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This is "Penmachine.com: July 2001," a page that archives an entire month's entries from my online journal. The latest material for that month is at the top. For my newest entries, visit the home page.
When my wife was very young (about eight), she was sure she knew what kind of car she would drive when she grew up: a Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, gold, with the big phoenix artwork on the hood.
Today, someone here at Sierra Wireless, where I work this summer, has a silver Trans Am Turbo just like the one eight-year-olds dreamed about in the late '70s. Alas, it doesn't have the phoenix on the hood, but it does have an ominous turbo hump there instead. And big fat tires.
It's odd how something once so cool, and then so lame, can be cool once again.
A question that floats around in life, asking itself periodically, is "What's the best meal you've ever eaten?"
1985, when Gorbachev's perestroika had not yet taken root. I was fifteen and on a school trip to Russia. We flew from Vancouver to London, stayed there a few days, then on to Moscow, by train to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg again), by plane back to Moscow, then to London again. (There was a day-trip across the Channel to France in there too, probably before the flight to Moscow.)
Russia was in flux -- something was palpably changing, but the old revolutionary slogans still adorned buildings and billboards. The trip was astounding. The food, however, was definitely still of the Marxist-Leninist era: often bland and low quality. Not what a bunch of teenagers from Canada craved.
When we returned to London, we sought out some Real Food. One of my classmates -- who had broken his leg shortly before the trip and spent the entire voyage skipping around on crutches -- somehow knew of a Dutch pancake (a.k.a. pannekoek) house somewhere in the city. The rest of us followed him as he hopped, seemingly for hours, until he found it.
I ate one of the enormous pannekoeks with ham and cheese melted on top. And two milkshakes. Two. A very western imperialist pig-dog bourgoisie experience, actually.
A friend pointed me to this page, which discusses why so many whiz-bang, super-spiffy, design-heavy sites on the Web are...well...sucky.
It's worth reading. I particularly liked this bit:
As far as I can tell, the whole point of having an intro page is to sit there and say, "I am so cool. I am so cool that I don't even
have to tell you what I do. I am so cool that I can sit here and just burn time while you look at things whoosh around my logo. Isn't
my logo great? I hope you like it because I spent a lot of money on it. Me me me, it's all about me. Oh, you wanted to actually get
information off of my web site? Maybe see who I am or what I have to say? Maybe buy a product? Oh, ok, if you insist. Just a
few more seconds. Ok, there you go. Here's my real top-level page.''
When my wife and I were expecting our second child, we didn't realize how much each of us would later appreciate getting to spend time alone with just one of them.
In the last week, I took my older daughter (not yet four) to see the movie Shrek and the live-theatre kids' show Blue's Clues Live.
She was pretty rambunctious, but at some moments during each show we both sat and watched, and laughed together at the entertainment. For me, it was a nice picture of what's to come in my life with my two daughters.
In January, Multiactive Software let me go from my job of more than four years, as part of a swath of layoffs. Multiactive went through a series of such purges in 2000 and 2001, losing everyone from recent hires to one of the people who had written the first lines of the company's software code back in 1987. It went from a peak of some 300 employees to less than a hundred today.
When I went freelance following my firing, I hoped I wouldn't have to live through anything similar again. But yesterday, my current contract client, Sierra Wireless (one of the darlings of the British Columbia technology economy), announced that it was laying off 10 percent of its staff -- 20 permanent and 10 interns and contractors. Happily, I was not one of them.
Sierra's troubles can largely be laid at the feet of one other company: Metricom, a major U.S. customer that went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection a few weeks ago. That cost Sierra tens of millions of dollars in missing revenue. Otherwise, things look pretty solid there -- Sierra's plans are smart, and I expect the company will make a profit again not too many months away. Multiactive's problems were more systemic. It has almost never made a profit at all.
However, I've just found out that my contact at another client company was laid off too, because of the general poor state of the tech economy. I'm glad my skills are adaptable enough that I don't depend entirely on technology to make a living.
In fact, the band is playing a lot of weddings in the next few months. Decades ago, my dad said, "You never know when you might need to sing for your supper." How right he was.
