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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Notes from Career Panel

I was asked by Mount Mercy University English professor Carol Tyx to be a member of a panel of MMU alumni that were English majors. The purpose of the panel was to discuss our careers. Prior to the panel, Carol emailed me a set of questions and, using those questions as prompts, I created the following content. This is a selfish post, one that specifies a lot of details about myself and my career journey. To prepare for posting my notes to this blog, I did some minor editing just because it's my blog and I can do that since I own the content.

Career Panel Thursday Nov. 20 2:00-3:00 109 Warde

What has been your employment journey since graduating from Mt. Mercy?

Context First

I came to Mount Mercy College in fall of 1988. My goal was to be a high school English teacher. I did a semester of Student teaching in Fall 1991. I did not like teaching – stories could be told about being slapped by a student, breaking up a fight, and going through a faith crisis at the same time - what am I doing here on earth? What purpose do I serve?

To summarize, those are the “highlights” of the “Dark Time of my Life” and by the time I graduated in May 1992, I had concluded teaching was not a career for me.

Since I had gone through my college education with a focus on being a teacher, it was difficult when I realized I had no idea what I could do with my degree.

I began my job search in February 1992 and it ended 3 years later in February 1995 and during those 3 years, I applied to many companies for many positions in many cities.

During the time that I didn’t have a permanent, full-time job, many life events:
  • Proposed to my wife in June 1992
  • Married my wife in August of 1993.
  • We purchased first house in April 1994.
Miscellaneous non-technical writer employment
  • Telemarketer at APAC
  • Temporary data entry clerk at ACT (Iowa City)
  • Software Quality Assurance Testing at ACT (Iowa City)
  • Got an awesome letter of recommendation from manager!

First Technical Writer position NDP (Cedar Rapids)

Interview at 8 AM on Friday, February 10, 1995 & signed job offer letter before noon. Words of advice: Always negotiate salary. I was offered $17,500, which was low, so I countered up to $18,000. I should have asked for more. The VP I was interviewing with said that I would have to work that much harder for that extra $500.
Two recurring themes in my career:

  • Networking 
    • The only reason I even knew about this company was through a friend. My wife and I had a New Year’s Eve party on 12/31/1994. Invited several friends (MMC alumni). One friend was having a “good time” and started talking about how he worked for a great company. If he hadn’t been at our house that night, I would have never known of their existence. There was never a job ad for the position I applied for.
  • Focus on content. 
    • Don’t rewrite or rephrase what someone tells you should be told to the end user. You should be knowledgeable about your subject so that you pick and choose those details that the user needs.

I worked there for 3 years.

Second Job: Jordan Systems

Jordan Systems had a product that was PC-based software, not AS/400.

Do not fail to value networking! Worked with a MMC alumni who lived on my dorm floor my freshman, sophomore, and junior years. Software on an AS/400 with an interface to a PC. AS/400 used to be a popular platform in the area and you could take programming courses at Kirkwood, but it has since been reduced in popularity and use (at least from my perspective).
Worked there from 2/10/98 – 9/30/98.
Working there was interesting. I had my own office, but it was a small company that had money issues. We used to sit around the lunch table and hope the mailman would bring a check from a customer so that payroll could be met. Went through layoffs – it was a choice between me and a co-worker. Part of not being laid off was the understanding that I would stop doing my technical writing duties and start doing data entry because the company generated revenue from data entry whereas technical writing was an overhead cost.

Third job: Quintrex Data Systems

There was a major life event upcoming: we were expecting our second child and financial security was a must. I sent in a resume for a classified ad in the Cedar Rapids Gazette for a QA Tester. Ad mentioned AS/400 experience a plus. Networking again! The Vice President was a neighbor from birth until about third grade, but he knows my parents and knew me. I worked there a dozen years. My first day was 10/1/1998 and I submitted my resignation on 10/15/2010. A lot of my time at Quintrex was awesome. I was the only dedicated technical writer so I .carved a niche and definitely nested. I was able to branch out into Marketing writing, User Interface design for Windows, and all sorts of other tasks like release distribution (paper copies of instructions & burning multiple CDs). My primary work was to maintain end-user and internal documentation for all their systems. There was a lot of content - multiple 500 sheet reams of paper. I requested and then was sent to conferences in Boston (2004) and Long Beach, CA (2007). I had to adapt to technology changes. The online Help was distributed in a file format called WinHelp. However, Microsoft announced that they were ending support of WinHelp with Windows Vista. This caused a conversion from MS Word to HTML.

