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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Software Developer

Computers & Technology, uncategorized

1:06

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

A: Wow. Um, so I am a senior principal engineer and senior director of visualization solutions at Intel corporation. Oh, and it’s been–

Q: Ballpark’s fine.

A: Thirty five years.


Q: Okay, and of that time, how long have you been in your current field?

A: Um, interesting how you would say that. Probably– depends on what you mean by current field, but in software development and whatever, whole time.

Q: Whole time? Great, thank you. Can you provide a brief description of what your primary job functions are?

A: So I manage a team of engineers, software developers, who develop graphics rendering and visualization software used mainly for two purposes: one is to make animated movies and special visual effects using a technique called ray tracing, which is algorithmically something, a compute task that models the physics of light, so you can get photorealistic things out of it, and secondly, scientific visualization used on high-performance computing supercomputers across the world for visualizing and seeing 3D models of processes and effects and cosmology and the weather and all that stuff. So the two things are kind of related, in particular in that in the last three/four years the ray tracing side of things, the need to actually see these processes more like a human sees photographs ever has actually come about, and it gives more insight into the data, like fibers attaching to a molecule, or things like that. So while it probably makes sense in the movies, because you’re trying to match, it actually makes a ton of sense in scientific vis–

Q: So this has applications in all kinds of different disciplines then?


A: It actually does. Gaming companies use our software, Dreamworks, Pixar, Illumination use it for making their movies, but I also work with Stephen Hawking’s team to watch black holes collide – things you can’t physically see but know physically are happening in the universe.

Q: Wow that’s incredible. Could you estimate, basically in an average week, what percentage of your job requires you to write? So zero to 25 percent, 25 to 50, 50 to 75, or 75 to 100?

A: I’m probably not going to use the right one; it’s right around 50 percent. Actually, most of the time I spend writing. So, it’s 50 to 75 I would say.

Q: Okay, great, excellent. What forms or types of writing are you most often asked to complete? Any particular modes or audiences, for example memos, emails, reports, proposals, those kinds of things?

A: Right. Yeah, audiences are varied, from communicating more deeply what I just told you, so lots of Powerpoint but with writing and visuals. And the audience can be technical sales people at Intel, it can be NASA Goddard, who I just visited [chuckle], so it can be NASA large supercomputing centers, or these same companies I talked about, Dreamworks, things like that. Internally also, I have a foot in the technology and the business end of what we do, so senior management’s VPs at Intel, present to them at well.

Q: Sure. So when you’re talking say, specifically or writing to sales folks at Intel, are you basically trying to express to them how they can market this technology, or what’s–?

A: Yes, that, and also, there’s one piece of thing about the technology that we do that is non-intuitive, which is, we do all our great visualization and everything on the processor, not a graphics processing unit or a GPU. So everybody thinks GPUs are by far the best thing for visual processing, but for the type of processing we do, they are not, the Intel CPU is. So we help enable Intel products that are– now Intel has GPUs, but they’re normally not very powerful or not in very powerful processors, from my perspective – I’m not saying Intel processors aren’t powerful – I’m in the data center group, so where your computer there might have two or four cores, sometimes if your boss will upgrade you, you might get six cores, I work with computers with 56 cores, and the technology that we use does require that hard performance to get that quality and the visual effect because as I said, we are essentially doing physics processing, and then turning it into a visual as well.

Q: And so then, and again, you don’t have to go into any details with your meeting with NASA, but when you are meeting with an organization like that, is that similarly sort of sales focused, in the sense that you’re trying to get them to use or participate in a certain process, or is it more informational in that they’re after you to help explain processes?

A: It’s always a little of both. I think again, with my technology, because of that non-intuitiveness– so I will tell you a little bit about my NASA visit.

Q: Sure, whatever you’re comfortable with.

A: There’s multiple NASA major sites, this one’s here in the Washington area, NASA Goddard it’s called. There’s also one called NASA Ames, right out in San Francisco area. NASA Ames completely uses our technology up and down. I was showing the NASA Goddard people what the NASA Ames was doing with our technology. The NASA Goddard people hadn’t heard of our technology, I was introducing it to them for the first time, while NASA Ames had used it for four years, five years, six years, something like that, heavily. So I was educating that their own organization used it, but in a sense selling as well, to say like, “Hey, you know, maybe you guys could benefit like the other guys do.” There’s all these benefits to it. And as a more engineering-focused person, I’m not going to sell them a bill of goods or anything, I’m just going to tell them, “This is how it works, this is why I think it’s good, these are the pieces of how you could use your system with this.” So it’s education with a sales twist I guess. You’re trying to get somebody to understand that you’ve maybe got the greatest thing since sliced bread, but maybe they need to see the sliced bread, you know, maybe they’re used to the other. So it’s a little bit of both whenever I’m talking to anyone.

Q: Sure. Great, that’s really helpful. So, we’ve maybe covered a little bit of this but, and maybe you can use the same example if you’d like, but could you walk us through the process of maybe one specific recent project that you’ve had, kind of going from the time that either assignments are given to you, or the assignment is sort of formulated, what kind of preparation you do, what kind of steps you take in your writing to see the project through to completion?

A: Okay. Well there’s– one of the reasons, so I, I mean whether this is recorded or not is fine, do you want to talk about the books I’ve written, or do you want to focus on what I do day to– you know, are you going to jump to the books, or do you want me to introduce those to you?

Q: Sure, if you’d like to, yeah.

A: Okay. So because the process of the books that I’ve been involved in writing, to me was really interesting, and also very, very detailed. While the content was detailed, the actual process of making sure that that book came out was– one, I have a writing partner, James Rinders, who we hope joins you, and James had written books before, so that was very helpful to me. And then once I understood his background and his perspective, that’s basically a huge learning process, but we mapped out everything. We would sit down, write a bunch of stuff down, you know, white boards, all that kind of stuff. But then we would turn it into an Excel spreadsheet, that– the process of writing a book, for me, after years and years of I think pretty successful software development in a variety of fields, was the most detailed – not the writing part – the saying, “this has to be done by here,” because we’re talking 20-25 chapters, 600-800 page book, deeply technical, but the writing part was close to the easiest. I mean, you would get writers block and all that stuff, but at other times you would just flow and be able to do it. And that was also challenging and enlightening, you wrote and rewrote and rewrote, and then we would share it back and forth. But to me, the thing was the de– was so interesting and unexpected, was the level of detail that we had to go through. Like, if you’re not done on this day, and we were aligning, most of our books were aligned to the release of an Intel product. So we were pre-writing it, and getting the product– so we were writing stuff about pre-launch products– if you don’t know how people build processors and everything, there’s a thing called a stepping, and almost always there’s at least two steps, if not three or four. And by stepping, we mean like, we build one, or we build 100, put them in computers, and try to make them work. And then you find out if there’s a problem, if there’s a performance problem, for high-performance computing, performance is everything, right? So anyway, we were in this process of dealing with the fact that we had a pre-production product that we were trying to write the production manual for. Not really manual, but the production, sort of a technical English version of how to use this thing, and then were learning how to use it as we did it. But the, as I said, so this was all aligned with, “well, product will launch here, we need the book to launch here,” and the detail behind that was really something. We met every week, we met for an hour, hour and a half, just going over the spreadsheet, not writing.

Q: Sounds like a ton of project management.

