Building your technical writing portfolio

A portfolio of relevant and professional technical writing samples can be the deal-sealer while applying for technical writing jobs. Check out the following posts from Tom Johnson’s for ideas to build your tech writing portfolio:

http://idratherbewriting.com/2009/12/18/get-a-job-in-technical-writing-step-1-learn-the-basics-of-technical-writing/

http://idratherbewriting.com/2009/12/19/get-a-job-in-technical-writing-step-2-get-real-experience-doing-technical-writing/

http://idratherbewriting.com/2009/12/20/get-a-job-in-technical-writing-step-3-learn-some-tools/

http://idratherbewriting.com/2009/12/21/get-a-job-in-technical-writing-step-4-put-together-a-portfolio/

Bonus tip:

For every sample document you create, add a cover letter that describes what the document is about, who’s the audience for the document, which tools you used, and which of you skills does the document demonstrate.

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com

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Masters in Technical Communication: Graduate Teaching Assistantship at the Missouri S&T program

This blog post gives you a peek into the life of a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) in the Technical Communication graduate program at Missouri S&T.

The Graduate Teaching Assistantship comes with financial benefits. In my first year, the out-of-state fees were waived and I had to pay partial fees for in-state tuition. I was also paid a stipend. In the second year, all the fees were waived. Such a blessing!

A Graduate Teaching Assistantship usually involves conducting labs and assisting a professor with grading, and so on. However, in the Technical Communication program at Missouri S&T, being a GTA means that every semester, you teach a section of the technical writing service course. Each section has 20 undergraduate students. As the GTA, you are responsible for the section for the entire semester – right from writing the course syllabus (based on a syllabus designed by Dr. Northcut), teaching the class, planning the assignments, designing the grading rubrics, grading the assignments, taking attendance, raising academic flags – the whole deal. You are the instructor-of-record for the section. It was the highlight of my experience as a grad student.

The GTA program is driven by Dr. Northcut. My GTA program started with a full-day GTA Orientation on the Friday before the first semester started. During our orientation, Dr. Northcut discussed essential things like FERPA, academic flags, health and support resources for our students, and so on. I had no clue being an instructor involved so many crucial responsibilities! She also taught us about dailies (daily lesson plans), taking useful peer observation notes, handling difficult students, and so on. It was a deeply informative and slightly intimidating session.

For the first semester, my fellow GTAs and I observed Ms. Roberson’s class. We attended each of the lectures, completed the assignments, and took copious observation notes. Each of the GTAs taught one topic – to help us get a feel for teaching a class and getting feedback about our teaching styles from each other and Ms. Roberson.

At the start of the second semester, we took the SPEAK test (similar to the speaking section of the TOEFL exam) and gave a mock lecture to a panel of students and instructors. Only if you pass the tests are you allowed to teach as a GTA. Thankfully, I passed 🙂 The second semester onwards, each of the GTAs taught a section of the undergraduate course in technical writing. It was an exciting and nerve-wracking experience. My students of all three semesters were co-operative, understanding, and brilliant. They appreciated my industry experience and engineering background, which sparked interesting discussions about how things work in the real-world job situations. All our assignments were geared towards real-world scenarios instead of hypothetical ones. I learned from them as much as they learned from me.

We also had hour-long weekly GTA meetings, where Dr. Northcut provided a platform for the GTAs to share and learn from our fellow instructors. In each meeting, all GTAs individually shared how we were planning to approach the upcoming assignment, and Dr. Northcut, Ms. Roberson, and the senior GTAs used their experience to corroborate our approaches or point out the possible problems we could run into. If we had difficult students or situations that were beyond our purview, we informed Dr. Northcut and she would handle it for us. We also had grade-norming sessions, wherein all of us graded a set of assignments individually, followed by a discussion of why we graded the way we did. This helped us normalize our grading across sections. We attended the meetings all through the two years of the graduate program.

I did not realize the value of the training until I interacted with faculty from other universities at the ATTW and CPTSC conferences. That was when I realized that Dr. Northcut had set us up for successful academic careers, and I am so thankful to her for it.

