Lessons from the Tech Writing Trenches

by Linda King, STC Houston President

No doubt, other long-time STC members have similar and more interesting histories to share, but I decided to share mine for multiple reasons:

  • To let those who are wondering know that there can be lots of avenues for building a career in our profession.
  • To help identify gaps in formal training that need filling to build a highly successful career (in any field, actually).
  • To suggest some ways to expand career options and job satisfaction when feeling pigeon-holed at work.
  • To give a bit of insight into the person you elected to lead our chapter this year.

I have been in the technical communication profession since before Technical Communication programs and degrees were available. I came to the profession, not by design, but through necessity and as a way of applying my thirst for learning, aptitude for science and math, and the language/communication skills I had honed through a B.A. program in English and German and an M.A. program in English.

A Rocky Start

Upon graduating penniless and newly married to a penniless fellow grad, my initial thought was to try teaching. My tenure as a graduate teaching assistant at Florida State University had not made this seem appealing, and a year teaching composition to reluctant junior college students in Dayton, Ohio convinced me that was not how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. So I tried to figure out how I could apply the skills and knowledge I had acquired to another line of work. An ad for a technical writer at the University of Dayton Research Center seemed a likely option.

As you can well imagine, getting started as a technical writer was a hard sell. Just try to imagine convincing physicists that a shy English major could understand their work. My argument was that I had studied far more science than the typical English major in those days (true) and that I was a quick learner (also true). Fortunately, my prospective boss decided to give me the benefit of the doubt, and my technical communication career was launched. Thankfully, he did not regret that decision.

I had no early mentors. A much older (probably in his 40’s, which I now realize is quite young) staff member at the Research Institute introduced me to STC. In southern Ohio we belonged to a chapter that met in various locations over a multi-county area. It was a small group and I honestly don’t remember much about what we did except that we attended monthly meetings.

Within a year, my husband got a great career opportunity here in Houston, so I reluctantly left that first technical writing job and came to Houston, where we knew absolutely no one. I had no idea how to search effectively for a job in such a large city. I scoured the employment ads and desperately worked with employment firms. Talk about miserable results! The recruiters must have had cotton in their ears. They sent me on interviews at the far reaches of the Greater Houston area, after I repeatedly told them I would not drive from far west Houston to Baytown, NASA, or Galveston.

STC Houston to the Rescue

Then I hit pay dirt. I got out the Yellow Pages and searched for a phone listing for STC—and found it. I called then STC Houston president Janice Raymond, introduced myself, and explained that I was looking for a technical writing job. Amazingly, she told me she had recently spoken with a friend who had a technical writing opening to fill and gave me the contact information. I called, sent my resume, had an interview, and was hired as a software manual developer for Brown & Root within a couple of weeks. That experience and working with my wonderful colleagues at Brown & Root began my true devotion to STC.

My B&R team (our manager Laurie Harju, Ann Liggio, Sherri Smith, Beverly Rogers, Judy Paulsen, and Deborah Crocket) became my first and lasting friends in Houston. At that time, Brown & Root was a very strong supporter of STC Houston and members of my team were among the leaders of the chapter. They convinced me that I could plan and manage a successful, full-day technical communication seminar (the chapter’s primary income project at that time)—and I did. They also convinced me that I would be a productive member of the STC Administrative Council, so I successfully ran for election and served on the Council during a very interesting time in the chapter’s early history. I loved those experiences and learned so much from them and my STC colleagues.

It was with great trepidation that I left that team and interrupted my fledgling career and heavy service to STC to be a stay-at-home mom for four years. During that time, largely through my B&R contacts, I got a taste of contract writing and met another long-time colleague, Ryan Bernard. I found I could do contract writing effectively but it was not the best fit for me and my young family.

Reentering the Job Market

By the time I was ready to reenter the full-time work force, I had to fight once again to convince a prospective employer that I could do something totally new—write intelligent, convincing technical marketing deliverables for a large oilfield services company. Again I got lucky and was hired by a would-be petroleum engineer who was an excellent technical writer himself.

Over the next dozen years, I worked at several small companies, private and public, each in a different technical industry, where I was hired to wear as many writing, editing, project management, and management hats as I could stack on my head. I was under continuous pressure to turn out work rapidly and to manage work assignments and situations for which I had no formal training. I was fortunate to work with some excellent vendors who taught me about their own technologies, and at two different companies I worked for the same VP of marketing who was a real pro. He tossed me into the turbulent waters of marketing and simply checked occasionally to see if my head was still above water. I hated the stress, but I learned under fire.

The Inevitable Layoff and Recovery

After killing myself and foolishly sacrificing family vacations for four years to help launch a retail product so successfully that the company became a buyout candidate, I was unceremoniously laid off with the rest of the company’s middle managers. The executives had decided to sell the company. After that, the breadth of my experience and my outrage at being tossed aside so callously enabled me to interview more confidently than I ever had before and to land a higher paying job even before my severance package ran out. Sweet revenge!

Filling the Gaps

The one thing that my current job does not provide, however, is the wide variety of tasks and projects that so challenged me in my early career. That’s where STC and other organizations come in.

Once my two children were launched into college and my time was more my own, I decided to jump back into STC activities with both feet to meet new people, form new friendships, broaden my network of contacts, use and build skills in ways that I am unable to do in my current job, and more actively support the organization that has played a critical role in my own professional development. It was the right decision and has brought me exactly the benefits I was looking for.

In recent years I’ve managed the STC Houston competition and banquet; served as competition judge, program manager, student liaison, STK manager, satellite manager, author of our Community Achievement Award application, and strategic planning manager. I ran for and was elected an Admin Council member for two years, then EVP, and now president of STC Houston. I’ve made presentations to our chapter, at the STC annual conference, and at the annual Pubsnet Documentation & Training conference. I’ve also begun stretching beyond our chapter by building relationships and taking on tasks at the Society level.

So What’s My Point?

Folks in our profession today need not be limited as I was by lack of important career training. I struggled unnecessarily because I had no early knowledge of things like the following that are so readily accessible today through reading and training classes:

  • The need to understand yourself, your value system, what kind of life you want to have.
  • Understanding that accomplishment, not perfection, is valued in business.
  • Differences, pros, and cons of working in small organizations, large organizations, privately owned companies, and non-profits.
  • Career path choices (technical/individual contributor versus management) and the pros and cons of each choice.
  • How businesses operate and why.
  • True goals and priorities of any business.
  • What it takes to move far ahead in a career (sacrifices that may be required).
  • Different personality types at work in all organizations and how to recognize and work with them effectively (and today, differences among the multiple working generations).
  • Personalities and behaviors that tend to enhance career growth.
  • Methods of dealing with difficult people.
  • When to have a meeting and how to run an effective meeting.
  • How to manage projects effectively.
  • How to prioritize and manage time effectively.
  • The role and responsibility of managers.

Second, professional organizations like STC offer tremendous opportunities for career building and personal satisfaction. You can start as small or large as you choose, but the contacts you’ll make and the skills you can build through active participation are limitless.

Third, our profession is evolving in ways that offer whole new avenues for career growth. Writing, editing, listening, and organization skills are still fundamental requirements. But the Internet age requires continuing education and training to enable technical communicators to move along the many new career paths opening up in this century. I recommend learning as much as possible about new communication technologies and expanding your knowledge in aspects of the profession that cannot so easily be off shored. The STC Society website, annual conference, and SIG mailing lists are great sources of information about what employers will value most in the coming years.

Fourth, joining professional organizations of various industries not only expands your network. It also enables you to learn more about the industry and to meet people who may lead you to new employment opportunities.

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