Write for a living?

Senior Tech Editor Dan Hebert, PE, waited 22 years before deciding that teaching and writing was the best answer to his career woes. If you can afford the likely pay cut, you might want to look into it, too.

By Dan Hebert, PE, Senior Technical Editor

MANY TECHNICAL professionals eventually tire of the unrelenting pressure to do more with less. This pressure is not going away and probably will intensify. Have you thought about a shift to sales or management? In each area, you might find even more pressure and certainly more politics.

I faced this dilemma five years ago. I had spent 22 years in automation, equally divided among engineering, sales and management positions.

After a lot of thought, I concluded teaching or writing was the answer to my career woes. Why? Because these two professions have no objective measures of performance and don’t require a lot of office politicking. Now, you do have a lot to learn, but if you like writing or teaching, you might want to look into a career change along these lines.

Writers and editors talk about the pressure of meeting deadlines, but we leave out the good part. Our articles have to hit their intended focus, and certainly can’t contain blatant grammatical errors and misspellings. However, there really is no standard for acceptable writing, and there never will be. Good writing versus drivel is a completely subjective judgment. After being in the land of unrelenting objectivity for 22 years, I found this fundamental change a welcome relief.

"In general, as performance measurement becomes more subjective, salaries decline. That's why teachers and writers don't make as much money as engineers, salespeople and managers."

The flip side of producing work that cannot be measured objectively is living with subjective measures of performance, and this can be frustrating. We might think we’re doing a good job, but we subject our work to the ultimate judgment of our readers. They are the final arbiter of the quality of our work, and their standards, however subjective, are quite high.

Teaching is another great area for subjective measurement of performance. Is a teacher good? Who’s to say? There are so many variables in student performance outside of teacher control that most school administrators just throw up their hands and never fire anyone for poor teaching. The educational system has even coined a name for this bizarre principle of never judging anyone on performance: tenure.

As a machine builder, however, you certainly know about objective measures of performance. Your machine has to work, and you must meet budget and schedule constraints. It’s all there in black and white, and there are few points awarded for effort. If you work 80 hours each week for a year and your new machine doesn’t make the right number of widgets per hour, you have failed.

Excuses and explanations might abound, but they really are never accepted. That is how engineering specifically and operations in general work, and that is why it is so tough to work in these areas.

What about sales? There are even more objective measures of performance in this area. Meet your revenue-generating numbers or there will be hell to pay. Even if numbers are met, you can be reassigned to poorer territories, have your best accounts assigned to others, and find your commission structure changed for political and other non-performance related reasons.

Then there’s management. You might be responsible for hitting revenue and expense numbers set by others, often without your input. You must accomplish these goals even though many key factors are beyond your control. Throw in a healthy dose of office politics, and management can quickly lose its allure.

There is one major upside for putting up with intense objective scrutiny found in operations, sales and management positions. The most highly paid among us are those whose performance can be measured objectively. If your performance numbers are in the paper every day—and if they’re good—then welcome to the big leagues and multimillion dollar, multiyear contracts.

Whether it is professional sports, executive management or big-name entertainment, those that consent to daily public scrutiny of their performance are highly compensated for success and summarily dismissed for failure.

In general, as performance measurement becomes more subjective, salaries decline. That’s why teachers and writers don’t make as much money as engineers, salespeople and managers.

If you can afford the likely pay cut and if you have the ability to teach or write, you might want to look into it. You could start, as I did, by writing part time for a magazine, while still working the day job. Working two jobs at the same time is hard, but it is a great way to gauge your aptitude and interest. Contact my boss, Editor in Chief Joe Feeley, if you’re interested, and be sure to tell him I sent you.

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