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Publications > Dateline Houston > November 2003 > Director-Sponsor Report

Volume 43, Issue 2

November 2003

Director-Sponsor Report

What Color Is Your Future Job: Commodity Writer or
Strategic Communicator?

by Rahel Anne Bailie, STC Director-Sponsor for Region 7

This month, I found myself in Portland, Oregon, for the STC Board of Directors meeting and the Willamette Valley's season kickoff meeting, which the chapter organized to coincide with the board meeting. The topic was the future of technical communication, a panel discussion that included a workforce analyst, two STC board members, and two local technical communicators who weathered the turndown in the economy and embody the characteristics of career survivors.

As context for the panel discussion, it happens to be that Oregon is the hardest hit state of all the U.S. Many software development jobs have been sent offshore, and the technical communication jobs that accompanied those jobs dried up, as well. Even in companies retaining their North American-based staff, the continual effort to trim "waste" continues to erode jobs in departments seen as cost centers.

Commodity writing is the type of technical communication characterized as the creation of formulaic documentation on demand, and is closely tied to writing code. Companies are increasingly comfortable outsourcing both of these tasks. Those jobs are being sent offshore, as evidenced by the surge in job openings on STC job boards in the Asia-Pacific countries.

Increasingly, the jobs that remain are for "strategic contributors," technical communicators who can be entrusted to look beyond the pages of their manuals, beyond the screens of documentation, beyond the department of documentation, and even beyond the GUI. These strategic contributors look at the product from a business point of view and ensure that they positively affect the bottom line through their contributions to the company's product. Their contribution may be content, user-centered design, or specific communications products, but the content arises from a perspective of problem-solving. The successful strategic contributor is recognized by management as a valuable part of the team, and may be part of the management team. (See Andrea Ames' presentation slides at

What impressed me was a panelists who embodied the principles of strategic contribution. Sheila Reitz, a contractor for an Oregon power company, made a conscious choice to move from commodity work to strategic contribution. Using a performance-based résumé—coincidentally, I discuss these techniques in "Using a Résumé to Showcase Your Talents" in the September/October 2003 issue of Intercom—Reitz demonstrated her ability to contribute her analytical and communication skills to documenting workflow processes. As a result, her first phone call to user-test the new résumé format resulted in a landing a dream contract, when her tester exclaimed, "We need you!"

The landscape for technical communications has changed and will continue to change. Whether you are a technical communicator outside of North America who is benefiting from the windfall of technical writing jobs coming to your area or a technical communicator called upon to stretch your imagination, the quest is the same one posed by Dick Bolles, author of What Color Is Your Parachute?: Which of my skills fills the changing needs in the local market, and how can I market myself to meet those needs?

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