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Written by Paul D. Race for Breakthrough Communications™

Technical Writing in the Wild West

When your company lays off eighty-five people in your specialty at the same time, you can't take it personally. But when that company is the only big tech imployer in town, things start seeming personal pretty quick. There's nothing like trying to get an interview for a job in a miniscule market and learning that eighty of your former coworkers have been there ahead of you.

Add to that the fact that certain rules that apply to you and your friends don't seem to apply to everybody. In spite of the new requirements that were supposed to keep our former supervisors from using us as consultants, one of the remaining managers seemed to have no trouble keeping several close friends busy.

In fact, my old friend "Phil" paid his favorite employees their "layoff bonus," then hired them back as consultants. When things got better, he hired them back as employees for more money than they had earned before. Gotta love 'em.

Then one of my former project leaders contacted me and begged me to come work for him on contract. "Ron" (not his real name) had a project to finish and I was the only writer in the state who remotely understood the technologies involved.

Surmounting Artificial Hurdles One By One

Ron and I both spent hours on the phone with "gatekeepers" (consultant policy administrators) trying to figure out how some managers' favorites could come back to work as consultants the week after they were fired, but most of my friends and I were not allowed back unless we jumped through extraordinary hoops.

As I noted before, almost none of the hoops were put into writing, but new hoops seemed to arise as soon as we had conquered the last set. I say "we," because I kept in close touch with several writers I had known for over ten years, and every time one of us encountered a new hoop or made some minor breakthrough, we compared notes. Since then I've talked to former coworkers who had no problems at all, or encountered an entirely different set of hurdles. But this account describes the hurdles my closest friend and I encountered.

One hurdle was that I couldn't come back as myself - I had to be represented by "Bill's company." After several more calls (and noting that other folks had found their way back "in" without going through "Bill's company"), I got the gatekeeper to admit that it could be "any company" licensed to do business in the state.

So I started a company by filling out a DBA form with the state of Ohio and opening a business checking account in the company's name (Breakthrough Communications). Then the gatekeepers decided that my "sole proprietorship" wasn't enough. I had to work for a corporation. I asked the gatekeeper I had been "working with" if she knew the corporate structure of every janitorial, repair, and catering service they used. She admitted that she did not - apparently the new requirement applied only to former employees who were looking for work as technical writers, and who refused to sign up with "Bill's company."

During this stage of negotiations, I couldn't help feeling that the corporation thought that we would be "gaming the system" somehow if people that they had gone to the trouble of firing figured out how to get paid for work that everybody agreed still needed to be done. For some reason, the corporation had no problem with our former project leaders hiring technical writers who had never worked for the company before, and who were, consequently taking months to become productive.

Finally, she admitted that the corporation-only requirement was unenforceable.

But then they announced another policy that applied only to former employees who were technical writers and who weren't going through "Bill's company." The scenario they had dreamed up was that rehired former NCR technical writers were more likely to plagiarize than unqualified technical writers they hired "off the street." According to this scenario, that put NCR in a difficult position, in case our plagiarism was discovered by the company whose text we had plagiarized. So we each were supposed to be bonded for a million dollars of "malpractice" insurance. For individuals like me that kind of insurance policy was prohibitively expensive, something on the order of a thousand dollars a month.

Of course nobody really thought that returning former employees were likely to pose an extraordinary threat of plagiarism. The whole hurdle was simply something else "Bill" and "Phil" dreamed up to keep qualified people like me from coming back without "Bill" getting his pound of flesh.

Ron still needed me on the project, so he kept pushing from his end. I kept calling with questions the gatekeepers couldn't answer, such as, did every other contractor they used have the same sort of bond in place? (Of course they didn't.) Then one day, that policy didn't seem to exist any more, in fact, the same gatekeepers who had told me about it suddenly had never heard of the thing and accused me of "making stuff up" when I asked them about it. But, as the comics often say, "you can't make this stuff up." Sadly, other barriers, even more petty and ridiculous, arose.

