Features July/August 2024

Finding Your Authentic Brand

By Leah Guren, Cow TC | Fellow

Your personal brand is a unique combination of skills, traits, knowledge, aptitudes, personal preferences, and qualities. It helps you distinguish yourself from other job candidates, or attract the right clients. Here are some insight-based tips from a 45-year TechComm veteran.

I consider myself fortunate to be able to look back on 44 years in this fascinating field of TechComm. Our profession is broad and varied; we are found in almost every domain, in most companies, and all over the world. The sweeping nature of our profession means that it covers more skills, tools, knowledge, and areas of niche specialization than one person could ever master. Thus, every TechComm practitioner, whether independent or an employee, should seriously think about identifying their brand.

What do I mean by brand? Your brand is your area of specialty (skills, tools, domain knowledge) plus your qualities and aptitudes, that together identify you within a competitive industry. It is the professional identity that is meaningful to you, and that you wish to project to the world when marketing yourself. Remember, our profession is so complex that no one can do everything. Someone who spends their career documenting software is going to have a different set of experiences and skills than someone who works in the healthcare industry.

Unfortunately, many people starting their TechComm career simply go with the flow. Their career path ends up being dictated by their first job, and they may never put in the (sometimes painful) effort of self-assessment and career planning. But without taking a personal inventory and thinking about long-term goals, they risk drifting through a series of jobs, rather than enjoying a stimulating and rewarding career.

I am happy to share with you my background and the path to developing my authentic brand.

Luck, Timing, and Opportunity

In 1980, I was partway through my degree (Computer Science and Political Science), enjoying the Southern California climate, and working part-time jobs to pay my way. I happened to hear about a short-term job at a local software startup. They were looking for students in the Computer Science program, and promised that no experience was necessary.

The project was creating FORTRAN overlays for a massive scientific software application. Overlays was a technique of breaking code into smaller routines that could run standalone in the limited memory available in a DEC PDP-11 computer. It required some knowledge of coding, decent logic, and good attention to detail. I was delighted. Here I was, still a student, working with top engineers and researchers in the field of digital signal processing. My boss was the Vice President (VP) of Engineering. He was only too happy to give me more tasks when I completed the initial project in less than half of the allocated time.

The systems guy, a massive, bearded giant with fingers like sausages, quickly realized that I could fit into spaces that were way too small for him (or anyone else on his team). Soon, he was borrowing me from Engineering so that I could pull cable through the ceiling crawl space or climb inside a VAX to retrieve a dropped part. It was like a geek Disneyland, and I was being paid much more than I made working in a frozen yogurt shop!

When the VP of Engineering discovered that I could write, he gratefully dumped all of the product documentation on me. At this point, I had never heard of technical communication, and had certainly never considered it as a possible career.

But I wrote. I learned how to use Troff (an early markup language) to format content. I edited. I played with the software to try to figure things out. I created. And I was hooked.

Upon graduation the next year, I was invited to start full-time at the company, still reporting to the VP of Engineering, but primarily in a documentation role. I accepted, got serious about this new profession, and began learning in earnest.

All of this (by way of my origins story) leads to these insights:

  • I was phenomenally lucky to accidentally stumble upon a profession that suits me. I can take no credit at all for this good fortune.
  • Our profession and the job market were wildly different in 1980, and I was lucky to be starting my career when it was significantly easier to break into the field. Again, this was through no merit on my part, but just the luck of being in the right place at the right time.
  • I was blessed with many mentors during those first years; some were patient, some were prickly, and some were reluctant. But I learned from all of them. I took full advantage to learn from everyone. I built up rapport with some of the notoriously “difficult” subject matter experts (SMEs) and set aside my own ego to absorb as much knowledge as possible.
  • That first year of intensive self-study started a career-long love for professional development. To this day, even as I near the end of my career, I push myself to continue learning in our field.
  • Some of the courses and workshops that I took made me realize that I could blend my technical knowledge, academic data, and my public speaking skills into opportunities as a trainer. This involved taking risks as I began developing myself as a presenter in the field, but was definitely a successful outcome to some lateral thinking!
Finding My Feet

For the first five years, I was busy learning and gaining experience. I left my first job and went to work for another small software company in the area. I was too busy trying to drink from the firehose of information to worry about what kind of TechComm professional I wanted to be. There was always too much to do and so much to learn.

