It’s been a month of organizational changes at work. Actually, just a particularly chaotic month, after about 5-6 months of changes. Which is stressful in general, and I’m finding it also saps my will to blog, and leaves me with few new things to blog about. The “document the product” part of my job has taken a distant third place to customer support and establishing a training program.
It also means that I have to make decisions about what I want to do. And, again, stop being a damn hero and trying to do everything every day. I want to be a “working manager”: Leading a team, but also doing a bit of day-to-day work (content development, ideally, but that could also include customer support). And although it’s different from when I started as a tech writer, it seems like the working manager is now the norm.
Writing and managing
Getting two for one is always a good deal, even though management tasks always take more time than anyone anticipates. But because doc teams are much smaller than they used to be, there’s often less of that to do on a daily basis.
Of course that depends on the skills of the people you’re managing. It’s worked for me in two out of three management roles. I’m not sure that 66% is an enviable success rate, but the difference was whether I had any say in who was hired. But it’s certainly possible for smaller teams in smaller companies.
And a quick, unscientific look at job postings on Linkedin suggests that companies are looking for manager/writers.
A company named TarrenPoint followed me on twitter recently. I haven’t worked with them, but I took a look at their blog and one line in particular leapt out at me:
Specialist or generalist: In the past, jobs or positions were narrow in scope and tied to a particular task or objective. With the changing landscape of multimedia, mobile, context-driven content, those that are associated with technical documentation must expand their horizons, learn new skills, and provide value in new areas or run the risk of being left behind. Specialization is giving way to generalization.
This is a good summary of my argument that traditional tech writing is dead. Knowing how to use one tool, or how to output to one format, just isn’t enough anymore, and executives demand that we show how we bring value to the company.
But “dead” is the wrong word
I was imprecise, and I realized this while conversing with people in the comments. But an article about a completely unrelated topic does a great job of explaining this:
And so what happened to being dead? Well, the point is that people will always tell you something is dead, when actually things are simply diversifying, or splitting apart, or hybridising or mutating.
So technical writing isn’t dead (or else recruiters wouldn’t be calling me), but it’s definitely diversifying and mutating. DocBook is old and busted, DITA is moving more slowly than I’d like, and we’re just starting to see the open source movement making a dent in the tech writing field. I’ve seen some very interesting examples of people using Github as a publishing tool. Tom Johnson is working on some DITA implementations that also look really interesting, and hopefully something that I can shamelessly copy for my own work.
But it’s definitely a changing world. I still produce PDFs, but as short handouts for training courses or one-off deliverables of customized content to a single customer. Most of my content is conceptual, usage, and admin info in an online knowledge base, and by next year I’ll need to deliver content for all of that as well as for in-app tutorials and an API reference.
I can’t specialize in one type of documentation, or even one tool. I’ll probably need a handful of tools: at least one authoring tool, a publishing tool, a video creation tool, and audio recording tool, a screenshot editor…
Not to mention the customer support application I manage, a project planning tool, enough knowledge of git commands to keep the test code up to date, and the task tracking tool that engineering uses. Each of which I use at least once a week.
As the writer at TarranPoint said, “In the past, jobs or positions were narrow in scope and tied to a particular task or objective.”
That world is gone, and has been for a while. Time to hurry up and mutate to fit in this new, highly diversified world.