To employers: what tech writers are looking for when they interview you

Some background: Last month I had the opportunity to be free-free of that pesky direct deposit into my checking account. The company “realigned” and I found myself dropped off in the land of those looking for the “next opportunity.” Not really where I wanted to be-I find it much easier and less stressful to look for a job when I have a job. But it’s all good. The company treated me well when I was employed there and treated me well as I left.

While I was not as prepared as I should have been, I always say, “Keep the ink on your resume wet and your network in place-the time to ask for a home equity loan is not when you need one.” (I hope this makes sense to someone. It makes sense to me.) So, if that is my talk, then I should walk it. I quickly adjusted my resume and sent it to anyone who would read it. I am truly blessed with the support of a great network and soon found myself scheduling interviews faster than I had planned.

I had great interviews with some sharp folks! Some interviewers were technical publications managers, some were fellow writers, some were product managers, and a few folks had nothing to do with technical communication at all. I noticed that just as a few of their questions stumped me, a few of my questions stumped them. So, here is a blog written for employers.


As you interview us, you are looking for specificities. We see those articles/blogs all the time. They are usually titled, “Top 10 wrong answers during an interview,” or “What a hiring manager is really looking for”-something to that effect. Conversely, as we interview you, we are looking for specificities. Below are a list of questions I have used in interviews. Hopefully, it will help some of you hiring managers new to the business and maybe even some of you who have been around awhile. The questions are not in any particular order.

Question What I am looking for
Do you have mobile output? What are you plans? Are you going to use HTML 5 responsive output? Or adaptive?**Thanks Dave Wilks from STC RMC for explaining the difference between responsive and adaptive during an interview. That was a bit embarrassing. 🙂 I am looking to see if you have a plan for mobile content. Why? “50% of mobile phone users, use mobile as their primary Internet source.*”If you are not thinking mobile, I want to know why.
Which other products do your products integrate with? If your products are integrating, how is the content integrating? If your products are integrating, who writes the instructions? I am looking for your single-sourcing strategy. It is a safe bet that there is either a current strategy or a great opportunity there.
What’s the content strategy for the coming year? I am looking to see what your content strategy is. Do you have one? Do you follow any of the leaders in the industry? If so, who?
What is your content management life cycle? I am simply seeing if you have one. Do updates to the documentation need to be made one release cycle back? Two? Three? More? That could mean a lot of production work for me. I might want to know that beforehand.
What would I be writing? I just want to make sure we are on the same page as to what was listed in the job description. Perhaps something has changed. I might be writing something different. I want to know that.
Who would I being reporting to? Just making sure I know who that is.
Who are the people on your team? What are the roles? How is the relationship between the writers and the SMEs? I want to know, what’s the dynamic? How does everyone get along? Is everyone local? On the west coast? East coast? France? Do the writers get along great with the SMEs? Do the development managers prefer that the developers are not bothered by the writers? To me, the relationship with the SMEs is paramount to whether I am successful. I really need to have a great feel for what the temperature is at your organization.
What language do the engineers use to develop the products? Do they develop in Java? Disclaimer: I waffle on even asking this one. Do technical communicators really care? Do they need to? I think we do. So I ask it.I am looking to see if I have a basic understanding of the development language used to create the products. Or will I have a learning curve. I usually ask about Java because that is one I am most familiar with.
How much input do the technical writers have in the UI? I want to know if there are inconsistencies in the UI, will I be able to get them changed? For example, I do not want to maintain field names in my documentation such as “Username,” “User Name,” and “user name.” I need uniformity to effectively single-source the documentation.
What’s the release cycle? I want to see if development marches to set schedules. I am also looking for what the cycles are, for example, if a development cycle is six weeks and a QA cycle is 1 week, I might want to know a little bit more about why that is because I am most likely going to be doing the heaviest writing in the QA cycle.
Can you walk me through the SDLC? I want to see where enhancement requests come from, when the development happens, when QA happens, when and how does the product get released. I am digging around for important details for each step of the life cycle to see where I will fit in.
Do you consider yourselves Agile or Waterfall? If you are Agile, I want to see where you are on the Agile Manifesto spectrum. Are some engineers using Agile? Some using waterfall? Is it some sort of Wagile mix? What do you think about that? If you are not Agile, why not? Personally, I find an Agile development environment much easier to work in as a technical writer. But in some cases, Agile might not work for the organization. I want to see what you think.
How are writers notified of documentation defects? Enhancements? Are documentation defects reported via email? A ticketing system? IM? I want to see if there is a solid process for reporting documentation defects and for resolution of those defects. The same for enhancements. I want to see if there is accountability here. On both ends, of course.
Who creates the graphics and which tools are they created in? I want to know if I have to create all the graphics or does the Marketing (for example) department create them. Am I allowed to change them? Will I have the tools to change them?
What other tools do the writers use besides X and Y? You usually give a list of tools in the job description. I want to hear about the ones not listed. I also want to know which open source tools I can bring with me, if any.
Which style guides do you use? I am looking to see if you are using a style guide and if so which one. Do you have an internal one? Do you have an internal one but no one uses it?
Do you translate the documentation? This ties directly into the style guides question. If you are translating and not using a style guide, I am pretty scared at this point.
Can you describe the documentation review process for me? Do you do peer reviews? When do the SMEs review the documentation? Who has the final sign-off?

I hope that this blog was helpful to both hiring managers as well as interviewees. I know there are questions I have missed. I know that my questions might be better worded. If you agree, please post comments! If you disagree, please post comments!

This blog was written in <oXygen/> XML Author 15.1, transformed to XHTML, and pasted into WordPress.

Joel A. Meier
Senior Technical Writer
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About Joel Meier

Joel is a successful Senior Technical Writer in Denver. His favorite things to write are user manuals, technical specs, processes and procedures, and help solutions. His other Tech Comm interests include content management, single-sourcing, and reuse. His favorite hobby is recumbent cycling. He lives in Denver CO with his wife Fiona, 14-year old son, and Lilly (a Jack Russell) and Charlie (a Westie).
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One Response to To employers: what tech writers are looking for when they interview you

  1. Marcia Wood says:

    Very nice and thorough article on interviewing. I am happy you found a new job soon after your last company laid you off.
    You had so many interviews! I wonder if you ever asked questions about salary. Is that a forbidden subject? Can you ask at the first interview, the second, or never?
    When you were offered a job did you turn it down based on the answers to received to your questions? Did you turn down a job offer for any reason, or did you feel lucky to have the offer and accept it?
    Once again, excellent blog! I enjoyed reading it.

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