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com

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HTML for absolute beginners

In the previous post, I shared a resource for Python, which is an excellent language for server-side programming. This week, I want to share a resource for the web client-side programming. This week’s resource is HTML for absolute beginners. It is an hour-long video that shows you how to build a web page from scratch. I love that it’s so hands-on and builds up from the basics of HTML programming. Check out the video here:

 

Bonus tip: Learning HTML makes it very easy to learn authoring languages such as XML and Markdown.

Writing a cover letter for a technical writing job

Note: Although this post is intended for technical writing students who are about to begin the job search process, but the techniques here might be useful for other students as well.

A cover letter is an essential component of your job application that helps you discuss why you should be considered for the position and demonstrates your communication skills.

The keys to a good letter are selectivity and results.

  • Select two or three points of greatest interest to the potential employer and develop them into paragraphs.
  • Emphasize results.

Elements of a cover letter:

  • Introductory paragraph:
    • Identify your source of information: State about how you heard about the position.
    • Identify the position you are interested in.
    • State that you wish to apply for the position.
    • Choose a few phrases that forecast the body of the letter so that the rest of the letter flows smoothly.
  • Education paragraph:
    • Focus on the courses, projects, and extra-curricular activities that are relevant to the job you are applying for.
    • Discuss the skills and knowledge gained from advanced coursework in your major field.
    • If you haven’t already specified your major and your college or university in the introductory paragraph, be sure to include that here.
  • Employment paragraph:
    • Like the education paragraph, the employment paragraph should begin with a topic sentence and develop into a single idea.
    • Choose only the relevant employment experience.
  • Concluding paragraph:
    • A reference to your resume
    • A polite but confident request for an interview
    • Your phone number and email address

Examples of good cover letters:

http://www.ccp.rpi.edu/resources/careers-and-graduate-school/cover-letters/

Update: As Larry Kunz (technical writer extraordinaire) advised in the comment below, the first sample is of the appropriate length, but the second one is longer than optimal.

Good resource:

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/698/01/

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com

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Masters in Technical Communication: Program at Missouri S&T

So far in this series, we have covered the general information about graduate programs in Technical Communication (TC). This blog post discusses the program details and my experience at Missouri S&T.

Missouri S&T is located in Rolla, a university town at a 2-hour drive from St. Louis. The MS in Technical Communication program is offered by the Department of English and Technical Communication, which resides in the Humanities and Social Sciences building. I enrolled in the program in August 2015 and graduated in May 2017 and took the following courses:

First semester:

  • Advanced Proposal Writing
  • Advanced International Communication
  • History of Technical Communication

Second semester:

  • Advanced Visual Communication
  • Web-Based Communication
  • Technical Editing

Third semester:

  • Help Authoring
  • Teaching Technical Communication
  • Research Methods in Technical Communication

Fourth semester:

  • Usability Studies
  • Thesis credits

My thesis topic was “Knowledge Management at Startups”. At the time, I was interning at Druva’s California office and was working on the Customer Education and Engineering documentation initiatives at the company. I conducted an auto-ethnographic research on how knowledge is captured, communicated, and managed at a startup. In place of doing a Master’s thesis, I had the option of taking two additional courses and taking a comprehensive exam. I chose the thesis route, and am so glad I did!

The courses were taught by three professors: Dr. Northcut, Dr. Wright, and Dr. Malone. Each professor brings their expertise and peculiarities to the classroom. My life is so much richer for having known my professors and learned from them.

Observing Dr. Northcut taught me how to be a professional, yet a empathetic human being. She has high expectations from her students, and leaves no stone unturned to help her students reach their maximum potential. Her drive and discipline might seem jarring at first, but as I got to know her, I saw the tremendous faith she has in us, and that just made me want to meet her expectations every time. I am a stronger woman and a better professional because of her.

Dr. Malone made me into a better writer. My undergraduate background is in engineering – I never had a formal writing education. Dr. Malone helped me overcome the lack of a formal writing education. I am in awe of his technical editing skills and attention to detail. He helped me understand the “whys” behind all the technical writing adages: Why we don’t say “please” and “you might” in technical writing, why localizing for an American audience is different than writing for an Asian audience, why use plain language, and so on (Hint: The answer to all questions lies in the theories of international communication).

