Interview With Jeff Nilson

Get advice from experts in the field of tech writing!

Jeff Nilson worked as a principal tech writer for Cognex Corporation, a company that creates programs for vision systems.

How long have you been a tech writer?
I've been a technical writer since 1988.

What is your background?
I have a Bachelor's degree in English and a Master's degree in Education. In addition, I have completed all course work for a PhD in Education.

My background is in education, writing, and computer programming. I have taught English and reading for 17 years and have been interested in software development since the early eighties. From 1981 to 1983, I programmed three educational computer games that were published by Encyclopedia Britannica Software. I also helped design the Bank Street Writer, one of the first word processing programs.

Tell me about Cognex.
Cognex Corporation designs, develops, manufactures, and markets machine vision systems, or computers that can "see." Companies use machine vision to inspect products, such as razor blades or soda cans. Semiconductor manufacturers also use Cognex hardware and software to guide robots that manufacture computer chips and other devices.

What does your work consist of?
My work consists of the following tasks:

  • Interviewing engineers
  • Analyzing code
  • Describing what a machine vision tool does (eg, a tool may locate shapes in an image)
  • Listing the steps involved in using the tool
  • Writing small test applications using programming language

Do you work on a project individually or in a group?
I work in a group of seven tech writers; two of whom were software developers before they became writers. We are part of the engineering department with a lead software engineer and a group manager. While we do work together, I work by myself most of the time.

What is the work environment like? Do you find it stressful?
Cognex has a "work hard, play hard" mentality. It can be stressful; employees are expected to work over 40 hours a week, even working weekends when there is a deadline. But, it is also rewarding: we are well paid and have good benefits. In addition, Cognex pays for us to go on a vacation after we have worked at the company for five years.

How is the pay?
You are paid according to your experience, the skills you have, and your writing ability. Cognex wants tech writers with engineering and computer programming backgrounds, which is why they have a difficult time hiring writers. As long as you can write clearly, you have a good chance of being hired if you have the right background. In some cases, writing skills are taken for granted, although the company does check writing samples. Because of the skills needed, the pay is roughly equivalent to engineers, earning up to $100,000.

From your experience, what kinds of skills do you think tech writers need? What recommendations do you have?
I'm on the highly technical end, but I would recommend constantly upgrading your skills, including learning a document design program and becoming familiar with at least one online help program.

I would also recommend taking classes in web design, web programming, and user interface design. Of course, you should also take writing classes. The documents that we create aren't meant to look fancy, but knowing how to use a graphics program helps you do technical drawings and manipulate screen shots.

I also recommend joining the Society for Technical Communication, which gives a broad perspective on the industry. And when you do start looking for a job, consider contacting a recruiter.