Jobs in techcomm (podcast)
In episode 131 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Sarah O’Keefe and guest Keith Schengili-Roberts discuss the techcomm job market.
Most of the jobs I see are industry experience … is helpful. Medical device is very helpful. PS, we’d love it if you had these tools. It’s common not to require the tools. It’s common to require domain knowledge and then say tools are a nice-to-have or a strongly preferred, but not an absolute requirement.
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’ll talk about challenges in the technical communication marketplace. Hi everyone, I’m Sarah O’Keefe, and I’m delighted to welcome Keith Schengili-Roberts to our podcast. Hey Keith.
Roberts: Hello there. Hello everyone.
SO: How are you doing over there?
KSR: I’m doing fine. Doing great.
SO: Awesome. You and I, of course, go way back, very, very far back. But for those people listening who aren’t familiar, tell us a little bit about yourself, and who you are, and what you’re up to these days.
KSR: Back when we both first started in the industry, we were writing on clay tablets and hacking away with chisels into stone. But much more recently, what I do and have been doing now for quite a number of years is independent research on a website called DITAwriter.com. My main domain is for work related things, not having to do with my full-time job is actually on the DITAwriter.com website.
I started doing this in part because I was growing frustrated at various claims that I was seeing made by others, saying that such and such is happening. This is a trend, and such and such is happening here, it’s a different trend. Sometimes these things were contradictory, and sometimes people would say that … One of the first things that made me think about starting to do actual research in this area was the claim thrown about very widely at the very beginning of DITA being disseminated throughout technical writing culture is that it was the fastest growing XML standard out there.
While I didn’t necessarily disagree with that, it was kind of like, yeah, but how do we know that? So I wanted to go and do some digging to see if I could actually find some evidence to go away and ascertain if that was in fact the case or not. Arguably that answer, the answer to that is yes. That’s from a long ago. Now there’s a new and interesting twist on things. But essentially over, my methodology is basically going to indeed.com, which is the largest job aggregator website in the US and has been so for well over a decade now.
What I have done since August of 2011 is that once a month I go in and do a search looking for technical writing jobs and other keywords that go with that. Then essentially doing fairly basic statistical analyses on the results that come out of it. Well, quite recently there was the 10th anniversary of this, and I’ve started writing some blog pieces talking about what are some definite job posting trends relating to technical writing, and structured, and unstructured content within the industries.
SO: So we’ll include a link to DITA Writer in the show notes, or I guess I should say it should be there if you’re listening to this. So tell us about the marketplace for technical writers. What’s going on? Is it a good market, a bad market, a buyer’s market, a writer’s market? A writer/buyer, that sounds bad.
KSR: I’d put a writer’s market? Yes. Let’s just call it a writer’s market. Well, let’s say that the good times have come and gone rather quickly. As of May of this year, there was over 4,400 technical writing job posts, and that is a 10 year peak. In fact, for the most part, technical writing jobs within the states have kind of hovered around somewhere between the 3,000 to maybe 2,000 mark. That’s talking about all of the jobs across the states that have the words technical writer in either the title or the content of the actual job posting.
Up until, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody that took a significant hit back in at the beginning days of COVID, where essentially there were not only fewer hires, but things seemed to be plummeting. But then, I don’t want to say post COVID, because in many ways, I’m not sure we’re really out of the COVID era, so to speak yet. But around the time of February of 2021, things began to pick up significantly. As of, I’m just going to check this, as of I think it was May of this year …. Yeah, that’s what I was quoting earlier. So as of May of this year, we had over 4,400 job postings looking for technical writers, which is great.
I believe that a lot of that has to do with the fact that there were, essentially, the economic pressures were people starting to, and companies, I should say, starting to produce things again that actually had a requirement for people to document exactly what was going on. Now since then, and keep in mind that this is six months ago, here we are, I did latest stats for October. So again, May of this year, 4,400 technical writer job posts. Right now, 3,300 job posts. So that’s a drop of 1,000 in a rather precipitously short amount of time. I’m not sure if that’s the biggest drop I’ve ever seen in the past 10 years.
I’d have to have a closer look at it, but it’s going to be pretty darn close to that. So again, what does this say in terms of … This doesn’t exactly bode well for acquire jobs at this very moment. Having said that, it’s funny, we’re actually, at this point we’re still higher than at most points within the past 10 years. So there is a chance that if the economy does do a turnaround, that we may in fact find another climb in the stats. But to be honest, with all the doom and gloom that’s out there at the moment, I highly doubt that that’s the case. Whereas back in May, I was basically saying, “Hey, this is a great time to put yourself on the market as a technical writer,” I really can’t say that anymore.
