Nontechnical sectors employ technical writers

Nontechnical sectors do hire technical writing grads but contrary to the occupation’s name, high-tech workplaces should be the last place you apply.

Reason is that every company produces some form of technical communication. Currently, companies are keen to undertake knowledgebase and transformation projects. The path toward gainful employment follows a series of stepping stones.

So if you contribute to the HR Policy & Procedures manual you can transition from administrative to technical. If you formalize department plans or specifications you can transition to more technical gigs. If you’ve become a SharePoint whiz you can leap from permanent to independent work in IT. And for all the project coordinators out there, if you’ve been picked to orchestrate assignments, schedules and deadlines, then go for project management certification.

Here’s a chart showing what grads from selected Vancouver area schools are doing 10 years later.

A look at what 2004 Vancouver area grads are doing 10 years later

Author’s compilation of stats from LinkedIn

 

Fact-checking and ‘fake news’ land on the same page

Like millions of viewers, I tune in nightly to watch The Daily Show. Its edited segments let ‘authorities’ state the facts–as believed. Yes, the show provides a humorous bias on current events, but it rarely needs to regret an error in fact. Thank you, research team!

Old Farmer's Almanac

Fact-checking takes nothing for granted. Some questions researchers ask are: Is the issue covered from all aspects? Is the report current? Is it sponsored? Is the authority an author? An actor? Who has editorial control? 

In the age of digital media I wonder whether it’s more important to not get sued than to get it right.

Tablets are the new Swiss Army knife

checklistWow, everywhere you look it seems that electronic checklists are what industry uses to record data. When I took my car for servicing, the manager brought up my order on his tablet. We reviewed it and with the scrawl of my electronic signature the job was in motion. The dental hygienist can tap info on a conveniently mounted tablet but she prefers hands-free notation through audio instructions. Equipment managers roam the lot, tablet strapped to one hand while using the other to snap pictures, look up specifications or hold a Wi-Fi gauge. Utility crews carry packets of installation orders protected from the elements. Electronic checklists prove as easy for workers to adopt as they are for companies to distribute.

Drawn to War and Peace

I finished the 2167-page eBook version in about 100 days. About half the number of days it took Napoleon to advance toward and retreat from Moscow. I thought of the rich layers of data presented in the multi-flow map of Napoleon’s Russian campaign.

Napoleon's invasion of Russia

Napoleon’s invasion of Russia

While the Minard map uses geography and temperature as part of the visualization, Tolstoy uses descriptive details and analogy to bring the struggle to life. “The European system was already founded; all that remained was to organize it.” (p1456) Here are some favourite quotes that add another layer of data to the map.

On filling a role, “Our fire is mowing them down by the rows, but they hold on.” said the adjutant. “They want more! Let them have it!” said Napoleon. “And he fell back into that artificial realm of imaginary greatness, and again—as a horse walking a treadmill thinks it is doing something for itself—he submissively fulfilled the cruel, sad, gloomy, and inhumane role predestined for him.” (p1455)

On preparing to die. “What are you saying about the militia?” “Preparing for tomorrow, your Serene Highness—for death—they have put on clean shirts.” (p1366)

On describing vacated Moscow, “It was empty in the sense that a dying queenless hive is empty.” (p1557) Paragraphs go on about what happens in a disfunctional hive. It’s so vivid, you could substitute names of soldiers and generals for each bee carcass.

On losing nine-tenths of his men, “Ney, who came last, have been busying himself blowing up the walls of Smolensk which were in nobody’s way, because despite the unfortunate plight of the French or because of it, they wished to punish the floor against which they had hurt themselves.” (p1896)

On cutting off invaders, “One can cut off a slice of bread, but not an army.” In December as the French retreated, the Russian army “acted like a whip to a running animal. And the experienced driver knew it was better to hold the whip raised as a menace than to strike the running animal on the head.” (p1903-5)

On reoccupation, “Besides the plunderers, very various people, some drawn by curiosity, some by official duties, some by self-interest—house owners, clergy, officials of all kinds, tradesmen, artisans, and peasants—streamed into Moscow as blood flows to the heart.” (p1970)

Break ice

Break ice, pedal boat style

Break ice, pedal boat style


The topic presented at this month’s professional development meeting was how to make networking easy, or at least a bit easier for technical communicators. From the perspective of an IT practice leader, HR manger, and independent contractor the presenters guided the talk around three phases; breaking the ice, making the connection and following up.

Breaking the ice can be a creative process. I think it can work by verbalizing thoughtful observations. “I like your umbrella; nothing says dreary like the colour orange.”

Making the connection is overcoming a personal inhibition. It’s about starting a conversation and relating what you do. If your elevator pitch elicits dead air then it’s an opportunity to turn the conversation back to the listener. Who doesn’t like to talk about their day?

Following up is what gets you remembered. Don’t hesitate to send a link to an article to your new connection. Also reinforce why you want to network with that person. “I came for the free coffee. Who knew I’d meet the coffee roaster.”

If breaking the ice just got a bit easier come say Hi to me at the next Meetup.

