The Not Boring Tech Writer: Transitioning into Tech Writing from Very-Much-Not Tech Writing
Catherine Heath | September 6, 2019
We’ve written up the latest episode of The Not Boring Tech Writer podcast by Jacob Moses. Chad Sterling, Product Technical Communications Specialist at KUKA, shares how you can transition into technical writing.
Topics discussed include where to find your new tribe of technical writers, how to use your existing skills to transition into technical writing, and how to ramp up your skills to find your first gig.
Background to the topic
In this podcast, Chad Sterling talks about how he personally made the transition into technical writing, and where he found his tribe of technical writers. He was previously a hotel security director before he switched to tech writing, so he was in a completely unrelated field before finding his new role.
Many people are interested in transitioning into technical writing from another career. Some just want to try their hand at some writing in their spare time. Often, a person’s previous career can be writing-based, but just as often tech writer transitioners begin in fields unrelated to writing. Any of these are valid options for people who want to try technical writing for the first time.
There are also many current technical writers who have no formal training in technical writing – as well as many writers who also have studied technical writing or technical communication. Related disciplines to technical writing such as instructional design and elearning design mean that many technical writers have come from these areas.
Lots of people want to transition into technical writing because it represents a satisfying career change. But how to do it?
Bringing related skills to the role
As a newcomer, it can be overwhelming to learn all the jargon and the skills that technical writers use on a daily basis. Often, you are in a better position than you may realize. Even better, many people often have existing skills that they can use in their new technical writing career, and this should hopefully make the transition less daunting.
Chad says he has skills he used in transitioning into technical writing which gave him a leg up in his new career. He brought his strong communication skills from being a hotel security director, which was a job where he also produced some low-level documentation. This was direct experience he could use in a portfolio and articulate to potential employers.
“At any job, there are parts you really like and you want to do that more,” says Chad. Before he considered his career change, Chad was unaware that he was already doing some technical writing in his role. You may also be writing technical docs without realizing in your current job.
Our Support Sorceress Kate says, “I would say I had a similar experience. My bachelor's and Master's degrees were in writing, but I'd focused on "creative" writing then (short fiction, poems, memoirs) and didn't have experience with true technical writing.
What I now consider my first job with technical writing: I worked at a call center for a broadcasting company which was rolling out new equipment to its affiliate stations. Our call center was created to verify equipment receipt, provide technical support, and verify installation and usage of the new equipment. Along the way, I ended up building a couple databases to track our interactions with stations and wrote documentation for our teams on how to use them.
Then, when the same company rolled out new software, I helped write installation, upgrade, and support documentation for that software rollout. And then exhaustively detailed everything relating to the databases I had created to hand them off to other people--technical writing at its finest!
That actually got me into database work, and as I did more of that (and went back to school), I discovered that software documentation was my strong suit. A lot of companies are impressed by people with data skills, but even more impressed by people with data skills who avidly produce good documentation, and in the roles I assumed after that, nearly every time I ended up documenting things for internal teams or our customers as I went.”
Chad decided that the documentation aspect of his job was the most enjoyable, which led him to go back to school to retrain. Even though he enjoyed his security job, he wanted to change to a role that was more meaningful to him.
Chad needed to move to a career that would bring him enough financial reward in order to justify studying more. Originally gaining his Bachelors in English, Chad now has a Masters in tech comm. His current role is his first technical writing gig since his Masters. He produces product documentation and user guides, as well as undertaking some web development work including making landing pages.
Taking the first step
It can be scary to take that first step into starting a brand new career. Although a degree wasn’t enough to actually get the new job, Chad also had to gain relevant experience and skills in technical writing. Since he wanted to work in software, he had to learn HTML and CSS to enable him to do this.
Chad says, “I looked at Write the Docs as well as Tom Johnson’s blog as a resource, and followed the people who had the type of job that I wanted. This helped me determine what skills and experiences companies were looking for from entry level technical writers.”
Job postings also give you a pragmatic sense of what companies are looking for. Scour the list of skills and experiences on jobs you are interested in to find out what you need to learn to gain those positions. You can also build your social media channels such as your LinkedIn profile in order to increase the chances that potential employers will find you, which is also something Chad has done.
Building your network
Building your new technical writing network is crucial to making the transition. Write the Docs is just one example of a network of technical writers you can join, since it’s a community for anyone interested in documentation. “It’s the single most important thing that I have had access to,” says Chad. “Attending a Write the Docs event is how I got my first technical writing gig.”
Write the Docs is a welcoming community and joining is as simple as beginning to participate. This approach is a way of moving beyond gaining a qualification and actually connecting with some of the foremost people in the field. Chad is a great testament to just showing up in a community.
“The biggest thing that you can do is start going to these events,” says Chad. “Don’t be afraid to tell people that you’re interested in getting started in tech writing, since eventually someone will respond.”
Taking it further
“Self-directed learning is really valued in the Austin community,” says Chad. You need to learn the basic skills for becoming a technical writer under your own steam. You can gain knowledge through online courses on sites like Udemy. Tom Johnson also has a course on how to write API documentation.
Chad began documenting processes on his job without being asked. This is a good idea since you can use your documentation as part of your technical writing portfolio later down the line.
Our Support Sorceress Kate also has this to share: “This is the story of my professional life. LOL. I document all the things. (Usually, this is out of necessity, as my short-term memory on technical steps can be awful, but inevitably I fine-tune those docs to share with new hires, teammates, etc.)”
Chad also recommends participating in open source documentation projects to add to your portfolio.
From the beginning, it took Chad six or seven months to get his first technical writing job. While it may take you more or less time than Chad to make the transition, it’s important to start looking at the experience and skills you need to be successful in your new field.
Don’t be afraid to just jump in learning and attending events – showing up is one of the best things you can do. Check out our writeup on Write the Docs to find out more about this community.