- Technical Writing
Space Age -
Technical Writing in the Space AgeAs soon as the textbook company's owners started flying in to reassure us that the company was in no danger of collapse, I started looking for work. I interviewed for a job in a tech company that was, ironically, a wholly owned subisidiary of NCR.
One salary amount was mentioned during the interview, and another amount was mentioned in the "offer letter." The differences was fifteen dollars an hour, roughly $30,000 a year. But the job still paid better than the textbook company, and the new company seemed far more stable than the old one. The hiring manager assured me that, at my first performance appraisal, he'd take another look at the "discrepancy" between what they had promised in my interview and what they had actually offered me. So I made the jump.
The textbook company went out of business abruptly the next year, so, even with the salary "discrepancy" I made the right choice.
In the new company, I worked with two other writers, and there was plenty of work to keep us busy. I rewrote a 600-page help system and a related 600-page technical manual. I also started an intranet for storing all of the various sources of information that the other writers had produced.
During this time, the managers kept telling me that they were going to "fix" the discrepancy between what they had promised me and what I was being paid. But they also kept reorganizing, so I had a different manager every few months, and neither the second, third, or fourth manager was in the room when first manager made his promises.
Then the "wholly owned subsidiary" was assimilated, Borg-like into NCR. My last non-NCR manager promised me that he had already worked things out with the new team leader, and I was going to get the long-promised raise when our payroll systems were converted over. Of course that didn't happen. When I asked the new NCR team leader about it, he said that nobody had said anything to him about it. And, based on past experiences with that group, I believed him.
As always, positions started being cut. I "hung in there" for another year or so. Then the new CEO, who had never liked Dayton in the first place and who never moved here, in spite of promises he made when he took the job, decided to move our century-old "world headquarters" to Georgia. By now there were only about 1300 employees left in Dayton (down from 36,000 in 1969, 6,000 in 1980, and 3000 in 1995), so the impact on Dayton's economy wasn't as disastrous as it might have been otherwise. They offered a few hundred folks a transfer to the new office in Georgia, but our group's new manager seemed intent only on cutting costs, no matter the effect on employee morale, product quality, or customer relations. So I passed.
I'll say this - the company made a point of subsidizing our Cobra payments for a year longer than they legally had to. In our case, that was about a thousand dollars a month, and it carried us until I found the next full-time job. Also, after selling their of their finest, historical real estate to developers who had every plan of "slicing and dicing" it, I did not expect NCR to sell their world headquarters building to the University of Dayton for half or less of what it was probably "worth." UD's Research Institute, which did a lot of defense contracting, wasted very little time in converting whole floors of the building into laboratories, which was good for UD, good for Dayton, and good for Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Thanks, NCR, that one goes into the plus column, as well as training me in my craft, paying for my MA, and putting shoes on my family for a total of 18 years.
Can't Anybody Document Complex Technical Systems?
War Story Alert: When I told my manager I wasn't going to move with the company, he told me that was fine, he had a Filipino technical writer on staff who could do my job. After all, the Filipino programmers that our Dayton-resident programers had been coaching for years were beggining to do good work. And after all, writing manuals is just like programming, isn't it?
My new manager couldn't see how documenting huge, complex systems in English for demanding English-speaking customers would be any different than programming individual screens with "on-shore" supervision. And, frankly, if you have to explain the problem with those assumptions to your new boss, you don't have a future with that organization anyway.
So while I was still an employee, I was asked to train a young Filipino man I'll call Manuel. They allowed me to work from home so I could keep a schedule that overlapped Manuel's (he had never left the Phillipines). So I used most of my last four months "on the job" to train Manuel on the software, walk him through all of the web pages, help systems, and manuals we had done, and coach him on writing the most common kinds of documentation. If I'd had five years instead of four months, I might have made him into an actual technical writer. But in the meantime, I did everything I could to keep Manuel from hitting the wall hard as soon as I was out of the picture.
When I told one of my friends what I was doing, he said, "It would serve the company right if you would do a really bad job of training him, and then they'd be sorry."
I replied that it wasn't Manuel's fault. And bsides, if they couldn't tell the difference between my work and Manuel's, then I didn't really have a future with them anyway.
In those days (the early years of Obama's administration), there were a few govenment programs to assist folks whose companies had sent their job overseas. Unlike 99% of the people in that situation, I actually knew exactly where my "job" had gone, right down to the name of my overseas replacement. But I didn't really need those programs as long as the company was extending my Cobra benefits, so I let it go.
