The Segmentation of Tech Comm

Segmentation

There is a growing segmentation of the tech comm profession.

I was flattered that my post Technical Communication is not a Commodity was used as a catalyst for Scott Abel’s discussion with Val Swisher, Jack Molisani and Sarah O’Keefe on The Changing Face of Technical Communications, What’s Next? I had a fair amount to say in the comment stream that followed to defend my assertion that Tech Comm is indeed not a commodity, but since then a few other interactions have convinced me that there is another important trend in tech comm that should be recognized: the growing segmentation of the field.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the field had ever been entirely homogeneous. There have always been pockets where special knowledge and experience has been necessary, and pockets were special kinds of output were required, but these were on the fringes of the field. The broad base of technical communication, at least from the 90s through to the middle of the last decade, consisted of generalist technical writers using desktop tools to produce long paper documents and online help. That picture has changed radically over the last few years, and I suspect the change will continue. Technical communication is becoming a highly segmented profession.

Segmentation of qualifications

The demand for technical writers to demonstrate specific subject matter expertise is clearly on the rise. In the 90s, the fact that I had a fair amount of programming experience counted for a lot, and enabled me to make a specialty of doing technical writing for programmers, covering programming languages, APIs, and operating systems. When I worked for OmniMark Technologies, a programming language vendor, I had a very difficult time hiring technical writers with any kind of programming background. In those days, for a tech writer, programming experience, of any kind, was a ticket to ride.

Today, I don’t qualify for a lot of the tech writing jobs I see advertised in the programming space because I don’t have the specific experience they are now demanding — for instance, experience programming in C++ in an embedded systems environment. And it is like this across the board. More and more employers are demanding highly specific technical backgrounds for technical writing positions. The result is that you can be highly qualified and highly in demand for one very narrow vertical and be virtually unemployable for almost every other tech writing job that pays any reasonable amount of money.

(Where are the people coming from to fill those highly specific positions? From what I can see, it is experienced tech writers whose careers or personal interests happen to have led them into mastery of a particular specialty, and engineers in their 50s who can’t hack 20-hour caffeine-fueled coding jags anymore and whose interest have turned, as our interests often do in mid life, from doing to teaching.)

Segmentation of tools

Tool-based job requirement have been the bane of the profession for a long time, but the range of tools, not just different brands, but entirely different types of tools, is growing ever broader, reflecting a growing diversity of business requirements.

  • Companies who are still producing long documents, and particularly those outputting to paper, are sticking the FrameMaker for its long document handling and typographic prowess.
  • Companies who are trying to maximize highly-granular reuse, either because their product line includes many variations on the same base technology, or because they translate into many languages, are flocking to DITA.
  • Companies who are trying to crowd-source content, both within and outside their organization, are flocking to wikis.
  • Companies who are looking to increase their level of customer involvement and social media integration are focusing on social media tools and forums more than traditional docs.
  • Companies serving specialized customers with specialized requirements, such as the aerospace industry, may be doing things like S1000D.
  • Companies that are looking to produce richly linked content or to generate complex references or extract content from diverse sources may be doing custom XML based solutions (and might benefit from something like the SPFE Architecture).

Segmentation of channels

It would be tempting to assume that as far as channels go, everything is going to the web, and that is the end of it. But actually, not everything is going to the web, and for good reason.

  • Security considerations mean that some organizations do not allow web access for their employees. This may mean anything from blocking particular sites to being physically disconnected from the Internet.
  • In some cases, help is being directly coded into the product, not through callable on-line help, but at a much deeper level of integration.
  • In some cases the whole emphasis is shifting from pushing documentation out to building and working in living communities where people respond directly to help requests and where the documentation is essentially an accumulated record of these interactions. (In other words, we are seeing mashups of the tech support and tech comm functions).
  • While social outreach to the community of users works for many companies, it does not work for all. Some companies, particularly in the business to business space, have customers who are all fierce competitors of each other. Rather than contributing community content that could help their competitors, these customers guard their knowledge and experience with the product jealously, while seeking to build a closer channel to the vendor in the hope of getting one up on their competitors. Individualized channels for specific customers exist in a number of organizations. (I am indebted to Richard S for this point, from a discussion on Technical Writing World.)
  • Mobile devices, and content specifically designed for mobile, remains a nascent area, but could be very significant going forward. (I’ve yet to be convinced that an interactive e-book offers any advantages over and interactive web site, but we will see.)

Segmentation of scope

As I discussed in my post Are Docs a Responsibility or a Business Asset, the scope of technical documentation used to be very well defined. We knew exactly what our responsibilities were and where they ended. Now, however, the scope can be very different from one product to another.