It was that metaphorical firehose that exposed me to so many different tasks, roles, technologies, and new experiences. For example, the SMEs felt comfortable asking for my help, so I became the UI text editor. I helped SMEs to get papers published and managers to get conference proposals accepted. I was asked to participate in cross-departmental committees. I was eventually asked to build a department and manage a team. I trained. I worked on the company’s first ever branding guide and style guide. I was inducted into the mysteries of the Telex machine. I navigated excruciating cultural and communication barriers with the team in Japan. I used a light table to make cut-and-paste layout. I conducted usability tests. I represented the company at trade shows. How many newbie TechComm practitioners get to do all of that these days?

These varied experiences provided me with enough raw data to eventually identify my strengths and weaknesses, as well as my preference. (You can be good at something but not necessarily enjoy it!) By the end of my first decade in the profession, I had developed a clear idea of my personal brand in TechComm:

  • I liked to write and edit and was reasonably good at both.
  • I was an effective and successful trainer, especially involving aspects of clear writing and key concepts in TechComm theory and practice, and I enjoyed it very much.
  • As much as I loved training, I utterly detested teaching tools (DTP, graphics applications, etc.). I lacked the patience or aptitude. Tools, an absolute necessity of the job, bored me. Repeatedly, I watched people who were not professional or dynamic speakers do a far superior job of teaching tools. I learned to decline all such requests!
  • I wrote shockingly bad Marcom content. I’ve had many clients over the years ask me to work on their material, as I know the product and the technology. But I found myself unable to doff my TechComm voice (short, simple imperatives and logical structure) to write compelling copy. Instead, I developed good connections with talented Marcom writers, and am happy to make referrals for my clients.
  • I was a conscientious but unhappy manager. My first management position was a huge leap forward in my career path. But although it was a big bump in salary, responsibility, and perks, it made me miserable.
  • Office politics made me itch. The higher I went as an employee, the more time I spent navigating egos and personal agendas. I was not great at it and it left me feeling utterly exhausted.
  • I was a right-brain thinker, but managed to develop good left-brain skills (visual, design, etc.).

With a clearer understanding of where I fit into the TechComm landscape, I ultimately had the courage to break out on my own as a trainer and consultant.

Leah shaking hands with audience at presentation

Developing the Cow TC cow mascot was an extension of my personal brand: my sense of humor is on display. Anyone who has taken any of my courses has experienced the cow in her many forms (and often accompanied by some of her barnyard friends).

Three examples of the cartoon cow.

Getting Started

If you are near the beginning of your TechComm career and you haven’t yet fully identified your brand, here are some tips that can help you begin the journey of discovery:

Skills: Take a quick inventory of your skills; that is, specific things that you know how to do. For example, using certain tools, writing task-based content, creating flowcharts, etc.

Aptitudes: Next, consider general areas of things that you are good at. Rather than a specific action, this is more like a good ear for music, or the ability to mediate conflict in a meeting.

Likes and Dislikes: When are you happiest at work? When do you feel like you are in the zone, chugging along contentedly, oblivious of passing time? And on the flip side, what makes you feel stressed and miserable? Do not confuse this with a fear of something that is outside your comfort zone. For example, if you lack experience with a particular tool, don’t count that as a dislike. However, if you have ample experience with something and intensely dislike doing it, make a note of that. Consider things like whether you like to work alone or with a team, whether you like to be a specialist or a generalist, and how much structure you like.