A: Exactly. Project management up the you know what. We used Excel, I mean Excel was perfect for what we wanted to do. But we would end up sheet after sheet, and we’re here, and then a couple of times, we had other collaborators, we were more editors. So we did two books that were a collective, and managing all those people, one book we had 60 some odd contributors, like multiple per chapter, because of their different expertise, and getting everything from, “well we want to put all your pictures in the thing,” we had to actually program manage getting a headshot for everybody. So it’s very rewarding, but if you’re going to approach doing a book, any kind of book, but in the case of a technical book where you would think, “Well, this person’s a guru, they’re just going to write it, and maybe they need an editor to help them write it,”– interestingly, we both were pretty good at English, I had a Catholic upbringing, all that stuff. So we did have editors who helped us, but they were more asking us questions like, “Should you say it this way or that way?” But anyway, all those books were a project similar in that vein. So I found that really personally interesting when I engaged in the writing. Now in the daily writing of like emails or preparing Powerpoint slides or whatever, the key thing is to think about the message that you’re trying to send. And I don’t always do this, I’m not perfect at it. Often in this hustle-bustle engineering world, you’re trying to get stuff out the door and meet customer demands and all this kind of stuff, sometimes you forget that, and it’s not that you get in trouble, it’s that you end up in a thread back and forth, like, “Oh do you mean this or do you mean that? Do you mean this, do you mean that?” So but for peers, executives, and again, like NASA or whatever, you really have to think about, “What do I want the result to be?” and then work from there. Often you just say, “Oh I know everything about this,” and you just start writing, you think about the education part, but really in the end, if you walk out the door, are they going to forget everything? Usually it’s the classic, leave them with one, two, or three call-to-actions, or just, “I hope you got this.” So that’s one, this is not me, but a manager that I had who’s actually a good friend as well says, “Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em, tell ‘em what you told ‘em,” [laughter].

Q: That’s perfect [laughter]. That’s perfect.

A: And that’s a good way, you know, it’s not always every time the right way, but think if that is what you need to do, yeah.

Q: So it sounds like you have a lot of diverse writing experiences. So in the book writing world, when you’re doing this heavy collaboration and project management, and then in your sort of managerial role, when you’re kind of maybe giving directives or sort of setting the agenda, do you find that you prefer collaborative writing versus like, when you get to be the point person? Or do you see similarities or stark differences between when you’re in that sort of collaborative author mode, versus when you’re kind of in control of–

A: Yeah, I think there’s actually differences, yeah, I think, yeah, your role of the moment, right? Sometimes, you know, as a manager or technical leader or whatever, you do need the combination of listening to all the inputs but making a decision. Or you’ve already heard all the inputs and something new comes in and you know what to do. And you’re always balancing a sense of urgency with a sense of correctness. If you can get them both, sense of urgency and correct, usually you should go for it, right? Or at least move the ball forward, if it were, and you know, beg forgiveness later. Sometimes you have to do that. Other times it’s the worst thing to do. You have to listen and collaborate. On any kind of book paper – the other thing that my team does is academic papers, even though we’re a corporation, we do the equivalent of academic papers, we submit them to conferences, all that kind of stuff – and those are always, I haven’t seen one paper from my group that didn’t have at least two people, they’re almost never individual, and they like it that way. With a book, I think I possibly could write one myself now, but I still, just, I happened to get a collaborator who we really, we both thought alike, but we thought differently enough that we could you know, finish each other’s sentences, which sometimes you have to do in a book. And if it’s technical/engineering oriented, you basically always need someone to check your work. You know, always, if you want to be credible, it has o look credible, and you can just [speaker makes sound effect 17:06] fly it out there. So it really depends on the circumstances, I would say lean toward collaboration more. When I work with my team and everything, I don’t consider myself a dictator, I get all the input and everything. Now I sometimes drive them to do stuff, but it’s based on what they’ve done already, so usually they agree with me when I like pick a particular project or whatever. So for instance, the annual supercomputing conference is coming up in Dallas in November, and since we’re so visual, our software and everything, it’s great for demos, it’s great for in the booth, and you can show real live stuff. I tend to listen– most cases we try to get external partners, like the Texas Advanced Computing Center, which an NSF supercomputer, Argonne National Laboratory is going to partner with us, and we use their data and stuff. But one thing is, it’s one, hard to actually get agreement, to use that data, scientific data sometimes is held close, and then it’s brought out to the public, so we’re kind of in there. I often suggest, like we’re going to do one of these, you know, the structure of the demo, how the booth’s going to look I often do myself, but then, and say like, “Hey, you know, we’re going to do this,” but then I spread it among the team members to shepherd it to the end, so.

Q: Interesting. So, this kind of brings us luckily to our next question. You talked about how early on, you know, if you think of like, you know,  tapping a guru to write a technical book, you think it might kind of be easy because they have obviously the knowledge base and the technical skill, but you’ve also detailed like how there’s so much more that goes into actually writing than just having the knowledge base, so how did you know how to do the kinds of writing that you’re doing? It’s obvious that you have obviously the technical skill and experience, but how did you know how to then be able write about that stuff in a way that’s effective for your audience and with your collaborators?

A: Well, I mean, I reach back a little to my, you know, education kind of forced, at least the Catholic schools are known for that. I don’t want to necessarily say that public schools aren’t or whatever, but that focus in the end was the right thing, you know, for me. You really end up kind of communicating in various ways, a lot through writing. And having that confidence in writing I actually think is extremely important to get up in front of an audience and speak, which I now do fairly regularly, which I was horrible at at first. Even you know, but, kind of recognizing the key things in the writing, you know, the plot, whatever the, I guess the messaging is the plot, you know, that kind of thing. So you still kind of, you know, if you engage in that educational form, you have a start, but I do think you have to branch out from just– you’re forced these days to branch out into like I said, like a technical paper, you know, as you get in master’s or whatever you’re now writing. You know, whether you’re a biology PhD like my son is – he’s a writer/editor, he does all this similar stuff – because if you can’t communicate your knowledge, you’re basically going to be locked in– it’s fine if you’re a super mathematician– I remember one time I was with a different company – I won’t say any specifics, – but we were going to hire a math guru, and we talked to him and we just said, “If we hire him we’re going to just shove him in a room, and give him formulas,” and you know, write down what he wanted to do. But he was not going to communicate anything, we would have had to communicate for him. So there are people who are very, very good, very [inaudible 21:22] but in the end, you’re going to have to tell somebody what you did in order to get a raise [chuckle] even, or to keep your job. But from that standpoint, you know, there’s just a lot of experience. Some of it’s trial and error, some of it’s like, “Oh, you’re a new manager,” whatever, I’ve been doing it for a while, but when you first go into management, you actually don’t realize how much writing you’re going to have to do, and communicating you’re going to have to do. You kind of say like, “Okay, hopefully it’s not the Peter principle, right?” But you need to think about that, you know, what’s the message? Who am I communicating to? Who’s the audience? All that stuff is extremely important and extremely easy to forget.

Q: Excellent. Again, brings us to our next point. Can you think of a time, maybe early in your career, where you felt unprepared as a writer at work? Is there a kind of task or skill that you do in your current job that maybe you hadn’t been asked to do before, or you didn’t feel confident in?

