring true for many professionals. Essentially, it was an opportunity to dig into one person’s experiences to get at broader questions in the field.

In user-testing for products, you only need about 5-6 respondents to find 80% of the problems with a document. I realize this is a different academic context, but similarly, we still felt we could still draw some good information from a small sample size. That being said, we would love to see other interested researchers/writers talk to graduates of their programs on similar topics and add to the field of data.

In the safe space of the tech comm academia, Megan says tech writing is valued. But do you find that Tech Comm is also looked down upon by other humanities programs (e.g., the English Literature department) due to its more vocational, technical ties?

Jenn: As a faculty member, I sometimes think that technical communication isn’t well understood by other disciplines within the department or within the university as a whole. In my experience at my institution, it’s not particularly looked down upon — in fact, we’ve found that our program has access to more resources and are more likely to be able to make hires than other disciplines in the humanities, so we get a lot of respect and support for the work we do.

Much like people in industry, though, folks within humanities may have only a fuzzy notion of what technical communication is or does, the questions we ask, and the areas we focus on in our research. I actually see students in English looking at taking technical communication courses as a way to broaden their knowledge of writing, so students (and probably some faculty) frequently see it as a way to get employed in a writing field.

Megan: As a student, I think there were definite differences in career aspirations between students in other humanity programs and those in technical communication. Most other English students aimed for careers in academia where they would continue similar activities to what they did in graduate school — researching, publishing, and teaching. I think in tech comm, there was a much wider diversity in terms of what we all wanted to do when we finished, or what we were currently doing in the field. I’m not sure I would say it’s looked down upon by other humanities, but it’s probably not seen with the same academic view, and for some people that might mean not as “good.” I have always wished that English departments would survey alumni a year or two post-graduation on employment and salary and pass on that information the different programs.

Is the power imbalance that you describe between SMEs and writers ever something that can be remedied in a more equal way in the workplace?

Jenn: Both of us certainly hope so! As we point out in the article, expertise is one avenue toward leveling any power imbalances — if communicators are savvy and able to call on their expertise (and others in an organization acknowledge that no, not anyone with writing ability could do this work), then that would go a long way to breaking down the hierarchy.

For me and Megan both, the question of gender always comes up when we talk about power differences. When we see a field with more women (tech comm) working alongside fields with more men (science and technology), then some of the power differences are gender-based. If communication is viewed as women’s work (and it was often the space where women trained in STEM ended up when they were blocked from engineering work, for instance), then an inherent hierarchy is established. So as professionals, we want to ask what role gender places in these situations and how we can push against implicit biases that might affect how technical communicators are viewed. And be better about acknowledging the importance of that work.

Tech writers often rely on SMEs to produce documentation. Are you suggesting that tech writers become more self-reliant for the information? Is that feasible given the complexities in the engineering domain?

Megan: I think we mean to suggest not so much that tech writers become self-reliant and experts in every area they write about (like you bring up, who has the time…), but instead that they become involved in the process earlier/more/deeper etc. with the SME and contribute from the start, rather than waiting for things to be delivered to them (passive).

I believe in your blog post where you reference our article you talk about a specification document from an engineer that was barely readable for you, the expert in “translating” it to the public (How to avoid being a secretary for engineers). We think there is some merit in involving writers and tech comm specialists earlier to contribute to those types of documents and get them to a better place before working on the for end-users. In this way, I think tech comm professionals are more actively involved.

Should tech writers specialize in order to get respect in the workplace? What are the costs of specialization? I mean, it could take years and entire programs and courses of study to ramp up to an engineering level of knowledge about some topics. Where does one find the time for this?

Jenn: One study certainly makes this argument — but it’s hard to say that respect is built on specialization because engineers (for instance) will always be able to claim more knowledge on certain topics. We speculate (as explored in the article) that it’s more about the blending of experience and expertise and being able to talk about experience through the lens of expertise. Each bring something different to a workplace: obviously, longevity and experience command certain forms of respect, but experience alone isn’t enough.

A communicator also has to be able to call on expertise to solve problems effectively. Schriver discusses that difference too when she explains that someone with experience but without expertise will default to the same solutions to a problem, whereas someone with expertise (and experience) will pursue solutions based on best practices. Professional development and continual learning is key there, as is being able to consistently explain how solutions emerge from specific communication expertise, which an engineer won’t have. So it’s perhaps more about communicators being able to point to the ways they are experts in spaces versus specializing in engineering knowledge, for instance.