External Perception: How we see ourselves is not necessarily how others see us. It can be very helpful to understand how others see you when you are trying to identify your authentic brand. For example, a colleague of mine loved playing guitar and writing fiction, which don’t really translate into a TechComm brand. He was sure that he could become a very creative Marcom writer, but other people’s view of him sent him on a different path. It turned out that he was incredibly patient in explaining how to work with graphics. Because of that, he was repeatedly asked to help train other people, and he became closely linked with “graphics” in everyone’s perception of him. As this was also an in-demand market niche, he allowed other’s perception to help shape his brand, and successfully (and profitably) marketed himself as a graphics trainer for many years.

Consider this a private exercise; no one needs to read your notes or peek inside your head. Therefore, be brutally honest with yourself. Only when you have an honest understanding of yourself can you move forward.

Once you have a clear idea of who you are (and who others think you are), take a realistic assessment of your environment. What is in demand in your area? Is there a glut of people with your skillset? Can you take advantage of a skill and aptitude to fill a much-needed niche? Or do you have the flexibility to relocate to find the ideal match between your desired brand and a job opportunity? The reality is that not everyone can instantly leverage their natural brand into the ideal job in their current job market.


For those of you with many years and much experience in the profession, consider doing a branding refresh exercise. You can take the same inventory of skills, aptitudes, likes and dislikes, and external perception as explained previously. There are a few reasons to reassess every decade:

You Change: Change is natural and healthy. You don’t necessarily like the same music you listened to in your 20s or wear the same hair style. Something that suited you 10 or 15 years ago may not suit you now.

The Profession Changes: We are going through a massive earthquake of change right now, between AI, IoT, and general global and economic uncertainty. Things that you successfully pushed as your brand may no longer attract new clients. Be honest with yourself: how willing are you to let go of old skills and retrain/rethink for today’s environment?

Beyond Skills: a few last tips

The exercise of self-assessment is often uncomfortable, but it is a necessary step in taking action to direct your career. Keep these in mind:

Quality Counts: When you consider how your clients (or your current employer) see you, think about what qualities they would most strongly identify with you. These are often the vague, squishy attributes that are impossible to quantify, such as competence, honesty, friendliness, flexibility, or intensity. If others see you in a way that you do not like, are you willing to invest the time and effort to work on those nebulous aspects of personality? Ultimately, the brand of “Index Queen” will only be successful if your clients also perceive you as competent, professional, and easy to work with.

You Are Allowed to Change: As discussed in Reassessing, change is normal and your right. You are allowed to change your mind about what you want to emphasize in your branding. Never feel trapped into being “The Graphics Guy” or “Flowchart Fabio” if you are developing new skills and interests.

You Are Allowed to Have Multiple Brands: As a self-employed trainer/consultant, I have different clients who have very different concepts of who or what I am. As long as those are legitimate aspects of who I am and what I do, I don’t try to steer the client towards one brand. I’ve learned to listen and discover what they want (and how they got to me). Some clients know me only through my conference presentations and workshops; others know me only as an in-house consultant. Give yourself some flexibility and wiggle room to accept work that isn’t necessarily your main brand.

I would love to hear about your journey to discover your personal, authentic TechComm brand!

Leah Guren is the owner/operator of Cow TC. She has been active in the field of technical communication since 1980 and now devotes her time to training and consulting. Leah works with technical communication teams all over the world, using humor and a lively interactive training approach to help them solve their biggest content development challenges. She also provides consulting services to companies, emphasizing documentation UX and creating global-ready content. Leah’s clients include some of the top high-tech and biotech companies, including Intel, IBM, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, RAD, Cisco, Medtronic, and Rambam Medical Center. Leah is popular speaker in the field of technical communication, a published author, and one of the leading instructors in the field. She has helped hundreds of new practitioners enter the field of technical communication and trained further thousands through her presentations and workshops at internation conferences. Leah is a Fellow in STC (Society for Technical Communication) and a founding member of tekom Israel.