Many articles about how to hire technical writers are paint-by-numbers affairs that focus on basics like good writing ability, tool knowledge, industry experience, and design and organizational skills. Not that these things arenít important, itís just that when youíve winnowed down to a small group of candidates where each has the same or similar qualifications, you need to start focusing on other more subtle, subjective characteristics.
Iíve based the opinions expressed in this article on 20 years experience as a manager who has hired many technical writers. I also spent several years as a part-time university instructor in a graduate technical-writing program, where I met and hopefully helped mold the next generation of technical writers. I have not always made good hiring decisions -- especially early in my career. Often, failure is more instructive than success, as I learned just as much (or more) from my bad hiring decisions as I did from my good ones.
One of my hiring maxims goes like this: ďThe best person for the job isnít always the best person for the job.Ē Paradoxical? Perhaps. But what Iím saying is that over the long run, the person who looks good on paper and presents well in an interview might not be the best person for your open position. Go with your gut. If something about the candidate makes you uneasy, ignore that they have the right degree, the right experience, the right writing samples, know the right tools, etc. If you get better vibes from another candidate who has similar but perhaps slightly less qualifications, my advice is to go with that candidate instead.
In my career Iíve made the mistake of hiring someone who seemed like the perfect fit for a particular job, only to regret my decision later. On one occasion, I selected a individual who interviewed well and who even performed quite well on the job. As time went on, however, this personís high-maintenance personality emerged, causing many work-related difficulties not only with me, but with other co-workers. In retrospect, had I followed my gut instincts, I probably would have selected a much better candidate.
So what are some of the things you can focus on for your hiring decisions after candidates have cleared the traditional technical-writing hurdles? Following are some suggestions to consider.
Does the candidate exhibit a strong sense of curiosity in his/her work, your company and work processes, in other outside interests, about life in general? Is he/she the type of person who willingly accepts input from an SME, or accepts what he/she observes in a product, even when it doesnít make sense. Does the person dig deeper to determine what is really correct? In this respect, people who have worked as journalists often make excellent technical writers, because they are trained to persistently ask questions and not accept the first answer they get. Because of this type of determination, one of my former employees, who had a strong sense of curiosity about how things worked, became one of the most successful technical writers I know.
Related to curiosity, by passion I mean a strong enthusiasm towards work as well as other aspects of life. Does the candidate enjoy problem solving and learning deeply about a topic, or does he/she just read specs in a desultory manner and write a user guide thatís good enough but not great? Are the personís answers to interview questions perfunctory, or does he/she lean forward and give you a detailed answer with enthusiasm and a sparkle in the eyes? Again, outside interests can be instructive as long as they donít appear to interfere with the personís ability to focus on the job. Does the candidate teach white-water kayaking on the weekends, or perhaps perform in a community theatre group? Does he/she seem to be energized and excited by life, or a passive do-enough-to-get-by clock-watcher?
Ability to Connect and Work Effectively with People
I highly recommend the work of Dr. Daniel Goleman, whose books Emotional Intelligence and Working with Emotional Intelligence have been highly influential to me in this regard. Essentially, what it boils down to is that a personís success is more predicated on how they interact with other people, not on what they know, where they grew up, or where they received their education. Do your candidates exhibit the ability to work well with people, with empathy, insight, and maturity? How they answer questions about challenges and conflicts theyíve faced in their careers can be very illuminating. Are they the diffident, my-way-or-the-highway type, or do they exhibit a consensus-building orientation based on mutual needs and compromise?
One of my least successful employees had a folded-arms, stand-offish manner when it came to working with programmers from whom he needed information. When I questioned his lack of progress on a particular project, he huffed that the programmers did not give him what he needed, that it was their problem, not his, that their manager should be notified that they are not doing their jobs, and that this infraction should be reflected on their performance reviews. He made no attempt to get to the root of the problem (e.g., lack of time, misunderstanding of the documentation requirements, etc.), or to try a different approach.
This is where close scrutiny of a resume and writing samples, as well as probing interview questions can reveal a lot about a personís accomplishments and their sense of motivation. Have they worked independently, sought additional challenges, and tried to make improvements to existing processes? Or do they sit back and do exactly what they are told and nothing more? My most successful employees are those who work with minimal supervision and have a strong sense of self-discipline. They challenge me when they see an opportunity for improvement, but not in a nagging, confrontational way. These are people who might volunteer in their community, often in leadership positions, and have the kind of inner drive that no paycheck can provide.
Not that grades always mean a lot, but particularly with candidates early in their careers, GPAs and honors earned with degrees signify a candidate with high standards. Often, this translates into high standards for the work they will do for your company. Do the resumes and writing samples these people submit represent the level of quality you would expect from them as employees? If you think youíre going to get excellent work from candidates who provide only average-quality documents to market themselves, think again. Also, have they won awards or received other forms of recognition for their work, such as from STC competitions, within their company, or from industry groups or the trade press?
What has also impressed me in interviews are candidates who, when showing me writing samples, explain the restrictions they had in the project (budget, company policy, time), and how they would improve it. Questions about what your quality standards are and how they are achieved are also good signs of a good candidate.
More than ever before, todayís workplace demands employees who are highly flexible. Are your candidates the type who will ask, ďWhat do you need?Ē or ďWhat can I do to help?Ē or reflexively give you reasons why they canít or wonít do what you need? No manager should exploit employees, and few employees want to be exploited, but being flexible within reasonable limits is essential for high-performing employees. And as managers, we donít want any other kind, right?
Be wary of anyone in an interview who displays inflexibility, such as with interview times or submission requirements for resumes and writing samples. There may be compelling reasons for one or two lapses, but be sure to ask several interview questions that demonstrate the personís flexibility. Another red flag in an interview can be a personís rigidity and insistence about standards, either their own (ďSerial commas are wrongĒ) or that of a previous employer (ďThatís the way we always did it at XYZ CompanyĒ). Often, these types of people have a hard time adapting to new standards and letting go of the past. Donít become a needless victim of the old 80/20 management rule: Spending 80% of your time managing the most problematic 20% of your staff. Inflexible people, no matter how skilled, will drain your time and patience as well as your team's morale.
This is related to self-motivation. In the days before there were college degrees and certificate programs in technical writing, nearly all practitioners were self-taught or learned on the job. Today, with people graduating with degrees in technical communication, itís less common. But still, there are always opportunities to increase skills and knowledge on your own, and itís a good sign in a candidate. Have they learned new tools or techniques on their own, or just stuck to the curriculum presented to them by a university or employer? Do they have a hobby or outside interest that they have learned on their own? These are the type of people who will likely be your early users of new technology that your company is developing and documenting, or tools or processes you are adopting.
So youíre down to the final three or four candidates to fill your job opening. Based on the first round of interviews and the sheaf of resumes and writing samples spread across your desk, they all look pretty similar. Youíre now ready to schedule second interviews with all of them. When you meet with them again, try applying the criteria outlined in this article. Let go of some of your past assumptions about who will make the best employee, especially if some of these criteria are new to you. Of course, nothingís guaranteed, but the results might just surprise you in a positive way.
About the Author
Brett Peruzzi has been in the technical-communication field for over 20 years as a writer, editor, manager, consultant, and educator. Presently, he is the Senior Documentation Manager at PNC Global Investment Servicing in Westborough, Massachusetts. He has a bachelorís degree in English and a Master of Technical and Professional Writing degree from Northeastern University. He has taught technical editing at Northeastern and taught technical writing for a local continuing education program. A long-time senior member of the Boston Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication, Brett is a former online documentation award winner and now serves as a competition judge.