Christchurch/Wellington branch report: The tech comm career ladder and you
This month’s event in Christchurch was exciting in two ways. First, our Branch Coordinators and our Student Outreach Coordinator worked together to bring us an event designed to be equally useful to both our student and our veteran members. And second, we worked with the Wellington branch to livestream the event. We’re delighted to report that the event was a success on both fronts.
You can listen to the recording here.
In Christchurch, we were pleased to see some faces we haven’t seen in a while, plus some new faces and aspiring tech communicators.
We had four great presenters talk to us.
The art of opportunity
Eve Hoets kicked things off with tips for building a successful mindset and creating your own opportunities. She's an aspiring motivational speaker who has built her own opportunities from the tender age of 15. She's not so much climbing a career ladder as cutting out the steps on the way up – and she firmly believes we all can!
If you cannot find it, create it!
Eve told us the story of getting a job that didn’t exist. She was unhappy in her current job, where she was paid a lot of money but held back from advancing. So, she called her brother’s boss, also a farm manager, and made an appointment to chat. She asked to be notified if a job opened up… and when a staff member was given notice, Eve was contacted to take up the position. Sure, it meant a cut in pay, but she’d secured a new job without having to compete with anyone, with a boss that valued her experience and better chances of advancement.
Incidentally, this ties in with Emma and Rebecca’s talk Hiring tech communicators: what we look for!
It’s not uncommon for people to make decisions based on money, especially if you’ve a student debt to pay off or people dependent. But Eve asks you to think about this: “How much can someone pay you to not live your dream?”
You might find yourself restricted by circumstances around you – you might have bills to pay, you might not have been long enough in a position or far enough through your education to leave yet, you might lack the qualifications or experience for the role you want, or what you want to do might not be available to you for another reason.
Does that mean your goal is out of reach? No!
Look at every situation as a chance to create opportunities. It’s okay if they’re small opportunities.
Create small goals for yourself.
If you have to stay in a position for a while, find ways to get the most out of it you can. Eve gave an example dating right back to high school. She knew that she struggled in school, and wanted nothing more than to leave and get a job as soon as she could. Did she write off her time in school? No again. Instead, she made the most of that time by focussing on what she was good at (running) and becoming the best at that.
At this point, Eve asked the audience to pitch in. Bernadette, a student of the GDID in Christchurch, is currently working a part-time job for tech writing company Streamliners. She not only earns money while she is studying, but gains contacts and experience while she’s there.
Spoil yourself when you have achieved a goal, even if it’s a small goal.
Go shopping. Have a meal. Eat cake. Rewarding yourself not only keeps you motivated, it keeps you happy!
Hiring tech communicators: what we look for
Emma Harding and Rebecca Officer were next to take the stage. Emma is one of the biggest employers of technical writers in the country, and Rebecca was our 2016 Conference Speaker on building Agile, collaborative teams with DITA. Both Emma and Rebecca have sat in the interviewer's seat, and in the interviewee's seat, and they brought us the dos and don'ts when it comes acing an interview.
I’ve since been told that Emma and Rebecca originally intended to cover two different takes on the same topic, but quickly found that they actually looked for and valued the same things! Five things, in fact:
- Can you write?
- Will you get on well with the team?
- Will you be easy to manage?
- Will you pick up our tools and technology?
- Will you stay long-term?
Can you write?
This is generally assessed in three parts: your CV and cover letter, your work samples, and an assignment during the interview process.
- Use colour and layout to make your CV readable and memorable. This is your first opportunity to prove you can structure and format a document well, use white space, use styles, and write concisely in plain English.
- Proofread. Pay particular attention to the words “attention to detail” and “excellent proof-reader”. The universe exists to laugh at us, and Rebecca and Emma agree that this line is always the one with the error in it.
- Update and proofread any social media profiles that can be found by googling your name. Your prospective employer will almost always look you up.
- Use gimmicks. They go out of fashion fast and they’re usually weird.
- List your entire career history. Restrict yourself to the recent and relevant.
- Exceed 4 pages. Ideally your CV will be 2 sides of A4, and your cover letter will be 1. Remember that your prospective employer will have heaps of these to read and not a lot of time to read them in.