A: Oh, I think I would say, again I think a lot of people don’t realize this as writing, but translating words– I’m kind of verbal, and I’m somewhat verbal in my writing, I’m not as terse as I should be, it’s one of the little management criticisms I get. Which meant, taking your knowledge and putting it tersely on a Powerpoint slide was, so when I– this is only the last ten years, I joined Intel ten years ago. And I was mostly used to face-to-face conversational stuff, the occasional – I don’t know if you call it memo – you know, emails, basically emailed memos, basically where you know, “We’re going to do this, we’re going to do that, here’s the status.” You know, status reports, stuff like that, where the detail is needed, you know, you could go a little crazy, the occasional trip report, that kind of thing. But when I had to, I was like, “I can’t do it.” I took this job, it was meant to be sort of a communication-oriented job, and the one thing in the whole interview process and everything they failed to mention was, all our writing, all our communication, almost everything is with Microsoft Powerpoint. Everything has to be boiled down into again, same manager, “Give me three bullet points with no more than, five words is better, eight words max, boom boom boom. And that better be your whole message,” and everything else like that. I was like lost. I was just like, “I’m uncomfortable with this.” I was extremely uncomfortable because I like to get the whole truth out, you know, and nothing but the truth, but to do that in five words? You know, how do you do that? And I still struggle a little bit with it today, but I’m much better now, I’m now comfortable. For instance, I gave a Powerpoint presentation to NASA; of course the good news is is over the ten years I’ve got a whole boatload now of presentations in different forms and stuff, so you do kind of want to get that collective thing, but occasionally I have to start from scratch and do something and it’s challenging. But for the NASA thing, for instance, I prepared for an hour on Saturday to go in front of one of the top customers, you know, or partners/customers in the world, rocket scientists literally, and I just did it in an hour, and you know, comfortable enough with what I’ve done. Other times you can take weeks to craft that thing and hone it, and I start doing silly little things like, “Is there a way to remove a word from this?” you know? And you’re there, can you make it either more powerful or communicate it with more white space? It turns out that people hate, when they see a Powerpoint, to see all words on it. At the same time, I do lots of imagery on mine, but that can be overdone too. You know, you have a pyramid that does this that and the other thing, and you think that just gives the message, and people go, “Huh?” So some of the best ones I’ve seen have been these, the only faintest imagery. I’m all about imagery, so I use a lot, but yeah, like the, “line one, concentrate on this,” you know, the build down there. Other things– people tend to hate builds, but if you use them right– you know what I mean by a build, right? Where you really could do it all in one slide, but the slide builds up over time.

Q: Sure.

A: The best builds actually are the ones that have little very little fanciness to them, and just put another bullet point, another bullet point. And again, there’s two sides of that coin, because as I’ve said before, “tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em whatever.” Often it’s good in certain cases it’s good for them to be reading this live while you talk, other times they might read bottom up [chuckle], where your message is down here, they’re reading bottom up, and you’re talking about this. So sometimes if you want to lead them somewhere, it’s better, if you’re going to do almost an educational, if it’s more educational you’re going to lead somebody somewhere, then builds are typically good. If you’re reinforcing a core message that they either know or they want to be refined, then sometimes it’s better have everything up there.

Q: Great, thank you. So you’ve talked a little bit about what you’ve already done to overcome those issues, but one thing that struck me when you were talking about sort of your initial discomfort in boiling down something to five or eight words – did you find that your discomfort came from like, your fear of losing, because you’re taking a really complex idea and putting it in so few words, that you were going to misinform somehow? Or was it more kind of in the communication side that you felt like you weren’t able to express yourself or your ideas or your mission as efficiently in those few words?

A: Yeah, I think there’s two things that I’m still, I won’t say struggling, but I still am conscious of it. The other thing with this kind of bullet point communication, if you want to call it that, is the, you’ll often hear somebody, particularly a senior manager or somebody like that, say, “Give me very little, just give me the three words, and just, let’s just talk to it.” I actually found that very difficult. I am very much reading the words on the slide, and then, you know, embellishing. Where sometimes it was, you know, like “What? Question mark,” and then you just, and you know, that’s not going to get you anywhere [chuckle], that you can’t leave it behind and any of that, and you just have a conversation. Again, it’s all about the context, it’s all about where you are. But I still struggle with that. What I find I don’t do too much is actually memorize the slides. The other thing I don’t do, which apparently is really really bad – I almost never rehearse, ever. I just wing it when I go. And that works two ways. One, the rehearsal would make me more nervous that I’m trying to fit within a certain thing, but for me, people say that I’m more real and more enthusiastic when I haven’t done a rehearsal, you know what I mean? So anyway, this is me. I know tons of people including senior managers and stuff, all the time– I actually was good friends with Intel’s number one senior executive, you know, helped them present. He was a good friend of mine, I had him come into my staff and everything, he was there like, “Oh no no, you rehearse four times the amount of time than it takes for you to do, you know, if you have an hour presentation, you rehearse a minimum of four hours,” literally in front of mirrors and all the kind of stuff. And I just can’t do it, my head can’t do it. But so, anybody who reads this, you still might want to rehearse [chuckle] but for me, I found it makes me, people’s feedback normally is is like, “Wow, you were into it!” or “You’re passionate about what you do,” or whatever, “It felt real,” so for me, that’s what we’re–

Q: I find that, for myself too, when I teach, you know, just have just a basic outline of a lecture, rather than have the whole thing in my head, because you’re– if it’s all in your mind already how you’re going to say it, what you’re going to say, you kind of get tripped up in the rehearsal, and you’re not thinking about the things you’re saying. It becomes rote, and you’re not engaged, so you can’t be flexible, you can’t change course, but you also can’t really show a lot of passion about the thing, because you’re not discovering the thoughts as they’re coming–

A: Right, you’re just worried about it, “Did I say everything I was supposed to say?” even though it’s your talk, right?

Q: Exactly, exactly.

A: So, yeah. So that’s one thing I do. But the other thing is is, I do need those clues, I mean, one of the worst things that can happen to me still today is that I physically can’t see the slide, like it’s behind me. I’ve seen people do that, you know, the Bill Gates of the world go in there, you know, and sometimes you have the thing in front of you or whatever, but I really need to see that slide to keep me on track, but then I’ll talk to it. So, anyway.

Q: Great, thanks. So you’ve hit on this already with your book writing and the collaboration, but for Intel, right now, does anyone specifically oversee your writing, or are you kind of– ?

A: Well, at Intel, this will be interesting for you, the people who oversee my writing the most are Intel Legal.

Q: Okay, interesting.

A: Because Intel’s a large corporation, has been involved in, you know, lawsuits because of, whether it’s impressions or whatever, of monopoly, that kind of thing, we actually have to be very careful about utilizing– there’s a couple things we have to be careful about. Not losing or genericizing our trademarks, you know, things like that, so, there’s various trademarks– Intel itself is trademarked, and utilizing that properly within the scope of legal trademarks is usually reviewed. So mostly it’s that. The content itself is not reviewed, you know, they might come back and say, “Boy that was dumbest sentence I ever had.” But they rarely will do that. They’ll just say, “You used Intel wrong here, you used trademark xyz wrong.” We have tons of trademarks, you know, Xeon processors, you always have to use– there’s all these rules. Like you have to say “Intel Xeon processors”, you can’t say Intel Xeon, you can’t just say Xeon, you can’t, you know, all this stuff. And so we have to keep track of that. I’ve learned a lot about that, so mine are normally there. And as far as a monitored no, it’s my job to get– so a review is expected, but it’s my job to either have a peer or somebody on my team work together with me. So I normally don’t do all my own stuff and then go. Someone reviews it somewhere, not because they’re overseeing me, because that is one somewhat standard, and two, the sort of collaborative practice. So I would always have one of my team members, and vice versa. I normally review my team members’ stuff, particularly when they’re going to present like a paper or stuff like that. Actually, I’m required to review their papers, but only for technical like, they accidentally spilled by some IP, some trademark, not trademark but a trade secret, or something not yet patented that we want to do. I normally do it for that. I actually let them collaborate themselves and get the English right and everything, I just sort of– one, I don’t have all that time to do that in what else I do, but for the most part, yeah, Marketing will review when it’s like a conference or anything like that, so it’s, again, depends on the circumstances. For instance, the stuff I did today for NASA, nobody reviewed it, but I used slides that had been reviewed, just the stream and everything I did. So in that weird way, if it’s been legally reviewed, I can use any slide I want in any order I want. It’s not the order with which it is, it’s, “is this legally correct?” And then I can usually do that comfortably. I occasionally go, “Don’t write this one,” [chuckle] no, I try to avoid that, but sometimes you’re asked to do something a day in advance. You know, “Go talk to GM,” or something. And you just go like [speaker makes sound effect 35:05], “this is what you’re going to get.”

