Tech Start-up Entrepreneur

Business, Computers & Technology

Q: Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?

A: My name is Aaron Gotwalt, I am currently heading into my next project, so I don’t have a job title right now. In the past I’ve been a CEO, I’ve been a CTO, I’ve founded several companies. I graduated from college in 2004. 

Q: Great. And could you tell me a little bit about your field in general and the kinds of companies that you’ve started and worked for?

A: Sure. When I was a sophomore in college at Penn State, I founded a company called Elexio, with a friend of mine from high school. Elexio in 2002 I think was, when I think about it in hindsight, was trying to do something interesting. We built a web editor that ran in your web browser, so similar to something like Wix or Squarespace or something like that, and we did it in 2002. The technology was interesting, the people I was working with didn’t understand that possibility, and so though we had something kind of cool, it never lived up to its obvious potentials that you can see in hindsight. Sort of the thing that moved me to San Francisco, I built a company called CoTweet in 2008. CoTweet was an enterprise social media management dashboard for large companies. So our first clients were companies like Ford and Microsoft and JetBlue. And you had this, you know, as social media was gaining steam ten years ago, large brands were suddenly forced to try and figure out how to approach those platforms. And in CoTweet we built them a product that they could take their existing customer service approach to dealing with email and then apply that to social media, and so we built that. You know, it was a classic startup story where I moved home with my parents at 27, and I borrowed money from my grandparents to come out to San Francisco multiple times to try and find funding. We did that and then, probably the most unlikely thing happened, we sold the company about nine months later to ExactTarget, who then subsequently went public and then was acquired by SalesForce. 

Q: Oh interesting, interesting. Wow, okay. That’s fascinating. What a history. 

A: That gets me to eight years ago [chuckle]. And then in the past eight years we built a company called SeeSaw, which was a mobile social network focused on decision making, helping you decide if you know, what to buy, or where to go. And that, that was an interesting learning experience in just how difficult it is to get people to use new applications. And I think we executed really well, but it was a hard, hard lesson. I then built a company called Projector, and Projector was a little bit of a different space, it was a tool for developers, when we were trying to improve push notifications that go to your phone. We thought at the time that most people get far too many, and they sort of reach this noise threshold where you start ignoring them altogether, and so we attempted to build technology to filter those notifications down to the ones you actually want under the hypothesis that it’s good for both you, the user, and good for the company who isn’t necessarily trying to annoy you, but doesn’t have tooling to get more sophisticated at that. So we built that, we ended up shutting it down. I think we learned– Apple in particular does not have a long term vision that supports this, so it was a difficult learning project, but we learned a ton about the space and how complex it is for large organizations to manage those things. 

Q: Oh how interesting. And that’s the project you’ve most recently stepped back from?

A: Yeah.

Q: Great, wonderful. So a lot of these questions are sort of framed in a way that speak to a specific job, but you should feel free obviously to pull from any of these experiences. And just sort of talk more generally, you might be thinking about across the long term how writing has worked, things like that. So whatever way it makes sense for you to think about these questions and answer them is great with us, we’d love to hear about any of these experiences. So first let’s just start with sort of thinking about your role as an entrepreneur, as CEO of an organization, working with these sort of very technical startups, could you estimate in an average week how much writing you do, like percentage wise?

A: You know, I think over time it’s gotten to be higher. When I started, you know, I assumed that my engineering output was how I should measure my own velocity, so you know, I think when you have an engineering skill set, you can look at your output and you can kind of quantify it, and something I’ve learned over the last ten years or so, is that when I don’t know what I’m doing, I will default to just engineering things, even things that aren’t necessary, because they allow me to feel like I’ve accomplished something without necessarily getting anything done. And in truth, my real value is higher when I’m writing and figuring, sort of answering hard questions, than when I’m necessarily just building something. So I would say that my shift has moved towards writing, I think, especially you know I, I’m talking to a couple different companies right now, including one run by a friend of mine, and they’re 70 people right now, and they are in I think six time zones, and only 30 percent of them are in San Francisco. And in order to, you know I think there’s a growing trend toward decentralized organizations, which puts new pressures on the ways that you communicate and sort of build both a company culture and makes sure that everybody knows what’s going on, and that shift goes hand in hand with requiring that everybody’s a good communicator, and has strong writing skills. And I think that even as I’m, you know, whether I build something next or I go work somewhere, I think this shift towards decentralization sort of, it drives this idea that writing skills are really essential and are going to only be more central in how you do your everyday work.

Q: That makes perfect sense to me. And I’m wondering, you know, in the roles that you’ve had, there’s this obvious internal communication that you’re talking about now, particularly in these decentralized organizations, and so I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the breakdown between internal written communication versus external communication, what those different types of writing look like to you?

A: Sure. I mean, you know, internally we have tools like Slack. Slack isn’t the first tool that does short group messaging, but in terms of its dominance at least in the tech enterprise, it’s pretty strong right now. I think it’s one thing to text your partner or your mom or something like that, you can send without thinking, but the moment you have a team of three or four people, and you’re sharing sort of text space, even that becomes, there’s this whole art I think of communicating clearly and not having accidental secondary meanings to people when you’re using a chat tool. So I think there is an art to utilizing group texting in a way that’s productive for a team, that allows you to communicate whatever thing you’re trying to communicate without creating secondary problems in the text. I think there’s a common pattern where you will Slacking back and forth with a group of people, and then communication itself will break down to a point where you have to jump onto a video or phone call, and I’ve certainly done that, and been a part of situations where that happens, but that’s like a every hour, every day kind of thing for most teams. And I think it comes down to there are certain limitations to having multiple people typing towards each other at the same time without being able to really process what you’re saying. You know, like, I’ll write an email and then I’ll reread that email before I send it. For the most part in texting you don’t do that. And I think that that can create confusion because you’ll say things before you really realize what you’ve said. And as opposed to just saying it out loud, you know, where we have audio cues, we have vocal tone, we have facial expressions that you might pick up on you know when we’re sitting across from each other, you just, you’re faced with these cold letters. And so you can have really bad consequences in a work environment from people misunderstanding what you’re trying to say. So I think there’s even at that smallest scale, there’s a skill in writing that could be developed further, even though, I don’t suggest that colleges start teaching like, Office Emoji 101 or something. But you know there is this, how do you communicate professionally using tools that feel very much like the tools that you use to talk to your friends? You know, so I think that’s a component. So a lot of internal communication at least in the organizations I’ve been in in the past ten years have shifted from formalized communication via email to more nonformal communication in something like Slack. A trend that I’ve seen over the last five years is that, increasingly organizations are talking to their partner organizations via similar tools including Slack. So now, I used to think of email as sort of like the way a company talks to another company, and texting tools like Slack as a way that companies talked to themselves. And now increasingly that barrier’s being broken, so it’s companies talking to other companies via these texting tools, and I think that creates all sorts of new and probably interesting legal challenges, because you don’t have the sort of review that would normally go into a message where I’m sending an email to the vice president of something in some other company. So I think this shift towards deformalizing company communication probably has some really interesting challenges wrapped into it. And then there’s sort of the, you know, all the way to the other side, which is, you know, writing for public conception about your company, and that’s something that I care a lot about. I know that’s the one that’s probably changed the least. But writing blog posts, writing copy for your website, I think there’s a real art to that. I think something I’ve developed over time is, what am I trying to say? I think that there was this, when I graduated from college, I wanted to impress you with my language, and sort of these complex sentences and interesting styling, and I read some author and I’m trying to take some flavor from them into this blog post about my company. Over time I think I’ve learned that you really do want to write it in the simplest way possible, and that the simplest way and the least, you know putting up the fewest barriers to understanding allows you to communicate your ideas as clearly as they will be. It cuts down on difficulty if you have a reader who’s reading from a second language, or maybe not fully understand the technical concepts involved – with a lot of what I’ve done, there’s sort of technical layer to it – but I really love reducing complicated ideas to really understandable phrases, and I think that’s something that I’m trying to develop personally, and I hope that other people will develop too. It’s not about writing in this, you know, very complex paragraph-long sentence, it’s trying to reduce this to, “This is exactly what this thing is.” And yeah, so that’s another facet of this sort of writing development that I think I’ve done.

