Going from Zero to Superhero

The Situation

Rampage goes into work every day wishing he was going anywhere else. He sits in his cubicle, chatting with his friends, playing solitaire, and spends an unbelievable amount of time on Facebook. He was the first person to try “Angry Birds”. He browses the job openings pages, but is disheartened by what he sees. Two other writers should be managing him and keeping him on track, but they’re busy. So he’s literally bored to tears because he just isn’t challenged enough.

His performance reviews are lukewarm. He tends to get assigned those last minute projects that no one really cares about –Rampage is turning into a sanitation engineer. There is no talk of advancement. He has the uncanny sensation that if they start cutting jobs, he’ll be the first to go. And he’s not wrong.

The Solution

It’s time to take your career into your own hands before you suffer death by cubicle and NO ONE NOTICES. Let’s face it, no one is going to make you an admired and well-paid superhero except you. It’s time to start building your skill set of awesome: your renewable, sustainable superhero powers that fear no Kryptonite.

Take on extra work. Has your manager asked for a “volunteer” to do extra duty but you panicked and avoided eye contact by spilling coffee on yourself? It’s time to get your head out of your sand because those are your big opportunities to become spill resistant. Do you see a potential area for getting documentation to the next level? Is Training looking for someone to coordinate with? Jump on that opportunity, speak up, and volunteer. Even if you haven’t the faintest idea how it can be done, dive in and start researching. Ask for help if you need it and don’t give up too soon. Tap ALL resources (LinkedIn groups, online support threads, your mom, your favorite English teacher in high school). You’ll come out on the other side of this “trial by fire” with the ability to be fireproof and the perception from others that you’re a “git ‘er done” sort of person. Even if you’re only marginally successful, you’re still building the skills and techniques that will eventually get you where you want to be: whether it’s leaping tall buildings or exploring the center of the sun.

Develop a career plan. What kind of superhero do you want to be? Exploring new areas of documentation? Mastering what no one else understands? Or just pure evil genius: the guy everyone goes to for the smart solutions. Are you a freelance superhero, or part of a team? What will it take to get you where you want to go? Brainstorm your way through this exercise, then go back and do your research to fill in the details.

  1. What requirements does your dream job have? Seriously, go find the ad(s) for that dream job and write the requirements down.
  2. Identify the first step that will take you closer to that job or mastering that first requirement.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 for the other requirements.
  4. Plan it all out, one step at a time, including general timeframes.
  5. Expect the unexpected. Things might not go as planned (do they ever?), but along the way you’ll gather experience, speed, endurance, and the ability to control the weather (or better yet, the direction of your career).

Invest in yourself. Every super hero started in training–at Xavier’s School for Gifted Children, down in the Bat Cave or at the Fortress of Solitude. So make sure you take the time (and money) to get yourself trained in the skills that can boost your career. Concentrate on two areas: 1) Stuff you’re interested in and good at (Batman mastered Jiujitsu because he was good at it and it built on his strengths) and 2) Your Kryptonite. If your employer won’t spring for the training, pay for it yourself (and ask the organizer for a discount: superhero in training!). You’re investing in your own skills and, let’s face it, you’re worth the money. The payback will be getting that promotion, new job, or first client.

1. Stuff You’re Interested in

Join a webinar, buy the book, or just start playing around with the stuff that fascinates you. Current trends to think about:

