What’s my value as a technical communicator?

I felt like a superhero and could conquer the world--what happened?

I felt like a superhero and could conquer the world–what happened?

I apologize for being absent for so long, and only sharing curated content for the last few months. There have been a lot of changes, and there’s still some transitioning going on, so keeping up with a blog hasn’t been that easy to do.

Even so, it’s a time when I’ve recently been doing a lot of soul searching with regards to my career. It’s take some unexpected turns in the last few months since my long-term contract ended in July. Some of it good, some of it not as good, but all have been learning experiences not only in learning something new, but learning something about myself.

I’ve been reflecting on several jobs I’ve had over the years, and looking at patterns of where things went right, and where things went wrong. Not being so young anymore, I have a certain perspective now that I wouldn’t have had even just a few years ago. I guess with age does come wisdom. I’ve also started to figure out what I want–and don’t want–from my career.

I’ll give you an example of a common pattern that’s happened in my career. I would take a job or an assignment because I needed the money and/or had a certain set of expectations that the experience would help my career. When none of the expectations of that position would have been met, deep frustration would set in, which would yield to depression and feeling stuck. I would be asked to bring certain skills, and was hired due to those skills, but then those skills wouldn’t be used. I would end up trapped in doing something that I could do well, or at least passably, but not something I wanted to do. This has happened several times, and I question why I get stuck in that kind of situation so frequently.

I thought of a job analogy that might explain this differently. Imagine that you had gone to culinary school to become a trained chef . So, as a chef, you are hired at a restaurant to work in the kitchen in a chef role for your cooking skills, and you’re fine with doing salad duty to work your way up, as long as cooking is involved, because that’s your passion and training. But for some reason, the owner has you left out of the kitchen to wait on tables for a while because it will help you understand your patrons. You go along with it for a little while, with the hope that you’ll get to that salad chopping soon. Soon, it becomes apparent that the owner has you, a chef, waiting on tables permanently. It’s not that you don’t have the ability to wait tables, but it’s not what you were hired to do, and it’s not strength. Subsequently, you get upset because the training and expertise is being wasted, and you feel like you were misled, because the job completely changed from the job description given at the time of the application and interview.

Like I said, I’ve had this happen to me several times over the years, and right now, I often feel like I’ve fallen into that “chef” role described above. The difference is that I’m a technical communicator, and what I “cook” is different. I know there are certain things that I do very well. I know I’m a capable person, but I also recognize my weaknesses.  I also know what I don’t want to do. Becoming a technical communicator in my late forties has been the making of a second career. I know I’m still working my way up and gaining experience, but I have prior experience, too. At my age, I’m getting to a point that I’m financially secure enough that I don’t have to keep a job for financial security as much as when I was young, but I do need to like what I’m doing and have a steady, fair-paying income.

This thought process lead me to thinking about what makes an ideal job–whether you are a technical communicator, or have any kind of job, for that matter. I’ve concluded that what makes or breaks your contentment with a job is having the feeling of being valued. The positions where I learned and grew the most, and where I was generally happiest were at jobs where I felt like I was valued for my skills, my insights, and my opinions.  Most often, all I wanted was for my voice to be heard and considered, not heard and pushed aside. I can accept if there’s a valid reason why my idea is not a good one, but “that doesn’t work,” or “that’s not how we do it,” or “everyone’s used to that, so why change it?” doesn’t sit with me too well most of the time. They seem like childish responses. I like to show that I can do the work, and do it well or beyond expectations. I try to push limits where I can, because it helps everyone grow and progress. There was a point in my career when I got accustomed to being dismissed for proposing any ideas or solutions, and so I accepted that my ideas or opinions weren’t valued at all. I lost my “voice” for a very long time. But in recent years, I was invited to use my voice, and as a result, I roared! I grew as a person, because I felt valued because I could contribute some good ideas, even if there were ideas that weren’t used.

But lately, I’ve been unbalanced in what I’ve been working on, and I’ve let that get to me profoundly.  I question whether I’m on the right track to be doing something that uses my skills the right way and makes me feel valued. My confidence has been compromised, and it’s a truly awful feeling that I don’t want taking over my life.

At some point, I'll feel like I'm flying high again.

At some point, I’ll feel like I’m flying high again.

As I continue this soul searching process, it brings me to the question of what makes me a valuable technical communicator? What is it that I do so well that some people appreciate it, and others not as much? What do I need to do to bring out the best worker in me? What do I need to do to grow and help myself create new opportunities while providing the valuable know-how I already possess?