Q: So it seems like Legal is mostly judging success of your writing in terms of, does it follow the sort of established protocols for trademarks and legality, all that kind of stuff?

A: Yes, yeah, occasionally, and then if it’s a sort of a Intel-sponsored public event – again we’re actually about to sponsor, you know, be in a separate hotel from the conference and do an Intel thingy – something like that will be reviewed inside out. But mostly they call it legal review. But the person who manages legal review is usually a marketing or communications specialist, like a PR person. They will actually review it for, “Is this just messed up?” So they normally will then come back and comment.

Q: So they’re maybe focused a little more on the persuasiveness of the writing– ?

A: The message. So they’ll come back and say, “This would be better,” particularly if the, there’s usually like a marketing or a sales owner for any of these conferences or one or more, and they typically get some of that stuff. The other thing we write a lot, just so you know, with a technical product, that most people don’t see, even most people at Intel don’t see it, but the people in the know do, are what’s called Q and A’s. So when we’re going to announce a product, or we’re going to have a bunch of demos or whatever, there’s this 40-page thing that says, “If somebody asks this, what’s the answer? If somebody asks this, what’s the answer?” all that stuff. And technically all the people who go the show and represent Intel enough will have read that. But normally they just, and then we document all that. So I might have ten things that I have to provide answers for for the Q and A. Ninety-seven percent of the time if they hear a question in that realm, they go, “Go over, talk to Jim,” [laughter] so they normally won’t answer it even though they’re supposed to. But anyway, that’s actually an important – at least a corporation like Intel – an important aspect of the marketing, sales, and technology. Writing all that down in 100 percent, you know, whole truth fashion, while still having to consider the audience, is a bunch of sales and marketing people, I guess many of them are engineers themselves, who only have a certain amount of time to do things. So again, you have to balance it. But it’s a different style of writing, you know, think what somebody might ask. Often you have the same question, but written in different ways. And sometimes you even give a different answer even if it’s the same question, or sometimes you say, “the answer’s above there,” because you realize, you know, so, it’s pretty interesting. The Q and A’s typically have the same context or same question, but in a different manner, you know, words moved around in how you can question, and you do your best to put two or three of those down for not every question, but a question that could be asked in a funny way.

Q: Sure, yeah, that’s really interesting. How long – and this may vary because you’ve talked about a lot of different kinds of diverse writing projects that you do – how long typically do you have to complete a writing project? Deadlines you typically work in?

A: Yeah, I would say, we are, for one of these conferences or something like that, it can be, probably the shortest is two to four weeks. And often it’s 16 weeks, even if it’s a Powerpoint presentation or whatever. Again, because of one, if every presentation has to be read by an Intel lawyer, believe it or not there aren’t that many Intel lawyers [chuckle]. There’s a lot of them, but there’s not enough to do it, so they have to get them in advance. We also have this notion that I don’t think is a problem revealing of, 50 percent, 75 percent, 90 percent, and then 100 percent done. So 50 percent is normally the outline/abstract and a flow of slides with maybe the titles on them, and then 75 percent in to 90 percent is pretty close, that’s usually what’s legally reviewed, then it comes back and then it’s, you know, made that way. That’s not for everything, but that’s for one of these Intel public things. And my favorite one which is, there was one Intel event that they held yearly, they don’t hold it anymore, where they had actually the legally qualified, they weren’t lawyers, but legally qualified to review stuff. So I often I had presentations that were 102 percent [laughter] because I would go, “Well, I put this in two weeks ago, and you know, the world changed or something, and I want to add this,” and they actually knew that that would happen, that was fun. So occasionally I get 101 percent or something like that.

Q: That’s excellent. So you mentioned your experience as a student in Catholic school, and it being writing-intensive. Can you think of the kinds of writing that you were asked to create when you were a student, whether high school, college, or whatever, and in what ways do you think your college writing experience, or even if you want to go earlier than that, prepared or did not prepare you for the kind of stuff you do in the workplace now in terms of writing?

A: Umm, yeah I mean obviously grade school through high school, the book report was one of the driving things. When we went towards mid high school is when they would give you more of a research paper type thing, you know, “This is what you’re going to encounter in college.” Or like a creative writing thing or something like that. And then into college, you ended up having that. I remember when I was in high school, and I went to a public high school actually – so I went to grade school Catholic and then public high school – umm, I did feel, obviously it wasn’t hugely prepared, but at least I had seen one or two of these things where you have to do an outline, and structure with the outline, you know, begin filling it in, conclusion, and the whole kit and kaboodle. And in the end, even in bachelor’s degree, I had a seminar course that I needed to pass in order to get out, it was a business management seminar course, and I had to do a whole study on actually a technology company, and I would say– so part of that course was surveying a variety large businesses, it was so that you could do some kind of market analysis when you got out. So the teacher kind of helped with that, but mostly they counted on you having the structure and everything, and I got an A. And it was one of those classic all-nighters, you know, three days before I’m supposed to put on a cap and gown [laughter], you know, typing it up, you know, writing, and then typing, and you know, because I am old enough that it was a typewriter that I was working with, right before computers became super useful in that respect, word processors. And yeah, I felt that that education got me to that point. What I would say though, I ended up mostly going into software development and everything else like that, and for mainly I wrote code for a while, and would have to do a little bit of design, a little bit of writing. Actually now I’m going to reverse myself. There was one big project I did where I wrote a 40-page design document which kind of was like writing the book, but I actually didn’t draw on that until you just reminded me, but I remember this design, “This is who this thing works, and this is how it’s going to work,” and defining the programming interface and all that kind of stuff. So you, yeah, actually and it’s a very similar structure. So I would say there’s some measure of preparedness that I had probably I would say, particularly for a technical person, I’m actually guessing, I would guess and I didn’t have this, is something like a creative writing course actually would be good because of the whole thing about the messaging and everything that I was saying – I think I learned that more on the job and more in response to not doing it well. But if someone is more looking for a technical job I would not eschew things like creative writing. I don’t think you have to take seven years of it or whatever, but definitely take a creative writing course and force yourself– and if you’re going to be technical at all with a research bent, then you’re going to have to write papers. And so I think gaining any of that experience, you know, get over that fear. I would say for me, I kind of eschewed that. I was, every course technical, every, you know, whatever, catching up although again, I had these course where you’re required to do it, which was great. But I think the flip is creative writing. I think that that may actually make some sense in the technical engineering world, just that structure that you have to do to– because I know it’s really hard, actually. I know to be creative you actually, you have to pound your head against the wall. So anyway.

