January 2020
Text by Leah Guren

Image: © diephosi/istockphoto.com

Leah Guren is the owner/operator of Cow TC. She has been active in the field of technical communication since 1980 as a writer, manager, Help author, and usability consultant. She now devotes her time to consulting and teaching courses and seminars in technical communication, primarily in Israel and Europe.



The TC professional: a true Jack-of-all-trades

The dinner party was well underway. The setting was the lovely home of a good friend, complete with stunning views of the city at night. The guests were charming and intelligent. The food and wine were excellent. With all these ingredients, it was no surprise that the conversation flowed easily. We shared stories and laughter, and let the subject morph naturally from topic to topic, touching on movies, travel, nutrition, international packaging laws, pets, and medical advances.

I had been happy to listen and add a comment or two. I honestly donít remember what my small comments were, but at one point I realized that everyone was looking at me.

"Excuse me," said one gentleman, "but what exactly do you do?"

It seemed that my comments had revealed a strangely eclectic knowledge of seemingly unrelated (and wildly useless) trivia. My fellow dining companions, on the other hand, had excellent knowledge limited to their specific fields. My lack of focus confused them.

I had to explain technical communication and my role as a consultant and trainer. "Every time I take on a new client, I learn something else. I have to learn about their products, their technology, and their area of expertise. I really am not an expert in any of these fields; I merely know a little bit about a lot of things."

One woman, a professor of linguistics, looked concerned. "How can you function if you donít have a specific skillset?" she asked. In a room full of specialists, my Jack-of-all-trades approach seemed to make people uncomfortable.

Generalism is dead

I interact with hundreds of TC practitioners and students every year. I have seen the shift in focus over the past 20 years. Once, students embraced the concept of uncertainty and were willing to accept that they would have to continue to learn throughout their career. But now, I hear a different attitude:


  • "Tell me exactly what I need to know."
  • "Show me what I have to do."
  • "Why canít you just give me a template to fill out?"
  • "Why do I have to learn <subject>?"
  • "Why does it matter if I donít understand <concept>?"

Sadly, industry itself reinforces this narrow view. Companies place ads that emphasize narrow specialization, sometimes to the ridiculous level of specifying the version of a DTP application they prefer. Ultimately, they will get what they ask for: drones who know how to do a set of tasks by rote, with no understanding of broader issues, no ability to do their own analysis, and no skills in creative or innovative thinking.

From the practitioners' side, this is also a loss, as narrowly defined skills are the ones most easily outsourced.


Long live generalism

My dinner companion may have thought that I had no skillsets, but that is far from the truth. As an experienced professional TC, I know many things at a more detailed level than most people outside of our profession, including:


  • user/audience analysis and UX
  • English grammar, syntax, punctuation, and usagedesign and layout, including what works and why
  • standards and regulatory issues that impact our work
  • structuring content for effective use
  • writing global-ready content and dealing with localization issues
  • communicating with graphics
  • taxonomy, navigation, and signposting 
  • using dozens of different software applications to get the job done


The blessings of a generalist mind

In the past 12 months, there have been a flurry of TED talks and journal articles embracing generalism and the importance of creative problem-solving. Suddenly, companies are noticing that we generalist Jacks-of-all-trades outperform specialists when it comes to solving complex problems that span corporate silos. While engineers and developers may fixate on a technical solution, an experienced and skilled TC may be far more likely to look at the big picture and see content challenges above and beyond the deliverables for a single product.

It is dangerous to make assumptions about people in a profession, but there are some traits shared by TCs who consider themselves generalists:


  • We read a lot. We read all the time. Technical journals, novels, essays, magazines, newspapers, product labels, and when in a pinch, the back of a box of cereal. We are insatiable readers, which may be either the root of our language skills or the result of them. In any case, we read far more than the population norm. And all this reading exposes us to a lot of information, most of it at best merely tangential to our work.
  • We have a good memory for words. Go see a movie with a TC, and they will quote back great swaths of dialogue afterwards. An artist may remember the images and colors and patterns, but a TC remembers words. We always remember meaning, usually remember most of the words, and sometimes nuance. To a non-TC (i.e., ďnormalĒ person), this may appear to verge on the savant end of the scale. It doesnít. It is simply that our emphasis on communication gives good verbal memory.
  • We are good with software. We learn the concepts quickly and then become self-sufficient and find the functionality we need within a new UI.
  • We think technology is pretty cool. You canít live a happy life in hi-tech if you donít enjoy some of the geekier aspects of what we produce.
  • We are good at trivia. You want us on your team at the pub quiz. This comes from our pleasure of learning and reading, coupled with our ability to remember words (rather than just remember the shape of information).

Beyond that, it is dangerous to make sweeping assumptions. We come in all sizes, shapes, ages, genders, and nationalities. We are far less uniformly stereotypical than the awkward software engineer or the Łber-hip designer. We are just a bunch of people who have become really good at learning a little bit about a lot of things.


Letís teach generalism

Yes, there are many specific skills and core competencies that someone needs to learn when entering our profession. But as an instructor, I want to urge other trainers, professors, and curriculum developers to support and encourage generalism. Encourage knowledge outside the immediate scope of a project. Build in ways to reward lateral or innovative thinking.

Ultimately, as a Jack-of-all-trades, a TC can be a valuable asset in any organization.

Do you have an opinion about specialization vs. generalism? Let us know!