Is my plan to change careers feasible? If not, how can I improve it?
August 16, 2015 10:06 AM   Subscribe

Objective: Career change to technical writing. Obstacles: My current demanding job. Needing to relocate to place that actually has technical writing jobs. **Please help me determine the feasibility of my plan to relocate and change my career. Details inside.**

My job pays very well but is highly demanding in terms of hours (on call, forced overtime, rotating shift work) and effort. We are seriously short-handed, so 1 person does the job of 3-4. It only gets worse with advancement. I'm stuck in fieldwork, which is a square hole to my round self. It's hurting my morale and killing my chances for advancement.

I want to do technical writing. It’s what I was originally hired for and what I did at first, before I had qualifications to do field work. Also, I like technical writing. I like it even more after going to the STC summit this year, reading extensively about it, and creating my first portfolio pieces.

However, I live in the country far from STC chapters (the nearest is Houston). There is no one to network with in person. And work is all-consuming. I rarely have time for networking online, let alone adding to my portfolio and applying for jobs. At the rate I’m going, it will be 10+ years before I ever change jobs. I’ve been investigating technical writing and working on my portfolio in stolen moments for a year already.

The Plan:
My plan thus far is to quit my job, move to Houston, and finally network and secure a technical writing job there. I'm aware that though I've written technical reports at my current job, companies will want to see portfolio pieces that use software like FrameMaker instead of just Word, which is the extent of my experience. So it may take a while to get a "real" technical writing job (not an internship or volunteer work). I have enough money saved for a year of not working, much longer if I actually budget. No kids or debt.

To make my savings last longer during the transition, I plan to substitute teach, tutor, and/or temp. (My English M.A. should help with the first two.) Originally I had planned to start this in Houston, but then it occurred to me: it would be better to start in my home state so there isn’t a work history gap. I.e. starting in Louisiana should grease the skids for me in Texas (right?). And I can stay at my current job during the search.

But what if I go to Houston and no one hires me for technical writing or my contingency jobs, and I ruin myself financially? Once I leave my job, I won't be able to come back. I have no familial support, either. How can I increase my chances of success with this gamble?
Is there a specific amount of time I ought to do my contingency jobs in Louisiana to improve my odds of finding similar work in Houston?
What can you tell me about Houston's job scenes in technical writing, teaching, tutoring, and temping work? Or other relevant points about moving for career changes etc?

Is the plan feasible in the current job market? If not, is there something I can do to improve it?

Thank you for reading and especially for your advice.
posted by glass.hourousha to Work & Money (9 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Can you clarify? There's so many kinds of technical writing. There's a wide range of jobs in various fields that do technical writing. For example, I do a lot of it. I'm in the environmental consulting biz, but to do this kind of writing you need to have scientific experience, which is different from say what you may need in the software industry.
posted by FireFountain at 10:15 AM on August 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Ultimately I’d like to get in on the programming side of technical writing like API’s, REST API's, and DITA, but I realize it takes time to learn the associated languages. For now, I’m focused on getting my foot in the door for writing about software. With my current work experience, I could also write for an industrial workplace about heavy equipment and safety.
posted by glass.hourousha at 11:46 AM on August 16, 2015

A few questions and also some suggestions...

1) Can you leverage your existing industry skills into a tech writing job at similar company? For example, I worked as a system admin for over a decade before moving into a tech writing job where my UNIX/Linux skills were a key factor in getting hired. Maybe you should be looking at something similar as a way to move into tech writing.

2) Are there companies in Houston that do what you do? When you say that you're in Louisiana and looking at Houston I'm guessing you're in energy or logistics, so could you get a similar but less stressful job in Houston? That way you'd be able to better network and hopefully have time to add to your portfolio.

A few suggestions:

1) If possible, cast a wider net. When I look around for tech writing jobs, I see a lot of them in places like Silicon Valley, Seattle, Portland, Austin, and Raleigh/Durham. Boston, DC, and NYC are also pretty big tech writing hotspots. Does it have to be Houston?

