by MSTC student, Jennifer Sudkamp
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but Erika Frensley attributes her professional successes to her curiosity. Her innate interest in and motivation to dig into and understand the business at hand in a variety of industries have helped her succeed for more than 25 years in technical communication.
“My curiosity compels me to research whatever I am writing about,” Erika explains. “And knowing the product helps me put myself in the users’ shoes, something I feel is very important as a technical communicator.”
Erika is currently creating internal documentation for mortgage software users, but she has worked in a number of different industries, from energy to software to medical. She has worked for a number of Houston companies, including INOVA, ABB-Ventyx, BMC Software and ExxonMobil.
“I enjoy the variety, both in different fields and work environments,” she notes. “I have always been flexible, and that flexibility has also been a key to my career success.”
At a young age, Erika developed a fascination with a beloved Commodore 64, which drew her to technology and established her geeky side, even if she did not pursue a career path in technology at first. Earning bachelor’s degrees in History and Anthropology, Erika was far from the modern tech world of today. However, the research skills and analysis from those degrees laid important groundwork for her later life. Her studies also forced her to write and write and write, a skill she uses daily.
“Studying History taught me how to look at situations from a variety of perspectives, which ultimately helped me understand users,” she notes. “And all of that research and writing helped me land my first job.”
Her first position at the Houston Academy of Medicine – Texas Medical Center Library in 1987 enabled Erika to learn about the burgeoning world of online databases. She was then tasked with teaching others how to do the same. She created documents, “Quick and Dirty Guides,” to help researchers use these new technologies effectively. She then found her way into the field of technical writing and hasn’t looked back.
She joined STC-Houston not long after situating herself as a technical communicator, and has been active in the chapter ever since. She has run the Competition twice in the past and has been a judge a number of times. You might recognize her name from the online newsletters she has written and edited. But don’t look for her managing any chapter finances.
“I enjoy helping out wherever I can, but I have avoided Administrative Council,” she adds with a laugh. “I try to stay away from budgets.”
She does not shy away from sharing her insights, drawn from years of experience. Back in “those days,” as she calls them, when Erika attended college, technical communication degree programs did not exist. However, many of the most important skills technical communicators need don’t necessarily come from a classroom. She also points out that while our work must be technically accurate and correct, we should not lose sight of our users. “We can spend too long debating over the perfect wording or grammar, but sometimes you just need to get the job done.” Users need our guidance to derive the most benefit from our products, and getting them documentation quickly can be more important than perfection.
Erika also points out that innate curiosity is crucial to success in this business, coupled with creativity. “While people think technology is not about creativity, it most definitely is,” she points out. “You need to learn your product, and learn the rules, but creativity helps you break them successfully when necessary.”
Years in Technical Communication: 20-25 years
Favorite food: Italian
Favorite restaurants: Collina’s
Hobbies: Science Fiction including conventions; history; reading; art; also working on e-Book conversions for Science Fiction books and others
Favorite fiction (currently): The Lord of the Rings series are always a favorite; I love re-reading books. Currently I am reading a lot of Doc Savage (pulp stories from the 1930s and 1940s)
Favorite nonfiction (currently): Lies Your Teacher Told You
Upcoming activities: More eBook conversions, particularly working with Dr. John DeLaughter (Factismals for… science book series)
Tips for aspiring technical writers today:
- Be curious
- Don’t be afraid
- Keep your user in mind
The aspect of technical writing I enjoy the most is… Researching a wide variety of industries and topics.
Jennifer Sudkamp is a graduate student in technical communications at the University of Houston – Downtown, and is midway through completing her studies. She previously worked for more than 10 years in public relations, and is now seeking a Master’s degree to sharpen her technical and grant-writing skills.