Interview with Liz Harris

Liz is a senior technical writer in the Bay Area of California. She has been working as a software technical writer for 20 years, working with large enterprise projects along with smaller and more agile projects.

Key takeaways

  • Have a sense for your reader’s perspectives.
  • Make the effort to connect with people in person.

What formal education do you have?

I went to a private high school in Palo Alto, and then I went and did a year as an exchange student in Switzerland when I had just graduated from high school. Then I went to college. The reason I mention the exchange student year is that it changed my notion of what I wanted from college. When I applied to college I was 16, and I planned for a four year college and this year as an exchange student at the same time. And then when I got my acceptances, I had the next five years lined up. I was going to be an exchange student in Switzerland for a year, and then I was going to do four years at this small college in Vermont. But when I finished my exchange student year, I realized that this small college in Vermont was not going to work for me. It’s a good school, but it was way too small and socially limited and academically limited. So I did my freshman year at Middlebury College, and then I transferred to a bigger school. I transferred to Harvard and I finished my bachelor’s degree. And after, I went to graduate school, kind of without really thinking about it. My family is full of professors, so that’s kind of just the family business. I mean, when we have Thanksgiving dinner, there will be like 12 people at the table with two who don’t have a PhD. It’s ridiculous. So I went to graduate school in Russian literature at Stanford, and I thought I wanted to get a PhD in Russian literature. But that was a terrible experience. It was one of the worst times of my life. I hated it. And so after two years, I finished with two different masters degrees and stepped out and went and got a teaching job.

What then led you to technical writing?

Well, I loved teaching. I was a teacher at a private school in San Francisco, at a French school. And loved it, but it was the late nineties. There was a tech boom going on in the Bay Area, and I wasn’t participating in it. There was a lot of money being made, and it was so easy to get a job. The hiring was ferocious. There were people who I knew from growing up in the area working in tech, who I knew were no smarter than or no more hardworking than me, and they had these jobs that were better paid than a teacher’s job, but also interesting and appealing. The only reason I had heard of the profession of a technical writer was from a stepmother who was in the family for a while. She was a technical writer. She actually was a poet and an English teacher, and then she became a technical writer in the eighties. So I think it was 1998. I had tried to stay in teaching, but I didn’t have a teaching credential. The reason I was looking for a teaching job is I really like teaching. But my particular school where I was working was a dysfunctional mess. So after three years in a row of not finding a different teaching job, I thought forget it. I’m just going to do something else. And so I took a huge career leap. No, it’s not that much of a career leap when you’re 27 and don’t have a mortgage and don’t have children. There wasn’t that much at stake. But my husband was in graduate school, so my teaching job was paying the rent. It was a bit of a leap in that way. So I put out an application or two and got a job.

Liz’s first job as a tech writer involved creating documentation for startup called Prototype that produced software for managing fleets of vehicles, like taxis or limousines. Afterwards she spent 8 years as an editor and writer for Wind River, a company that produced microprocessors. Afterwards she moved on to Aspera where she works now.

How did you differentiate yourself during your initial job search?

I had to have a portfolio of sorts, and this is long enough ago that it was still pretty usual for people to show up to an interview with paper examples of their portfolio. So I thought about what I could show. I chose a couple of things that I had produced as a teacher, like a handout that explains some grammatical or punctuation concepts, or it might have been an exam or a grading rubric. They were artifacts from my teaching life. But they did show that I could write cogent copy, that I had careful a touch of detail. But but I think that I really had it in my favor that it was 1998. The job market was crazy.

Liz stayed at her first technical writing job for around two years and then moved on to Wind River, a company that specialized in embedded systems.

So I was at Wind River for 14 years, if you can believe it. The first couple of years, I was a junior editor and then I converted to the writer role, and then I got converted to a senior writer. I was there for a really long time.

How did this differ from your first job?

In terms of the maturity of the organization, there was a lot more rigor at Wind River than there was at Prototype. It was a better place to learn how to be a technical writer. What was fun about Prototype was that it was kind of like a startup. And it was just a bunch of people who would say, “Oh, let’s make a diagram.” And you make a diagram. There were no standards. You could do it in plain text. You could just sort of make it up as you go along, which was fun; but it wasn’t a great place to learn how to be a writer, sort of as a profession. They didn’t have a style guide. They didn’t have proper review cycles. They didn’t have QA of the documentation. Wind River had a superstructure for that kind of thing. It was clear who you were supposed to have your doc reviewed by. Deadlines were more fixed. But it It also moved really slowly. They would have releases, sometimes every 36 months, because the flagship product is an operating system. And so customers are not going to change their OS very often. But one thing that was cool about this job was that the audience was very technical. So I wasn’t writing for my auntie who uses a cell phone and is installing an app. I was writing for jet propulsion lab engineers, or Samsung hardware engineers who were going to put this chip in a phone, or satellite, or whatever that is embedded. So the audience was really technical, and you have to step up your game. You can’t be talking to your auntie who wants to install Candy Crush, which is demanding in a different way. That is a demanding audience because she’s in a hurry and doesn’t have a lot of patience for obstacles. The engineer that works for NASA is demanding because that person has a really complicated task.

What led you to leave then?

Well the problem with Wind River was I liked writing for a really technical audience, because there’s just something kind of appealing to my brain about technical complexity. But one of the reasons I left that job is that I was there for 14 years and never once talked to a customer. So it was too virtual, you know, it was fiction. Sometimes software shops will have the writers sit it on a support call, or they’ll have them attend a user’s conference. Wind River would have a, users conference. I never heard about it. I didn’t know where or when they were, who attended, but if you did send a writer or let’s say, a graphic designer or a UX designer to a users conference, then they get to see who is using the thing that they’re helping to make. So I think that’s really important makes. It really It makes it less like fiction.

What advice do you have for the aspiring documentarians in the community?

For new writers, I think talking to people is important. Yes, there are all these courses out there, and they’re all these resources. You know, there’s so much of that, and that does matter. People say go and do open source projects so that you have a portfolio on Github. Yes, for sure. But I think talking to people is really valuable. I had this conference I went to that I got this free ticket for, and I managed to connect this marketing intern with the same way that I got the free ticket so that she could go.

The point was to just expose her to the wash of it. I think there was a lot of value for her just to talk to some of the people of the conference, listening to talks, not in a particularly goal oriented way. She wasn’t listening for anything specific. This is not her field, but filtering like some sort of shellfish in seawater. Like, there’s an awful lot of seawater and not very much nutrient. But eventually you get some nutrients, and you hear some stuff. But more than that, talking to the people about what their job is like is valuable. So I think there’s a lot of value in going to meetups and going to conferences. Maybe it’s because I like the personal element better. I like going to in person gatherings, and I’m not particularly extroverted, but I like going to the in person gatherings better and talking to people one on one, mostly just listening to what they’re working on and interested in, And if I were starting in the field, of course, get familiar with a programming language. I took that class in C and took a class in Python, which I haven’t used since. But I think if I were considering technical writing as a possible career having not decided that this is for me. I think just talking to people is a really good path.

Liz goes by lizharris on the Write the Docs Slack group. You can find her in the #career-advice channel.