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Written by Paul D. Race for Breakthrough Communications™

Technical Writing in the Dark Ages

In the late 1980s, I was set "adrift" once again by having a project cancelled out from under me.

The first place I interviewed was one of the few remaining technical writing departments in our company. They were still sending their typesetting out at an exorbitant cost, easily spending four times my salary every year. Based on my recent experiences of saving a department something close to a quarter of a million dollars on typesetting costs alone, I thought I saw an opportunity.

At the interview I said, "Here's how I can pay for myself and then some." And I walked the hiring manager through my recent experiences. I had even "dummied up" a Ventura Publisher version of one of the hiring manager's own typeset documents.

He seemed to barely be paying attention. When I had done my "spiel," he explained that IPD had already "beat him over the head" about desktop publishing, that IPD's new system was going to be available any year now, and that, at any rate, anybody could easily see the quality difference between a document produced on a 600dpi typesetter and a document produced on a 600dpi laser printer. Actually, when he looked at my samples, he couldn't tell which was which, but he was sure there was a difference, because the IPD had told him there would be.

I didn't get that job. A year later, I heard that he had earned a substantial bonus by saving the company a quarter of a million dollars on typesetting costs. How did he do it, you ask? He came up with the brilliant, original idea of using Ventura Publisher, a 600dpi laser printer, and my templates to bring his typesetting "in house." Ya gotta love 'em.

Side Trip Down the Marketing Rabbit Hole

In the meantime, I landed a position as the "tech guy" in a marketing department. Not that I was all that technical but I knew far more about computers than the men and women who were making a fortune selling them.

In that group, most of what we wrote was for internal distribution only, so there was only a simple template to use. Interestingly enough, we were required to use Ami Pro for our word processing, even though most of us had Microsoft Word on our computers - one of many self-defeating petty feuds with Microsoft I've witnessed in my career.

As a plus, one of the fellows in the department was responsible for testing each new PC to make certain it ran all of the standard applications. So I eventually had a chance to get up to speed on the early-1990s versions of all the "high-end" graphics and desktop publishing applications.

In addition to "vetting" marketing materials to make certain they were reasonably "honest" regarding the technologies involved, I was supposed to come up with creative new ways to market computers to our target markets. We were supposed to come up with all the ideas "out of thin air," since mimicking a competitor's program would show lack of originality, and might even be illegal.

Somehow, I had inherited a file cabinet full of competitors' material we weren't supposed to have, and my manager used to suggest that I go through that to come up with "original ideas."

As a result of familiarizing myself with the competition, I realized that nearly every time one of my coworkers would announce a "new" marketing program, to the kudos of our manager and his director, I would recognize a point-for-point parallels with some competitor's program. In one case, the marketeer had gotten hold of a Word file describing the competitor's program, done a "search and replace" of the competitors' name with our company name, and presented it as his own work. That one, I can say, did not "make the cut," but it shows the kinds of lengths we were driven to.

Frankly, the place was such a pressure-cooker, I can almost understand why some of those shenanigans occurred - there's nothing like a crisis-junkie manager forcing you to spend 60-80 hours a week at the office for no real reason but his own ego, to make any real creative juices you ever had dry up for good. Not to mention the damage it did to marriages and health. Friends and family sometimes wonder why I don't find comedies about obnoxious bosses in the workplace funny. Now you know.

For my part, I did come up with a few original programs, one of which proved more useful in the "real world" than anything else I saw produced that year.

War story alert! After my albeit minor successes, I was ordered to come up with a complex program that other people had tried to accomplish and failed. If I succeeded, it would give us a real edge in the marketplace. But it would also require the "buy in" of several other departments that had no reason to give us what we needed. And that was where the marketeers before me had failed.

After months of negotiations with no leverage but my continued, good-natured "nudging" and a few minor "trade-offs" that I could influence, I finally got the buy-ins I needed, signatures and all. The program needed only the Assistant Vice President's signature to be implemented.

Before that could happen, a new director took over our division. "Eugene" (not his real name) liked my proposal. He liked it a lot. In fact he liked it enough to change the name on the front page from my name to his own, and to start promoting it as "his program."

I could hear those of you who've never worked in marketing give an audible gasp as you read the last sentence. But this wasn't the first or the last time this sort of thing has happened during my career.

Conventional wisdom is to "close your eyes and think of Christmas," and to expect the idea-stealing supervisor to repay the favor at some time in the future. As hard as it may be to believe, in my experience, most of them do - the smart ones have figured out that it's a good idea to reward employees that make them look good. Sadly, though, Eugene appropriated my proposal without even bothering to read it all the way through.

Eugene scheduled a meeting with the AVP whose signature would be required, made up his own Powerpoint presentation to replace mine, and declined my offer to look over the materials he'd be presenting to be certain he hadn't missed anything (I said it nicer than that).

Finally the meeting day came, and the "Eugene" went through his presentation smoothly and convincingly. Then the AVP asked him a simple question and Eugene betrayed a humiliating ignorance of the most basic details of the program he had just promoted as "his own." He embarrassed not only himself but everyone in the room, although that didn't keep him from giving me a "dirty look" on the way out.

Afterword, my manager told me that I had "let Eugene down, big, time," and he didn't think I really had a future in this department. I couldn't argue with him.

Gotta love 'em!

Not long afterward, the entire division was shut down, due in part, I think to upper management's decision to discontinue our most popular (Motorolla-based) UNIX minicomputer and bring in an Intel-based "replacement" that was made in a different factory and couldn't even run the same version of UNIX. Apparently it didn't occur to the "veeps" that forcing our best customers to migrate off of our most popular UNIX products would give them an excuse to "shop around." The only people to keep their jobs were the AVP's golfing buddies. Even the crisis-junkie manager lost his job. So I had "dodged the bullet" once again. Or so I thought.

And that's where Technical Writing in the Industrial Revolution comes in. Click here to go to the next chaper.

Whether you're at the start of your career, in the middle, or at the end, I'll be glad to hear from you, especially if you have a "great moment in technical writing" - or several - to report.

Looking forward to your suggestions, additions, criticisms, and anything else you care to send me, I remain,

Paul Race

Breakthrough Communications

P.S. Enjoy your hobbies. And be sure to enjoy any time you have with your family in the coming weeks.

Note: Breakthrough Communications™, Family Garden Trains™, Garden Train Store™, Big Christmas Trains™, BIG Indoor Trains™, BIG Train Store™, and Trains-N-Towns™ are trademarks of Breakthrough Communications ( All information, data, text, and illustrations on this web site are Copyright (c) 1995, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 by Paul D. Race. Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically forbidden.

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