Optimizing Your Portfolio: Are You Ready for a Bidding War for Your Services?

[Presentation to Berkeley STC June, 2011, by Andrew Davis, written up by Jane Olivera.]

Andrew’s focus in recruiting is technical writing positions in writing developer documentation, or dev-docs. The job market in this area has lately become more active again, and companies are hiring writers.

One aspect of the current job market is that the companies hiring have often not been allowed to hire locally until the situation is “broken,” and this means they need more than simple writing, they need rescuing. The hiring managers are looking for what Andrew referred to as a “set-and-forget” writer, someone who they feel can eliminate their risk and who can get the job done for them without extra effort on their part. Andrew gives us a roadmap for just how to optimize your portfolio so it demonstrates that you are the writer they should hire.

Andrew’s goals for the presentation were four-fold:

  • Keep you sane
  • Let you secure work reliably and efficiently
  • Give you ideas, and give you hope
  • Anticipate and address issues

Your Portfolio’s Job
The contents of a technical communicator’s portfolio should prove the following:

  • Your resume’s claims
  • That you understand your audience
  • That you know the tools the job requires
  • That you can organize, write, and deliver

Portfolio Content: Prove You Can Organize, Write, and Deliver
The focus of the presentation was on portfolios for software documentation jobs. For this kind of work, the kinds of samples (3-5 pages) that demonstrate that you can organize, write, and deliver include:

  • Document plan
  • Table of Contents
  • Conceptual content
  • Procedural material
  • Reference material
  • Glossary
  • Index

There are three audiences you may be writing for: end users, developers, and admins. For end users, the kind of writing that sells best is clear, crisp, and friendly prose. For developers, you should include code in context (though you don’t need to write the code). Both developers and admins need detailed, complete instructions. All three audiences benefit from appropriate screen shots, illustrations and scenario-based tutorials.

Presenting Your Portfolio
Andrew describes three keys to effective portfolio presentations: accessibility, relevance, and context.

Accessibility. The days of walking into an interview with a pile of writing samples for the hiring manager to look at (for the first time) have been replaced by the requirement to provide them with online access to your portfolio before the interview. There are several ways to put your portfolio online, such as your LinkedIn profile, a Website you control access to, email, or even a guided tour using tools such as join.me or gotomeeting.com.

Relevance. Based on the hiring manager’s requirements, explain how you approached similar challenges and what you delivered and why. Discuss what you learned during the process, and identify how you succeeded. Keep in mind that you not make the hiring manager think! Your portfolio should make it clear to the hiring manager why he or she should hire you.

Context. Identify your role in content development, and describe the circumstances of the job (accessibility of SMEs, product stability, authoring tools, schedule, etc.) The circumstances you dealt with show them that you can handle challenges. Explain what you might do differently next time.

What If Your Content Is Proprietary?
If your content is proprietary, you need to find ways to achieve your mutual goals. Andrew had several good suggestions for ways to make proprietary content available, including:

  • Neuter the proprietary content in the document (such as substituting Disney character names for proprietary information)
  • Redact, or black out, proprietary portions
  • Obtain permission from your ex-boss, or from the Legal Department for the owner of the intellectual property, to show the document.

Building a Dev-Doc Portfolio
Even if you do not have previous work in this kind of writing to show, you can still build a dev-doc portfolio. For example, you can create your own rewrites of public domain documentation. You can create before-and-after samples using a chapter from poorly written commercial documentation. The portfolio you create should demonstrate your familiarity with technical subject material, understanding of the audience’s needs, and a working knowledge of authoring tools. Creating this kind of portfolio will also demonstrate your motivation and initiative. For more information and sources of “before” dev-docs, go to www.synergistech.com/dev-doc-portfolio.shtml.

If You’re New to This (Dev-Doc) Business
Andrew had some suggestions for those who are new to the business, who want to get into this area of technical writing. A good start is to read Andrew’s article “Catch-22″ at www.synergistech.com/catch22.shtml. The article is a rich source of good information and advice, and it also links to additional helpful information. He also suggests that you find ways to show the important qualities of initiative, motivation, capacity to learn fast, and value (“I’m a good investment, not a liability”).

What Not To Do

  • Don’t say, “I can learn anything; just teach me.” Training is a rarity now; hiring managers need a set-and-forget writer.
  • Don’t say, “I can’t show you my samples.” Find a way to show your writing, and find a way to put your portfolio online.
  • Don’t make your inexperience (with their product, technology, tools, culture, development environment) their problem.
  • And be sure not to lead with your weaknesses instead of your strengths.

In conclusion, there are jobs in writing dev-docs, and it is the work that a company is the least likely to outsource. However, the hiring managers need someone who can be productive immediately–formal training is pretty much a thing of the past. You need to learn the technology, tools, etc. on your own. Remember, the bottom line is you need to reduce their risk and don’t make them think!

Andrew Davis has recruited technical communicators in Silicon Valley since 1995. He is a former software industry Tech Writer and is well-known for both understanding and championing the role of content development. At Content Rules he recruits all kinds of technical and marketing communicators as well as training and globalization professionals. Andrew enjoys helping those who communicate complex information get ahead by recognizing and refining their value to technology companies. He’s candid and connected and, more importantly, he cares.

Jane Olivera is a freelance writer who helps people communicate, from presentations to explaining how things work.

Great Advice Rules · August 22, 2011



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