Featured Technical Communicator – Nick Shears

Please tell us about yourself. (For example, your name, age and a brief early history. What do you do when you’re not doing technical writing?)Hi, my name’s Nick Shears. I’m one year younger than the Fender Stratocaster guitar. I’ve lived and worked on three continents: born in the UK, I grew up in Sarth Efrica, but after spending a couple of decades back in the UK was thrilled to emigrate to Australia. (I now work remotely for a company on a fourth continent.)

I’m as passionate about music as I am about reading. The two overlap a lot for me, with favourites including Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, for example.

How did you get into technical writing? Was it by accident or on purpose?
Q: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’

A: ‘A writer’
It happened eventually, although I’d always thought of ‘writer’ as meaning ‘novelist’, and contrary to some opinions, not all software documentation is fiction.

I moved sideways from office management into IT a long time ago. My employer tasked me with managing a project to redevelop its aging computer systems, believing I could understand and integrate what customers, management, users and factory needed.

I brought that project into being, followed by a few years in IT management, in the UK and in Australia. As part of that I started writing white papers and help documents, long before that became my ‘job’.Why? A desire to write, and a passion to share information.

How long have you been a technical writer?
About 15 years: five with that as my sole role, the previous five as the great majority of my time, and the five before that as a favourite but smaller percentage.

Did you attend university? Which one? What course? How well did it prepare you?
I studied English Language and Literature in Cape Town (UCT) and Johannesburg (Wits). That was for an education rather than a qualification, but the grasp of grammar still stands me in good stead, and I occasionally still use some of the reference works from those years.

However, it was only the IT training in later years that turned me into a technical writer.

What is your level of expertise including software packages and skills? How much was self-taught or learned on the job?
I’ve used RoboHelp for a number of years, and consider myself proficient, although self-taught. I’m pleased with how I’ve convinced it to work with SubVersion, our corporate standard for version control.
I’ve used Word and Excel since the first Windows versions, and have taught courses on them, though doubt I’m up to date enough to do so on the latest versions.

When tackling a new project, I find myself drawing entity relationship diagrams to ensure I understand the data structures, so perhaps I do still understand relational databases.

What job was your favourite?
The current one: writing online help for a rapidly evolving SaaS product. I often deploy a new help build each week.

What job was your least favourite?
Writing kitchen appliance user guides based only on the original Dutch documents. That was long before I’d even heard the term ‘technical writer’.

What is the longest amount of time you have ever stayed with one company?
Fifteen years, although my role over that time morphed into technical writing. I’m still there; happily so.

Do you work on contract or full or part-time? What type of work do you prefer?
I work full-time, remotely from home. I chose that over contract work.

Were you ever unemployed for a long time? If so, how did you handle it?
Luckily, no. I was self-employed for a few months when I first came to Australia, with little work, but have worked full-time ever since.

Where do you currently work?
I work from home for Certain, Inc., a software company based in San Francisco.

In addition to being paid money, how else has technical writing changed your life? (What are you passionate about? What part of technical writing do you enjoy and never stop talking about?)
I still can’t get over being paid to do something I love. That includes not only the writing but playing with learning new software.

Do you have any regrets regarding your career path?
If I’d found a route into technical writing earlier perhaps I would have had more fun. But the broader experience of earlier roles has stood me in such good stead that I have no regrets.

What is your most significant accomplishment as a technical writer?
Creating the first context-sensitive online help for a complex product that had only a few ‘how to’ articles until then.

What do you consider to be the best possible work environment?
No distractions. Freely available barista coffee and Earl Grey tea. Background music when I want it, silence when I don’t. Constant temperature. So working from home pans out well.

It’s also essential to have easy access to product managers and/or developers, but technology makes that possible for remote teams; I used Slack, Jira, email, and Skype all the time.

Who was the biggest influence in your career?
My high school English teacher, Felicité D’ymant, who taught me how to edit myself critically. Cut, cut, and cut again. She also introduced me to the ‘making a cup of tea’ test I refer to under ‘Advice’ below.

What would be your ideal job?
Writing the liner notes for a new Bruce Springsteen album.

Are you a member of any technical writing societies, mailing lists or websites? Do you contribute to the technical writing community in any way?
ASTC for its publications and conferences.

The ATW mailing list, although it’s pretty quiet right now, and can devolve into name-calling.

‘AusTechWriter’ on Slack, which I started. There was an initial flurry of activity, but it’s gone silent lately. Any member can invite anyone else to join, so email me at [email protected] if you’d like to infuse some new blood.

Are there any technical writing books, websites or other resources that you use often and would recommend?
‘Word Up! How to write powerful sentences and paragraphs (and Everything You Build from them)’ by Marcia Riefer Johnston.

Do you have any advice for people trying to break into technical writing?
Write, write, and write again. Have work to show.

When I used to employ support staff, I’d ask applicants to include with their CV a brief explanation of how to make a cup of tea.

I wouldn’t interview anyone who didn’t provide a concise, accurate description which could be understood by someone who’d never made tea before, and preferably by someone whose first language was not English.

Where do you see technical writing going in the future?
Into the user interface. I work hard to contribute to the on-screen micro-copy. Ironically, the perfect UI would not require any ‘help’ material at all; but it would require well-chosen words on the screen.

Have you anything else to say about technical writing?
I just missed the deadline to do so.