Job Titles

by Steven J. Owens (unless otherwise attributed)

Kathy Stanzler writes:
>Does anyone have any thoughts on a company in which all technical
>writers are "Technical Writers," regardless of experience, number of
>years, etc.? Maybe they think there will be hard feelings if one person
>is "just" a technical writer and the next person is "senior" technical

I kind of like this, but I'd say it depends a lot on the context; on how the writers work (in a single large team, in small teams, or alone), on how structured the organization is, etc. The correlation between reality and title is usually very weak. On the other hand, the effect of having one title over another can be (but is not necessarily) very strong when you go job hunting.

Unless you're in a large organization context where job titles have very specific meanings (for example, the range of pay may be tied to specific titles - this is double true in a large organization that does government contracts), a fancy title costs the employer nothing and looks good on your resume or business card, so why not ask for one?

I think I've posted before with this anecdote about job titles:

At my first career position as a technical writer, I got in on the ground floor of the tech writing section and got to grow up along with it as the company tripled in size from 60 to 180 people (and went through five reorganizations) over three years. When I started, we were just technical writers, because nobody even had a card. The original one-woman-band tech writer who started with the company built the tech writing section person by person. I was the second writer she hired. The first had even less experience.

Somewhere near the end of the first year, the topic of job titles came up. I don't remember why, maybe somebody in management was finally drawing up an org chart or had decided to get us business cards. We bounced around various job title ideas until the most recent hire - and also the guy with the most formal big-company tech writing experience - pointed out that these titles we were bandying about so casually could have significant impact on our careers, and gave some examples that threw us quite bit.

I don't think we ever formally settled on titles. The question was never really discussed after that, and later on, whenever there was any sort of document (company newsletter, etc - we never did get business cards that year), it just said "technical writer" next to our names.

A year later they brought in a new VP of engineering - by that point our 6-person department had been formally made part of engineering. He decided to give us all new job titles. At first he wanted to call us "information engineers" but we unanimously responded with how we felt about that kind of marketspeak.

In addition:

  • Some of us pointed out that "information engineer" was uncomfortably close to "sanitation engineer".
  • Some of us pointed out that we felt no need to puff up our egos by calling ourselves engineers. As a matter of fact, we didn't particularly think calling a writer an engineer was a compliment.
  • Some of us pointed out that the programmers, many of whom were or had been bona fide, certified engineers (electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, computer engineers, etc, most of which require not just a college degree but several years of post-college experience), might find "information engineer" a bit presumptuous.

    The VP was pretty adamant, but ultimately, we bargained him down to "information developer".

    A couple months later the office manager made up the order list for business cards for everybody. She came around and individually asked each writer what our titles were.

    When the business cards arrived the next month, our cards all said "Technical Writer."


    Near the end of my tenure there I made a habit of eating out every Friday with a few of the writers and engineers.

    One day, somehow the conversation got around to the merits of being a writer. I think one of the engineers -- actually one of the better engineers and also one of the few who seemed to have a good grasp on the role of a writer (he came from DEC, so maybe a serious engineering organization background had something to do with it) -- asked the afore-mentioned most-formally-experienced writer if he'd ever regretted not taking another career path.

    I listened, silently, for the next twenty minutes or so on the way to the restaurant and while we waited for the waiter to take our order, while my fellow writer enumerated the many essential roles that writers fulfill in our society, and the merits and worth of being a writer, and why therefore he was fulfilled and happy to be a writer. All good stuff, it would probably make an excellent essay for a writer to reflect on occasionally.

    Then they turned to me and said, "Gee Steve, you're being unusually quiet in this conversation." (I'm not usually given to short answers; most people want simple answers to simple questions, but think about how slippery "god", "love" and "hate" are.)

    I answered, "Writing is what I do. Not who I am."

    See original (unformatted) article


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