The recruiter backlash against technical writers with public sector experience

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

Over the years, I’ve come across technical recruiters who have a bias against technical writers with public sector project experience.

Here’s one such reference I came across a few years ago:

By contrast, a background in government or national intelligence will likely count against you; this client’s experience is that such exposure dulls one’s writing skills.

Part of me agrees with such feelings. However, after serving public sector clients, I know there can be more to the story. The big secret of technical writers in the public sector is that they sometimes don’t even do the writing because of documentation by committee. There are also government contractors that bill by butts in seats first without regard for the solution. I came to see that there was no such thing as a one-person project when a federal contractor could dupe the client into four people for the job.

The real question these recruiters should be asking is the government technical writer ready to break out of their current situation? Look for a writer who has been keeping their skills up and who wants to get back to work to answer that question. There’s also the technical writer who grew tired as a professional and taxpayer of seeing waste across projects on a daily basis. It’s one thing to look down on government writers, but I challenge any of those people to spend time onsite in the information technology group of a federal government agency.

I watched federal government work lull many good people — not just writers — into false complacency and near career catatonia. When your biggest decision is where to go to lunch that day that is no way to live as a professional. It can be like socialized welfare in many ways.

However, for many people, a federal contract represents paying your mortgage and your kid’s college bill.

Don’t hate the technical writer, hate the game

As a technical writer who has crossed over from the commercial to the public sector (and back) a few times during my career, I’m the first to say that there are some technical writers and IT professionals who can’t make the switch between those worlds. That is on the person, not a statement on the entire industry.

On a positive note, government mandates such as the Data Center Optimization Initiative, Modernizing Government Technology Act, and the upcoming Cloud Smart are changing the technology stack and in turn the technical content (hopefully) that technical writers on public sector projects are producing. Right now, I work in the corporate growth group of a government systems integrator. Much of the work I do these days: white papers, marketing collateral, and technical solutions content is much like the content I’d be doing if I was working in a firm serving commercial customers.

In my freelance writing life, I’ve long been a proponent that the public and commercial sectors can learn from each especially in emerging areas such as agile development, DevOps and compliance. After all, when you peel back the bureaucracy and stereotypes, the public sector is one big IT compliance play.

Federal systems integrators are having to learn more about communicating value proposition and thought leadership not just writing proposals. They’re also having to learn how to make strategic alliances with established and emerging technology firms because government technology requirements are changing. More agencies want to use what the commercial world is using. Technical content in the public sector is changing along with those business shifts

In fact, I go on record to say the public sector is probably about the purest cloud computing play right now in my opinion.


Hey there! My name is Will Kelly. I’m a technical writer and content development manager living and working in the Washington, DC area. After spending years focusing on technical and SDLC documentation, much of my work now focuses on thought leadership content and marketing collateral. My articles have been published by DevOps Agenda, Mobile Business Insights, TechBeacon, CNET TechRepublic, and others. Follow me on Twitter: @willkelly.

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