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Career Technical Writing

Software technical writing is a dying career (but here’s what writers can do to stay in the software game)

By Jim Grey (about)

I had lunch recently with a fellow I worked for several years ago. He gave me my last job as a technical writer and my first job as a software tester. He’s currently leading product development at a different software company. “Times have changed,” he said. “I don’t have any technical writers anymore. These days, I want the UX to be good enough that documentation isn’t needed.”

A few days later I had a drink with another former boss. I managed testers and technical writers while I worked for him. Since then, he’s started his own consulting company. “Technical writing is dying off,” he said. “It’s all about clean, engaging UX now. I have talked to more than a hundred startup and small software companies as I’ve built my business. Almost none of them have technical writers, and almost all of them have UX designers.”

Wild
Smart tech writers see the writing on the wall.

It’s clear: companies are leaning into good user-interface design and stepping away from online Help systems and printed/PDF documentation.

It’s a relief. Nobody wants to have to read something to learn how to use a software product. When usage falls right to hand, users are happier and more likely to use the product more. Good UX really can reduce the documentation burden.

My last company had mighty good UI design. One technical writer worked for me, and she kept up with about ten developers. In past companies with lesser UIs, I needed one writer for every four or five developers. It took more words to explain those products’ cumbersome usage.

Admittedly, the latent technical writer in me wants to holler, “Users need instructions for even the best designed products!” Some interactions are incredibly hard to design well enough to forego usage instructions. And users will always need usage reminders for seldom-executed tasks.

But the writing is on the wall. If you’re not finding fewer technical writing job openings yet, you will soon. Fortunately, your skills transfer to other jobs in software development organizations. You will need to build some new skills for many of these jobs, but you might be able to land that first new job without them and build them as you work.

Tester or quality assurance engineer

Testers explore software systems looking for bugs. In some shops, they write and execute detailed test cases; in others, they explore based on high-level test charters. The goal is to report, usually by writing bug reports, on the level of quality the developers have delivered so that decisions can be made about when to ship.

Technical writers routinely find product bugs. At my last company, my lone writer routinely found really important bugs. The VP of Engineering even noticed: “She finds outstanding bugs,” he said. “It must be because she thinks like a user.”

When I shifted into testing 15 years ago, I designed my tests in much the same way I designed online help: by first asking what tasks users would perform in the system. Then I set about making sure those tasks worked. You can do this too. You’ll have plenty more to learn about testing, but this is a great place to start.

Existing skills you will use: Creating and articulating mental models of software systems. Exploring software to discover how it works. A basic understanding of how software is built and delivered. Writing.

But build these skills: Database skills, especially writing queries. Light coding or scripting, to help you automate tests. System administration, to help you better understand and manipulate the environments the software lives in. (Don’t be daunted. I’ve seen many writers surprise themselves when they quickly start to learn these things. It’s as if they soaked up technical abilities by osmosis, just by being around lots of people who have them.)

Product owner, product manager, or business analyst

All of these jobs involve understanding customer needs and translating them into user stories, specifications, or requirements that the developers and testers use to build software. They may involve building a vision for what a product needs to be to meet its market’s needs. These people usually work closely with developers and testers to make sure the vision is realized, and to resolve implementation challenges.

Existing skills you will use: Understanding of customer needs. Creating and articulating mental models of software systems (though, in this case, often systems that have not been built yet). Writing. A basic understanding of how software is built and delivered.

But build these skills: Negotiation, as you might need to manage expectations of customers, the development team, and sometimes even management. Estimation and project management, as you might have to participate in sizing work and projecting delivery dates.

Various UX roles

The UX field includes a number of jobs that, together, create the way the software works and feels for the user. Typical titles include UX Designer, Information Architect, Visual Designer, Interaction Designer, and Content Specialist. These roles involve work such as creating wireframes of screens, designing user workflows, performing usability testing of prototypes, interviewing users and sometimes even shadowing them as they work, writing field labels and error messages, and choosing typography.

This might seem like a real stretch for a technical writer. But my experience is that writers often have innate insight into bad UX: if it’s hard to write about, then it’s hard to use. I find that technical writers can often extemporaneously evaluate product usability and give very useful ideas on how to improve UX.

Existing skills you will use: Interviewing. Understanding of customer needs. Creating and articulating mental models of software systems. Writing.

But build these skills: This depends heavily on the role, but: Design, in general. Graphic design. Usability testing. Prototyping.

