Former English major Ace Howard describes his career in the software business.
How would you describe your job?
I’m a technical writer for a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company.
I would describe my job as the bridge between technical information and users. I sit down with subject matter experts (SMEs) and translate their high level of knowledge into terms that our audience can easily understand. Part of this process involves deciding which medium works best for the message (shout-out to Marshall McLuhan). My work could take the form of software documentation, white papers, case studies, social media, or blog posts. Because I have a background in web development, I’m also responsible for updating the company website.
Some of this stuff sounds complicated (it can be), but all the writing and problem solving makes the job a fun and rewarding experience.
What’s a typical workday like for you?
To give you some context, I work at a start-up that has only been around for about two years. My team operates in an Agile environment—a project management style commonly associated with software development.
I start my morning off with tea and a 15 minute stand-up meeting with my team to discuss our projects. Here, we talk about what we did yesterday, what we’ll do today, and whether we have something (or someone) blocking our progress. I’m a big fan of this meeting because it helps us communicate regularly and keeps us all on the same page.
After that, we get to work. I refer to our project board to prioritize my projects based on our conversation in the stand-up meeting. Depending on the work, I could spend the rest of the day writing, proofreading, coding, or interviewing SMEs. If I get lost or have any questions, my manager is always ready to help me out.
After working in companies that practice traditional waterfall project management, I appreciate the autonomy I get in Agile.
How did your English major affect your career path?
My English major is the reason why I’m on this career path in the first place.
I started off as a Pre-med major because I watched a lot of House and Scrubs in high school. While I could do the work and get decent grades in my science classes, I didn’t enjoy it. I knew something was wrong when I dreaded my science classes but I looked forward to my English classes. After a semester of Pre-med, I took the plunge and became a general English major. I’m sure I confused my lab instructor after I turned in my
lab report and withdrew from the course the next day.
When I signed up for classes the next semester, I picked an English class called Introduction to Digital Literacies. I chose it because it sounded interesting and it just happened to fit in with the rest of my schedule. I had no idea that this class would define the rest of my undergrad experience, not to mention my career path.
The Digital Literacies class bridged the gap between digital technology and writing. Writing isn’t limited to text on a document; it makes up most of the content we consume on the internet. We studied the basics of HTML and CSS to help us write effectively on the web. We studied how social media, wikis, and tools like Google Docs can foster communication and collaboration. We even studied how design affects rhetoric.
All of a sudden, an English degree didn’t mean that I would have to pick between being an English teacher or a barista (no disrespect to either of these jobs; I’m sure you’ve heard this before). An English degree (or minor) can augment any career. It’s just as important to know how to effectively communicate an idea as it is to have that idea in the first place.
What skills did you pick up in your major that have proved useful in your job?
I learned so many skills in my English major that it will be easier for me to list them out:
- HTML, CSS
- Graphic Design basics
- Editing a document
- The technical writing process
- Interviewing a subject
- Transcribing the interview
- Codifying the transcription
- Drafting the document based on my notes
- Designing the document
All of these skills proved useful even in projects that don’t involve document deliverables. These skills helped me in my everyday tasks from writing emails to putting on presentations. Good writing and presentation skills go a long way in the professional world.
Is there a particular class or professional opportunity that you remember having a big impact on you?
I talked a lot about my Digital Literacies class, but I want to give a shout-out to my Professional Writing classes. Without those lessons, I would not be doing technical writing today.
The biggest professional opportunity I ever had was getting my first job as a web developer for a small electronics manufacturer. Because it was a small company, I had the opportunity to do more than just website work. I go to work on marketing projects, and I even got to publish a technical document—both of which helped me land my next two jobs, online marketing and technical writing.
The biggest lesson I learned in the professional world is this: volunteer to do work that might not be in your job description. Two things could happen:
- You will get to expand your job description to do more things you want to do (and possibly lead to a raise).
- These projects could help you get experience for your next job.
Don’t forget to keep your portfolio updated!
Update: Since we interviewed Ace, he’s gotten a new job in Pittsburgh. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.