Q: Yeah, absolutely. That makes a lot of sense to me. And I think it’s a process a lot of people go through, whether they sort of do that consciously or articulate it, yeah. Could you walk us through, we’re particularly interested in writing process, I was wondering if you could think about a recent writing project, it doesn’t need to be large-scale, but it can be, and just sort of walk us through the steps that you take from the very beginning, sort of thinking about the writing project, all the way through to calling it done and sending wherever it needs to go?

A: Would you like in sort of office collaborative kind of example? 

Q: That would be wonderful. That sounds great.

A: Probably a year ago, after Projector, I was sort of experimenting with a couple different ideas, and one of them was a health privacy project. We did some technical experimentation and then learned, we learned some interesting details about the lack of privacy in healthcare data, and we wanted to write about that as sort of a mechanism for explaining why our company exists, and what it’s all about. I believe my partner in the project actually started the draft, you know, we started with an outline. We had data that we were trying to present, it wasn’t, you know, research-grade data, but it was you know, some observations that we had made while studying some things. 

Q: I’m sorry to interrupt you Aaron, just for context – who is the sort of imagined audience for this document?

A: That document was for health tech professionals.

Q: Perfect, okay, great.

A: It was for health tech professionals, I think that’s perhaps the most interesting thing, is that it was health tech professionals, but it was more importantly to communicate why our company exists to people who aren’t health tech professionals. So you have this multiple audience problem, where we needed to seem reasonable to both audiences.

Q: Yes. And as you were envisioning – sorry, I don’t want to derail you too far – but just for context, so where were you envisioning this landing such that those multiple audiences would access it?

A: Ultimately our corporate blog. 

Q: Great, okay.

A: And the scope of this work was like, we had discovered some data over two weeks, and we were going to put it out within a week, it wasn’t, you know, we weren’t, this was not a stop the presses kind of event, but it was significant. So we started, we had the data, and my partner at the time wrote a draft, I think I just rewrote it altogether. And I think the audience problem was the problem that we ran into. We wrote, I think the first draft of it ended up being very much geared towards people who are trying to understand our company but didn’t cover the technical aspects of it, and so we rewrote it. We brought the engineer who had been responsible for the data side back into this discussion to try and sort of shape the narrative around the data and make sure we understood when we were making representations about the data, that those representations were accurate. You know, so it ended up just being kind of a back and forth, we used Google Docs I think for it, where we would write and then add annotations and then write, and then add annotations. And ultimately then we sent it to an editor to have a clean up and an external set of eyes. I think when you’re writing this kind of a thing, you oftentimes develop blind spots because you assume that the audience will understand the words you’re using. So we sent it to an external editor for some feedback. And then ultimately published it. It wasn’t a long process, it was probably a four or five day process.

Q: No that’s great. That’s really really useful. Especially the collaborative writing aspect is really interesting to me. So you obviously do a lot of different types of writing, some as you mentioned sort of internal, some client-facing, and some more public-facing, and moving between those types of writing is obviously its own sort of challenge. So I’m wondering sort of how do you perceive that you learned how to perform these very varied types of writings?

A: Some of it is that I think I was exposed to great writing teachers. You know, I did not have– so I went to a private Christian school for K-12 and I would say that really their only strong suit from that education in its English department, which was pretty consistent, the rest of it was pretty bad. And then when I got to college I was exposed to some really great writers and writing teachers. A lot of it was creative writing, nontechnical, but that I think got, it triggered something in me, I think I learned something from that. I think some of my development has been because I’ve been annoyed by other people being bad at this, and so my professional development has been to no longer just rewrite it and not tell you. But you know, I think there was a phase where I was embarrassed by the communications leaving my company, and I was just going to take charge of it, you know, because we sounded dumber than we were [chuckle]. I don’t know what to tell you, I think there’s some aspect that’s just sort of like, you have these standards in your head for how you think you would sound, how you think the company should sound, and you’re willing to do whatever you can in order to make that standard the way that it is. 

Q: That makes sense, that makes perfect sense. So sort of to that end, has there ever been a time in your career that you felt unprepared as a writer? 

A: Huh. I don’t have a good answer for this question. 

Q: That’s okay.

A: Yeah, I mean maybe that’s sort of the danger of being in startup land, is that you’re never really prepared for anything, and you’re just doing it anyway. It’s probably like, you know, a college writing course, you know, you’re in this 413 and the paper’s due on Friday, and whether or not you feel prepared for it, you’re shipping it. I think I’ve gotten better at getting prepared for projects that I’m not that great at, whether that’s bringing in the right people, or getting second opinions, or becoming more confident in the core skill set that I have. 

Q: That’s great, that makes a lot of sense to me. 

A: One key thing is that, you know, I think that most professional writing that I am exposed to, it has some form of collaborative behaviour to it, you’re very rarely writing in a complete vacuum. 

Q: Yeah, that makes sense. Are there challenges that you’ve experienced that are specific to collaborative writing? I mean, there are some that we sort of assume, but does that process typically go smoothly for you? Are there certain things that you do to ensure that it goes well? Are there certain things that present unique challenges for you particularly in collaborative writing?

A: I would say that collaboration just in general depends on a certain maturity to be able to accept that you’re wrong about things and I think that’s something you develop over time if you’re lucky. I’m not sure that there’s some, you know, way to do that other than to just accept it at times. I’m sorry, I lost my train of thought. Could you re-ask the question?

