Skill History and Resume Building, Part 2

This continues my discussion from Monday, where I’m sharing a narrative of my job history to help illustrate how the things you learn on a job–even if they’re not directly related to technical writing–can be worth including on a resume.

Entering the technical writing field

When I last left off, I was just finishing up a five-year stint in the Guest Communications department at the Walt Disney World Resort. I had started graduate school at University of Central Florida a year and a half earlier and so was well on my way toward pursuing a master’s degree in technical writing. This degree effort gave my new employers at the Disney University–Disney’s in-house training organization–confidence that I had or would have the skill set to do the job. My experiences with Disney to that point also helped. In this first “technical writer” job I was tasked with helping to write scripts for management training classes. This required a close partnership with instructional designers, graphic designers, and training evaluation professionals, giving me insight into adult learning experiences; using the “ADDIE” model of developing training classes; creating in-class training workbooks and materials; understanding the document design and production process; and working with trainers and students to make class content flow well.

Along the way, I took all of the classes that salaried Disney cast members had to take, giving me insight into WDW’s management, labor, legal, safety, copyright, and other policies. This was necessary so I’d understand the thinking behind the Disney training experiences I would be writing. I honestly didn’t expect to use these skills again, but one of the instructional designers at Disney U became a mentor and eventually an employer a dozen years later. She hired me on to fulfill the same role I’d had with her at DU, and eventually another former coworker from that job hired me for a different task. If anything, I learned a great deal about networking from that job.

Leaving Disney

My last two technical writing jobs kept me with the Mouse until a year after I graduated from UCF. My department at DU was downsized due to the post-dot-com bubble deflating and then the 9/11 attacks afterward. I was fortunate to stay employed.

I was moved over to the Information Technology department, where I was assigned to help write the development documents for software products Disney was developing in house. It wasn’t exactly a passion of mine, but I got to learn about translating customer requirements into useful software. I also picked up a little bit about the logic (not the coding) of object-oriented programming, which was the happening thing 15 years ago. For side projects, I took meeting minutes and developed departmental system metrics. I can’t say I fit in with all of the programmers all the time, but I started acquiring a new set of acronyms and could say that, yes, I had done technical writing in an actual technical field.

My last job at Disney was doing additional training and development work for the Disney Reservation Center, working for a former manager from Disney University whom I respected. While the workflow was similar to what I did at DU, I got more insight into Customer Relationship Management (or whatever Disney’s acronym for it is). I also got insight into how Disney was planning on handling guest bookings in the future. Hint: it’s the package-focused approach they do now.

Entering the world of the “highway helper”

My next “big move” was a major change in content, process, and culture: after 12 years at Disney, I moved to the Washington, DC area to become a proposal writer for a mid-size defense firm. As the VP of Business Development explained to me when I explained that I’d not done a lot of proposal writing, “We have plenty of engineers, I want a writer!” And so I learned the intricacies of reading and responding to government solicitations. I also got a better insight into some of the things the military does that don’t go boom, like logistics and security systems. I got the opportunity to reorganize and rewrite the company website, giving me access and insight into the entire operation. I started writing marketing materials and letters to members of Congress as well. While originally hired on just to write proposals, all of the extra little side jobs I found for myself in the office resulted in needing to hire someone to help me out. I got to learn about the resume-reading, interviewing, and hiring process. I became a supervisor for the first time, giving me some insights into how managers think versus how employees think (my apologies to Jon, wherever he is–I’m sure I made some goofball mistakes as a first-time “boss”).

As part of the fish-eat-fish world of the highway helpers (a more polite term for “Beltway Bandits“), my employer was in the process of being acquired by one company when an even larger company bought them. This experience resulted in the upper management leaving and taking me with them to another company, doing more of the same but with a smaller staff.

Getting into the space business

I was interviewing for another proposal-writing job when I got a call from Huntsville, Alabama about a job at Marshall Space Flight Center. The choice between money (quite a bit if I’d taken the job in DC) or love (doing work in an industry I’d spent years trying to get into) was not too difficult. They’d offered me a choice: working with the NASA executives or working with the engineers. Again, rocket geek that I am, this was an easy choice.

Just because I was interested in space didn’t mean I was particularly knowledgable. My primary task was to write papers for technical conferences attended by managers of the Ares Projects. This required me to get smart about rocket science–aerospace engineering, actually–and to digest a whole lot of acronyms. Eventually I came to do work for nearly every part of the rockets under development: engines, boosters, propellant systems, systems engineering, outreach, and project management. And while I was writing papers, I was also writing education and outreach materials (“NASA doesn’t do marketing”) to be shared with the general public and elected officials. I was learning how NASA talks to the public as well as what constraints they must operate under when they communicate with their various audiences.

Unfortunately, with a change in presidential administration came a change in policy and programs. The Constellation Program, of which Ares was a part, was canceled and I was shuffled elsewhere within Marshall. I spent a year or so at the SERVIR program, writing web content for scientists instead of engineers. This time I was writing about environmental monitoring and how Earth-observing satellites can help governments in the developing world. I had to learn how to speak “State Department” as well as “NASA.”

When a new human-rated launch vehicle program–the Space Launch System–appeared, my presence was requested again. New rocket, similar systems, slightly different set of managers, but the task remained: educate the technical community and the general public about the Next Big Thing NASA was doing in human spaceflight.

Is there a point to all of this?

I didn’t walk you through a good chunk of my job history just for the fun of it. In all of my work circumstances, I was learning about three important things: Product, Process, and People.

  • The Product in a job is the content–what you’re actually paid to write about. However, that’s only part of the learning process.
  • Process consists of the methods used to create content within an organization and transform it into useful communication tools, be they proposals, reports, papers, speeches, websites, marketing materials, or other things.
  • People are obviously the individuals you have to work with in each job situation. You might have to adapt to a new culture, political structure, or management philosophy (imagine shifting from Disney to Department of Defense to NASA).

Understanding and articulating what you’ve learned about all three of these concepts in each of your job experiences can make your resume much richer and more engaging. Be sure to keep them in mind if you’re trying to tell a resume writer what you’ve done with your career. You’ll probably realize you’ve done more than you think!

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
Quote | This entry was posted in careers, clients, job hunting, Office Politics, proposal writing, technical writing, Technology, workplace and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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