Interview by Angel Candelario
These days, the main difference between a permanent employee and a contract employee is that the contractor usually knows their end date. Many people ask themselves if it’s possible that personal and professional growth can be achieved during the toughest of times. Bureeda Bruner is a successful technical writer with a personal story to share about hope, perseverance, and beating the odds during the recession.
Very kindly, Bureeda share with members of Technical Writer In Action her experiences in transitioning to technical communication.
TWIA: Bureeda, thank you for this extraordinary opportunity
Bureeda Bruner: Thank you, Angel. It’s always a pleasure to share knowledge.
TWIA: Currently you are a Technical Writer for a pharmaceutical company. What was your professional background before you chose a technical writing career?
Bureeda Bruner: I had a number of careers, but I’d already been writing for 20 years before I became a technical writer. Almost all of my learning has been self-taught. The Chinese curse, as they say, is “May you live in interesting times,” and “May you find what you are looking for.” Although I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a child, technical writing wasn’t my dream. But it’s interesting to me that without the advent of the Internet, it would have been difficult for me to have succeeded as a technical writer. With the Internet, I could quickly look up answers to questions I didn’t know. I could reach out to a very supportive community of other tech writers with questions on anything from how to control numbering in Word to how to tell a client that what they wanted me to do was unethical, without offending the client. So these interesting times definitely helped me find what I was looking for.
TWIA: Current Global Economic crisis has caused tremendous despair among employees and job-seekers alike. How did you start your career as technical writer?
Bureeda Bruner: I worked at a fax manufacturer where one of my tasks was to write a company newsletter. I was asked to apply for the job of technical writer. When I mentioned that I didn’t have the required degree or the technical experience, the hiring manager told me that he knew I could write well. He knew a secret that many managers of technical writers don’t: it’s much easier to teach technology than it is to teach all the fundamentals of good writing.
TWIA: How did you build your skills and prepare yourself to obtain a Technical Writer position?
Bureeda Bruner: I heard about the Society for Technical Communication, a necessary resource for a newcomer to tech writing. I was also lucky in one of my early jobs to work for a consulting company that had great processes and a mentoring program where new writers were paired with experienced writers. I learned about project management and the importance of helping clients understand the value of the service provided by technical writers. The kind of person who likes to sit at a desk and wait for work to come to them will never thrive as a technical writer; you have to be a self-starter to perform the most basic tasks.
TWIA: Do you recall how your interest in technical writing originated?
Bureeda Bruner: My focus back then was on my fiction writing. But I had a young son to support and knew I had the opportunity to have a good career writing, and I’d worked in enough unsatisfying jobs to be drawn to the idea that I could get paid well to do something I loved. I enjoy many aspects of the job that I didn’t expect, like working with different kinds of people in a company, figuring out the puzzle of a new product, and finding a better way of doing business tasks through mapping the process and writing up a procedure.
TWIA: Could you tell me a bit about the first technical writing project you ever worked on? What were a few of the challenges – or successes – you faced when first starting out?
Bureeda Bruner: I was documenting a fax machine. My big challenge wasn’t the technology, but that I was intimidated by technology. I didn’t know a circuit board from a 2X4. That was okay, though, because I was writing a user guide; these were written for laypersons, not engineers. He had mentioned early on that years from now I’d look back on my first manual and laugh about naïve choices I’d made, but that I shouldn’t worry because I would get better.
While writing this first book, I had to describe a command string using a slash. I was so afraid of technical inaccuracies that I took the time to research that this thing was called a virgule. I used that word in the text, and my boss’s only remark was “so that’s what that’s called.” I didn’t realize at the time that this very example was the sort of thing he told me I’d laugh about later. He was a boss ever. He let me make mistakes, he never micromanaged, and in five minutes a week he would teach me more than most bosses I’d ever worked for.
It took me a while to understand that the “mom factor,” which my boss said he’d hired me for, actually was a strength. So much technical writing fails because writers neglect to remember their audience and why someone buys a product. Now we have usability as a discipline and government agencies dedicated to “plain writing.”
TWIA: How does one become a technical writer?
Bureeda Bruner: There are degree programs through colleges and universities, and certificate programs through community colleges. You can also go into it mid-career. Today, technical writing is splintering into information and knowledge specialties: content developer, web developer, information architect, usability expert, and many, many others. I’ve seen successful businesses devoted purely to PowerPoint design. Although you need to be interested in at least some level of technology today, this also means there are many exciting opportunities available for those willing to learn. Again, I would recommend the STC as a great resource to learn more about technical writing and how to make a career of it.
