From Technical Writer to Project Manager

As technical writers we are often called on to perform as project managers. Project management requires understanding the management of information and people, where the most important skill you can have is communication. Ninety percent of a project manager’s job is communication, which falls easily into the purview of the technical writer. As technical writers, we are communicating and using the skills of a project manager on a daily basis. So achieving a certification as project manager is a natural progression of our talents in our profession. A certification can also earn us respect in the corporate world which may not understand all of the talents we bring to the job. To actually transition to being a project manager from the technical writing field requires some luck. Employment in an organization that needs both technical writers and project managers is sometimes easier said than done. Normally you need to have experience as a project manager in order to be employed as a project manager—a catch-22 situation. Frequently companies don’t realize how much they need someone with technical writer and project management skills. But as a technical writer, you can earn a Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) or Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, depending on your level of experience. These certifications can help you get the proverbial foot in the door to expand your career capabilities and display your flexibility as an employee.
  • CPAMEducation: At least a high school diploma or Associate’s degree Experience: 1,500 hours of work experience on a project team OR At least 23 hours of project management education
  • PMPEducation: A bachelor’s degree OR An associate’s degree or high school diploma Experience: 4,500 hours of project management experience within 36 months of non-overlapping time (with bachelor’s degree) OR 7,500 hours of project management experience within 60 months of non-overlapping time (with associate’s degree or high school diploma) Project Management Education: At least 35 hours of project management education
If you’ve only been a technical writer for five years or less, you should consider the CAPM certification. The requirements are less stringent and it’s a good way to show an employer your flexibility. If you have more experience as a technical writer, consider the PMP certification. The requirements are stricter but the certification holds more prestige. All project management experience for the application must be earned within the last 8 years—from 1999 to 2007

CAPM

The CAPM certification requires less experience and education than the PMP certification but it can still be daunting when you first look at the requirements. Whether you choose the experience or education option, you should consider taking a certification class. The class allows you to prepare for the test and compare your experience with others who want to take the exam. There are two different parts of the application for the CAPM exam: one for the project work experience and one for the project management education. You must submit the correct part or your application is incomplete. The application is seven pages long so it can be easy to miss information on the application. You should also consider becoming a PMI member because the certification is $225 for members and $300 for non-members, as of 2007. Membership costs $119 for individuals but along with the savings on the cost of the test, you receive the four periodicals and access to the online library of articles, white papers, and other project management related information.

PMP

The PMP certification requirements are more difficult to meet but only due to the quantity required. If you keep track of your time over the years, filling out your application is much easier. The application is nine pages long and there are four pages of experience information you must fill out for every project you worked on. This can get complicated so you should try to write down as much as you remember about all of your projects and what part you played on each one. The computer-based certification exam costs $405 for PMI members and $555 for non-members, as of 2007. The paper-based certification exam costs $250 for PMI members and $400 for non-members. Membership to PMI costs $119 for individuals so it can definitely be worth the cost of membership to save on the testing costs.

Application Overview

The PMI institute bases the certifications on nine knowledge areas and five main stages of a project. The nine knowledge areas that a project manager must be able to use are: integration, scope, time, cost, quality, human resources, communications, risk, and procurement. The five main stages of a project are: initializing, planning, executing, controlling/monitoring, and closing. When you fill out the test application, you have to enter the hours you spent on projects so if you don’t keep track of what you do when, start now! It’s good information to keep on hand for your resume as well as for applications, such as these certifications. An overview of the processes you must include are in the list below.
  • Initializing - This is the part of the project where you begin the first plans for the project, from how the people, products, and phases will integrate to what the customer needs. You investigate the risks and rewards of the project in this phase in order to decide whether to go forward with the project. Generally this is the initial discovery phase of the project.
  • Planning - This is where you sit down and plan out how long the document will take to create, consider any issues that you may encounter with software and subject matter expert (SME) availability, and plan out the actual structure of your writing project. Ask for as much assistance up front from others to mitigate any risk of the document not being completed on time or with the resources available.
  • Executing - Once the documentation project is planned you can begin writing. You may still be waiting for answers about software integration of a help file, for example, but as long as the answers won’t cause the project to ‘derail,’ you can begin the actual writing of your documentation project. This is where you record the majority of your time on your application.
  • Monitoring/Controlling - This is the stage where you occasionally take a step back to confirm the documentation’s proceeding as expected. A re you receiving answers from your SME’s in a timely manner? Are software issues being resolved? Are you writing about things far afield from where you started, such as documenting marketing uses for a product while writing the help file?
  • Closing - To close a project, you will get the file or document into the hands of the correct people and reflect on the lessons you learned. Perhaps you should’ve talked to the manger of the development department in the planning stage instead of waiting for execution to begin. Or you may have discovered a major flaw in the help authoring tool that forced you to use web help instead of compressed help. Initializing and Closing take about the same percentage of project time on the application.
For the certifications, the project management experience does not need to be gained as the “direct” project manager but can be accomplished while “leading and directing project tasks.” Details of what this means can be found on the PMI website in the PMP Handbook. You must enter hours for specific tasks that PMI includes on the form, such as “Define the scope of the project based on the organization’s need to meet the customer project expectations.” The specific tasks can be found in the application in the PMP Handbook on the PMI website. As technical writers, our work experience requirement usually consists of working on a project team to create a communications deliverable. Sometimes we take more of a leadership role and design a document to be more integral to the product, such as with a help file. Sometimes we’re asked to come in at the late stage of a project and write a user manual for a piece of machinery so we have to interview whomever who created it in order to write the manual, becoming part of that team. Even as lone writers we are part of the larger team of customers and the company, writing documents according to the requirements of our audience. We are uniquely qualified as project managers due to the diverse nature of what we must do to get a document completed. Project management certification is a natural extension of our jobs and we should consider these certifications as one method for showing employers just how valuable we are.

Other Publications

We do not intend to, nor have we, submitted this article to other publications. Contributed by Laura Dahlinger and Josette Schaber Laura Dahlinger is a technical writer/project manager working at the Ohio Department of Transportation for Quick Solutions, Inc. in Columbus, OH. Laura has her PMP and has been doing technical writing/project management for seven years. She enjoys science fiction, reading, and karate along with spending time with her 8-month old daughter. Josette Schaber is a technical writer working for Honda of America for Robert Half Technologies in Marysville, OH. She’s the mother of two wonderful kids and spends her “spare” time breeding rabbits. She’s been a technical writer for nine years and a member of STC off and on, as funds allow. Josette also has her PMP certification and plans to keep working as a technical writer/project manager as long as she can!