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March 7, 2022

Trends for techcomm managers (podcast)

In episode 113 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Sarah O’Keefe and Dawn Stevens of Comtech discuss trends that are of interest to techcomm managers.

“We have an aging technical communicator community. We’re not necessarily attracting the younger generation. UX designer sounds more modern and interesting.”

– Dawn Stevens

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Sarah O’Keefe:                               Welcome to The Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize, and distribute content in an efficient way. In this episode, we talk with Dawn Stevens of Comtech about trends that are of interest to techcomm managers. Dawn, hi, thanks so much for being a guest on the podcast today.

Dawn Stevens:                               Hi, Sarah, thanks for having me.

SO:                               Absolutely. So to get things started, for those of us who don’t know, tell us a little about yourself and Comtech and also the Center for Information Development Management.

DS:                               Sure. Again, I’m Dawn Stevens and I have been in technical communications basically my entire career, which is now well over 30 years. I’m one of those few people who started off saying, “I think I’ll be a technical communicator.” And so I went to school for it and have been working in it my entire career. And I was fortunate early on in my career to find Comtech, and so I’ve actually worked at Comtech twice. I worked for JoAnn for 10 years in the ’90s. Then I left because my children were small and I didn’t want to travel as much in those types of things, and then I came back after my youngest went to college and have been back since 2010. So I’ve been here at Comtech a total of, well over 20 years and I purchased it actually now five years ago, if you can believe that, Sarah, five years.

SO:                               Yeah.

DS:                               So Comtech is a competitor really of Scriptorium from, your introduction is, “Yeah, that works for Comtech as well.” We’ve been in existence since ’78, I believe is when Joanne formed it. And then about, oh, 25 years ago, she started the Center for Information Development Management, which is an organizational membership for managers largely to talk about concerns that have to do with managing technical communications and the challenges that are associated with the unique people that you manage and the people that you have to work with in terms of stakeholders and so on. And so that membership organization sponsors conferences and things like that.

SO:                               Yeah. And so in my mind we’re friendly competitors.

DS:                               Yes, that’s right.

SO:                               Because every once in a while we bid on the same project and one of us gets it and the other one doesn’t, but what I think is more important is that we as business owners and all of that, we have a lot of the same issues and challenges. So I really value having access and getting to talk to you and people like you in that peer group about all of our mutual pain and suffering.

DS:                               Absolutely.

SO:                               So with that position that you have as an industry consultant and also with CIDM, I wanted to ask you about trends, like what’s happening in techcomm that’s of interest or maybe the techcomm managers are terrified about, and I guess we really have to start with hiring, right?

DS:                               Yeah, absolutely. It’s an interesting time, the last couple of years with the pandemic and some of the changes that have been just general in any kind of industry that whole quote unquote “Great resignation” is that really impacting us. I would say there’s definitely been challenges as managers of people are leaving, people are not necessarily leaving the industry, but redistributing is what I’ve seen a lot within my clients of, oh, there’s greener pastures over here, there’s a bit more competition, I guess, for getting people. And I’ve got a lot of people who keep coming to me and saying, “What do we do to attract people?” And there’s been some interesting challenges associated with, well, what are we looking for? What kinds of people should we be looking for? How do we make the industry as a whole more attractive?

SO:                               Yeah. And redistribution or resorting maybe is a really interesting point because people aren’t… Some people are leaving the industry across the board, not just ours, but a lot of people are just going from the big company to the small company, or they’re moving up in the world or they’re leaving the company that won’t let them continue to work remotely, or they’re leaving the company that isn’t going back to the office.

DS:                               Right.

SO:                               There are some people out there that think offices are fun and that want an office as oppose to working out of their house. So within that, are people moving into certain kinds of specialist positions or generalist positions? What does that look like?

DS:                               Yeah, I think that’s actually the key piece of this redistribution or resorting is that there’s been I guess, a cycle that I have seen over the years of do we have generalists, we have technical communicators who can basically do everything. You write, you index, or you create a taxonomy nowadays. You have to be able to deal with your formatting, in some manner you have to create your own art, all of those types of things as a whole, generalist you need to be able to do everything. Versus there are specific areas that maybe interest you in within technical communication more than all of these other things, you’re better at all those. If you ask me to create an illustration for technical manual, you’re going to be very disappointed.

