Where do You Come From?

How many of you tech comms reading this have a technical or engineering education?

When I ask this question of students in the master’s programme where I teach, or at speaking engagements, it’s invariably a minority of hands that go up. Personally, I’m not surprised. Most of the technical communicators I know have a background in arts or humanities. And the ones that have science or engineering backgrounds often have strong secondary interest in humanities subjects.

My own background is in music, theatre, and journalism. Of those, journalism makes some sense – a journalist, like a technical communicator, explains things to people – often translating from one mode of expression to another (as in: economist to average citizen, politician to skeptical reader, scientist to TV viewer or web visitor, engineer to end user, etc.). The rest?

Well, if you go deeper into it, my musical interests have always gravitated to the avant-garde, especially if technology was involved (computer music, synthesizers, fusion forms, free jazz, etc.), and in the theatre, I always worked with lighting and sound, two elements that are both intangible and related to technology. In short, I’ve always loved technology along with the other things I love doing, and combining this love of many things made tech comm a no-brainer for me.

I used to read manuals all the time – REALLY – I READ THEM!!!!

I found two things: I could become the “expert” about something just by doing this (most people didn’t bother) and I could write it better, most of the time. So, eventually, I started doing it.

Humanists gravitate to tech comm because people in the humanities generally have a wide variety of interests, intellectual curiosity, desire to understand and then to communicate that understanding.

It might be tempting to add that humanists don’t talk nerd – but if you want to be a good tech comm, you’d better know how, even if it isn’t your native language – and I think I can qualify myself as a genuine nerd in my fascination with some of the details of technology – hence the name of this blog.  At the same time, I share with many other technical communicators, a passion to explain it.

We are teachers, Chatauqua leaders, maybe even evangelists for the products and services we write about. At the other end of the spectrum, behind the scenes, we also seem to get passionate about how these things are done, improving processes and facilitating internal communications. There, too, we explain, we teach, we innovate, and we share.

Author: Ray

Ray Gallon is president and co-founder of The Transformation Society (www.transformationsociety.net), a research, training and consulting company focusing on building learning organisations that can manage complexity and the digital transformation. He has over 40 years as a communicator, first as an award-winning radio producer and journalist, then in the technical content industries. His management experience includes a stint as program manager of WNYC-FM, New York City’s public radio station. Ray is a self-described "humanist nerd," and has always been interested in the meeting point between technology and culture, and has used his broad experience to advantage with companies such as IBM, General Electric Health Care, Alcatel, 3M, and the OECD, as well as in smaller companies and startup enterprises. Ray recently helped co-found the Information 4.0 Consortium (www.information4zero.org) and serves as its current president. Ray is a university lecturer and a keynote speaker at events throughout the world. He has contributed articles and chapters to many books and periodicals and is the editor of the recently published “Language of Technical Communication” (XML Press).

2 thoughts on “Where do You Come From?”

  1. From a study perspective, I started uni doing an IT degree (and wanted to combine it with an Arts degree in German). After 2.5 years of IT, and facing some programming subjects all over again, I switched to Arts with majors in Linguistics and Business German. I want to play with tech, but not necessarily create it. Then I smooshed all that study together to say I was a bit techy and more of a communicator, and I could be a tech writer. And my first boss took that chance and believed in me. 🙂
    On the whole, most of my interests are in the humanities – reading, languages, some crafts (esp. telling the stories of my photos), travelling, baking.

    Every now and then, I think I’d love to be a travel writer/travel reviewer. Then I think after my years in tech comm, I don’t think I could write engaging enough articles. 😉

  2. I’m one of that minority of tech writers you spoke of, with a degree in mechanical engineering/engineering and public policy. I’ve loved writing and the humanities since I was a kid, love history and the arts, and read omnivorously. But I’m also fascinated by science and technology. It’s hard to find a career that’s geared towards generalists with many interests. Working as an engineer left me cold, so I switched careers and became a technical writer. My engineering degree hasn’t been wasted; on the contrary, it’s given me great analytical skills and opened up a lot of doors professionally. I’ve always sought out jobs documenting hard-core technologies (e.g., electromagnetic field simulators, middleware APIs, robots and robotics APIs). But lately I’ve broadened out to doing technical marketing, layout, and even photography! That’s what I like most about the technical communication field: the many opportunities to learn and do new things.

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