Friday, November 11, 2011

Telecommuting for tech writers: feasible or not?

Does it make sense to hire a tech writer who is not co-located with the team?  The answer is: it depends.  Here are questions to ask to help you decide.
  • How many people does the tech writer need to interface with?
    The more people involved with a project, the more valuable it is for the tech writer to be onsite so s/he can gain economy of scale by meeting with multiple people at once.
  • How formalized is the exchange of information in the company?
    If a company has, and follows, fairly stable specifications and project plans, it's easier for the tech writer to work at a distance.  If critical information tends to be communicated in hallway conversations and over lunch, it's better for the tech writer to be onsite so s/he can take part in these conversations.
  • How important is it that the "powers that be" at the company recognize the value of tech writing?As a general rule, face to face contact increases perceived value. If education about the value of tech writing is strategically important in the long term, it's better for the tech writer to be located onsite. If it's okay that tech writing be viewed as a commodity, then telecommuting is fine.
  • How specialized are the requirements of the position? 
    As with any profession, the best tech writers are hard to find.  The more specialized the skillset of the writer you are recruiting, the more you may have to gain by agreeing to let the tech writer telecommute.
    Many of the most technical API writers are qualified to be software developers. They have consciously chosen to earn less income as tech writers in order to make gains in work/life balance, and telecommuting is one of the top benefits they are seeking.  You can attract exceptional talent by allowing telecommuting.
What other factors are important to consider with respect to telecommuting?  Are there additional advantages or disadvantages I've neglected to mention?


  1. I spent a year telecommuting, and I found that I could make it work when the relationships were in place, and I had control over driving the direction of writing projects, but I found it pretty darn tough to innovative from afar.

    From afar, it is hard to push the boundaries on the types of content that gets written and on the processing and development environments in play.

  2. The way a development group works is so important for making this call. I agree with your second point Jen, but I'd add that a particular group could cultivate a very oddball but very effective way of communicating even in the absence of structured methodology. I'm thinking of my last job, which was staffed by great developers with lots of experience in open-source projects. Their daily IRC exchanges were almost like a parallel universe with its own language, culture and country -- while back in the real world, the players were chatting from Belarus, France, Texas and San Francisco.

  3. I agree with you both! Whether or not a telecommuting arrangement is successful is very specific to each individual project.