TWIA: Is it necessary to be a “Certified” Technical Writer? How the “Online Diploma Mills” phenomenon has impacted this career field?
Bureeda Bruner: Certification continues to be a hot topic of discussion within the technical writing community. It’s not necessary if you have a strong resume, but if you don’t have much experience, it’s a good way to add credibility. Certification demonstrates to a prospective employer that you’ve taken the time to improve your skills and that you do have a certain body of knowledge.
I can’t really speak to the diploma mills. I’ve seen tech writers working in jobs for which they aren’t qualified, but they’re usually writers who have legitimate degrees. While most companies are willing to accept experience in lieu of a degree, there are still many companies where you just can’t get in the door without a degree. But I have to assume that reputable recruiters have resources identifying these “diploma mill” diplomas as being suspect.
You really do get back what you give, so it makes more sense to me for a newcomer to join the STC and build skills through them and other online resources, if going to college just isn’t an option. There are tons of free resources out there to learn the skills, like the W3C classes. To apply the learning and get experience, volunteer to offer your newly gained skills to nonprofits you like. Build a couple of websites of your own so you can use them as samples on your resume.
TWIA: I always recommended to my followers to join the Society of Technical Communicators as a good strategy to improve their chances in the industry. In your opinion, how relevant is it to join the STC in order to improve the chances to obtain and kept a job in the technical communication industry?
Bureeda Bruner: The STC is essential not only for a newcomer, but for all professionals who take best practices seriously and who want to keep their skills up-to-date. The dues have increased a great deal since I first became a technical writer, but for the value of networking alone – along with some of their job banks – it’s still a bargain. In my opinion, the most valuable products you get from the STC are the salary surveys and the access to the huge body of knowledge in other technical writers.
If you can use the STC salary survey to prove to your boss that you’re underpaid by $10-20k, a $200 membership is a steal.
The STC is also a way that you can become a thought leader by demonstrating your leadership skills and raising your visibility. Just being willing to volunteer your time and knowledge to contribute to discussions within the STC increases your credibility and marketability. No matter what your interests are, there are volunteer opportunities in the STC.
TWIA: Have you received the Certified Professional Technical Communicator designation (CPTC) from STC? What is your opinion regarding this certificate and benefits?
Bureeda Bruner: Although I’m not certified, I support it. This is a development in recent years that I would encourage new technical writers to pursue. The STC has been a leading force in legitimizing technical writing as a profession, from training newer professionals, to working with the Department of Labor to make certain our profession is appropriately categorized (for salary and other purposes).
A new tech writer who’s certified may not have the full body of knowledge and skills that a more experienced writer would, but if you were interviewing two writers of equal experience, one of whom was certified, which one would you hire? As busy as recruiters and hiring managers are, there’s a good chance the resume with the certification will be selected from the stack purely based on the CPTC after the candidate’s name – even when the recruiter knows nothing about certification.
I feel confident that in another few years, the designation of CPTC will be similar in stature to that of a CPA.
TWIA: What advice would you give – if any – to those looking to start, or transition into, a career in technical writing?
- Do your homework. Research is a required skill for any technical writer, so start honing those skills now. Spend a few weeks becoming familiar with all the different disciplines (the STC SIGs are a great place to do that, as are Linkedin groups – members can ask questions and other members are only too happy to respond with their knowledge).
- Take advantage of the many free training and career resources available online. Be a self-starter – don’t wait for some company to pay for training.
- Look at all of your experiences and see what universal skills you’ve learned. That dead-end job you had in high school in customer service, you’ll find, actually taught you how to respond to your clients and others today, if you remember to look for opportunities to use your knowledge.
- Join the STC and attend every meeting you can. Participate in online discussions and build a rapport with your peers. When you ask questions in online discussion groups, try to narrow the question to show you’ve done some homework. Writers are usually busy and may be reading the discussion to take a break or over lunch at their desks. The question “how do I become a tech writer” is open-ended, something that should be asked in a Google search box, not an STC discussion. But if you ask, “What books do you recommend to learn about documentation project management?” you’re tapping into experienced writers’ storehouse of knowledge, as well as something they care about. (And to answer that question: Joann Hackos’ book is still the best.)
