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Hiring Technical Communicators
Updated: February 8th, 2017 08:04 PM (MT)

Hiring the Best Technical Communicator

Whether your company sells widgets or wisdom, bicycles or bytes, a technical communicator ensures that your best thinking is reflected on paper and online.

Hiring a technical communicator is similar to hiring any qualified professional. Because the responsibilities of a communicator range as widely as those of an engineer or programmer, you must first determine specific requirements for the position before you successfully solicit and evaluate candidates. The following suggestions are intended to help you with the process, complementing your company's hiring practices. We hope you find them useful in selecting a technical communicator who is best suited for the job.

Determining Your Requirements

Effectively writing, storing, retrieving, and delivering information is mission critical to any company today. Locating someone with the right mix of information design skills, knowledge of tools, and project management skills is not an easy task. When determining your requirements, ask yourself, what will the candidate be responsible for? Does the job require any of the following?

  • New direction in design and organization or routine maintenance work within existing standards?
  • Extracting information from subject matter experts or working with existing information?
  • Specific subject matter knowledge or general business knowledge?
  • Working alone or working as part of a team?
  • Balancing tight deadlines against information-rich deliverables or enjoying liberal time limits?
  • A permanent employee or project-specific contractor?
  • Performance of many tasks or concentration on a few tasks?
  • A self-directed candidate or a candidate willing to be highly supervised?
  • A quick learner or an experienced tool guru?

By determining exactly what the candidate must do, you also determine the level of experience to look for and the salary you can expect to pay. According to recent salary surveys, salaries range from about $30,000 per year for an entry-level technical writer to more than $75,000, depending on education, communication experience, and technical background. Technical communicators with diverse experience and technical backgrounds demand and receive top dollars.

Listing the Qualifications

Your requirements guide you in specifying the candidate's qualifications, both required and preferred. To help you write a job description and advertisement, we have listed some possible terms for describing job functions, communication products, knowledge, skills, tools, education, and experience (see "Categorizing a Communicator").

In writing your specifications, consider the following situations:

If the job requires someone not only to produce a manual, but also to design it, plan for updates, coordinate the efforts of others, and tie the manual to your marketing plan, you would look for a candidate with varied experience and an ability to think in business-oriented, problem-solving terms.

If the job requires someone who can write for an expert audience, you want a candidate who is knowledgeable about a particular subject. Conversely, if the job requires providing information to novices, you may require a less knowledgeable candidate because he or she understands the beginner's perspective.

Requiring knowledge of specific tools is also shortsighted, unless all you need are short-term clerical skills. Why? Some software programs change dramatically with each version; and some programs from competing companies are so similar in functionality that skills are easily transferable. Instead, ask for demonstrated ability to learn new tools as needed. If a candidate has learned at least two similar tools and knows general, transferable skills such as creating and using templates, organizing an online help system, creating a flowchart, or managing a library of documents, he or she can probably perform these tasks with any tool.

As for requiring a certain level of education and experience, realize that technical communicators generally come from one of two backgrounds. If the degree is in science, engineering, or computer science, the candidate should demonstrate the ability to write for publication. If the degree is in journalism, English, or other liberal arts, the candidate should demonstrate an understanding of technical material.

Categorizing a Communicator

Technical communicators represent a wide range of expertise. To specify the type of communicator you want, select from terms suggested in the following categories:

Job function. Writer, editor, trainer, online help or hypertext developer, web page designer, multimedia producer, interface designer, interaction designer, information architect, illustrator, graphic designer, photographer, videographer.

Communication products. Manuals, guides, Web sites, Web applications, proposals, research and annual reports, policies and procedures, product specifications, catalogs, training materials, reference material, brochures, articles, advertisements, online documents, videos and multimedia productions, exhibits, product interfaces presentations.

Subject knowledge. Computer hardware and software, science, medicine, engineering (civil, aeronautics, electrical, environmental, mechanical, geophysical, chemical), business (manufacturing, accounting, marketing, financial, inventory, human resources, point of sale), and government.

Intellectual and business skills. Analyzing the audience, task, and content for a communication project; gathering data and interviewing; organizing, synthesizing, and evaluating information; solving problems; copyediting; motivating; testing functionality and usability; managing projects by planning, estimating, scheduling, and budgeting; building consensus; facilitating; programming; and functioning as an effective team member.

Knowledge of tools. Word processors; desktop publishing applications; spreadsheets; databases; help, computer-based training, multimedia, and HTML authoring systems; drawing programs; and operating systems.

Education and experience. Minimum of an associate degree, preferably a bachelor's or advanced degree in science, engineering, English, journalism, communication, education, graphics, and other liberal arts. Recent college graduates may even have a degree in technical communication (see "Additional Resources" for information on degree and certificate programs in Colorado). Look for experience in writing, designing, or developing publishable material about technical topics. Review portfolios and if you want someone to create online communication, ask for examples of their online skills or completed projects. Recognize that in some cases, experienced professionals may not be able to show proprietary information, so in lieu of this, ask for professional references from clients or colleagues.

Screening the Candidates

Although a resume and cover letter serve as important screening tools for any position, they are particularly important for communicators. They provide your first glimpse of the candidate's core professional skill: Can they communicate clearly and concisely?

During the interview, you can explore typical on-the-job scenarios and see how the candidate would:

  • Respond to the pressure of a deadline
  • React to advice and criticism
  • Adapt to a fast-paced environment
  • Manage prioritizing and multitasking
  • Contribute as a team player
  • Handle a problem.

For example, if your requirements call for an experienced generalist, you might ask about a time they were successful at managing a project. Look for signs that they not only completed the project, but were able to contribute to the company's success. Or if you need someone with specific tool knowledge, ask the candidate to describe how he or she would perform a complex task with the tool.

You should also ask candidates to bring samples or their work to the interview. While examining the samples, ask the candidate to clarify what role he or she played in the production of the sample.

You could also use a simple test for writing, editing, designing, or illustrating, either standardized or based on an actual project from your company. For example, ask potential candidates to rewrite a draft of a short report, to copyedit a chapter, or to lay out a sample page. By doing this, you obtain concrete and comparable evidence to judge how a candidate might analyze data, synthesize information, and present ideas to a given audience. Finally, you need someone with specialized subject matter knowledge; a simple technical vocabulary test will determine the candidate's level of expertise.

Additional Resources

Where can you find qualified technical communicators?

Some of the best resources include our local educational institutions, job banks, and professional organizations.

Writers: Nancy Walters, Barbara Miller, David Steenwerth
Contributors: David Garrett, Kathy Ramsey
Designer: Deb Braun (this was originally a beautiful trifold brochure)
Updated: Martha Sippel (February 2017)