How can technical writers gain respect as SMEs in their own right (that is, experts in language and communication, not necessarily engineering) in the workplace?

Jenn: Here’s where we can use our communication skills and rhetorical knowledge to make the arguments to those around us. One strategy Megan uses is (as do others in the survey) is showing impacts of her contributions. One of the survey respondents pointed out that they always email their supervisor to make sure they know the positive outcomes of tech comm work and expertise. Sometimes, communication labor is invisible: after all, if it works well (or is clear), we don’t pay attention to it. So communicators have to self-promote, recognize when work is likely to go unnoticed and be willing to point it out, and be prepared to constantly persuade peers and supervisors of the essential nature of their work.

Even when decisions are made that are contrary to best practices, communicators can still use that as a chance to show their expertise. For instance, if someone makes a decision that’s contrary to Megan’s recommendation, she emphasizes why the decision is problematic in a way that makes her expertise visible. Finally, continued professional development can factor in because it shows a commitment to maintaining and expanding expertise.

Do you think the lack of degrees and certifications around tech comm lower the bar for tech comm professionals? And does this lowered barrier to entry devalue the work that tech comm professionals do (e.g., anyone can write)?

Megan: I don’t know that it necessarily lowers the bar in terms of anyone can write, but I think a lack of specialty programs does generalize writing a little bit and lump all “English majors” into one group. For example, someone who studied English literature as an undergrad can probably write quite well, but do they have the same knowledge and skillset as someone who studied technical writing or design? No, probably not.

I do, however, know many MFA writers who have successfully made the transition to technical writing through on-the-job training, so it is possible. In my workplace, peers have always been very adamant that the first step in having documentation created is to hire a writer — so there’s not often a question of offloading it to someone unequipped.

Jenn: From our perspective as a degree-granting program, our students come to us because they want more official training. So while it can be frustrating for our field to be dismissed or not seen as a discipline in its own right, we also all could do better about marketing who we are and what we offer. When the idea is that anyone with a degree in English can do technical communication, it does undermine the notion of technical communication expertise.

However, many of our graduate students have been working as communicators but join the program because they realize they need training (such as a certificate or degree) to do better. And they bring their work experience into the classroom to help drive their developing expertise, which benefits us all. We see individuals who are eager to learn more about the field, and I think we can keep building on that until perhaps more folks understand the value of tech comm training.

How can research on the competitor’s deliverables help tech writers establish and assert their own value?

Megan: I use competitor analysis to learn what types of customer-education experiences are influencing our target user’s expectations and how I can improve upon the status quo. Through the research, I can decide if those set user expectations are something we want to support or disrupt and try something new. Often this research is done by product genre — for example, I examine IoT device instructions/experiences because many of those consumers are the same users I write for. I look for things like how languages and translations are handled in packaging, if the designers used illustrations or photography or renders, if there is text included, as well as color printing and paper-weight. In the online space, I study if users are directed to mobile apps more often than desktops and what solutions companies offer for troubleshooting content.

In product apps, I look at how an application approaches instruction — do they use tooltips, coach-marks, etc.? User expectations for instructions, help, and troubleshooting have evolved over the past five to ten years and much of that is due to how competitors present information and the general sharing of design principles as they evolve. If I can support a specific design or writing choice with research on how another IoT device is presenting something (whether it’s better or worse), it adds credibility to what I am suggest; it proves I have done the work to think about why something should be created a certain way.

The question of the tech writer’s value seems to come up time and again. Shouldn’t our value be automatically apparent if we truly provide it?

Jenn: Perhaps, but writing and communication happen on so many different levels that people don’t pay much attention to it. And the writing/communication parts are often invisible especially when paired up with a product or physical thing. Finally, we’re also working against social values here — as a society, we don’t see instructions or documentation as being intellectual labor in the same way we view a program or a tangible, physical product. So we have to make sure that people understand the value and the intellectual work that goes into communication — and compensate communicators fully and fairly.