These jobs crackle with career growth. But if you’d rather stay true to writing, you can shift into marketing communications, instructional design, or even good old-fashioned business writing (policies and procedures, disaster recovery plans, and the like). My town’s biggest employer is a pharmaceutical manufacturer; lots of software writers here have shifted into validation writing, which is an FDA compliance activity. You might even be able to move into writing technology articles and books; I’ve done a little of that. And some software technical writing jobs will likely always remain in regulated industries, and on government contracts, and for highly technical products.

Nostalgia for my former technical-writing career makes this a sad passage for me. But I think this trend toward effective UX is better for the user, and gives writers good paths for growth.

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Career

Renewing the network

By Jim Grey (about)

I had lunch with a favorite colleague recently, someone I worked with several years ago and think the world of. She’s among the best at what she does, and is fun and warm and genuine while she does it. I’d work with her again in a heartbeat.

She moved here from elsewhere to take her current job, and finds herself wishing to be better connected in our city’s software industry. So she has been talking to everybody she knows to find out who the movers and shakers are, and try to get introductions to them.

Angel lighting the way
She met angel investors – not this kind.

She ran through the litany of people she has met and wanted to meet, a dozen names or more. We were both astonished that I had worked at some point with all but one of them, most of them as they were on their way up to enormous success. It made me realize I may have let something valuable slip through my fingers.

I told her funny stories about some of these people. One fellow owned a software company where I was a first-level manager. He was a veteran bathroom talker — you’d be standing there draining the tank and he’d come up next to you and start a conversation. And it wasn’t always small talk. You could end up making important business decisions right there at the urinals. Men everywhere know that this breaks the Guy Bathroom Code: no eye contact and absolutely no talking. In, out, move on. But not this CEO.

He sold his company and started a venture capital firm. Through his investments sits on the board of pretty much every growing software company in town. I hadn’t seen him in four or five years when he spotted me in a restaurant last year and came over to say hello. And my colleague said he was hard to meet because he’s so sought after.

I’ve worked with scores of people in my 25-year career, but keep up with just a handful. If I used to work with you and sometimes meet you for lunch, you’re not just a colleague, but a friend.

But lunch with this friend and colleague made me realize that I am very well connected — and I’ve let those connections languish. It’s a shame not only because these people might help me into a better gig someday, but primarily because they’re interesting people who do big things.

When I worked with many of them, there was no way to know that they would do so well. Most people I’ve worked with have not risen so far, actually; most of them are still writing code, or testing, or writing documentation, or leading teams. But so many of them are interesting, too.

But I’m an introvert of working-class roots — a fellow who prefers to keep to himself and let his work speak for itself. At least that’s what I tell myself so I don’t feel so bad about not reaching out to the good people I know. But if I could go back to the beginning of my career and give myself one piece of advice, it would be to not lose contact with the people I enjoyed or admired.

Fortunately, even though a quarter century has slipped by, it’s not too late to start now. I can reach out to people I’ve worked with recently, and rekindle some long-ago connections. I’d like to build a habit of keeping in touch. Maybe I’ll be able to help someone along in their career, or maybe someone will help me along in mine. If not, simply catching up and swapping stories will be ample reward.

Categories
Career

Twenty-five years in the software salt mines

By Jim Grey (about)

Tomorrow it will have been 25 years since I started my career in the software industry.

It might seem odd that I remember the day only until you know that I started work on Monday, July 3, 1989, making my second day a paid holiday. The office was nearly deserted on my first day. My boss regretted not having me start on July 5 so he could have had an extra-long weekend too.

I was 21 years old when I joined that little software company in Terre Haute. I’m 46 now. I have worked more than half my life in and around the software industry.

taught myself how to write computer programs when I was 15. When I was 16, my math teacher saw some of my programs and praised my work. He encouraged me to pursue software development as a career. He began to tell me about this tough engineering school in Terre Haute.

I graduated from that tough engineering school hoping to find work as a programmer. Jobs were hard to come by that year, so when a software company wanted to hire me as a technical writer I was thrilled just to work. And then it turned out I had a real knack for explaining software to people. I did it for twelve years, including a brief stint in technology publishing and five years managing writers.

I then returned to my technical roots, testing software and managing software testers. I learned to write automated functional and performance tests – code that tests code – and it has taken me places in my career that I could never have imagined.

Office
My office at one of my career stops

I’ve worked for eight companies in 25 years. The longest I’ve stayed anywhere is five years. I left one company in which I was a poor fit after just 14 months. I’ve moved on voluntarily seven times, was laid off once, and was fired and un-fired once (which is quite a story; read it here). Changing jobs this often isn’t unusual in this industry and has given me rich experience I couldn’t have gained by staying with one company all this time.

I’ve worked on software that managed telephone networks, helped media buyers place advertising, helped manufacturers manage their business, run Medicare call centers, helped small banks make more money, enabled very large companies to more effectively market their products, and gave various medical verticals insight so they can improve their operations and their business.