Q: Sure, so the challenges that are unique to collaborative writing, and you said you have to be mature enough to be able to accept that you are wrong [chuckle].

A: Oh, yeah. So I think a core challenge in collaborative writing is that it gets back to that question of the audience. You, when you start writing, have some idea of who the audience is going to be, and if you’re collaborating with somebody else and you’re doing something that’s nontrivial, they may have a very different idea of who that audience is, and so you could both, if you’d set out and tried to write at the same time, could write very different pieces that communicate effectively the same information, and I think unifying that audience view is tricky. I think that even if it’s just you, understanding who your audience is, your first audience in a piece, is oftentimes very difficult in a professional setting, because there’s rarely just one, and sometimes the needs of the audiences that you’re dealing with are really competing with each other. And then when you add another writer into the mix, it can only further muddy it, so I think that’s a core challenge.

Q: That makes a lot of sense, that makes a lot of sense, yeah. You talked about this sort of researched or sort of, the blog project that you collaboratively wrote, and you talked about the timeline there, but could you talk a little bit about how long you typically have to complete a writing project?

A: In startup land, that could be hours or minutes, or it, you know I think, you know, there’s sort of how long you have and then how far ahead of it being due that you actually start it. You know it’s probably like any college paper – you know you have to write the midterm paper when you start the class, but you don’t start writing it until the week before, or the night before if you’re really bad. And I think that’s the crux of it – how much linear time you actually apply to it, you know, I think when you have more complicated things that you’re putting out that require research components or graphics or, you know, those sorts of things, it can take a while. It’s interesting, I just observed a friend of mine – the same friend of mine’s company wrote a very complex blog post about how they developed their product and how they run their organization. That blog post took at least two or three weeks and it had probably eight writers total involved. This is the same decentralized company that I was mentioning earlier. It’s clear that it took a lot of writing and they went so far as to acknowledge that there was no soul voice or soul lead writer to the piece. And I think that represents a really interesting model for how things are going to go eventually. But you know, I think that two to three week, you know, from the time that everyone agrees that something needs to be done towards this end for public consumption to that, you know, that’s about right. You know I think difficult professional communication, one-on-one communication via email is a thing where you know you need to send this email, and because of other distractions, it might take you a day or two to really coalesce your thoughts and make sure that it makes sense. And then all the way down to Slack or something like that, where you typed it before you really thought about it, and then [crosstalk 26:18] about immediately. 

Q: Right, right. So you talked a little bit about the writing that you remember being asked to do as a highschool student, and I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the writing you recall from college, and also sort of how well you think your college writing experiences prepared you for the kind of writing that you have to develop now?

A: So I don’t think my college program was particularly, it wasn’t intentionally shaped to support me professionally. When I left the school of Information, Science, and Technology at Penn State, part of my thinking was that I could learn the technical side of it faster than they could teach me, and so my goal was to learn and to be exposed to things that I couldn’t teach myself. And so I spent a lot of time in the English department, and a lot of it was in creative writing and literature, which has no clear direct path towards this, you know, it’s not in the standard issue prep for being a technical person, but I think that those things actually really did help me a lot. They taught me about nuance in language that I don’t think I would have picked up on otherwise. I think writing, in prep for this I was walking yesterday and I was thinking about how, I suppose that there’s innate skill to writing or to communication, but I think that it’s a practiced skill more than it’s an innate one. You know, on the nature and nurture thing, I think that people can become pretty good writers, maybe not Pulitzer Prize winning authors or something, but you know, you can be a pretty good writer by writing a bunch, you just have to write a bunch. And I think that that, you know, my college process or my college education forced me to write a lot, and so I got to be a at least somewhat better writer, not a great writer by any stretch, as my graduating thesis will attest. Yeah.

Q: Great. That’s really useful and really interesting to hear, and I’m wondering too – are there things looking back that would have sort of given you a more direct application? Are there things that you wish you had been taught that would have helped you to be, maybe make the transition a little bit more quickly or more seamlessly into workplace writing?

A: I think I took one technical writing course and I may have late dropped it because it was really bad, at least really bad relative to thought– like I enjoyed my English classes, you know, and the technical writing one by comparison just felt dead. It was a very mechanical kind of project, and I think that good professional communication is not exactly mechanical. I think I, in college I assumed that like I was writing something that was fun, or I was writing corporate communications, and the modern corporate communication ironically turns out to need fun or people won’t read it. Like you have to have, like I think that good corporate communication may not be telling you hard-hitting jokes, but there’s a sense of humor and a sense of personality to it that isn’t dead, and I don’t think I picked up on that in college. I assume that college writing courses for professional writing have evolved since the time I was there, it’s been a while, but I think that finding something that’s in that middle space would’ve been really helpful. You know I think thinking about the audience is something that I didn’t do a whole lot of when I was in college, and I think that that does really come down to it, it’s almost, it’s like you have this idea that you’re trying to communicate, so that’s your starting point, but then you have, the really hard part is figuring out how to communicate to the people who matter most to you, and that’s different than how do you write a really good piece. In fact sometimes you have to take away the good parts in order to help them understand what you’re saying. So yeah, those are things that I think I wish I would have been exposed to. I’m not sure it was anybody’s fault, I think that when you look at corporate communications from the ‘90’s, it’s pretty dead, you know, it looks like a lawyer wrote it. And there’s still a place, as my lawyers will attest, for communication like a lawyer, but I think that corporate communications has loosened up and you can see that across the whole stack ranging from public communications to you know, tweets from companies, to internal Slack communications, to you know sort of this shift in formality in professional communication.

Q: That’s so interesting, yeah, that makes a lot of sense Aaron. This next question is extremely broad and it will also vary from writing project to writing project, but I wonder if you could talk generally about what you feel is at stake in your writing?

A: Um well, I mean, let’s start you know sort of Slack, which I know doesn’t count as writing in the traditional sense, but you have a team that you’re working with – let’s imagine you’re working with ten people – and you have this transcript of everything you’ve said to these people that stays for forever, and so any offhanded, unintentionally in-bad-taste joke lives for forever, and it lives for forever in this digital system, and it lives for forever in people’s memories to some degree or another. So there’s this reputational stake for making sure that you don’t do something really dumb. It’s sort of like digital photos on the internet, like you know, don’t take photos that you don’t want people to see of you ever, because they will somehow find their way into the public space. And I think the same thing is sort of true reputationally for writing, like you know, you don’t have a secret conversation off to the side anymore. So I think that getting good at writing, getting good at communicating your ideas, even in those really little things, is surprisingly essential. And sort of on the positive side, those little things allow you to build trust with people that you may not see face to face. I think this decentralized thing, decentralized organization means that increasingly, you’re building trusted relationships with people you work with, you know, 24/7, who you might see a couple times a year if you’re lucky. And so these asynchronous text communications turn out to be essential to that relationship, they are the relationship that you’ve got. So figuring out how to communicate your ideas and to sound level-headed even when you’re frustrated in communicating these things is really difficult. Um, you sound like you were going to interrupt.

