The Remote Taxonomist

One of the characteristics of taxonomy work is that taxonomists can work remotely from their managers, colleagues, or clients, and many do. It’s not because those attracted to taxonomy work specifically want to work from home. Rather, taxonomy work is a narrow specialty, in which relatively few people are sufficiently skilled. So, when a taxonomist is needed to fill a position or serve as a consultant or contractor, often the ideal candidate is not to be found locally, and someone qualified, interested, and available lives far away.

Taxonomists are also accustomed to working independently. As an employee, a taxonomist is typically in the role of an “individual contributor” without supervisory reports yet not in a junior position that requires close supervision. In many organizations the taxonomist knows more about taxonomy than his or her supervisor.

Furthermore, taxonomy work lends itself to consulting and contracting work. Taxonomy design and development is of a project nature that requires intense work only temporarily (after which maintenance work can be part-time). Consultants make a number of visits to their client (to conduct interviews or lead workshops), but the bulk of their working time is spent remotely at their own office. Contract or freelance taxonomy editors are needed onsite even less than taxonomy consultants and like other editorial freelancers, indexers, translators, etc., typically never meet a client face-to-face.

Taxonomy work requires the involvement or input of many different people: project sponsors, managers, user interface designers, software engineers, product managers, customer service representatives, indexers, content creators or editors, and sample end-users. In most cases these stakeholders are not located in the same office anyway, so there will inevitably be some degree of remote contacts as a part of taxonomy work. Organizations that require taxonomies tend to be large, and if they are large they tend to have multiple locations. So, the taxonomist will always be remote to some of the taxonomy stakeholders, even if the taxonomist works in the headquarters office. What this means is that even in-house taxonomists develop experience and techniques in working with remote colleagues. If a taxonomist is going to be remote to many stakeholders, the taxonomist could almost as easily be remote to them all.

When I have been in a job-search mode, I have identified suitable positions in other cities and have applied to them with the query about telecommuting. More than once, the hiring manager of a position that did not mention telecommuting as an option was open to the idea of me working remotely from home when I proposed it. It can depend of the position level, though. Junior taxonomists who may require more mentoring are less suitable as remote employees that those who are experienced. On the other end, upper level positions might also be better served in-house. Recently I noticed a position for a Director of Semantic Services in another city. A director is a somewhat senior position, and while the director could be remote from those reporting to that manager, it would probably be better if the director was in the same office as that person’s manager and other senior managers to collaborate on ideas of taxonomy strategy and new opportunities.

If you are trying to decide whether to hire a remote taxonomist, it is important to consider whether that individual has had prior experience in working remotely from home, especially to be employed full-time. The remote worker needs the technology setup, organizational space, and self-discipline to separate work from personal activities. Fortunately, experienced taxonomists tend to have such remote-work experience. The further a long a taxonomist is in his or her career, the more likely that person will have had stints of working from home. Thus, it is easier to count on telecommuting experience among senior taxonomists.

I have now worked as a taxonomist from home in various capacities: a job full-time job entirely from home, a part-time (30 hours/week) job entirely from home, a full-time job one day at home but for a supervisor and team in an office across the country (the position’s originally posted location), a full-time job originally 4 days in the office but later 4 days at home, and several years of consulting and contracting from home.  I wasn’t specifically seeking to work from home, but that’s how it worked out to get and keep the jobs I wanted.