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Reinventing a Career: An Interview with Lisa Pappas
2007, Q4 (January 14, 2008)
By Michael Harvey, Carolina Chapter President and STC Associate Fellow

Lisa Pappas
Lisa Pappas
Lisa Pappas, an accessibility analyst with SAS Institute, has served the Carolina chapter as Treasurer, online competition Entries Manager, and online competition judge. At last year’s Annual Technical Summit, she was named an Associate Fellow “for consistently proving the value of technical communication to colleagues and students as a mentor and advocate, for…diligence in placing the focus on the importance of accessibility, and for demonstrating a passion in your professional life.” Lisa has retooled her job many times over the course of her career, as the following interview shows.

Michael Harvey: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Lisa Pappas: I attended Peace College, a women’s junior college at the time, and then transferred to N.C. State where I earned my BA in English and MS in Technical Communication. I’ve been married for 16 years to my best friend. We have one daughter, Arianna, 10, and two rescued German Shepherd dogs. We all enjoy the outdoors, camping, and hiking. Running and swimming are passions for me. Arianna and I share a love of horses and recently had a girls’ autumn vacation to trail ride in Blowing Rock, NC. I grew up in the foothills, and I am still drawn to the Appalachians.

MH: How did you get started in technical communication?
LP: I initially planned to study Chemical Engineering, but a job in the computer lab my freshman year piqued the latent geek in me. I remember lamenting to an adviser at Peace that I loved languages, science, and math equally and was frustrated that I couldn’t have a career that combined them all. She asked if I had considered technical writing, which I had never heard of (yes, I’m dating myself there). Then, she invited me to dinner with her father-in-law, who was a seasoned technical writer with IBM. I recall my relief at finding something that really suited my interests — a career with the opportunity for something constantly new to learn and one which could go in a variety of directions.

MH: What is your job now?
LP: I am an accessibility analyst, which means that I work with software testers to identify and prioritize accessibility issues, with development teams to address issues found, and with sales to complete accessibility checklists used in procurement. The job allows me to track emerging software technologies to understand how that affects universal access.

My interest in accessible technology is personal as well professional. My parents’ age-related disabilities inhibit their mobility. Through the Internet they stay connected to society and their grandkids. When I bought them a keyboard with extra large fonts on the keys and showed them how to use a screen magnifier, they were truly grateful.
"I wanted to join good folks doing great work at a company that cares about more than just the bottom line."

MH: How did you get from your first job to where you are today?
LP: It’s a long story where luck and coincidence figure prominently.

I was in graduate school at N.C. State when we had a guest lecturer from NCR, who then made PC clones. He mentioned their summer internship program, for which I applied, received, and moved to Columbia, SC. There I worked on a cross-platform office suite (Microsoft Word was still a DOS-based application, and I still remember many of the keyboard commands — they weren’t “short-cuts” then).

By the end of the summer, I had become an essential part of the team, so I was offered a remote, part-time position. This was when the concept of telecommuting was relatively new, so I thought I was so high-tech. I flew on-site every other week for a couple of days throughout that school year.

When I finished my coursework, I wanted to stay in Research Triangle Park and explore other aspects of technical writing. I was initially hired by Mary Cantando at PDR, a consulting firm that primarily did business with IBM. There I learned Bookmaster and began mainframe publishing.

I found my inverse chronological computer path rather amusing. In college, I used a Mac, then my first job in the industry was a PC with a very limited graphical user interface, and my first job out of school I was learning what seemed arcane text-based MVS and VM work. The funniest part is that when HTML was “new and complicated,” its tagging protocol was easy to learn for anyone with SGML experience.

Consulting was a great “first real job” for me because I got to work on many different types of projects, from large-scale publishing to single-sourcing, from medical software to heavy equipment manufacturing specifications. It was at PDR that I first began designing and coding online libraries. I loved how this drew on my technical as well as design skills. Thinking about information as type (list, procedure, etc) and considering context and branching was a great departure from hardcopy. One drawback to consulting, though, is that your creativity may be stymied by corporate style or other requirements.

That’s one reason a position as the lone writer (and first professional writer) at a small financial software company was so attractive to me. I joined Möbius Group in 1994. There I worked with Chris Benz and wrote software documentation, created training materials, delivered corporate training, set up corporate templates, produced client newsletters, and designed and developed intranet and Web content.

The Web work really whetted my appetite for technical challenge. In 1999, I joined Seagate Software, subsequently merged with VERITAS Software. Hired to write component software documentation, when the web administrator abruptly left, I was given the opportunity to learn. Diving in to JavaScript and web server software was just what I needed. Over the next several years, I evolved into an engineering project manager. My borderline obsessive nature was a great fit for a role where one had to track multiple moving parts, components integrated into many software applications across various platforms. It was a job that called for efficiency, and while I could demonstrate that amply, I found myself missing the end-user or end-product connection I had enjoyed in other jobs.