Megan: I have noticed that if something is written or designed well, it often fades into the background. People notice when something is poorly done — we notice typos, poorly constructed sentences, or clashing colors. When things are done well, they often “disappear” so to speak and they don’t automatically jump out at us if we aren’t trained to notice them. Because of this, the value of solid technical communication work still might not be automatically apparent — it might even be less visible when done by an expert.

Taking web design as an example, an average user will notice if they can’t find something or it’s not where they intuitively think it should be. They will be frustrated and aggravated. In contrast, if a webpage is done well, and a technical communicator tested how the menus should be titled, organized, and presented in terms of hierarchy, users rarely reflect on that smooth experience in the same way.

How did you change your program to help tech writers prepare for challenges that Megan faced in the workplace regarding the devaluation of her expertise?

Jenn: We haven’t made big changes yet, but since I teach two of the foundational graduate courses, I have begun implementing some of what we recommend. In the fall semester, I had students present projects where they had to highlight elements of their expertise to give them practice explaining the value they bring to projects. A big change, however, is that I’ve started these conversations with our program faculty, including looking at our program level outcomes and what we can do to incorporate this focus into the program as a whole, rather in just the classes I’m teaching.

Jenn: I’ve become even more curious about how people experience expertise: how do they assert expertise? What challenges do they face in trying to make their work visible to those who don’t think about it? Where do they get pushback, but also where might they find support? In other words, I’d like to hear more about stories like Megan’s, where we can get a sense of the overarching narratives and experiences.

Finally, I’d be curious to look at the experiences of folks who focus on rhetorically informed theoretical practices (students like Megan) versus those who dismissed that focus and demanded more emphasis on skills or programs. I’d wonder who would tend to be more successful later and if the rhetorical focus lets communicators be more adaptable (and thus better rewarded/compensated) as we speculate it does.

What are your general research interests?

Megan: visual instruction, copywriting and tone, and virtual assistants.

Jenn: technical communication pedagogy, STEM communication, gender and communication.

Can you share a bit more about Boise’s Technical Communications Masters program? Why might students choose it over others?

Jenn: I want Megan’s voice to end our post here, but I want to point out as a program, we are flexible — we offer courses in a range of settings for working adults (including online or hybrid), but we also create classes that allow students to pursue their own academic and career goals in terms of projects and courses. We encourage students to use the program to chart their own paths and grow their skillset.

Finally, many of us have a social justice mindset, which means we’re thinking about larger cultural concerns and how technical communication can be a tool to do good in the world, whether that’s advocating for users, creating more accessible and inclusive spaces, or using communication to advance social justice. We bring that into the program, and we make space for students to take a broad view of what communication is — and what it can do.

Megan: The Boise State MATC program was great for me because it is designed for people who are working — all the classes are in the evening and many are a hybrid of online and face-to-face meetings. This makes it easier to balance your education and schoolwork with work. I would also say it is predominately made up of students who are already in the field and want to expand their education and knowledge, or people who want a career change. People have families, kids, and other obligations; the program understands these things, and the format helps make it possible.

About the Authors and Program

About Jenn Mallette

Jenn Mallette is an assistant professor of English at Boise State University. In addition to teaching technical communication courses, she collaborates with faculty in the College of Engineering to support student writers. Her research interests build on those collaborations, examining best practices for integrating writing into engineering curriculum; she also explores women’s experiences in engineering settings through the context of writing. You can find her work in a number of academic journals or follow her on Twitter @jenniechris for random musings. You can view her Linkedin profile here.

About Megan Gerhke

Megan graduated from the Boise University MA in Tech Comm program several years ago and now works as a Customer Experience Writer at HP in Boise. Among other duties, she focuses on user interface and web content, communicating with many SMEs to discuss how usability, graphic design, and the UI interface design can coexist in the company’s products. For more information, see her Linkedin profile.

About the Boise State MATC program:

Boise State’s Master of Arts in Technical Communication provides a strong grounding in technical communication, whether for someone looking to extend their undergraduate work in tech comm or someone making a career change (or the professional who has been doing tech comm work and wants a stronger background in the field for professional development!). We also offer teaching assistantships for those interested in teaching tech comm (and funding their education); deadlines for TA applications are generally January 15 each year. Classes are offered in the evenings, often as hybrid offerings, and provide opportunities for students from a range of backgrounds to reach their personal and professional goals.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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