Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Advice for Tech Com Students

I was recently asked for advice on landing a job in tech comm by a student at my alma mater. I'm probably the last person in the world to be giving advice on this topic, but I'm always willing to give my opinion and hope that it helps someone.

I'm currently working for Samsung Electronics in Suwon City, South Korea so my U.S. job hunting experience wasn't that successful ;). But how did I manage to land a gig with a world-wide company at their HQ? Networking. While I was teaching English here, I met a fellow tech writer online (my buddy now: Rahul Prabhakar) that works for another division, interviewed, and was probably going to be hired. That position fell through (reorganizing and all that jazz). But then I met a manager while on an island trip and the rest is history. I was in the right place at the right time and met the right people. Don't be afraid to talk to people and sell yourself. It also helps that technical writers are nearly impossible to find in this country (ROK)...let alone western ones. So how can this help you find a job in the U.S.? It can't. But the advice to network still stands. Oh, another networking tip (other than taking island trips in Korea) is to join listservs. Listservs are a great way to meet people in the field and get advice and stay caught up on trends.


My experience in job hunting in the U.S. was very difficult. It's a Catch 22: employers want you to have experience, but nobody is willing to give you that experience. If you can find a niche field to work in and become knowledgeable in (e.g. some medical area, a specific area of IT), it will also help your chances. Most employers expect to spend 3 - 6 months training you anyway so they are more concerned with your writing ability and capability to understand technical ideas and break them down. However, sometimes your writing will be for people that are more knowledgeable than yourself in an area. For example, right now I'm writing stuff for Java developers. Am I a Java developer? No. Can I understand it enough to write it and organize it better than our Java developers? Yes. Bottom line is employers looking to hire junior technical writers want to know that you have the ability to understand things and play well with the engineers (SMEs).

Being able to use the tools currently being used in the industry is a bonus that employer's will definitely consider. Adobe's Technical Communication Suite is a good place to start. Microsoft Word and Publisher are 2 more that are handy to have experience with. Then there are things that you probably won't get experience with in the classroom and will have to explore and play with on your own: DITA, XML, etc.

The next piece of advice is be able to write correctly. If you are hired as a junior tech writer, you will have an editor at your disposal. However, still do your best to use correct grammar and punctuation. I personally don't have that luxury ( I am the editor) so I keep reference tools within reach to check myself and make sure all of my documents, and other people's, are correct.

Next, get experience. Try to get as much experience in as many areas of the field that interest you. Getting an internship would be ideal, but might not be feasible. Offer your services online. Freelancing positions can be difficult to acquire, but will be good experience if you can land them. Do projects with your university. If you go to my old uni, University of Missouri - Rolla (now Missouri Univesity of Science & Technology), you have a whole world of opportunities open to you since it's known for its cutting-edge research and patents.

My last piece of advice, and arguably the most important, is to not give up. Hang in there: something will come along. The current economic situation in the U.S. and worldwide has meant fewer new jobs opening up overall. This also means that companies are going to want to get their money worth. Why hire a green person and invest time and money into him/her when the newbie will just leave in a couple of years anyway for a better paying position elsewhere? They'd rather hire someone that has experience and will stay with the company for 5+ years.

So....there ya have it. That's my advice: network, get experience, learn as much as you can, write well, and DON'T GIVE UP. Take it or leave it, but I hope it's somewhat helpful.