Q: No, no, please. 

A: And I think the same thing is true for anything that goes publicly, you know, blog posts have a tendency to live for forever thanks to the internet archive, so you, you know, your words stick around for a while. At the same time I think, especially in the public space, there’s a higher volume of communication probably than ever, so in some ways maybe the stakes are lower, you do a lot more writing, at least I do a lot more writing than I used to. And I think that there is this general trend towards writing in this professional space being a really key component of it. I also think it’s interesting is, in a technical organization, the further up you go from being sort of a first line engineer, the more writing the less engineering you’re doing, because the writing becomes the, you know, the engineering is sort of the last step, but the writing is the coordination towards those goals. I’ve been reading up on, I’ve developed a fascination with Roman history, and sort of when you start thinking about military strategy and how you’re going to attack some town, or fight some battle, you think about the soldiers who are out there swinging their swords, but more broadly you think about this unit and this unit needs to move over here, and then you think about the person who’s responsible for that, you know, it’s this person is responsible for all of these units and you’re going to attack from this direction. And in an engineering organization, as it scales it becomes more and more like that as well, and the communication really is the work, there isn’t even a second thing that you’re doing, you’re communicating, you’re taking input from people, you’re developing a strategy, and you’re directing what happens.

Q: That’s a fascinating comparison. Yeah that’s really really interesting. In many ways you may have already touched on this, or you may just point me back to something that you’ve already said, but I’m curious what you would identify as the most difficult thing about writing in the types of positions that you’ve held?

A: I think the most difficult things I’ve dealt with actually come back to sort of group text communication. Unintentional consequences, misunderstandings over choices in words, accidental things that I didn’t intend as offensive that were read as offensive. And luckily I don’t have any truly cataclysmic stories about that, but I think that you, you know, if you work in an environment that communicates via that, you know, over the course of a month, you will end up apologizing to at least a handful of people within, that were accidentally communicated. But I think that those are really the hardest ones, because you have more a traditional process, the more external your communication is, the more formalized your communication is, the more checks and balances you have to your writings, you might catch that you said something horrible. It’s those places where it’s written but it’s impulsive that you can really get yourself into trouble, and you can, you know, it can also, it’s like a double edged sword, it can be very powerful, it allows to cut through the process and get things communicated very quickly, but then you can accidentally communicate the wrong thing very easily. So I, yeah, I think that the most difficult sort of day to day writing thing turns out to maintaining an even keel and dealing, you know, especially when you’re under stress or you know, frustrated with your team, or something like that, to be able to communicate in an even way that doesn’t create side effects via group texting turns out to be very difficult.

Q: That’s really interesting and I think that’s one of those things that our students really don’t get much of. You know, you talked about that you assume professional writing at the university level has improved since you were there, and while I’m sure in some ways it has, I think that it has not caught up–

A: I was being kind.

Q: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I think this sort of informal writing that happens is the piece that’s still missing though. It really isn’t addressed as much as it should be when the bulk of the communication, and like you said, in many situations, the most complicated sort of communications is going to happen that way. Shifting just a little bit, I’m curious whether anyone has helped you formally or informally since the start of your career, sort of post college, with your writing?

A: I have a handful of friends who are better writers than me, who for, whether it’s personal blog posts or professional work that I think really matters, that I don’t want to screw up, that I will send to review confidentially before I send it out. That’s about it. I would imagine there probably could’ve been more support, it would have been nice, but that’s sort of the limit to the support that I have.

Q: Okay. And when you think about, typically this question would be about the organization you’re currently with, but I think sort of looking more broadly at the world of technical startups would be useful – could you speak a little bit about how you feel writing is valued in that world?

A: Yeah, I’m going to focus on external writing for this answer. I think that it’s highly valued, but it’s under invested in. You know, I in a past project worked with a CEO, I was the CTO at the time, and the CEO very much wanted to do some really interesting writing projects, but he was not a good writer, and wasn’t really willing to invest in making that writing better. What ultimately ended up happening was I took over the writing project, because we had these deadlines that had been at one point set very reasonably, but getting to a consistent product turned out to be very difficult. So I think there is this understanding, at least in tech startups, I can’t speak to a broader audience, but I think that companies are aware and teams are aware that writing and communication is really essential. And yeah, there’s real value there. I was looking, I have a friend of mine who’s hiring for a project manager position at a larger company, and the job recs are essentially just writing skills, and some vague idea of the technical spaces they’re working in. I think that communication skills in larger companies are really the skills. Technology is assumed to be learnable more than communication is. 

Q: Yeah, I think that that’s really true but it is really interesting. I’m wondering how would you have defined successful writing as a student versus successful writing now?

A: I think now the end product is a lot, simpler isn’t the right word, right? It’s more like it’s, what’s the word I’m looking for? The writing is effective now, not just loquacious, or something, you know, like you have these words and syntax and structure that you read growing up, and so you’re trying to match that, or to sound very smart in how you’re writing. I think the real power and magic is saying a very complicated thing in a very simple way, and maybe in a much shorter way than college – like I think college writing was like, “Well it must be at least 15 pages, so stretch it out, and up the margins,” [chuckle]. It’s sort of the wrongest possible metric for being done and being successful. I think taking a complicated idea and communicating it really clearly in the simplest way possible is the success now. Nobody really wants to read a ten page blog post, you know, they want to read three, four pages and then like some breakout if they want more information. But that blog post may summarize what you’ve been working on for two years, you know, so you have to really edit the mess out of that in order to get to that point. And in that situation you have to edit out a lot of things that are really interesting, so it, you know, I think part of that success is getting comfortable ignoring or you know, reducing a month of your effort to a single word in the middle of a sentence in the middle of a paragraph, you know, it’s tricky.

Q: Absolutely, absolutely. And yeah, it could represent so much work, but also it could represent what you think is the most important or interesting thing, and knowing your audience means sometimes that goes, yeah.

A: Yeah, that’s really hard.

Q: Yeah, absolutely. And I actually just have one last question. Would you say that you are a successful professional writer?

A: I am a learning professional writer. It’s funny, I’m in the middle of, I’ve had some time off the last couple weeks and I’m in the middle of writing some personal stuff, and my partner is, she’s a writer, and she’s a better writer than I am, and so based off of her feedback, I am not a successful writer yet [chuckle], which I accept. You know, I think that this process, you know, I’ve been doing this now since 2002, which says I’ve been doing it for a little while, 17 years, 18 years, something like that? I’m clearly more of an English person than a math person. But I think I’ve gotten better over time. I think that some of these things probably are more, you could probably teach them better at college and saved me some time and effort, and some of them you only learn because you practice and you fail, and I’ve mostly done it the hard way, but I’ve gotten better at it, I’d like to think so.

