Dr. Saul Carliner on the Census of Technical Communications

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. This is Ryan Weber at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Today we have a guest who’s here to give us a snapshot of what technical communication is like today.

[Saul Carliner] I’m Saul Carliner, a Professor at Concordia University in Montreal and I’m delighted to be here today.

[Weber] Dr. Carliner, together with Yuan Chen, published the Technical Communication’s Census in the December 2018 issue oflntercom, the STC’s magazine. The census gathered data from over six hundred technical communicators about where they work, what they produce, what they’re job titles are, their job satisfaction, the technologies they work with, and many other questions. We’re only going to be able to cover a small portion of what they captured today, but the data that Dr. Carliner offers us tell us a lot about what’s going on in the world of technical communication. And while we’re on the subject oflntercom, I wanted to put in a quick plug for the Student’s Perspective Column that I edit. If you are a student or know a student who wants to write a short piece for Intercom about trends or ideas in technical communication, please contact me at my email address, which is available in the show notes. Now, enjoy the show.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Welcome to the podcast Saul. I really appreciate you joining us today. I was really interested in this Tech Comm survey that you released last December in Intercom, and I wanted to talk with you about some of your findings. But I guess a good place to start is telling us a little bit about the census itself, why you decided to conduct it, what you asked, who you asked, that kind of thing.

[Carliner] So, the idea was to get a sense of, “What are people really doing in their jobs? What are their backgrounds?” Because STC is about people’s professional development, we wanted to get a sense of how people feel about the profession, what they see is the big issue, but not in open question, but based on things that we publish in our literature, and finally how are they developing themselves and how do they see their future, because you want to get a, like almost a post-check on where people are. We blasted several times to the STC, sent it to other organizations, hoping they would share and I was really, really pleased. The majority of the respondents were from STC, other majority of respondents were from North America, which makes sense because that’s my network and STC’s network. So, that’s kind of the background of it and the only thing I would add is, my hope is that we will do this again. I don’t know if it should be done every year like some other surveys, I think every two to three years is sufficient. On a really super personal level, one of the things I always lament about our field is that we once witness probably one of the greatest transitions in publishing since the Gutenberg Printing Press, and we had nothing to track that transition. We don’t have periodically collected data on work habits, work proxy’s, stuff like that to get a sense of what-how didthis finally encroach itself. We have a lot of qualitative data, and that’s really good, but we don’t have any aggregate data and I think’s that’s a real hole in our data

[Weber] So, you’re looking for ultimately some like longitudinal data about the development of the field.

[Carliner] Because it gives you an idea of how is the field changing. I believe that there have been changes. I don’t have any data to back that up, what I have is I know where we are today. That’s the only thing I feel confident in saying.

[Weber] Let’s focus in on a slice of this, you know we-as you-we were talking about getting ready for this podcast, you said you know a deep dive into the whole thing would be too much. So, we decided to talk about specifically kind of the work responsibilities of technical communicators. What they do, what they produce, what technologies they use, so let’s dig into that data. What kinds of work responsibilities do technical communicators have? That’s one of the big questions you asked, was what were their primary and secondary work responsibilities? What are they doing at work?

