6 Qualities I Look for in a Technical Communicator

In hiring technical communicators, I’ve come to value these 6 qualities. Many other capabilities might be critical depending on the role and project, but I generally see these as core abilities, regardless:

  1. Training

I have benefited greatly from formal training via undergraduate and graduate studies. However, most technical communicators fall into the business because:

  • They are good at making information work for people
  • They aren’t good at making information work for people, but over time they’ve bluffed their way into a technical communicator role

Regardless, most people don’t set out at 18 or 20 years old with the goal of becoming a technical communicator. Still, I need to see that the candidate has intentionally improved their skills and their understanding of technical communication. If the candidate is just flying by the seat of their pants and doing whatever makes sense to them, they probably have some strange preconceived notions that might be difficult to overcome.

2. Experience

The more experience the better, in my book – of course, you have to pay for relevant experience. Since I’m open to alternate ways of solving technical communication problems, the ideas that experienced technical communicators bring to the table are invaluable to me. Of course, in some organizations these alternate methodologies are perceived as a hindrance.

Now, there’s value in hiring new technical communicators, of course. They are sometimes hungrier, and if they are educated they can bring some helpful best practices and current research into the intellectual mix. Of course, the lack of experience can be a temporary limitation. I remember applying for entry-level jobs when I was coming out of college, and saying to myself, as many of my compatriots did, “You want 2-5 years of experience? How am I supposed to get that if everyone wants 2-5 years of experience before they’ll hire me?” 

To solve this problem, I have sometimes taken both experienced and new technical communicators through a similar process. After an interview, if I think there might be a good fit, I run a background check and hire the person as a part-time contractor. They make a few extra bucks for a few weeks while I evaluate their work on a couple of different projects. I need to see that they can handle whatever I throw at them.

Now, this is an unusual arrangement in the business world. Why would I have them perform a small amount of actual work before I hire them as employees? Because of the two bullets under Training above. About 50 percent of technical communicators practicing today provide good value. The other half don’t know what they are doing, and probably never will. Due to the fact that both kinds of technical communicators – real and fake – interview about the same, I can’t make a hiring decision based on the interview alone.

Of course, this arrangement might not work for all candidates, even all qualified candidates. I’m fine with that. I’ll miss out on a few good candidates in order to weed out a huge number of bad, or at least incompetent, apples.

This might be too radical of an approach for you. However, perhaps you could consider a 90-day observation period after hiring, at the end of which you make a pass-fail evaluation in regards to the technical communicator’s contributions. The new hire should have begun making substantive contributions by that point. If they haven’t, they’re out.

3. Balance of passion and peace

There are a couple of extreme attitudes I try to avoid when finding a good candidate:

  • “Yes, I’d like to work. Or not. Maybe I’ll retire soon. Whatever works.”
  • “Please, please, please give me a job! I’ll take anything.”

The candidate must be ready to go great guns while working for me. But if they’re desperate, there’s probably a reason – perhaps they’re not very good.    

4. Honesty

“Honest. Friendly. Elite.” These are Elite Documentation’s three company values.

Everyone says they value honesty. But what does honesty really mean in a business context, and how do you determine if a candidate is honest?

Certainly, you can check references and verify the candidate’s resume. But for EDI, honesty means doing what you say you’re going to do, and not doing what you say you won’t do. To see if the proof is in the pudding, you have to work with someone for a bit. You can do that through part-time work, or a 90-day trial period, if you’re more comfortable with that.

5. Friendliness

Is this a typical company value? I don’t know that it is. But when it comes to our workplace, our clients’ offices, networking events, or conferences, I want EDI to have a well-deserved reputation for being warm and welcoming, to new people or old friends. I want everyone – clients, vendors, competition – to be comfortable with us.

Not everyone can help us get there. When I was in high school, my mother began molding me from a person who often ignored others, and was fine with being ignored, to someone who sought out ways to brighten up someone’s day. Not everyone had that kind of Mama!

Again, people put their best foot forward during an interview, but you have to watch them over time. Not for months and months, but at least for a little while. Does the candidate greet others, even those they don’t know well, in the hall? When a new person approaches the table or the group, does the candidate focus on welcoming in the new person? These are important clues as to whether the candidate will help to create a welcoming atmosphere.

6. Elite performance

I figure a lot of this one out during the test period I describe in the Experience section above. 

Talent matters. As Fran Tarkenton, Hall of Fame quarterback, once said, “The great ones are great from the beginning.” It takes a certain amount of talent to produce great work. You have to be able to write without errors, to diagnose errors easily, to organize content at the drop of a hat, and to be comfortable dealing with any kind of content or objective. You also have to be ready to learn learn new content substantively when needed.

Of course, many of these abilities can be developed over time, assuming a certain baseline of capability. The main thing is to have a mindset towards constant improvement. We aspire to be elite at all times, and if in any way we fall short of that standard, we search our souls and get better. We have to have people working for us who have the same mindset.

How do you ensure that candidates have the qualities you’re looking for? Do you have any suggestions as to how we could improve our methodologies? Contact us!

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