Tech-writing interview

Who's conducting this interview?

I am, but I'm trying to keep it objective, and ask the sorts of questions you would.

Okay, how did you come to be a technical writer?

The short answer or the long answer?

The short answer.

I didn't want to work in animation any longer.

What's the long answer?

I was an English major as an undergrad. That's when I really learned to love the creative possibilities of language. During that time, I started writing poetry. 

Also during that time, I attended a ballet for the first time. I didn't really understand the medium, so to become a more educated member of the audience, I started taking ballet classes two evenings a week after school. This was during the final semester of my junior year, and coincided with classes that included reading Death of a Salesman, Streetcar, and Prufrock. That particular literary cocktail tended to put a dreary slant on the day, but I always left my ballet classes in a good mood.

Knowing virtually nothing of the dance world beyond those classes, I thought I'd look into the possibility of attending a ballet school when I finished my undergraduate studies (I didn't know you were supposed to start dancing when you were five or six). I sent some letters of inquiry and received an immediate response from a school in Norfolk, Virginia. I submitted some photos per their request, and then accepted an invitation to visit the school. Six weeks after my first ballet class, I was visiting a ballet school and participating in master classes taught by Meredith Baylis of the Joffrey School.

You must have been awfully good.

No. I was in way over my head, and made the mistake of standing at the end of the barre for the first class. During the first set of exercises, I could see a whole barre full of students to follow, but when we turned to do the exercises to the left, all I could see was the wall. I was lost and looking back over my shoulder to see what was going on. Not the elegant technique one would hope to show off during an audition.

Did they politely thank you for making the trip to Norfolk?

They offered me a scholarship at the school beginning immediately. A display of potential apparently overcame a lack of accomplishment. I finished out my junior year, and then made the move to Norfolk. I studied there, Washington D.C., New York, and Boston.

Did you dance professionally?

No. I performed with the companies in Norfolk and Washington, and had an offer to join the Berkshire Ballet, but by that time I was suffering what amounted to repetitive-stress injuries in my feet due to a critical error of anatomy.

A drop out with bad feet.

Fortunately, colleges are always looking for students. I intended to go back and finish my B.A. in English, but instead found an M.F.A. program in creative writing that didn't require an undergraduate degree.

Was that like one of those online ordinations?

No. Someone in my circumstances had to have completed the bulk of his undergraduate studies and have a strong portfolio of writing. I'd published a couple of the poems I'd written as an undergrad, and had written a sufficient amount more to demonstrate my competency as a writer.

So you have a Master's degree but no Bachelor's?

I saved significant time and money.

What kind of thesis did you write?

A novel about not being able to dance.


Write what you know.

Did you publish the novel?

No. One agent said he had to struggle through the beginning, but loved the ending. Another said he loved the beginning but was disappointed in how I handled the end. Another agent hated the whole thing, but said she had also turned down William Kennedy.

Did you take that as a compliment?

I started reading William Kennedy. My novel suffered by comparison.

Did you rewrite it?

I had made two revisions and wanted to work on something else. I had the luxury of time then, and so wrote plays, short comedy pieces, some spec TV scripts, and stand-up.

Did you produce any of that work?

One of the longer plays was workshopped at the Alley Theatre in Cambridge. I produced some of the short comedy pieces, and performed the stand-up material myself. A friend of a friend sent my spec scripts to Los Angeles. I was told I had an ear for comedy but was too obtuse for television. My stand up was an effort to prove that my comedy had universal appeal.

Did it?

In Cambridge and Boston. The audience there had a well informed frame of reference, and a lot of common experience. In Los Angeles, they took the jokes as literal confessions. There were gasps and silence.

This is a really long answer. Are we anywhere near how you became a tech writer?

It wasn't a straight line from A to B. You can skip to my resume if you don't want to continue. Shall I go on?

In for a penny, in for a pound.

I'll speed it up. I was living in Los Angeles and was not nearly as enamored with the world of show business as I'd expected. I heard an ad on the radio one day for the Advertising Center. I took workshops for a year in ad concept and copywriting, and put together a portfolio of my stuff. At that time, agencies were moving to computers and were looking for people who had those skills. I enrolled in a two-year certificate program at UCLA Extension in computer graphics, with the intention of applying those skills to 2D graphics and layout. During the course of the program, I discovered animation and effects. I found an internship at a small effects house in Hollywood where I learned Softimage. A few months later, Time Warner Interactive was looking for a Softimage artist for a project. Three weeks turned into a year and a half with them, and I worked as a Softimage artist for another four years after that.

Finally, some technology in the narrative.

I learned to use a Mac in school, and learned Softimage on UNIX at my internship. In school, I learned the software from reading the documentation. On my internship, I learned Softimage from the documentation. During my first professional project, I learned some UNIX administration: I had to manage files, and manipulate shell scripts to manage renders.

Are we getting close?

Yes. When the animation industry started gravitating to 3D Max, I didn't enjoy it as much. The development of Softimage included a lot of input from artists. The interface was very transparent to the process. I didn't fee like 3D Max had that advantage. Hours every day with an interface I didn't enjoy wasn't enticing. Plus a lot of up and down in the animation industry. I wanted something I enjoyed more, and something that was more stable. So I tallied my experience up to that point--writing, visual design, learning software from the documentation, working with software and computers for several years--and wrote a cover letter positing myself as a good candidate for technical writing positions. Again, potential overcame a lack of experience and I was hired to be the assistant writer for a new security software. I started writing, and they liked my stuff enough that they didn't hire the lead writer.