Aspiring writers seem to stumble across this Web site fairly often. Like many of them, Jonathan Rucinski recently asked me some questions, and I thought his were particularly broad-ranging -- or at least they elicited rather long answers from me. Here is our conversation:
Jonathan Rucinski: Thank you for agreeing to answer my questions. I really appreciate you taking the time to help me. The questions, then:
1. What are the duties performed on a typical day?
Derek Miller: Since I work freelance on contract, there is no typical day. It depends on what I'm working on at the time -- a day might include travelling to meet clients, working onsite at a particular location, or sitting in my basement all day typing. Sometimes all three. As projects progress, the duties of each day evolve. And if I'm editing or proofreading instead of writing, or doing Web work, things are different again.
Plus, I work part time largely because I also take care of my two young daughters, so days may be even less typical than usual for me. Also, since I work freelance, for myself, there's always paperwork, invoices, taxes, etc.
I find that, in general, the early phases of a project involve a lot of talking to people (in person, by phone, by e-mail) and background research on the Web and with books and other resources. Middle phases include those things, as well as outlining and structuring documents. Later phases, closer to deadlines, involve a lot of actual writing, sometimes great swaths of it at a time, and then, at the very end, editing and proofreading, both by me and others -- usually involving quite a bit of work with printouts and a red pen, as well as sending drafts back and forth with the client. Somewhere in there I'm often taking photographs, or screen shots of software, and manipulating them for publication.
Tech writers have to understand the topic under consideration fairly well to explain it to a lay audience, which is usually what we're doing, so the research and learning phase is quite important, even though it often seems frustrating because I'm not producing anything. In my current contract for Sierra Wireless, a maker of wide-area wireless modems, that's the phase I'm in. I've been there two weeks, working onsite three days a week, and I've hardly written a thing (except for a lot of e-mails asking questions).
2. What type of training or educational background will I need for this job?
Be a good writer. That's way more important than anything else. Some technical background -- not necessarily in any particular field, but something that gives you the ability to learn technology quickly -- is second on the list. ("Technical." "Writing." Makes sense now.)
Few technical writers I know have any specific educational qualifications for the job. Most have at least a bachelor's degree, but mine, for instance, is in marine biology. I've also been a computer geek hobbyist for about 20 years, but I couldn't program or solder my way out of a paper bag. That's why I'm not an engineer.
It also helps to be very picky about language, detail, and accuracy. I am very much so on my writing projects, though hardly at all in my day to day life. My workspaces are typically fairly messy and I don't do my laundry as often as my wife would like, but my work is organized, and I hate typos, improper usage, and technical inaccuracy.
3. What steps, besided meeting educational requirements, are necessary to
"break into" this occupation? Should I join a union or organization,
volunteer, or work part time at first?
Any of them will help. As with any job, experience is a bonus. I stumbled into tech writing. (It is not all I do -- I'm happy to do other types of writing, editing, proofreading, design, photography, and HTML, but tech writing is where the money is these days. Plus I also make decent side wages as a drummer.) Here's my story, for what it's worth:
I've always written and edited. I worked on my junior and senior high school yearbooks and newspapers, edited a computer club newsletter when I was 14, helped found two student newspapers at my university, edited the student handbook there, and eventually moved into a non-fiction writing diploma program when I figured out that my B.Sc. qualified me for washing glassware in a lab somewhere. So I volunteered a lot without really realizing it.
I worked for the student society at my university during and after my studies, and wrote a lot of reports and policies there. Afterward, I played music professionally for two years, but continued writing the occasional article, as well as spearheading many of the band's publicity efforts. Later, I applied for a job in the advertising department of a magazine, and while working there wrote some articles and proofread the magazine each month.
But it was a horrible place to work because of the boss, so I switched to a software company where I stayed for more than four years. While there, I moved from helping administer the development department to writing marketing materials, running the Web site, and editing the monthly e-mail newsletter, among other things. I also wrote some documentation and help because people discovered I was good at it.
When I was laid off there (along with 37 others), I decided to go freelance full time (I had been doing it in my spare time anyway), and found plenty of work through people I'd known all along. I'm 32 now and just getting on a roll as a tech writer by that name.