SO: Interesting. Although it sounds as though the 30 … I’m going to take the glass half full and say that 4,400 is crazy, but 3,300 sounds as though it’s still a good number. It’s not a terrible number.
KSR: Yes. if you consider that the average has been around 2,000, again, that’s still fairly high. But the trend is most definitely going down and quick. That’s the thing that I’m remarking on, really.
SO: So you’re looking at this rollercoaster and wondering if it’s hit the bottom and it’s going to start back up, or if it’s just, we’re all going to … Nevermind. We won’t make a rollercoaster analogy.
KSR: Keep screaming while you can sort of thing. Because I’m sure we haven’t hit the bottom yet.
SO: So within these limited job postings, what are you seeing in there? I mean, you’ve been looking at DITA and DITA Writing trends, so what kinds of structured authoring trends are in there or not, as the case may be?
KSR: Fair enough. Yeah, well, so I’ve been keeping an eye on all of the major XML based standards. So I keep track of how many of these job postings, again, specifically for technical writers, not programmers or anything else, mention things like, say, S1000D, SGML, DITA. Of course, and also just plain, old XML. There does seem to be one sort of fundamental change that’s occurred over the past 10 years. It appears as though jobs that are looking for people with experience with XML have in fact gone up. What’s more, more than the number if you add up all of the numbers of people who are jobs looking for just DITA, SGML, S1000D, DocBook. You add all that together, and the number for job posts looking for just XML experience is still significantly higher than that.
Now, there are some trends, the ups and downs of the overall job market sort of define the overall number of these things. But it’s interesting to see that XML, and also a cure topic come up in a lot more technical writing jobs than for any of the individual standards in and of themselves. Now there’s another story here though, and this is, now, as someone with a domain name like DITA Writer, this is a wee bit concerning. This has nothing to do, it seems, with the recent dip in the number of technical writer job postings in general. It appears as though DITA is waning in terms of, again, overall job postings.
So at its peak, to be fair, DITA essentially was mentioned in something like maybe four and a half percent at its peak of all job postings. They tended to be the same people, like the same crowd. So more often than not, it was the larger companies that have a real advantage by using DITA in terms of cost savings. If you do any sort of translation to multiple languages, DITA, it’s hard to beat that, really, to be honest. But what I’m seeing now is it’s been getting to be a little bit more in the doldrums. It’s actually at roughly half that at about 2% of all job postings across the states.
Now that having said that, that’s still a substantial enough number. But it’s dropped, and I’m sort of racking my brains as to what has changed to make that happen. I have some ideas, but again, I can’t say that I’m 100% sure that that’s the case. But here, I’ll present my ideas to you and please, I would love it very much if you could just let me know what you think.
SO: I’ll shoot it down. You’ll be fine.
KSR: Okay. So as I said earlier, there’s … My experience is that DITA tends to be used by the largest companies, like companies that typically have 5,000, or 10,000 people, or more working with it. The reasons for that is that there are essentially economies of scale when working with DITA. I mentioned the localization aspect of things before. But if you have a lot of products and you can share content between those products in the technical manuals or engineering manuals, again, the efficiencies that you can get from using structured authoring like DITA, again, looking at this purely from a business perspective rather than from a writer’s perspective makes a whole lot of sense.
But having said that, another interesting trend that I notice that goes along with the drop in DITA is, to me, the rise in FrameMaker in this. Not too long ago, I think I was saying a couple of years ago, I was seeing that the trend for FrameMaker was that it was steadily going down. I’m pretty sure I did a post saying that, I mean, not that FrameMaker was dead. But that it wasn’t very healthy at this point. My thinking at the time was that, well, maybe DITA is coming to the fore and structured authoring tools, such as, say Oxygen are coming more to the fore.
But the recent resurgence in FrameMaker and the decline in DITA makes me think that, and again, here’s my theory, that what we’re seeing is that there’s more of a push for technical writing jobs at the moment within smaller companies, for which having standalone FrameMaker licenses working on the desktop, as opposed to, say, working within Adobe Experience Manager. That’s a whole other subject. I keep track of that as well. I suspect that what’s going on is that we’re seeing a lot of hires of individual writers within smaller firms rather than larger firms who are looking for people with experience with DITA. So that’s my thinking. Any thoughts on that, Sarah?