Dr. Wright helped me lead a balanced, mentally stable life as a graduate student. He was my academic advisor, and later took on the role of my thesis advisor as well. His unwavering support and encouragement saw me through the stressful job-search process, navigating the Master’s thesis procedures, and just the general anxiety of living in a foreign country.

I genuinely believe the TC graduate program at Missouri S&T is a well-crafted and well-executed program that balances preparing students for TC jobs while also preparing them for an academic career. You get a real taste of the life of an academician if you are a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) under the tutelage of Dr. Northcut. For me, being a GTA has been the most significant experience at Missouri S&T that opened up a whole new career path for me. In the next post, we will deep-dive into the Graduate Teaching Assistantship program. Stay tuned!

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com

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Python for absolute beginners

If you are new to programming, Python is a great first language to learn. It is easy to read, versatile, and lends itself well to a variety of projects. Learning Python can help you learn data science, machine learning, building web apps, and so on.

My favorite CS YouTuber, CSDojo, has recently started a Python for absolute beginners series. Each video is about 20 minutes long, so I can watch and follow along one video per day and make progress incrementally. He combines theory with hands-on examples, so after every video, I get a sense of accomplishment, which I find very rewarding. Check out the series here:

 

Crafting your technical writing resume

Note: Although this post is intended for technical writing students who are about to begin the job search process, but the techniques here might be useful for other students as well.

In this blog post, let’s discuss how to craft your technical writing resume.

The most important thing to remember is that your resume is NOT your autobiography. The recruiter does not need to know all that you have done or achieved in your life so far. They have a limited amount of time to go through hundreds of resumes. Your job is to make it easy for them to select your resume from the massive pile in front of them. Use your resume as a rhetorical tool to present concise, clear, to-the-point facts about why you are a good candidate for the position. Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about what the company’s looking for.

Know Thyself

Before you start writing your resume, take a pen and paper, and do a self-inventory:

  • What courses do you like?
  • What type of organization would you like to work for?
  • What are your geographical preferences?
  • What is your employment history?
  • What professional organizations/associations do you belong to?
  • What social/extracurricular organizations/activities do you associate with?
  • What are your accomplishments/honors/awards?
  • What software/hardware/technical skills do you have?
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Know your audience

In the previous post, we discussed why it’s important to customize your job application materials for each job you apply for. I am aware of the fact that this is an inefficient method of job application. But I have a workaround: Create a base resume based on the self-inventory, and then tweak it for every job you apply for.

Build your base resume

In his textbook, “Technical Communication”, Mike Markel discusses the  essential components of a resume:

Identifying information

  • Full name
  • Address
  • Phone number
  • Email address
  • Link to LinkedIn profile

Objective

Education

Include the following elements in the education section:

  • The degree
  • The institution
  • The location of the institution
  • The date of graduation
  • Information about other schools you attended
  • Your grade-point average
  • List of relevant courses

Employment history

Present at least basic information about every job you held:

  • Dates of employment
  • Organization’s name and location
  • Your position or title

Add carefully selected details of your job and experience. Provide at least a one-line description for each position. For particularly important or relevant jobs, present the following details:

  • Skills: What technical skills did you use on the job?
  • Equipment: What equipment did you operate or oversee?
  • Money: How much money were you responsible for?
  • Documents: What important documents did you write or assist in writing?
  • Personnel: How many people did you supervise or work with?
  • Clients: What kinds of, and how many, clients did you do business with in representing your organization?

