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Stay Flexible to Stay Employed

By Erin Friday | STC Member

Employment is certainly preferred over the inverse, and staying flexible and accepting new tasks in addition to your regular technical communication work can help you grow your skills and career as well. After 14 years of writing technical documentation for software, I’ve seen many technical communicators come and go (myself included), and I found that taking the initiative and being a team player and a leader by volunteering for, and accepting, new and additional tasks will help you to improve your deliverables, stay relevant in the company, get promoted, and ensure that you remain employed.

For example, I once worked for a large government contracting company on-site at a government agency. As is fairly common practice in the government, the budget was cut, and the three contract technical communicators (including myself) were the first on the chopping block. Because I constantly asked to do more outside of technical communication, I was transferred to another division as a Business Analyst. My two colleagues, who refused to perform any tasks outside of technical communication, were unceremoniously let go. I directly attribute this turn of events to my flexibility.

Sometimes I’m asked by a manager or project manager to work on new tasks, and other times I must seek them out. Because technical communicators have so many transferable skills (excellent verbal and written communication skills, understanding of the user experience, attention to detail, etc.), it’s logical that managers would look to us for additional tasks, such as:

  • Gathering requirements
  • Testing software
  • Leading projects as project managers and scrum masters
  • Managing Web content
  • Writing standard operating procedures (SOPs)
  • Working the help desk
  • Training users
  • Editing all user communications, including emails and marketing materials
Additional Tasks Using Existing Skills

The tasks listed above require knowledge and training to perfect, but any technical communicator can easily pick up that knowledge using existing skills. The sections below describe the required skill sets and the benefits acquired in accepting these tasks.

Gathering Requirements

You will need verbal communication skills, written communication skills, organizational skills, an understanding of the user experience, ability to interview subject matter experts (SMEs), attention to detail, initiative, and critical thinking skills.

Gathering requirements involves interviewing SMEs (in this case, the client), organizing the information that specifies what they need, and communicating that to the rest of the team. Free tools are available online to help you write and organize the information, such as use cases and product requirements documents (PRDs), so all you need to get started is to set up and lead a meeting with the client.

By agreeing to this task, you learn the business rules and purpose of requirements directly from the client, which benefits your knowledge about the product and your end-user deliverables. Interreacting with clients typically includes upper management, and getting more exposure to upper management can benefit you in the long run.

Testing Software

You will need written communication skills, an understanding of the user experience, attention to detail, knowledge about the product, and critical thinking skills.

Testing software involves creating procedures (test cases) for what you plan to test, executing the procedures, and then reporting the results. You must communicate with business analysts to understand the requirements and with developers to resolve any failed tests.

When testing software, you learn detailed information about the software and develop relationships with business analysts, developers, and testers who can help improve your documentation.

Leading Projects

You will need verbal communication skills, written communication skills, organizational skills, time management skills, problem-solving skills, initiative, critical thinking skills, and leadership skills.

Leading projects, either as a project manager or a scrum master, requires initiative, planning, and managing tasks, times, and people. Critical thinking is a must to help the team overcome impediments and to help the project succeed by achieving the goals on schedule.

While managing projects, you gain experience leading a team, which can easily lead to a higher position and salary. While it is tough to juggle this task in addition to your regular technical communication tasks, I can attest that it can be done, and it can even help your documentation’s content and breadth. By understanding all areas of the lifecycle process and interacting with all members of the team as a project leader, you can identify holes where additional documentation is needed and ensure that documentation and SME review tasks are included in the project plan appropriately.

Managing Web Content

You will need written communication skills, organizational skills, an understanding of the user experience, and attention to detail.

Managing Web content can take many forms, including writing and maintaining a website’s verbiage, error messages, reports, document library, etc. I encourage all technical communicators to take the initiative and request to perform this task, as our skills can help ensure the best product. With our help, the content of a website can be grammatically correct, consistent, and efficient, which ensures the website is professional and helpful.

In addition to providing an exceptional product, accepting this task helps you to learn more about the website’s functionality, which in turn helps your deliverables.

