Disability and Elderly Issues

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.


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.


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).


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,


[email protected]



Copyright © 2017 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.

Disability and Elderly Issues

Silicon India Interviews Joel Solkoff

Joel Solkoff



Prized Accomplishment(s):

Following the details of Renzo Piano’s first New York City assignment The Morgan Museum and library. In my column and in YouTube style videos, I followed the project from creative vision through construction.

The Journey So Far:

I am a 66 year-old paraplegic who is a research assistant at Penn State’s Department of Architectural Engineering. I am also a columnist for e-architect-uk. My field of interest is housing for elderly baby boomers who may or may not be disabled and using virtual reality and BIM technology to reduce costs.

Career Profile:

As a columnist for e-architect, I receive nearly one million hits a day. As opposed to my academic position, I am writing for an international audience focusing primarily on U.S. architecture for readers who do not understand the U.S.

Other Thoughts:

When I worked at the California Silicon Valley as a technical writer many of my bosses were Indian. The subcontinent has provided the U.S. with a remarkable and badly-needed source of talent. Understanding how that talent was created and what can be done to make it easier for the U.S. to benefit from India-generated talent is a constant source of fascination. I much appreciate the work Silicon India is doing,

The Decisions That Matter

The most important decision is learning to trust my experience as a paraplegic who has not been able to walk for the past 20 years. Related to this is the recognition that computer technology in many forms including the intelligence for mobility devices does make it possible to lead a productive life with a disability.

Job Profile:

Currently I am using globally famous architects such as Zaha Hadid, Renzo Piano, and as a way of attracting my readers. Once attracted, I focus on the implications of the major demographic phenomenon involved when the largest population in history retires and requires housing.

Done Differently:

I would become an architect.

Advice For New Professionals:

Relax. Take the time for a large view. The focus today on details, data, and tools sometimes makes it difficult to understand how to use details, data, and tools. Read outside your field. Immerse yourself in educational experiences that are NOT digital. That way, the power of digital technology can then be applied with a more precise focus.

Professional Strengths:

The ability to write clearly, to describe complicated technology, and to provide readers with the nuances of life in the U.S. from the prospective of a native-born citizen who has visited 47 U.S. states and lived for at least a year in 7 of them.

Working Life Management:

I do not manage my work-life balance. To the degree possible, I try to follow, on a day to day basis, what interests me in the hope that in doing so I will accomplish my long-term goals naturally and effortlessly. I am not always successful at the act of balancing.

Family Background

My mother was a Hebrew school teacher. My father was an attorney. My father was 27 years older than my mother. The marriage was doomed from the beginning and divorce happened when I was three.

Contribution to the field

I have published three books–one on agriculture policy, the second a memoir on being cured of cancer, the third a book on housing. I lived for 17 years in Washington DC holding several relatively-high level positions in the federal government as a speechwriter and public affairs official. I look at my world from a utilitarian political perspective–focusing on whether the solution to a problem works rather than on the spin one can put to something that does not work.

Growth Strategy:

I am persistent. I read everything I can. I do not forget what I want to accomplish.

Changes In The Professional Environment:

The professional environment, as I see it, began 20 years ago when I lost the ability to walk. Between then and now, technology has made significant advances in providing access. Social barriers have come down. Productivity for disabled individuals such as myself still can be improved. Badly needed is the capital to invest in what are in effect human resources–hardware, software, disability vans, travel accommodations, and deservedly expensive specialized publications.

Plans For The Future:

Designing a multi-generation neighborhood for 100,000 individuals.