TWIA: Self-employment (contract, etc) it’s a good solution to current economic crisis?
Bureeda Bruner: Consulting and contracting is becoming more and more the norm in technical writing as companies downsize and outsource. Candidates should do their homework about contracting and market rates – the difference between W2 and 1099 contracting, for example. It makes a huge difference to your bookkeeping as well as the rate. And while recruiters offer a lower rate for long-term contracts, remember that many employers use long-term contractors in place of employees, and you could be there for years. Find out what your options (if any) might be for raises, if you’re in the job for several years.
Also, after you have some solid experience, don’t be afraid to quote a market rate when a recruiter asks you for your rate. While a brand-new writer isn’t going to get the same rate as a more experienced professional, I can tell you that you don’t want to work for a company that doesn’t recognize the value of their people. And although I know what it’s like to need work, you’re not doing yourself or the tech writing community any favors when you accept below-market rates.
Also, remember what my mentor told me in my first consulting job: “The best thing about contract work is that if you don’t like the project, you know there’s an end in sight. And you can do anything for three months.”
TWIA: Anne Meredith is a pseudonym used by you for a series of time-travel books (Love Across Time, Love’s Timeless Hope). When and why did you begin writing? Why write under a pseudonym?
Bureeda Bruner: I started writing when I was 12 as escapism, and I started getting rejection letters when I was 15. That was back in the olden days when editors read at least a few lines of all the submissions. Now publishers only accept work through an agent, and most agents have assistants who read submissions. Romance time-travel wasn’t what I wanted to write; it was something to make a living. I still write fiction and plan to publish something with my real name soon. Even fiction publishing is living in interesting times these days, and there are many successful authors who started out self-publishing e-books online – I haven’t tried this yet, though.
TWIA: Many of our members are in a very difficult situation due to the current economy. Some of them are looking to transition to technical writing as a career, or vice-versa. Do you have anything specific that you want to say to these persons?
Bureeda Bruner: I’d say that if you have no interest in computers or technology, tech writing probably isn’t for you. Every day new products are released that display content electronically, and every day more companies drop their support of printed manuals (although by law or other necessity, some deliverables will always be printed.)
For tech writers interested in other careers, web development, instructional design, and software development are good areas where they can build on existing skills and with a bit of minimal training expand into other careers.
I’d also offer (to both groups) the same advice a guidance counselor would:
- Look at your strengths. Look at what you enjoy doing.
- Do some brainstorming and be as creative as possible in coming up with ideas.
- Do you like solving puzzles? Are you intellectually curious? Do you like talking to others to learn more information? Do you enjoy finding order in chaos and structuring it into a logical organization? You might like tech writing. (You might also like software development.)
I caution those who want to get into it because they’ve heard you can work from home. You can, often, but not always, and prospective perks (alone) aren’t a good reason to pursue a career.
I’d also suggest both of these types of individuals use LinkedIn as a resource. Put yourself out there and learn. There are so many people here who are willing to share knowledge. Join groups that interest you and participate in discussions. Last year through participation in a group, I was eventually offered a very desirable position in an area of the country that I love, by a member of a group I met online through LinkedIn. Although I didn’t end up taking the position, it was a great result of just reaching out to others.
We all face the challenge of the current economy. I was lucky to come of age as a technical writer during the ‘90s, when work was easy to find. After the dot-com crash, those opportunities dried up. At that point I started reading the newspaper differently; I began thinking through what different economic news means and how it might impact the industry of my current client as well as clients I’d like to work for.
Even reading the headlines of the past few years such as the economic tsunami that followed the earthquake of the real estate crash, a savvy professional can often see when a ripple effect may wind up washing over us, and sometimes (not always), this knowledge can help us minimize the damage.
By that same token, we can also see opportunities – such as the need for new documentation to support legislation regulating the financial industry, the Affordable Care Act, or those many companies whose documentation must comply with this legislation.
When I’m looking for work, I’m fairly obsessive, approaching it as a full-time job in addition to whatever job I’m already working. I know I’m only one of many candidates, and I apply for lots of jobs.
But more importantly, when I’m not looking, I network frequently on LinkedIn, I keep open relationships with every good recruiter I meet, and I look for opportunities to try to help others who are looking – not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because every single time you do that, you’re putting yourself out there for good opportunities to come back to you.