By Paul Duarte | STC Member
Millennials, also known as Generation Y, are the largest demographic in the United States. Born between 1980 and the mid-2000s, they represented one third of the U.S. population in 2013, according to a White House report (“15 Economic Facts About Millennials”). As they enter the workforce, they will shape all professions in different ways, including technical communication.
This article looks at how Millennials discovered technical communication, how their perceptions of it changed when they entered the workforce, the challenges they face in the workforce, who helped them in their careers the most, how they see themselves as technical communicators, and advice they have for other Millennials. Their perspectives in this article aim to give an overall view of how the next generation sees the technical communication profession and how interested students or young professionals can adapt to it.
Discovering the Profession
Several of the Millennials interviewed for this article discovered technical writing as a way to combine many of their talents and passions. Nikhila Vijaybhaskar, originally from India, now working as a documentation and instruction specialist in Cambridge, MA, said technical writing was a profession where she could combine her engineering education with one of her lifelong passions:
“Ever since I was a child, I’ve been really into learning languages. I think I can speak 4 languages fluently-three of them are Indian languages, and I can read and write in those languages. So I was just looking for a way where I can combine my technical expertise with a job where I can write. Several Google searches later, I said, ‘Oh, I want to do technical writing, I want to go to school for it.’”
Other Millennials fell into it by chance, like Greta Boller, who works as a contract technical writer in the Greater Washington, DC area:
“I posted my résumé to the University of Maryland’s job board and went through and clicked the areas of interest. I heard about technical writing through the grapevine very vaguely, but I clicked it anyway. Sure enough, the company found me and offered me the internship right off the bat and so once I started working, I started loving it, and it just never left.”
The Millennials who found technical communication were curious when they first heard about it through a job search, a colleague, or a friend. Once they discovered they could use the writing skills they honed in their education or other pursuits, they found they could use them in a very challenging, yet rewarding career.
New Perceptions of the Profession and Workplace
Many Millennials are starting to enter the workforce, so they are not too far removed from their studies. Some are still studying in college for their Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees, while others are making a career change. Internships are a good stepping stone to learning about the workplace. Often their perceptions of technical communication changed and that influenced their careers. Leah Catania, a professional writing graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said:
“I didn’t know a whole lot about it [the profession] before I jumped feet-first into it. I kind of just assumed that I’d be writing dry technical manuals, and that was kind of it. But as I started studying it and getting into the profession, everything is much more than that.”
Leah had a technical writing internship at Oracle in Bedford, MA, this past summer. She had to learn how to work in areas she did not have experience in before.
“The writing was what I expected, but we’re also working on videos, and that was something I did not expect to really have any experience in or doing when I got there. We learned how to write scripts, we learned how to use Adobe Captivate, they’re all screen capture videos of software programs. We were developing style guides for the videos, we were working with UX teams and graphic designers to come up with those styles, which was definitely different, not what I was expecting.”
These were just some of the initial challenges Millennials had to overcome as they adapted to the workforce.
Facing New Challenges
Steve Jong, a technical writer with more than 30 years of experience, says that Millennials have many challenges to face as they enter the profession: offshoring of positions, the downsizing of technical publication departments, the closing of apprenticeships. But he is confident that Millennials will overcome these structural and economic challenges. “Is the incoming workforce better suited to face those challenges? That’s a great question,” Jong said.
“I think they are, because of their from-birth exposure to computers and the Web and their specialized education. Clear communication will be a top skill for the foreseeable future. The Millennials I have worked with tend to be fast and self-confident. They are always connected, always communicating…. the Millennials I know tend to think more in terms of making things better, and doing it in groups. (I’ve seen what Kickstarter can do.) Many people working together, and many allied groups coming together, can accomplish great things.”
But there are some issues that affect Millennials’ ability to land their first position in the profession. One of them is access to some of the big-name software packages, like Adobe Technical Communication Suite or MadCap Flare, as Greta Boller explains:
“[Employers] are expecting a level of experience with software products that you never heard of, let alone touched as a student. It’s very rare to use MadCap or the Adobe products in a schooling environment. So you have to land that (private sector) position and learn it or take a class to keep up with the requirements of the position nowadays.
It’s more of an employer problem, although schools are behind the curve, too. At the University of Maryland, technical writing was writing cover letters and résumés, it wasn’t actually about technical writing. … Once schools realize products like MadCap aren’t going away and that students need to learn them, that’s when they will come into play. But employers need to give their employees the benefit of the doubt. We can learn technology, that’s the whole point of the profession, so we can catch onto things quickly, and learn to use it. So until they [employers] can give them [new employees] a way [to learn], we’re in a bind.”
