Part I: Introduction and background
The recent guest post by Jeremy Rosselot-Merritt on why technical writers are treated as unimportant in a company received more than 7x the clicks of my other posts. This topic clearly struck a nerve with people and tapped into a longstanding issue in tech comm. In this series, I want to explore this theme even further and present an argument that explains this lack of workplace value for tech comm.
To recap, Jeremy was exploring why technical writers are often treated as unimportant in companies, and one of his findings was that many people are unaware of the communication value that technical communicators provide. As Jeremy interviewed non-TC workers at various companies, he found that many people just assumed technical communicators provided the tools that others used to fill in with content. Others weren’t sure exactly what technical writers did. In general, Jeremy argued that it’s the lack of awareness and understanding of the tech writer role that contributes to the low estimation of tech writers in the workplace.
In the comments, Mark Baker took another point of view about the reasons for low value. He said the value of tech writers in companies is low because of the way tech writers pitch themselves to others. When technical writers argue that they can quickly learn what they need to know, they’re ironically describing how expendable they are, not how critical they are. One tech writer can be let go and another can be hired and quickly come up to speed and write the necessary documentation. When companies consider who to lay off, these ideas about quickly ramping up play into the assessment of who to let go. Companies choose instead to keep those resources that require long on-ramp and deep knowledge accrual. Mark explains,
They [technical writers] say, I can write about anything. I don’t need a specific technical background. I can get up to speed very quickly and produce documentation on any subject.
The writers who say this doubtless think this makes them sound like extremely useful professionals. But that is not what HR departments hear. Tell HR departments that writers can quickly get up to speed and write effectively about any subject and what they hear is, continuity does not matter in this function. Deep knowledge of the company, its products, its technology, and the industries it serves are not required to do this role. Any technical writer can be brought in on short notice and do the job effectively.
When companies hit hard times, they try very hard to hang on to those employees that are necessary to continuity, because if they lose them it will be very difficult to ramp business back up when things improve. To reduce costs in the meantime, they let go all of the staff who are not essential to continuity, because if they go get other jobs it will be easy enough to replace them with equally effective people when things get better.
That is why tech writers are first to go. They are generally on the development budget, and the developers are mostly considered essential to continuity. The tech writers, meanwhile, have been boasting that they are not essential to continuity, that they are a kind of jack-of-all trades who can slot into different roles and pick things up quickly – and can thus be easily replaced by someone with the same skill set without any loss of continuity. Of course they are the first ones to get the boot. They have been asking for it.
The tragedy of all this is that it is not even true. You can’t actually be an effective technical communicator without deep knowledge of the company, its products, its technology, and the industries it serves….
Most agreed with Mark, but some disagreed. As an example of a dissenting perspective, Robert Kennedy shared a post called Most Tech Writing Is Neither, where he argues that technical writing isn’t very technical nor does it involve much writing – hence it is “neither,” neither technical nor writing. Robert explains, “Most technical writers are mostly aggregators or synthesizers of content. It’s collecting, researching, analyzing, synthesizing, and editing content.”
If you read my blog last year, you know that I’ve also deliberated between the choice of being a specialist or generalist a number of times, such as in this post: Principle 11: Be both a generalist and specialist at the same time. The specialist has deep but narrow product knowledge, while the generalist is more of a language/tools expert with more shallow product knowledge. It’s never clear which role is more valuable. It’s also unclear as to whether companies might be deciding about keeping their generalists or specialists during layoff times. Is Mark right? What data supports this?
Real data about a layoff’s reasons
In thinking about layoffs and the reasons why, I realized that discussions about why people are laid off are mostly speculative. We don’t often have the data or explicit reasons about why layoffs occur. Yet being laid off is emotionally scarring. Being laid off can traumatize you for the rest of your career with different anxieties and concerns that propel you in a variety of directions as a result.
As I thought about where to get actual data about the reasons for layoffs, I thought about my own experience being laid off back in 2013. At that time, I was working for the LDS Church in Utah, in their technology department, which had about 1,000 IT professionals, mostly based in Riverton, Utah. I was on a team of six technical writers. I had been working there for five years and never suspected any instability in my job. Our tech comm team had great rapport and camaraderie.
One day the CIO announced that layoffs were coming, though they didn’t specify who or how many, but they wanted to give us some time to prepare. Then about a month later, it happened. One by one we were called in to meet with HR, and each of us returned with a green folder containing severance details. To our surprise, our entire team had been laid off. The only remaining writer was one who was also performing a role as an intellectual property (IP) manager. He would no longer do technical writing but would focus on IP full-time now. The entire technical writing job function had been cut from the company. We were told that technical writing would be outsourced as needed from now on. This decision was shocking on multiple levels — not just being laid off but also having the tech comm role wiped from the company’s full-time occupations.
When you’re laid off, they rarely tell you exactly why, and so this led each of us to formulate a unique story in our minds about the reasons. We didn’t talk much to each other after the layoff, at least not about the reasons. Our group functioned like a support group giving tips on jobs to each other, but the details of the symbolic green folders and the stories behind them remained undiscussed for years.
After Jeremy’s post, I started thinking more about our layoff and the vague reasons for it. I decided to reach out to my former colleagues to try to gather their stories about why the layoff occurred, whether the question of deep product knowledge played any part in the decision, and how the layoff affected our careers in the aftermath. I’ll tell their stories one by one and then wrap up with my conclusion at the end that tries to answer the question: why are tech writers often undervalued and laid off in companies even though documentation is essential to so many parts of the business?
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.