How I became a technical writer in the Silicon Valley

A good way to communicate is to tell a story. Here is mine. The purpose of my telling is to help you tell your story especially if your story concerns your high technology business and if you do not feel especially comfortable writing.

I became a technical writer by accident. It was Labor Day of 1990. My wife Diana pulled up the family Ford to the headquarters of the U.S. Postal Service in Washington, D.C. where I had originally been hired to write speeches for the Postmaster General. I was 43 years old and not at all happy with my job. My wife Diana was working for the U.S. Department of Commerce as international economist negotiating textile and apparel agreements. Diana had negotiated in India, Bangladesh, and China. Her title was impressive. So was mine.

Together we had trouble making our mortgage payments. The public school system in Washington D.C., once the envy of the world, had declined tragically since the end of World War II. My six year old daughter Joanna was in first grade and learning very little. My second daughter Amelia was less than a year old.

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Often it may become necessary to interrupt. I am interrupting myself to let you know where the story is going and why. The story ends at a Christmas party for a startup company in the Silicon Valley of California. The company was founded by entrepreneurs who were born in India but relocated to the U.S.—to San Jose specifically—because of opportunity. They saw the opportunity to develop a relatively-small switch for data transmission. I had been hired under contract to write a user’s guide. The subject of the guide was highly-technical.

The guide’s purpose was to help readers who were eager to use new technology to make their business successful. Some experience with the basics of data transmission was assumed. My readers knew something about digital transmission, but I had to write clearly and simply. Perhaps a new employee had just been hired who was in the process of being trained. My manual had to be understandable to the relative novice (without talking down to her or him) and yet also worth reading for an experienced hand. What is the first thing I needed to do to write such a document?

The first thing I needed to do was understand the subject.

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Spoiler alert for the return to the story. The family Ford was going to Diana’s best friend Betsy who lived outside Charlotte, North Carolina. On the way, we stopped in the Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina. Specifically, we stopped at the home of Patric and Trina Mullen. Patric was an old friend. He had been a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. introducing me (when I was a newsletter editor relatively young to my profession) to members of Congress helpful to me. In return, I included his observations into articles I published. It was not simply tit for tat. We were friends with a similar world view which had extended itself to his relocation to North Carolina then booming with major advances in education and in attracting high technology business.

One of the businesses North Carolina had attracted was Northern Telecom, a Canadian based manufacturer of digital telephone switches which for decades had brought prosperity to the state. Patric’s wife Trina was a rising executive at the company. Her next door neighbor Kathleen Atwater was in charge of a marketing group of technical writers. Kathleen came over to meet us. In her kitchen, Kathleen said she was hiring a senior technical writer. I had never been even a junior technical writer. However, my publication record was considerable. I was hired in Patric and Trina’s kitchen and by Thanksgiving a 16 wheel truck had relocating all our family belongings to Durham. It was there I learned about digital transmission and most especially how to switch large data packets (for example, television).

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To be continued is the story of how I wound up in the Silicon Valley of California writing about data transmission for a company owned by Indian-born entrepreneurs. What I am planning to tell is how a writer learns about technology and expresses my learning in simple English.

English is a marvelous language especially useful for communicating technology. This post is a roundabout way of appreciating the beauty of our language and how four months before my 70th birthday, I have learned to use English to help women and men in business achieve their objectives.

Between now and the next installment, please feel free to get in touch regarding your language needs. Are you having trouble with a grant proposal, a technical manual, an SEC filing, a speech, a press release, an especially significant email?

Often I do not tell long stories keeping the reader wondering what will happen next. This time I am taking advantage of telling a long story with many installments in the hope that you will read within the lines concepts that may be useful to you.

Until next time, I remain,

–Joel

[email protected]

814-689-9363

http://www.siliconindia.com/profiles/Joel-Solkoff-C5W8MGcL.html

http://www.joelsolkoff.com/technical-writing-philosophy-sample-availability/

http://www.joelsolkoff.com/book-store/books/the-politics-of-food/

http://blogs.siliconindia.com/JoelhelpswithbusinessEnglish/

 

Copyright © 2017 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.

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