Musings on Post-Pandemic Technical Writing

It’s been three months now of looking for a new life beyond the Pandemic. I’ve bounced from Tucson to Oregon, through Yellowstone just before the floods, back to Tucson and now to Southern California in San Diego County. All the while I’ve been applying for new work and trying to move beyond the pandemic. 

One thing that seems to have proliferated during the pandemic is that recruiting for technical writers has been largely taken over by third-party recruiters at call centers in India. It feels strange to try to parse a thick foreign accent when looking for a job that requires excellent English language skills. One wonders why foreign citizens who learned English as a second language have become recruiters for American technical writing jobs. The process amounts to basically throwing resumes at a position hoping it sticks. There’s no real matching of a person with a job; it’s about flooding a company with resumes based on key words parsed by a machine and hoping it’s a fit. Everyone is worse off for it, and the hiring process has gotten ridiculous.

One of the more frustrating experiences I’ve been through was making it to an interview with a program manager under a contract with the US Indian Health Service. This job didn’t come from a third-party recruiter; I applied directly and talked to a recruiter with the company. The program manager who interviewed me was an Indian-American, not a Native American Indian, which kind of begged the question, did she get the job through a key-word match with “Indian”? She spoke English fine, had a great education, and no doubt was an American. She seemed to pride herself on the idea that the job was high-stress, while I was thinking, ‘if the job is so high stress, what are you doing to lower that stress for your employees?’ Apparently not much, except maybe creating a suicide hotline. 

(I remember a past technical writing job where a supervisor — who could be unpleasant about deadlines — literally dropped dead in the foyer of his house upon arriving home from work one day. I always wondered — though I was kind enough to never bring it up with coworkers — if he missed a drop-dead date on some document.)

The interview with the program manager didn’t go well because there was a disconnect in our understanding of the role of a technical writer. At one point I mentioned that I wanted to do more technical writing in my career, and she replied that this job was mostly editing documents, not writing anything. There’s an old joke about technical writing not actually being writing, it should be called ‘technical editing’, but I didn’t feel I should make fun of that right then. 

It used to be that technical writing wasn’t something a subject matter expert did, it was what a well-educated writer did. She wanted me to be an expert in health care, which kind of defeats the purpose of hiring a technical writer. As one of my professors long ago put it, a technical writer’s job is to de-wonk a wonker. (Hey Siri, don’t spellcheck that to ‘wanker’.) 

The other major disconnect between me and the program manager was something I only realized later. She kept making a big deal of 508 compliance and accessibility, and I said I was familiar with it and would have no problem picking up the nuances. She felt this was something that would be hard for me to learn. We also talked about style guides, she emphasized Chicago while I said I knew APA. For her this was a problem apparently, and I didn’t really get why. 

To my way of thinking, all of technical writing is about accessibility. Whether it’s a style guide or 508 compliance or even writing computer code, a technical writer takes material and applies various style guides so other people can access and understand it. I emphasized knowing APA as an example of being able to pick up Chicago, and 508 compliance is just another style guide to me. To her, Chicago Style is hard to learn, and me knowing APA meant I had ruined myself for Chicago. Same with 508 compliance, if I didn’t know it by now I couldn’t learn it. I hopped over to the 508 compliance website after the interview and saw it was written at an 8th grade level. No problem picking it up for me, and I imagine it was written that way so people who learned English as a second language could understand it. 

Another aspect of technical writing that seems to have changed during the pandemic is that remote work pay rates now seem to be based on zip code or location. It feels like a new type of discrimination, literally a coded stereotyping of people. When I was working remotely before the pandemic, there didn’t seem to be the idea that I’m a dumb white guy from Arizona. My value was based on my education, now it seems that zip codes are more important. So I suppose it’s time to get a better zip code because the people who got strapped to a desk their whole life found a new way to discriminate. 

The world has changed for tech writers. The only thing to do is take some time reinventing myself and not let others reinvent me as much less than I am or can be. 

Here’s another musing in my other writing space about ‘The Writer Side Hustle’. 

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