[Carliner] I asked a lot of different versions of this question, because I wanted, it’s what you call plan redundancy, and the reason being that yeah sometimes people say one thing when you ask them the question one way versus we ask them job title, which gives us some insight. But we also ask them what their primary, secondary, and tertiary responsibilities were, which gives us a much better idea of what they’re doing on the job. The primary job role and it’s like almost 70% of the participants, over-it’s a little bit over, is either a writer alone or a writer slash editor. There’s about a third more writers slash editors than writers alone. So, that means the majority of us are writers. The next largest group, and that’s about 17%, are managers, and so what that really means is that the majority of us are in really in traditional roles in tech comm. When you hear about other roles, and God knows I, on a personal level I’ve tried a lot of them, but when you like the bread and butter of our work is really being a writer or writer slash editor. There are a couple of real big surprises in here. One of them was editor. It’s a real small percentage, like two to three percent of our population are full-time editors along, and it was surprising because even though I know that organizations have been cutting back on their editing, I think that it may be about 10% percent, you know just based on my time when I was working full-time as a writer, which is really in the stone ages and I really should leave a lot of that experience there. But it was about two to three percent, which means there a lot of people doing double duty with writing and that’s an important one. Another one, we call ourselves technical communicators and one of the reasons is, is to be more inclusive of people who do jobs other than writing. That would include editing, being one of the, another one’s technical illustrator and we had even fewer that-it barely registered a percent. It was like below a percent. This gets into job title. One of the big questions in the 90′ s was, “Do we call ourselves tech writers?” Everybody wanted to be called an Information Designer, Information Developer; IBM piloted the wording for Information Developer in 1981. I was there when it happened, I had my job title changed from Junior Tech Writer to Junior Information Developer in January of 1981, so I definitely remember that one. We flash forward to today we look at the job tides, only five people had some version of information developer. About a quarter of the people in the survey were in some kind of senior role. Most of them used the word Senior, but there were the words like Principal, or Lead in a few cases. The other term that was really kind of interesting to me, one of the things that a lot of us call ourselves these days, like Content Strategist or Content Developers. We only had five job titles in the batch of all the job tides that were there, only five people, count five, had some version of the word content. If we look at job responsibilities, “What’s your primary job responsibility?” So that’s another way we ask these questions, content strategy was generally a second or third job priority and it was all only-it was fewer than 20% that emitted the second priority. So I know that there’s a lot of focus on content strategy, and it’s not to take anything away from that, but when we’re looking at the people who consider themselves to be technical communicators, it’s writing and editing is the big thing, or supervising that work.

[Weber] And again it’s-there are very few people who are doing just straight up editing. It’s mostly people who are doing both writing and editing as their primary responsibilities.

[Carliner] Yes, exactly. Exactly what that writing and editing is, I think would be a great study as well. If you’re a writer slash editor, what exactly makes you both? And I have a feeling there’s some production responsibility in there. I have a feeling there’s some, and I hate the word, wordsmithing of existing stuff from subject matter experts that’s not going to be rewritten involved in that. But anybody looking for a research topic, that’s a great one.

[Weber] There you go. There you go. So, we’ve got writers and editors. What are they writing? What kinds of documents are they writing?

[Carliner] It’s interesting. So, the top magical top five are. Number one is user guides, and it’s 66% of people have worked with them in the past 12 months. Help and user assistance, 52%. The user guides are still number one and that was same with the bullet, after all these years, everyone says, “Oh we’re out of the user guide business,” it doesn’t seem that way. For 52% to do help and user topics, 46% are working on reference material, fourth one tutorial or training materials, which is 45%. So, we had almost as much work in tutorials and training materials and reference materials. And then number five at 40% is policies and procedures. I’ve done some other studies earlier in tech comm, not quite this broad obviously, but this list of five is extremely consistent with that. Now I want to talk about the last one on the list, chat bots, which was two percent. I mean two percent of the people work with it, it was of the top five technologies that they work with. Doesn’t mean they didn’t work with one, it just means it wasn’t the top five. Then you see the other others say, “Well chat bots are really important to the future,” so if the chat bots, with these technologies, I want to ask it pretty much in a behavioral way, which means what are you really doing? So, it was interesting, I was on a panel at ATTW, and so I say, “My numbers say something different.” The chat bots, how do they ask the question? Because if you say what’s going to be most important in the next five years, I probably would add chat bots, because I think they’re doable, I’ve seen how they work, I’ve played with them. Sometimes they answer the question, sometimes they really don’t, but I do think they’re going to play more of a role. But do people use them? I don’t think that’s the case and so it really, you really need to ask the question in a particular way. My focus was on, “What are people doing?” As opposed to, “What would people like to be doing?” One other thing that I think influences this too, our assumption has always been, and this is based on 1980’s and early 1990’s deomographics, where it feels most of us are working in high-tech and we’re working in telecommunications. And one of the things that’s really interesting, you know since I last saw that kind of data in the 90’s and I really have paid that close attention and haven’t had access to it either, I saw much greater diversity of industries in which people work this time. A lot of people working in scientific equipment and what that means is it’s still got software but it’s like kind of a business to business kind of thing. So, it’s a very different business and there are user guides because a lot of people are using this equipment. They’re not using it on their computer. We used to work in software, a lot of people are working in IT services and solutions, so what that-it’s still software but now it’s customized software for an individual organization as opposed to creating commercial product for sale. We had large numbers of people working in finance and banking and engineering firms. So, I think what you see going on here is there’s been a shift in where we work and as you see that shift, I think the way that organizations in these particular situations are delivering their information maybe more traditional and it may be because of the way they do business and the nature of the products and services they have.