So, in summary, it's best to build up the skills however you can, and use the contacts you acquire in the process to get yourself work.
4. What are some related occupations if I lack some of the necessary skills for this job?
If you can't write but have the technical skills, look into software or Web development, or other fields of engineering or technology. If you're good with people, look into schools where you can train others.
If you have language skills but don't like the actual writing part, look into editing and proofreading, whether technical or not. I actually enjoy editing and proofreading more than writing in many instances, and there is work out there in both technical and non-technical fields.
If you can write but lack the technical acumen (and don't wish to acquire it), consider editorial positions for newspapers, trade magazines, general circulation magazines, or book publishers. Also look into marketing, publicity, public relations, and advertising -- not just in firms that do these things as their main line of business, but at companies that have divisions in-house, even though they do something else primarily. Almost any organization needs people good with words.
5. What is the salary range?
Middle range. You won't get paid as much as an engineer or high-level manager, but I seem to be able to charge $50 an hour without any complaints. In theory, that would gross me $100,000 per year or so if I worked full time, but it's rare to get consistent billable 8-hour days, every week year in year out. I only work part time, as I mentioned, so I'll probably bring in $45,000-50,000 or so in a year, but that's before taxes and considerable expenses. Working full time, you should be able to NET at least that much if you're good. But that's a guess.
6. How long does advancement usually take, and where does it usually lead?
I have no idea, really. Within companies, tech writing departments are small and (as with all tech fields) turnover is reasonably rapid. If you stay around long enough, you're likely to end up in charge, but not of that many people. Unless you want to go into management instead of writing, that's about as far as it goes, to my knowledge.
Working freelance, the benefits of experience are that you get to pick better work -- stuff you like more -- and get to reject more stuff you don't like. Plus you don't have to work as hard hustling up work, since you have repeat clients and word of mouth working for you. And, over time, you can charge more, to a point.
If you're looking at a skyrocketing career into the upper reaches of fortune, fame, and wealth, tech writing is probably not the way to go. If, however, it is what you like to do, then you can get to do more and more of what you like over time, and live comfortably doing it.
7. Does a typical worker have a set schedule or are the hours flexible?
That depends on whom you work for. As a freelancer, my schedule is as flexible as I want it to be, or as my young family allows (which is why I'm writing to you at 11:00 p.m.!). Companies may have strict working hours, or very lax ones. Most are on the flexible side, since tech writing is the kind of job where you just need to get stuff done on time, regardless of how you get there.
That said, it's good to have core available hours for meetings and such. Being available only after 9:00 p.m. or on weekends isn't very helpful if you want to do work for more normal people.
8. Do you work a lot of overtime?
Again, it depends, this time on what you mean by overtime. Usually, I work a lot of nights and weekends, but that's because I DON'T work a lot of weekdays, since that's when I take care of my kids. I don't work 40-hour-plus weeks by choice. But when deadlines loom, I sometimes work a lot more than that, and at very strange hours.
Tech writers are very rarely unionized, and are considered technology professionals, so it's rare to get any overtime pay, even if you are working what are theoretically overtime hours.
In my current contract, if I'm behind where I need to be when the deadlines get close, I may put in late and extra hours. But those may very well be because I didn't work that hard early on -- so it will be my own doing.
9. What are the greatest pressures and strains in your work?
Having to learn a lot of new things quickly. Depending on many others to provide source material -- sometimes later than I should really get it. The self-discipline required to set my own schedule and pace my work so I'm not overwhelmed at the end. Paperwork that isn't real work, and isn't billable.
10. What do you like about your job? What do you dislike about your job?
I like the flexibility, the self-determination, and that I get to work with words and explain complex things clearly. I like being able to use almost all the skills I have (well, usually except the drumming) in a single, focused project. I like learning new things all the time, meeting new people, and all the techie toys I get to play with. I like being able to write off so much of my computer and other hobbies as business expenses. I like that people pay me to write, and compliment me on my work. I like being a stay-at-home dad who still works.
