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How to Interview Technical Writers Even If You're Not a Technical Writer

Yes, I’m that terrible person who interviews technical writers and asks those awkward questions. Here are some of the things I’m looking for when I interview people.

First, companies expect that graduates will have the same (more or less) writing skills – that’s a given. So, what they’re looking for are other qualities.

Such as?

  • Problem solving skills – describe a problem you had and how you overcame the issues. Be modest & don’t tie yourself up in knots.
  • Collaboration – demonstrate how/where you collaborated with others. I don’t mean email or twitter but, for example, how you took responsibility (“the project was running behind schedule, so we decided to hold a workshop…”) and how this resolved the issue at hand.
  • Technologies – talk about an area you have some expertise. Show how this solved problems (always be the person who solves problems and gets things resolved!) and the benefits it offers.
  • Memberships – if you’re a member of the STC or local IT group, talk about it. Paint a picture of someone who is savvy, interested in the community and likes to interact.
  • Goals – they want you for the long term. Hiring is expensive. Interviews cost money. Describe your career path and where you want to be. Discuss how this company helps you realize your goals.

Can you see the difference this makes?

Instead of hiring a person just because they’re out of work, the company is getting someone who shares their vision.

Interviews – other things to remember

  • Who does the interview – many companies don’t have a technical writing team. This means the IT manager (or PM) will do the interview. If this is the case, do your prep work and expect questions about code, schedules and other area.
  • Privacy — HR people may ‘hint’ or suggest that you discuss your lifestyle. Keep it simple but be polite.
  • Tests – many companies will ask you to do a 45 min test. Expect this. Don’t be alarmed if they pull this out of the bag at the end of the interview. They shouldn’t do this but some people are like that.

Things not to do at your interview

I’m looking for someone to write documents – someone who is low maintenance. You need to be that person. With that in mind, don’t:

  • Arrive late – give yourself time to part the car, find the office, have a drink and calm down, especially if it’s a long drive to get there. Have a light snack (e.g. banana) before going in.
  • Wear heavy cologne or perfume. In a small room, it can be over-whelming
  • Eat garlic or other such foods before the interview. See above. Mouth freshener never hurt.
  • Run down your previous employer. If reflects poorly on you and makes you look petty. Talk them up.

“It’s a great company but I want to move into XYZ, so I thought I’d speak to you.”

Be the type of person you’d like to hire.

Steer clear of the following:

  • Religion
  • Politics
  • Gossip
  • Extreme ideologies
  • Age
  • Family

None of these are their business. Allude to them, e.g. your family, if you wish but keep it brief. Don’t get too buddy-buddy. This is an interview. Keep it professional.

and then…

  • Ask questions. This is the single biggest mistake interviewees make. They don’t ask questions. They think that being silent shows respect. Of course it does, but open up. You must have questions. Ask them. I want to hear what you think of the company.
  • Show your interest. I used to print out the company annual report and discuss sections with the interviewers (when looking for work) – this blew them away.
  • Quote things for their site.
  • Talk about the company — as though you already worked for them.
  • Social Media — have you joined their Facebook page? Do you follow them on Twitter. If not, why?

Don’t think of yourself as just a technical writer. You’re a potential asset to the company and if THEY make the right decision, they will hire you!

See the difference?

What the most difficult question you were asked at an interview? What is the biggest mistake you made at an interview?

5 thoughts on “How to Interview Technical Writers Even If You're Not a Technical Writer

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  2. Having read the above, I can say there is always one question, which pops up at interview. This usually happens when a PM, HR or technical person of some calibre interviews me as a technical author for the first time with little or no knowledge of our role except they know that we write documentation, which the company needs. They ask a question regarding a documentation type, which in all my 13 years of experience I have never written, read and/or heard about (yes it does happen).
    As I point out. If you can't see it on my CV, then I haven't done it.
    When I reply I can't answer that question the interviewer either looks bemused or thanks me for my honesty. Personally, I am not even going to try an answer, but I know many who would happily talk about documentation, which they have never written. They take the view that the person interviewing them (unless is an experienced TA) won’t know either. When they get the job and have to write the said document there are three possible outcomes:
    • The truth will out because someone on the floor understands what the document should contain, or
    • No one knows any better to comment, or
    • No one notices because no one reads the document and the said TA gets away with it.
    However, this type of scenario is what gets TAs a bad reputation, which hinders our progress in the market place. Therefore, when interviewing TAs make sure you know your subject matter regarding documentation types and get the job done properly first time by a TA who truly has the relevant experience.

  3. Hi Michael

    <when interviewing TAs make sure you know your subject matter regarding documentation types and get the job done properly first time by a TA who truly has the relevant experience.

    I've had this experience also. I’m not sure why they bring in people to interviews who patently know nothing about the field. This has nothing to do with technical writing per se but the interviewing process.

    My take on it is that people have to justify their existence (somehow) and asking hard (impossible) questions at interviews gives the impression that they are being useful. They’re not.

    Could I interview a doctor for a medical position?

    No, even though I've been to a hospital and seen ER.

    Regarding technical writers getting a bad rep etc. here’s what I try to do.

    Before the interview I suggest

    1. that they arrange a developer to attend so we can discuss techie issues, i.e. so they can sound out my technical abilities

    2. that they arrange for a PM to attend so we can discuss time management, deadlines, how I work etc

    3. that they arrange for someone whose job related to content (even the sales writers) to attend so they can tease out if I understand the writing process/

    Why am I doing this?

    I want to prove to them that I know my staff and,

    Even if they don’t have a technical writer in house who can attend the interview, they can get to know how I work through other channels and

    So I can start to make connections with these people BEFORE I get hired.

    This approach, i.e. helping them to organize the interview, allows me to ‘control the interview process’ to a certain extent as I know who will be attending. This lets me do my prep work and avoid getting ambushed.

    If I don’t do this, I have no idea who’ll turn up and what bizarre questions they may ask.

    Ivan

  4. […] writing is about communication. Technical writers are trained to interview people and extract the relevant information.  Of course, listening skills are not exclusive to technical writers but many (that I know) feel […]

  5. […] How to verify what the person said is what they actually meant to say.. […]

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