Sixteen years after the fact, all of these petty barriers to former employees delivering services that the company still needed seem unbelievable. But at the time, the twenty or so of my former colleagues with whom I stayed in touch were also being forced through exactly the same hoops. It was increasingly obvious that these barriers weren't there to protect the company - they were being erected by friends of Bill to help him protect his hoped-for monopoly. By now, I had no intention of working for the fellow if he'd asked me. And he didn't ask me, because he still hadn't even been able to get all of his favorites back "in."

Every barrier fell with a few weeks after its erection. But no matter what Ron and I did, or who we talked to, or how many hoops we jumped through, we still couldn't get final signoff for me to work on Ron's project - there was always one more hurdle that hadn't existed a week before.

Finally, frustrated beyond measure, and under pressure to get his project done, Ron said, "Tell you what, you give me a couple days' work, and submit an invoice and I'll send it through and see what happens."

The invoice was approved and paid with no resistance on the part of accounting, who - after all - didn't mind reporting expenses. And consulting for my former employer started looking like a possibility.

I Got Off Easy

As I read back over the last few paragraphs, I have to admit, that, all things considered, I got off "easy," compared to a number of my friends. As each barrier fell, I reported back to everyone on my "nice" list what I had discovered. A few folks felt informed and encouraged enough to jump through the same hoops I had, and eventually got into the system and started working again. But there were quite a few others who didn't have the emotional or financial resilience to keep "treading water" until things worked out.

Between the day I registered my DBA with the state of Ohio and the day I actually started working on contract, several people heard that I had "started a business" and asked me to represent them to the corporation the same way Bill was supposed to be doing for "his people." That could have been profitable for me, I suppose, but I had no idea how to run that kind of business, and there was no way I could get up to speed as fast as I needed to. Besides, I was hanging by a thread, emotionally as well as financially by that time. The only thing I could tell them was that I'd keep them informed of every step and in mind if I heard of anything at all. But back in 1995 there weren't as many ways to keep in touch as there are now, I'm afraid, and it was hard to keep everybody in the loop all the time.

By the time the "dust settled," some of them had got back "in" as consultants, some of them had found work elsewhere, a few had taken worse-paying jobs in other fields, and a few had just dropped "off the map."

Later I learned, that one talented and focused writer in his early sixties had been planning to work a few more years, but finally gave up and started taking Social Security - that and drawing on his underfunded company pension were his only dependable sources of income. He and many others I can bring to mind were a true loss to the industry, and I regret that those of us who eventually "landed on their feet" couldn't have done more.

I do have to confess that my "nice" list got shorter as friends who had asked for and received my help with one thing or another stopped taking my calls once they had landed somewhere. On the other hand, I can almost understand why some of that happened - I've been a "new hire" in situations where bringing in a qualified, but distraught friend would have made my new boss question his or her wisdom in hiring me - not unlike the would-be rescuer being drowned by a panicked person he was trying to save. And by the time any appreciable number of us started landing "on our feet," we were all pretty distraught, and, if nothing else, emotionally unpredictable.

At any rate, several of us did find our way back into the company as consultants. As contracts ran out and new contracts started, I made sure to look out for folks who had looked out for me.

How To get Free Internet Access and A Warm Place to Spend the Day Without Actually Doing Any Work

War story alert! One interesting event occurred during that period. I was recruited to help "finish" a job that one of our former coworkers had supposedly been "working on" for eighteen months. The client figured it would be a two-man job, so I brought in John Sirmans, a friend who was a great writer and who had been helpful to me. The contract was to be for ten weeks at the most, since the original member "Joe" (not his real name) had "almost everything done" and just needed our help "getting it out the door."

The project was to document a family of services that the company would sell to its customers - not unlike the work I'd done on LAN and WAN design. Although John and I were both charging what was then a standard fee for tech writing consultants, the client kept griping that we cost "way too much." It turned out that he was comparing our fee to Joe's, and Joe was charging a third of what we were. Joe's low-balling had certainly kept him employed for the last eighteen months, and maybe he didn't have a family to support, so we just figured that was his way of dealing with the crisis.