I dislike the administration and paperwork of running my own business. I don't like the sometimes frustrating and incomprehensible muck I have to wade through to understand the things I'm writing about. Although I enjoy researching, outlining, and structuring documents, it often frustrates me in that middle phase when I have little concrete to show for considerable effort and time. I hate it when technology lets me down and erases work I've spent time on -- even though I back up and save copies regularly. That said, whenever something gets lost, the next version I do is better for the work I did before.
11. What is the occupational outlook in this field?
People who have skill with words are always in demand, and you can always adapt to changes in the marketplace. I think things look very good.
12. Who are your typical clients?
Software and hardware companies, non-profit organizations, other corporations looking to contract out work, individuals needing writing or editing assistance. All over the map. See:
There are other technical writers out there, both individual freelancers and smallish companies, but there seems to be a lot of work around, so I rarely encounter them as direct competitors. Those I do talk to are usually helpful and collegial more than competitive. I have more opportunities than I can take, so it's certainly not cutthroat for me.
14. Where do you see this firm in 5 years?
Probably much the same as where I am now, but maybe working more onsite and more hours in the week, since my kids will be in school. If a good enough full-time position comes to me, I might take it then. Or I might not. Freelancing seems pretty good to me now.
15. What is the dress code?
Generally, tech writing is about ability, not appearance, at least once you get working.
When I work at home, no clothes at all are required. :) But I do prefer to wear something, both for comfort and so I can answer the door if there's a package for me.
When going out to work, I follow the dress code at the companies I work for, which is usually very casual. I try to dress just slightly better than average for the workplace (polo shirts instead of T-shirts, but rarely ties) just to make an impression. When meeting clients for the first time, I _might_ wear a tie and possibly a jacket until I can suss out what their attitude and expectations are.
I went to a private school with uniforms, so I feel comfortable enough in jacket and tie, but I avoid them if I can. I usually have the option to wear whatever I want.
16. What is the peak season in this industry?
Year round. I haven't seen any strong pattern, but things do slow down very slightly in August, just because so many people are on vacation, and around Christmas, for the same reason.
17. Where can I get more information?
18. Who else do you recommend that I speak with?
There are many resources online, as well as organizations for writers and editors. Here are a few recommendations:
The very loud Canadian band Big Sugar have released their latest album in both English and French versions. You'd think that would be more common in Canada, but they're the country's first English-speaking band to do so.
Today I heard of someone else's death, and it affected me though I had never met him. I passed by the cubicle of a co-worker at the company for which I'm currently working on contract. (She also used to work with me at my former employer -- in fact, she was the one who had to fire me last January when the layoffs came.)
She was quite upset, and revealed that her sister's 28-year-old husband -- whom we'd talked about just yesterday at lunch because of his recently-discovered diabetes, a disease I've had for ten years -- had died suddenly in Argentina, in a fall apparently caused by low blood sugar. She is flying to her home country of New Zealand as soon as she can to be with her sister.
Celebrity deaths may get the attention, but the impact of other strangers' deaths can be more significant. This one was for me.
I commute by bicycle. Along my route, I see a large proportion (though not the majority) of other cyclists who do not wear helmets, even though it is the law to do so here in British Columbia. Though the law is never enforced (that I've seen), it reflects the smart thing to do. Even before it was the law, I wore my helmet every time I rode.
Particularly infuriating are those riders who have helmets, but leave them slung over their handlebars as they ride. I know personally that head-bonking bicycle accidents don't happen only on busy streets, or at high speeds, or on days when it's not so hot that helmets are a bit uncomfortable. I've seen people fall over, in ways that could easily have cracked their skulls, while getting on their bicycles.
The closest I came to such an incident was while I was mountain biking on the trails of Mt. Seymour in North Vancouver a few years ago. I was descending a particularly steep chunk of trail (very slowly, I would add) when I did an "endo" -- I flipped over the front of my handlebars and conked the top of my head right into the thick bark of a Douglas fir tree. I was fine, but without the helmet, and despite my low speed, I would almost certainly have been knocked unconscious.
So if you ride, wear your helmet. Every time, all the time. Sure, it looks a bit goofy, but it's better than being dead.