Why tech writing matters to me

Early in my technical writing days I was fortunate to work for and with some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. On this Veterans Day, as I pay tribute to our service members who bravely defend/defended our country, I’m also thinking of my mentors that devoted their careers to public service in the hopes that they could make this a better country.

One specific experience shaped my career path. It started on a rainy blah day at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I was a junior technical writer who spent most of my time writing server outage alerts. You know the type, “Sorry for the inconvenience, the network will be down from midnight to 2 a.m. yadda, yadda, yadda…” Months of this kind of work left me feeling underappreciated and bored. My boss Chris addressed the chip on my shoulder in a different way than I’d ever been managed. He said to me and the equally disgruntled tech writer beside me, “You know what, it’s field trip day.”

The NIH is massive—both geographically and economically. It takes up acres of prime real estate in Bethesda, Md., and offices spill into neighboring Rockville and many other communities all over the country.

We were in a dreary conference room on the main campus. We packed our laptops and headed to the basement of the Clinical Center. We peered in at researchers. We looked at the rats. We looked for bunnies. We talked to researchers using the biggest MRI machine I’d ever seen.

Then Chris said, this is why your service outage alerts matter. These people are trying to make the world a better place. They’re literally trying to cure cancer. Those researchers, those animals—they’re devoting their lives to helping people. If we turn off one of their systems and they don’t have the opportunity to plan for it, they may lose valuable data or research subjects. If they don’t understand what we’re telling them, we may setback their research and those animals may die for nothing.

For me, that rainy day made what I do matter. So when I’m in a funk, I remember that maybe the instructions that I’m writing or the video tutorial that I’m creating or yes, the dreaded service outage email—that those tools may help someone make the world a better place. And that’s why I love tech writing.

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