By Keisha Reynolds
Entering into a career that suited her just fine, and helping colleges keep in touch with students who will soon graduate, Chris Starkey has had a pretty nice career. She allows us to go into details about her career path, how she spends her days, and offers a great piece of advice for those who are interested in the field.
Question: What is your current job title and description?
Chris: I am a Training Specialist; I work for a company that creates degree audit software (software that helps colleges and universities track students’ credits toward graduation). I am responsible for instructional design and development of training materials for our clients who use the software.
Q: What is your level of education?
C: I earned a bachelor’s degree of science in Systems Analysis, plus 11 hours toward a master’s degree in Technical & Scientific Communication.
Q: Where did you attend college? Did you make any changes in your major while you were in college?
C: I attended Miami University [Miami, Ohio]. No—luckily, my major of Systems Analysis required a concentration in one of three areas outside of systems and technical writing was one of them. I found my “true calling” based on this concentration requirement.
Q: What inspired you to become a tech writer? Did you have any mentors?
C: Technical writing combined two of my areas of expertise/passion: writing and technology. It was a wonderful thing to find out that there was a viable and stable career path doing what I enjoy and am good at. Two mentors immediately spring to mind: one of my undergraduate technical writing professors who gave me the almost singular taste of the application of study to the “real world” (i.e., assignments were examples of work that I would do in a real environment of technical writing instead of theoretical exercises). Her dedication to her profession was also inspiring. A second mentor came much later in the professional world—a manager who believed in letting me explore the wide variety and flavors of tasks that a technical writer can do.
Q: What was your first job as a tech writer?
C: I analyzed telephone focus groups and wrote reports for our clients. The focus group topics ranged from pharmaceutical research and tools, to automobile dealership incentive programs, to agricultural techniques and equipment, to photographic equipment. Our reports were primarily aimed at how to improve products or marketing campaigns.
Q: What difficulties/ challenges did you face becoming a tech writer?
C: I didn’t really have any challenges becoming a technical writer, but I have faced challenges explaining to a few prospective employers and more frequently to subject matter experts what exactly a technical writer is and—more importantly—can be. A lot of people don’t understand that the methodology of technical writing allows us to apply it to virtually any technical or scientific subject with beneficial results. We don’t have to be specialists in the field because we know how to work with those specialists.
Q: Would you do anything different in the path you took to become a tech writer?
C: No. Every bit of my education and experience has come in handy and broadened my skills.
Q: What is the best part of being a tech writer?
C: For me, it’s the vast array of industries and areas that I can work in, and ultimately the writing itself (which I love). In fact, I don’t consider myself just a “technical writer.” I consider myself a Communications Specialist. In the 20+ years I have been doing this, I have done market research analysis, technical marketing campaigns, event planning, instructional design and technical training, all forms of print design, web design, and usability testing. I’ve worked with extremely large companies and extremely small companies, and I’ve even owned my own business. As I like to say, if it has writing in it, on it, or about it—I’ve done it.
Q: How as technology affected your career—any significant software or hardware changes?
C: It is a constant state of change. Not only do you need to stay on top of changes in the technology you are documenting/marketing/training, but you must stay on top of technology changes for the tools that you use to create your products (e.g., Office, Adobe, online editing, etc.) and communicate with (e-mail, cell phones, IM, Facebook, podcasting, etc.).
Q: What is your daily schedule like?
C: It completely varies (and I like that). I could be writing in the morning, editing in the afternoon, pulled into a creative meeting in the middle, and trouble-shooting with clients/users at any time. I also conduct training, so there are weeks when that is all I do.
Q: What is the most pivotal part of your day, any key activities?
C: I suppose it all hinges on writing/communication.
Q: What is a typical day like for you—such as tasks you complete and or documents you produce?
C: In my current role, my primary responsibility is to create and maintain the materials used by our trainers and trainees in learning how to use our products. Right now, I am revising our intermediate-level workshop materials (a 3.5-day training we deliver at our own training facility) and taking them from being product-centered to being task-centered. These days, I am developing the Trainer Guide, a 228-page document that includes all learner material plus trainer scripting, exercises, and solutions. It has already gone through one round of SME revisions and I am working on the final revision. When it is finished, it will become part of a training guide binder for the trainer and a spiral-bound learner guide for our trainees. I will then shepherd all materials through printing, and I have also helped to deliver the workshop training.
My secondary responsibility includes monitoring and revising our online training. We have two very dated web courses that we run every other month. I set-up, administer, and monitor and troubleshoot for our learners during the courses. I will also begin revising these in January.
Finally, I am ultimately responsible for any other miscellaneous training ideas, issues, logistics, etc. that happens within the company—big and small. Currently, for example, we are in the process of updating all of our copyright statements, so it falls to me to locate all instances that need to be changed and make the changes.
Q: Who are your clients and how often do you communicate with them?
C: Our clients are “encoders” who are employed in the registrars’ offices of colleges and universities. I communicate with them during online and workshop training, virtually every day. The rest of the time, it is fairly rare that I communicate directly with clients unless they have a question about upcoming training. We have other people on staff who do day-to-day support.
Q: Who do you collaborate with? How much time do you spend with co-workers?
C: Our SMEs, programmers, and marketing people are the main people I collaborate with. Also, I spend time with SMEs probably 1/10 of the time; programmers 1/20 of the time; marketing people 1/20 of the time. The bulk of my time is spent alone, writing or planning.
Q: Can you offer one piece of advice for technical writing students, or anyone who is interested in your field?
C: Make sure you have a good grammatical grounding. (I have Harbrace and the Chicago Manual of Style on my desk at all times.) Get a fantastic dictionary (I particularly like Webster’s Collegiate). And, as with anything, you have to practice. And practice means revise, revise, revise. Strive for concision. Also, you must have a very thick skin and befriend an excellent editor. And listen.