Matching Capacity to the Fluctuating Demands of Tech Writing

Posted on: June 17, 2019 / Blog /

Have you ever wondered why there are so many contract gigs in technical writing and so few full-time positions? It’s challenging to find qualified people and bringing in temp contractors is one way to do it, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is situations like the one below, described by a technical writer friend of mine.

“Every team I have ever been a part of has either been working overtime while trying to hire two people, or has been trying to work while looking over our shoulders and wondering which of us was next to go.”

In my experience, the nature of most technical writing work—from software to aerospace—is the source of the problem that is causing so many writers to look for full-time gigs and only come up with temp work. The majority of the needed writing is smashed between design completion and product release. It creates a short window where writers are desperately needed, but then it’s followed by a long window where they’re not seen as necessary. Now, in a mature agile environment writers work closely and concurrently with engineers and/or developers, which generally requires a full-time writer or two (or more, depending on the size of the job), but the rest of the writers are brought in as needed as contract workers.

The simple fact is, most companies aren’t running in an agile framework and even those that do are thinking of their technical writing needs as a single point in the product release cycle. This happens most often in manufacturing. That 2020 car model? The new system install on an aircraft? Those updated processors in next year’s Chromebooks? All of them need technical writers to complete the delivery. But once that’s done, the work slows down, and having a technical writer (or a team) on the books full-time doesn’t look like it makes good business sense. It makes sense—in the short-term—to grab those writers on an as-needed basis. They come in, they do the work, and they leave when it’s done. But in the long-term, those short-term writers are a bad fit. Every time a new product gets prepped for release, new writers have to come in, learn the product and the company standards, and start from scratch. This costs time, and time costs money. In the long-term, it makes more sense to keep on full-time technical writers who are well-versed in the product from start to finish and who know the company standards, but downtime also costs money. How does a company keep its writers and stay competitive?

The answer is to find an effective staffing strategy that recognizes downtime will happen but keeps resources focused on core competencies and values. The default of regular full-time 9-5 Mon-Fri may work for some, but in most cases won’t cut it. This is especially true in situations where there’s fluctuation in the demand for a highly skilled function like technical writing. Strategies are needed for dealing with fluctuating demand. Here are a few that have been used by AEC:

Internal measures

I believe the first choice is always to cover the need internally with trusted, connected people you already have. However, each of the internal measures come with cautions.

  • Cross-training: If there are other functions in the company with similar skill sets to build upon, and which fluctuate opposite or independent of the tech writing, this is the best scenario for covering needs as they happen. For example, if there is someone in the marketing or design team who has had a background in writing, understands the product, and can be cross trained to support the technical writers during spikes, that extra person can assist much more easily than a new, temporary hire who will need to learn everything at once. Cross-training can also help to better connect and align the organization when done well, but it requires effective communication between teams as it can create scenarios where people may fear someone else learning their skillset could put them in danger of being terminated. It’s important to emphasize that cross-training is meant to allow co-workers to better support each other, not to make them challengers for the same positions.
  • Overtime and overstaffing: This is the all too common scenario reflected in my friend’s quote above. It is the natural, tragic outcome of passivity and neglect. However, depending upon the frequency and magnitude of variation, there is potential to thoughtfully absorb workload variation into an existing team. To be a positive, it must be done in collaboration with the team and with close monitoring of the financial and nonfinancial costs. This strategy involves maintaining a greater than necessary number of people through the slower periods and requiring an amount of OT from them during the high points. Both are expensive, but the biggest consideration is the morale of the team and if they are willing and able to sustain the overtime required.

I understand that “Outsourcing” may send chills up the spines of many tech writers. In the last decade, countless tech writing teams in the US have been decimated by cost cutting efforts which involved sending entire programs overseas. Let’s look at it from a wider perspective.

  • Entire process: With a mature product, clear specifications, and extended timelines, it becomes possible to trade responsiveness and connection for cost savings. In those scenarios, full program outsourcing is probably the way to go. However, as the pace of innovation continues to increase, and responsiveness becomes essential, this model can begin to break down. However, small, innovative organizations may benefit from finding trusted, local partners to handle tech writing while they remain laser-focused on their core of design and delivery. In this case, it is critical to find support that functions with the level of trust and responsiveness of an internal team.
  • Relief valve: This approach is one that blends a focused internal team with a trusted outsourcing relationship that can be called upon during demand spikes. When high levels of communication and trust can be built, I believe this approach can offer the best of both worlds. Without trust, this model can be painful, bringing the same kinds of inefficiencies that exist in entire process outsourcing into an environment that needs more responsiveness.
  • Contract labor: Whether it be independent contractors or people found through a staffing agency, short term contractors are one of the most common approaches for dealing with variable demand tasks. Training short term people brings a challenge of balancing how much to train people. Of course, they need to be given enough of an understanding of the subject matter and internal systems and processes in order to be effective and efficient in their work. However, many companies provide either too much training, which walks out the door at the end of the contract period, or too little training causing poor quality and wasted time.

At AEC Inc., we believe the best approaches to managing the fluctuating demand that occurs in many technical functions are #1, (Cross-training) and #4 (Relief valve). We are dedicated to being a trusted relief valve to our customers and helping them to develop the most effective strategies for managing their technical writing and modeling and drafting demands. It is through our own internal cross-training that we are able to provide a deep well of service to our clients and full time commitment for our team.

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