Note:

  • Be specific when you write your experiences on a resume.
  • Whenever possible, emphasize results.
  • When you describe positions, functions, or responsibilities, use the active voice. The active voice highlights action.
  • Practice your bulleted lists.
  • Use the form .
  • If you have not held a professional position, list the jobs you have held, even if they are unrelated to your career plans. If the job title is self-explanatory, like waitperson or service-station attendant, don’t elaborate. If you can write that you contributed to your tuition or expenses, such as by earning 50 percent of your annual expenses through your job, include that.
  • If you have held a number of nonprofessional positions, group them together. Example: Other employment: Cashier (summer 2007), salesperson (part-time, 2008), clerk (summer 2009)

Interests and activities

Include information about your interests and activities:

  • Participation in community-service organizations
  • hobbies related to your career
  • Sports, especially those that might be socially useful in your professional career
  • University-sanctioned activities

Additional Information

You can also include:

  • Computer skills
  • Military experience
    • Dates
    • Locations
    • Positions
    • Ranks
    • Tasks
  • Language ability
  • Willingness to relocate

Customizing your base resume for every job application

Once you have your base resume, it’s easy to customize it for every job you apply for. For every job advertisement, identify the keywords in the advertisement. Understand the core requirements for the job. Then customize the following sections of your resume:

Objective:

State only the goals or duties explicitly mentioned, or clearly implied, in the job advertisement.

For example, if your base resume’s objective is “To obtain a position as a software engineer”, then while applying for a Full-Stack Developer position at say, Google, reword your objective to “To obtain the position of a Full-Stack Developer at Google”. Just insert the position title and name of the company in your objective statement.

Focus on the reader’s needs, not on your goals.

Education:

The education section is the easiest part of the resume to adapt in applying for different positions.

Emphasize those aspects of your education that meet the requirements for the particular job.

Your base resume would probably list your courses in a random order. To customize your resume for a particular job, reorder the courses so that the most relevant courses are at the top of the list.

Experience:

Your base resume would include details of all positions/projects you held in equal weightage. To customize your resume for a particular job, rearrange the experience section so that the most relevant projects/positions are highlighted, and others are mentioned briefly.

There you have it. Easy steps to customize your resume for every job you apply to. In the next post, we will discuss how to write a cover letter for each position. Stay tuned!

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at: hello@amrutaranade.com

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Masters in Technical Communication: How to apply to universities

In the previous post, we discussed how to choose a graduate program. This post discusses how to apply to Technical Communication (TC) graduate programs in the United States.

A seminal resource to study when applying for TC graduate programs is Dr. Angela Eaton’s article. In this article, Dr. Eaton rightly points out why the generic advice about applying to grad schools is so unsuitable for TC grad programs. She then discusses the behind-the-scenes action of how TC application review committees evaluate and select candidates for the graduate programs. She describes the application materials in detail and how to explain any weaknesses in your application.

Dr. Eaton’s advice is particularly helpful for non-US applicants, who might not be aware of the cultural and contextual expectations in graduate applications. I sure wasn’t aware of the expectations. This article proved eye-opening for me. For instance, as an Indian student, I was prone towards opening my Statement of Purpose with a quote or a childhood memory, which is considered a curt no-no in the US academic system. I can’t stress enough how important this article is. Before preparing your application materials, study this article thoroughly. Print it out, annotate it, follow her advice religiously.

In addition to Dr. Eaton’s article, I want to point out the additional steps international students have to undertake before and after applying to TC grad programs in the United States:

Transcripts:

In the Indian education system, we are given marksheets after we pass an exam. I was under the impression that marksheets are the same as transcripts – but that’s not true. I had to request University of Pune to issue my official transcripts – and the process is supposed to take up to 60 days! Thankfully, I got my transcripts in time. Lesson learned: Request your official transcripts well in advance.

Snail Mail:

Most universities require that you send your application materials by actual, physical mail. Make sure you mail the application materials in advance and keep a time buffer to account for international shipping.

Student Visa (F1 Visa):

Once you are admitted into the TC grad program, the university will issue your I-20, which is one of the key documents required to apply for the student visa. This document will be mailed physically to you, so while scheduling your visa interview, ensure you will have received your I-20 by then. The student visa application process is same as that of other majors. The official US Travel site <http://www.ustraveldocs.com> has all the information required for the process.

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at hello@amrutaranade.com

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CrashCourse Computer Science

Our quest to become tech-savvy can’t have a better start than the CrashCourse Computer Science series:

This binge-watchable series is a fun and interesting introduction to the general world of computing. It starts with the absolute fundamentals of computing and progresses to present-day complex technological applications. I absolutely love this series and make it a point to watch a video everyday with my morning coffee (along with some other tech videos that I will share at a later date).