SO: Well, of course, you have the data and I don’t, so unfair advantage. But a couple of thoughts. One is that I would be interested, I don’t know, I don’t think this is going to be in your data. But it would be interesting to speculate around the question of whether the turnover is actually higher in, let’s say, FrameMaker based jobs than DITA based jobs, which would then account for more FrameMaker jobs. The obvious anecdotal speculation would be that the FrameMaker people are retiring and need to be replaced.
KSR: Oh, that’s an angle I hadn’t thought of. Yes.
SO: Well, and again, I have zero evidence, so you make of that whatever you want. But it might be interesting to go back and look at, instead of looking at percentages, to look at the raw numbers. So 10 years ago it was 100 DITA jobs a month, and now it’s still a 100 DITA jobs a month, but there are more jobs. There’s FrameMaker jobs, and markdown jobs, and this, that, and the other thing. I’m also very curious as to the percentage of jobs that don’t specify tools, that just say we need someone who can write these kinds of things.
Most of the jobs I see are industry experience in thing is helpful. Medical device is very helpful. PS, we’d love it if you had these tools, but usually … Not usually. It’s common not to require the tools. It’s common to require domain knowledge and then say tools are a nice to have or a strongly preferred, but not an absolute requirement. But yeah, I mean obviously you’ve got this data that shows things are going up, and down, and sideways. But in terms of FrameMaker specifically, I do wonder if that’s a case of these groups have been chugging along quite happily and now they’re losing people to extra attrition.
KSR: Yeah, I can also say that what was interesting, and again I’m talking from personal experience here, but what I have seen is during COVID there were some people that either I worked with or that I knew in other companies that were working, essentially they were planning to retire when COVID hit. Then they were asked, essentially to look, could you just stay on a little bit longer until we get through this? As you say, maybe that’s part of what’s going on there.
SO: Maybe, yeah, I mean-
KSR: Though, I don’t know why that would necessarily hit FrameMaker job posting specifically, because you think that would be across the board, but yeah. It’s interesting.
SO: Yeah, I don’t know, but I’d be interested to find out more. What about some of the other tools that are out there? I mean, of course your focus is on DITA specifically. But if we’re going to talk about not DITA, then Markdown, Flare, Paligo what do those look like?
KSR: Yeah. Now the interesting thing is that, and this sort of echoes what you were saying earlier, is that … Again, I’ve been doing this actually, not fully for the 10 years, but for probably something like half of it. I’ve been throwing in the names of major tools. So that would include things like say Oxygen, or Webworks, or back in the day, Dreamweaver, and so forth. More specifically looking at things like Astoria, SDL, which of course is now …
SO: [inaudible 00:17:16].
KSR: Oh actually, what is it? Sorry, what is SDL?
SO: [inaudible 00:17:21]. Yep.
KSR: I should know this offhand, but I don’t. Anyways. Now also very recently things like Paligo, and [inaudible 00:17:29], and Vasant. But the interesting thing is that, much as you were saying earlier, the trend in job postings is very rarely to talk about or specifically mention tools. So those numbers are very typically in the numbers that you can count on one, occasionally, two hands, and very rarely higher.
What does come up much more often is job postings that are looking for experience with a, and I’m going to say a CMS as opposed to a CCMS. The numerical difference between the two is significant. So some sort of CCMS mean … Sorry, CMS meaning some sort of a structured authoring tool. But again, the numbers are not huge. So I don’t want claim that a significant percentage of all tech writing jobs require or are asking for CMS experience. Again, it’s in the low single digit percentages, but it is there.
But if you come to the other vendors, yeah, almost … Not almost never, but it rarely comes up. However, as you were saying earlier, if you do have the experience, like please, if you have experience with particular tools, mention them in your CCMS, as a former and still current hiring manager where I work full-time, those things matter. But from a job posting perspective, we have to be a bit more, have to cast the net wider, so to speak. So on the whole, you don’t see a whole lot of those things. Of interest, just very recently I am seeing Paligo coming up in the number of CCMS things. So clearly they’re beginning to make a dent, much more so than long established players in the market, for example. So I just find that interesting.