Q: Beautiful, thank you so much!

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Network Engineer

Computers & Technology

IT Networking Interview



Q: So could you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?


A: My job title is a network engineer. I work for a company that– I’ve got my contractor. And I graduated college in 2011, so, I’m assuming you’re talking undergraduate?

Q: Yes, undergraduate.


A: So 2011, so about seven years ago.


Q: Okay. And did you attend graduate school?

A: I did. I attended the College of Idaho for undergrad, and the University of North Carolina School of the the Arts for graduate school.


Q: Could you tell me what you have your undergrad and graduate degrees in?


A: So my degrees– [laughter] this is funny, usually for a job interview or things like that, the funniest thing going through my resume is like, “Okay, I see these Cisco certifications, and job experience” – and then they look at education, and it’s like, “Hmm, Bachelor of Arts in Voice and Masters of Music in Opera Performance.” That, it’s probably the weirdest thing when looking at my resume, like, “That doesn’t exactly square with everything else!” [laughter] – that’s why it’s at the end!


Q: Gotcha. Is all of your – we’ll get to this in more detail down the line, but – is all of your background in IT networking sort of learned on the job? Or do you have specific training toward that since your degrees aren’t related?


A: So, basically the path I took – and not to get too much into my life story, or whatever – but basically the path I took is I finished graduate school, and wasn’t quite at the point where I could embark on a fabulous career as an opera singer, so I wound up getting in touch with a teacher who lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and moved out there to continue studying with him. Over the time I was in Tulsa I was singing with Tulsa Opera, doing some chorus work and smaller roles with the company, but it wasn’t ever to the point where like, I was a full time opera singer. It was more a aspiration and a source of income on the side while maintaining a day job. I wound up getting an administrative position at Tulsa Community College, and one of the perks that they offer for working there on staff is they allow you to take a certain number of credit hours per semester for free. And I was in that position for about a year and a half, and it got the point where I was getting some success in singing, but I was also thinking about, “Do I really want to do this for the rest of my life? Will this give me what I want, vis a vie, geographical and financial stability. I want to have a family at some point. Is this necessarily conducive to that?” And finally the decision I had to make was, you know, it really isn’t. And I managed to get out of two degrees in the arts without any student loan debt, and maybe that’s enough of a success story and we should start looking at other options. So at that point I had gotten the A+ certification, which is a very basic, it’s almost kind of considered meaningless at this point, because it’s so generalized and it’s not really specific to any one company or manufacturer. So it’s one of those things that basically it just says, “I have an interest in computers and can Google better than the average bear to solve problems.” So I had gotten my A+ because that was kind of like the foot in the door trying to move into an IT role with Tulsa Community College, but then I started to look at, “Well, I could take classes for free, so what are the options here? Oh, well there’s a class based on the Cisco certified network associate certification. Well, I’ve always liked networking, so let’s maybe explore that.” So I wound up signing up for the course, took the course. They had broken it down into two tests at that point so I took the first test and passed it. Shortly after I took that exam, I came out to Washington, DC because my brother and sister-in-law live here – they both work for the government – and he made me the offer around that time of, “You know, even if this works out the way you want it to, Tulsa is going to have pretty slim pickings for IT positions, even though IT is a growing field, still you are in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Do you want to maybe move to DC and you can hang with us, not have to worry about rent while you are looking for a new job.” It was a god send! And so I was like, “You know, yeah.” The thing about Tulsa is it’s not close to any of my family, it’s not really convenient to, like it’s not a major airport, so trying to get anywhere else in the country is kind of difficult. So it was like, “I don’t really have any ties here, and we’re kind of shutting the door on going any further with music, so yeah, let’s do it. Why not?” So I took the second half of the the second class and the certification path, took the second exam, passed the second exam, moved out to DC, and started looking for jobs, and I actually wound up finding a staff singing as a singer at a church in downtown DC and then shortly after that, found a position on the help desk of the company I currently work for. I was on the help desk for three months as a contractor, and then they brought me on full time at the start of 2016. About four or five months in, someone pointed out that, “You know, networking, if that’s what you’re into, has a few open recs.” And so I applied for the job, got an interview, got a second interview, got offered the job, and moved off of the help desk and into networking about a month later as a technician, and then this past March I made the jump from technician to engineer, which means, you know all those extra hours that I was happy to take on when I was hourly, suddenly I’m salary, and it’s like, “Hmm, I’m not actually paid for this extra time,” [laughter] but it’s a great field to be in, I think, because computers in general, it’s constantly growing. Technology is just changing and there’s always something to learn. If you let it be, it will always be intellectually stimulating. There’s always something new to learn.


A: That’s a great way to think about it, yeah.


Q: That is one thing that kind of scratches an itch that the music world didn’t, because if you look at the opera companies that are out in the world, most of their season is going to be things from the 1700s and 1800s. It’s not to say you can’t find something new with every production, but for me, seeing the same thing put on, I’m like, “I know this story – no really, I know this story! And if you presented it in a new way, I still know this story.” And with technology changing the way it does so frequently, it really appeals to my more intellectual side more so than I think opera did.


A: That’s great. Oh, that’s such an interesting path. So can you give me sort of a very brief description of your primary job functions?


