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Another Technical Writing Success Story by Mark Ellingson

After an eighteen year career in technology, I have one thing in common with many of my colleagues: we have children. Eating lunch or grabbing a coffee I am frequently asked “What should my child do to get a job in technology” and “What did you major in?” and “I heard about a computer camp where kids make games. Is this a good idea?”

When I say my major was history I get a blank stare. If asked how history led to programming I usually say food. When this joke doesn’t register I explain how I started as a technical writer and eventually application/software developer. I also add how my dad would scream at me to read the manual after pestering him about how to bold text in WordStar (software circa 1983).

The education and background of application and software developers is diverse. Some come from an engineering background while others learned to program in the military or were math majors who worked in accounting. Many developers are musicians, martial artists and athletes. I loved high school geometry and was a competitive fencer for twelve years. At some point each person who became a developer was tasked with programming and it clicked. The common thread is an analytic mind, creativity, the ability to self-teach, and the ability to write.

Working at Shoap Technical Services showed me how to quickly learn technical skills while producing a professional product. The deadline clock didn’t stop ticking and if I had to learn how to cross reference text or manipulate images for illustrations it was up to me to figure it out. Facing tight deadlines, producing a finished product, and learning new technical skills at STS provided some of the key ingredients for the foundation of my software development career. Plus Bob Pudlik was around and he had read the entire DOS manual when he was thirteen. He knew everything.

In 1997 after three years of technical writing I landed a job at Lithonia Lighting as “Editor of Electronic Communications.” I was the guy who wrote content for the website. Within two or three months my boss and I realized we needed a data driven product catalog and sales agent locator. I got a book on Active Server Pages and started studying. Programming clicked with me; this project was the first of many and more complex endeavors in my career. Instead of writing cross references for documents, I wrote libraries of functions referenced by various parts of my application. Once again I found myself having to learn new skills to develop a professional product. Paragraphs of English for people were replaced with sets of instructions for a computer.

There is not a single technical skill you can learn to become a programmer or a technical writer. Nor is there a single path to a technical career. My advice to parents is, yes, the game camp sounds great but having your kids change the oil in your car is good too. Review your children’s homework with a red pen and be tough. Discuss soccer strategy. Demonstrate producing with technology not just consuming. Technical skills are a by-product of solving the problems you encounter along the way.

1 reply on “Another Technical Writing Success Story by Mark Ellingson”

This is a wonderful blog about the success story of a technical writer. It is really true that application and software developers come from various educational avenues. I personally know a person who is in this profession and is from a musical background. Going through this blog should inspire any person planning to enter this professional field.

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