And now you're at Google?

Yes. You can find my tech-writing history in my resume.

Do you want to tell me something about how you approach technical writing?

Sure. I try to put myself in the place of the user. I try to work from the point of view I had when I was learning computer graphics. I didn't know anything about computers or software, and so often had really basic questions, like: How do I launch this program? What am I looking at when it launches?

You're writing for a sophisticated audience, and you're offering them what amounts to a remedial education in basic software functions.

I think there's basic information you need regardless of how sophisticated you are. You might be a brilliant database designer, but if you've never used an image-manipulation program, there are basic things about image manipulation you probably need to know.

I watched an episode of Top Gear in which one of the hosts drove a Formula 1 car. This was a guy who knew a lot about cars, who'd driven most of the exotic cars on the planet. When he got in the F1 car, he stalled it several times in a row. Despite the fact that it was a vehicle, he wasn't familiar with the interface. He needed some remedial information about how to engage the clutch.

So, you jump right in to function?

I start with concept, or context. What the program or feature lets you accomplish.

If architectural knowledge is important, I like to include that next.

If it's an administrative tool, or if there's some administrative setup required, you can often jump right in to that function.

When the functionality is focused on the end user, I like to give an overview of the interface. Where things are, how the controls work if they're not standard controls. I don't document the red x that closes a window, but I will document something like a slider that controls how visual elements appear, or explain how you should interpret visual elements.

There's an element of art appreciation in your writing.

Say you're looking at some new visualization of data. There are occasions when it's not immediately obvious how you should interpret a graphic element or a collection of elements.

Once the mystery of the interface has been dispelled, then I like to give some examples of how you can use the interface to solve the problems it's designed to let you solve.

Such as?

With a report, for example, you usually have a bunch of data. In a graph, in a table, in some new graphic visualization. What do you do with it? How do you use the table controls to add another dimension or pivot the data? Which other dimension should you add given the dimension you already have? For example, if I'm looking at organic-search data sliced by keyword, what other dimension can I add that tells me something? I can add country to see which keywords people are using in which countries. I can add landing page to see the correlation between keywords and the first page visitors see on my site. Then what do I do with that information? Maybe there's a keyword I hadn't thought of that I need to start bidding on. Or maybe there isn't the right correlation between a popular keyword and the corresponding landing page, and people are leaving my site immediately from that page. So, I need to take a look at the content on that page.

I like to tell a linear, escalating story, from the simple mechanics of the thing to how you use it in the larger context of solving your problems.

What about form?

Well, there's the W3C, which seems to favor content, on one end, and some producers of consumer products who favor form, on the other. Having recently tried to learn to use one of those consumer products from reading the help, I'd have to go with the W3C approach. When I need information while I'm engaged with a product, I want to be able to find the information easily, I want it to answer my question, and I want it to be written well. As long as it's not visually offensive, like a green font on a red background, I don't really care.

So, you think we could dispense with design and architecture?

No, but I think there's a point at which you reach an optimum design, and beyond that you're just kneading the dough because you like the feel of it in your hands, not because more kneading is going to result in better bread.

Do you like tech writing?

Yeah. It's part investigative journalism, plying product managers and engineers for information. It's part solving puzzles, figuring out how something works. Then once I understand how it works, I have to find the language, the story that makes it clear for the user. It's not writing the great American novel, but there are multiple moments every day when I have the experience of something crystalizing for me--how a new feature or application works, how I'm going to tell that story. I love working with language, and every day I get to solve problems working in that medium.

There are problems of strategy and tactics that are fun and satisfying to solve. There's a fairly large element of immediate gratification.

There's also an element of diplomacy involved. You have to successfully manage a lot of relationships. With PMs, engineers, designers, managers, other writers.

Any secrets to successful diplomacy you'd like to share?

Respect the expertise of those people. Listen more than you talk. Always do a favor when you have the opportunity.

If you could make your living writing the great American novel instead, would you?

Of course. 

You're just another artist biding his time until his big break?

I have a set of skills that are valuable to a software company, and I enjoy the experience of exercising those skills.

This is one of the ongoing conversations I have with myself--

You talk to yourself?

You don't?


So, I have this conversation about whether I would have anything to write about if all I did was write fiction. If I didn't do anything in the real world, would I have any material?

And if I exercised only the right side of my brain every day, would I lose an intellectual balance?

Not that I wouldn't jump at the chance to spend all my time writing novels, but I think there's value in the way things are.

Are you working on a novel?

Yes. I'm always working on one. You can see my finished work at

Are you prolific?

Well, between parenting and work, there's only so much time I can devote to the indulgence of my art.

Art is an indulgence?

When you value the experience of parenting your child, it's something of a luxury. Not one that I would deprive myself of entirely, but neither is it one I would indulge at the expense of things like time with my daughter. As with art and technology, there's a balance one has to achieve between personal and familial achievement.

What are your limitations as a technical writer?

I don't know that it's a limitation, but I'm a content guy. I don't write code. I can look at a piece of code and have some idea what it's doing, but I don't have an interest in writing code. I took a class in C programming, and even did a stint documenting the SDK when I was at NetIQ, but both of those experiences just confirmed my sense that I didn't want to spend my day writing code. I like writing in English.

Some people would think of that as a limitation.

They don't think of Java programmers who can't write documentation as limited.

Fair enough. Anything else you want to share?

I think that's plenty. If you have other questions, email me: