Tech pros: Don't forget to develop writing skills

If you think that because you're a tech pro, written communication skills aren't important, you're wrong.

I recently received an email from a career advisor who works with students in various technology programs. She said many of the students think their writing courses are a waste of time. She asked if I could weigh in on this topic. I would be glad to share my thoughts.

Let me begin by taking the point of view of someone who has hired many, many people over the years: If you can't communicate through the written word, then don't bother coming my way. Think that's a little harsh? It may be, but here are a couple of the business facts behind my attitude:

  • If I have to spend extra minutes of my already stretched time trying to decipher an email from you, then you are an impediment to productivity.
  • It is vital to me that other departments think of my department as capable. I don't want any of my employees embarrassing me in a poorly written memo or report.
  • It is, hands down, the most easily transferable job skill.

This is not to say I expect you to write like Hemingway. No one wants your emails to be spellbinding, but you have to be able to communicate with your co-workers and end-users. And, unfortunately, once you find yourself in the working world, you'll discover just how little of that communication will be face to face; it's mostly email or status reports in the form of Word docs.

But don't take my word for it. The National Commission on Writing for America's Families, Schools, and Colleges surveyed 120 human resource directors in companies affiliated with Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers from U.S. corporations with combined annual revenues of more than $4 trillion. This is what the survey bore out:

  • One-third of employees in fast-growing service sectors have some writing responsibility (two-thirds of salaried employees in large American companies have some writing responsibility).
  • The ability to present oneself persuasively and articulately on paper is a big part of individual opportunity in the United States.
  • Most of the new jobs in the years ahead will emphasize writing. If students want professional work in service firms, banking, finance, insurance, and real estate, they must know how to communicate on paper clearly and concisely.
  • Writing is a "marker" attribute of high-wage work.

Joseph Tucci, the president and CEO of EMC Corporation and chairman of the Business Roundtable's Education and the Workforce Task Force says: "With the fast pace of today's electronic communications, one might think that the value of fundamental writing skills has diminished in the workplace. Actually, the need to write clearly and quickly has never been more important than in today's highly competitive, technology-driven global economy."

Think of learning to write like learning to drive: You're really not going to be able to get anywhere without the skill.

Note: This blog post is also available as a PDF download.

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