Writing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)

You will need verbal communication skills, written communication skills, organizational skills, ability to interview SMEs, attention to detail, knowledge about internal roles and processes, problem-solving skills, and initiative.

Writing SOPs involves interviewing SMEs about a specific process, documenting it, sending it out for review, and ensuring it is distributed and implemented. The creation process is similar to creating end user documentation, except the audience is typically your internal team.

Documentation can typically be forgotten in a process, so participating in writing SOPs can ensure documentation is included in every process. Depending on the SOP needed, you may work with upper management, project managers, etc., to help create the document. As I mentioned previously, getting more exposure to upper management can benefit you in the long run.

Working the Help Desk

You will need verbal communication skills, written communication skills, organizational skills, understanding of the user experience, knowledge about the product, problem-solving skills, initiative, critical thinking skills, and leadership skills.

Working the help desk involves answering calls or emails from users about the product. Each call/email must be logged with a detailed description and followed up on in a timely manner. You must have the leadership skills to triage a call/email, contact the appropriate SME, and escalate it when necessary to resolve the issue.

You learn first-hand about how users use the product and the issues they face while working the help desk. You can include the solutions to these issues in your user guides, FAQs, online help, etc. Your users may be the public, but they may also be your customer or client, and getting positive feedback from the client can benefit you and your career.

Training Users

You will need verbal communication skills, written communication skills, organizational skills, an understanding of the user experience, knowledge about the product, initiative, critical thinking skills, and leadership skills.

Training users involves researching functionality and best practices, creating a training plan, creating a presentation, and then presenting it. Typically, you will prepare and present the training by yourself, so being a self-starter and having strong leadership qualities is extremely helpful.

You can learn more information about the product’s functionality and receive feedback directly from users while training them, which in turn helps your other deliverables. Also, you will be presenting to users, which could include your customer or client, and getting positive feedback from the client can benefit you and your career.

Editing All User Communications

You will need written communication skills, attention to detail, knowledge about the product, and editing skills.

User communication can mean bulk emails/e-blasts, marketing materials, newsletters, social media messages, etc. Typically, the writers of these materials will also edit them, but a technical communicator’s editing skills are typically more advanced.

User communication deliverables are typically short, and editing them requires very little commitment. Helping with this task is beneficial, because these communications are visible to users and clients, and any communications with clients can get you visibility with upper management.

Pros and Cons

The pros of accepting additional tasks outside of technical communication far outweigh the cons. By accepting additional tasks, you can (among other things):

  • Learn new skills
  • Get more facetime with clients and upper management
  • Develop your leadership qualities

If a promotion into management is part of your plan, then accepting the appropriate additional tasks can set you on that path.

The downside of accepting additional tasks includes time spent away from your main work and the potential of you not succeeding in an additional role. The consequences of not accepting new tasks can be dire and may result in not being promoted or even losing your job. The best way to retain your job security is to remain relevant and be an integral part of the team; this is something that can be easily accomplished by being a team player and accepting additional tasks, whether they are part of your normal job or not.

Conclusion

You don’t have to learn new skills, take training courses, or change careers to be a flexible team player. You can show management that you are a team player and a leader by being flexible and accepting new tasks that use the skills you already possess. If you aren’t given opportunities to accept new tasks, then volunteer in meetings if opportunities for new tasks arise, inform your manager that you’re open to new tasks, or talk to your project manager about any pain points or gaps with which you can help.

In my experience, being flexible and embracing these tasks has enabled me to learn new skills and look and feel like a team player. My colleagues who refused to perform tasks outside of standard technical communication duties were often passed over for promotions or let go during resource cutting. Flexibility is key to job security and to becoming a better technical communicator.

ERIN FRIDAY (efriday@rti.org) is a Research IT Documentation Specialist at RTI International in Durham, North Carolina. She started her career in Washington, DC, working in both the private and public sectors for 12 years before moving to North Carolina several years ago. She has spent her career writing technical documentation for software, and frequently performs other roles, such as Requirements Analyst, Tester, and Scrum Master. She currently resides in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband and their dog, Watson.

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