Q: That’s actually kind of a hard question to answer because, networking-wise, you’re talking about the entire internet. So if a ticket comes in saying “I can’t access site X,” well, we only see our half of that transaction, so it’s like, “Well, I can tell you it’s none of our equipment.” And then at the end of that transaction, the customer’s like, “Okay, well I still can’t access site X.” So, most of my job at this– actually it’s changing, since I’ve moved into a more engineering-heavy role, there’s less focus on like the day-to-day handling tickets from the help desk, and more we’re building new things. Like one of the things I’m actually working on right now is a small office/home office router solution for teleworkers because the typical employee will go home and they have a client on their laptop that allows them to form a tunnel back to the company. And that works for the average end user, but some people are more of what we call “power users” and they have like a lab they’ve set up in their home, they’re a full time teleworker, and they need to have, like for example, they need to have a phone on their desk that’s connected back to our infrastructure. So the small office/home office router solution that we offer, it’s not new, it’s been around for a while, but there are certain new requirements in terms of network security and segregation that we’re having to adhere to as part of – it’s called The National Institute of Science and Technology 800-171 Guidelines – not that that anyone really needs to know what the exact guidelines are, but essentially, what it entails is we have to seperate devices on a network. So in order for something in zone A to talk to zone B, it has to pass through a firewall which will make a determination as to “Is device A allowed to talk to device B? How can device A talk to device B? In what ways is it allowed?” – so on and so forth. And what we were offering for the small office/home office router solution just, the hardware was not up to the task. So things were kind of limbo for a while as to, “Well, are we going to move fully to just client software on people’s laptops? Or is this service going to expand?” And finally it was decided, “Well this service is going to expand.” So what I’ve been working on and what we’re hopefully going to start sending out next week – this is what I was talking to you about that fire that I’m trying to put out [laughter] – what we’re hopefully going to start putting out next week is the new hardware for the small office/home office routers which, instead of just being one box, it now has to be two, because the requirements of 800-171 basically requires to use some of the more advanced functionality of, instead of doing routing and switching on one box, we’re using advanced switching and advanced routing functions, so now we have to do them with two boxes. And the advantage of it for the power user teleworker is they have multiple devices that they could plug in, and it’s like extending the network out to their home, as opposed to the client on the desktop making a tunnel back just for their laptop or desktop. So because it’s being handled by this box that has a bunch of ethernet cords that you could plug in any arbitrary device, suddenly you could plug in a phone, you could plug in a video teleconferencing unit. So it’s basically a more fully featured teleworking solution, which we’d hoped we’d be able to accomplish it just with a client on a laptop, because that’s a much simpler way to do it, and it’s much easier to do deliver in terms of, it’s just a piece of software that’ll run on any hardware you throw it, versus we’re now having to actually put together a hardware solution and be putting boxes in people’s homes. So that was sort of the back and forth until finally it coalesced this week and I’m now putting that together. I’d more or less taken ownership of the service prior to this, but the actual building it from the ground up, so to speak, which, I didn’t build a lot of the infrastructure, but I’m now putting together the configurations for the equipment that’s actually going into people’s houses. So that’s sort of what I’m working on right now. But to get back to your actual question of what are my daily job duties, it’s either you’re doing design, or you’re doing troubleshooting of an existing design, and I’m kind of seeing both sides of that now. The tricky thing about networking in particular is everything’s writing on the network in your average enterprise, so oftentimes when a ticket comes through, the first determination we have to make isn’t, “Well where’s the problem?” it’s, “Is this actually a networking problem? Or is it something else? Or is it some other component of this particular service or piece of software, and the network is just tangential to it?” And oftentimes we wind up solving the– because we’re in the best position to troubleshoot that sort of thing, but oftentimes we will get things sent to us, where it’s like, “This isn’t really networking, but sure, I’ll take a crack at it.”


Q: I see, okay, okay. That’s right, that makes a lot of sense. How frequently are you required to write?


A: So, I would say a good portion of my day is reading and responding to emails, and it is one of those things where, you get stuck in that school mentality, “Well, how many pages did I write? What were the requirements of this particular– how would I grade this? Where’s the professor scoring this for me?” And it really doesn’t boil down that simply, but I would say I write, if we do like a page equivalent writing, I would say I write anywhere between two and four pages a day.


Q: Awesome. Could you give me a percentage of your week, ballpark? Like time that you’ve spent?


A: Ballpark writing? Twenty five percent.


Q: Okay, awesome. How long do you typically have to complete a writing project? So you talked about that a lot of it is email– are there other sort of larger scope writing projects that you complete too?


A: There are– like documentation, for example, of a service, or a piece of hardware, or like one of the things I still need to put together is, I recently went to Cisco Live, which is Cisco’s big, it’s their big trade show event that they do. They do them all over the world and it’s usually once a year. I still need to write a trip report for that just to talk about what did I learn, what new things are on the horizon, what classes did I attend. So, not quite a book report, but along those lines, along those lines. Then there’s, if we’re putting together a new service that I’m in charge of, here’s the documentation of how it works. I would say that that rolls into the twenty five percent as well.


Q: Okay. And how long, let’s say for that documentation, like how long, start to finish, are you given, and I’m sure it varies project to project, but are we talking hours? Days? Weeks? Months?


A: It really does vary, it’s hard to put a firm number on that, but I would say the expectation is at the conclusion of, for example, an eight week project, you would have probably 5-10 pages of documentation and you’d present– what we tend to do internally, is have a quick 45-60 minute meeting just talking about, “This is the service, this is how it works, this is where you could go for troubleshooting instructions documentation,” that goes into more depth, because yes, I am the service owner, but no man is an island, and if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, someone needs to be able to go through this and figure this sort of thing out. Or if I go on PTO, and someone comes in saying, “My widget doesn’t work,” this is the relevant documentation of how that widget is tied into our services, what we manage, and here’s where you would start troubleshooting it.


Q: Gotcha, gotcha.


A: So you don’t have to call me [laughter] while I’m on an island somewhere in the pacific.


Q: Right, right, okay. And again, this will vary between the types of documents, so you could maybe just pick one or two to talk about, but who are the primary audiences you’re writing to, and what are the primary purposes of the documents that you create?


A: I would say the primary purpose for all of our documentation is mostly going to be troubleshooting, just because when you’re putting together an, “as built, this is how service X works,” what you’re really kind of saying is, “This is how service X is supposed to work, and depending on the thing that went wrong that you’ve now got a customer asking you about, this is where you need to start looking. These are the threads you need to pull on. These are the foxholes you need to chase down.” And the audience is generally going to be at least for the majority of my writing, the audience is either my peers, other folks in the networking department, or tech end users. And oftentimes, I think in a sideways sort of way, having studied a field that is very far, far field from technology actually helps in some ways, because I’m kind of having to relate to people who don’t necessarily have the background of– they have no idea what the OSI model is, they don’t know what TCP and UDP are, and they don’t care. From their perspective, it’s just “Service X doesn’t work. Why no work?” and you have to be able to relate to them in a way that’s approachable, that they can understand why service X doesn’t work, how to fix service X from their side, what they would need to do, steps that they can take, and it’s a situation where you have to know what level of detail to give them. Not that you obfuscate or conceal truth or anything like that, but you try and discern from customer to customer how much background that they really want, or do they just want, “Click X, type in Y, and your problem is fixed. Have a nice day.” And that varies from person to person. I tend to be probably more verbose that maybe is really necessary. But that’s kind of my own bug bear of, I really want to see how things work. Like when I was on the the help desk, one of the things that I found frustrating was, you know, we would escalate tickets to the team, or person, or group that owns it, and it just goes into a black hole and I have no idea what happened with it. And I could pull it up after the fact and see their clips (?22:34) notes of what I did to fix it, but that’s never really as satisfying as actually going through the process of, “What steps did you take to resolve this?” So, because of that, I tend to be more verbose and perhaps get a little more technical than is really necessary for the average person, but the reason is I have a personal preference of knowing is better than not knowing.


Q: Yeah, exactly, exactly. When you think about the types of writing that you do in a typical week, how did you learn or how did you know how to perform those types of writing?


A: Honestly, I think most of my writing ability, if you could call that, or my writing style, comes from written a lot of papers in highschool and beyond, and having– honestly, my mom go through it [chuckle] and correct it and give me her suggestions and revisions. I think that’s honestly where most of it reprised from. Totally from parents [chuckle].