As an interesting side note, the client was also nervous about bringing in people who would be working at home. He literally wanted us to call and tell him every time we went to the bathroom.

But the biggest surprise was when my friend and I finally got our hands on Joe's files. We learned that in eighteen months, Joe had done nothing more than "borrow" the documentation for another project and change the title pages, headers, and footers. What was he really doing all day long at the computer where the client could see him (and presumably keep track of his potty breaks)? We finally figured out that he was spending all of his time buying and selling things on an online auction site, and he was "working" for peanuts just so he would have access to a high-speed internet connection. That was how he could afford to "work" for a third of our salaries.

Knowing it is "bad form" for one consultant to point out the failings of another consultant, we nevertheless had to go back to the client and show him that, to finish the project we each had nine month's work to do - maybe five months if we could get Joe back on task. The client was unimpressed. "You agreed to get this done, so that's what you'll do."

My friend and I worked out an attack plan that involved only the most critical parts of the project, and with a lot of work and cooperation between the two of us, finished those parts of the project on time - with zero help from Joe. After it was all done, and we made sure that the client was satisfied with the outcome, I said, "Just out of curiosity, why do you keep Joe on, when he doesn't really do anything?"

The client answered, "He works so cheap, I can't afford not to."

Gotta love 'em!

Over the next two years, I was employed almost constantly by different groups in my old company. Then, as that started to thin out, I began finding contracts with other Fortune 500 companies. Ten week contracts came and went, then six-month contracts came and went, then year-long contracts came and went. At the time, I thought I was getting "real money" - I was certainly earning more money than I ever had in my life.

Documenting a "Self-Documenting" Program

The last really good consulting job I had in that era was documenting a huge system built using an oversold so-called "fourth-generation" programming environment. A well-known consulting firm had sold my Fortune-100 client on the idea that the programming environment could understand common speech. You would write out your requirements in everyday English, input them into the system, and working code (actually Oracle stored procedures) would come out the other end. If the code didn't work the way you wanted, you would tweak your requirements and try again.

This was called "self-documenting," because the requirements would be the documentation.

But, of course, the Oracle programmers who discovered that the auto-generated stored procedures didn't come out the way they wanted, fixed the code manually, and the requirements never got changed. By the third week of development, there was no relationship between the "documentation" and what the system was actually doing. And no writer was brought in for another year!

Eighteen months and 200 hires after the project started, the consulting firm rotated out the guy whose resume they used to get the contract and brought in another guy whom they promised would "learn on the job." After what I would estimate to be a five-million dollar investment, only one person in the company even knew how the thing worked!

Fortunately for me, the fellow hired to support the thing once it got rolled out saw that as a problem. He brought me in, initially, to write a troubleshooting guide to address a particular problem that was recurring at our beta site in central Europe. "Fine, what causes the problem?" "Nobody knows." "How do you fix the problem?" "You call 'Singh'"(not his real name). "What does Singh do?" "He goes into the database and deletes records that have a null character in such and such a field." "What causes that problem" "Nobody knows." "Why is deleting records the only thing that fixes the problem?" "Nobody knows." And so it went.

Singh's real problem was that our beta site was seven hours ahead, and the problem always occurred when they were closing down for the night - 6:30 P.M, their time, 1:30 A.M. our time. So, several nights a week he was being awakened by a phone call to come in and fix the problem again. You can be sure that he was only too glad to tell me everything I needed to know.

I mention this because I had to learn how the system worked before I knew why it was breaking, let alone how to fix it. As I learned, it was a complex state-based system using a constantly-churning library of Oracle stored procedures. What was "breaking it" was that one of the senior managers who thought he knew how it worked (the same one that had bought into the "self-documenting" program in the first place) kept setting the stored procedures so that they would shut down each night in a sequence that was guaranteed to leave transactions hanging, half-processed, in the system.

