Observations From My Recent Job Search

by Jeff Stein on January 12, 2019

After working as a technical writer at a large software company for seven years, I found myself out of work in the spring of 2018. It had been a while since I last went looking for work, and I was definitely rusty.

In the months that followed, I interviewed with a total of 11 companies. (This number includes the instances where I didn’t get beyond the initial phone interview.) I have a few observations from the experience that I’d like to share with anyone who is interested.

Resume-palooza

Conventional wisdom says that you should tailor your resume for each job. The logistics can be challenging, but I developed a system that worked out well.

I have a master version of my resume in Microsoft Word. The file name of the master version is Jeff_Stein_resume_master.docx.

Whenever I applied for a job, I copied the master version to a separate file, which I then customized for the particular opening. The file name that I used when submitting the customized version was Jeff_Stein_resume.docx. Afterwards I changed the file name of the customized version on my local computer to Jeff_Stein_resume_[company-name].docx. By the end of my job search, I had a collection of about 40 customized resumes.

I tried to keep the resumes fairly short — no more than one and a half pages. Nevertheless, some of my interviewers seemed to have taken only a cursory glance at the resume. To help out these people, I prepared a verbal summary of my relevant work experience.

Technical Writing Basics

A couple of questions about technical writing came up repeatedly in interviews:

  • What makes a good technical writer?
  • Describe the process that you follow in creating documentation.

Although I consider myself a veteran technical writer, I wasn’t used to explaining such things verbally.

My responses to these questions got better after I purchased and reviewed The Insider’s Guide to Technical Writing by Krista Van Laan. The author does a great job of covering the many aspects of the profession, such as creating doc plans, gathering information, and working with reviewers. The book was published seven years ago, but nearly all of the content is still valid.

Do You Have Any Questions?

Most interviews followed the same format: the interviewer asked me a bunch of questions, and then I was given the opportunity to ask questions of the interviewer.

I did a lot of preparation for the latter portion. After all, asking questions is a key skill for technical writers, so I figured that this was a great opportunity to show how well I can do it.

Some of my questions were meant to demonstrate my knowledge of the company. A couple of interviewers said they were impressed by how much research I had done.

Writing Tests

Two of the 11 companies had me do writing tests.

One test involved reviewing a series of diagrams that showed how to create a paper airplane. I then had to translate the diagrams into a written procedure. This test reminded me of an interview from many years ago, when I was asked to document the procedure for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I have heard about writing tests that are more rigorous. Amruta Ranade of Cockroach Labs wrote a nice blog post about the approach that her company uses.

Dealing With Rejection

The emotional aspect of searching for a job should not be ignored.

If you’re not comfortable with rejection, it can be a tough road. The first interview I had was for a job that sounded great, and I felt quite discouraged after not being selected. Over time, I developed a thicker skin and did a better job of moving on when a company said no. Sometimes I thought about what actors have to go through, going to audition after audition, the great majority of which are not successful.

The Result

After months of hard work, I finally got a job offer. My new job is similar to what I have been doing in recent years, but with a few interesting differences.

While I can’t say that the search was enjoyable, I did appreciate the opportunity to learn about so many companies, as well as getting to hone my interviewing skills.

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Technical Writing in Action

by Scott Wilson on January 7, 2017

I was at a party recently and was asked what I do for a living. “I’m a technical writer,” I replied. “I wrote the instruction book you didn’t read when you bought that tech product you don’t use anymore.”

Awkward silence; one woman starting backing away from me.

But one of the strengths of a technical writer, I’ve heard, is perseverance, so I soldiered on.

“For example,” I said to the people still within earshot, “how would you describe this? Try to be pithy but accurate.” I wondered for a second if I should define “pithy” for them.

I didn’t. Instead, I performed a maneuver I had seen in a movie when I was much younger.

“Um, take a giant step to the left”? one person ventured. “Doesn’t quite get the springiness of it,” someone else said. “How about, jump to the left?”

My group was now actually increasing in size and interest, something my previous explanations of technical writing had thoroughly failed to accomplish. Probably the gymnastics aspect, I thought.

“Try to bring some warmth to it,” was my reply, “as if you were talking to a friend.”

“I’ve got it,” said the person who’d mentioned the giant step, “it’s just a jump to the left.”

“Good,” I said, “now step two.” And I did another maneuver.

