Computer Software/Hardware, Manufacturing/Industry
By Jessica Smith
Laurel Beason’s decision to become a technical writer was influenced by her desire to learn new things and improve her writing skills.
For Laurel, the best part of being a tech writer is those times of success when people comment on the manuals that she writes as being “so easy and helpful.” Hearing from others on how easy it was to read, she said its reassuring working with these “technical people who are engineers,” and knowing others appreciate her work.
Laurel is a technical writer at Cisco Systems, Inc. Her typical schedule consists of a 9 am to 6 pm schedule, but it’s not the typical stringent schedule as in other jobs. “In this job, and most tech writing jobs I’ve had, the hours are flexible, and I can change my schedule as needed,” said Laurel.
At Cisco, she is assigned as the technical writer on the project team that is creating a new product. She writes manuals and instructions, and conducts research to learn about the product.
Her position requires her to develop administration guides and related documentation for Cisco Small Business equipment, such as routers, switches, and IP phone systems. She said she works in a team learning about what customers need, getting photos, and taking screen shots of the software that she will incorporate into the documents.
The biggest challenges Laurel has faced in the field are that “sometimes it’s very hard to understand the information, and you have to know what to write in order to write about it,” she said.
She explained if it’s new material, she has to know “how to get a certain feature to work and explain it to people,” and she has been in situations such as one in dealing with the equipment of a phone system.
With her knowledge, she has to get caught up with the newest technology. Laurel said it could also be difficult dealing with people who are more technical than she is. “Compared to them, you know nothing,” Laurel said.
Deadlines can also be stressful. “The headaches come from tight deadlines, which may not allow enough time to do a really great job,” Laurel said.
“Headaches” also come from multitasking. On a day when she needs to post files online and write release notes for a project she is finishing, she also has to start developing a documentation plan for a new project, while making time to peer-review another writer’s document and answering questions from the trainer who is developing a class based on her administration guide. “It can be overwhelming sometimes,” Laurel said.
Technology has always played a big role in Laurel’s field, such as delivering information. Her career began when the Internet was new, and at the time she had to learn how to post servers on a web file and develop computer-based training programs.
The biggest change Laurel has witnessed in the field is that the writing she does now contains a video clip on how to do something. “I get very excited about learning new technology and understanding how people use the technology in their small businesses,” said Laurel in regards to technology.
She said she likes the challenge of filling the gap between the engineers’ perspective on technology and the user’s perspective. “When I started working for Cisco, I was very intimidated by the amount of networking knowledge that was needed, but I’ve enjoyed the process of building my knowledge,” she mentioned.
Laurel has also learned that it’s “somewhat of an advantage to be the learner rather than the expert.” She considers herself a pretty good stand-in for the small business IT person who is also not a networking expert and needs a “practical” perspective and easy-to-understand information.
“I’ve had several conversations with engineers when I have asked ‘the stupid question’ and the engineer has reacted with some head-scratching of his own and has ended up saying something like, ‘I hadn’t thought of that. Let’s look into it,’” she said.
In relation to communicating with clients and/or customers, Laurel said she does not. “Our writing team is starting an initiative to do some phone interviews, and possibly site visits, with selected customers, to get more information about their experience using our documentation,” Laurel said.
“Right now, we rely on marketing managers and technical marketing engineers for most of our information about how the customers use the products,” she added. At work, she communicates most often with engineers, program managers, and product marketing managers.
Laurel received her bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the University of Idaho in 1986; she also has a master’s degree in English that she received from Eastern Washington University in 1994. After receiving her degrees, she worked as a newspaper reporter for 5 years and has been in the technical writing field since 1996. She worked for Fidelity Investments for 3 years, and Brinks, Inc. for 7 years. She has been a technical writer at Cisco for 2 years. In between job positions, Laurel attended graduate school and taught writing to college students. “I like working with students at the college level,” Laurel said.
In her spare time, she likes to spend time with her two small children, participate in the PTA, do yoga, and read. She has a son named Gage, who is 10, and a daughter named Grace, who is 7. She married her husband, Gary, in 1996. As for pets, she has a dog that is a mix of a Lab and Jack Russell Terrier.
The one piece of advice Laurel has to offer for aspiring tech writers is to “learn as much as you can about technology while you are in college, and make sure you have flexible time to do extra reading and hands-on learning.”
She also mentioned any kind of technology is worthwhile: learn new software. “It could be a tool that applies to your career, like FrameMaker, InDesign, or Photoshop, or it could be some other desktop application that you are curious about,” she added. Also, the “act of learning software gives you insight that will help you to be a better writer about software.”
Laurel advises to learn about hardware and networking; take a PC repair class or an introduction to networking class at the community college at night or during summer break. She said those kinds of classes can provide some good background knowledge. Taking a programming class can provide a different perspective of computing as well. Learning HTML and working with a web-page editor is helpful, as well as taking a class in database administration.
“A minor in computer science or a certification such as the MCSE or CCENT could set you apart from other writers,” said Laurel. She advises to begin reading instruction manuals and thinking about what is helpful as an end-user of the product.
“Start reading technology-related publications to learn the lingo and trends in technology,” Laurel said. Overall, the main point of her advice is to “learn as much as you can.”