Different Preferences in Working Environments
While Millennials may seem to be largely team-oriented and collaborative, there are others who enjoy working as lone writers, like Steven Winnefield, who works as a technical writer in the Greater Houston area. “I much prefer being a lone writer,” said Winnefield, who has worked in the field for 13 years.
“[B]eing a lone writer gives me the me opportunities to find ways I can contribute my tech comm skills to all sorts of stuff. I started out in my current position as just the technical writer creating user guides and such. Now I’m actually a full member of the Marketing Department, writing all of our marketing communication, in addition to my technical/user guide writing duties.”
In addition to a divide between lone writers and groups, some Millennials like working for large companies, while others prefer small ones. The reason? It depends on their priorities in what they want out of their jobs.
Magella Honeyfield, a student at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, said she prefers to work in a small company because she likes the close relationships with other employees. However, Nikhila Vijaybhaskar says she prefers to work in larger environments. She says that it encourages her to make new connections and seek people out who can later help her on a project she works on, or she can help them on a project.
Millennials owe a great debt to mentor figures in their lives. They gave the next generation of technical writer skills and knowledge that helped them discover their talents in the profession and an ability to excel professionally.
Many Millennials thank a teacher or professor for helping them discover the profession or change their work habits for the better, like Magella Honeyfield:
“Yes, Dr. Durao. She is phenomenal. Every time, she was just so straightforward with me. I think her honesty and her bluntness gave me the reality check that you can’t just throw things together, you need to take the time to put effort into it. She said to take the time you need to do projects and don’t slap them together at the last minute. Her classes are hard and time-consuming, but I learned more from her than any other teacher as a student.”
Others, like Steven Winnefield, thank mentors they met on the job, who gave them the skills and working style they could take with them in their careers.
“The editors in my first job held small training sessions for the new technical writers on grammar, how to adhere to the style guide, resolving common writing problems, etc. That was a huge help…. I’m glad I received that training, because if I started out as a lone writer, I think it’d be much more difficult. Since then in subsequent positions, I usually end up finding a mentor figure of some sort, who helps me find the ropes of each company or department, since I think just about every company’s culture is different, and it’s important to understand that culture in order to be successful.”
A Technical Writer Is…
When asked to describe themselves as a technical writer in one word, Millennials had different terms to define themselves. Their descriptions reflect their passions and work priorities.
“[A] volunteer. I want to lend my skills to anyone and any project I can. I’ve offered to edit 300 page documents, all the way down to offering to proofread emails. I believe in optimizing your company’s image as much as possible through its communication in all forms, and again I just love to learn new stuff,” says Steven Winnefield.
“Thorough…. When I enter an office, I have an adjustment period where I evaluate what an office already has—what they’re doing without knowing it. What templates are they using, and they don’t realize that they’re templates. What knowledge management they’re using, even if they don’t realize it’s knowledge management. Then I build the programs from the ground up … that’s what I enjoy doing. I make sure that from minute one, there’s an answer to a documentation question,” says Greta Boller.
“Flexible. I had to be flexible in every project in the 14 months I’ve been with the company because things change.… And working in Corporate America, you’re going to encounter a lot of personalities there, and you have to understand you have to look through their personality and that person is great at their job and that’s why they were hired by the company.… you have to be flexible with their time, your understanding, and you have to be able to run with it,” says Nikhila Vijaybhaskar.
A Boomer’s Confidence in Millennials Evolving the Profession
Steve Jong mentors new technical communicators in STC’s New England chapter. He is a firm believer in Baby Boomers and other experienced technical writers handing off their “tribal knowledge” to the next generation so that they have a solid foundation on which to not only build their careers, but also to use their skills to move the profession forward and evolve it in the twenty-first century, as technology changes and people are even more reliant on technical communication. Steve says:
“I think Millennials will shape the profession by redefining it from technical communication to something embracing all modes of communication without preconceptions (not being book bound). They will decide what to do with information in the cloud and with presenting information as augmented reality. (Who knew the killer app would be Pokémon Go?) They will realize what can be done, not with enclaves in a few countries, but with fully interconnected global teams. In fact, by explaining technology, by helping people accomplish their goals, and by showing users how to make effective use of products, I think Millennial technical communicators will make the world a better place.”
15 Economic Facts About Millennials. The Council of Economic Advisers. October 2014, https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/millennials_report.pdf.
Van Laan, K. The Insider’s Guide to Technical Writing. Laguna Hills, CA: XML Press, 2012.
PAUL DUARTE (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior-level technical writer who works in the Greater Boston area. He has a Master of Arts in Professional Writing from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and serves on the STC New England Chapter council, with an interest in reaching out to students of technical communication and bringing them into the profession.