I am curious as to what other technical communicators think, based on their experiences. I know of several technical communicators who are also in flux with their careers as well–between jobs or having taken new jobs recently. The technical communications field is not an easy one, as it is rife with both short and long-term contracts, people who don’t understand what the value of tech comm as a whole is, and situations where people don’t understand how to best utilize us.  What are your experiences? Have you gone through the same roller coaster rides that I’ve been career-wise? What has made your career as a technical communicator worth the past hardships? What do you think is the value of a technical communicator?

Include your comments below! I would really like to hear and share experiences with others.

About TechCommGeekMom

Danielle M. Villegas is a technical communicator who has recently started her own technical communications consultancy, Dair Communications. She has worked at the International Refugee Committee, MetLife, Novo Nordisk, and BASF North America, with a background in content strategy, web content management, social media, project management, e-learning, and client services. Danielle is best known in the technical communications world for her blog, TechCommGeekMom.com, which has continued to flourish since it was launched during her graduate studies at NJIT in 2012. She has presented webinars and seminars for Adobe, the Society for Technical Communication (STC), the IEEE ProComm, and at Drexel University’s eLearning Conference. She has written articles for the STC Intercom, STC Notebook, the Content Rules blog, and The Content Wrangler as well. You can learn more about Danielle on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/daniellemvillegas, on Twitter @techcommgeekmom, or through her blog.
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6 Responses to What’s my value as a technical communicator?

  1. No job or career is ever what we expect. I enjoy being a technical writer. I wanted to be one since grade school. Back then, everyone (including parents) told me that no one would ever pay ME to write. I eventually proved them all wrong. Is every day great? Nope. Are most days okay? Yes. I totally understand how you feel. I have tried to get management buy-in for video, but no dice so far. Shrug. I will keep trying. I take notes during meetings here. I can do it far more easily than anyone else here, and it keeps me “visible.” Maybe your superiors need you to “wait on tables” right now. We are employed to serve their needs.If they need you to “be a waiter” and me to take notes, so be it. Just make sure that your identity is not wrapped up in your work, and make sure you have outside interests. Apologies for rambling. It’s early! If you want to vent further, you know my email.

  2. Larry Kunz says:

    Danielle, thanks for sharing your experiences so candidly. In our profession the “waiter” thing happens far more often than anyone likes to admit.

    It wasn’t until I spent a few years in Marketing, after almost 15 years as a technical communicator, that I truly appreciated the importance of contributing value. (Before that I just did my work and was paid what I thought was a good wage. That was as far as it went.) Value to me is creating or designing something that contributes to my employer’s or client’s business — either directly on the bottom line or indirectly by enhancing the brand.

    If I work for a boss who doesn’t understand the value I contribute, I can’t be happy. This is what’s happened to you at various stages of your career. It might help to have a heart-to-heart with the boss or client: ask what you can do that they would see as contributing value in their eyes, and suggest some things they might not have thought of. That’ll align expectations and increase the odds that you’ll be appreciated.

    • I agree with your definition of “value” as well. I think in the end, I take fulfillment knowing that when I do bring “value” to my employer’s needs, they “value” me as well. I have talked to managers in the past, and often find it’s a dead end. Sometimes expectations and contributions don’t align, and that’s when you have to move on. The question now is…figuring out my own value to promote it best, or conversely figuring out what is valuable to employers or clients, then deciding how to make that happen through me. That’s the hardest part of all, and makes me physically ill because it’s not an easy exercise, and my perception of the entire process blows my comprehension to pieces.

  3. David Farbey says:

    All careers are difficult, and I agree that tech comm careers can be particularly difficult if you feel you’re not appreciated. I’ve encountered that too, when every other discipline is valued but the tech writers aren’t. Occasionally I have been able to improve things, but not always. In those cases I have chosen to move on.
    I think I have been lucky in that I have often worked in small companies or un small teams where every contribution is both visible and valued. Perhaps that is something to bear in mind when you look for your next role: smaller companies or smaller teams can provide a more rewarding work experience.

    • My better experiences reflect what you’ve outlined here–a small company or small team makes a difference. In those instances where I did feel some sense of value (in the ways that Larry Kunz and I described in the comments here), I did not move to something else voluntarily. One job was a layoff, and another was that not enough work was coming through to justify the cost of keeping me full-time. Both business decisions that weren’t a reflection of my work, yet still disappointing. Finding that perfect mix is also difficult too. I’m finding that it’s rare to find the perfect confluence of an appropriate position AND the right working environment. Often it’s one or the other, and sometimes it ends up being neither.

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