- Use tiny font. Don’t use Comic Sans either.
- Include written references.
Will you get on well with the team?
Of course, this will depend on the workplace, the existing team and the work to be done. But generally, you can’t go wrong being friendly, confident and positive!
You want to end up in a team that suits you, so be honest and be yourself! You won’t benefit from pretending to be someone you’re not and neither will your team or your boss.
Will you be easy to manage?
Potential managers want to know that you can:
- Take initiative
- Communicate well
- Be pragmatic
- Learn quickly
Talk about your past work, particularly how you took initiative or coped with things going wrong. Show that you can accept feedback and learn from what hasn’t worked. Most interviews will include questions like “tell us about a challenge you have overcome” or “tell us about a time you dealt with a difficult situation and how you handled it.” Prepare your answers with these things in mind.
Will you pick up our tools and technology?
Demonstrating your ability to learn is much more important than demonstrating specific knowledge of tools. After all, even companies using the same tools rarely use them in exactly the same way.
And don’t be afraid to talk about your hobbies and interests as well as your work experience – learning is learning!
Will you stay long-term?
Most interviewers will ask you why you have left previous jobs. Know that the reason will not necessarily be a deal-breaker, nor will the amount of time you spent there. It will give your prospective employers an idea of what will keep you around, such as opportunity for advancement or your work environment.
Show enthusiasm for the role you are applying for and for the values of the company.
Finally, Joan Nanartowicz discussed how to put together a portfolio... and more importantly how to use it. Your portfolio is both your point of difference and your best tool for backing up your skills.
Joan first learned about portfolios during her graduate studies in the US. Her portfolio has been a valuable interview tool throughout her 10-year technical writing career in New Zealand.
So how can you put together a portfolio?
First of all, make sure you have permission to take examples for your portfolio. Having permission not only protects you, it demonstrates to your potential future employers that you understand copyright. Find out who owns the work you've done and approach them about including it in your portfolio. Some ways to maximise your chances of a "yes" are:
- Ask permission, not forgiveness.
- Get in the habit of collecting examples throughout your career, not just when you might be looking for another job.
- Enter competitions (such as the Plain English Awards) and ask permission to include the same document in your portfolio when you ask permission to enter the competition.
- Cite the owner of the content in your portfolio.
- Mock-up a sample document based on a hypothetical scenario.
- If you are told "no" accept it with grace – there are plenty of fish in the sea.
Once you have your work samples, you need to put it all together. A generic portfolio is good to have on hand, but ideally you want to tailor it to the job you are applying for, just as you would your CV.
A good portfolio should be structured:
- Include a title page and a contents page.
- Include a copy of your CV.
- Include examples of your work, relevant to the job you are applying for. These should have numbers or tabs so you can navigate right to them.
- Include with each example a summary of why it is relevant to the position you are applying for. This is both a memory aid for you, and for your prospective employer (they may want to keep your portfolio to look at after the interview). This is also a good spot to include "reproduced with permission from [owner]".
Remember that your portfolio is in and of itself an excellent example of how you lay out information.
What do you do with your portfolio?
Most importantly, remember to take it with you to the interview. Portfolios are a very common interview tool in America, but less so in New Zealand. Having it with you shows you are prepared, enthusiastic and professional – and makes you memorable!
Pre-prepare your answers to common interview questions and practice using your portfolio to answer them. For example:
Interviewer: “Can you give us an example of a time you had to work in a team, and what challenges you had to overcome?”
You: “Well, actually, I have an example right here. I worked on this document with…”
Note that you don’t need to include the whole document, you can explain that you’ve included only pages 6 and 7 of a 300-page document because these required the most teamwork, or showcased your best formatting, or were the result of a particular challenge you overcame.
This is also a good way to introduce a few of your skills that the interviewers might not have asked for explicitly, such as critical thinking, leadership, dealing with clashing personalities, or using particular tools.
If you don’t get chance to introduce your portfolio as part of the interview itself, mention it at the end and ask if the interviewers would like you to leave it with them. They may or may not say yes, but either way you have demonstrated your professional expertise.