Q: That’s good, that’s something I try to convince my students of. And maybe they’ll believe it coming out of your mouth [laughter]. So you’ve hit on this a little bit, what’s at stake in the writing that you do? I know you talked about like bumping into legal and marketing and stuff like that, but what would you say are the stakes for the kind of writing that you’re doing for your job?

A: Yeah, there’s two or three that I’m thinking of. So one is simply getting it right – effective communication. Clear, as concise as possible, do what I say not what I do, and you know, making sure that you understand the point you’re getting across. Think about that in advance, and you will forget it multiple times, but go back to that. Another thing I would say also in the business setting and the higher up you get, it’s often a good idea to wait ten minutes, particularly if you’re responding to something and you feel anxious about it, either negative, like you’re about to type something negative or whatever. Think about it, and I’ve screwed that up too, it usually doesn’t work out too bad, but it can. Frankly these days you really have to be careful with any discriminatory language at all, not because you should use it, but you just have to make sure that you don’t accidentally use it. Particularly if you are not discriminatory at all, just be careful, you know, with making sure you consider the population that may do it. The other thing, that this is highly related, is, don’t necessarily think that only the four people that you sent your email to will actually see it. Not because the corporate gods are looking at everything, because they may forward it, okay? So, you’re often writing an email as a message to somebody else who’s not on the line, that you expect them to forward it to. They’re not required to, but that happens. So just, anyway, that sort of goes back to the, you’re writing to four people who you think are colleagues, but personal friends, you have to be careful. And then, for Intel, like I said the legal thing is a big deal. If you are going to write something disparaging about a competitor or something, again, that sort of goes back to discriminatory, but in the context of Intel, we’ve been put in front of you know, judges, for being anticompetitive, or whatever the right thing is. So you know, those are the stumbling blocks. But usually in the end, it’s about truly effective communication. The other things are just, you either learn or you, you know, they’re more I guess somewhat mechanical in a way, just make sure you keep your head on straight. But yeah, I mean, I think the other thing for young people is to realize that corporations, even big corporations like Intel, are surprisingly flat. So you might have just joined, you got out of college, bachelor’s, master’s, whatever, you join some company, some VP who’s two steps away from the CEO, even if you’re in 100,000 person company like me, there’s a good chance they’re going to hear about your stuff, okay? For good for bad.

Q: Wow. Right. So that adds stakes to everything you’re doing.

A: Yeah, so your personal career stakes typically, you know, you’re not obviously not completely on the line, you know, if you’re a little huffy with your manager or something like that, or we often talk about bringing out the elephants in the room, if there’s something that needs to be said but you’re afraid management will take it the wrong way or whatever, sometimes you do need to say it. But you know, again, make sure that you’re confident that you’ve done the do diligence. That probably for a young person, it’ll be, “Oh of course this is wrong, or right,” or whatever, just take a moment, think about, “Are there other ways that this could be read? And did I do all the do diligence behind what I’m about to say?” You know, like, “Hey we should go into the gaming market!” or whatever, when the company doesn’t do that, or whatever. Now that may be the greatest thing, you actually might be right, that might be the elephant in the room. Just make sure when the exec says, “Yeah, but what about” and they’re completely right, and you’re [speaker makes sound effect 51:24] like that. So just, again, that’s not afraid to do that, because that’s actually how you move forward in your career, just one more, you know, extra thought, “Could there be a different way this is presented?”

Q: Sure, great. That’s fantastic. What would you say the most difficult thing about writing in your field or your particular position right now would be?

A: Um, one, it is most difficult? It’s not really difficult, the legal thing is more of a hassle, I think. Really it boils down to the sense of urgency, or the, basically, you were asking me how often, you know, what kind of time I do. Sometimes, you know, that’s a real mix bag for conscientious writing your presentations or whatever, technically you’re supposed to be told in advance, like, “In three weeks you’re going to go to meeting X and do Y,” right? That’s like 90 percent of the time, 85 to 90. Ten to 15 percent of the time, it’s you know, “We know you’re the expert in this area,” or, “We know you know about this,” or, “You complained about something, we want to hear it,” and it’s the next day. And so it’s more the, all those considerations I just said here, is when they get squashed, where you’re not comfortable anymore, that you have done your do diligence and everything because of it. Now typically, in the right circumstances, you can, not fluff it off, but you can just say like, “Consider that I’ve only had a day to,” you can say that, okay? But sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you’ve been invited to a key customer technical meeting, where you’re the expert ,and you’re supposed to come in as if you thought of everything for the last seven years, and you’re just telling them that. Where actually you only had, the person said the night before, “Oh crap, this person should be there.” So that’s a difficult circumstance that you sometimes have to go through, and it works about 75 percent of the time, and 25 percent [chuckle] you get whacked. Just be aware of that, and again, have good relationships with your peers and your management who know that you are technically skilled and everything, and you just got kind of thrown under the bus.

Q: Right, yeah. Great, that brings us to the next um, has anyone helped you with your writing, either formally or informally, since you left school?

A: Oh yeah. I mean, well I would say again, James was very, very useful. I do think I had the basics, and I think maybe even he might say that I helped him. He helped me more, by the way. But yeah, the partners, collaborators, managers. A good manager will help you with this context, you know, this move for conciseness, powerful concepts, you know, I’ve definitely had managers, friendly peers, all that stuff. I think something I did learn after I left is this notion of collaboration, actually asking for help. Often you think you’ve been directed, particularly when you’re younger, your manager says, “Go such and so and do a trip report. Go out, meet a few customers, come back, give me a trip report, tell me what you found.” And you actually go do that and never had anybody read what you wrote or whatever, and you handed it to your manager. Other thing you can do is, typically when a manager wants that, he wants to forward it somewhere, just like I just said. So what you actually can do is, write up the outline, write a few key points, and hand it to the person who asked for it, and say, “I’m not done yet, but this is the direction I’m taking, is it okay?” So you feel like you’ve been dictated to or whatever, often the right approach back is just to say, “Can you just look at this, make sure I’m on the right path?” Actually it feels like that’s hard to do, or you don’t think of that, but that collaborative nature to– and then they’ll give you guidance, they actually feel good, they feel like a mentor as opposed to like a manager or whatever, and people like that. Now some people will be jerks, but that’s a very tiny percentage. So I would say, you know, even if you did everything I said here, creative courses, everything, “I’m good to go!” the review and the breadth of reviewers is actually something that’s, and again I forget it sometimes with timing or whatever, but it’s way better to pass it by either a friendly reviewer or the person who wants to see the end result. Because typically, particularly in the business world, they want to see the end result because it’s going to help them communicate, they don’t have all the time in the world. They’re giving you an opportunity, you know, and if they’re giving you that opportunity, and you have a good enough relationship, you can always just show it at 50 percent.

Q: Sure. That’s great, that’s fantastic to hear. Just a few more. How do you feel that you’ve most evolved or improved as a writer over the span of your career?

A: Oh I think that yeah, probably the biggest thing is, and again, I think this is where the creative writing is attempting to reduce the verboseness, which tends to turn something more powerful. The problem is, of course, if you overdo it, then it tends to be confusing, right? And then you might have a lot of big words in there and it doesn’t mean anything. But yeah, the notion of thinking about the message – really important. And then delivering that message in the fewest amount of words. And that’s not always the right thing to do, you know, you’ve got technical papers and things like that, where you literally have to prove that you know everything, you’re basically writing a proof, that’s a lot different than writing, not an opinion, but a fact-based communication. So I think the biggest thing that I look at when I write is trying to be more concise, and I’m still working on it, and I will be until my grave.