  • DITA: Understand the basics and what it could do for your company. It’s here to stay. If it makes sense for your company (or just for you and your future), get training from the professionals who know what they’re doing. A DITA implementation could show an almost immediate return on investment for your company. Which means you can give your department a cloak of invulnerability.
  • Minimalism/Topic-Based Writing: Usually paired with DITA, this area strives to write in a way that meets users’ needs. Switching from feature-based writing to user-based writing can really enhance your documentation, even if DITA is too big a step. Documentation that meets users’ needs makes the product better, much better and usually blows them and the sales guys away. And an awesome product means the company gets that “oh yeah, I love them” reputation. Now you’re wearing superhero tights, oh yeah.
  • User Experience (UX) Design: If you already have strong grasp on what makes your users tick, then use that superpower to help design the product so that it needs less explanatory documentation (or none at all!). Minimalistic documentation plus an intuitive design makes a karate-kick-butt product people will drool over. And you can start making your cape.
  • Single sourcing: Single sourcing means using a piece of content across many different products and deliverables (and having it be correct and appropriate in each place). Can you save the company millions of dollars in writer and translation costs? Quite possibly. And now you’ve just earned your Batmobile.
  • Internationalization and localization: The easy, fast way to substitute languages and terms (in the product) for a specific audience. By centralizing all GUI terms in one file, translation now has an easy job of providing an interface that uses terms specific to specific locales. Like telepathy, you can look into the user’s mind and provide the exact language they need.
  • Metrics: Like to make pretty pie charts after spending hours calculating the relative cost of hiring local versus international writers? This might be the area for you. Turn your laser focus towards project efficiency, translation costs, process improvements, peer reviews, CMS implementation, or user feedback. Which areas can your department save the most time or money? Pitch it to your manager, and include the pie charts (they like pretty things). Use at least one to explain the bottom line: “Over the next five years, the company will save an estimated $120,000 in writers’ time and $700,000 in translation costs.” Fiscal heroes are still heroes.
  • Tools: Download and play with trial/free versions of the software tools that help make tech writing life easier. From XML editors like oXygen and XMetaL to project management software (Basecamp or PBwiki), pick the ones you’re interested in and see what you can learn. And don’t forget IBM’s Information Architecture Workbench. It’s free. And awesome. All great superheroes stop to pick up cool, new gadgets.

2. Your Kryptonite

Spend some time tackling your weaknesses. Start with the general areas on your performance review to see what others identify as your Kryptonite. Learn on your own or buddy up with someone in your department who’s getting good reviews. Have them mentor you in the areas you need help or just ask if you can pick their brain.

  • If you’re weak on tracking or communicating project progress, learn some basic project management skills. Online and free courses are available, but remember that you often get what you pay for. Consider continuing education or professional courses at the local community college, and don’t forget to check out what training your organization already has on hand.
  • Dealing with co-workers can be a huge challenge. If you find the tension or futile arguments cluttering up your workday, learn some skills and strategies for managing prickly, stuffy, or snide co-workers. Every superhero has teammates. Getting along well with them can make or break your missions.
  • If, like Green Lantern, you need recharge (your writing), look for ways to get back to the basics: learn minimalism or take a refresher in editing or clear writing. Get a peer review of your content and learn with the feedback you get.
  • Upgrade your product knowledge: The better you understand your product, the more innocent victims you can save. Interview Support or sales people, anyone who has actual contact with customers, to get a better handle on more than just the features of the product. You want to understand what users are trying to accomplish, and why and how they’re doing it. Getting some perspective on related products can also help you understand your own. Start by volunteering to help with peer reviews for other products, or just browse the documentation.
  • If your team is far-flung or even sitting right next to each other, chances are that they’re working inefficiently and could benefit from collaborative strategies. From online collaborative brainstorming tools (http://www.deskaway.com/, http://www.huddle.com/) to workflow templates, take a look at how your team can reach a mind meld in record time.

All it takes is time and effort—an investment in yourself—to embrace your superhero side and get everyone else to recognize it as well.

The Result

Rampage no longer counts ceiling tiles and watches traffic drive by. Instead he is busily learning new skills and pondering and planning ways to take advantage of new opportunities for the documentation, the department, and the company. He’s writing proposals, attending webinars, and saving pretty brunettes from disaster. Best of all, he’s promoted.


Jacquie Samuels

Jacquie Samuels is the owner of Writing Wise, sharing business solutions in technical communications. She endeavors to help everyone create documentation that is stronger, faster, and smarter. You can connect with Jacquie through her Google Plus page.

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