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Tools, Technology, & Learning to Get Along
May 26, 2017
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By Vincent Reh, Chapter Member

Vincent Reh
Vincent Reh
I’ve been writing professionally on and off for more than 30 years, working various engineering and technical jobs between communication gigs. In terms of technological advancement, 30 years is a long time, a fact that becomes sorely evident when I recall writing college papers on a manual typewriter and the thrill of receiving a portable electric model during one particularly joyous Christmas.

Graduating during tough economic times in the early 80s, I was fortunate to land a job designing and building microelectronics test fixtures for Motorola. Part of the job involved documenting my designs, which included writing user instructions for test lab colleagues. Fortunately, I’d always enjoyed writing and had plenty of reasons to do a good job. It didn’t hurt that the lab had recently purchased a $10,000 Apple Lisa computer to handle record keeping, computing, drawing, and writing tasks. Motorola produced the 68000 microprocessor used in the machine, which probably explains why the company spent so much money to get one.

I was completely amazed by the Lisa and how easy it was to write and illustrate documents with it—it really did seem like magic.
I was completely amazed by the Lisa and how easy it was to write and illustrate documents with it—it really did seem like magic. You could instantly print however many copies of any documents you needed and easily create revisions as necessary. We used MacWrite and MacDraw applications, saved our work on big floppy discs, and printed using a dot-matrix model that had an insatiable appetite for ribbon cartridges. Perhaps the thing that surprised me most was how easy it was to learn about the computer and its software. It was a good lesson in the value of intuitive tools and a well-executed graphical user interface.

I found out I was doing a good job with the writing aspects of the position when the engineering publications manager called me into his office. He was especially interested in making use of my technical skills and experiences with the Lisa. The publications department had just purchased Apple Macintosh computers and the writers were in the process of learning how to use them after having worked with IBM Selectric typewriters for many years. In addition to being fascinated by the little computer’s mouse and astonished by the high quality output of the laser printer, I remember speaking with the writers and sharing my opinions and experiences on how easy it was to write and draw using a computer. One writer joked about how quiet the department had become as everyone took to their Macs.

Not long after I started in the department, management required the draftsmen to produce drawings using AutoCAD. Up to that time, they sat at big drawing tables and used ink pens to produce their plates. Not a single draftsman was happy with the change, but some got along better than others. Marie, an older draftsman (that’s what they called everyone in those days) had a very rough time and couldn’t get the hang of it. She would return to her drafting table after every attempt at the computer and break into tears. It wasn’t long before the company offered her a retirement package. A sobering experience, and one that I learned from: If you can’t keep up with the times, you’ll soon be out of a job.
If you can’t keep up with the times, you’ll soon be out of a job.

Over the years, I more or less kept up with learning new tools and technologies, and distinctly remember being stunned at how primitive IBM PCs were when I left Motorola for a company that didn’t use Macs. DOS was a real drag. It reminded me of many long, unpleasant hours spent in college computer labs writing and executing programs on dumb terminals. However, one thing the PC had was a hard drive, something I’d never seen before. I was amazed at its 20 Megabyte storage capacity, and the fact that you didn’t have to continually remove, file, and insert discs to do your work. Now that was progress—heaven help you if you misplaced or forgot to label a floppy disc.

Speaking of progress, somewhere along the way it became necessary to master something other than WordPerfect and Microsoft Word to remain gainfully employed. I learned Pagemaker and QuarkXpress to get jobs laying out manuals and newsletters, something that in the past had been done by people called compositors working on Linotronic terminals, which used inscrutable, non-WYSIWYG screens. I remember watching them work and marveling at their ability to envision how the Linotronic codes translated into page layouts, and the blinding speed at which they keystroked in our text.

Eventually I learned FrameMaker and Interleaf to work for companies involved in government contracting, and Photoshop, PhotoStyler, CorelDraw, and Illustrator as more and more companies expected writers to do more than just write. These experiences made it clear tools were becoming much more powerful, and they were no longer so easy to learn. This fact became painfully obvious as single-sourcing tools gained in popularity—in an attempt to keep up with the times, I attended as many STC seminars on DITA and XML as I could, fully expecting to find a job with a company that that used these tools and was willing to give me the time to get up to speed. However, this never materialized. Every writing job I got did things the old way, with no need for single sourcing.

Needless to say, time zipped along and in the meantime most writers became proficient with the new tools as part of their work. Thinking back to Marie’s experience with AutoCAD, I knew it was just a matter of time before I would become a technological dinosaur with limited meaningful skills. That time finally came last year when I decided to get back into technical writing and return south after doing mostly technical work for three years. My tech skills had always gotten me through the door, even if I had to learn new tools as part of a job. This time, after several interviews and no success, it became clear my fallback of saying I could learn the tools no longer worked—tools have become so complex and schedules so compressed that most employers can no longer tolerate any kind of a learning curve. Today’s writers are expected to hit the ground running with single-sourcing tools right out of the gate.

I was fortunate to land a job with Avtec, a South Carolina-based leader in the dispatcher communication console business. Because of my strong background in radio, railroads, and utilities, they were willing to take me on even though I had no experience with Flare, the tool they use to produce online and print documentation. I’ve since attended Flare training through STC and Madcap, and am pleased with my progress, but discover every day I still have a lot to learn. I am very grateful to be with a company that offers opportunities to learn single-sourcing approaches and tools as part of the job. I’ve been completely impressed with the Flare’s capabilities, and it’s really rejuvenated my interest in technical writing.

I am in awe of how far our tools have progressed in a relatively short time.
Looking back over my career, I am in awe of how far our tools have progressed in a relatively short time. When using highly complex software, a sleek laptop computer, and several large, high resolution, solid-state monitors to create and repurpose content for multiple output types, it’s almost inconceivable that I once banged out documents on an old manual typewriter. And I really do mean banged. Anyway, it probably won’t be long before I’ll need to learn the next round of up-and-coming tools and technologies to remain viable, but Marie taught me a valuable lesson I’ll never forget.

Vincent Reh can be reached at vr at byronhill dot com. End of article.

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