Where do you draw the line? or “I don’t do windows”

October 1, 2007

When I was in high school I cleaned houses after school to make money. I did whatever was asked because I was young and wanted to keep my job. So I never used the classic line: “I don’t do windows.”

As a technical communication generalist (TCG), you are called upon to do many things (not windows, I hope—unless it’s the kind with capital W). It’s important to define your role yourself because no one is going to do it for you. No one else really understands what we do best. And it can differ from job to job.

Recently a colleague of mine delivered a PDF of a Frame manual to her customer and assumed her work was done. Instead, she received an e-mail from the customer requesting 50 copies drop-shipped overnight to Poughkeepsie, Biloxi, and points west. “And put the remainder on my desk, please.”

The response was: “We don’t do printing and shipping.” The writer (after consulting with her manager) informed the customer. She then sent the printing and shipping instructions to an administrative assistant to handle.

This is the problem with being a generalist. You need to be flexible and versatile, but not so flexible and versatile that you are drawn into activities that depart from your key competencies. Yes, the writer could have done the copying and shipping, but it would have taken a heck of a lot longer for her to do this than the admin who does it all the time. And it would have taken time away from the next project she had sitting on her desk.

Here are a couple of other activities you might be asked to do.

Take minutes at meetings.
As a contractor and lone writer I sometimes agreed to do this. It helped me retain knowledge about the project and gave me an opportunity to demonstrate my writing abilities.
Another writer I know declined this role because the discussion at the project meetings was too technical for him to fully understand. He didn’t need to understand all the technical stuff to write the documentation, but he did need to attend the meetings to understand how project activities affected his work. Taking minutes was extremely frustrating and made it harder for him to function in the meetings.

QA testing.
Sometimes we stumble into quality assurance (QA) testing because we are clicking through the application, capturing screenshots, and the darn thing blows up in our face. Being the responsible employees that we are, we report these problems. This can become a slippery slope where we are drawn deeper and deeper into QA activities. If you are looking for a career change, go for it. If not, draw a line in the sand.

What about you? Are there things you’ve been asked to do that fell outside your job description? What did you do?