Hiring: Your Responsibility in This New Age of Technical Communications

Home/Publications/CIDM eNews/Information Management News 03.06/Hiring: Your Responsibility in This New Age of Technical Communications

Frances Gambino
Information Builders

As a Technical Communications hiring manager for over 20 years, I have seen hiring trends come and go… and come and go around again. In the July 2005 CIDM e-newsletter, JoAnn Hackos explored the relationship between hiring practices and the Information Process Maturity Model in an article titled What Does Hiring Have To Do With It? My first reaction was to relate her words to my own experiences on both sides of the hiring desk. I spent several amusing minutes in recall mode. Upon completing the article, however, I discovered that I could not stop thinking about JoAnn’s concluding challenge: “Not so easy… to find and develop a new breed of information developers…”

Stepping Up to the Challenge
Considering the breakneck speed at which our industry is, again, evolving, I thought about how very possible it is for hiring managers to literally develop a new breed of information developers—particularly if they are willing and able to step up to the challenge. On my part, I not only considered it to be an exciting and highly motivating prospect, I considered it a rare opportunity to be able to help shape the next era of an industry that has served me so well throughout my career. So, having “stepped up” in spirit, I found myself face to face with JoAnn’s opening line: “What Does Hiring Have To Do With It?”

The company that I have the great fortune to work for would be considered a high Process Maturity Level organization. I have worked at Information Builders through most of the documentation team’s progression from “jack-of-all-trades” to “specialization” phases of maturity. For most of my tenure, I have worked with teams of talented and dedicated information developers; together, we have driven the company to high levels of effective, collaborative information management. So, I thought, I am in a good position to take up the challenge.

Can You Step Up, Too?
Still pondering JoAnn’s challenge, I did what I usually do in these situations; I contacted (read “bugged”) my closest and most trusted colleagues. After more musing and pondering over “what hiring has to do with it,” I came to these conclusions, which I humbly offer in an attempt to motivate other hiring managers to take up JoAnn’s challenge in earnest.

 

What Does Hiring Have To Do With It?
Hiring has everything to do with finding and developing a new breed of information developers. Or at least as much to do with it as other basic technical communication management tenets—training, staff development, project management. Adjusting hiring guidelines and setting new industry expectations for information development excellence can be the first, easiest steps hiring managers take. Changing the basic dynamic of your organization, or stretching to contribute to the industry effort beyond the limits you have previously set for yourself, are other, harder steps that hiring managers can also take.

 

Adjusting Hiring Guidelines, Setting New Expectations
Hiring guidelines can be adjusted on every process maturity level to meet JoAnn’s challenge. Expecting even entry-level candidates to possess basic knowledge of information mapping techniques and DITA should be equivalent to expecting entry-level writers to know how to document a procedure or use a common word-processing tool. Should be. But, because DITA is not yet as independently easy to learn as most common word-processing tools, hiring managers still have to take on the added responsibility of helping good candidates close the gap.

Setting new expectations for candidates should extend to setting new expectations for current staff—developing your organization’s talent pool to higher standards in order to take advantage of the industry’s growth patterns. By changing the organization even slightly to approach the next level of process maturity, hiring managers can, effectively, find and develop a new breed of information developers. Developing programs and expending efforts to help new hires and existing staff reach the new industry standards is another step that hiring managers can take. These steps carry the added value of offering your staff an opportunity to learn these new skills and this new technology on the job, perhaps securing their willingness to stay on and apply what they have learned within your organization.

Challenge Yourself Further
Stretching beyond your current scope as a hiring manager is difficult, but is absolutely necessary if you are going to be a true pioneer in developing this new breed of information developer.

In my case, I tried to convince my company to join two of several associations designed to support my staff’s transformation to this new breed of information developers. Funding crunches negated one option. Luckily, I had previously received support to establish and coordinate the New York DITA Users Group, a free-to-join, networking group of DITA users that meets monthly in our corporate offices. I took time to revise the format of that group in light of JoAnn’s challenge.

Additionally, I sought low-cost, but immediately effective, programs to show our company’s support for writers willing to stretch to meet the new expectation. I found and ran an excellent introductory XML online program for willing staff members in late December. Surprisingly, only a few took advantage of the opportunity, perhaps because it was necessary for them to do so on their own time so that deadlines would not slip. I knew then what I know now—I will have to work harder to make it easier for my staff to approach the “new breed” level of information developers.