Q: Has there been a time in your work life that you’ve felt unprepared to tackle a writing project?


A: I would say yes, at times, because even like when I was on the help desk, there are oftentimes where you’re stuck in the position of, “Well, I know this is an answer they’re not going to like, so how do I word this in a way that’s not just going to anger someone further?” or like, you know, get the, “I demand to speak to your manager!” kind of thing. How do you de-escalate? How do you phrase things in such a way that you explain the problem, but you don’t put someone in the position of being dissatisfied with your answer?


Q: And how do you approach that?


A: Honestly, I’m still trying to figure that out sometimes. But I think the most important thing is to come from a place of empathy. Like, you know, “I understand your problem, I understand why you’re upset. I don’t think we can fix this on our side.” Like, for example, if there’s a problem accessing a particular site and it’s completely upstream of us– coming back and just telling someone, “There’s nothing we can do,” – you’ll run into people who just won’t accept that as an answer and they’ll want an exception to be carved out, or “if you can’t bring me to the mountain, then bring the mountain to me” kind of thing. And oftentimes it’s just, just coming from a place of understanding and telling them that, “I’ve looked at this as exhaustively as I can and I’ve ruled out everything within our infrastructure, it’s not on our side,” and at least giving them a path of, “Here is the number for the help desk of the place you’re trying to get to, I think it’s an issue that you have to raise with them.” Rather than just saying a flat, “There’s nothing we can do,” you’d say, “I’m very sorry, there is nothing we can do, but here is at least a path where you could pursue this further.”


Q: Perfect, perfect, okay. What did you do to overcome early writing challenges? Like what you talked about, you know, you’re still sort of managing this very specific sort of diplomatic writing, when you know that someone’s not going to like the only answer there is– what did you do, were there practical things that you did to improve, or to get a handle on that kind of writing?

A: It’s one of those things that, for me, is just you have to do it over and over and over and eventually, you’ll start to get better and better at it, at the diplomacy side of the house. And if you build the rapport with someone to– and it’s building that rapport that I think, that’s oftentimes hard for especially people in IT to do, because the stereotypical IT guy is– like they’re in a room in a building somewhere and the door is always closed to that room, they’re very unapproachable. And I’ve always, you know, I end every email with, “Please feel free to ask if you have questions, I will answer them as best as I can.” Just something that lets them know that I’m not just shutting the door on their face, “I’m approachable, please tell me your tale your woe and I will listen!” So that’s been something of a learning experience because it’s one thing to go to, like an explanation path of, we’ll just say, “No, that’s not something that we’ll support,” and come back with, “No, that’s something that we’ll support,” and it’s another to deliver that message but in a way that helps the person understand that you’re not doing this out of meanness, you’re doing this out of an honest inability to assist them further.


Q: Right, right, okay. Is there a person in your organization who oversees your writing, specifically?


A: Um, not specifically my writing, no. In terms of accountability, it would be, like if I said the wrong thing, it would be, you know, going to like a manager, someone above me, to say, “Hey, your employee said the wrong thing,” or, “Your employee said the undiplomatic thing,” sort of thing. But it’s not like someone’s auditing any messaging I put out there. But I’ll often seek that out and ask– like if I’m advising someone on a service that I don’t own, that you know, I’m vaguely familiar with it but not necessarily, I’m not the subject matter expert, I will try and find who the subject matter expert is and say, “Hey, this is what is my understanding of the problem, this is how I’m describing it, does that look good to you?” and ask them if there’s any wording they would change or things of that sort.


Q: That makes perfect sense, yeah. And in general, everything from emails to these documentation processes, or to your sort of post conference travel writeup– how would you say the success of your writing is judged? The quality of your writing is assessed, if it is?


A: I would say the success– I need a moment to parse that bit. One of the things that in general, not just as it relates to work but–I tend to be as exacting as possible in my writing, like for example, even when texting, I tend to use full and complete sentences, which, that’s just a personal preference. I have no problem with people who abbreviate and use the letters “u” and “r” for the words “you” and “are”. But I tend to just write very, as often as I can, complete sentences, and things that flow well, and not to bog down in the technical details too much, but to, again, know your audience, and explain things in a way that reads well, that are nonequivocal, that gets the message across in a way that can be understood. You do get emails every now and then where it’s like, it’s a run on sentence, or capitalization, spelling mistakes, and all that sort of thing, which, as long as you’re still understood, then it’s really not big of a deal. But personal preference on my part is to always be as grammatically correct and make as few typos and that sort of thing as possible, because I think there’s a professionalism in that, and I think that’s a thing that tends to garner you more respect and rapport with the person you’re speaking to. I hope that sort of answers the question.


Q: Yeah, absolutely it does, absolutely, yeah. What is at stake in your writing? In terms of what’s at stake, what are the repercussions if your writing isn’t effective?


A: I don’t think there are any horrendous repercussions, like if I get a technical detail wrong, then chances are it’ll be corrected by someone who actually follows that through and is like, “Oh, no, you’re wrong.” And it’s like “If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. That’s fine.” There is the, you know, someone getting upset and wanting to take things up the chain. There’s the risk of, you know, if I write something undipolmatically, then it’s like, I’m saying someone else’s work is incorrect, or they’re wrong about something, and there’s a chance that you might, you know, feelings will be hurt. So you try to avoid that as best you can and just say things like, you know, “I disagree and here is why.” You present a cogent argument where it’s like, “I’m not getting on you as a person, I’m just saying that what you said about service X isn’t quite correct and here’s the evidence to back me up.” Like one of the things I always strive for is that, whether or not people like me personally, my work will always stand for itself, and my writing will always be consistent with– I maintain a consistency across– make sure I’m telling the same story to everybody.


Q: Yeah, absolutely. What would you say is the most difficult thing about writing in your field or in your specific position, even?


A: We touched on this a little bit earlier – just the knowing your audience. Like this person wants to know the A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-J of their problem, whereas this person just wants to know, “Did you fix it? Yes? Okay, great.” That’s the trickiest thing to judge I think.


Q: Perfect, yeah. Has anyone helped you with your writing formally or informally?


A: Not particularly. Informally, I would say it’s more the reaching out to a subject matter expert and saying, “Hey, there’s this problem X, which is with a service that you’re closer to than I am. Here’s how I understand the problem, here’s the verbiage I’m using. Does this look kosher to you?” And taking any revisions or corrections they make and incorporating that. And that also helps me better understand the underlying technology behind a particular product or software or service. So I’m very proactive about seeking that sort of thing out, as opposed to just making assumptions. And oftentimes Google is your friend, but Google will teach you about a service or product generally, but how it’s been specifically implemented, you have to go the people that implemented it, and that’ll often give you a more complete understanding.


Q: That’s great. Okay. This is especially interesting for you because your degree isn’t related to the work that you do. But what kinds of writing do you remember being asked to do as a student and do you think that writing prepared you for the writing you do now?