Drive it like you stole it

Flooring it

My daily commute takes almost 3 hours by transit—my choice. For being heavy-duty, buses react when drivers floor it. They’re driving pros.

And I hardly notice the ride. I’m in the zone: read email, read enews, transfer, read eBook, transfer, answer email, reach destination, repeat. That is my routine until it’s interrupted.

The subject of this post is about a storyteller we’ll call ‘Con’. Con and his two buddies were on their way to test drive a long-haul truck. (Oh, the irony of travelling to a truck stop by city bus.) Concentration broken. I’m just another set of ears in his three-way conversation. How Con was going to afford the truck was called into question. He admitted being unable to save whether he made minimum wage or six figures. Details followed about stints selling real estate, flipping burgers and machining parts. Broke by payday, Con & buddies concurred—hand paycheque to wife and all’s good but I digress…

Over the engine noise, Con dismissed automatic transmissions—the model they would be test driving—as boring. But more important, there’s only one way to know if an automatic rig could make it up the Coquihalla Summit. Drive it like you stole it said the storyteller. Did the professional driving trio have some familiarity with grand theft auto? Their tale unfolded as a pleasant interruption from War and Peace.

Buried alive: the markings of subterranean infrastructure

Maybe you’ve noticed paint marks sprayed on pavement. If it’s not a style of graffiti chances are you’re looking at code for a buried utility line.

utility lines

public utility lines

Depending on the colour paint, the unseen conduit could be carrying sewage or drinking water. How do you know which? Well, it turns out, excavators know which lines lay beneath. There’s an international colour code for utility markings. (ANSI Standard Z53.1) Learning industry codes, parts and processes makes for another interesting day in the field of tech writing.

American Public Works Association color code

American Public Works Association color code

Mind the cap

Subway riders “Mind the gap”. Word lovers mind the cap, consistently. It’s just that capitalization rules can vary by style guide. We know the rules for proper nouns and proper names but not so much for eponyms, acronyms and initialisms. Here’s how various references cite capital letters.

  • 16th century
  • baby boomer
  • Bible, Torah, Qur’an
  • braille,  often capitalized
  • Caesarean section
  • Cajun music
  • diesel engine
  • dumpster
  • eBay
  • FOREX
  • Generation X
  • Grammy Award
  • Gypsy
  • iPod
  • k. d. lang,  except when first word in a sentence
  • medieval period
  • middle aged
  • Middle Ages
  • n/a – not applicable
  • Na – chemical symbol
  • Old Man Winter
  • Olympian
  • Petri dish
  • Phillips screw driver
  • Platonic solids
  • Q&A
  • single malt Scotch
  • T-shirt
  • the Sixties
  • the West Coast
  • thermos
  • x-coordinate

STC salary database uses NAICS standard

Finally, my professional organization has published the 2012-2013 salary database. I’m as excited as Steve Martin’s character exclaiming, “The new phonebook’s here! The new phonebook’s here!”

While the STC salary database reports on data collected about US technical communicators, it’s still useful to those of us living and working in Canada. The NAICS standard makes it easier for North American countries to compare business statistics.

Breaking it down

A two-digit NAICS code categorizes an entire economic sector such as Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation (71).
A three-digit code represents an industry subgroup such as Performing Arts, Spectator Sports, and Related Industries (711).
A four-digit NAICS code represents a specific industry such as Independent Artists, Writers, and Performers (7115).
Deeper breakdowns specify services (711510 Technical Writer, independent, 541930 Translation services, language) and specialties (511130 Technical manual publishers).

Interestingly, the salary database reports that translation services have maintained employment numbers. We technical writers have yet to recover jobs lost to the 2007-2009 recession. Not to panic though. We’ve gained jobs in these industries:

  • Architectural, Engineering Services
  • Business, Professional, Labor, Political Organizations
  • Employment Services
  • 
Engineering Services
  • Information Services
  • 
Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services
  • Semiconductor and Electronic Component Manufacturing
  • Testing Laboratories
  • Wholesale Electronic Markets and Agents and Brokers

Advantage Canada if you’re bilingual.

Be the flywheel

From time to time I’m asked to talk to groups about career exploration and career development. One thing I accept about longevity in any career is harnessing the energy that feeds it. I use the flywheel to represent that provider of continuous energy. Let me explain…

One’s journey might begin by envisioning an industry you want to work in or adopt as your role model.

To learn more, ask for an information interview. Treat it like a job interview. Gain a business connection from it. Get noticed by initiating ‘a first’, filling a deficiency and respecting connections. 
Along the way gain a body of knowledge and show authenticity while you plot a 3-year plan. As you gather momentum you will encounter conflict, friction, dead ends and deadwood. Anticipate these but keep focused on your 3-year plan. Build partnerships, credit others (blame yourself), pick great successors and remember to nurture talent.

Your accumulated effort pushed in a consistent direction will convert inertia to momentum.

Thanks to Jimmy Zimmerman for conceiving Good to Great animation, and thanks to Jim Collins for verbalizing the flywheel concept.