Search icon Looking for something?

50 Years in the Making: An Interview with Andrew Malcolm
2012, Q3 (September 30, 2012)
By Jamie Gillenwater, Carolina Chapter Member
Andrew Malcolm
Andrew Malcolm

On July 28, 2012, Jamie Gillenwater interviewed Andrew Malcolm, a member of Education & Research, Accessibility and the STC Rochester chapter.. Jamie and Andrew met at the 2012 Annual Conference honors banquet in Chicago. Jamie asked for an interview to explore how Andrew became a technical communicator.

Jamie: Tell me a little bit about your background. How did you enter the field of technical communication?

Andrew: I was trained as an electrical technician in high school and then as an electronics technician in junior college. That was 1945-50 and I did not start technical writing—as it was called then—until it became part of my job in 1954 or '55. I was asked to write parts of an instruction manual for equipment I was designing. By 1959, I was working full-time as a technical writer and then publications manager.

J: How would you describe technology at the start of your career?

A: My first job was repairing dictating machines in Manhattan. These machines were the latest thing in dictating machines at the time as they were electronic—a word that had only been in use less than a decade. The trade-ins we received were acoustic voice recorders that used wax cylinders; they were electric in that they had an electric motor that turned the cylinder, but the power of the sound of the speakers’ voice modulated the groove in the wax. The machines I repaired used a dynamic microphone, a 4­-tube amplifier that drove an electro-mechanical recording head that embossed a vinyl disc. The disc was driven by a motor both in rotation and also spaced the groves—similar to the 331/3 rpm records that had just begun replacing the 78-rpm record disks.

My years of teaching deaf college students and presenting many papers on deafness brought the idea of simplified grammatical structures to writers and increased the awareness of STC members of the lives of profoundly deaf persons.

J: What has been the most unexpected evolution in technology?

A: After my job in Manhattan, I took a job at NYU in The Bronx. I built equipment for experimental measurement of voltage and fre­quency on a Signal Corps contract. Next, I worked as a design engineer designing an electronic spec­trum analyzer. I designed plug-in circuits and printed circuits. I thought that this was the "wave of the future."

The transistor was not yet in production, but I knew it would make a great deal of difference in the size of equipment. But that micro-circuits would one day dominate the industry never occurred to me until I read about them in the Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers. IRE was one of the predecessor organizations that formed the IEEE in 1963.

J: Was there a technology that you expected to be successful that failed?

A: Yes. I thought that the 8-track tape player would be a great boon. It was the first equipment that allowed recorded music to be played in a car. Alas, it only lasted for a few short years. But I was wrong the other way around too. I’m embarrassed to say, in 1950 I saw no future in television—ugly black & blue images on a tiny screen viewed in a darkened room and losing big money for the radio business.

J: What skills have helped you as a technical communicator?

A: Four things: 1) my grasp of the English language in speech and in writing and recognizing that they are not the same; I owe this to a great degree to my Aunt Jessie (1890—1968) who was also my 6th grade teacher. I lived with her for 5 years and she lived with me 5 years, so her careful use of the spoken word embedded in me the correct use of English. 2) My technical education. 3) Critical reading of technical writing by others; reading what others wrote that was unclear, erroneous, and excessive and improving it. And 4) learning touch typing that increased the speed of writing and therefore the quantity which, in turn, improved the quality.

J: What do you recommend technical communicators do to keep their skills polished as technology evolves?

A: That’s an easy one: write! Benjamin Franklin explained how he learned to write well. His method was simple: read the work of others and note the good and the bad. Steven King’s book On Writing says much the same thing.

J: You have been an STC member for 48 years. In that time you have contributed to the field of technical communication through numerous articles and presentations, served on the STC Board, and received the Fellow honor. What do you consider your greatest accomplishment in our field?

A: I guess I have to say two things. 1) I wrote and presented a paper at the 1966 conference in Ft. Worth, titled “Use of Contract Labor for Technical Writing,” about managing temporary employees. It was republished by the STC in 1974 in an anthology titled, Managing a Publications Department. 2) I wrote and presented a paper at the 1980 conference urging technical communicators to use word processing in their work. Manuscripts were typed on typewriters unless they were done with pencil on yellow pads. At the session, one attendee suggested that using a computer took more time. He didn’t have the concept of capturing keystrokes! The year 1980 was also the year when personal computers appeared on writers’ desks.

I would add that my 29 years of teaching deaf college students and presenting many papers on deafness and writing at STC conferences brought the idea of simplified grammatical structures to writers that prelingually deaf people need and that make reading easier for the rest of us. It also increased the awareness of STC members of the lives of profoundly deaf persons.

Jamie can be reached at jamie dot gillenwater at gmail dot com. End of article.

More articles like this...
Comments powered by Disqus.