I get the greatest emails sometimes, thanks to my blog. Here’s the lead-in line that especially piqued my interest:
“I’m researching trends in technical communication for a grad-level writing class,”
She had me at trends in technical communication. And research. So of course, I read on.
” and I’ve found lots of posts on the web by established tech writers who specialize in the open source arena and who appear to be fairly entrenched in technical industries. Any references to the wanna-be writers in the same environment are followed by quips about their being poor, because they have to do a lot of jobs gratis to make a name for themselves.”
At the time I received this note, I had just started in my role as a technical writer and community doc coordinator for OpenStack, open source cloud computing software. I was surprised by the juxtaposition she noticed just in researching web posts, so I read on.
“Maybe I’m making the wrong inference, but it also seems that the comments about new writers are referring to grads who fit the traditional model of the 22 to 25-year-old coming right out of college. For my essay, I’d like to talk about the trends in Open Source where the “new” writer is middle-aged, possibly even retired, with years of expertise in a non-techie industry.”
Wow, I thought. A thesis about Open Source writers. I remember riding with Janet Swisher from Austin to Dallas for last year’s (2010) STC Summit, and we could count on both our hands the number of Open Source writers we know. This is a small group to study but a fascinating group in which to look for trends. Plus, I’m in a position to recruit writers who want to write for Open Source projects.
“Based on your experience, do you see an emerging need for writers (we’re talking paid gigs) who have lots of expertise in other areas, but are looking to switch to tech writing for their next career or as a part-time job in retirement? What avenues would be best to explore in the start-up phase?”
This thesis could help me understand this small group, so I responded and encouraged others to do so. But. I was left with trying to decide if I agree or disagree with her thesis, that Open Source attracts retired writers with years of expertise in a non-techie industry. I wanted to sift through which points I disagree with.
1. Age or years of experience in Open Source writers: The tech writers who are established in open source are often highly technical but not necessarily in a certain age group. I would say their technical skill set is the thing they have in common. I honestly haven’t met an early-20-something open source writer yet, come to think of it. I think you have a lot of work to do to “prove” yourself when coming to many open source projects as a volunteer. There’s a lot of meritocracy where only your work matters, not your methods necessarily. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Open source projects often use wikis (extremely lightweight CMSes) for documentation. Experienced, entrenched-in-the-enterprise writers are surprised at how effective a wiki can be for authoring and delivery, especially when they’re used to an Adobe toolkit. So, from where I sit, I don’t currently see “a trend in Open Source where the “new” writer is middle-aged, possibly even retired, with years of expertise in a non-techie industry.” Also, writers in open source nearly always come from technical industries.
2. Having to take lots of jobs gratis to build a reputation: Yes, you would have to do some jobs for free to make a name for yourself, but I’m doubtful that new tech writers have the experience needed to be a huge contributor or lone writer on an open source project. I say that because I have talked to college students (more than 10) about helping with FLOSS Manuals work or with OpenStack and I haven’t seen big contributions from any of them, yet. I’ve also invited college students to book sprints with little response. College graduates are another story, but I have no experience with recent grads to speak of, so I don’t have even anecdotal data to share.
3. Emerging needs for open source tech writers?: I definitely don’t see an emerging need for “new” writers looking to switch to tech writing or part-time in retirement to seek out an Open Source writing gig. That said, through FLOSS Manuals I have definitely met and worked with seasoned (but not retired) publishers and writers who have great contributions writing, testing, and publishing pages and pages of information. These weren’t paid gigs, although these volunteer opportunities certainly lead to great opportunities
These are just my observations in less than five years participating in open source communities. How have your observations differed?
If you’re interested in open source and documentation, please take a look at the upcoming Open Help Conference coming up June 3-5, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio. I’m the new kid on the block, embracing these techniques (maybe hugging them too hard?), looking forward to learning a lot and sharing my experiences. I hope you’ll join us!