2) As FireFountain mentioned, there are so many kinds of tech writing. Gone are the days when a tech writer's job was churning out massive tomes in FrameMaker that were sent to the printer and then forgotten on the shelf. Think about what kind of work you'd like to do, and then see if that helps you narrow your search and guide you towards what kind of portfolio pieces you create.

3) Speaking of casting a wider net, I also suggest looking at places other than STC for networking or information on tech writing. I'm an STC member, but the only value I get from my membership is access to a mailing list for other people in my specific type of work situation. Look at places like Technical Writing World or Write The Docs, or some of the blogs by technical writers, like Tom Johnson's I'd Rather Be Writing. Also, follow the #techcomm hashtag on Twitter. I guarantee you'll find more relevant career info in those places than you will from STC.
posted by ralan at 11:50 AM on August 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you're interested in APIs, I highly recommend Peter Gruenbaum's two courses on Udemy - one for JSON and XML APIs, and one for REST APIs. I've taken both of the available courses, and I'm working on some side projects using what I've learned that will hopefully move me into a full-time API documentation job. While it's nice to know some of the programming aspects, you don't need to actually be a programmer to write API docs.

Start with the JSON/XML course, then move to the REST course. They will be worth your time.
posted by ralan at 12:04 PM on August 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

Note: tech writing is shifting to hourly work, even in full time full benefit job positions. My local stc chapter recently disbanded for lack of participation.
posted by tilde at 12:33 PM on August 16, 2015

Getting a technical writing job in Louisiana is a good idea. If you're asking if you should get jobs substitute teaching, and then leave your current job, in Louisiana before your move to Texas, I say no. Substitute teaching or your other "contingency" jobs aren't the jobs you want, so there's no point giving up a presumably better job just for that aspect.

So, there are two things I would do, if I were you. One, I would try to get a job, any job, in Texas where I wanted to be. Prioritize technical writing, but then if that isn't panning out, also look for teaching jobs or whatever. Two, I would try to get a technical writing job in my current location, in Louisiana.

I would not try to move and make the career change at once without landing some kind of job in my relocation destination. That's probably me being risk-averse, but I'd try like hell to avoid it if at all possible.
posted by J. Wilson at 4:30 PM on August 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

A lot of the technical writing of the sort you're talking about is done through online publishing these days, either through a CMS or something like Confluence, so I wouldn't beat yourself up too much about not having Framemaker experience.
posted by Candleman at 7:22 AM on August 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Candleman makes a good point - depending on who you talk to, the days of using tools like Framemaker are either long over, or at the least in a serious decline. I can't imagine that tools like FM will ever really go away, but I am personally seeing less demand for that kind of knowledge. There was even some discussion on the STC mailing list I'm on about the main (non-Adobe) Framemaker mailing list having shut down.

For the type of tech writing you want to do, like APIs and DITA, you'll most likely end up using a CMS or some kind of documentation generator like Swagger, or even a static site built with HTML5 and Javascript. Right now I'm playing around with MkDocs, which converts Markdown into a static website that can be used somewhere like Github Pages. Tom Johnson of I'd Rather Be Writing has an entire series on how he's using Jekyll for API documentation. If you work with DITA, you'll probably use an XML editor like oXygen. Don't think that just because you haven't spent time with Framemaker that you're lacking a critical skill. I've never used FM, and I can't imagine a time where I'll ever use FM, and I see no shortage of jobs out there for me.
posted by ralan at 10:36 AM on August 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

Learn DITA, and realize that you might not need to use it. But DITA could get your foot in the door. FrameMaker is good, but oXygen, xMeTaL, and even Madcap Flare are better. Once you know one tool, you can probably learn the rest. Definitely learn all about APIs. I've so far had no shortage of jobs in software documentation... but this is a tech bubble.

Go create yourself a simple personal website with a portfolio if you haven't already. Then, go apply for 50 jobs. I bet you'll get one.

Are you sure Houston is where you want to be? San Francisco and Boston have a lot of tech writing jobs as well.
posted by woodvine at 12:31 PM on August 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

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