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Written by Paul D. Race for Breakthrough Communications™

Technical Writing in the Industrial Revolution

In the early 1990s, a brief stint in a marketing division proved to me that everything I had ever suspected about our marketeers was true. It also proved that I didn't want to work there indefinitely, even if that had been a option.

My manager helped me make the jump to a support division, under the supervision of an old friend from a previous position (I'll call him John). Many of the employees there were "on call" three evenings a week in case some disaster occurred in their area of specialty. I was never given a buzzer, since my job was to organize service bulletins into a database, and write a set of processes for our "field people" to follow in planned customer service engagements.

Not only was I not given a buzzer; I was lucky to get a desk. The group had just moved into quarters that were obviously too small by about ten people. I was finally given an obsolete PC I could theoretically use to do my job. But I never got any long-term assignments, either. Not only that, several of my coworkers never seemed to have assignments at all. I believe that a few achieved the highest Solitaire scores ever achieved in the workplace. Actually, considering the old PCs we had to work with, and every release of Windows being more bloated than the last, Solitaire was about as much as our computers could handle anyway.

Because we had moved to a different building, NCR couldn't transfer my phone number with me. So, while I was waiting for the flood of work that I had been told to expect, I did what I always did when my phone number changed: I ordered new business cards. (Remember, this was pre-I-phone.) In fact, since I would be interacting with people "in the field" on a daily basis, business cards would be even more important now than they were in my last three positions.

At that time, embossed, professional three-color business cards with the company logo cost $13 for 900 - what would be a lifetime supply for me if NCRever let me stay in one position long enough to use more than a few dozen.

In the meantime, I busied myself reading up on the services our group offered, proofing minor documents for my coworkers, and otherwise doing everything I could to look busy short of grabbing a broom. A week went by, and I had still not received any real assignments. Or my business cards, which usually came in a couple of days.

So I asked the "administrative support" person in our group if she'd heard anything about my business cards. She looked sheepish and told me I probably needed to talk to "John" about that.

Well, lack of business cards wasn't a crisis, especially since I had about 600 left over from the last position, and I was still in the "window" where it was acceptable to cross out your old phone number and write in the new one. So I waited until John met with me about something else to ask him what was holding up my business cards.

John looked sheepish, too. As it turned out, right after my transfer paperwork came through, John was told to cut headcount by ten people (that explained the new, cramped quarters and lack of work). Since I was the "last hired," my name went first on the RIF (Reduction In Force) list. But groups all over the corporation were also downsizing, and HR couldn't keep up with the paperwork. In fact it would probably be another two weeks before John would get final approval to lay off the people he had been told to lay off weeks before. Now he could get in trouble because he had given me more notice than he was technically supposed to.

I wasn't offended, because I knew exactly the kind of bind John was in. But I said, "John, an order of business cards costs $13. Why didn't you just go ahead and send it through and buy yourself some time?" He said, "In retrospect, I probably should have." Bless 'im!

At that time, NCR had a policy that if another division hired a recent lay-off victim, the laying-off division would pay half of the person's salary for the first six months - a big boost to the "bottom line" of the hiring division. So, this time, it paid me to wait until I was actually laid off before trying to get a transfer.

Although I had gone through several departments by now, usually "jumping ship" just before or just after my old department fell apart, this was the first official layoff notice they had ever given me. It wouldn't be the last.

Networking (In the Computer Sense)

A couple weeks after the layoff notice arrived, I landed another job in NCR. This time I would be in a customer support organization chartered with writing procedures for our systems analysts to use when putting together proposals or providing on-site services for customers. Most of my work there involved planning and installing voice and/or computer networks, a relatively new field for me.

For example, we found a software program that would evaluate whether a client's networking infrastructure would survive Y2K, then charged a regional phone company to "vet" their entire infrastructure. An engineer did the technical research, I wrote up the procedure, and the company grossed about half a million dollars for a few weeks' work.

My "crowning achievement" a the time was a workbook and interview guide that even a relative "newbie" to the field could use to evaluate a customer's LAN and WAN requirements and propose an effective solution, usually using Cisco routers and Cabletron hubs. I was proud that we had "rigor" to the process. After you'd worked through the workbook, you would have the "textbook solution," not only to the customer's perceived needs, but to the real needs you recognized as you were meeting with the customer and touring the site(s). If the customer still preferred another approach (say, Novell over MS or vice versa), we could deliver it, of course, but there was no way the customer could claim we had failed to do "due diligence."

The year our project came out, and the year after that, our company sold and installed over half of the Cisco routers installed outside of North America. I was not only starting to feel good about my work again, but I was most of the way to earning the first level of Cisco certification.

Our manager was so pleased with our successes that he approved my request for tuition reimbursement to complete an MA. I took lots of graduate business courses (learning, among other things, why so many of our corporate accountants would rather waste millions they could expense than spend hundreds they would have to depreciate). I was also able to take enough English courses to complete an MA in Composition and Rhetoric.

Then the company split up into three separate companies, and our division was gutted. Eighty-five technical writers out of a hundred were thrown at once into a relatively small market. Judging by the writers they kept, the only way I could have saved my job would have been by getting pregnant right before the layoff notices came out.

To add insult to injury, IPD ("Phil's Information Products Division), with whom I'd been bumping heads off and on for ten years, talked the corporation into establishing policies that would make it impossible for any of us to be hired back as contractors unless we went through a certain agency that a friend of his was - coincidently - just starting. Which friend? The one who had just laid us all off, and who had apparently worked out all of the details with IPD ahead of time. Gotta love 'em!

We'll call the former manager-turned-tech-writer-procurer "Bill," since he comes into this again. By the way, the proceeding paragraph and parts of the following account are based on what I was told face-to-face or on the telephone as I tried to reconnect with project leaders I knew who still needed my help. Almost nothing was ever put into writing, but many of my friends were told the same things, and you had better believe that we "compared notes" a lot.

Later I learned that some of the other folks in the same position were told entirely different things than we were told. I don't really think that the company had a list of people to lie to and a list of people to tell the truth - rather I think that the "rules" such as they were, were changing on a weekly, if not an hourly basis, so the answer to any question depended on when you called and asked.

So if you were one of my coworkers at the time this happened, and you were trying to work your way through this mess at the same time I was, you may have an entirely different memory of how things were. I can only present those things that I witnessed first hand and which were corroborated by former coworkers that I trusted.

As an aside, I heard that a number of my former coworkers in another department had "done the math" and realized that the people fired in this round of layoffs averaged 45 years of age, while the average "keeper" in the same positions was 30. So they put together a lawsuit alleging age discrimination. Age-wise, I would have fit into the "parameters" of the suit. In fact I was invited to participate. The participants won permission to keep their jobs. But I figured I had nineteen or more years of career ahead of me, and if I kept my job by suing the company, I could be stuck in exactly the same position for the rest of my life, and with a "black mark" in my permanent file. To me, that was not a good plan.

The upshot of this "reorganization" was that, after fifteen years of service, managing several big projects that had either saved or made the company millions, and declining to take part in a lawsuit that might have guaranteed me employment for life, I was really "on the street" this time, along with eighty-some of my former coworkers.

On the other hand, I had just completed a master's degree, and was one course away from Cisco certification, if I wanted to pursue that. So things didn't look as bad as they could have.

And that brings us to Technical Writing in the Wild West. Click here to go to the next chapter.

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

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, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Paul D. Race. Reuse or republication without prior written permission is specifically forbidden.

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