This is an important part of my career. Why would I want to leave a good thing and go somewhere else? At the time, these were my reasons I decided to look for a new position outside of Quintrex
  1. The company served the Telecommunications industry with software to landline companies.
  2. CEO was 65 and refused to reveal his plans
  3. There was a subtle change in company culture – documentation isn’t important.

Epilogue: After I left

  1. Company was purchased by St. Louis-based NISC
  2. The technical writer that was hired to replace me died from a leg clot
  3. CEO who wouldn’t reveal his retirement plans actually retired in September.
  4. Did on-site 3 hour training about the tools I had used to write the company’s documentation in August 2011.

Unnamed Hellhole in southern Iowa

Editor's Note: This section, Unnamed Hellhole in Southern Iowa, is the part of my prepared notes that I didn't get to talk about during the panel. On Friday, I mentioned to a co-worker that I felt somewhat odd that all the talk on the panel was about the "good" that has happened in our careers. Sometimes, there are "not good" parts of a career. Certainly, I hope the students attending the panel never, ever, have to go through what I did. The parallels between this epoch of my life and "The Empire Strikes Back" are easy to sketch as I was definitely going through a time of uncertainty. Life was certainly bleak.

To this point, my career had been going quite well. I had worked as a technical writer for nearly 16 years and thought I “knew” all I needed to know about this profession. Working at this place showed me I do not. Thus, I am going to tell you something that you may not hear from anyone else – there are times in life where you will realize you are in the wrong place. I consider this a misstep in my career. Swayed to leave Quintrex with false promises of building the same type of situation I had at Quintrex from the ground up and more money. Quintrex counter offered to keep me, but I didn’t even look at the number because of the above 3 reasons. Should have looked at the number. Traded security for “opportunity” that seemed like a good idea. Learned a lot about myself and my character.
  • Began working there on 10/18/2010. 
    • Processes in place were wrong. 
      • Used a page layout app (InDesign) to maintain 100+ page user guide. ID is fine for brochures, but was the wrong tool for creating online Help in HTML. 
      • Manually typed the Table of Contents, then reprinting to verify pages matched 
      • Manually drew a line to margin 
      • One space or two – use one unless it “looks funny” then use 2. 
      • Tedious copy and paste work for other languages. 
  • Stopped working there on 4/13/2011. 
Being told I was a good fit for the position has turned into a blessing in disguise. It certainly was not at the time. I had been replaced at Quintrex so I couldn't return. This was a tumultuous time in my life. I was back to searching for a job, as I had done from 2/1992 through 2/1995. I began attending daily mass at our parish. During this time, networking became key.
  1. Father of a kid on my son’s baseball team came to a game with a programming language book. Started conversation about it. I hadn’t known he was a programmer. Found out he worked at where I had applied, and that since he knew my current manager, he said he would put in a good word for me.
  2. Neighbor’s sister-in-law worked at my current employer, knew my current manager, and said she would put in a good word for me. She was recently reassigned to my department. My cubicle is less than 5 feet from her.
  3. Fellow parish member worked at my current employer. Had known her for 20+ years. She knew my current manager, and said she would put in a good word for me.

Eventually, I interviewed with my current manager, and then followed up with HR, who told me I was the “top candidate” for the position. That thought still makes for a nice ego stroke. Job offer came via phone call during supper. When I was told what the salary was for the position, it was higher than I had imagined and took me by surprise to the extent that I didn't even try to negotiate! Always negotiate.

What kind of work do you do currently?

Software documentation

What skills are needed to perform your job?

