This week I had the unique opportunity to be an online guest speaker for a technical writing grad school class at the University of Houston. The instructor, Dr. Aimee Roundtree, found me via the internet–LinkedIn? This blog? My other blog? Not quite certain. But I found myself invited to speak via the video version of GoogleChat to talk about whatever the heck Dr. R’s class wanted to know from me. Was I a good choice? I suppose…anyhow, what follows is the 40-minute chat that ensued. My in-apartment wifi couldn’t handle the bandwidth of the video, apparently, so I typed my way through the talk, which was just as well, since I’m someone who is terribly camera-shy.
One thing you’ll note is that I hit “Enter” quite a bit so that people wouldn’t have to wait forever for me to type a paragraph’s worth of answers. Also, this transcript was cleaned up to fix spelling and punctuation errors, which inevitably crop up in live chats unless one is not in a rush to get a message across. Next time, I might take the time, but I didn’t get any complaints, for which I was duly grateful. Here beginneth the discussion…
Aimee: Hi Bart
Shall I introduce myself, or go directly into Q&A?
Hi, all! I’m Bart Leahy. I’m a tech writer at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
I’ve been a professional TW for 10 years.
I got an English lit degree many moons ago and a master’s in tech writing in 2002.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve worked for Walt Disney World, the defense business, and now NASA.
I also blog at http://heroictecwriting.wordpress.com
Happy to take questions.
Aimee: First question: What writing, deliverables, documents, tasks do you handle on a daily basis?
Me: My current customer is the SERVIR program (www.servirglobal.net).
I am their communications lead, which means I’m the lead guy for internal and external communications.
Internal comm would be things like memos or PowerPoint presentations to NASA management or the US Agency for International Development.
External comm would be things like web stories, brochures, and technical papers.
I’m also working on internal procedure documents–their operations manual–where they lay out how they do business.
Do you want/need more detail?
Aimee: This is good!
Next question: How does your master’s degree training help you do your job daily?
Me: Good question. I got my M.A. because I needed some sort of “credential” to prove I could write for the space business. I didn’t expect to learn a lot, but I did…
The most important things I learned in grad school were about how to organize information and how to focus ANY document with the end user and a purpose in mind.
I had a class in Usability, which keeps me focused on the needs of the audience.
Also learned about document “flow” and how to arrange information in an “intuitive” way.
Need an example?
We’re in the process of redesigning the SERVIR website, and we’re trying to make sure people can get to the information they need.
In our discussions today, I was focusing the group on our end users…
“We’ll have two kinds: people who know exactly what they want, and want to get there quickly, and people who know nothing about us.”
In either case, the goal will be to organize the site so that either type of user can find what they want with the fewest clicks of the mouse.
So I was pushing hard to make the info easy to find and logically organized.
That means taking into account user expectations, nomenclature, and interactions w/the site.
Aimee: Next question: What did technical writing at Disney World look like?
Me: I had three tech writing jobs at WDW: Disney University (management training), IT, and Disney Reservation Center training.
The DU and DRC jobs were similar, in that they involved training. Disney likes things to be fun, so that meant a lot of games and activities.
I would be writing scripts for trained facilitators to give to a class of managers or reservation agents.
The IT job was all about writing requirements documents for new, in-house systems.
For example, the Animal Kingdom veterinarians wanted a new system for tracking medical procedures done on the animals.
It’d be my job to interview the vets and make sure the programmers built something that did what they wanted. [Note after the fact: the programmers were usually in the room as well because they were the lucky souls who had to do the electron pushing. I was there mostly for documentation purposes and, I think, sometimes to translate between the users and the programmers.]
Aimee: Last Question: If someone wanted to break into a management level job like yours, how would they do it? What are the steps? What tips would you recommend?
Me: Ha! I’m not exactly management-level, but I am what’s called a “Senior Technical Writer.”
I’ve gotten where I am by taking on as many different writing experiences as possible.
For instance I’ve written letters to the editor, letter-writing campaigns, and policy papers for a volunteer group I believe in.
Volunteer groups are usually starved for good writers. It’s a good way to build experience and advocate for a cause you believe in.
On the job, same thing: ask around if someone needs writing help.
You might not know how to do something, but you can do a little research and take a shot at it
Aimee: Yes sir!
Thank you so much for taking time to answer our questions.
If we have more, may we email you?
Me: Certainly! You’ve got my address…
Aimee: Many many thanks! And good night!
Me: Good evening. Thanks for inviting me!
So there ya go: Bart Leahy, Technical Writing Guest Speaker. Not too bad. Not sure how well this would have gone if my wifi hadn’t crashed, but that’s a question for another day. In any case, ’twas a good and fun experience, and it’s nice to know I’m at a point in my career where I can start to mentor others. And now…off to sleep. G’night, world!