“That’s easy, step to the right.”

“Can we tie it in with the first step?” I asked.

“OK, how about, and then a step to the right?”

“Perfect,” I replied. “So how about this?” And I performed two actions simultaneously. “Just be short and direct.”

“Alright, put your hands on your hips.. ” and she trailed off.

“Bend your knees?” someone else ventured, clearly new to the group.

“No, that’s a workout move,” was the response. “ How about, bring your knees in tight.”

“Very good,” I said, “but now things get harder. What about this?” And I did the final maneuver of the dance I’d learned from a movie at chaotic midnight showings, never realizing it was my start in technical writing.

Furrowed brows all around. Clearly, I’d gone beyond their developing technical writing skills.

And then an older woman walked up; apparently she’d been watching from across the room.

“My goodness,” she said, “that pelvic thrust is driving me insane.”

And finally someone got it. “So let me get this straight,” he said, “you teach people to dance the Time Warp from the Rocky Horror Picture Show?”

“So it seems.”

Everybody:

It’s just a jump to the left.

And then a step to the right.

Put your hands on your hips.

And bring your knees in tight.

But it’s the pelvic thrust.

That really drives you insane.

Let’s do the Time Warp again.

Words and music (I know you’re singing it to yourself!) by Richard O’Brien.

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Book Review. Modern Technical Writing: An Introduction to Software Documentation, by Andrew Etter, 2 of 3

January 7, 2017

Part Two: The Talk I don’t know if you’ve heard of it before, but there’s an organization called Write the Docs that calls itself a “series of conferences and local meetups focused on all things related to software documentation.” You could be forgiven for not knowing about Write the Docs because, they don’t currently have […]

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Book Review. Modern Technical Writing: An Introduction to Software Documentation, by Andrew Etter

December 12, 2016

Part One: The Book Modern Technical Writing is available on Amazon. Very reasonably priced. Search “Andrew Etter Amazon” using a web browser and you should have no problem finding it. Modern Technical Writing, for me, is really two books. One part of the book is the author’s take on technical writing best practices. The other […]

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What is the Purpose of the LASTC?

December 5, 2016

The purpose of STC chapters is to provide value to members at the local level. The LASTC does this mainly by: Maintaining a website: lastc.org Job notifications via email: lastc.org/resources/jobs/ Periodic dinner meetings with speaker: lastc.org/events/upcoming-meetings/ Serving as guide to the national STC: stc.org Because the LASTC is geographically dispersed – the majority of our […]

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Fresh from STC Summit

May 21, 2016

Jeff here, with another installment on this year’s STC Summit in Anaheim. Arriving at Summit! Admittedly, I did not set up my attendance for maximum success: due to work demands, I was only able to attend one day–Monday–which greatly curtailed my overall experience (Summit is a three-day event, with two pre-conference days). And due to a […]

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Wednesday’s Out of the Box Workshop

May 20, 2016

At breakfast, I re-read the workshop descriptions. The panel, Tech Comm Throwdown: 2 Experts Enter, 1 Winner Leaves, sounded interesting. What was this? It didn’t read like a typical panel description. “Mixing fact and fun, experts debate topics which may include…”—fact and fun? Intriguing. I’m curious what this panel is about; maybe I’ll go. Then […]

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STC Summit—Tuesday’s Workshop Tips

May 20, 2016

From the many choices, I selected these workshops: DevOps Docs: Fast, Great Content for the Cloud Vanessa Wilburn (IBM Corporation) Constantly changing GUI/features; documentation changes need to be as real-time as possible. User stories that address the customer’s needs. Need the right tools to move quickly: Agile; automate as much as possible. Writers attend stand-up […]

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STC Summit—Highlights from Sunday and Monday

May 17, 2016

I climbed the Summit and am enjoying the view! The speakers at #STC16 have shared insightful and detailed information. Here are some tips I’ve picked up so far: Sunday Night Opening Keynote David Rose, shared his view of Internet of Things. David focused on the scenario of Enchanted Objects: ordinary things that function the way […]

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Fine-Tune the Colorful Summit Guide

May 5, 2016

This week I revisited the Summit Guide and focused on Strategy 3. Looking at my highlighted hard copy, I realized I do need a clone—preferably several clones—because there are at least three sessions in each block I want to attend! I re-read the workshop descriptions and paid attention to the tracks. Great news! Some of […]

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