Where You Stand Depends on Where You Sit Part 2

This is a follow-up riff to last week’s post about how the tech writer’s perspective on an industry changes depending on which company they work for. Today I’ll bring that down to a more local level. It is also true that your perspective on a specific company, agency, or other organization can change based on  the department where you work.

From 2006 to 2010, I was a technical writer supporting the project management office (among others) for the Ares Launch Vehicles, one of which later morphed into the Artemis Space Launch System, launching this coming week. It might not surprise you to know that complex systems like space launch vehicles have multiple managers, broken out by area. In the case of Ares I, NASA had appointed managers for the overall launch vehicle, the first stage, the upper stage, the upper stage engine, the launch abort system, and others. My primary responsibility was to ghost-write conference papers for these folks.

Through the process of paper writing, I got to know the individual managers and the hardware they were in charge of producing. While it was never said outright, each manager I worked with felt that, in some way, theirs was the most important element on the rocket.

  • If the first stage doesn’t work, we’re not getting off the ground.
  • If the upper stage engine doesn’t work, we’re not getting to the Moon.
  • If the launch abort system doesn’t work, the astronauts are going to die if the rest of the rocket doesn’t work.

And so forth. This process, looked at from a higher level, could also be seen among the other elements within NASA as well.

  • If the ground systems aren’t working right, your rocket isn’t getting out of the Vehicle Assembly Building.
  • Orion is where the astronauts are, and they’re the reason for the launch. (I once heard a rocket guy refer to astronauts as simply “payload.”)
  • The Deep Space Network (DSN) is responsible for monitoring everything; if we’re not working, we won’t hear what’s going on with the rocket.
  • Goddard is responsible for developing the science…you are planning to DO something once you get to the Moon, right?
  • Langley is testing your hardware designs to make sure they don’t fall apart while lifting off.
  • If Headquarters doesn’t set policy and get you funding, you’re not going anywhere.

You get the picture. Everyone believes they’re “the real NASA” or “the reason we’re all here.” People take pride in their work, and rivalries naturally arise. In reality, of course, a complex business like space exploration requires inputs and insights from everyone to work effectively. And the more we learn about a process, the more organizations appear to address new aspects of the activity.

Seeing aircraft from single-department perspectives (Attribution unknown)

As a technical writer, it does you good to support multiple departments. The more departments you work with, the broader your perspective and the better you can see how your organization does what it does.* It can also give you a sense of proportion when someone in another department wants X for her team or the work in progress will collapse and the world will come to an end. Things need not be so dire. The cartoon below is a bit dated and talks about airplanes, but the visual could apply to other industries as well.
This post is also a bit of a cautionary note. There can be competition for resources at all levels, including technical writers. Different departments might think their need for some sort of writing takes precedence. You can make your recommendation to your manager, but in the end you don’t get to make the decision. If you’ve got a conflict, you have to let the appropriate managers — customers or your technical writing management — talk amongst themselves and make the final call.

(* The nice part about working in multiple departments is that you become an unofficial subject matter expert in your own right because you’re able to see how all the pieces fit together. A former boss of mine insists that this perspective means that I’m really a systems engineer at heart. I wouldn’t go that far, but I do enjoy the “big picture” of a process a lot more than just focusing on one part of the story.)


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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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