A: I do remember my freshman year, we took a class, it was like Writing 101 or something like that. And the gist of the course was, it was based on six papers, and they were all on like a different tack: like one’s strictly a research, one’s a passion paper, one’s a persuasive essay, so on and so forth. And I remember in another class, my sophomore year, was a poli-sci political economy course, that every two weeks or so, we would have to write a 500 word – exactly 500 word – like two pager on either, I want to say it was some topic in class as it related to some ongoing news story, or I honestly have to go see if I still have some of those papers around to remember what the specific subject is. And then as I moved into– the professor who taught that political econ course, I wound up taking several of his classes. Not so much because I really enjoyed political economy, although I did enjoy learning about the history of politics and how that translates into things that are in the news today, but I wound up taking his classes specifically because I liked the way he presented them. And through all of it, it taught me that how you have to vary your writing style based on, not just what the audience is, but what your intent is. What are you trying to accomplish with this? That I think is one of the things that’s helped me a lot is getting that. Because I took a lot more classes than I strictly needed to in undergrad, and getting that sort of wide-ranging exposure to a lot of different subject areas wound up being very helpful in terms of teaching me how to write both about things are very near and dear to me, and things that are not. And writing about trying to accomplish a particular goal, versus writing to explain something that I’d done, without any, like I’m not trying to get person X to do something, I’m trying to say, “I did thing X, this is why you, person X, should care.”


Q: Right, right. That’s really interesting. Is there anything that would’ve been useful for you to learn as a student that would’ve helped prepare you?


A: I don’t know that you can necessarily make a formal course out of– because most writing that the average person does is informal. And I’m talking about things like email, texts, and I don’t know that you could formalize that into a class of, “How to communicate in the real world.” But honestly I think public speaking, like a Toastmasters sort of thing, maybe a heavier emphasis on that in undergrad would’ve been helpful. Because the best writing to my mind is writing where you can hear the person’s voice and envision them standing in front of you, speaking it to you. Because that’s the way most of us communicate, and I think that translates into our informal writing more so than like a research paper, or an essay does. Because oftentimes research papers and essays are written with a clear understanding that the reader is going to have a lot of background knowledge about the subject matter, whereas the informal like stand and speak, stand and deliver kind of thing, that does away with assumptions and there’s a lot more of a, you know, “I’m going to present this in a way that’s approachable to anybody,” as opposed to an essay, which if you’re reading essays about a specific subject matter, then you already have an interest in that subject matter, so. A course that goes over like more informal writing, which I think the closest thing would be, you know, public speech, might have been a lot more helpful. Like the last speech class I took was in like freshman year of highschool, actually, so I think things that get more towards informal– how to accomplish whatever goal you’re trying to accomplish with informal writing might actually be very useful for kids coming into college.


Q: That’s really interesting. Absolutely, yeah. I want to be mindful of your time, I just have a couple of questions left. To what extent do you think writing is valued in your organization?


A: I think almost any organization, writing is going to be incredibly valuable because you have things like documentation, you have things like making– if you have a whole department that works on a particular service area, the quality of your writing is going to directly translate into how well each of those people understand the aspect of that particular service area, which the writer is a subject matter expert in, or is talking about it in any particular email. The quality of your writing – how well you make yourself understood – is going to directly translate to the effectiveness of the team that handles that service. And of course, the strength of your documentation after the fact – how accessible and how readable it is to people who might be experienced with this service area generally, but not this aspect of it specifically – I think that’s going to be incredibly valuable and you see often enough the pitfalls of not having documentation. So when you suddenly have a service in front of you, or a network in front of you that you have no idea how it’s set up, it’s not documented anywhere, and suddenly you have to go on a scavenger hunt through every single device in the network and map it out, versus, if you’d had a map, then you could have zoomed in and immediately gotten to the root of whatever problem you’re trying to solve, versus having to, “Okay, we have this problem with this service, with connects to router A, switch B, which switch B is on the other side of this wide area network link, which goes through ISP X’s infrastructure, which–” and if you don’t have that written down somewhere, then suddenly anyone who approaches that problem – and it’s not going to be the same person every time, because again, people go on vacation, people leave the company – if you’re documentation’s not there, then the next guy who has the problem is going to have to do this whole process of rediscovery. Whereas if you wrote it down once, and you kept that updated as time went on, it cuts down on the amount of rediscovering you have to do.


Q: Right, right. That’s really interesting. That actually leads really nicely to this last little set of questions, which is this distinction between how you would define successful writing in your specific workplace in your job, as opposed to how you would’ve defined successful writing as a student.


A: Successful writing as a student would be, you got an A or better on the paper. Successful writing is you did not fail the class [chuckle]. Successful writing in the workplace is, I don’t have to write the same thing more than once.


Q: Interesting. That’s great.


A: Like if– a problem that comes up often enough is– I’ll use an example. In our offices we have phones that are, they’re voice over IP phones, so they’re connected to the network, and you’re delivering voice services over the network. In addition to being connected to the network, they also draw power from the cable that you plug in the back, the network cable that you plug in, it’s called power over ethernet. We’ve run into an issue where the switch that they’re plugged into stops granting power over ethernet. And it’s really interesting how it manifests because, we’re not sure what triggers it, but when you plug a phone in, or if a phone’s already plugged in and getting power, it’ll continue to get power. But if you disconnect it, and then try and plug it back in, it won’t be newly granted power over ethernet. And there’s a negotiation that has to take place of, “Hey, I’m a device that needs power,” and the switch has to say, “Okay, you’re a device that needs power. How much power do you need?” and so on and so forth. And that negotiation, that transaction just doesn’t happen, we’re not entirely sure why. And the fix winds up being, is very simple, just go and reboot the switch that it’s connected to. But it’s one of those things where I’ve had to explain that same problem multiple times. And it’s never, I will say that, I’ve never had to explain it multiple times to the same person. So that sort of a kind of limited success, in that it’s an easily understood thing to the point where you don’t have to tell a person more than once, “Did you try rebooting the switch it’s connected to?” But that’s just an example of a problem that comes up often enough that, “Oh, have you tried rebooting the switch?” and more generally in IT it’s like, “Have you tried turning it off and on again?”


Q: [chuckle] Would you say that you’re a successful workplace writer?


A: I would say the reason that I’ve been able to climb from going as a contractor on the help desk, to full time on the help desk, to moving over to networking as a technician, to a year and a half later, moving into an engineering role– I think a lot of that success has been on the strength of my writing, because I feel I explain things well, in a way that’s approachable to the audience that I’m writing to, that I handle customers fairly well, and can gauge like what level of detail they want, what solution will be satisfactory to them. And a lot of that is just being able to communicate effectively.


Q: Yeah, absolutely. Great! Thank you.


A: Yep.

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