Chelsea Moats on Creating a Technical Writing Portfolio

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. This is Ryan Weber at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Pretty much every technical writer should have a portfolio, but it can be hard to know how to put one together. So, for today’s episode I found a really great portfolio online, so I invited the person who created it to come and talk about how she put it together.

[Chelsea Moats] My name is Chelsea Moats, I’m a technical communicator currently a Learning Designer for Delta Airlines in their Flight Operations Department.

[Weber] I hope you enjoy my conversation with Chelsea about how she designed her portfolio, decided to organize it, what kind of voice and personality she wanted to put in. And speaking of portfolios, I have an opportunity for students who want to write something they can add to their own portfolio. I recently took over as the Student Perspectives Column Editor for Intercom, the Society for Technical Communication Magazine, and we’re looking for entries for students in any sort of undergraduate or graduate technical writing, scientific writing, or professional writing program. I’m open to all kinds of different entries, about any kind of topic related to technical communication and I’m happy to take pitches or read drafts from students. I’ll be looking for submissions all through 2018 and probably all through 2019 as well. And if you’re listening to this in some distant future, someone else will probably still be editing the Student Perspectives Column, and we’ll still want submissions, so whenever you’re listening to this, there’s probably a good chance that a technical communication’s student can submit something to Intercom. If you’re interested in pitching an idea or sending me a draft, just email me. It’s Ryan dot Weber, Weber has one “b”, at, I also put my email address in the show description along with the URL for Chelsea Moats’ portfolio because it looks great and you should go online and check it out. I hope you enjoy the interview.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Welcome to the podcast Chelsea. I’m really glad that you’re joining us today to talk about the work of creating your portfolio. I guess we can start pretty broadly with just talking about, you know, what is the role of a technical writing portfolio? Why should a technical communicator create one?

[Moats] To provide some background, while I was in school, I had an assignment to do just that, to create a portfolio that represented my work, and I being a little lazy, compiled my work in Dropbox, of all places, and sent it along to my professor’s for review. You know at that time, creating a portfolio seemed like a very daunting task and it wasn’t until I was going on the job market, as a motivating factor of all things, that I wanted to create an online portfolio. So, let me emphasize that I had a degree in digital rhetoric and professional writing and submitted my portfolio via Dropbox for only three or four people could see it, and so that’s something that I’ll talk about later is-it’s very important to be able to or have the opportunity, the medium, to perform the skillset that you say you have, and having a portfolio does just that. So, a couple months later obviously I created my online portfolio before applying to jobs because it’s a way that I needed to market myself. It’s a way to display my work, my skills to a wider audience, to people outside those four-walled interview rooms beyond the scope of just a phone interview that kind of thing. And so in my experience, tech writers should have a portfolio because so few interviewers actually ask to see your samples of work and granted I will always bring samples of work to bring to them, but I had one person in all of my interviews actually want to see what I had done, and because I had my website on my resume, interviewers and hiring managers were able to review it prior to my interview and ask me specific questions related to that job, things they had questions bout, things that peaked their interest, and it really helped the conversation, and it really helped them identify whether I was a good candidate, whether I was a good fit for that position; obviously way better than Dropbox.

[Weber] Great, so you-this is something that they’re looking at before they ever interview you and then they can cater the interview questions specifically to the pieces that you’ve shown them through the portfolio.

[Moats] Yeah, and actually at my current job, little did I know that they handed out the resumes to the entire team, which now I know currently working here, but because my website was on there, my entire team at that point had looked at my portfolio and kind of sized me up to see what I could do. But I think that it was a-especially important because I’ve since shifted from technical writing to technical training that they were able to see how those skill sets were applicable to a different industry, even though it’s-it’s very similar.

[Weber] Right, well that’s interesting, you know people are going to cyber stalk your portfolio. You know I think we can just kind of expect it. (chuckle) So, you’ve got to put your best face forward when you’re doing that.

[Moats] Yes.

[Weber] Well I guess let’s get into kind of, so how did you decide what pieces you wanted to include? And then how did you decide to organize those pieces?

[Moats] So, while I was in school, I included every project that I did just because I needed content. I needed samples of work because at that point I had not interned or done any actual technical writing, and then while I was in industry a lot of the work that I did and the work that I do now is proprietary, so I only have a few examples of that, but I still think that it’s helpful to showcase the actual publishable versions to say, “Hey I actually can do what I say I can do on my resume. Here’s an example.” And as far as organizing I have on the front page four buzz words, I guess as far as industry goes, and I can’t rattle them off the top of my head now that I’m thinking about it.

[Weber] I’m looking at it, it’s technical communication, digital and visual rhetoric, professional writing, and usability testing.

[Moats] Yeah, and so at that point, I mean I was applying to jobs outside of technical writing. I was applying to digital agencies. I was applying to technical training positions and so I wanted to showcase the fact that my skills were applicable to a breadth of industries beyond just technical communication, and a lot of people don’t know what that is. And we can get to that later, but it was important to make that accessible to a variety of people.

[Weber] Well I noticed that. Let’s go ahead and mention that. You know you have a short definition of what a technical writer is on your portfolio. Why did you decide to include that?