These are ideas that are not limited to my work at my employer – spans all of career. Given: you know how to arrange words in an order that is clear and easy to read.
  1. Ability to analyze and use previous knowledge to make decisions about new situations.
  2. Critical thinking skills
    • If you are told the system should create A, but you have never been able to create A in the system – you can only create B, what is different? What steps did the person telling you A is created take to achieve that and where are the differences between your knowledge where you only see B and the knowledge of the person telling you should be able to create A?
  3. Teamwork Skills
    • You have your strengths and you have your weaknesses. 
    • I work on a team where my strengths (tools) and weaknesses (project management) are balanced out by others on the team.
  4. Compromise
    • Our department had a recent discussion about expand / collapse. This became my pet peeve issue that if you search for a keyword in the "site" search and the keyword is found and you click the search result to go to the page that the word is supposed to be on and you do a page-level search for the same word, if that word is in a collapsed section, you wouldn’t be able to find the word that your "site" search listed in the search results. We were collaboratively working on a user guide where the original design of a page had 7 expand / collapse sections and the word I was using as an example was in the seventh collapsed section. 7 user clicks to find information – making the user do more work than necessary. To go along with this, there is often more than one way to write something. Negotiating a style that you will use to make them read as if one person, one department, wrote all of the documentation.You could write:
      • To do A, click B.
        • or
      • Click B to do A.
  5. Philosophical differences
    • There are different approaches to any situation. 
    • Your experience is just as valuable as your co-worker’s experience.
  6. Do not be totalitarian in your opinions and dismiss others’ opinions. 
    • Who is the best writer - Shakespeare or Chaucer? 
    • Often there is no right answer so you have to use the skills you gained from being an English major to analyze the situation and make a decision.

How might an English major prepare for the job market?

  1. Embrace technology.
    • You don’t have to own the latest / greatest gadget or use the latest / greatest Windows operating system or Mac operating system, but you should be familiar with it. I knew nothing about computers when I graduated and consider myself to be dangerous enough to think I know what I’m doing when it comes to trying to remedy laptop or computer issues.
    • The trend is for companies to use social media to research you as a candidate. Your online images and words create an impression of you by people you may never meet.
  2. Understand the value of a recent backup
    • Consider if the device upon which you store your music collection or even your term papers for this semester were to suddenly not work. I was using my work laptop when I suddenly got an odd Windows message. The end result is that I lost a lot of data. I’ve also lost music files that were created by converting from CD to MP3.
    • Humility
      • You are not the gift to writing that you think you are. You will encounter multiple people in multiple situations where what you think is “right” is exactly what they think is “wrong” and your challenge is to and Embrace that person’s opinion. Make yourself learn from that person. Adapt your world to incorporate their knowledge to improve yourself.
        • Side note: In my experience, everyone thinks that they are a writer. The quip I’ve often heard is that “writing is easy. After all, it’s just typing words.” My value as a technical writer is the ability to choose the words that communicate the information the user needs and to put those words in the correct order. At every position in my career, there was always a co-worker that believed they would be able to do my job “better” than me. There is probably a person on this campus that has the same interests as you and may think they are as skilled in that interest as you are. 
    • Soft skills
    • Develop good habits
      • Decide that you’re going to do something at 3:30, M-F, and then track whether you follow through with doing it. 
      • If you don’t follow through, analyze your motivations for not following through. 
    • Don’t be discouraged by the advertised jobs you will come across. When you go to or or, searching for "writer" or "write" will not yield many results. 
      • Expand your search criteria or, perhaps, don't specify any search criteria and simply scan all available jobs. 
      • There's many job titles for a "technical writer" such as "documentation specialist", "technical communicator" and so forth.

    Is there anything you wish you had done while you were a student that would have prepared you more effectively for the work world?

    1. Take programming classes, especially if you are interested in writing software documentation. As someone who writes about software, a basic understanding of the logic and approach to programming - what it takes to create the systems I write about – would be helpful. You can learn on your own.
    2. Take a basic business class and/or accounting class. Economics, ledgers, taxes. I was in a position where I did technical writing contracts outside of regular work. Have no idea if what I did was correct or not, but I did it. <grin>
    3. Spend time in the computer lab helping users solve issues with computers and software.
    4. Try different things that are outside of your comfort zone. Have preferences, know what you’re good at, but don’t pigeon-hole yourself into a limited area.

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