I applied to become an administrative assistant because I wanted to get out of the restaurant and into a “professional” environment. That was the reason I gave in interviews. I think I included it in the objective section of the resumes that I broadcasted via Monster and Careerbuilder. Of course, it is possible to practice professionalism in the hospitality industry. What I meant was that I wanted “knowledge work” and I wanted to get paid. Entry level admins don’t really get “paid” in the way I meant, but I saw it as a foot in the door.
I was an admin at my company for six months, on assignment helping in Human Resources. It was a perfect assignment for learning the company. I got to be very aware of which departments were hiring, and I set my sights on the technical communications department. I learned who reports to who. I got some idea of which departments paid how much. Some of the other things I learned turned out to apply to technical communication quite well.
I learned that sometimes it’s useful to do the work that is beneath other people.
When I became a tech writer, the department was still smarting from a long-standing stigma that they were just glorified secretaries—asked to take notes in meetings, “prettying up documents.” These days, we’ve established an ever-increasing cache of credibility, and we can take such misconceptions in stride. You want me to take notes or format a document? Okay, but do you also need a template so you can do it yourself next time? ( Past STC President Suzanna Laurent gave me that idea when she presented to our chapter.) You want to make a doubtful remark about my ability to learn the product? Let me volunteer to log some defects for you.
Someone who knows their stuff doesn’t have to be threatened by doing a little of the work that is “secretarial.” When I was an admin, that was how I learned about the company, and it’s the same now.
Every time I set out to schedule a meeting, untangle a mind-numbing pile of data or log training hours for the group; I learn something about how our systems interact, or about new processes that are coming down the pike. I learn who really signs off on things.
These are tasks that an intern or admin could complete, and maybe that would be something to discuss with my manager long term, but in the meantime I can just take care of it and enjoy a break from the hard stuff.
Leaders serve—they take the project notes, they go the extra distance to help someone who should probably know better. Because people need that sometimes. Why complain about what people should be doing when you can be figuring out what it is they are actually doing, and why they do things that way?
Of course, common sense and your own personality still apply. A writer in our department has been dealing with an obstinate development manager for months, and at the end of their last meeting he asked her to carry a document to a director for him. That’s exasperating, and there are about a hundred different ways to deal with it, depending on your style. But in general, having a chip on your shoulder is just distracting.
I learned how to use Outlook, and how to write an email.
Okay, I’m still learning all the time how to write better emails. I took a pretty good class about email recently, in which I learned many Outlook tips. I say, learn all the Outlook tips you can, if your company uses it from email and scheduling. I get 30 to 50 emails a day, and sometimes more. Anything I can do to efficiently process those and to communicate well via email makes me a more effective tech writer.
Tech writers have to schedule meetings with SMEs. We have to get ourselves invited to meetings that no one thought to invite us to before. The more you can avoid flubbing in Outlook, the more stealthy you can be about getting others to include you.
We’re better now, but our department used to write the longest, most expressive (and therefor most potentially misconstrued) emails in the company, as far as I could tell. I was just as guilty as anyone, although when I was an admin I started learning right away how to get people to read my emails. I had to email large groups of people, or ask a director to review a document. I learned to use my bulleted lists and bold headings.
But this is all elementary to you, so I’ll just share a couple of the most important things I’ve learned, plus a pet peeve:
- I write the shortest emails I possibly can to developers. Most people will prefer shorter emails, but with developers I almost never get more than one question answered at a time. Two questions means no reply, often. Seriously—one or two sentences.
- Learn how to use the meeting features, and double and triple check before you hit Send. There isn’t much that’s more annoying than a screwed up meeting request.
- If a meeting time doesn’t work, always suggest a new time. For the love of Pete, don’t use the Decline feature. Who knows what to do with a declined meeting request? Call me or email me to figure out if we can reschedule. Try using the feature that lets you propose a new time. Declining gums up the works.
I learned how to talk to executives.
Okay, still learning this one, too. By this I mean, being confident enough when I speak to efficiently get my point across. Because those folks are in a hurry and not shy about interrupting. What I did learn right away, because I had to in order to get HR paperwork processed, was not to see them as unapproachable.
This applies to tech comm because we are often viewed as a cost center, so we have to justify our requests. We have to articulate our value using language that decision-makers understand.
Professionalism can be present or lacking in any field, at any level.
Remember I said I was getting out of the restaurant business in pursuit of professionalism? There was a ton of ass-grabbing, boasting, and territoriality in the restaurant, most of it harmless. What bothered me was what I perceived as favoritism and dead ends. I felt like if I didn’t want to be a manager, I was never going to be treated as an adult.
It is different for me working in an office, but it’s just by a matter of degrees. Sexism, favoritism, gossip, racist jokes—they happen in the office, it’s just in whispers rather than in bawdy shouts. For the most part, I prefer it that way. It can be difficult to know where you stand, but should a jerk reveal his or herself, it is more likely to be within earshot of someone who can do something about it. Plus I found myself distracted less often by wanting to respond (I’m fairly confrontational).
There are more career paths, too; more avenues for promotion. So I’ve learned to take the rest more in stride.
After some recent readings (Intercom) I think this applies to Tech Comm in a couple of ways, both having to do with reputation. Complaining about a lack or respect and complaining about work. Both are going to make you look bad. Unless you’re in an extreme situation, there is probably a constructive measure you can be taking.