Some of these companies were private and others were public; so far, I’ve liked private companies better. Some of them made lots of money, some of them had good and bad years, and one of them folded. Some of them were well run and others had cheats and liars at the helm. Some were very difficult places to work, but those were crucibles in which I learned the most. Others have brought successes beyond anything I could have hoped for a quarter century ago.

I did, however, hope for a good, long run in this industry, and I got it. But I’m also having a hard time envisioning another 25 years. It’s not just because I’d be 71 then. I really like to work, and – right now at least – I plan to do so for as long as I am able. But I’m starting to have trouble imagining what mountains I might yet climb in this career. Maybe that’s part of reaching middle age – indeed, many of my similarly aged colleagues, some with careers far beyond mine, have gone into other lines of work. I’m still having a lot of fun making software, though. I currently manage six software testers, one test-automation and performance-test developer, and one technical writer. I get to bring all of my experience to bear, and encourage my teams to reach and grow. I don’t want to stop just yet.


If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s an update of an eariler post. Cross-posted to my personal blog, Down the Road.

Categories
Career Managing People Teambuilding

I believe in “A teams” over “A players”

By Jim Grey (about)

I’ve heard it again and again at work. “We need to hire a real A player for this job, a total rock star.”

crayolaqa
A test team I once belonged to, dressed as crayons for Halloween. I’m the gray crayon, natch. Our colorful dunce caps do not mean we weren’t A players!

This statement usually comes at a time some critical task or function isn’t being done well (or at all) and it’s causing projects to fail. “If we can just bring in a super-skilled specialist,” the thinking goes, “it would solve all of our problems!”

Sometimes this gets stretched into a one-size-fits-all approach to hiring. “Let’s hire only A players,” someone proclaims, “and then get out of their way and let them perform.”

No doubt about it: A players are extremely talented and deeply experienced. They are heavily self-motivated and especially hardworking. They are creative problem solvers who focus on getting the job done.

But don’t assume that putting A players on the job is like sprinkling magic fairy dust that makes problems go away. That’s setting them up to fail – and setting your company up to fail, too. Companies are much better served building high-performing teams.

A players are no substitute for leadership. The most important step in that leadership is to help your people form solid teams. I’ve been in software-company leadership roles for more than 15 years now. I’ve delivered many, many successful software projects with teams made mostly of B players. But those successes came after company leadership:

  • Created a shared, common vision that everybody rallied around and focused on
  • Built a process framework within which team members worked, which set standards for workflow, quality, and completion
  • Praised and rewarded team members for jobs well done
  • Hired for fit within the company culture, as well as for skill

A players are hard to find. A reason why I often hire B players is because most people aren’t A players. I’d say less than one in ten people I’ve ever worked with are that good. I make software in Indianapolis, which we sometimes call the Silicon Cornfield. Many of the truly outstanding geeks move to California, North Carolina, or Texas, where the opportunities are greater. But even in those places, there are only so many A players to go around. Sooner or later you have to hire B players too. Those B players will work best under strong leadership and in highly functioning teams.

A players often have the biggest egos. A little swagger is part of the A-player territory. If you don’t lead well and help them gel into a team, conflicting egos will put your projects at risk.

A long time ago I followed rec.music, a once-popular Internet forum about music. In a recurring discussion thread, members wrote about which musicians they’d put in the best supergroup ever. The debate raged – Eric Clapton on guitar, and Neil Peart on the drums, and Paul McCartney on bass, … no no, Phil Collins on drums and Jeff Beck on guitar! …no! It must be John Paul Jones on bass!

It was fun to fantasize about such things. But do you really think a band with some of the biggest egos in music would gel? I’m reminded of We Are the World, the 1985 charity song recorded by a supergroup of pretty much every popular musician of the time. The famous story goes that someone taped a sign that read, “Check Your Egos At the Door” on the recording-studio entrance – but that didn’t stop arguments over many of the recording’s details, with at least one musician walking out and not returning.

Don’t let that be your team.

Still, A players can be mighty useful. There are times when it’s right to hire A players. Here are the times when I’ve settled for no less than an A player:

  • Lead roles – I needed someone to figure out some thorny problems, and to set the pace and point the way for the team.
  • Lone wolves – I needed someone for a highly specialized job where I was unlikely to need more people in that role for a long time, especially a role where I lacked the skills to do it myself and therefore would have a hard time managing its details.

Really, I’ve never not hired an A player just because he or she was an A player. Who wouldn’t want their skill and determination on the team? I’ve only passed on A players when they would be a poor cultural fit in my company and in my team.