Re: TW and education

Subject: Re: TW and education
From: Jerry Kindall <kindall -at- MANUAL -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 11 Dec 1996 10:29:16 -0500

Stephen Victor <svictor -at- HOUSTON -dot- GEOQUEST -dot- SLB -dot- COM> wrote:

>Camille Krug wrote:
>> My initial comments were addressed to persons who get into this field
>> via shortcuts, with no education in any discipline. I am thinking of
>> companies that promote a secretary into tech writing to save money they'd
>> have to pay a professional, educated person. This diminishes our earning
>> potential, not to mention the respect that many of us work hard to win.

>At the risk of chiming in with a "me too," I must say that I agree
>wholeheartedly with Camille's sentiments. Anyone who has been in our
>profession for any length of time knows that it's rife with just the
>sort of people Camille describes: people who have taken shortcuts to get
>in, techies who think that speaking the English language qualifies them
>to be technical writers, people who quite frankly couldn't write a piece
>of clean prose to save their souls.

I have no problem seeing a secretary who is promoted into tech writing if
he or she can do the job! Some people are naturally quick learners and
some have a natural grasp of English and some have a natural knack for
organization. Some rare people have all three qualities. If you can do
the job, getting into a job situation where you can do it isn't a
"shortcut." Quite the opposite: formal education would be a waste of
time and money in such a case.

It's true that companies may do such things primarily to avoid having to
pay a proper salary. But this only works in the short term. Either the
secretary does a competent job, figures out what he's worth, and demands
a raise (or takes a job elsewhere) -- or the secretary does not do a
competent job, and the quality of the company's products or services
suffer, leaving it at a competitive disadvantage. If the management of
the company does not then hire a person who can do the job, then the
management is terminally stupid, and the company will soon go out of
business, since idiocy in one area of the company usually reflects idiocy

I, like many people on this list, was essentially "given" my first major
technical writing job. The company for which I did this job had
originally hired me as a technical support representative due to my Apple
II knowledge (no kidding), then later moved me into sales. When they
decided to produce their own line of hard drives, I was the only person
in the company with any kind of writing credentials (I had written a few
articles for a small programming journal) and was given the job. I wrote
the manual in between sales calls. While I made a lot of mistakes and
had to teach myself a lot while I learned, the manual I produced was
sufficiently superior to the manuals of competing products to give us a
competitive advantage. Shortly I began writing full-time, and in the
next four years I produced a dozen manuals of varying size for the
company. The largest was a manual for a new version of a product we'd
acquired from Claris, which totaled over 500 pages and included over a
hundred pages of new material, minor changes on almost every other page,
and an all-new layout. (I cribbed design skills from the company's
in-house art department.) I also wrote many articles for company
publications, tons of advertising copy, several videoscripts, and served
as editor for the industry's last "slick" Apple II magazine, which earned
the respect of mega-publisher IDG Communications and ended up taking over
from their inCider/A+ publication.

I now freelance. My most recent job involved writing a user manual for a
DVD (Digital Video Disc) mastering system. I knew nothing about the
topic when I started; now I know a good bit. This job was especially fun
since the developer was not willing to provide a copy of the software to
an off-site contractor for competitive reasons. (I had signed an NDA but
they still weren't comfortable.) With the help of the engineers working
on the project, I wrote the manual without ever running a copy of the
software on my machine.

My higher education consists solely of an associate degree in computer
science from a community college. In that course of study I learned a
lot about COBOL, CICS, mainframe assembly and JCL, and accounting. I
also had a course in BASIC, which I already knew (having taught myself in
high school) and a course in C. The course in C is the only knowledge I
gained in college which I have really been able to use since (although I
must admit that the accounting classes have given me a deeper
understanding of business than I would otherwise have had). I had no
training in writing aside from the usual English composition courses.
The most important thing I learned in college was that I should be able
to become competent in any new skill set I needed in less than two weeks.

I was lucky enough to work for a company which had been started by its
owner while he was in high school. He never obtained a college degree.
(He sold the company a couple years ago for several million dollars.) He
hired people based on talent, drive, and the ability to learn, and he was
always willing to give his people the company a chance to try new things,
to reach, to grow. He hired several excellent sales reps who started out
packing boxes in the company's shipping department because he saw that
they were "people" people. In today's management climate he might be
called a risk-taker, but his risks often paid off in big ways. He told
me that he would have gladly hired me out of high school had the timing
been right.

Today, none of my clients seem to care what my education is. I have the
experience to back up what I say I can do. I like to believe that the
computer field is still a place where a talented, motivated individual
can carve out a niche for himself without the burden of a heavy education
(or the debt thereof). Larger companies are probably no longer open to
this, but I think smaller companies will continue to do it for some time
to come.

Jerry Kindall (kindall -at- manual -dot- com)
Manual Labor: We Wrote The Book!

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