  • As discussed in that post, the move towards task orientation has blurred the lines about where docs responsibilities end. Now the emphasis is on the user’s total experience with highly networked products and systems, and if that means we have to write about areas outside the boundaries of our own product in order to allow the user to use it successfully, that is what we have to do.
  • On the other hand, there are products today for which the documentation strategy appears to be to send pre-release copies of the product to a handful of key tech bloggers and let them produce the basic how to information, then rely on the web to generate additional content and/or provide tech support through forums.
  • For products with wide distribution, customer generated content often covers task and troubleshooting information in a far more comprehensive and specific way than the documentation team ever could. Increasingly I think we can expect to see companies questioning why they pay people to do what the community is doing better, and for free. It seems reasonable to suppose that, if tech writers are retained at all, they may be re-tasked to cover other more neglected areas (many many products have deep deficits in core reference material, for instance).

In short, the set of deliverables that tech docs are being asked to produced, which used to be virtually identical from one company to another, is more and more being customized to meet specific business requirements.

Where will we be in 10 years?

What will the profession look like in 10 years? Will it have emerged from what is undoubtedly a time of great disruption at the present into a more stable and homogeneous form, where people of similar qualifications deliver information of similar scope through similar channels using similar tools? Or will the segmentation continue and deepen? The question has profound implications for anyone trying to chart a career course in technical communications today.

My bet: segmentation will continue and deepen over the next 10 years.

What’s your bet?

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16 Responses to The Segmentation of Tech Comm

  1. Scott Abel 2012/02/17 at 11:26 #

    Mark:

    Good thinking on your part. I’m certain this is a topic we’ll be hearing much more about in the coming year. Thanks for pointing out what so many folks have yet to realize.

    I’d add to this list, “The Segmentation of Customers and their view of Technical Communication” as well as “The Segmentation of Audience”. There’s likely an entire book in your blog post, the way I see it. Change is happening rapidly. It’s up to us to discover the place where we belong, as individuals, and it’s guaranteed, IMHO, that we won’t all end up in the same place, doing the same job, under the same title.

    More to come….as soon as I find time to ponder your comments more.

    Thanks for always thinking outside the box.

    Scott

    • Mark Baker 2012/02/24 at 21:59 #

      Thanks Scott,

      I agree, segmentation of audience is another important factor, and segmentation of customers and their view of technical communication is preceptive. Documentation has tended to be something that companies just assumed they needed, and they had other matters to apply their creative and managerial energy to.

      But increasingly it seems that companies are starting to ask hard questions about the business value of the documentation they are creating. Content marketing is doubtless one of the factors driving that. Documentation certainly has the potential to be a great content marketing asset. But it does not follow that all existing documentation is going to work well, and the magnifying glass is going to come out as that content goes up on the web.

      As companies start to demand that documentation deliver shareholder value, we are likely to see further segmentation based on what kind of documents deliver shareholder value for different businesses.

  2. Val Swisher 2012/02/17 at 11:29 #

    Mark – Thanks for another excellent post. I agree with everything you have said about the changing nature of what technical communicators are producing and how we are getting the content created.

    The one area that I think is missing from your discussion is globalization. I think that the “flattening of the world” has had a great impact on what and how companies create their content – particularly their technical content.

    It is my experience that much of the traditional print/.pdf technical documentation (the old fashioned kind) is no longer being created in the United States. If I look at metrics from my company’s 18-year history, it is clear that much of the core tech doc work we were doing 7 or 8 years ago is not being done by us. And in speaking with other business owners in our industry, that work isn’t being done by them, either. Instead, that work is being done by offshore companies, often large BPOs.

    That is one side of globalization – that the work can be done anywhere (seemingly by anyone, but that’s another story for another day). The other side of globalization is the mandate to launch product in multiple regions and multiple languages from the very first release. In the past, only my large, Fortune 1000 customers launched in multiple languages. Now, even my smallest startup customers are translating their content from the get-go.

    In addition to launching product abroad, there is a mandate to update all languages simultaneously. Many companies can no longer update the English first, and then follow on with the rest of the languages. Finally, added to all of this, is the proliferation of what I think of as immediate-publish tools, such as wikis.

    When we put all of this together, we can see that the role of the technical communicator has significantly changed in so many ways. Globalization of the reading and writing of our content presents new procedures, workflows, tools, and challenges for everyone. Add to this all of the other items you mention, and it is a very exciting and dynamic field to be in – as long as you are willing to learn, grow, and explore the new possibilities.

    Thanks again for your article. I enjoyed it. (I still believe that tech writing has been commoditized, but I am happy to agree to disagree.) 🙂

    • Mark Baker 2012/02/24 at 22:09 #

      Hi Val,

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, globalization is yet another form of segmentation. The economics of simultaneous translation seem to be very different from the economics of single-language delivery that it drive different approaches to writing and publishing.

      Of course, commodity markets are not segmented. 🙂

      Actually, it is probably fair to say that some segments have become commoditized, and that reflection may perhaps resolve our differences on the subject?