[Moats] Yeah, so as I’m sure anyone in technical writing experiences, it’s just a very common question, and so usually my response was, “Well, you know the manual that comes with your car that you don’t read, I write that.” And so, for me I get that question all the time and I was interviewed by a technical writing student where I had to provide very detailed answers of what I do, and so I decided, “Okay this is a great opportunity to make that transparent to anyone visiting my website because a lot of people that were interviewing me, hiring me, were not technical writers. A lot of my hiring managers needed a technical writer but didn’t have the experience writing technical documentation themselves. So, it was really helpful to provide that lens into what I do, how I approach documentation, what skills I think are most valuable for success. And I think that a lot of that stuff doesn’t lend itself to other areas. Like your bio, your resume, your portfolio, and so on.

[Weber] So it helps kind of define for lack of a better term, what sort of product you are for the company in a sense of what you can do for them, how you would fit into the company, to help people understand who aren’t in the field.

[Moats] Yeah, absolutely and I think now, like I said, now I’m not in a tech writing role that’s not my tide, but I think now more than anything it provides context and a bridge from how I got to where I am.

[Weber] You mention you know originally you used Dropbox to create your portfolio, obviously you don’t recommend this, what tool did you use to create your portfolio?

[Moats] I used WordPress and thank God for the internet because I took a web authoring course but have no advanced knowledge of programming languages, coding, CSS, that kind of thing, so I relied heavily on W ordPress themes and Google.

[Weber] So, there really wasn’t a lot of coding or HTML necessary to put it together, make it look professional. Was that your experience?

[Moats] Yeah, absolutely. I think that it definitely sets you up for success. You know there’s minimal work in determining the organization of it. I think, I got to admit Ryan, the most complicated part was probably setting up the hosting and then paying the hosting fee, that’s it. And then generating the content is the most arduous part, but you know I-if you take a little bit at a time, I just would do page by page and slowly build content as opposed to you know say “I have to have this entire thing done in a week,” that would be very, very taxing.

[Weber] Right, well and I presume that this is, especially with your career change, kind of a living document. You know that will continue to evolve as your career does.

[Moats] Yeah, absolutely.

[Weber] It serves as a writing sample too. You know as you mentioned earlier that it serves as a design sample. You know it’s-this is a chance to show what you can do, not only in your pieces that you put up there, but you know in your description of what a tech writer is, your bio, all of that, are writing samples too.

[Moats] Yeah, absolutely and that goes back to I think for me it is very important to perform that technical writing ability and incorporate the same standards that I do in my own documentation and that’s an example of incorporating document design, making sure that all of my acronyms are defined in order to-to make things accessible to my audiences. All of those methodologies ideally should be found in my website as well

[Weber] Sure. How did you decide, this is something that I always wonder about with students, how to describe your pieces and give them, because you’ve got a little bit of context for the things that you created? You know how did you go about giving that context?

[Moats] So, where possible I think that summarizing the pieces kind of like it’s a star interview, right? So, you talk about the specific situation, the goal, what did you do, how did you do it, and specifically what skills were used, and what was the impact. I think it’s an opportunity to qualify those very short line items on a resume that you don’t have the ability to do unless you’re speaking with someone. So, each portfolio item has a checklist, right? You know technical writers organize non-procedural information in checklists. That includes exactly what I used, the skillsets that I have in order to accomplish the project and I think that’s an important thing for me to communicate what I used in order to complete something.

[Weber] And the other thing I noticed is that you have a little bit of personality in your portfolio. You know you’ve got a few jokes, nothing you know super edgy or out there or anything, but you get a sense of your personality as-as a person. You know was that something that you deliberately wanted to include?

[Moats] Yeah, absolutely. I think that it’s humanizing and I tried to write my bio how I would talk, right? Like how I would speak in this interview, introduce myself, and what I’ve learned more than anything that aptitude is very important to people, but people also care deeply about attitude, and if anything they’re willing to coach aptitude if they think that you’re a great fit personality wise. And so, I wanted to be able to provide people a glimpse into who I am as a person, as a colleague, a collaborator, teacher, and all that and so was all very purposeful and my tone and language are reflective of how I communicate daily. I think that if I was more sterile in my portfolio and I came in, they’d be like, “Is this the same person?” And it was important for me to say, “Hey as a technical writer, a rhetorician, I’ve analyzed my audience and my purpose and I want to relate to you and introduce myself,” but you’ll notice that the tone of everything else is-is professional as I think it should be.

[Weber] Well that is a good point. You want your portfolio to reflect your personality so that when you come in for the interview, there’s not a mismatch between what people saw online and what they’re seeing with the person in front of them. Do you have any other pieces of advice for us about creating a portfolio?

[Moats] I think that you know I’ve mentioned it a few times, if what you do lens itself to a portfolio, where you can perform your skills, then do that and if you can’t display it, show examples of you performing that skillset. I think it’s been really helpful, it’s how you found me via Google and it’s yeah, it’s been a plus for my experience in the workplace.

[Weber] Great. Well thank you so much for joining us. I appreciate it.

[Moats] Thank you Ryan.

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Episode 43