CIPS CONNECTIONSINTERVIEWS by STEPHEN IBARAKI, I.S.P.
Top-flight Technical Editor, Author, Writer, Communications Instructor
This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with Gina Carrillo.
Gina Carrillo is a technical writer and editor of 10 years, a technical communications instructor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and a freelance author and technical editor for Que Publishing and Sams Publishing.
With a Bachelor's degree in Journalism, Gina started in technical writing ten years ago writing software documentation, developing online help, and Web sites. Since then, she has continued to grow and prosper as a technical writer and editor along with the computer technology age.Gina, with the help of seven other select, senior-level technical writers, and a USF administrator, developed the Technical Communications Certificate Program at the University of South Florida, Tampa. Gina became an instructor co-teaching the RoboHelp session and solely teaching the Technical Editing session in the program. Due to demand and the success of the program, the RoboHelp class has expanded and will be offered as an independent class, which Gina will teach this spring.
Gina’s book credits as technical editor or author include:
Gina continues to work full-time developing online help, writing, and editing technical documentation for various government and private-industry technology companies.
Q: Gina, you have a successful and varied background that will provide many insights to our readers. Thank you for doing this interview!
A: My pleasure.
Q: You have an educational background in journalism, however, you work in computing. Provide more details about your career choices, challenges faced, and lessons you have learned along the way.
A: Well, I sort of fell into technical writing, like most people who have been in the technical writing business as long as I have. There weren't any degrees for technical writing when I was in college. I had never even heard of a technical writer until after I graduated from college.
I didn't know what I wanted to do for a career when I started college, so I took several classes to see what most appealed to me. I think I always knew that I would end up in writing somehow, but didn't know how, when, or where. When I took the Introduction to Journalism class, I knew that was the route for me. Throughout college though, I just couldn't picture myself as a reporter. I really liked the layout and design aspect of journalism and editing seemed to come very naturally to me as well. Still, I couldn't see myself working for a newspaper or magazine.
I had to work to pay for my education and living expenses and worked doing various clerical and administrative tasks, including some computer work, for the same company throughout college. I realized that I learned new systems and computer technology easily, and really enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing and editing. Six months after graduation, I saw an internal posting at my work for a technical writer. I had never even heard of a technical writer, but when I read the job description, it immediately appealed to me because of the need for an English or Journalism degree, computer experience, and company system knowledge; all of which I had. The job description sounded like it was written for me. To make a long story short, I applied and my career in technical writing began. That was over 10 years ago.
The road hasn't been easy. Even though I had gone to college for a Journalism degree, technical writing is a whole different ball of wax. The writing styles and composition of the documentation are very different. In addition, I didn't have the best mentor, which was intimidating for me. There was no time for swimming lessons - I was thrown in and it was either sink or swim. After struggling for almost two years under oppression by a very domineering, negative, and difficult mentor/lead writer, I started doubting my abilities. Nevertheless, I stuck it out and it paid off. I switched writing teams to get out from under Broom Hilda, and was finally able to show my true colors. I even helped my team win an award from an STC (Society for Technical Communication) competition for the layout and design that I did for a computer manual. That helped my confidence a great deal and from there I got into online documentation, such as Windows help and Web development. I learned quickly and took to online forms of documentation like a fish to water. I felt back in my element again. After learning some valuable skills, I took a great job in Dunedin, Florida, in the Tampa Bay area and have lived there ever since working for various technology and government-based companies, sometimes traveling pretty far to work on projects. It's been tough, a lot of long hours, and stress, but has been worth it. I find my work very gratifying. However, true gratification, I've learned, has been through teaching and writing books.