Q: Yeah, I think it’s always an ongoing process, but that’s fantastic. To what extent do you think writing is valued in your particular organization and then in your field as a whole?

A: That’s a great question. I think it is. I’ll give you one anecdote. You know, I think it is, but I also think it’s, in a way it’s expected, right? So there’s an expectation that everybody can do it, and at the same time, I think that everybody are very nervous about doing it, right? So there’s an expectation that you’re going to do it right. But for me, the biggest thing that shocks me is that, this is mostly for the books, when you have done a book like that– so after I did the first book, I didn’t realize that something was going to happen. So the book was Intel-oriented, it was sort of around an Intel technology, but it was a technical book. Intel wanted me to sign books [laughter]. They wanted to give away books, they would buy the books, we would go to these conferences, and then like I’m this weird kind of 15 minutes of fame celebrity? But what shocked me was the number of people who would line up and thank you, and shake your hand, and be thrilled, from all over the world. So for me, I just thought, well I mean, I’m happy I did the book, I think it does what it’s supposed to do, it educates, it talks about our thing or whatever, but actually the value to the community outside Intel was very high. So James and I would often – he was a pro at it because he had done it before – but again, when it first happened it was new to me. And I’ve done a total of four books at this point, and each one just shocked me. I went and did a talk in Seoul, South Korea, shortly after I did one of the books, I was talking in my technology area, but then they had arranged the book thing, and everyone in the conference, I mean it was a volunteer thing, but everyone in the conference lined up like out the door, and they’re like, I literally go like, “Are you sure that these people care that much about this?” [laughter]. So what I say is, is it is valued, it’s certainly valued, if you do it right, then it’s valued outside. It’s a very tiny, you know, I forget, I think I’ve sold maybe 10,000 books total, something like that? But when those people, and they were getting it for free, but they also could have walked away with the getting it free. But they were like, “Thank you,” and then they would say like, “Can I have one for my buddy?” That was always funny, like, “Uh, I know I only get one book, but Joe Blow had to be at something else or couldn’t come with me,” and sign it. So you would do that, it’s you know, both a nice gesture and kind of nice, but then throughout that conference, they’d like wave the book at you, and “Hi,” and you know it was, and anyway the bottom line is, is that’s my anecdote, not really about me, but about other people, of valuing somebody who took that time to do that.

Q: Exactly. You don’t always, and not in every field where you get that kind of like instant feedback.

A: Yeah, exactly, exactly.

Q: You know, if you spent your life writing scholarly stuff you’d [crosstalk]–

A: And we would, yeah, and we had like a website, you know, and occasionally we would get a question, but often we would get like, “Wow, I read chapter blah-blah-blah, and now I know more, and just wanted to let you know.” And so that was always fun.

Q: That’s great. Yeah, even just to have that quantifiable appreciation is [crosstalk]–

A: Yeah it’s really nice and I actually didn’t expect it. I actually thought it was, you know, at a way good for me, but also, mainly good for Intel in a way, I wrote it. I knew that it would be something I wanted to achieve, you know, a bucket list kind of thing, and yeah, when you asked that question, you know, that’s what I think of, of the response on the outside. And the same thing with, I know with the papers and stuff that my team– I’ve actually been co-author only on paper and my team has done otherwise, they’re really deeply technical, but those folks are, you know, sort of considered rock stars out in the world when they go and they do a presentation, and then people gather around you, and it’s– so even when you write something, if you write an important paper, seminal might be a strong word, but if you write an important paper that people get out of it, then they have very high praise for that. And the only reason they have high praise is because the paper communicated to them, it was written well. If it wasn’t written well, I won’t necessarily if they don’t have high praise if you’re a technology guru or whatever, but if it’s written well, then they respect you more.

Q: And it’s going to hit a lot more people too.

A: Exactly.

Q: Excellent. So very last question – how did you define successful writing when you were a student, versus how you maybe define successful writing now? And would you say that you consider yourself a successful workplace writer?

A: Okay. I think the student one’s easy and rote [laughter]. If I got a C minus, or a D plus, A, whatever, if that, and you know, I do think when the professor says something like “well written” or “liked it”, just that other little extra. You know, the A or B or whatever’s good, but if they say like, you know, circle something, “I really liked this part, you really got it.” So that was, I think that extra note maybe back, or even sometimes, you know, God forbid you had to read it in class, or you had to share it as a team member and a team member would say that, that’s good, because I don’t think people do have to do that. And now I think, yeah, the satisfaction’s a little less overt other than the one I just talked about it, you know, people wanting you to sign a book or something. But it, right or wrong, you left a meeting and they said, “Thanks, we really got it.” Or, for instance, my NASA meeting today is, is, “We’re going to download your software and start using it.” That’s, you know, that’s pretty good feedback. So, I think the answer is, is pretty successful, always working on it, stumble across those non-thinking mistakes a lot, not always, but you know, it is one of these things where I’ll have to go back and remember to do what I said to do. But I think yeah, I think it’s– sometimes all it takes is, you can tell when, there’s almost always a “thank you”, but when it’s a sincere thank you, when you really feel that, that’s when you get it, you did a presentation, you did a talk, you wrote something, or somebody goes like, “Wow that’s good, I really get it,” okay? And you don’t always get that, and very often you get this, “Ah, okay, thanks for presenting,” you know, “Checkmark done, Jim presented this week.” That’s sometimes what happens in the workplace. Other times when they think they’re going to give a checkmark, and they go like, “Wow, you enlightened me,” or whatever, or, “Wow, really thank you. We didn’t get it.” Hopefully you get that 30 percent of the time [chuckle]. I think if you do get it 30 percent of the time then you’re winning, yeah.

Q: Alright, thank you.

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Director of Customer Support

Business

Director of Customer Support

32:20

 

Q: So would you please state your job title and where you currently work?

 

A: Okay. My job title is I’m director of customer service, or customer support, and the name of the company that I work for is called Global Phone or GPhone.

Q: Great, and could you tell us just a little bit about what the company does?

 

A: We provide a business phone service, as well as calling cards.

 

Q: Excellent, okay. And how long has it been since you graduated from college?

 

A: I graduated in 1975, so over 40 years.

 

Q: Okay, great. And how long have you worked in your current field?

 

A: In the current field, I’ve been in this company since 2002. Previous companies I’ve been involved probably in customer support, also in a telecom type of environment, probably since, the maybe late ‘80’s/early ‘90’s. And just to go back to one of the questions, so my undergraduate degree was 1975, but my master’s degree was late ‘80’s, or early ‘90’s, I think. See, I can’t even remember at this point, but–

 

Q: That’s okay.

 

A: It’s been that long, long ago.

 

Q: That’s useful though. Okay, okay. And could you just provide sort of a brief description of your primary job functions?

 

A: I would say that it is to manage a small team of individuals or reps who also deal with customers, usually over the phone or over an email, as well as working with coworkers in trying to support the customer.

 

Q: Excellent, and could you estimate in an average week, what percentage of your job requires writing?

 

A: It’s probably maybe 30 percent, I’m going to say that most of my work is over the phone, you know, definitely communication is a large part of the role, but with the internet and emails, I’m starting to see less people necessarily just calling us. They will often send an email and we will communicate via email.

 

Q: Interesting, okay. And in addition to email, are there other types of documents that you write?

 

A: Hmm. I want to say, you know, at one point, definitely writing let’s say teaching documents, or learning manuals for people who are new on the job, but I would say most are– it’s primarily emails. But sometimes, as I say, training tools for coworkers.

 

Q: Okay. And if we just sort of think about the emails specifically, who are the primary audiences typically?