Of course, Sarah and I, we both know that Paligo works with its … Oh-
KSR: DocBook. The thing is that if I look at the number of times DocBook is again mentioned, I pretty famously declared that DocBook is dead, like from a hiring perspective only, because nobody is looking for people with that experience. Yet here comes Paligo, and they have done such a good job with the interface for their particular CCMS that I suspect that many people using it. I’m sure this almost never gets to the HR people who are cobbling together the job postings that, do you have actually experience with DocBook, but because in a way it’s more the CCMS that they’re interested in this particular case than the standard.
SO: All right. Well, that’s a really interesting point, right? Because you’ve been looking at, are the job posts asking for DITA? So to a certain extent you would then say, “Okay, well what about DocBook?” Except no, because it’s been, I don’t think rebranded is exactly fair. But let’s say subsumed in the sense that that is what underlies Paligo, but it’s not really a topic of conversation. Are there any other conclusions that … I mean we always want to know what the CCMS market share is. That’s like the first question anybody asks. Are there any inferences you can draw from what you’re seeing about … So it sounds like Paligo is doing well. Is there anybody else out there that’s doing well or not so well from a posting point of view?
KSR: No, not really in terms … Yeah, no, the numbers are just not high enough to really come up with any sort of strong conclusion as to what the marketplace is when it comes to job postings. Now for that sort of thing, I have done some research, but not recently. But I have done research using LinkedIn information, and people saying what sort of CCMS they’re using, and compiled the list of companies that are using DITA, which is also on the DITA Writer website based on that information.
But I’ll admit, I’ll be the first to admit that that information is beginning to get a little bit out of date, because I was paid to do that type of research before, and now that I have a full-time gig, that’s something take that takes a lot of time that I simply don’t have anymore. So I have no additional insights into the CCMS mark at this point in time, at least not from this data.
SO: So what about Markdown?
KSR: Ah, now that’s also interesting. Now I think one of the ironies that comes up is people are saying, “Well, Markdown is the new shiny thing, so to speak,” which is funny because it’s actually been around longer than DITA. Of course, it’s also an unstructured format. So there’s the continual sort of dynamic of structured content, that it requires more upfront efforts to make it work. But then the payoff is being able to do some really interesting things with it. There are all sorts of interesting buzzwords that come around structured content you simply don’t get with unstructured content, such as Markdown.
Having said that, there has been a real interest in, again in job posts, technical writer job posts that are looking for Markdown experience. Quite recently, in fact, I think within about the past year or so, the request for people having Markdown experience now exceeds that of DITA. I think at least in part that has to do with the fact that the DITA numbers are, at least at present, going down. So yes, in the graph there is that moment where they intersect. Then Markdown continues to grow. Now I say that given that the entirety of the job market has fallen down rather precipitously in the past couple of months. The Markdown numbers as absolute numbers go down, but the percentage certainly continues to increase.
SO: So I guess in kind of wrapping this up, the question that probably everybody wants to know is if I’m out there in the job market or I’m trying to get into technical writing, but if I’m looking for a tech writing job, then you mentioned make sure, do you include any CCMS type of experience on your resume because you just never know. But what would you advise people if and when they are looking, what’s that thing that you would say, “Look, if you can prove that you have this, your job search will go well?” Are there a couple of things that people can and should focus on?
KSR: I would say that one of the best tools out there is definitely going to be LinkedIn. More specifically, so I mentioned earlier the companies that are using DITA, that’s on the DITA Writer website. So if in fact you do have DITA experience or you want to get experience, go through that list and see if there is any companies listed there that are in your area. That would be a good one to start with. Then once you’ve done that, use LinkedIn’s search and capabilities, such as AR, to see if you can narrow down things further.
Find out if there are technical writers who are working at the location that’s local to you, and then try to figure out what are the tools that they’re actually using. More often than not, they will say what they’re using. Then from that you can construct a resume that targets specifically the tool use and/or standards that they might be using. Similarly, if there’s any potential, it also helps to be a member of any sort of technical authoring organizations that can also help you with things like networking. But that’s a couple of, what I hope, are practical tips on how to go about that.
SO: Awesome. Well, Keith, I really appreciate this. I think we could keep going for a very long time.
KSR: Part two.
SO: Part two. But I’m going to, I’m afraid, cut us off there. We’ll come back next year and see where your numbers are.
KSR: Sure thing. Yeah.
SO: So thank you, and thank for your time.
KSR: Thank you.
SO: Thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit scriptorium.com or check the show notes for relevant links.