Editor’s Note: The following technical writing humor piece by Lisa Higgins is part of our collection of “classics”–technical writing articles that stand the test of time no matter how many technologies come and go. Lisa wrote the “From the Sidelines” column back at the turn of the century, and her humorous take on all things technical writing rings true more than a decade later. Remember, newbie and respect are terms that just don’t seem to go together.
Newbies: One Day You’ll Be Just Heartless Enough to Appreciate Respect
It was a long time ago, I’ll be the first to admit, but I was a newbie once, too. A fresh-faced innocent to technical writing, wide-eyed and fairly glowing with charming naivete.
Well, I like to think that now, only because it makes it so much easier, but I suppose that wasn’t really true for me any more than it is for anyone. As a matter of fact, by the time I got my first tech writing job, I was already jaded and vaguely misanthropic, withered and hardened by too many graveyard shifts, too few square meals, and just enough hootch to keep me plugging along to the ripe old age of twenty-three.
The ripe old age of twenty-three being when I got one of those bright, shiny tech writing jobs in the corporate ghetto of Denver, where men with clip-on ties and women with teased hair and smudged mascara stand huddled outside of buildings that are remarkable only in their unrelenting monotony, smoking cigarettes and waiting for buses to take them home, where they eat their TV dinners in front of the inane blatherings of the TV talking heads, then pack their lunches for tomorrow, set their alarms, and go to bed.
Oh, sure, things were different then. I suppose the women wore their skirts different lengths, and I suppose they hadn’t invented that spray-on hair yet. But once you get over the fact that the numbing corporate blue of the 1980s has been replaced with that hunter green color that’s come to represent high tech business, laundry baskets, trash cans, and SUVs everywhere, it’s all pretty much the same. The same arguments over fonts and heading styles; the same political battles between engineers and writers, each struggling to maintain his tenuous foothold on the middle class; and the same beat up old toaster in the breakroom that management threatens to get rid of every time it sets off the fire alarm.
And always, there are the newbies. The kids, just starting out, who, no matter how tough they think they are, have never been anywhere like the sucking black hole of Corporate America, where you can’t even count on honor among thieves or turnabout being fair play.
There are times, I’ll admit, when the few last shreds of human decency I’ve got left in me want to grab these poor kids by the shoulders and just shake them good and hard until they come to their senses, turn heel, and run as fast as they can back to the cold but logical savagery of the mean streets they came from. But then it occurs to me that that would’ve never worked on me, and it probably won’t work on them, either. We all think it’ll be different for us. So the best thing I know to do is just tell those newbies what the rules are and maybe stick around long enough to rub it in, give ‘em a little taste of “I told you so” later on, when they come to realize that I was right all along.
So, here are the rules. But be forewarned, they’re not pretty.
- Loyalty and hard work don’t always pay off. Stoolies don’t get theirs in the end, everybody’s on the take, and all the academic studies, common sense, and audience analysis in the world can’t sway a corporate toady on the warpath. There are days you’ll feel like a rat in a lab, except that when you go to push on the red button for a pellet just like every other day, you’ll get an electrical shock instead, because the rules changed and they didn’t bother to tell you about it.
- Don’t forget what you’ve learned, but don’t count on it, either. Because there’ll be a time, probably sooner rather than later, when your company, which just sent a press release out to the wires saying they’re virtually drowning in greasy samoleans, will tell you that they need to tighten the belt. And you’ll end up spending an extra six or seven weeks trying to get some creaking, antiquated word ciphering system to crank out the massive multimedia suite of documentation you’ve been tasked with.
- Everybody thinks they know your job better than you. Every low-rent, as seen on television, trade school certificate holding programmer has written a sentence once or twice, and is here to tell you exactly how it’s done. As far as they’re concerned, your one purpose in life is to immortalize those precious jewels of wisdom that drip so fetchingly from their tongues. And your reaction, at least until you’ve got that resume beefed up a little, is to smile, nod, and thank them for their help. And after you’ve done your job in spite of them, you put on your thinking cap and think of something–anything–they told you that helped, and you hand over that manuscript, reeking of your blood, sweat, and tears, and you say, “Thanks, I couldn’t have done it without you.”
Well, I suppose you’ll go home on more than one night, tired, frustrated, and bewildered, and curse the injustice of it all. Go ahead. Wail and gnash your teeth. If it makes you feel better, write up a memo about it, using your very slickest corporate speak to call your superiors incompetent twits without letting them put their finger on just where you said it. And once you’ve got that off your chest, knuckle down and get used to it. You’re officially a rube, and it’s against the rules for you to be right. So swallow that bitter and do it, Kid. Pay your dues, and when you’ve got a few more hard knocks under your belt, you turn right around and you take Corporate America for everything you can.
One day, you’ll have the respect that you know you’ve deserved all along, the shiny new software package that cuts your workload in half, and the power to grab that punk codemonkey by the scruff of his neck and tell him to pound sand.
And by that time, you may just be heartless enough to really appreciate it.