Whether you are a TechComm novice or a well-established expert with more than a decade of experience, you will have noticed the drastic speed of change in our industry.
Most of you are experienced. When we survey participants at tekom events, we find that at least half of them have over 15 years of experience. For my part, I began my career in TechComm over 40 years ago, placing me at the far end of the spectrum for working TechComm professionals. And, quite frankly, it puts me at risk of becoming set in my ways and not evolving to meet the changing landscape of our field.
An industry of change
Change is constant and inevitable in all professions, but it seems particularly dramatic in our field. Not only are we constantly learning new applications, but the rate of change with the technologies that we document has been astonishing. New standards, new business methodologies, and new work systems for our developers have all impacted our jobs. Further, our users have changed in their reading habits and expectations, and will almost definitely continue to evolve. This means that we have had to rethink how we push content out to a wide range of platforms and devices. In short, we must cope with dramatic changes that affect almost every aspect of our work.
Personally, I find the opportunity to continue to learn and grow appealing, but the constant pace of change can also be stressful. If you want to instantly feel dated and irrelevant, look at recent job postings. You’ll see requirements jam-packed with all the latest buzzwords and acronyms (whether or not they are actually applicable to the position). I saw a job posting in 2019 that required eight years of experience in Slack, which is impossible (Slack was first released in 2013).
It is funny, but it is also frustrating. So what can we do? How can we, as responsible, ethical TechComm professionals, stay current and relevant without giving up our sleep and sanity?
1. Recognize your “soapboxes”
A soapbox is a topic for which you have taken a (very passionate) stand. You feel strongly about it. Some soapboxes are big issues (such as minimizing our carbon footprint), while others are preferences that really don’t matter. I’ve seen TechComm professionals argue for an hour in a meeting to passionately defend French spacing (two spaces after a period). Yes, there are arguments to be made for and against, but are you investing a disproportionate amount of your energy in fighting for (or against) something that has little impact on either our users or our clients?
I’ve been teaching TechComm courses and workshops for many years, and I have come to recognize a few of my own soapboxes. I may still feel passionately about them, but I have learned to let them go in deference to the bigger picture. In fact, I’ve sadly said goodbye to entire topics that no longer seem to be as important, in favor of new topics needed to address modern challenges.
As new things appear faster than old things drop off, TechComm students now need to learn perhaps 50 percent more than their counterparts did 40 years ago. Think about the field of medicine. A student in a nursing program in the 1950s had to learn how to re-sterilize syringes and catheters – equipment that is now always single-use disposables. They learned how to treat diseases that have disappeared. It is only sensible that those topics are no longer taught. There is so much new material that has to be covered!
2. Be honest about outdated preferences
Sometimes, we fall into habits of doing things a certain way. We find our writing style and our layout defaults, and we tend to stick with them. But just as a person can look very foolish for maintaining a hairstyle that was popular 40 years ago, so can our habits and preferences make our content look and feel outdated.
Those of you with a basic understanding of linguistics will recognize that language shifts and evolves. Usage patterns and rules change. We have to be willing to graciously (and gracefully) let go of some of our rules that may have been required in the 1980s, but are no longer relevant.
A great example of this is all the time and energy that we used to put into developing good double-sided, two-page spread layouts for manuals. But with most content delivered online, those preferences no longer make sense.
3. Don’t blindly embrace all changes
This doesn’t mean that we can accept all trendy changes. We must always be the voice of clarity, usability, and unambiguous content. This means that we have to reject stylistic changes that work against our users’ best interests.
To do this, you need to have a clear understanding of how your users parse text and understand layout. Make sure that the choices you make are actually useful, and not simply the latest craze. Over the years, I have had client SMEs want to copy stylistic things they saw elsewhere without understanding the ramifications. I have learned to accept the requests that don’t have a negative impact, while digging my heels in and explaining why other changes will reduce the content usability and customer satisfaction.
4. Invest in tools that match your work
With so many new things to learn, you can end up feeling pulled in too many different directions. Should you learn another tool? Should you learn one of the hot vertical areas, such as instructional design or API documentation?
Don’t try to do everything. Think of things that will be most useful for the kind of clients and projects that you handle. For example, if you don’t document software, why should you spend any time learning about UI labels and error messages? If you work in a world that is far removed from Agile, why invest in learning about Agile development and documentation methodologies?
Beyond the practical side of what makes sense for your current career path, you can focus on where you want to go. If you don’t currently develop marketing content but are interested in doing so, then it makes sense to invest in learning in that area. Bottom line: you cannot learn everything, so invest your time and energy wisely.
5. Skim shamelessly
With buzzwords flying around like alphabet soup, how do you maintain any sense of professionalism? How can you sit in a meeting and be able to understand what a client is talking about?
Recently, I ended up in a meeting with a software vendor. The client had me sit in because they thought the software might be a solution. I had never heard of the tool or the company, but was able to figure out what it was within the first 60 seconds of the presentation, based on a very superficial awareness of some key concepts. The client, a reasonably intelligent person, failed to recognize enough of the buzzwords in the initial sales pitch to know that this was not even remotely a match to what they needed.
So how am I able to do that? Simple. I don’t try to read everything. I skim. Every headline, every story lead, the first paragraph or two of every article… all of this is rich fodder for the part of my brain that stores “Stuff I Might Need to Know”.
Most people feel daunted at trying to keep up with all the magazines, journals, ezines, blogs, podcasts, and other content available for our field. Quite frankly, it would be more than a full-time job to try to do so. But you can definitely skim each issue, and maybe read a few articles more thoroughly. Sometimes it helps to say the new acronyms and buzzwords out loud, so that you quickly recognize them if a client mentions them.
We all need to continue learning throughout our careers. But start by honestly recognizing your own soapbox issues (which may not be important) and your stylistic habits (which may be out of date). Make room for new skills and knowledge, but pick those things that will help move you along your desired career path. If you find the right balance, you can grow to be a tribal elder, rather than a dinosaur!
Do you have a different perspective about change in our profession or a tip for staying current? Let us know!