Interview with Rachael Stavchansky

Rachael is a lead technical writer who transitioned from a career in teaching to technical writing.

Key takeaways

  • Critical thinking skills learned from experience outside of technical writing are valuable.
  • It’s never too late to make the transition to a new career.

How did you find technical writing?

I fit the mold of someone who stumbled into tech writing after doing other things, which is pretty common. I have an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies, but I knew I was interested in teaching. I taught English abroad after college and then worked at theater companies in their education departments. I went on to get an MFA in Drama and Theatre for Youth, and then I worked at a private school. When my husband and I tried for a second child, we ended up having twins. After some very busy time at home, I started teaching Music Together classes. But I realized, “Oh my goodness, I really need to figure out a career path that’s going to be able to significantly contribute.” So, while I was still teaching, I took an online assessment through the Texas Workforce Commission that basically asked, “What are you interested in? What are your skills? What are your interests?” And then it provided a list of career options. The top one was anesthesiologist, which made me laugh. Okay, why don’t I go back to school for 12 years? But in the top 10 career options was technical writer, and it stood out to me as a field that legitimately sounded interesting but also something that really lined up with the Austin economy, which is where I live.

So I went to our local community college, and I met with one of the advisors there. After that discussion, I decided I was going to take some courses towards getting a certificate in Technical Communication. I was only able to take one or two courses at a time because I was teaching part time, and I had three tiny kids at home.

My husband is in a technical field and works as a software developer. So when I was trying to figure out if technical writing was something that I was truly interested in, I started helping him out with projects. I edited a patent application. I edited some documentation for Adobe After Effects plugins. While I was taking classes, I also wrote a documentation suite for a software product that is now part of a company that he founded. So that was a really good way to test the waters and say, “Okay, do I actually like this?” I also think it probably helped me get that first job offer.

After two or three semesters, I applied for a summer internship at National Instruments, an Austin company that hires a lot of entry level technical writers. And I was lucky enough that, after the interview process, they said, “You know what? Because you already have a degree, you don’t fall under our internship guidelines, but we would really love to offer you a full time job.” I wasn’t quite ready to jump into full time work at that time, but I felt like it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. So I accepted, and it’s been about five years since then. I stayed there for three years and learned a lot. Then I worked at a much smaller company in downtown Austin where I was able to run the documentation team. Now I work remotely as an individual contributor for another small company, Wowza Media Systems.

What advice would you have for people looking to become technical writers who are transferring from fields that might be very different?

I think it’s important to believe in yourself and know that your experience from other industries can translate in ways that you don’t recognize initially but do you give you strength. Every life experience that you have is going to hopefully teach you some wisdom. It’s easy to get lost in imposters syndrome, especially in technical writing. Often times you’re going into a technical industry that you may not have a lot of prior knowledge of. And so there’s acronyms being thrown at you and terminology that you’re not familiar with. But, you have capabilities that you have picked up along the way that can really serve you. Critical thinking and the ability to ask important questions are both valuable. So even if you don’t have a great background in something, if you can ask insightful questions at appropriate times, then that’s something that can really serve both the groups that you’re working in and your career.

How did you go about getting accustomed to the jargon and the sometimes unapproachable knowledge associated with the work?

I think it depends on the field or the company that you’re working for. A lot of times companies will have an internal glossary. My first company had an internal wiki page that was just full of the many acronyms at the company and what they mean. I think just spending the time looking at resources like that can be helpful. And, of course, it helps to search for things online when you don’t know what they are. When I run across something, I just jot it down. Then, when I have a moment, I look it up.

Do you have any advice for people making the transition to technical writing or advice that you would give to yourself when you were starting out?

Part of me thinks, “I wish I had been a technical writer since I graduated. Why did it take me so long to find it?” But I do cherish everything I did up until starting on this path. I also feel really grateful to have found tech writing when I did. So I think there’s no shame in coming to technical writing midway in your career. It shouldn’t stop you from thinking that you could do it. If you’ve been working for 10 or 15 years and then you decide, “Hey, I want to try to tech writing,” there’s nothing to stop you from achieving your goal.

When you graduate college, you think you’re going to do this one thing, but you don’t have to do it forever. You’re going to discover strengths and interests as you continue to grow as a human being. And there are other careers out there waiting for you or other things that will interest you that you will find along the way.

Rachael goes by rstav on the Write the Docs Slack group. You can find her in the #documenting-apis and #austin channels.