Features January/February 2024

Academic and Practitioner Perspectives on Training and Development for Technical Communication

An interview that highlights how academics and practitioners can each complement and challenge the other to develop professionally.

By Guiseppe Getto, Member and Christina Mayr, Associate Fellow

When asked to participate in this special issue of Intercom, we wanted to try something fun. We had already collaborated together in many ways: successive turns as president of the STC Carolina chapter, co-instructors of the “So You Want to Be a Technical Writer” online course, and co-authors of a previous article for Intercom about information design. Maybe it was due to the inescapable election season, but we had an idea to make this article like one of those interviews where a Democrat and a Republican talk about the issues but also how they work across the table and are still friends.

We recorded a podcast-style interview hosted by the guest editors of this issue, in which we answer a series of questions about training and development from the perspectives of an academic researcher (Guiseppe Getto, GG) and an industry practitioner (Christina Mayr, CM). Then, the editors revised for clarity and conciseness to turn the discussion into an article that compares and contrasts—as well as encourages you to think about—how research and practice can inform your professional development journeys in technical communication.

Can you describe what you think a typical (academic/practitioner) approach to training and professional development looks like?

CM: In my experience, many managers don’t actively engage in their employees’ professional development. They typically let employees pull together their own resources, such as conferences, webinars, presentations, blogs, articles, and books, as long as it loosely aligns with their job and goals.

I take a slightly different approach. My employees still plan out their own professional development. Along the way, I provide guidance by discussing their preferences and aspirations, and take a more active role in aligning those with the right resources. While I largely leave the decisions to them, I offer consultation and coaching to introduce them to new opportunities.

For instance, one employee showed a knack for interface design, so I encouraged her to explore UI/UX, complementing her skills and interests. Similarly, another employee wanted to be a program manager more than a technical writer. Instead of dissuading or trying to sneak project management into his writing responsibilities, I put him in charge of conducting Scrums and implementing Agile development practices. Sometimes a nudge in the right direction is not only what your coworkers need, but what you can give if you take the time to get to know their skills and interests.

Another way to develop is through practical demonstrations. For example, you might have a job shadowing, where you share how you do a specific task. These demos are not just formal training sessions that try to cover how to use an entire product. Instead, they are task-driven, such as “this is how you use this DITA tag,” or “this is how we apply styles.” This hands-on approach assists them in learning and improving, but is not always common. Many managers tend to be more hands-off.

GG: In academia, our post-PhD professional development is driven primarily by two factors: our students and research pursuits. As faculty, we often need to adapt to new teaching demands. For instance, I was given an instructional design master’s course, an area I hadn’t previously taught. Adapting is common among academic tech comm professionals, as we’re expected to excel in various subjects like technical writing and content strategy.

On the research front, we have to display a similar versatility to explore a broad range of communication-related topics. Our options encompass studying fellow researchers’ work, participating in conferences to learn from peers, and publishing in academic journals. Ideally, teaching and research complement each other, though sometimes they diverge. While I specialize in UX and content strategy, I’ve taught technical writing, business writing, and first-year composition—so adapting to the program’s needs is essential.

What do you think your top challenges in training and professional development are?

CM: Just keeping up is crucial. Technical writing might evolve more steadily than other disciplines, but new tools and methods emerge constantly, often from recent advancements like AI and are shared through both traditional and non-traditional platforms like conferences, LinkedIn posts, or Slack threads. The challenge lies in absorbing and adapting to these shifts, avoiding complacency, and embracing change. Many remain attached to traditional approaches, resistant to new methodologies that may seem challenging or lack perceived value. Guiding people to evolve with the industry is a major hurdle. As Guiseppe mentioned, technical writers are remarkably versatile, skilled in various areas from UX to project management. We’ve got all of these tentacles, and it can be hard to focus and become an expert in just one of those areas.

GG: Yes, I agree with keeping up. In academia, though, the motive is a little different. We have to keep up with the ever-changing entry-level job demands of the field because that is what our students need to know to go out and be technical writers, instructional designers, or UX writers. Our faculty must navigate guiding them, illustrating what each role requires. This is complex, given that these requirements vary based on the companies and even people who write the job postings. Since many of us in the faculty are not full-time practitioners, we rely on staying informed through methods like research, alumni engagement, collaborating with practitioners, or even being consultants ourselves. Such methods enable us to provide relevant instruction and set realistic expectations for our students.

CM: I want to add on to what Guiseppe just said. I think it’s interesting that he and I have similar trajectories yet opposite problems. He needs to learn by doing so that he can teach, whereas for me as a practitioner, as I advance in my role, I do less “doing” because I have to do more “teaching.” My technical writers are the ones who stay immersed in the doing. Managers facilitate success, while employees report industry shifts and suggest directions. Employees must feel empowered to propose improvements, and rely on their managers to instruct them. Learning goes both ways: I am constantly learning from my employees.

To address his concerns about job-readiness for students, I also want to touch on some of my challenges as a hiring manager. Technical writers can be hard to find, because they require both broad communication skills as well as some knowledge in what can be very niche domains, like identity management. A recent job posting yielded over 100 applications, but fewer than 10 were qualified. I think a candidate’s potential matters more than ticking qualification boxes, but managers must also grasp personality fit and passion, which are hard to convey on paper. It’s about finding those eager to learn and align with the team. I can train skills, but finding a good fit both from the person and the team’s perspective can be hard. It takes honesty, self-awareness, curiosity, and the willingness to explore other areas that you may not have known about.

