Tuesday, August 16, 2011

How I became a technical writer

One of my favorite bedtime stories1, when I was little, was about a dog who could read the newspaper, talk, walk on two legs, prepare his own dinner... This smart dog lived by one and only principle: "marche au hasard, tu arriveras bien quelque part," which translates to: "walk at random, you'll end up somewhere." This seems like the worst advice a kid can get in a world where the most successful people are those who have clear (and written) goals. Yet it stayed with me. The way I interpreted it was: if you trust your instincts, if you let the path open in front of you, you can't go wrong. Life will take you where you fit best, because you will naturally follow your most favorable path.

Years later, as I entered college, the senior students "welcomed" all of us freshmen on campus with a hazing in the form of a series of tests and challenges (similar to what students do to enter fraternities here, albeit in a subdued fashion. Still, I spent a day covered in paint and shaving cream, collecting coins at a light stop in the middle of Lyon... But I digress). One of the assignments (which I took very seriously), was to find the best adjective to describe oneself. I came up with "optimistic". I think this explains why I understood Mister Dog's advice the way I did.

So the optimistic and waiting-to-see-what-life-will-offer little girl grew up without knowing what her professional life would be like. I was very good at maths and science, which were the most revered disciplines in my family, so I studied to become an engineer. I didn't think much of it, but it turned out to be a pretty good choice. It was intellectually challenging, rewarding in many ways. I was missing the other disciplines I'd been exposed to in high school (philosophy being my favorite; arts, music, history and literature not far behind), but there wasn't time for everything.

Life became interesting when I first moved to California. The words "Silicon Valley" sounded really magical in the late 1990's, so I came to San Jose for a six-month internship before my final year in grad school2. Discovering a new culture (many cultures, actually, as everyone I met came from a different corner of the world) was extraordinary. My horizon expanded in ways I had never anticipated. Speaking and writing in English every day also reinforced my interest in languages. I came back to Lyon to finish my master's degree, spent six months in Munich to immerse myself in one more culture and capitalize on a dozen years of learning German, then decided I had to see more of California.

For the following eight years, I worked as a digital design engineer and as an engineering manager in the Bay Area. However, as years past, I realized that the most enjoyable part of my work was to communicate with others and explain what I had designed or was about to design. Creating new algorithms gave me nightmares—working through the details of the implementation was just as stressful. But writing about the whole creation was pure joy. I started thinking that if one day I could devote my entire time to writing, it would be ideal. I didn't know yet about a profession called technical writing.

Meanwhile, I traveled all around the United States in my spare time. I started blogging about my adventures (in French, here) to share my enthusiasm with family members and friends. Being away also helped me see France in a new light and I wanted to share at least one aspect of my "frenchness" with my new friends on this side of the pond. So I started blogging about my favorite recipes (in English, here). This was another unconscious attempt at "technical" (or at least procedural) writing.

Slowly but surely, all these experiences and aspirations started converging. As Mister Dog had predicted, my seemingly disconnected adventures in engineering and writing, and my interest in languages and novelties, all pointed me in the direction of technical communication. I ended up somewhere unexpected, unplanned, yet perfectly fitting.

1 After a little research, I'm finding out that the book is Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself, by Margaret Wise Brown (Golden Press, 1952). I had the French translation, Monsieur Chien. Now I need to buy the book and see what Crispin's Crispian (that's the dog's name) was saying in the original version.

2 If you're wondering, there isn't really a concept of college and graduate school in France. All the curriculum is done in a so-called "Grande Ecole", or engineering school, which takes students from high school to master's level in five very full years.

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Chien is a real looker! No wonder you became attached. Je crois que vous êtes arrivé!