What does the day-to-day work of a technical writer actually look like? What skills and experiences are most applicable to obtaining a career in technical writing? What can I do now, as a student at Eau Claire, to ensure future success? These were some of the prominent questions JAMF technical writers addressed at a joint-panel put on by the English Department and Center for Writing Excellence last month. The panel included technical writers and UWEC alums Kristen Bates, 2015, Debbie Campbell, 2010, and Hanna Kaiser, 2010, along with Tammy Kiecker, the Production Documentation Manager at JAMF.
JAMF, a successful software development company founded by UWEC alum Zach Halmstad, has locations in ten countries and over 700 employees, with a majority focused in the Midwest. It is a company that finds its way onto many Eau Claire students’ desired employment radars, but what exactly is the experience of being a technical writer for a software development company?
Well, the work of a technical writer at JAMF is as fast-paced as the advancements in the technological community. Priorities change and writers have to be willing to switch gears, says Bates. In regards to their daily schedules, the company swears by an AGILE approach which emphasizes teamwork (teams often consist of software developers, product owners, designers, and subject matter experts along with technical writers) and constant improvement and production.
Additionally, technical writers are always working to create product release notes, guides, knowledge-based articles, and are tasked with handling the user-interface text. They cite some of their most popular documents produced as tech papers, which outline how to use a certain features of a product, and video tutorials which have become increasingly popular even over the last six months. Kiecker emphasized, “We’re writing to meet user’s goals, not writing to document features. What does it do for you, why do you care, what are the goals that you want to achieve using this? We’re always keeping the user perspective in mind.”
Furthermore, the panelists highlighted the following integral skills, which English majors are trained in and hone throughout their education. The skills that make a technical writer effective when working in AGILE-focused teams and when developing different texts include always asking questions, having good critical thinking skills, being able to sit in meetings every day where there is very technical information and being able to discern what information is important for their audience, doing research in order to understand new product features, and being able to work effectively with a group of people from different departments with different roles and different daily goals to achieve. Technical writing is like translation in a way. “A developer builds something really cool, but if nobody really understands it, they can’t use it, so what’s the point of building it?” stated Kaiser, when defining the importance of her work within a diverse team. Some of their favorite parts of the job include facets such as constantly continuing to learn new things, seeing ideas transform into tangible products, and being able to use communication skills every day. The good news for English majors here at Eau Claire is that these skills can all be gained through liberal education opportunities, their English classes, and even through internships offered through the English department itself.
When asked about what makes JAMF stand out from other companies, Bates cited how on the job learning is emphasized. She started her journey with the company as an intern, through the English department at Eau Claire, gaining hands-on experience and asking lots of questions. Now, as an employee, she is continuing her education to obtain her master’s degree through the company’s education reimbursement credit system. Additionally, Kiecker, having previous experience at other software development companies stated, “It’s not even comparable to other companies…You work as part of a group here that offers you support and feedback, and the company is genuinely focused on the customer and their feedback and experience.” Finally, Bates cited that being able to bring her dog to work every day is pretty awesome.
What specific advice did the panelists have for current students considering work in the technical writing industry?
“Take the editing class [ENGL 307 Editing for Publications Management]. I can’t believe it’s optional, definitely take it, that’s the class that impacted me the most by far.” –Bates
“If you’re interested in working as a technical writer for a software development company don’t be afraid to take a software development class. If you can talk about concepts that are foundational aspects of whatever language, you’re going to have more effective conversations with the developers that you work with to create software documentation. Don’t be afraid to go beyond walls of your English building.” - Kiecker
“I gained most of the skills that I use every day from my internships. So get as many internships as you can.” – Bates
“There’s really not any software we look for with new employees. We want you to learn our tools, so if you come in as a blank slate, that’s almost better.” – Kiecker
Needless to say, if these UWEC English graduates are any indication, the future for Blugold writers is looking bright, and technical writing at a software company like JAMF is just one of the many opportunities they will be well-prepared to take on post-graduation.