The End of the Technical Writer?
Keith Schengili-Roberts, IXIASOFT
For roughly six years, I have been keeping track of the number of technical writer job postings on indeed.com—the largest job aggregator website in the United States. With the exception of a brief surge in technical writer job postings in late 2015/early 2016, there has been a steady decline in technical writer job postings. Despite the strong economy, an overall declining unemployment rate, and the fact that indeed.com remains a top job aggregator website, this trend continues to this day.
Compared to the peak in October 2015, there are now, in April 2019, over a thousand fewer technical writer job postings. The question is: why? While I am certain that there is more than one factor at play here, I believe that part of the explanation for this declining trend is that “technical writer” as a job title is being replaced by other, more pertinent labels.
DITA Experience and Technical Writing
The primary reason for checking the number of job postings on indeed.com is to get a better sense as to the types of job skills that technical writer postings are looking for—particularly those that require knowledge or experience with DITA. If I do a search on “DITA” alone, I come up with many more job listings that are related to but are not exactly the traditional technical writer-type of job. The sense I have is that, at least when it comes to DITA, “technical writer” may not be the most popular job title associated with this skillset.
While I have been claiming at a few conferences that DITA is associated with other job titles in addition to “technical writer”—justified by the many more job postings available on indeed.com when I remove “technical writer” out of my search—I thought I would do a more thorough investigation to see whether my hunch was correct.
Types of Technical Writer Job Titles
Another project I have undertaken for the past several years is keeping track of the LinkedIn posts of those who self-report they use DITA as part of their job. I monitor about 1,500 people to get a better sense of trends in the market, who is using what tools and CCMSs, along with how and why their firm is using DITA.
But in this case, I did a sort on all jobs that had “technical writer” or at least “writer” as part of their job title. This list includes people with the following job titles in addition to “technical writer:”
I discovered that there were 589 people who were using DITA that had some variant of either “technical writer” or “writer” as part of their job title. As you can see from the list, the generic term “writer” seems to be used primarily to denote different levels of seniority, ranging from interns to senior and staff technical writers, along with consultants and those who are either working within an engineering group or are engineers themselves.
Non-Technical Writers Using DITA
The remaining group on the list was comprised of those whose job titles implied that there are many associated jobs relating to working with structured content and DITA. In all, there were 891 people who had jobs that included working with DITA that were distinctly different than technical writers.
That means that roughly 66% of the roughly 1,500 people who claim to be using DITA are not employed as traditional technical writers.
Here is a representative sample of job titles from the second, non-technical writer list:
What is evident to me is that there are three main positions associated with DITA job titles which are not technical writers: managers, those who assist with the publication process, and those who are structuring content or providing some additional value to the output process.
There are many managerial positions that appear in this list, (e.g. director of documentation, documentation manager, manager technical communications, team leader technical documentation, etc.), though it is worth pointing out that there is some overlap with the technical writer list (e.g. manager, technical writer; project engineer, technical writer; technical writing manager). I find it intriguing that so many senior people are working with DITA, though evidence shows that they are primarily (though not exclusively) overseeing the process of using DITA within their publication process rather than working with writing DITA content themselves.
There are still more positions that imply different skills are being used alongside experience with DITA. The majority of people who are working with DITA are not just writing content (if they are writing content at all) but are also providing support for the publication process (e.g. Ant build specialist, applications engineer, DITA toolsmith, senior documentation tools developer). To me, this implies that larger companies are using DITA. For larger firms, having people work full-time in these roles is cost-effective.
An interesting trend that appeared was the significant number of job titles that were closely allied to technical writer, like “information developer,” “documentation specialist,” and “content developer.” These might point the way towards new, alternate titles for jobs which may be functionally similar to technical writer. You have to admit that these positions have more pizzazz than the relatively-dowdy technical writer, and may better position their holders for career advancement in other areas.
Within the non-technical writer category, job titles like “content strategist,” “information designer,” and “information architect” come up a lot. This suggests the ability to effectively structure content is a specialist role. This makes sense, since to be able to make DITA cost-effective for a company, the ability to effectively reuse content and to devise a plan to ensure that happens consistently among writing teams is worthy of a dedicated person to handle that role.
What Can Be Concluded?
The sample size may not be big enough to speak to the results of the technical writing community as a whole. Within the niche that is DITA-based technical publications, however, it is safe to say that more people are working outside of the traditional technical writer role. This in part explains why we are experiencing a drop in the total number of technical writer jobs within the U.S., as there are an increasing amount of jobs in related fields.
I don’t think we are seeing the end of the technical writer, but more the diversification of that role as people are finding positions that compliment and provide additional value to the process of efficiently producing structured content.