Are you thinking about hiring a technical writer for your team? Aren't sure about what questions you should go over during the interview? I've got something that you should try.

As for every other job, when hiring a technical writer you need to understand:

  • What a tech writer is, and how they can empower your team to do more and better;
  • What problems does a tech writer solve;
  • Create an interview process to access candidates;

Understand what a technical writer is

So far, one of the best descriptions I’ve found that really sums up what a tech writer is, was from a Google job description.

"Technical writers take complex information and communicate it clearly, concisely and accurately without relying on technical or corporate jargon to explain what they’re trying to say."

Wow, so many adverbs in a single sentence! Go back and read it again. Let it sink in - someone who can communicate clearly, consisely and accurately without using jargon.

Of course being a tech writer encompasses some other things. But how to check for the qualities described above?

A single interview question

So you need to create your interview process. And this interview should help you grade candidates according to their skills and ability. Or in other words: how would you explain <add your favorite complex subject here> to my mother?

Usually, when I think about this, I’m thinking of explaining complex topics like:

  • How the web works;
  • How does Google search engine works;
  • Why should someone use a version control system.

One complex topic I never thought about until recently, was explaining a whole career to my mother.

Just ask the candidate to explain their entire career to someone that is a novice computer user. In 120 seconds, and without technical jargon. After the proper introductions, just kickstart the interview with this one question. Instead of using the typical “So tell me about yourself”, just ask:

“Imagine that it was my mother interviewing you. Explain her your career in 120 seconds”.

What to search for

This question is designed to see if the candidate is able to summarize. Anyone who thinks every detail in their career is relevant, isn't able to do it. You should be looking for candidates that are able to cluster similar information together, tell a compelling story, and leave the details out.

Be on the look out for jargon. If the candidate feels that they cannot explain to you their career without resorting to jargon, be suspicious. It might be a signal that they'll not be able to adapt themselves to your audience. They also might not be able to communicate complex information without using jargon.

Also, pay attention to the achievements they mention. This will provide you an insight on what makes them tick, what motivates them. This is important to understand if they are a fit for your culture. Hiring people that are not aligned with your culture will only make them miserable. It will not only impact their own performance, but the performance of everyone around them.

Do not interrupt

And here is the most important advice for you. Don't interrupt. Not even if the candidate passed the time mark.

If they talk too much and lose track of the time, you’ll know that they have trouble summarizing. Learning this is worth five minutes of your time. After that, feel free to stop them.

Is 120s enough to explain a whole career?

Yes, I would even argue that even 90s should be enough. Nonetheless before the interview, you have already read the candidate's resume and cover letter. This means that you already know their career in detail. The 120s constraint only forces the candidate to explain you the three or four topics that really matters to them.

Good tech writers know how to provide the big picture and then walk you through the relevant details. They will know that with 120s to describe their career, they won’t be able to cover more than three topics in detail.

And of course, you can (and should) follow-up with questions. Specially if they mentioned something you hadn't noticed in their CV.