Are there any things in particular that you think your (academic/practitioner) colleagues need help from the other side? Such as topics, resources, programs, or others?

CM: On the academic side, colleagues like Guiseppe rely on my tool knowledge and support. I’ve even helped to secure student licenses from companies like Heretto, oXygen, and Madcap. These companies seek student loyalty and partnerships with academia to build tool proficiency. My pedagogy is a 3-hour tool demo, assigning a project, and facilitating lessons learned as well as providing direct feedback. Academic papers in portfolios don’t sway me as a hiring manager. I value practical documents showcasing skills, like a concise document created using Madcap Flare, even if it’s on a random topic, like bathing a cat—what I look for is well-structured, well-formatted, and well-written content. From an industry perspective, I encourage academics to share insights, validate industry practices through research, and potentially collaborate on user testing. In particular, user testing often takes a backseat due to time constraints, so that is an example of a place where researchers can bridge this gap and provide valuable insights for both academia and industry.

GG: One crucial and often overlooked way that industry can help academia is access. Academics often lack opportunities for industry-based collaboration like the user testing that Christina brought up. While user testing aligns with academic research goals, companies rarely approach academics for such tasks. For instance, my study involving iFixit, a popular online community with repair guides, faced initial resistance due to concerns about revealing proprietary methods. This scenario is common, where companies fear research could expose trade secrets. Access is critical, especially for cutting-edge research validation. However, obtaining access to bleeding-edge industry practices is challenging, as companies are apprehensive about reverse engineering from academic research. This access barrier is a significant obstacle for academics seeking to validate and contribute to industry practices.

CM: Yes, that’s a good point. It’s hard for companies to be willing to do these things. I think that it takes a genuine commitment to partnership. Some local examples that come to mind are the NC State-IBM Pathfinders program. But how to create this sort of pipeline, I’m not sure. Both sides would benefit in many ways, but you have to have an initial connection and clear goals in mind to build the relationship.

GG: Yes, it seems like the programs come along organically. Often, a person at a company might individually reach out to a specific program about getting an intern. Or conversely, an academic might reach out trying to help students get an internship. But there are so many companies and universities, and we can’t cold-call everyone. Even after establishing a program, it can take immense effort to maintain it. And so, programs like these are often fragile.

CM: Now, I’m thinking of it like Sales 101: You have to make yourself known. Say that a professor emails me and says, “I have interns who are interested in content reuse, information architecture, and UX testing. They can work onsite or virtually and have a tentative project plan that they can execute in a 12-week timespan.” Because so much pre-work has already been done–identifying candidates, developing a project plan, aligning with what my team produces–I can more easily get approval than if I had to help develop an internship program from the ground up.

GG: I can see how that approach could be effective. One caveat I’ll add, though, is that it takes commitment to the field at large. Many times when I’ve asked practitioners, I am told that they don’t have an internship program or even ask why they should bother with interns when they could hire someone with experience, such as a short-term contractor? It can take a lot of work on our side to prepare students, but then also a lot of work on industry to mentor and train new hires. Add to this the pressure on new hires to demonstrate instant expertise, and you can have an unrealistic and unsustainable environment.

To close out the interview, do you have any advice on what not to do when collaborating with or drawing insights from the other side? Perhaps some approaches that you’ve seen that have not been helpful or other failures or pitfalls to avoid.

CM: Even though I’m on the industry side, the first thing I thought of was education, and specifically professional development and training. Many continuing education focuses on basic, general knowledge vs. practical, advanced domain knowledge. For example, one course might promise to teach you how to write “clear and concise content,” which is something that we’ve known as a field is important for at least a hundred years. Even if the courses are about tools, they’re often targeted towards beginners, something like a “DITA 101,” and DITA itself is nearly 30 years old.

While such courses can be helpful for new or transitioning professionals, the majority of us are not beginners. Technical writers need real-world technical expertise to excel, especially in the ever-evolving tech landscape. Incorporating hands-on experience within your domain can enhance writing quality and provide a competitive edge.

GG: I agree with that. I think there can be a temptation to teach the things we know are well-established theoretical concepts and frameworks, as well as industry best practices. If you put in the time and effort to update such course content, that can be alright. But there is this pitfall of pushing that off for one more year, and suddenly you find yourself talking about the same topics in the same ways as people did 20 years ago.

For example, when I talk to practitioners who have had a long career, I’ll ask how their job has changed over time. One common trend is that much of the work has shifted from writing long-form content to managing smaller bits of chunkable content that is rearranged and displayed in multiple outputs or “multichannel” delivery for unpredictable audiences. Even if we as instructors know this, it can be difficult to teach. Common assignments that might at first seem to be keeping up with industry, like writing a Medium blog post about this tech topic, or the classic write a recipe using DITA, are actually then revealed to be disconnected from reality. Where are the multichannel delivery and componentized content management aspects in such assignments? They’re difficult to replicate, and so we fall into this trap of teaching what’s easier to teach and just telling them, it will be similar to this, but different in these ways.

Guiseppe Getto is an Associate Professor of Technical Communication and Director of the M.S. in Technical Communication Management at Mercer University. He is also an active STC member, having previously served as chapter president of the Carolinas.

Christina Mayr is a Knowledge Management Lead at Epic Games, as well as an instructor of STC training courses. She is an active STC member, having recently served the Society on the Nominating and Summit committees.