Manager’s Notebook: Developing a Technical Communication Job Ladder

ladder-libraryYes, we still hear of a number of organizations that do not have a clearly defined career path for technical communications employees. And even among those that do have a “job ladder” that staff can choose to climb, the scope and criteria are often vague, or worse, obsolete. Having a documented job ladder helps writers know exactly what’s expected of them at each job level and what to work on in various areas if they want to advance vertically in the organization. It also helps managers take a quantitative approach when considering writers for promotion and helping their team members further expand their skill set horizontally.

This article summarizes the top-level areas included in my organization’s Information Development job ladder. In all of these areas, the level of complexity for project ownership, required tech comm skill set, and domain knowledge increases as writers become more senior.

Functional Expertise

This area covers the basics of technical writing – schedule, writing process, project management, and accurate documentation. A fairly green writer should be able to deliver projects as scheduled, whereas more experienced writers define the schedule and oversee workload balancing among a team of writers.

A writer’s process for gathering, analyzing, and documenting information also matures as they gain experience. Understanding a documentation methodology varies widely and results from adjusting, improving, and defining methodology. Less experienced writers generally do not define project parameters such as audience and work estimates, but as one progresses through the job levels, managers expect more definition of these items rather than simple tactical execution.

One of the most obvious delineations in a lower job level writer and a higher job level writer is the results of their work. We expect a lower-level writer to produce complete and accurate documentation. Increasingly higher-level writers should be able to make decisions to resolve problems, incorporate marketing messages in their documentation where appropriate, define and execute content strategy for doc sets, identify and mitigate project risks, and communicate decisions and implications of those decisions effectively.

Technical Expertise and Product Usability

The Technical Expertise section of the job ladder includes product knowledge and expertise, understanding of product markets, and knowledge of authoring and production (such as content management) tools. While less experienced writers are just developing their product knowledge, senior and lead writers should be able to understand the technical ins and outs of their products and know their competitive stance in the market place.

Higher-level writers should be able to not only use authoring and other internal tools effectively, they should be able to train less experienced team members on them, and help shape decisions about tools, templates, and technologies for the team.

Usability responsibilities of our team members stretch across the documentation and the products our team members work on. All writers should be able to recognize inconsistent phrasing or screen layout, but more advanced writers also should be able to provide insight to others for usability issues and design new improvements and solutions, even leading usability tests with the development teams.

Quality

The Quality area is somewhat self-explanatory. We expect consistent, high-quality work of all writers, but the extent to which writers contribute to leading quality efforts with the documentation and with the product itself increases as they move to higher levels. We also include understanding of customer needs and ensuring the documentation directly addresses those needs here. Finally, writing skills should continue to improve as writers advance, requiring less editing for more obvious flaws and moving toward advanced communication and documentation methods.

Communication and Teamwork

All writers work with at least one project team and communicate daily with those team members. As they advance, the opportunities for communication with multiple teams and across various departments increases. Writers’ communication should be effective, concise, and non-inflammatory. Presentations of various types also are expected as writers advance.

Additionally, teamwork skills have various degrees throughout the job ladder. It’s expected that junior writers are able to answer questions other departments might have. Senior and lead writers should be able to proactively identify needs of other teams, contribute to professional growth of team members they might be leading, and serve as a pillar of professionalism in their interpersonal skills and conflict resolution.

Leadership

Lastly, the area of leadership involves many aspects of working with others that we strive to cultivate in our Information Development team members. You don’t have to have a manager title to be a leader in your team or in the company. Volunteering to help improve team processes, participating in interviews for team candidates, and designing ways to improve communication across project teams are all ways team members can show leadership. The more one strives to improve the work environment, the more they are perceived as helpful, enthusiastic, and one who takes initiative.

Ultimately, setting expectations for your team members is a win-win for all. Communication around personal goals, constructive feedback, and team initiatives all point back to the job ladder. Team members know what to strive for. Managers know how to help team members grow, both vertically and horizontally. And the team is stronger for it.

Alyssa Fox

Alyssa Fox is Director of Information Development and Program Management at Micro Focus, and is based in Houston, Texas. Alyssa is a member of Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA) and User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA). She is also a senior member of Society for Technical Communication (STC) and is currently serving as the STC Vice President. Alyssa speaks at numerous international conferences about various management, agile, and technical communication topics. Find Alyssa on Twitter @afox98.

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