 

A: I want to say it’s the end user, so a customer.

 

Q: Perfect, okay. And what are the primary purposes most often of those types of emails?

 

A: It’s, I want to say, to update them on any information regarding troubleshooting with problems that they’re having, whether it’s a technical problem, or if it’s let’s say more accounting or business-related type of problem, so, and as well as, “Hey, how do you use the services?” So a lot of my job, at least I try to sort of use the email as an opportunity to teach the end user how to best use our services. And so–

 

Q: Gotcha, that’s really interesting, yeah. So could you walk us through the process of maybe a recent writing task? So even just an email – sort of start to finish, if you think about like one specific correspondence recently, how you began, if there’s any preparation or steps you take prior to writing, what that writing process looks like, and if there’s any sort of revision or editing that happens?

 

A: Umm, hmm, let me think. From beginning to end, I’m just trying to think of a scenario that would best describe it. So, I don’t know if we can skip to the next question, or if you want me to think about this for a couple of minutes?

 

Q: Sure, we can absolutely skip ahead. And if something comes to you and you want to go back to it, that’s great, yeah, totally fine.

 

A: Sure, okay.

 

Q: So how did you learn how to perform these types of writing that you do in your work?

 

A: I want to say here probably repetition was a big factor. So it’s, you know, I think a lot of it too is, “Hey, I have something written up already,” and I know what I need to communicate to the end user such that, “Oh, I have it already written, let me cut and paste, and let me edit the documents or the email such that it is customer-specific, or issue-specific.” But I would say that, generally speaking, you know a lot of times, a lot of the information is in fact something I’ve used before. And I just, you know, copy and paste it.

 

Q: That makes sense, yeah. Has there ever been a time in your career where you felt unprepared as a writer?

 

A: Hmm. I’m going to say that any time that there is an issue that is, let’s say more technical in nature, I will often either get somebody else to assist me, or really sort of assign it to, “Hey, this is the best person to respond.” So we have, let’s say IT type of people here, or engineers, who are better equipped to address those questions that are more technical in nature, especially if the recipient of that email is also somebody of a technical nature. So I would say in those instances, I don’t feel equipped, where I feel challenged in answering or writing something. So I want to say anything that’s highly technical, I–

 

Q: And you said, oh sorry–

 

A: N, go ahead.

 

Q: Oh I was just going to say, so you said, either you assign it, but sometimes you get help with it. What does that look like, if you ask for assistance with something like that?

 

A: I would say a lot of times, they will sort of write something out and again, I will cut and paste, and edit. So the content of anything technical probably originated with somebody else.

 

Q: Got it, that makes sense. And are there any other strategies or things that you did maybe when you were new to the job to get acquainted with this kind of writing, and to learn how to perform it?

 

A: Well, I think a lot of it too was it, there’s, you know, in terms of dealing with a customer, there’s often almost like a formula involved, in terms of, you know there’s a greeting and a closing at least. And so it’s, you know, that was always pretty standard, and it’s still standard to this day, where, “Hey, we receive an email.” I always, you know, “Dear so-and-so, thank you for the email.” And always try to close the email in terms of, “Hey, is there anything else we could do?” You know, getting that confirmation back from them, “Hey everything is closed, everything is done.” But, you know, trying to sort of almost look at what they’re asking about, and sort of, “Hey, let’s answer those questions that you have,” as sort of the body of my response. So, I mean, there are times when I’m, you know, when I see an email from somebody and it’s let’s say in a paragraph format. A lot of times I will break it out in terms of, here’s the question, and put “Q1: Here is the question from your verbiage, and here’s my answer to you, A1. And Q2.” So it’s easier I think for them to read, easier for them to understand, because it’s not in that paragraph format. So sometimes I do that, and it’s also a way for me to make sure, “Do I understand what the customer is asking about?” So it’s a way of rephrasing what they’re saying in a simple type of question, and then trying to respond in a, “Here is your question,” even if it’s, “Hey how much does this cost? That’s your question. A: This is how much it’s going to cost you, and stuff. What are the steps? Hey, I need to make a phone call, how do I dial? How do I use your service?” And try to outline it for them, step by step. Sometimes I’ll cut, you know– a lot of our customers there’s, you know, will go into our portals and try to do things, and I try to encourage that, because it allows them not to always rely on me. And I will sort of do a lot of cut and paste, and sort of embed pictures within my response back to them, and try to put things highlighted and, you know, circle it red, so they know this is where you need to focus. And you know, thinking, “Hey, not everybody is a learner by reading, there are some people who are learners by pictures.” And it also leaves them with that document again, so they can in fact do it themselves, if that opportunity comes up again. So it’s sort of definitely looking, whether it is an email or a phone call, as an opportunity to sort of, let me learn something about the caller or the person emailing me, and what is it that I can teach them? What information can I share with them such that, they use our service, and use it more than maybe they had used it before, as well as, making sure that they’re always calling, they’re not always emailing, because I’ve provided them some degree of tools to be able to fix their problems or utilize our services better.

 

Q: That makes a lot of sense, yeah, that’s really interesting. The next question is, does anyone oversee your writing?

 

A: Not really. Generally speaking, no. So I mean, there may have been times when I’ve asked somebody else to look at something, especially if it’s you know, more of their, “Hey somebody has issued a complaint or something and I need to respond to that.” But I’m going to say, generally speaking at this point, I don’t have somebody looking at my writing, both in terms of content and style or anything like that.

 

Q: Okay. How long would you say you typically have to complete a writing project. So if a request or an inquiry comes in over email, how long do you typically have to respond?

 

A: I usually like to respond same day, if at all possible. So either same day or 24 hours. So if it’s going to take me longer, I will often let them know I may need more time. But [chuckle], generally speaking, within 24 hours. I like to have at least one touch.

 

Q: Gotcha, gotcha. So now, the next couple questions asks you to look back a little bit. So thinking back to your undergraduate days, what kind of writing do you remember being asked to create as a student?

 

A: I would say for the most part, it involved reading something and reporting on it, or having some sort of general topic and reporting on it. I’m trying to think in terms of my undergraduate, and to a lesser extent, in grad school in business, where you know, it was definitely much less writing-involved, for the most part, except in a couple of management classes. But you know, I think I tended to have a very, almost formulaic outline approach to writing, and it’s sort of, “Hey, what are my general topics?” You know, one, two, three, and four. And then looking at those topics, and sort of, having some sort of sub-information, a A and a B and a C. I used to do a lot of outlining prior to writing something, and you know, have an introductory paragraph that somehow refers to those issues that I’m going to be discussing in greater detail, and then again, it was my conclusion, reviewing what I discussed, you know, summarizing what I had said before. So I would say that I would just sort of sit down and start with an outline, and try to build that outline, and then, it’s trying to find the evidence to support the points that I wanted to make, and cite them, if need be.

 

Q: Okay. In what ways do you think your college writing experiences prepared you, or not, for the kind of writing that you do now?

 

A: Well, I definitely feel I’m prepared, I mean I don’t think that the writing that I do now is as challenging as what I did as an undergraduate or as a graduate student. I mean I think it’s overall at a lower level, for the most part. I mean it’s much more day-to-day types of conversations, rather than items that require, you know, a lot of reading and researching, in contrast to what I did in college, so.

 

Q: That makes sense, okay. This is sort of a broader question, but what would you say is at stake in your writing?

 

A: Okay, say that again? I’m not sure I understand the question.