All those years of struggle and strife added to my knowledge base and lead me to help develop the Technical Communications Certificate Program at the University of South Florida. I sort of fell into that roll as well. I actually went looking for certificate programs for technical writers because the company I worked for wanted me to find educational paths for junior writers in the company. I researched all over Florida and couldn't find a one that was true technical writing (most programs and degrees were business writing). That's when I saw that my local STC chapter was going to have a guest speaker at USF and the discussion was about a new technical writing certificate program. I thought I was going to get information about the program, but ended up being asked to participate in developing and teaching in this continuing education, non-credit program. It took a year to develop and get the program off the ground. It was very successful at first, but as the economy worsened, companies and individuals didn't have the funds to pay for education, and we've had to put the program on hold until enrollment improves.
However, great things have come out of that program. I wish I had access to such a program to teach me the ins and outs of technical writing when I started out. I had to fumble my way through the learning curve, learn tools, technology, and methodologies on my own or on the job. It was a great honor for my fellow instructors and me to develop a customized program like this. It was a much needed program too because the degree program for technical writers at USF did not teach aspiring technical writers information architecture, how to develop online help using RoboHelp, how to create software manuals, technical editing, how to utilize graphics in their documentation, etc. I am very proud of our accomplishments and hope that the program is able to get off the ground again when the economy improves. We (the instructors) put all of our collaborative year's experience into that program and offered a program like no other. That 's something to be proud of indeed. All the years I spent struggling before I got involved in the program were well worth it because I think had I not struggled like that, I would not have had the passion to get involved and help others coming up through the ranks.
Soon after I moved to Florida, I was working full-time as a technical writer and editor and ended up once again to be in the right place at the right time. I knew one of the authors that wrote for Que and Sams and he knew my writing abilities, my experience as a technical editor, and experience with Web design. He was writing a Web book and his acquisitions editor (AE) needed a technical editor. I was referred to the AE, who reviewed my resume, and next thing I knew, I was being offered freelance editing opportunities. Those opportunities eventually lead to becoming an author for them as well. I've worked on and off doing freelance books for Que and Sams for five to six years now. I really enjoy writing books especially. The writing style is very different from the end-user type technical writing I do on a daily basis. It's a refreshing change.
You are probably wondering when I have time to sleep and I sometimes wonder why I expect so much out of myself. My drive is all about the passion and continual growth and gratification I get when a project is complete, and I've made a difference. If you don&t love what you do, it makes it difficult to commit long hours and constantly challenge yourself. I have to have a creative outlet and writing books and teaching fulfill my creative desires and are both very gratifying as well. However, I cannot do those things on a full-time basis, so that's why I continue to work as a full-time technical writer and editor for technology companies. That work is also gratifying as well, but I must say I do prefer teaching and writing books.
The biggest lesson I've learned over the years is to follow your instincts because they won't let you down and can lead to wonderful things.
Q: From your extensive writing background, can you provide valuable tips for software documentation, and on-line help?
A: If I had to sum up the most important tip for software documentation, I'd have to say simplicity. With all the technology out there, you can develop some cool online help with special effects. However, one rule of thumb I always teach my students and one I always abide by myself is this: just because you can, doesn't mean you should. Most of the time less is more. I know that sounds cliché, but it is so very true. Designing a site to be clean, simple, and easy to use is of key importance. People don't like to read and have short attention spans. Therefore, if documentation is intimidating by being too detailed, hard to navigate through, or is blinking, moving, or zooming in and out, people won't use it.
Q: Describe your experiences with RoboHelp.
A: I started using RoboHelp back in the Windows 3.1 days. I started developing Windows-based online help, then moved to HTML-based and Web Help a few years afterwards. I've played around with the Java and Oracle Help but find it very limiting with what you can do with it (for example, secondary windows, pop-ups, etc.). RoboHelp as a tool has vastly improved over the years and is (in my opinion), the best online help development tool on the market. I enjoy teaching it as well. It's a lot of fun to develop help and most end-users love using it. Now there is a fairly new feature that RoboHelp offers called WebHelp Pro, which allows you to monitor usage of a help system by installing the RoboEngine on the server where the help resides. You can run reports that show you how your help system is being used and maybe where improvements need to be made. With all the years I've used RoboHelp, there's always something new to learn.
