Tuesday, August 09, 2005


Will things ever be as they once were?

Aug 9, 2005: 10th anniversary of the Netscape IPO - The question keeps coming up in the Valley: will things ever be as they once were? Those asking the question are not the relative newcomers looking for a "liquidity event" home run, but those who have been around a little longer, before the Internet boom. I am reminded of my time at the creation of Cadence Design Systems when, even with all the mergers and acquisitions, we struggled to get enough staff. Hiring reqs sat open for months. I pressed individual contributors into becoming managers, and then coached them into the role. But that was real product, with real revenues fueling that growth.

A recent analysis on the New New Economy does a good job of summarizing why we cannot expect things to be as they once were, even before the Internet Bubble. On the one hand, because of the Internet, companies can come into being with far fewer people. At the same time, when numbers of workers are needed, they are available in other countries.

One of my peer groups struggling with the question is the technical writing community. This past year, the national president for the Society for Technical Communications worked to engage that community through a call for "transformation." She is continuing the dialog at this month's upcoming Silicon Valley Chapter monthly meeting by posing some questions of her own:

After several years of economic downturn, outsourcing, and offshoring, where does the technical communication industry stand? Are we still in a viable field?

Change is always hard, but the transformation to adapt to the new new economy could be a struggle for individuals in this profession. It is as if the rules had been changed midstream in the game. What was once a solitary activity crafting a whole piece of work might now be a group effort where the individual contributes only a portion. And "good enough" might be all that's needed. And all this might be against the backdrop of the currently defined jobs moving elsewhere.

I once asked one of the profession's senior members how will the individuals adapt. His view that many will not make the change—and that it might be a generation before the transformation is complete—speaks to how wrenching this experience might be.

Earlier this year, Businessweek Magazine devoted an issue to Outsourcing Innovation. This is an inherently disturbing topic given the prevailing belief that innovation was an area that the U.S. held as an advantage. Offshore work was moving up the value ladder. Carving out a role as a project manager, for example, was no longer a secure refuge. The editorial in that issue, "Getting an Edge on Innovation," offers a path and, surprisingly, it is to those in the "soft" sciences (anthropology, sociology, and psychology) because of the design work that comes from "cultural intimacy that cannot be delegated." After all, the writer asserts, those in the "hard" sciences can expect to compete with "equally competent but lower-paid Indian, Hungarian, and Chinese rivals."

After reviewing the skills employers are requesting, I think an example of such a "soft" area is Information Architecture (IA). It is an area that a technical writer might consider as a migration path. Much of IA appears to have a grounding in the worlds of usability, graphics, and ad agency-types of engagements. But I'd guess that this comes, at least in part, from the Web-centric, consumer-oriented seminal work in the field. From a very different angle, IA is also influenced by those coming at it from library science. I'd throw technical writing and training development into this mix, particularly for technical content and technical users. Behind the optimized interfaces and navigation is the design and delivery of the content that moves the user up the proficiency curve and supports the user at work. But, to circle back to the previous topic, given the IA skills described, creating the systems appears to require if not a different set of skills, certainly different roles, activities, and behaviors.

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