Category Archives: Technical Writing

California Technical Writers: Exempt vs. Non-exempt

If you’re a technical writer in California, you should know about an amendment to the labor code that requires employers to classify us as non-exempt employees. Non-exempt means, among other things, that you are an hourly employee with a time card. So far, only a handful of companies have reclassified their writers, but considering that the labor code stipulates, in no uncertain terms, that tech writers are non-exempt, we have to assume that many more companies will follow.

The question is: do technical writers WANT to be classified as hourly employees? Is punching in and punching out even realistic for writing professionals who work closely with engineers and project managers who are not on the clock?

The small sample of writers with whom I’ve spoken abhor the amendment and are deeply unhappy with the new classification. As if technical writers don’t already have trouble getting respect in the computer industry, being placed in the non-exempt category of workers implies that we aren’t professionals.

According to the revised labor code, we are no longer employees whose “work … is intellectual or creative and that requires the exercise of discretion and independent judgment.” We aren’t “primarily engaged in duties that consist of … The design, development, documentation, analysis, creation, testing, or modification of computer systems or programs”, nor are we “highly skilled and … proficient in the theoretical and practical application of highly specialized information to computer systems analysis, programming, or software engineering.”

Certainly, being non-exempt isn’t all bad. You’ll no longer be working for free if your project requires you to stay in the office for 70 hours a week. But your boss must approve of the overtime. And what happens during down times, between releases, when you’re ramping up and your hours are well below 70 or barely 40?

Many people believe that the amendment to the labor code is a reaction to the lawsuits brought by “incorrectly classified” employees whose work is NOT considered highly skilled who were forced to put in long hours doing rote tasks in the computer industry. A lawsuit filed by a Sun employee is probably one of the reasons the amendment calls out technical writers specifically as non-exempt.

But our work is not rote. Our work does require discretion, creativity, and higher learning. We aren’t simply transcribing specs written by engineers. We aren’t documenting how to set up your VCR. If this amendment does not suit the majority of technical writers in California, we need to do something. If we want to maintain our professional status, we need to protest this amendment.

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Perspective: Get Some

As a technical writer, I have a lot of anxiety about releasing documentation with errors. Sometimes I lie awake and wonder if I should have had another person review the godforsaken diagram I’ve been toiling with for two months. The diagram chases me through my dreams. (And I have reason to believe that I haven’t seen the last of that bastard.)

This weekend, I read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. The book is about Krakauer’s disastrous expedition to the top of Everest during which an unusually large number of people died. At the beginning of the story, the author laments that when he returned from the trip — badly shaken, of course — he had to get right to work pounding out the contracted 17,000-word article detailing the tragic adventure for Outside magazine, who paid for the trip. Under the wire, he bungled some facts and made a major error that he says caused a lot of pain to the family of one of the deceased.

Now let’s discuss what’s worse: falsely representing the events surrounding the death a person who perished on Mount Everest during the deadliest season on the mountain vs. incorrectly labeling an arrow on a diagram in a software manual that 27 people might read.

Perspective. I have some now.

Aside from the TPS reports, it’s not so bad

I just finished reading On Writing by Stephen King, a book that pairs useful information about the business of writing with personal anecdotes about King’s career. It wasn’t a page-turner, but I did look forward to picking up the book whenever I had a free moment.

Toward the end, though, King risked losing my appreciation when he wrote: “… but it’s not all about speed … And if you think it’s all about information, you ought to give up fiction and get a job writing instruction manuals — Dilbert’s cubicle awaits.”

I probably shouldn’t be offended as he’s not actually talking to me here. I am a technical writer first and a “fiction writer” second, if at all. He’s talking to the starving artist in the corner at Orchard Valley Coffee who is using the free Wi-Fi and nibbling his scone slowly enough to last through lunch. I’m not that starving artist because I did choose technical writing over more romantic literary pursuits, for better or worse.

Even if he’s not talking to me, King’s obvious disdain for instruction manual writing does offend me a tiny bit. Working in a cubicle — in fact, I have an office with a soundproof door and a window that opens — may sound like worse-case scenario to a creative. But most days, I get paid to practice the nuts and bolts of writing; I work with editors, I interview sources, I trim out the useless adjectives, I’m challenged to see a subject from a perspective other than my own. It’s not such bad way to spend a writer’s time.