Q: Can you share a few stories from your development of the Technical Communications Certificate Program? What would you change and improve?
A: I think the only area I would want to improve for the Technical Communications Certificate Program is the length. It really needs to be longer and in my wildest dreams, I would love to see it become the degreed program, expanded of course. We are only given six, three-hour sessions for example, for the RoboHelp class. This only allows time for the very basics and unless you’re a quick learner, the time restriction can be intimidating and stressful. Most students work full-time and take our classes, which are evening and weekend classes, to improve or change their skill set. So, they are usually tired at the end of the day. The entire program is pass/fail and students are required to create a portfolio, which they turn in at the end of the program for the instructors to review and rate. The portfolio consists of one printed manual and an online help system.
In the RoboHelp class, where I co-teach with another instructor (I teach one week and the other instructor teaches a week), I only had one student that didn’t pass the program and that's because he just gave up. He didn’t attend classes and even if you miss one class, you miss a great deal of information. Instructors are required to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time. We ask students to rate us at the end of each program and almost all reviewers say that they would like for the program to be longer. But, that will not happen as long as the program is a continuing education, non-credit program. We do not get the grants and state funding that credited programs get. Therefore, we are very limited to the time and resources we have to offer. I think this is my only regret about the program. Overall, it’s been a great experience and I love the feeling at the end of the program when I’m reviewing portfolios and I can actually see on my computer screen the result of my teaching. What a wonderful feeling. If you’ve never experienced the gratifying experience of teaching, it’s very much like watching your child learn to walk for the first time. You gave them the encouragement and taught them the basics, and they take it from there.
Q: As a Web site developer and with several books to your credit in this area, share your most important tips.
A: Web development is very much like any online documentation - simplicity is again the key. The design and navigation of a site is as important as the content. If the content is not logically designed and easy to navigate, people are not going to use it. And as I said with software documentation and online help, there are lots of cool techniques you can use to make a graphic or text blink, swirl, or do something funky, but if it's not conducive to the overall purpose of the site, then it is not needed. That doesn't mean that you can't use some cool special effects, but use them wisely and sparingly. The design should serve the purpose and the purpose should serve the design of a site.
Q: Amongst your recent books is Easy Microsoft Money 2004. Why should our readers purchase this book?
A: Easy Microsoft Money 2004 is a very useful book. Most everyone could use a little help managing their finances. And even if you have your finances under control, you can still learn how to forecast your money for future purchase, stocks, etc. This book is very user friendly and easy to follow. I love all the screen shots because you don’t have to read a lot to learn how to use Money and it has some great tips that you don’t find in the online help programs in the MS Money software.
Q: Can you provide five guidelines from this book?
A: 1) Manage all of your financial accounts (this includes bills, stocks, bank accounts, etc.).
2) Monitor your credit and receive updates when something changes.
3) Create budgets and debt-reduction plans.
4) Pay bills online and download financial statements into MS Money.
5) Set future financial goals.
Q: Describe your latest projects.
A: My latest, full-time projects have been developing online (HTML-based) guides using RoboHTML for a national sales group of a technical and professional recruiting company. I’ve been working on two major projects for the past four months and have finally just finished them. From here, I will be working on other online and Web-based documentation for the same company. I don’t have any books on my plate at the moment, but need to be thinking about and documenting revisions for the next version of the Easy Microsoft Money. If enrollment is sufficient, I will be teaching RoboHelp at USF mid-March.
Q: Where do you see yourself in five years time?
A: Hmmm, good question. I really can't say. I don't have any huge long-term goals set for myself. I am the sort of person that takes one project at a time, put everything I have into it, and I always seem to end up precisely where I need to be for the next project. So, I will let the wind in my sails take me wherever it is I am supposed to go and will just enjoy the scenery and wonderful people I will meet along the way.
Q: List the ten best resources for professionals.
There are many more great resources out there on the Web and in hard book form, but the following resources are the ones I use most. They also lead to other great resources.