Hiring managers will face the same, or similar, challenges. I hope that enough will decide to struggle so that a few can succeed in paving the way for these new information developers. Even minimal efforts on my part have uncovered a select few writers who have since taken up the challenge and independently continued along this path of learning and doing.

The True Challenge
As fate would have it, within six months of reading JoAnn’s article, I received four resignations from writers on my staff. I believed that most of these staffers were leaving our company for opportunities or situations that we could not match or otherwise provide—a shorter commute, a career change, a spouse’s promotion/relocation—so I was not facing a mass exodus. All the more reason to be able to focus on JoAnn’s challenge. How could I use this hiring opportunity, my hiring decisions, to help my company, indeed my beloved industry, develop a new breed of information developers?

We had recently developed a training manual to help transition deadline writers from using FrameMaker to using DITA-based content management strategies, so I started with that. I learned the procedures myself and then worked with my staff of Directors and Managers to enable our writes to implement the new procedures for the next deadline deliverable—three months away.

I also struggled to write new job descriptions for the open positions—instead of hiring resources to fill the shoes of those who had left. Repositioning my staff’s energies, based on their potential to learn the new technology, was difficult. The new job descriptions called for “familiarity with XML and DITA” instead of our usual “knowledge of information mapping and single-sourcing strategies.” Ideal candidates were defined as “eager to learn new technology and tools while delivering deadline work under legacy guidelines.” I knew that I would have to lean heavily on myself and on my existing staff to close the learning gaps and take up the deadline work while others were taking turns learning. Certainly, a challenge all around.

Only one recruiter was able to quickly understand our need; otherwise, we were running this new talent search solo. Mostly, we interviewed technical communicators who would have easily met our previous requirements were it not for the new qualifications and expectations that we “find and develop a new breed of information developers.” And several existing staff members stepped up to cover some of the areas that I was seeking to ask new hires to cover—so I was actually able to cover most of the immediate work by interviewing for only two out of the four positions.

To make a long story shorter, and more interesting, we were able to fill the two positions with candidates that I believe will easily be among the new breed of information developers working in our industry two, five, and ten years from now. These candidates each have a solid background in communication skills, project management, and information management; each also possesses or demonstrates great potential to master the technology required of a new breed of information developer—and each demonstrates the initiative and organizational skills necessary to make it possible for them to succeed simultaneously on two tracks.

Stretching Further Still
Since the job search proved more difficult than ever before, and yielded fewer qualified candidates, I racked my brain for other ways to seed this new breeding process. I had already agreed to teach a course at my undergraduate alma mater, so I spoke to the Vice-President of my division, a great supporter of “breeding initiatives” of all kinds, and to a very forward-thinking professor at Polytechnic University about setting up a technical communications internship program to bring technical communication students into the office to learn the basics of XML, DITA, and our particular DITA-based documentation delivery process. I received green lights all around—especially from the students. About half of the students were enthusiastically responsive. I am now stretching myself, literally, to make it happen. The prospect of finding and developing even one “new era” information developer is motivation enough.

Based on my experience as a technical communications manager, I believe that when my current staff realizes what the industry requires of an information developer, certainly when they see how new hires and interns are working toward these new expectations and goals, they will be even more motivated to challenge themselves, find pockets of time to “step up in spirit,” or join the effort independently and unconditionally.

In the meantime, I am (once again) having a great time as a Technical Communications manager. On a very small scale, I consider this endeavor a form of searching for a cure or finding and saving the last of a species… not as globally or humanly important, of course, but similarly motivating. If this effort is successful and makes even a small difference in our industry, or results in a few “new era” information developers, I will not only have met JoAnn’s challenge, I will have reached a new level of satisfaction in a career that has already been so satisfying and challenging. Reason enough for me.

What About You?
What will it take for you to take up the challenge and join the effort to develop a new breed of information developers? Join the CIDM, join our New York DITA Users Group, join an STC SIG, challenge yourself and your organization to push toward the next process maturity level, take a course in information management, read about what’s happening in our industry, and put what you read into practice. Most importantly, the next time that you have to fill an open position on your staff, challenge yourself to discover “What Does Hiring Have To Do With It?” You won’t regret it!
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