Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Staying Employed--What I've Learnt

Times are tough for all. Especially for Lone Technical Writers in small-to-medium sized companies. We are most vulnerable in these times and also when the management is deciding on their next budget. I am the only technical writer at my current company and I work within the Product Development team. I’ve been here as a sub-contractor for almost ten months now.

The Story
At the beginning of March my client informed through my agent that they’ll not be able to extend my contract beyond March 31 due to budget shortages. They were kind enough to give me a month’s notice and also there were pending items to be completed for which a month’s time seemed right.

But something happened last week in regards to my contract that made me decide to write this article to tell other technical writers that there are ways to find to keep yourself employed, either contract or full-time. During the last ten months as always I’ve used all my skills both as a writer and a self-marketer to do a good job and to keep myself in the light of all groups. I did this by always talking to people from all groups both formally in meetings and informally in hallways.

By now, most of them knew me by face and name, and that I was the technical writer in the Product group. I’ve helped other groups even in areas that were unrelated to writing, Once, I had called upon my previous experience as a database programmer to help a QA person. I wrote a code snippet to help her with tallying pass/fail test cases in an Excel spreadsheet.

The Surprise
So, coming back to what happened last week, it was business as usual and I was at the printer picking up a document I had just printed and there was the Implementations and QA group’s manager standing beside me and to my surprise he asked if I was available to work for a month for their group. Since, I hadn’t really found anything concrete elsewhere I said “yes”. He smilingly said that he had already spoken to my agent and was initiating an extension.

It was a pleasant surprise that all that work during the last ten months did get noticed and they didn’t want to lose a resource unless they really had to.

Story Continued …
Meanwhile, my current manager wanted me to create a New Employee Orientation presentation which we had been talking about for a while. I had suggested some reading material and using that as a starting point I began creating the presentation.

During this process I had to talk to managers of different teams to identify:

  • The various processes/procedures specific to their team.
  • Any applicable training their team had to go through.
  • If they had any reading material that was provided to the new employee within their team.
What this process revealed was that each team had certain amount of content or processes that were either not documented anywhere or not current. I conveyed this information to my current manager who in turn told me that she will do her best to keep me longer there and see if the other groups want use my skills to get their documentation up-to-date.

Well, I know what you are thinking “what has this got to do with my situation, right?” But, as a technical writer I am sure you understand many of the points I mentioned above. My concluding points to my fellow technical writers are:
  • Don’t throw away your skills you earned before you were a technical writer. They can earn you bonus points.
  • Always make yourself visible to the whole company or as many teams as possible.
  • Have lots of informal conversations and ask curious questions regarding their documentation and just hint that you can help them out with these documents, procedures, etc.
  • Try to find out through formal or informal means if any of the other teams need help with their documents.
  • And last, hang in there.