P.S.: You might want to check out the other Crash Course series as well – they are really good!

How to conduct an effective job search in technical writing

Note: Although this post is intended for technical writing students who are about to begin the job search process,  the techniques here might be useful for experienced professionals as well.

If you have recently graduated or are about to graduate with a technical writing degree – Congratulations! You’ve made it and you have the paper to prove it! It’s now time to enter the professional world.

There are many resources out on the Internet about how to search for a technical writing job. But in my experience, those resources are quite generic, and as a result, ineffective. In this post, I want to discuss the techniques I used to get my job at Cockroach Labs, and the tips I used to share with my tech writing students.

Learn how the job search process works on the company’s side

To conduct an effective job search, you first need to understand the system.

First audience – The job portal algorithm:

When you submit your resume to a company’s job portal, it might not directly reach a human. Especially at big companies, your first barrier is a machine – an algorithm that parses resumes, matches the keywords in the job ad to the words in your resume,  and decides if your resume is relevant to the job posting. So the first step in the job search process is to study each job advertisement carefully, identify the keywords, and customize your resume and cover letter to match those keywords. Don’t stash the keywords in your application materials – after all, a human will eventually read it. However, do pay attention to relevant keywords and strategically use them throughout your résumé and cover letter. Once the algorithm finds the relevant keywords in your application materials, increases your chances of being put in touch with a human.

Second audience – Human resources:

The second level of the recruitment process is the Human Resources folks. Again, they are not the final audience for your job application materials, but they are the gatekeepers. If you stuff your materials with industry jargon that they do not understand, chances of your materials not being forwarded increase. Don’t dumb down your résumé; include an easy to understand summary of what you’re describing and then follow-up with industry jargon if necessary.

Final audience – Hiring manager:

The hiring manager is your main audience. This person is your primary audience and knows what is required for the position. These requirements are specified in the job ad.  Your task is to ensure that your résumé and cover letter clearly explain why you are a good fit for the position based on the stated requirements.

Find the Right Job

A common mistake I’ve observed people making is sending out mass applications. Some people visit LinkedIn or Glassdoor, or some other popular online job search site, and apply for all possible jobs they can find. This one-size-fits-all approach ultimately leads to frustration and anxiety when companies don’t respond. A better approach is to identify your niche and target jobs specifically relating to that niche.

My own job search experience demonstrates the effectiveness of targeted job search. My niche is startups and developer documentation. When I began my job search in Spring 2017, I applied to general technical writing jobs on LinkedIn and startup developer docs jobs at startups on AngelList. I got no interview calls from LinkedIn. However, I got 7 interview calls from the 8 companies I applied to on AngelList. Find your niche and focus your job search in that area. Casting too wide a net causes you to lose focus and use too general an approach for applying for jobs.

Caveat: If you are just starting out in the technical writing field, this advice might not apply to you. At the beginning of your career, you do want to cast a wider net, try out different jobs, and along the way, find your niche.

Consider academic jobs

If you’ve completed a graduate program in technical communication, you can also consider applying to academia.

Portals for academic jobs:

Update: As Dr. Northcut for pointed out of Facebook, “It’s hard to get a really good academic position without a PhD.”

Considerations for International Students

Students in non-STEM university programs can get a one-year OPT after graduation. You have 3 choices:

  • Apply to companies that you know will sponsor your H1B. This pool is very limited and, therefore, extremely competitive.
  • Apply for academic jobs. These jobs don’t have an H1B cap.
  • Decide if you’re okay with having only one year of work experience in the US. This means that you would apply to all jobs knowing that you will probably only be able to work for a year. You can still talk to HR about it during final negotiations.

Prepare Your Application Materials

In the upcoming blog posts, we will discuss how to tailor your résumé, cover letter, and portfolio to reflect the requirements of each job to apply to:

  • Crafting your technical writing resume (Scheduled for 01/17/18)
  • Writing a cover letter for a technical writing job (Scheduled for 01/24/18)
  • Building your technical writing portfolio (Scheduled for 01/31/18)

If you have questions, suggestions, or blog post requests, drop me a line at: hello@amrutaranade.com

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