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Technical Communicators Are Finding New Niches

Are you ever confused when you read a user manual for something like a new cell phone or mp3 player? You're not alone. One study found that 95 percent of returned products actually work fine. The problem was that their owners didn't understand how to get them started.

Writing good instructions is not as easy as it sounds. That's why many companies are turning to technical writers or communicators to create technical documents.

Technical communicators make technical information understandable to non-experts. Writing software manuals is a big part of their work. They also develop technical documents, training materials, online information systems, policies and procedures, multimedia presentations, and graphic designs.

Companies that use technical communicators include technology companies, software and hardware developers, environmental companies, banking and financial institutions, legal firms, architectural businesses, government, health and pharmaceutical companies, and electronic companies.

The Society for Technical Communication (STC) has members in almost 50 countries worldwide.

Mike Rosenblum is a technical communicator for a large international company. He writes hardware manuals. He has been a technical communicator for more than 30 years, usually working for hardware manufacturers.

"Basically, if you're an analytical person, you love solving problems, you love the art of communication, enjoy the clarity of communication -- it can be a career for a person like that," says Rosenblum.

According to the STC, technical communication is a broad category that includes the following professionals:

  • Technical writers
  • Information developers
  • Web designers
  • Documentation specialists
  • Technical editors
  • Technical illustrators
  • Technical translators

Technical communicators usually have a bachelor's or master's degree. Those degrees are in a wide variety of disciplines.

An STC survey found the most common academic backgrounds were English and technical communications. But almost half of the people working in this field had earned a different degree.

"Just getting any kind of a bachelor's degree demonstrates certain skills that you needed to have to get that degree, and that's really what companies are looking for," says Rosenblum. "They want to know that you can handle complexity, that you can handle ambiguity, things you're going to run into in everyday business."

Rosenblum believes it doesn't matter what type of degree you get.

"My boss has a philosophy degree," says Rosenblum. "I have a business degree. A lot of us have business degrees, some have electrical engineering degrees, and we all do basically the same work, and do it very well."

Although you can enter the field with any kind of degree, in recent years there have been more programs focused on technical writing. Jessie Channey is a graduate of one of those programs. She has a bachelor’s degree in technical communication.

“I always knew that writing was my strength,” says Channey. “Teachers in high school always complimented my writing skills and I knew that I had a strong interest in technology. So I started thinking, ‘How would I blend these two areas together?’ This ended up being the one area that really seemed to mesh with what I wanted.”

Channey works for a company that makes software applications for the oil and gas industry. She says strong demand for technical communicators is mainly in the software and oil and gas sectors.

“I think the most challenging part about technical communication is getting the right type of information from the subject matter experts,” says Channey.

“This is a key component of what technical writers do -- being an interface with the development staff or with engineers. You have to be able to understand information enough that you can make it mean something.

"But at the same time, while you’re busy collecting this highly technical information, you have to be able to communicate it to an audience that may not be as technical as the subject matter expert.

“So this is the challenge,” Channey continues. “This is probably what draws most technical writers into the field -- it’s challenging to figure out how to get from A to B, while still keeping the original message intact, then being clear to the consumer about what the product does.”

The key to getting from A to B is strong communication and research skills. Aspiring technical communicators should therefore hone their research skills, says Everett Larsen.

Larsen has been a technical communicator for more than 30 years as both an employee and independent contractor. He's now an independent technical editor for a major manufacturer of trains and business aircraft.

"So much of technical writing is not writing from scratch," explains Larsen. "You don't ever start with a blank sheet of paper. Never. There's always something out there -- it's specifications, it's an engineer's drawing, it's a marketing concept that they're trying to flesh out.

"There's some previous information about what you're trying to describe so somebody can use it," Larsen adds. "But you have to be able to research that, and be able to filter out what's good and what's not good, and so any research skills you can develop will be to the better."

Many companies are becoming more diverse. They are expanding into foreign markets. This creates a need for standardized technical documents. This is especially true if the company is hoping to be certified by the International Standards Organization (ISO). ISO is a network of companies all over the world that have agreed upon a standardized way of doing things.

"As far as niches go, niches are opening and closing all the time," says Larsen.

"Pharmaceuticals used to be fairly hot, and then we had an economic crisis, and the pharmaceuticals are merging and devouring each other and trying to manage their bottom line by getting bigger and laying people off at the same time. That's not that good anymore, though there's still work there.

"Biotechnology is still hot," Larsen adds. "There's still work there. There always will be work, I think, in both software and hardware documentation for technology, and also telecommunications. Telecommunications has a big appetite for this kind of stuff. They need to document what's going on with everything (such as mobile phones and satellite networks)."

Larsen says many opportunities for technical communicators are with industries that don't get a lot of attention. Like the rail industry, which his work involves. Another big area is the airline and aerospace industry.

"They have very rigorous requirements to document everything in standard English so anybody worldwide can safely repair an airplane so it won't fall out of the sky," says Larsen. "[There is] a lot of demand for that still. That's perhaps not as visible and fashionable as the latest iPod or the latest user manual for a flat screen TV or something."

Technology has also made it possible for technical communicators to telecommute (work from home). Deadlines, increasing workloads and bad weather make telecommuting desirable.

It is important for technical communicators to know how to use various software such as Adobe FrameMaker, Illustrator and Photoshop. An understanding of RoboHelp, software used for creating help files, would also be useful. And technical communicators must keep updating their skills as software requirements evolve. .

Larsen suggests young people interested in technical communication get as much writing practice as possible, and learn about whatever topics most interest them.

"If they're talking about [technical communication] at all, they have some kind of an interest in some aspect of technology," says Larsen. "They may like astronomy, they may like weather forecasting, they may like marine biology, they may like chemistry, or environmental research. All of that requires documentation too.

"What they should follow as a path, really, is [to do] as much writing as they can," Larsen adds. "Any kind of writing and journalism."


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