DS:             So the people don’t have all of those various skills, and so one of the things with this resorting that I’m really seeing is do we need to specialize more? With things like structured authoring a decade ago, these questions started coming up of, oh, do we need an information architect? Do we need content strategists, etc, as a specific position, or is that something that everybody should just be able to do? And what I think I’m seeing more and more is no, we’re backed into that trend of we need the specialists, we need somebody who absolutely understands content strategy or information modeling or information architecture, whatever you want to call that to really think about what are our goals, what kinds of content are going to meet the needs of our particular customers and how do we structure and design those particular things.

DS:                               And then somebody else who can write those things and somebody else who can program those things or film those things, or whatever those things happen to be, somebody who’s an expert in SEO, how can people find that content? So I’m seeing more and more of, I need to find people who have these specific skills and that’s a challenge when you think about a lot of budgeting. Budgeting tends to be head count where you can have 10 people. Whatever it happens to be and the idea that, well, of my 10 people I’ve only got two people who actually want to be writers and then somebody who wants to be a strategist for this, and an expert in that, that can be a big challenge for the managers.

SO:                               Right. And now your team of 10 with your one information architect, the information architect quits, and the others are all specialized into not IA, and now what do you do?

DS:                               Right.

SO:                               So there’s a risk. Yeah, I’ve always kind of associated generalist versus specialist with small company versus big company. If you have one writer or two, or one or two technical communication people, they’re going to have to be generalists because you’re not getting an illustrator or an editor.

DS:                               Right.

SO:                               But it does seem as though some of these bigger groups are swinging in some ways towards, well, we do want some of these, we’d like to have overlapping skills and we want to have the ability to take you or me and assign me to a new project that I’m not so specialized that I can only write this one thing. Now, how do some of those newer titles fit into this? I’m hearing UX writer, I’m hearing content design. The other day I actually saw somebody that said, “What do you call like a UX writer for technical content? What would that be?”

SO:                               And I thought, “Well, that would be a technical writer.”

DS:                               Exactly, “Oh, well, that sounds so boring or unappealing in some manner.” And I’ve always laughed about job titles to a certain extent, at one point in my career I just said, “Call me the scope change goddess,” because I was doing so many projects where the projects kept changing, I’m like, “That’s my new title.” So titles have not seem like they shouldn’t be that important and yet they are and what do they do is certainly associated with that title. And there in is where I got a lot of people in CIDM are talking about that of like, “Do you have any good sample job descriptions for? What is it that an IA does or a UX writer does, or those types of things, and what does distinguish them from what we’ve always called a technical writer?

DS:                               Are there special skills that make you a UX writer as opposed to just a technical writer? And I think that there are potentially aspects of that certainly of understanding in a UX situation of space and how things fit together and how the I goes through an interface and those types of things. So I think there are probably some special skills that you might call out. I don’t know that means the technical writer didn’t have them in the first place, but in terms of what you’re emphasizing for one of those particular job descriptions, I guess there’s an emphasis more on a specific title.

SO:                               Yeah, and it is obviously short form, shortest possible form writing if you’re doing-

DS:                               Absolutely.

SO:                               Strings that go on a software application versus a long form. I’m going to explain to you everything that you need to know about relational databases, but how do you do that? I guess they be subspecialties, right?

DS:                               It could be. I think there’s an interesting thing that just occurred to me, is that of course the UX part, the user part of it and we talk a lot. You’ve talked about it, I’ve talked about it, of the importance, the success of a technical writer is understanding their audience and who those users are. And yet I still see that struggle happening a lot, is that technical writers, oftentimes in an organization are banned from talking to users. That, no, you weren’t allowed to talk to them, I don’t know what the fear is per se, but you don’t talk to them, only these types of people and oftentimes that user part of a title, the user experience gives you maybe that permission to talk to people, does that imply potentially skills that are different? We know we’ve seen a lot of presentations, certainly about how technical writers tend to be more introverts.

DS:                               I know JoAnn did for a long, long time, Myers-Briggs test of every single person she could get her hands on in the industry and said, yeah, mostly they tend to be introverted. Maybe they don’t want to go out and talk to their users and so forth. They’re just happy sitting at their computer and writing. And there’s that maybe implication that if you’re a UX writer, there’s more of that, “Hey, you need to go out and understand what your users really need.” I don’t know that I want to draw that line, but it’s something that just occurred to me as we were talking.

