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Hiring technical communication professionals

Do you need resources for locating, screening, and hiring qualified technical communication professionals? See these articles on the international Society for Technical Communication Web site www.stc.org:

Review these posts for background information:

Hiring Contract Technical Writers, by Scott Harman at Writing Assistance, Inc. http://www.writingassistance.com/articles/hiring-technical-writers.htm

Hiring a Technical Writer by http://www.docsymmetry.com http://www.docsymmetry.com/hiring-a-technical-writer.html

Resources from the LinkedGroup “Society for Technical Communication” discussion titled “Seeking Advice for Managers on Hiring Tech Com Professionals.”
Here are additional resources which were mentioned there.


Quotes and excerpts from people in the business:

  • The biggest mistake hiring managers in large organizations make is to fixate on the technologies candidates have documented, rather than their writing ability. This satisfies HR, who need to check off little qualification boxes of relevant experience, and everyone will be able to point to having followed proper procedures if the hire doesn’t work out. Unfortunately, the qualities that make a TW good are his or her ability to get along with engineers, ask smart questions, and communicate the results clearly. These qualities don’t easily fit into check-boxes.
  • I have seen new hires come into large organizations with impressive resumes, only to discover them incapable of organizing simple emails. My advice is to get candidates emailing you as early as possible in the process, and by their emails shall ye know them. Technologies are easy to master. Writing is not.
  • Ask some cogent questions relative to the environment. I recently interviewed with a company whose writers work in a shared office that they call a “bull pen”. They made sure that I knew that in my first phone screen and first interview. In my final interview, they showed me the bull pen to be sure that I would be comfortable working in it. They also asked questions about how I would handle the noise and distractions of other writers on the phones, in interviews at their desks with SMEs, and conferring with each other. BTW, on that last question, I answered “headphones”. There are noise-canceling headphones on the market for about $50 and they work great.

Screen 1: The Resume

If you pay close attention, you can weed out 90% of trouble candidates right here.

The vast majority will submit their resumes in MS-Word. Turn on all your markers (you should do that anyway). Immediately toss resumes with typos, lots of ad hoc formatting (Normal style with swipe and make it look pretty formatting), lots of empty paragraphs or any use of soft spaces for horizontal positioning. Harsh, but it works. For writers, our resume is a living sample of our work. If someone cannot get that right, I don’t want them. Period.

Screen 2: Samples

I ask for two short samples of THEIR BEST WORK. The first should be a short conceptual topic; the second should be a short stepped procedure.

This usually tells me all I need to know about their writing abilities (assuming they submit their own work).

Screen 3: Phone Interview

Right off the bat, verify that the samples they submitted were ENTIRELY THEIR OWN. The only acceptable answer is, “yes, that is entirely my own work.”

From there, I use a list of custom questions tailored to the exact slot I am trying to fill. Tools matter but aren’t the most important thing.

I hate to micromanage folks on my team. So I greatly prefer high energy motivated people that I might have to train a bit, to experienced mediocre performers. I’m looking for integrity, accountability and a reasonable fit on the skill set.

Anyone who seems drifty or makes a lot of excuses gets politely excused.

Always, always, always ask them to submit writing samples BEFORE you bring them in for an interview. People can lie on a resume and they may sound great in an interview, but if they can’t write, what’s the point? If you and the HR team like the candidate’s resume, contact them and ask for a writing sample. If the sample is great, then interview them. If the writing sample that they submit, that is supposed to WOW you is inferior, don’t even bother with an interview, it’s a waste of everyone’s time.
My take on recruiters is a bit different. Don’t try to get around HR (unless they really suck at their job). Love is a two way street. You have to develop a relationship with your recruiter, so find out who your lead recruiter is and work with her/him. Help the recruiter understand your needs better. Help the recruiter find better candidates for you. That way you’re in better shape for the next time you need someone. This might mean doing a few phone screens with the recruiter, it might mean reviewing a few resumes with the recruiter, it might be as simple as telling the recruiter what sorts of technical experience and understanding you are after. If multiple recruiters are screening for you, try to find a way to work with one. It makes the screening part easier.

The only thing I can offer about screening that others haven’t said is that I insist on writing samples before the screening. There’s no reason you can’t review samples before the recruiter screens candidates. This allows you to tell the recruiter to ask the candidate specific questions about their work. This helps the recruiter understand your desires and motivations even better.

I suppose this is all a long winded way of saying that you should get a good recruiter, trust that person’s contributions, skills, and abilities, and develop a good working relationship with that person. It *will* yield dividends.

The question “do you work better alone or in a team” would be good… but then, when you ask the technical writing candidate if the final result of their writing is “ALL THEIRS” it may be a tough question. I’ve worked for companies at which I was the ONLY tech writer/editor who had to do the planning, scheduling, research, writing, editing, review scheduling, and final production of documents–and even then, I was still part of a TEAM. I’m not so arrogant to think that *I* was the only one involved with the document. During the reviews, the SMEs and management generally went over the document with me to provide “sanity check”. So, can I truthfully say the document was “all mine”?

Also, in other organizations, I’ve worked with teams of writers on huge projects in which not only did we have technical reviews of documents, but we also had designers, technical illustrators, compositors, photographers, and editors assigned to the projects as well. In cases like this, it would be even harder to identify my work (although sometimes I worked on specific chapters or sections).

As for NDA, if I’ve signed one of those and the document is an internal only or other restricted use, the document is not part of my samples and it will never be shown. If samples of my writing are available on the company’s publicly-accessible website, I provide that link for potential employers’ review.

I’ve been lucky in that lately my work has involved end-user documentation that’s readily available on the web, so it’s less hassle for providing samples.

About Barrie Byron

Innovative information developer specializing in presenting complex ideas in ways that are clear and concise. Persistent optimist, intrepid adventurer, mentor. Builder of relationships, connecting friends and peers to people they want to know. Social duct tape and generator of goodwill. Follow me on twitter @barriebyron


One thought on “Hiring technical communication professionals

  1. There are so many good points here. As a tech writer, our first priority is to present the subject matter through great writing. The subject matter is secondary to a tech writer.

    When a potential employer questions my knowledge of certain subjects or my inability to code software, I explain above all, I am a writer first; the subject matter can be learned. You can’t teach someone how to write.

    Posted by Denise | July 1, 2010, 11:01 am

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