Where to Now?By the time I was officially laid off, the country was in the darkest part of a recession caused by the implosion of toxic derivatives in hitherto unregulated financial markets. Jobs were thin. Professional jobs were very thin. To add insult to injury, middle- and lower- class Americans who'd been hurt by the billionaire-caused financial crisis were knocking each other over in their rush to blame other middle- and lower-class Americans for their pain.
I went on unemployment for a few weeks - the first time in my life. I didn't tell my right-wing friends, because a fake "grass-roots movement" - all funded by anti-tax billionaires - was rising in influence, and my right-wing "friends" were constantly spewing uninformed nonsense about how everybody who stays on unemployment longer than it takes to get a minimum-wage job is only interested in scamming the system. I love you guys, but would you please read a newspaper once in a while? Or take a math class?
To put it in perspective: At that time, if I wanted to keep healthcare insurance for my family without Cobra, it would have cost me $1500 a month. My unemployment was about $2000 a month. Do the math, and determine for yourself if hard-working 30-year career people and committed family folks like me are really choosing to be unemployed just so we get "something for nothing."
Hopefully you can see why I appreciated my former employer extending our Cobra benefits (bringing the payment down to just over $500). I also hope you can understand why I stopped voting for candidates that promise "family values," but whose voting records prove that their only real agenda is increasing the wealth of the wealthiest families in the world, at everyone else's expense. I guess their "families' values" are different than mine.
Several months after the layoff was final, God blessed me with two great consulting jobs that, unfortunately for my health, ran simultaneously for about eight months. For one contract, I taught ten people in Bangalore how to use Robohelp and oversaw a successful 1000 - page document conversion project. For another, I documented a web interface utility that the client's managment liked so much, that they found another purpose for it and moved me onto another project.
In early 2011, I found a full-time technical writing job near my house - the first time since 1987 that I worked less than 32 miles from home. So things were actually looking up. A year after that, our last child was out of college, which was a lot like getting a pay raise. The company has reorganized our development group twice since I started, but I've hung in there and been able to make a worthwhiile contribution. In addition, I could start taking (partial) Social Security if I wanted to, which takes away the worry that any crisis junkie, say, could put our family through hell again. So my present plan is to stay here as long as health permits and they keep treating me like a professional.
Of course, when you think that way, you're making assumptions. Several close friends have not been nearly as blessed as I've been so far. In fact one of my best writing friends from my first consulting phase died of cancer only a few years after we worked together. Another close friend of the family has just died of cancer as well. So if I don't get all the opportunities that I can't help "looking forward to," I really can't complain - I've already had more opportunities than most, and many more opportunities than some.
What about all of those "gotta love 'em" stories I told? Am I really upset about folks mis-judging me or taking unfair advantage or some such ten, twenty, or thirty years ago? No. I shared those stories because I know a lot of other folks can relate. Hopefully, some of the accounts will be cathartic, some will raise a smile, some will give insight into a current difficulty, and some will help prepare younger folks for when the same sort of thing happens to them.
I'll also point out that, although my technical writing adventure had its share of "bumps," none of my coworkers or bosses ever attacked my family or went out of their way to hurt my wife or kids - and that's not something I can say about every organization in our lives. Any "injuries" I suffered, even the ones that should have been "career-killers" were confined to the workplace, and eventually forgotten, except for their value as funny stories, as soon as the next phase of my "career" began.
In fact I'd be glad to see any of the folks in these stories again. Life has beat us all down over the years. Sadly, a number of the "gotta love 'em" folks I've included in this memoir have suffered great hardship since our paths last crossed. You might say "So they got theirs." I'd say, "But lots of other folks who never hurt anybody have suffered, too."
Only Job's comforters really believe that karma or "just deserts" or whatever you want to call it, plays out 100% in this life. Life is just hard, sometimes. And when I see anyone suffering greater than average hardship, the only appropriate response is to pray for them.
What about the people who have caused me one kind of trouble or another over the course of my career? If my compassion for other people doesn't oughtweigh every grudge in my life, that's my fault, not their's. And I hope, seriously, that there isn't someone somewhere struggling to forgive me for some hurt or offense I may have unconsciously given over the decades.
Now it sounds like I'm writing about life, not technical writing. But when you've done something like this for thirty-four years, the lines get fuzzy.
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,
P.S. Enjoy your hobbies. And be sure to enjoy any time you have with your family in the coming weeks.
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