A: 1) STC at www.stc-va.org
2) WinWriters at www.winwriters.com
3) W3C at www.w3c.com
4) The Technical Editor's Eyrie at www.jeanweber.com
5) Microsoft Manual for Technical Publications
6) User Interface Engineering at www.uie.com
7) Technical Editing by Judith Tarutz
8) The Chicago Manual of Style
9) Hodges' Harbrace College Handbook by John C. Hodges and Mary E. Whitten
10) Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White
Q: What are the most important trends to watch, and please provide some recommendations?
A: Unfortunately, the technical writing field has taken a big hit the past few years because of the economy. I do believe it is on the rise, but it will be slow. I am seeing more and more jobs opening up for technical writers and editors, however, our salary ranges have also been hit. I've seen salaries drop from 10-15K from where they used to be a few years ago. My recommendation would be if you are already in a job, stay there, unless you find something that you know without a shadow of a doubt is better and more stable. Also, I'm seeing a lot of short-term contracts out there for consultants, and even though they are risky, if there's nothing else out there, take it. It almost always leads to other things if you do a good job and make a good impression. I think once companies see the value technical writers and editors can make, they will fight to keep them employed.
Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?
A: I have a 7000 series Presario 533 MHz processor with a 30 gig hard drive, CD read/write and DVD drives, and 312 MB of RAM. For software, I have most technical writing and Web tools such as RoboHelp, FrameMaker, DreamWeaver, FrontPage, etc., MS Office software, and of course MS Money 2004. I have some tools to create demos using RoboDemo, graphic design tools, such as CorelDraw, and a Web cam for virtual fun.
Q: If you were doing this interview, what three questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?
A: Q1: For aspiring technical writers and editors, please provide some advice on how to get started in the technical communications profession.
A1: The most important thing you can do is get an education in a good technical writing/communications program. Companies today all require at least a Bachelor’s Degree in technical communications/writing. Be sure the school you choose offers technical skills, such as learning RoboHelp or other documentation development tools. Also, even if the school does not require you to take courses in development, choose to take an intro-to-computer programming class. Secondly, I would get involved in the local student STC program. Networking opportunities and seminars are very useful. I once had someone call me to ask if I recommended online courses. My advice was yes, if they are already familiar with technical writing and no, if they are not familiar with technical writing. Nothing can replace the value of having an instructor in a classroom with you when you are just starting out. Once you know what learning environment is best for you (for example, in-class vs. online), learning online may or may not be suitable for you.
Q2: What would you want for people not familiar with technical communications to know about the profession?
A2: Great question! I think the biggest thing I would want for someone outside of the profession to know is that we are a unique and valuable resource. It does not take just writing and editing skills to be a technical writer/communicator. We are not glorified secretaries that make documents look pretty. We have to have technical skills, layout and design abilities, organization and project management skills, and good communication skills (verbal and written). We are also translators; not only for spoken languages, but also for translating technical jargon into useful information that enables a person to learn and use a system, for example. We are technology-based modern educators, developers, writers, designers, and editors all rolled into one. We are indeed a unique breed of technical professionals.
Q3: What do you like/dislike most about being a technical writer and editor?
A3: I think the thing I like most about the technical communications field is the diversity of projects and technology I am exposed to. Technology is always changing. Therefore, I am always learning something new and challenging myself. It never gets old to me. However, on the other hand, I am not very partial to analyst or technical documentation, such as writing development specs or requirements. It is okay work, but I do prefer more creative work, such as Web design, online help, and writing books. Another dislike is that not all companies value or respect the work technical writers and editors lend to an institution. I've run across my fair share of those situations, but fortunately, I've experienced more positive than negative experiences over the past 10 years.
Q: Gina, thank you again for your time and consideration in doing this interview, and providing your many thoughtful answers.
A: It has been my pleasure. I hope I can be of some help and inspiration to other writers and editors out there either already in the profession or considering technical writing as a profession. It's a great place to be.