[Weber] That’s interesting, so we’ve got a wider array of industries, but we’ve also got-we’re talking about sort of the changes in the field, what kinds of trends are coming up that have been affecting the way that technical communicators work?

[Carliner] Well we do a couple of things. I looked at thinks like, how many people are using structured writing? I have to be honest, I asked one question badly that I will change next time. I asked about technical communication standards. I have a feeling those people thought-read that as style guides and I was thinking of things like DITA and ISO 9000 or ISO Standard’s regarding stuff like that. I need to change that one for the future.

[Weber] I’ll be honest I did not, I was not entirely sure what that meant.

[Carliner] Well we’re not alone. Structured writing is used by roughly 70% give or take a few, about 50% use Agile, translation practices don’t really-they’re not as big in North America. I imagine if we had a more European base, we would see something different here. There’s printing about a third of the people use it to some extent, or to a great extent. So, those kinds of practices aren’t really affecting us a whole lot except for maybe structured writing. There’s nothing that’s really over the top. Some other trends that I think are you know in terms of technologies, the-people were shocked when I said the number one technology used is Word Processing, being like Word or Google Docs, something like that. Not, not a fancy tool, but it actually makes sense because most people have it. It’s installed on the computer, you get it installed. Most organizations have the site licenses. Acrobat or PDF makers are number two. Spreadsheet, this kind of surprised me, spreadsheet’s number three, but I have a feeling that there’s a lot of work that’s done in spreadsheet instead of Word, and then presentation graphics, PowerPoint or Apple Keynote were number four, and then graphics are number five. Down at the bottom, and this one kind of shocked me, was storyboarding was kind oflow, which I was kind of surprised by. Content management, it’s used but it’s not, it was number 12, only 20% used it. So, we hear a lot about, and I think it’s because it’s complex and it’s hard that people talk about it a lot, but it’s not widely used but there’s another explanation for this. Your organization needs to be of a sort of heft in size before it makes sense to even consider content management and about a third of our population works in small organizations. So, they don’t have the heft and the size so I think that gets overlooked a lot. And then component content management is really intended for people doing translation. So, there’s people doing international products, working in the pharmaceutical industry or medical device industry, one of our largest industries is IT services and solutions, it’s all internal work. If they’re going to use typical content management, they’re probably using a non-component content management, like SharePoint or something like that. So, I think there’s some explanations for why some of these things are not the way everybody would expect them to be.

[Weber] Sure. You know, you know I wasn’t surprised at all to see Word as such a dominant technology. You know I think that reflects what I hear from local technical communicators, of course you know it’s clearance approved too. We’ve got a lot of government contractors, you know it’s secret clearance approved, where some of the other tools aren’t. Yeah, I was not surprised to see it so dominant in your survey.

[Carliner] Oh yeah. It’s, if this was Billboard, it would be number one with a bullet.

[Weber] (chuckle) Not the most loved technology but the most used.

[Carliner] It’s that song you listen to it over and over again, you never get tired of it.

[Weber] That song that you wish you could stop hearing but they just keep playing on the radio anyways.

[Carliner] Absolutely.

[Weber] Well let’s move a little bit to satisfaction. So, our technical communicators, are they happy with their jobs?

