Technical Writing offshoring and job security
June 10, 2014 5:51 PM   Subscribe

Technical writers: please share your experiences with me regarding offshoring and job security. I am considering technical writing as a career change and want to determine if it would be a good move to enter this field. Details inside.

Recently, I’ve been researching technical writing as a change of career. I think I’d find the work doable, even enjoyable, given my background in nuclear power. I’m now investigating technical writing job security to determine if it would be a good move to enter this field. I want additional perspective to help decide if the negative blog posts and comments I’ve read on offshoring are representative, as I can be pessimistic and don’t want my biases to stop me from a good thing.

-- My questions –

1) Offshoring: Please tell me how offshoring has affected your job(s) as a technical writer, noting your area of focus (engineering, software, healthcare, etc). Could offshoring be specific to certain branches of technical writing, such as software, while not affecting others like health care? Are there ways to protect your position? If offshoring has not affected you, I want to know that, too.

2) These days, from what I’ve read, no technical writer “just writes” anymore. They work with media (instructional videos, technical illustrations) programming (websites), and are expected to learn about the products they write about by collaborating with SME’s. In short, employers want fewer workers to do more. What this tells me is that the technical writing field is contracting. How secure are in-house technical writing positions? Are layoffs frequent? And, again, are there ways to protect your position?

Thank you very much for your responses. Please correct me if I’ve stated something wrong in my summaries of current technical writer situations; everything I know about this line of work comes from books and online.

Rankings of my technical writing interests (which could change as I learn more).

1) government (I already use tons of dry regulatory documents in nuke power. I’d guess my skills would transfer).
2) engineering (I may also have transferable skills here from nuke power.)
3) software (I enjoy computers but would have to learn a lot.)
4) education
5) business
6) medical (last because I think it would require the most learning and is farthest from my present experience)
posted by glass.hourousha to Work & Money (6 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a technical writer, currently working in the software industry. I've also worked in banking. I used to work in the US, and now work in Europe. It might help if you update this question with your location.

1) Off-shoring hasn't affected me at all. I've never felt at any risk of losing work to off-shore workers. Two ideas that have come up are outsourcing some of my workload to a local company or bringing in another writer on a short-term contract, but those ideas have always been in the context of supplementing the work that I do. And nothing has ever come of them, because my employers would rather just live without that work being done than spend money and time to bring in a contractor.

I've found that in the software world, people realize that there are big advantages to having a tech writer on-site. Real-time interaction between writers and developers, testers, PMs, pre-sales, etc. is really valuable. Honestly, in an off-shoring scenario, I wouldn't be surprised if non-writers do the bulk of content creation and tech writers are just expected to "clean it up". But I think most employers want more than that.

2) This depends a lot on the organization you work for. I've worked with many technical writers who refused to create videos or touch anything that looks like code, and their jobs were secure. However, I imagine the "writer only" approach will fade away as older tech writers start retiring. Personally, I think it's wise (and fun!) to expand your skill set by taking on work that isn't "just writing".

It is true that some employers would like to get more bang for their buck. I've talked to companies looking for tech writer + business analyst and tech writer + Scrum master. All for the salary they'd pay a tech writer, of course.

Note that this: are expected to learn about the products they write about by collaborating with SME’s is a core skill in technical writing. It isn't an add-on that employers have recently started looking for.

I've had five in-house tech writing jobs in my career, and they've all been secure. I was only at risk of layoff once, and that was when the company was laying off people in every role, department, and office.

In a perfect world, the best way to protect your position is to be really good at what you do. Unfortunately, the organization's bottom line can win out anyway! I've had better experiences working for small (<200 people) companies, where my contributions are obvious and are recognized. At a large company, it can be hard for people to see how you add value (especially if the people evaluating this aren't your immediate managers). And if you're one member of a big team of tech writers, then it's not too hard to lay off a few writers when there are budget cuts.
posted by neushoorn at 10:35 PM on June 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm a tech writer at a Really Big, Really Old Tech Company, in the software division. I've been here for a year and a half, and no one from my team has been laid off. We're a global company, so there are members of my team in other countries, but no one is outsourcing writing that needs to be done by a native English speaker.

Note that this: "are expected to learn about the products they write about by collaborating with SME’s" is a core skill in technical writing. It isn't an add-on that employers have recently started looking for.

^^^ 100% correct. I'm adding to my job security by learning other skills, like creating multimedia and basic programming. (Extremely basic.) I'm also planning to go back to school to get a graduate degree in Human Factors/Information Design, so that I can start having a hand in creating the requirements for the software itself.
posted by woodvine at 3:22 AM on June 11, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you both. Forgot to mention, I'm in the U.S.
posted by glass.hourousha at 6:47 AM on June 11, 2014

I'm a tech writer in the medical device industry (also a global company). The others are correct. It's generally considered inefficient to outsource writing, since too much time is spent managing and editing it when it gets back. (My friend in the industry was briefly assigned to manage folks overseas and do nothing else at his job, until they realized that he could do all the work himself.) One of my competitors is trying to outsource now (and laying off folks here), but that's only because they're in trouble and desperate to cut costs.
posted by Melismata at 7:23 AM on June 11, 2014

I've been a technical writer since 2005. I am in Canada (though I work for an int'l company) and have worked in software and engineering. To answer your questions:

1. Offshoring has not affected me at all.
2. I've never heard that technical writers 'just write' (except, perhaps, from people who aren't technical writers). It's true that having strong ancillary skills/knowledge is an asset, but like the previous posters said, the ability to learn about the product/industry/technology is a core skill. The ability to learn quickly and independently is better still.

In short, employers want fewer workers to do more.

Sometimes it's a case of evolving demands. As an example--print documentation used to be the norm, but now people expect docs delivered to mobile devices as well as online, wikis, etc., often in addition to print. If you're versed in tools that produce multiple doc formats, including video and so on, you could have the edge over other candidates.

And, again, are there ways to protect your position?

Learn a lot, more than just the bare minimum to do your job. Get training or certifications, if possible/applicable. Project management skills are essential as well; being a good writer with solid tech skills isn't necessarily useful if you can't plan, scope, and manage all areas of your own projects.
posted by methroach at 8:22 AM on June 11, 2014

My degrees are in English and IT. I studied technical writing as an English major but didn’t start working specifically as a technical writer until 7 years ago. The odd thing about my work history is that each of my previous jobs hired me, not because I was a great computer or systems person, but because I had documentation skills. So there’s obviously a market as well as a need.

I work in the medical software field (Electronic Health Records with a primary focus on mental and behavioral health service, care, and billing).

1) In my experience, off shoring has never really been an issue (or threat). As far as I know there isn't an industry taboo against off shore resources but general consensus seems to be that content creators are most effective when they’re connected to or at least extremely familiar with the region or country they’re delivering content to. I don’t recall ever having any specific conversations, but I suspect the attitude is more about an understanding of tone and nuance.

2) Tech writers haven’t been bullet point editors for a very long time now. The type of content you will create will really depend on the industry you land in. In software, we still do a lot of user manuals and admin guides, but we also develop help files, create web content, training materials (including video, story boards, CBT, etc.), and we still have to maintain archives, (the dreaded) style guides, and all of the other boring documentation resource tasks. Tech writers quickly become SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) in their fields. The biggest problem with becoming an SME on a subject is that you can easily lose your audience perspective and stop writing to the audience and start writing in an everybody-should-know-that assumption, making the documentation less helpful to the people it was intended to help.
posted by AMValen at 8:13 PM on June 12, 2014

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