When I decided to leave VERITAS, rather than casting about for whatever was available, I took time to ask myself what I wanted, what was missing? I made a matrix of company and job attributes, such as commuting distance, variety, family-friendliness, and so forth. I weighted the factors and scored companies to come up with a short list to pursue. While I could easily have just started with one or two of those, the process of going through the factoring and weighting really helped me to understand what I wanted to do, how I wanted to spend my time, where I wanted to invest my intelligence and energy.

My last few years at VERITAS, the one project that I had most enjoyed was researching accessibility, as Section 508 law had come into force. The technology was challenging, but the potential good to society of accessible IT was fascinating.

On my short list of potential employers was SAS Institute, renowned for its low voluntary turnover. Knowing that positions were rarely and briefly opened on the SAS jobs site, I took a shot and found an accessibility analyst position just waiting for me. That was nearly four years ago, and I can honestly say that joining SAS was the best move of my career.

MH: What’s the biggest professional challenge you face today? How are you addressing it?
LP: Managing my enthusiasm. There are so many worthwhile ways to apply my energy, but I know that I have to spend it wisely.

MH: How did you get involved with STC? What roles have you played for STC Carolina?
LP: In grad school, I kept needing Journal articles, so thought I might as well save myself copying time by joining at the student rate. When the Carolina Chapter meetings consistently conflicted with core evening classes in my program, a group of us founded the N.C. State student chapter and I served as its second president. I was so proud at last year’s conference to accept an award on the chapter’s behalf (they were out partying), to know that effort continued nearly 20 years later.

MH: What’s the most valuable thing you’ve gotten from STC membership?
LP: Connections. When we hear networking, some of us (admittedly recovering introverts) cringe. But I have learned that it’s far more than schmoozing. I had the opportunity to hear a woman who, during a mergers-and-acquisitions frenzy, was able to land the CFO position of the larger and consuming company. Talking about the need to take risk to achieve your goals, she said, “Leap, and the net will appear.” As I listened, I realized that those connections — contacts, referrals, and friendships — that we form through networking are the strands of our network. And like any net, those bonds need maintenance — keep in touch with your contacts. Tools like LinkedIn facilitate that.

And to demonstrate the value of STC membership, I would ask how many of us found our current jobs through STC contacts. Did members refer you or provide a reference? Did you find the position posted on a job bank? My STC connections — despite the ebb and flow of my Carolina chapter involvement — have remained a common thread throughout my career in technical communication.

MH: You're running for STC director. What kinds of things would you like to accomplish in that role?
LP: I want to help the society evolve into a truly international and a sustainable professional association. The breadth of expertise among our membership and the broad applicability of that expertise are enormous. I would like to help our society network with other professional associations, promoting our members and raising awareness of the value of our profession. From a more specific focus, though, I would like to see accessibility recognized as a core tenet of technical communication. If information cannot be used by all who need it, then it is devalued. I admit that my soap box has a ramp.

MH: How would you advise technical communicators to maintain their value in today's market?
LP: Practice technical curiosity. There will always be more to read than we possibly can. So I advocate finding what you’re passionate about and following that. For me, a defining event was reading Now, Discover Your Strengths, by Marcus Buckingham, $20 from Amazon.com. Taking a strengths-based approach, we can truly leverage our natural abilities and, at least for me, find much greater satisfaction in the work I do.

MH: What's your take on Web 2.0?
LP: In a nutshell, Web 2.0 indicates the move from static content to fully dynamic web applications. I am particularly excited about it because of the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C’s) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) work on Accessible Rich Internet Application (ARIA) specifications. They’re proactively setting forth ways to make web-based applications behave like desktop applications, reducing learning curve and increasing the potential for accessibility. Through the cooperation of browser, web, and screen reader developers, this leap forward in technology may not — as many previous advances have — leave computer users with disabilities playing catch up.

MH: Any other thoughts you’d like to share?
LP: We make our own luck. It was sheer chance that I learned about Peace College, but it was the perfect place for a young woman from rural western NC to be introduced to higher academic life: 500 women, engaged instructors, small classrooms. That choice led me to my adviser, who led me to technical communication. Every job I’ve had has been through either direct or indirect contact with STC folks, including my job here at SAS. I knew Pat Moell and Meredith Kinder, and I had evaluated really high quality online products that SAS submitted to the competition. I wanted to join good folks doing great work at a company that cares about more than just the bottom line.

Michael can be reached at president at stc-carolina dot org. End of article.

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