By Victoria (Vici) Koster-Lenhardt | STC Fellow
The Fanwood, New Jersey, police invited me to attend a town hall meeting about guns. It was 1982, and a child had been injured due to a gun in the home. I was the only stringer who was a resident of Fanwood for The Courier News, a Gannett regional newspaper. Being a resident was a requirement to attend the meeting. It was my first paid writing gig with a byline and the kickoff of my career as a communication professional.
Back then, I had to physically drive to the newspaper’s headquarters on Route 22 to write and file my story and speak with the night desk editor. It was a 30-minute drive. Now, in 2018, technology has come a long way in terms of filing a story, but the skills and resources used to create structured, fact-based, informative prose have remained the same.
Thirty-five years ago, the skills I learned studying journalism at New York University led to a writing job on an automotive magazine in Manhattan published by The Hearst Corporation. Later, those same skills enabled me to land a job with The Coca-Cola Company in Vienna, Austria, as a Senior Technical Writer. I also worked as a Documentation Department Manager, Public Affairs and Communications Lead for the company’s IT organization, Regional Software Trainer, Content Manager for the company’s new intranet, and a leader in rolling out cutting-edge technologies and customer experience methods globally for Coca-Cola. I led usability initiatives in the software development cycle in the mid-1990s, started an STC chapter and community in Europe, taught project management to newbie project managers, served as the first member of the STC Board of Directors who lived and worked outside North America, rolled out a pre-DITA enterprise-wide documentation transformation, and lived in Europe with the love of my life. Talk about a career with multiple deliverables!
Phase I: Identify the Goal
Like any project, my goals were clear in 1980: I wanted a career in publishing. When I moved to Vienna, Austria, in 1987, I envisioned a continuation of the career I had started in America. For me that meant working for an internationally known company, having growth opportunities, and living in a major, metropolitan city. That it would be challenging, as projects can be, wasn’t a barrier. As any good project manager knows, project management is all about managing the challenges so that they contribute to success instead of causing failure.
Phase II: Recognize Progress Made and Make Adjustments
Although I had made multiple career transitions at The Coca-Cola Company, the most significant was when I left the company in 2010 after 21 years of service. Working with a career coach, I learned first-hand to manage my career transition as a project. I had to take a different approach. This wasn’t anything “as simple” as expanding my role. I was embarking on a new phase of my life, and the only person who would find a job for me was me. With a couple of false starts—there are always things we plan that just don’t work out the way we expect—I finally settled into a new career in 2013.
Today, five years later, my business card reads “Job Search Strategist and Career Coach,” and I am now a consultant for the U.S. Department of State. Yet, I am still a communication professional at heart. I belong to a small demographic that has been able to find employment for the majority of my working life that fit with my college degree. Now, the work I do is based on the relevant skills I have honed and acquired along with my communication background.
Phase III: Discover the Key Learnings
There’s a saying in German: “Alter macht sehend.” Loosely translated, it means “with age we have a better view.” At a certain point in life, I began to see all that I was and realized that I could leverage all of my skills and experiences to do what I wanted. In career management, this translates into finding your transferrable skills. When I was asked to share my story for Intercom, I gave some serious thought to the transferrable skills that have brought me to this point in my career. Identifying key lessons is taking time to reflect on what’s worked and what hasn’t.
On a broader level, I thought about transferrable skills in the context of three areas:
- Transferrable skills of technical communicators.
- Colleagues, friends, and mentors who have made successful career transitions using their technical communication career as a jumping-off point.
- Opportunities for career choices in 2018.
Transferrable Skills of Technical Communicators
In the mid-1990s, Paula Berger, then the co-owner of Solutions, asked me to participate on her trends panel at the annual STC Technical Communication Summit & Expo. Participating on this panel were also Barb Giammona and Bogo Vatovec. The trends we talked about then are still valid today:
- Project and program management
- Tools and technology
- Writing and editing
Several years later, Jack Molisani and Andrea Ames joined the panel and contributed their own perspectives. For more than two decades, we’ve all continued to loop back on the importance of having skills in these areas. The only trends that change constantly are the tools and technologies. Once you have a technology project under your belt, however, you’re ready for any new technology that comes along. If you are fretting about artificial intelligence (AI) and Information 4.0, stop. You have what it takes to lead and lead well.
Successful Tech Comm Career Transitioners
When you begin to identify your skills and to unpack your experiences, you will find you have numerous transferable skills. For example, taking the same set of individuals who participated multiple times on Paula Berger’s Summit trends panel: tech comm skills led to writing a book (for Barbara); running a consulting business that supports companies transforming their businesses (for Bogo); managing diverse, global, technical writing teams (for Paula); planning conferences and events (for Jack); providing services that transform content teams through defining the right roles, establishing the right processes, and systematizing and modernizing (for Andrea); and career coaching (for me).
Career Opportunities in 2018
I attended the Social Media Marketing World Conference in 2013 with the intention of getting exposure to what felt like a parallel universe of the technical communication community. Conference speakers were talking about the importance of writing and editing skills to scrub the content of the sound of multiple content contributors. They were talking about content creation and understanding audiences. Nothing new. What was new: they were using skills that I had labeled as technical communication skills to create other types of communication. They were working in companies that allocated more money to their projects and departments than to the technical documentation projects.
One of the speakers who caught my attention was Mark W. Schaefer. He spoke at the 2018 conference in March about his new book, Known. I don’t know him personally, and I’m not plugging his book, but I think he is on to something, and I believe that technical communicators should pay attention. Mark’s research has shown that anyone can become known, even if they haven’t spent years becoming the expert. Think about that for a moment, and let the concept sink in. Allow for a shift in your thinking to take place. Then, consider what you want to be known for, and go for it. There’s still time to create the career you want. When you review your own key learnings, you will uncover ideas that will astonish and surprise you.
Phase IV: Start the Next Project with Clearer Goals and More Experience
Technical communicators have a foundation and mix of skills that can accelerate a journey to “being known” when a niche is identified. I witnessed this in my career after working in the international corporate world as a female manager in technology. I wanted to share my experiences. I thought I would do this through volunteering. Instead, I found paid employment coaching Americans living in Europe to find meaningful work. It also allowed me to serve my country after living abroad most of my life.
When friends and colleagues learned of my career transition and my new job in 2013, they said, “This is a perfect fit for you. How did you find it? Did they create the job for you?” There was no easy answer. On reflection, I realized I had managed my career transition like a project. I had defined the project goal of finding work that would allow me to give back and share my career experiences while having time for enjoying life with my husband. I then tried different approaches and adjusted as needed. Now, I review periodically what’s working and what’s not. Then I move forward onto the next project knowing that I’m getting better and better at managing my career.
VICTORIA (VICI) KOSTER-LENHARDT (firstname.lastname@example.org) provides job search and career coaching services to spouses of U.S. diplomats working in Central and Eastern Europe. She is an STC Fellow and lives in Vienna, Austria.