SO:                               Yeah. It also feels to me based on really no evidence or research whatsoever, we should clarify that UX writer, it’s the new title. And the old, old title was technical writer, and then we had technical communicator and we’ve had information developer and we’ve had some other things like that, API writer maybe, and the write the docs people will talk about documentarians, but UX writer feels like the cool new thing.

DS:                               It does and I think that’s an important aspect. We have an aging, technical communicator community, people have talked about that in the past is that we’re not necessarily attracting the younger generation and something that sounds a little more cool, like you said, of being a UX designer, maybe sounds more modern, sounds more interesting. If I’ve talked to a variety of young people, I’ve asked some of the people who are in our industry that are younger, why is it that our AI industry is aging? And it’s been interesting to hear them say, there is that perception of, well technical writing, it doesn’t have a big impact to the world and that a lot of this new generation is wanting to make an impact, make sure that they’re saving the world in some manner, joking about just like area of waste of like, “Oh, good God, if you print something,” that nobody wants to be associated with, oh, you’re creating printed content, that’s a big wasted.

DS:                               And even just the idea that from a writing perspective, you create manuals. Well, does anybody really read those manuals? At least with a UX design, they’re using the interface. So you’re having some kind of an impact on a person and what I’m really hearing, and I’m not saying that I didn’t want to do that when I was young either of making an impact, but I definitely seem to hear it more than ever that I don’t want to write something that nobody ever looks at, I want to have an impact on people and make a difference in their lives.

SO:                               Yeah. So basically we’ve had such bad press for, I’m going to say forever. Nobody reads the docs, et cetera. I will say the best definition of technical communication that I ever saw actually came from Tim O’Reilly, who said that it was the purpose, the purpose of technical content, of technical communication is to enable people to use the product successfully. And so it turns into this, it’s just like good editing, if you do it well it’s invisible. People rarely say, “Oh, wow, that was a really fun experience of reading a five step procedure about how to do a thing.” They just successfully get their washing machine to turn on or drain or reset and they move on with their lives. Yeah, I don’t know what that says about us as a group, other than I know that we are super, super terrible at marketing ourselves.

DS:                               Sure, sure.

SO:                               Horrendous, the worst and there’s a whole podcast in there about why that is. But if you ever have a chance, go to a conference that is only tech writers, immediately followed by one that is only marketing people and real at the difference. It is incredibly entertaining.

DS:                               Yeah. Well, I like the definition that you gave there, that if we did market it more that way, if we are enablers, but I think back to that UX design title and everything else, there is that ideal that has existed since long before you and I entered the scene too. We should be creating products that document themselves and isn’t that part of the implication of, oh, if I’m a UX designer or UX writer, I’m helping to move in that direction.

SO:                               Well, that’s fine. But then I look at the research that says that 20% of product returns are because people can’t figure out how to use the product. So yes, the products should be obvious and intuitive and self-documenting, and self-healing and all the rest of it, but they’re not.

DS:                               And that gets to one other aspect-

SO:                               It’s just not.

DS:                               I think it gets to one other aspect of hiring or skills that really managers need to be thinking about is, what is the relationship of the writer to the product designer? Is that oftentimes as a writer, you’re trying to document something and make it sound like a feature or those types of things, or at least make it usable. And you can immediately see here it would be a whole lot easier to write this, or we wouldn’t even have to write it if you could just make this one tweak to the way you’ve designed it. But we oftentimes see ourselves in this position the way they’ve been hired in as a technical writer, the way that corporate culture is, whatever those factors are, that we’re not the expert. The people we deal with are the subject matter experts and we’re just the writer. And I’ve spent so much time with my clients coaching them to the idea of, no, you’re not just a writer, you are the writing expert or the user expert, or let’s put the word expert into our title as well.

DS:                               And yes, we’re dealing with a subject matter expert who knows what they did, what they have designed for the product, but that oftentimes needs some tweaking and can we build that relationship between them? And from a hiring perspective, that is something to take a look at is how confident are the people that you’re hiring? Will they speak up? If they have a seat at an agile development table or that type of thing, would they say something to say, “I think we could improve this,” and then that would save me 20 pages of writing.

SO:                               I think that’s a really good place to leave this. So I’ll be curious to see what the people listening to this come up with in terms of feedback, because I think you and I have some strong opinions on where this is going and why going the way it’s going. So all those of you out there, speak up, we want to hear from you, see what you think, and we might need to do a follow up on this one depending on what comes back. So Dawn, thank you. I’m going to wrap things up here. Thank you for listening to The Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit or check the show notes for relevant links.