RE: Self vs. formal education

Subject: RE: Self vs. formal education
From: "Glenn Maxey" <glenn -dot- maxey -at- voyanttech -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 11 Sep 2001 12:10:48 -0600

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Meg Halter [mailto:aiki4us -at- yahoo -dot- com]
> Sent: Monday, September 10, 2001 5:42 PM
> Subject: Self vs. formal education
> What are your thoughts on the relative merits of self education
> vs. formal education in a resume? The context is that I already
> have a BS and MS in aerospace engineering.

I hate to be an engineering snob here, but these engineering degrees put
you head-and-shoulders above many technical writers... providing that
you have a desire and talent to write. (It also won't hurt if you
leverage your education and go for the really technical stuff.)

I mean, as part of your degree programs, you learned to code, you
learned advanced mathematics, you learned tons of highly technical
concepts. Your MS may have required a thesis, which could be proof
enough that you can write well (as it was for me). Engineers are highly
educated and highly intelligent individuals. Their talents do not have
to be limited to tweaking bits and differential equations; it can extend
into music and prose. Just as I know of many engineers who can't write,
don't like to write, or aren't allowed to write (because the boss wants
them coding), I can also point to many who write extremely well. If they
had any drawbacks, nobody every taught them how to use Word efficiently
or about white space, etc.

The old saying used by hiring managers who recruited Arts & Science
majors as technical writers was: "If they know how to write, we can
teach them what they need to know about the technology." However, if the
material is really technical, really detailed, and really dry, sometimes
it is better to hire someone with that technical background, because
they can understand the technology and convey the concepts better than
someone who has no clue and no foundation. Assuming the fleeing engineer
has the desire to write, they can be taught about white space, fonts,
and using tools properly.

I am such a fleeing engineer. (I have a BS in Electrical Engineering
with Computer Science, a BA in German, and an MS in Telecommunications.)
I have worked with other fleeing engineers as tech writers and with
others who had other backgrounds. I admit that I am biased and that I
have tried to steer my technical writing to the highly technical. As
such, I have worked with (or inherited work from) technical writers
without the requisite technology background, and on occassion it showed
in their work.

If I were in your shoes, I wouldn't pursue any formal education in
technical writing other that things that interest you and that you would
do anyway. You should be a hot commodity without it. Worst case
scenerio, take a pay cut at your first job but then when you match or
exceed the quality and quantity of your peers in 6 months, negotiate for
the appropriate salary. Be prepared to leave if they don't pony up,
because once you have some tech writing experience under your belt, your
engineering background will open far more technical writing doors at
higher salaries.

> I want my resume to show that I can, indeed, write.
> Now, my portfolio should
> demonstrate that, but my resume has to get me to the point where
> people will want to see the portfolio.

Correct, but do you have a thesis? Do you have papers for school? Do you
have published technical papers?

These can be enough to open the doors. People will take into account
your lack of hands-on experience but will be eager to get someone who is
educated, motivated, and ripe to be molded into the tech writer that
they need.

If you focus on highly technical jobs and on jobs with more than one
writer (so that you can get some mentoring), you should do fine.

> I've taken some classes pertaining to tech communication through
> UCLA's online learning and I could take a bunch more classes
> (some of which don't seem all that useful) to earn an official,
> fancy-dancy certificate in Technical Communication.

That's what it's going to be, just like my fancy-dancy MS in
Telecommunications. It helps people get over the fear factor (about
buzzwords and tools). You have faced down far more fearful concepts in
pursuing your degree; leverage that in your interviews and your resume.

You should be pushing that technology does not scare you, programming
doesn't scare you, learning new things don't scare you... you are
educated and have demonstrated your ability to learn.

> I'm debating whether to go for the certificate or to just
> continue with my home-grown little program. Can't do both
> because of lack of time and energy.

Do the home-grown stuff and just get yourself a job, where you can learn
on the job and maybe get mentoring.

IMHO, with your education and desire to write, you should be pursuing
tech writing jobs now.

Glenn Maxey
Voyant Technologies, Inc.
Tel. +1 303.223.5164
Fax. +1 303.223.5275
glenn -dot- maxey -at- voyanttech -dot- com


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