Respect: Users’ Advocates Define It, Earn It, Keep It

Respect Other Path Users Photo by Tim Green on Flickr.comI was indulging in some professional voyeurism recently on Glassdoor.com and came across this note about a prominent Silicon Valley firm:

“If you’re a software engineer, you’re among the kings of the hill. It’s an engineer-driven company without a doubt.”

News flash: Engineers are the kings (and queens) of the technology hill. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone and I’m not going to argue this. The people who devote their effort and talents to design, build, and deliver successful products usually deserve their superstar status.

The observation did get me thinking though. In an “engineer-driven company”, is there room for anyone else? With all those superstar engineers, where do the tech writers fit in? Most importantly, what enables a tech writer to function effectively in such an organization?

I could list standard answers here like “excellent communication skills” and “solid domain knowledge”, but something more fundamental contributes to the success of the users’ advocate:

Respect.

It doesn’t matter how great your talent or how good your ideas, if you don’t have respect, no one will ever recognize your talents or hear those ideas.

What Does It Mean to Me?

When I say “respect”, I don’t mean “deference”. I don’t expect a tech writer to hold court like the Godfather on the day their daughter is to be married, product managers lined up, hat in hand, to ask with respect for documentation. (A boy can dream though, can’t he?)

What I mean by “respect” is a healthy professional regard for what your colleagues bring to the table.

Respect ensures that your voice is heard. Your opinions are considered. Your reasoning and your experience are valued.

Respect serves as a basis for solidarity and a sense of shared purpose. I may not like a coworker, but if I respect them, I can work with them.

Respect renders your colleagues willing to devote time and resources to provide content and support beyond mere obligation.

Respect helps you get your job done.

How Do You Get It and Keep It?

Because it’s conferred to you by others, respect derives from how others perceive you. You have very little control over some things that affect how others perceive you, especially with first impressions. For example:

  • Age: In many cultures, age confers respect and “respect your elders” is the rule. In the high-tech culture that tech writers inhabit, the opposite is true. Youth is perceived as energetic and innovative. Youth disrupts the old order and creates opportunities. Age brings obsolescence and irrelevance. As much as I’d like to turn back the clock, I can’t hide the gray in my beard.
  • Title: In strongly hierarchical organizations, your position in the hierarchy determines your status and the respect you are due. Even in a flat organization, a C-level executive title carries more weight than “Technical Writer”. If you’re motivated by this imbalance, you can work to climb the corporate ladder, maybe earn your MBA, but there’s not much you can do in the moment.

I didn’t start this column to convince you that we’re doomed as technical writers. You can still influence how others see you in powerful ways to earn and keep respect.

There’s no crying in tech writing: At the start of my career, I heard a lot of complaining about the tech writer’s lot in life. Many writers I worked with sounded like Rodney Dangerfield: “I get no respect!” I learned from these veterans and how others reacted to them. I learned to keep complaints about day-to-day annoyances between me and my fellow writers. Now that I’ve been a solo writer for so long, I’ve maintained some key friendships in the industry. Venting is necessary to mental health. You may not gain anyone’s respect with your ability to grin and bear it, but guaranteed you will lose respect if you develop a reputation as a whiner, particularly about issues that management doesn’t care about.

For problems that hinder your work or that may affect the product or delivery, transform your complaint into a tool to improve the situation. Take time to package your complaint as constructive feedback. Clearly state the issue and suggest solutions. Even if your solutions are not used, you’ve demonstrated a willingness to work through an issue rather than simply whine. Be sure to direct your complaint at someone who has the capability of doing something about it. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your coworker’s patience and good will, and losing their respect.

No apologies: Don’t apologize for your experience or for your informed opinions. Your employer is paying you because they value your expertise. Do you know the person who prefaces their input with self-deprecating qualifiers? Don’t be that person. It either plays as false modesty or actual uncertainty and anxiety. Either way doesn’t earn any respect points from coworkers and superiors. I’ve seen it in their eyes. The instant those halting, half-hearted words come out of your mouth, your audience just switches off.

Always acknowledge a mistake: When you make a mistake, apologize immediately. No one respects the Teflon coworker. Nothing sticks to them. Teflon folks always have an excuse for everything and nothing is ever their fault. Apologizing for a mistake isn’t a sign of weakness. It takes strength and courage to acknowledge an error and commit to fixing it. Earn respect by demonstrating that you are mature and confident enough to apologize for your honest mistake, explaining how you plan to make things good, and emphasizing how you’ll ensure the mistake isn’t repeated.

You get what you give: Respect is an important currency of human interaction: you need to spend it to get it. Treat people with respect. An engineer may not be able to spell their way out of a wet paper bag. A product manager may have the funkiest ideas about UI labels. The developer’s weakness in English may shine through brightly in the error messages they try to write. Be patient. Trust that they’re expertise lies elsewhere. Your efforts will be repaid with gratitude and respect. Some of my proudest moments have been when that engineer pings me about spelling or when that product manager consults with me about their UI.

Know their stuff: Talk like an engineer. Use their words. Use references and metaphors that demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about (If you don’t know yet, take the time to research and learn). Not only will this ease your interactions with your subject matter experts, but sometimes you’ll surprise and delight them. I’ve had borderline exasperation and contempt transition to cheery fellowship after my coworker learned that I knew something about object-oriented design and basic statistics.

Know your stuff: That expertise you should never apologize for? Yeah, you’d better have that down cold. And I’m not just talking about the basics that uninformed people think an English degree is good for: punctuation, grammar and spelling. You should also be well versed in every tool in your writer’s bag of tricks. The developer may be the Python expert and the engineer may be a leading luminary in big data, but you are the authority on enabling user success. You are the users’ advocate.