  3. Pamela Clark 2012/02/17 at 14:21 #

    Mark,
    I love your blogs. This is another excellent overview of the state of the tech comm arena. What resonates for me is Scott’s comment: “It’s up to us to discover the place where we belong, as individuals”. It is clearly up to us to do this, but it can be difficult to chart a clear career path if economic realities dictate “some job, any job” at certain points in one’s life.

    That said, I think being able to articulate our strengths and pursue work that capitalizes on those strengths, while providing opportunities to grow in knowledge and skill, can’t be a bad goal.

    I do think some kinds of tech comm have become commodities, at least in the “eyes of the beholder” – the companies procuring those services. Has all tech comm gone this route, clearly not. But, those who whine and moan about change and do not take action to keep up will be left behind. That is the reality.

    • Mark Baker 2012/02/24 at 22:18 #

      Hi Pamela,

      Actually, “some job, any job” is how I got into tech comm in the first place! I had literally never heard of technical writing when I saw the want ad for what became my first tech writing job. But I had three kids and a mortgage and the word “writing” was in the title, so I looked at the ad and found that the tasks is described were exactly what I had been doing in my previous job as Technical Manager for a desktop publishing company.

      The field has changed so much since then, and continues to do so. People definitely need to keep up or be left behind.

  4. Karen Lowe 2012/02/18 at 16:40 #

    Mark, great, thought-provoking post.
    I agree with Scott and Pamela that one’s career path in our ‘industry’ is something like a wandering stream – it all depends on the landscape encountered and the drive of the water. Hope your stream (and mine) works its way into a healthy river!
    Karen

    • Mark Baker 2012/02/24 at 22:24 #

      Hi Karen,

      Thanks for the comment. I think you are on to something. There are professions that are like rocks, and professions that are like water, whose course is determined by the position of the rocks. Tech comm really seems to be like that.

  5. Matthew Grocki 2012/02/23 at 07:58 #

    Mark,

    I agree with your assertion that tech comm will continue to be segmented. However, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, nor would I describe it using those terms.

    The field and discourse of work, will continue to change and deepen, and that is a good thing!

    I think the common trappings of tech comm, as an industry, is to look at change negatively rather than an opportunity.

    I do feel that our field will continue to be re-defined, but our ability to adapt, and our openness to adaption is the key in the next 10 years.

    Great post.

    -Matt

    • Mark Baker 2012/02/24 at 22:30 #

      Thanks for the comment Matthew. I agree, I don’t see the segmentation as a bad thing, though it will certainly be discomforting for some people who are settled into the pattern of their careers.

      One of the things I think tech comm has been sadly missing for many years is a view of what we produce as a business asset, something that returns shareholder value. The segmentation is going to force tech comm as a profession, and individual tech writers as well, to face the question of the business value they provide, not in generalities, but in specific measurable terms. Openness to adaptation is certainly key, but a focus on delivering business value is key to seeing what kind of adaptations we need to make.

  6. Kyle 2012/02/23 at 16:00 #

    “Tool-based job requirement have been the bane of the profession for a long time, but the range of tools, not just different brands, but entirely different types of tools, is growing ever broader, reflecting a growing diversity of business requirements.”

    Very well said.

  7. Eddie VanArsdall 2012/02/23 at 21:38 #

    Mark, thank you for another great post.

    As a contractor, I find that not only is the industry becoming more segmented, but all kinds of new titles are popping up to fit the hybrid job descriptions. An example is “Web Content Producer,” which I have seen described as someone who manages not only textual content but also digital media production and libraries.

    Ten years? My imagination fails to picture where we’ll be, but it’s interesting food for thought. It’s also a possible sequel to your excellent post (hint, hint).

    Eddie

    • Mark Baker 2012/02/24 at 22:39 #

      Thanks for the comment Eddie. Yes, I think contractors may be the first to see the segmentation, and the best placed to react to it and find their place in the segmented market. Not sure that I am particularly qualified to write a post predicting what things will look like in 10 years, but I will promise to write an update post in 10 years … if we are still using blogs in 10 years. 🙂

  8. K.Vee.Shanker. 2012/02/24 at 02:45 #

    Mark,
    I’m not going to say that your post is excellent and that I envy its depth, clarity and coverage. All that has been indicated here directly and indirectly, by high caliber technical communicators. So, it is a foregone conclusion.

    One thing I want to point out is that segmentation has gained momentum in technical communication already, and your post has listed it in detail. Starting right from Documentation, Web, Technologies, and then to the present-day Hand held devices, technical communication has really taken off. Just as forums and blogs of Web have now started offering help to the selected group of users, I guess, the existing segmentations are going to get deeper and wider with new types of tools and help. Soon, we will be seeing technical writers referring other segment writers to their customers, or collaborating with them in specific areas of Help projects.

    • Mark Baker 2012/02/24 at 22:43 #

      Thanks K. Vee. You raise and interesting point about writers in one segment being the customers of writers in another segment. Of course, people who write about structured writing and authoring tools have other writers for their customers, so there is definitely some of that happening already.

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