If this had been my first exposure to Oracle, I would have been in serious trouble figuring all this out. As it is, with Singh's help I got my head around it. And while I was learning how the system worked, I documented everything.

I constantly ran the drafts past everyone who would look at them. I was hoping they'd find any errors. But most of the reviewers, including a few senior programmers said things like "I didn't know it worked like that!"

By the time I had been there six months, I had not only written the "troubleshooting" guide; I had also written a technical manual and a pile of training material - since new people were still coming in. My training program was getting newbies up to speed weeks sooner than newbies usually did.

We also figured out that most of the program breakdowns at our beta site were the result of our stateside project manager tweaking parameters he didn't understand just to see what would happen. And why not? The same company that had sold him a development environment that could only work by implementing extensive workarounds had also told him that he couldn't possibly break anything by dorking around with a live installation. I didn't put that part into my "troubleshooting guide." Instead, I put together a two-page procedure that would let the fellow on site in Europe fix the thing himself and stop waking Singh in the middle of the night.

Coming to Upper Management's Attention Once Again

War story alert! Here's one of those "special moments" that are funnier in retrospect than they were at the time. As I mentioned, the consulting firm that convinced my client/employer to buy into this so-called "self-documenting" system likes to use one person's resume to get the job, then, after some period of time, use the same person's resume to get business elswhere, and rotate in someone who is only marginally qualified to continue what the other person started.

About the time I had documented the system thoroughly and was sending the document around for one last pass before I made it available on the department's intranet (which I also created), a new guy came in. He used my document to get up to speed, which you would ordinarily consider a selling point. But after he got familiar with the system, he found a field length mistake on page 37. Instead of bringing it to my attention, he sent out an email to the entire division and the Vice President above that. The e-mail said only "Paul, your document is WRONG! Please see me immediately!" When I went to see him and learned that the offending mistake was basically a typo, I told him, "You know, most people like getting on upper management's radar, just not this way."

Gotta love 'em!

But even being on the veep's "good side" couldn't have saved me from what happened next. The same manager who had bought the development system and been responsible for most of the breakdowns decided that the project was taking too long and costing too much, and he shut it down, laying off or terminating the contracts of nearly 200 people.

At the time I had three weeks left on my contract extension. My manager told me to drop everything and find a job. So I searched for jobs all over the region. I also kept my eye out for jobs that would be good for my coworkers, most of whom were great people who deserved better treatment.

How To get Free Internet Access and A Warm Place to Spend the Day Without Actually Doing Any Work, Part 2

During that time, while the office was in an uproar, I met two young women who had seldom strayed from their cubicle before. "What kind of jobs are you looking for?" "Oh, we're professional trainers, they answered me. "We write training materials and such." "Have you been writing materials for our programs?" "No, silly, there's no sense writing training materials until the beta site starts working properly and we have something worth training people on."

So for as long as I had worked there, documenting the system from the bottom up and creating a whole family of training materials, two young women who were getting paid to write training materials had been sitting in their office chatting, reading books, and surfing the web. And nobody in the whole organization noticed. How do you even DO that when there's work available?

But the crowning blow came when I found them jobs. Or thought I had. One day I saw two descriptions for technical training jobs that each paid $20,000 more a year than I was earning on contract. I wasn't interested since the jobs were too far from my home, but the young women both lived in that area, so it was worth passing on. I printed out the job descriptions and took them over. They both looked at the job descriptions and - believe it or not - smirked! "I couldn't live on that," one said. The other one said, "Yeah, talk about a step down!" So it turned out that the two young ladies whose jobs I'd been doing for most of the past year were bringing home substantially larger pay checks than I was!

Gotta love 'em!

By that time, the "internet bubble" had burst, so the economy was already on a downslide. Then 9-11 happened and the country's depression, emotional and financial, only increased. The market for experienced technical writing consultants bottomed out all over the state, and I found myself piecing together 10-week contracts for half of what I'd been earning just a year or two earlier. And the contracts kept getting shorter and farther apart.

And that brings us to Technical Writing in the Great Depression. 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

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