[Carliner] In a word yes. We looked at a lot of different things. So, we sked if people were satisfied in their jobs and in their careers, and you can look-you can read the articles to get the exact numbers, but they are overwhelmingly satisfied with both, which I was very pleasantly surprised about. So, I also wanted to see if you follow the, the literature for the last couple of decades, one of the big issues has been outsourcing and just fear of losing your jobs. There are different measures that give you an indication of whether somebody’s-well they say, “Are you happy in your job?” They might say, “Yes,” but then there are other measures that tell you really.

[Weber] Yeah.

[Carliner] So, we did a couple of those. So, one of them was, first of all, “How likely do you feel like your job is about to be outsourced?” Twenty years ago, I would-I had people accosting me with concerns about this. It seems to be very low. I mean a small minority of our participants were really concerned about outsourcing at all. Another thing we hear a lot about is automation and I have to be honest when I read what automation can do in the writing realm, I get a little worried, but apparently, I’m in a minority because I have the number in front of me right now. I believe my job to be automated out of existence in 2030, which is the magic year for a lot of predictions about jobs, and only 13% I think is kind oflow, think it’s definitely probably going to happen. By contrast 70% say it’s probably or definitely will not happen to them. So, people are not feeling unconfident. Another measure whether people are happy in their jobs and in their careers, is first of all that they plan to be in those jobs or careers, all other things being equal, in five years, and if they’re going to get out of those jobs, what careers do they want to go into. And what we found was most people actually intend to stay in their jobs as long as they possibly can. Of those who planned to leave their jobs, the majority either planned to stay in technical communication, many want to move into a management job, or they’re going to retire. So, I think what that really says is that when people are saying they’re satisfied, they’re satisfied. People feel they’re paid reasonably well in their job, that’s another proxy measure for this. They could always use more resources but overall people feel like they generally, I wouldn’t say they’re like enthusiastic, but the numbers say in generally they agree, they’re not like strongly agree, with that, “I get the resources I need to do my job. I get the time needed.” Could they use more? Absolutely and they feel like they have input and they have authority to do the job.

[Weber] So, this is a lot of data and you’ve-this is only a slice of what you collected. What’s your takeaway from, from all of this? What kind of-when you got all of this data what are sort of two or three big things that you learned or saw about the field from it?

[Carliner] I think the first thing that I always come back to is that people are just really satisfied with their work and their careers. There’s another related point, for a lot of people, we’re still older, but for a lot of people this is their second career, which means they chose us. It’s kind of like if you had a bad first marriage and you’re going into a second marriage and you want to make this one work. I think it may have something to do with that happiness factor. I’d say the nature of the work and the technologies being worked with it, it was not a surprise to me but I do think it’s really important. The majority of the people in the field are working as technical writers or technical writers slash editors or their managers, and I think that sometimes we don’t honor, and on a personal level, I think when we talk about all these things that you can do, we don’t always honor that job as much as maybe we should, and I think that’s important. I think in terms of technology, we work with a lot of different technologies. Everything got something, but I think often when we say, “Oh my God, I’m keeping out of touch with technology,” and when you look at what people are working with, maybe we overstep some of the bleeding edge stuff, both in terms of how much it’s used and how much of an impact it’s having on day-to-day work for people. And I really want to be clear about this, that’s not to say that it’s not important but I think sometimes what happens is we focus on the bleeding edge because it’s new, and we forget to celebrate the everyday because it’s not as sexy and new. There’s a play in our town, that many people might have probably studied in high school like I did, and my high school English teacher she made a big point of talking about Act Three. Two characters come back from the dead, they get a chance to come back for one day, they can pick any day they want, and the advice to them is to choose any day, it will be important enough. And I think that’s important when it comes to our work. Our work is important enough, even the basic everyday stuff and we should celebrate that.

[Weber] Excellent, well hey thanks for doing all this work and for talking with us about it.

[Carliner] Thanks for asking.

[Weber] Thanks for doing the survey and listeners you can find more about it in Intercom December 2018.

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Episode 53