I spent a large part of my career working as a technical writer — developing documentation, online help, and a plethora of other technical content — for commercial and public sector clients. It was a culmination of a childhood dream. Writing about technology became an escape. It became my identity. Then I unintentionally killed my technical writer career.
Here’s how I did that…
1. When the technical writer profession went right, I went left
Before the pandemic hit, I never thought that the IT industry asked enough of the technical writer role. So many of the technical writer job descriptions that dribbled into my inbox called for editing and document formatting skills, with few daring to ask that the technical writer had to have a grasp of the technology they were to write about. Throughout my career, I came to see unnecessary dependencies on subject matter experts (SMEs) and managers as a detriment to content creation. I fought my own rebellion against it as a technical writer.
Consequently, I gravitated towards projects and roles that pushed me beyond the traditional technical writer role. My favorite projects became roles where I was embedded into a development, product, or operations team. I began to associate very little with other technical writers.
2. Disregarded thought leadership double standards for the technical writer
I had chapters during my technical writer career where I often wrote and published bylined articles in technology publications. I had some managers who loved the fact I did that. Article writing helped me build credibility with some folks.
Writing articles taught me how to stand on my own when it came to technology topics. I had opportunities to participate in online forums such as IDG TECH(talk) where I was one of the only writers in a group of CxOs and cybersecurity practitioners and thought leaders.
Then I had managers who didn’t understand. A VP who was dismissive of it. He was a micromanager who didn’t know what software containers were. His opinion never meant much to me.
One of the all-time job interview questions to me ever was, “How do you write your articles without a [subject matter expert] SME? That question ended the interview for me. I didn’t want to work in a place that would ask such questions.
One of my intentions always was to use a body of published work to differentiate myself as a technical writer, it sometimes seemed to ostracize me
3. Grew my technical and strategic contributions
One of the last teams I worked on as a technical writer had a culture where everybody on the team was a contributor. The director had a philosophy that everybody on the team had to contribute to the project strategy…including me, the technical writer.
Working on the team gave me credibility beyond just a writer with cloud strategy, cloud migrations, and go-to-market. Those projects helped me make a long-overdue career pivot.
4. Walked away from a job offer
A reduction in force (RIF) opened my eyes to how I really felt about my technical writer career. I spent about three years focused on the cloud and working with a team I liked and respected. It was also probably the first time in years I had friends at work. A RIF put an end to all of that. I interviewed with another government contractor and landed a position with a nice raise to boot.
The only thing was the more prolonged the bureaucracy dragged out my background check, the more I felt I couldn’t do it anymore. I saw the clock back starting at zero with the dismissiveness, client complaints about their previous writer rang in my ears, worst of all, I had to admit to myself that I couldn’t be a technical writer anymore, at least in the traditional sense. The industry wanted one thing from technical writers. I played the game differently. I begrudgingly accepted what turned out to be a short-lived internal transfer until another RIF hit me.
5. Hold the job title but don’t ever write technical documentation
When you think about what a technical writer does, you think of online help, user guides, and documentation on using a product. The last few years, holding the technical writer job role was more about bylined articles, blog posts, white papers, and marketing collateral. My documentation days were well behind me would be the story that my aging writing samples on even older technologies would show prospective interviewers.
That’s not a humblebrag either…
It still causes me personal branding issues that I’m still working on remedying until this day.
Eyes wide open
It’s been a little more than a year since I made my career pivot. I want to say it was entirely by design. My career pivot was made a lot harder because I wasn’t the best steward of my career, especially when I was aging out of technical writer jobs. Now that things have come together for me, I still know there’s more work for me to do to advance on my new career path.
My name is Will Kelly. I’m a technical marketer and former technical writer. My areas of interest include the cloud, DevOps, and cybersecurity. Follow me on Twitter: @willkelly.