 

Q: Sure, yeah. So the phrasing might be odd. So what is at stake in your writing? And what I mean by that is really, why does the writing you do at work matter, and what would be the consequence if you didn’t do a good job with that writing?

 

A: You know, I think what’s at stake is making sure that whether it’s the company brand or my own personal brand, you know, sort of comes through in how I communicate with people. And, “Hey, I’m in customer support, I’m in customer service.” And I definitely want to have that mindset coming across to whoever’s receiving that email that, “Hey, I’m trying to help you,” versus, “I’m just trying to get through an email,” sort of thing. So in general, I would say that to me, that’s what’s at stake, is that it reinforces whatever brand that it is that I think we should be displaying to our customers on a day to day basis. You know, they sort of go, “Hey, this person really is interested that I have good service.” And you know, in terms of consequences, you know, I would imagine [chuckle] that one is, I would say the consequence would probably be some sort of retraining, trying to emphasize that point more so than, “Hey, you’re out.” But in general, I think it’s more of, “Hey, let’s retrain on this and what it is that you need to do to be a better communicator, and a communicator of that brand.”

 

Q: Right, right. What would you say is the most challenging thing about writing in your specific position?

 

A: I think sometimes it’s, can I state the information in a simple enough manner such that it’s easily understood by the customer? I mean, I see this, I do this a lot, and it’s sort of second nature to me, but– so sometimes, some of the words have a lot of meaning to me don’t always carry that meaning towards the customer, and you know, example, “Hey, we’re going to change how we terminate the call.” And so, you know, what does that mean? And it’s a matter of, do I go into that level of detail, or do I simply say, “Hey, we’ve made some changes that we think we’ll help with the call connection, can you please try again?” So sometimes, you know, it’s things that, as I say, carry meaning for me and I understand because I’m in this world, often don’t carry the same sort of meaning to someone who is even less technical than I am. And making sure that they understand this and can learn from it as well, and you know, sort of, “Hey, let’s not get frightened by it, this is an easy thing to do, we can fix it.” So I would say that might be at times a challenge.

 

Q: That’s great, that makes a lot of sense, it sort of goes back to what you had mentioned earlier about this idea that like, in a lot of ways, you’re sort of the technical translator, to taking–

 

A: True.

 

Q: –trying to figure out how much information they need, and you know, how to parse that into terms that someone who doesn’t have all that background has.

 

A: Mhmm.

 

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

 

A: In the immediate run, maybe not, maybe sometimes, you know, I’ve written something, and I’ve had my kids, sort of, “Hey, can you review this or make it better?” But in terms of my work overall, not a lot. I do remember having you know, somebody asked me to write, I belong to an organization called the American Association of University Women. So I joined a few years ago, and we have a newsletter, and it was, “Hey, can you write something up about yourself?” So it’s like, you know it’s one of those things, you know, that’s tough for me to do, and you think, “Oh, what do I say?” So I wrote a few things that I think Colleen sort of reviewed it and sort of punched it up a little bit and go, “That works, it’s done.” It’s sort of the hardest interview question in the world is, “Tell me about yourself.” Which I’m sure we have all heard and, so it’s a similar thing, and you know again, it’s brief, it’s just a few things that you should mention that are unique about yourself, but it was sort of hard and I know I ran it by the kids and stuff, so–

 

Q: Right, no that makes sense. That’s great. How do you believe you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over the course of your career?

 

A: I’m not sure I have, to be honest. You know, in some ways I don’t think I’m as strong as a writer as I was 10, 20 years ago, to be honest, and–

 

Q: And does that go back to this idea that– sorry, go ahead, I didn’t mean to interrupt you.

 

A: No, no, not at all. I just think that the type of work that I’m doing, it’s just quicker, and yeah, I’m sorry, hold on. [Silence]. Yeah, I just think in general, I think a lot of when I maybe first started here was more involved in putting documentation together well, that’s sort of done. I, you know, haven’t done as much of that as I did before. Or there’s less reading involved, you know, intense reading, than maybe I had before. So, yeah, I’m not sure I’m as, I think I was a better writer 20 or 30 years ago, I think it was easier for me in terms of more challenging writing. But you know, on the other hand, I think I have a great understanding of who my customers are, and I think, you know, I’m relatively good at trying to explain things to them. So you know, a lot of our customer base, while they’re very, you know, very intelligent, very well-educated, you know English may not be their first language, so I want to make sure I’m understood, in a pretty general way.

 

Q: Right, right, that’s interesting, yeah. So I have just a couple more questions.

 

A: Sure.

 

Q: To what extent do you think writing is valued in your organization?

 

A: I don’t know. I think it’s valued, I’m not sure it’s, I think some of the softer– you know, “Hey, this is a pretty technical type of company,” and so I think those who have technical skills and maybe more valued than if they had great writing skills. So I don’t know, that’s at least my humble opinion. So you know, but, on the other hand, you know, I think being able to communicate’s pretty important [chuckle]. So I think it’s important, I think it is important, and I know when I first started here, before I first started here, as part of my interview process, I had to take a test. And there was one part of the test was, “Here’s a paragraph, edit the paragraph.” And we’ve moved away from that, and I think there was value in doing that. I’m not sure I thought that to be the case when I was being interviewed [chuckle], but in hindsight, I think it was probably a good way to screen candidates, because it did assess a certain writing ability. So, you know, we definitely have moved away from that, but you know, I think it’s much more of, to me, “Hey, can you write?” may be a good indicator of, “Hey, what kind of employee are you, or will be? Are you, again, reinforcing the brand that we want to have in this organization?” Can I put you on hold on the phone, hold on one, oh, nevermind, they got it, they are gone.

 

Q: Okay.

 

A: So yep, so but yes, it’s I think it’s– clearly they thought, “Hey, it is important.” And maybe we’ve moved away– to me, it’s important based  upon, “Hey what sort of employees, what kind of team do you have within the organization?” and all, so.

 

Q: Right, that makes a lot of sense.

 

A: I don’t know, I’m not sure I’m answering your question–

 

Q: No, you are!

 

A: –but I think you know, writing is valued definitely, but I think it’s value is perhaps is not as obvious as having technical skills. So and I think that’s sort of what I’m making so it’s, on the surface, I’m going to say it’s considered less valuable than being technical, but I think when you think about it, it’s I’m sure everybody would say, “Hey, it is very important.”

 

Q: Right, right. Excellent. And my last couple of questions here: first, how would you have defined successful writing as a student, versus successful writing now?

 

A: [Silence]. I think in both cases, I would say that successful writing means, “Have I effectively communicated the point that I wanted to make?” So and I think that is true, whether I was a college student, or working after 30, 40 years since graduating as an undergrad. I would say it’s different in that I definitely think I was exercised more when I was in college than I am now. So, you know, I think it took a lot more effort, the writing muscle definitely needed to be exercised a lot more. The expectations were probably higher as well, in terms of communicating my point.

 

Q: That makes a lot of sense. And would you say that you are a successful workplace writer?

 

A: I’m going to say yes, for what it is that I need to write. So if somebody said, “Hey, Aída [sp?], do some sort of ad.” Maybe a little bit more challenging, you know, versus, you know there are, “Hey, reread our website.” Which, maybe perhaps I’ve done, you know, and “Hey, I read and let’s say caught errors,” that maybe somebody else would not have caught. But in terms of creating it in the first place, that may be more difficult for me today than maybe it would have been 20, 30 years ago.

 

Q: That makes a lot of sense, yeah.

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Network Engineer

Computers & Technology

IT Networking Interview

50:00

 

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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