Interview With Chris Peter

Get advice from experts in the field of tech writing!

Chris Peter worked as a tech writer at Reebok Corporation, a company that produces footwear and athletic clothing. She also taught writing courses at the Univerisity of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

What skills did you have entering the tech writing field?
As a graduate from UMass Dartmouth's Professional Writing Program, I had solid documentation skills. I took a number of useful courses, including technical writing, scientific journalism, and layout and design. I had a lot of writing skills and experience in meeting deadlines, as well. I felt I was lacking in only one area, serious collaborative writing. As a tech writer, you work on a team with engineers, designers, quality assurance people . . . To be successful, you need general people skills and interviewing skills.

Did you decide you wanted to be a tech writer in graduate school?
I enjoyed my tech writing career, but I knew I wouldn't end up staying there. I wanted to teach, get involved in the academic side.

Do you miss it?
Yes, ideally I would like to consult a few times a year, work on a project-by-project basis. Tech writing is exciting and interesting. I certainly learned a lot and worked with a lot of interesting people, but I knew tech writing wouldn't be my main career.

What kinds of documents did you create?
I mostly created Reebok proprietary documents for their computer systems. These documents included end-user manuals for audiences ranging from the sales force to engineers.

Did you feel overwhelmed when you first started working there?
When I started, I had enough computer experience to get by. But as the projects grew in complexity, I learned more about computer architecture. If you're going to be a tech writer, a basic interest and affinity for technology helps.

Did you find it stressful?
Reebok's culture is very fast paced. I changed my position from being a tech writer to a trainer, training employees how to use my documents and in-house computer programs. I was involved in course development, assessments, and presentations. In addition, I became a low-level computer administrator, which meant a heavy workload and always putting in over 50 hours a week. Not to mention, I was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

How many tech writers were working there?
There were only two tech writers when I first started working. At our highest point, there were five of us, then the department dissolved. Because Reebok didn't see a big need for the tech doc department, the company didn't invest large amounts of money into it. If they can hire tech writers for a low salary, why pay them more? I worked at well below the Society for Technical Communication's median, although the benefits were excellent and we did receive yearly raises. Still, my colleagues were making much more.

Do you have any advice for people entering the field?
Negotiate your salary up front. Be clear on the skills that you can give the company and the kinds of work they expect from you. You are not a glorified note taker! Show the values of technical documentation; there are many. The longer I was there, the more respect I got. In addition, I was lucky enough to work on a very good team. Keep in mind that if your manager doesn't see the value of tech doc, pretty much nothing will change his or her mind.

Did you have a difficult time talking to the engineers?
Some engineers went out of their way to be helpful, but it's really tied to having good social skills and doing your part to learn and understand. I did my research, bought computer dictionaries, and learned the systems.

What should tech writers look for in a company? And what do companies look for in a tech writer?
Tech writers should look for a company that values technical documentation and clearly states its expectations. Companies look for tech writers who are flexible, able to work in a team, self-sufficient, and capable of supporting a product.

Any suggestions for future tech writers?
Join the Society for Technical Communications and the American Society for Training and Development; both have outstanding professional support.

What made you decide to leave the field?
I'd always wanted a career in teaching, and I had been a part-time teacher for four years. If I had stayed in tech writing, I would have moved more and more into computer analysis and computer administration. The experience I did have in the field was exciting and worthwhile.