Write the Docs: Susan Salituro — From docs to engineering and back again

Datetime:2016-08-23 02:58:14          Topic: Adobe Flex  Python  Test Engineer           Share

I’m at Write the Docs today in Portland and will be post­ing notes from ses­sions through­out the day. These are all posted right after a talk fin­ishes so they’re rough around the edges.

Susan is a soft­ware engi­neer at Pixar and has also had a long career as a tech­ni­cal writer. She was inspired by last year’s con­fer­ence and the talks that came out of it.

Her talk is about a story, a jour­ney of career choices and being open to oppor­tu­nity. She quoted Tom Freston who said, “A career path is rarely a path at all. A more inter­est­ing life is usu­ally a more crooked, wind­ing path of mis­steps, luck, and vig­or­ous work.”

In col­lege Susan wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. She love astron­omy, though, and wanted to be an astro­physi­cist; the prob­lem was that she didn’t truly believe she could fin­ish a physics major. That dream was scratched. She had half the cred­its toward a math major, though, and pur­sued that. That switch left her with some free time which she devoted to English literature.

That com­bi­na­tion led her to take a tech­ni­cal writ­ing course. It opened up her eyes to the pro­fes­sion of tech­ni­cal writ­ing. At the time she felt that was where she was des­tined to go. For a few years she fol­lowed that path. The com­mu­nity, con­fer­ences, pas­sion, learn­ing, flex­i­bil­ity all drew her to the indus­try. Susan enjoyed learn­ing what cus­tomers did with a prod­uct. It was about the cus­tomer and mak­ing their lives eas­ier. But, she started to won­der if there was some­thing more, some­thing deeper.

That led her to dig in to what she found inter­est­ing in tech­ni­cal writ­ing and where her pas­sion lay within that. Susan got really in to what made soft­ware tick. She’d spent so long under­stand­ing how pro­grams worked from a user stand­point. Now she started learn­ing more pro­gram­ming and dig­ging in behind the scenes. She spent the next few years doing API tech­ni­cal writing.

What can I do to make my doc­u­men­ta­tion obso­lete (through effec­tive UI )?” –Susan Salituro A noble goal. #writeth­e­docs

— Mo (@synthcat) May 6, 2014

Then, she made her way to Pixar. The man­ager there wanted to use DITA for a new project. Through that she got the chance to learn Python to write doc scripts and make to exe­cute those scripts. While she never thought of her­self as a pro­gram­mer she had accu­mu­lated enough skill to enter that world and make pro­gram­ming her own.

The next chal­lenge came in mov­ing to the soft­ware release engi­neer­ing team at Pixar. This pushed her to an even steeper learn­ing curve where she was learn­ing Perl and deeper lev­els of Python. The com­mu­nity she’d found in tech­ni­cal writ­ing was still there, but it was mostly inter­nal to Pixar. The men­tor­ing and help came from inside the com­pany but Susan didn’t get the sense of a large exter­nal com­mu­nity around these skills. The flex­i­bil­ity she found in tech writ­ing also dimin­ished. On-call hours were expected and work came at all times.

After mov­ing to Canada, Susan changed com­pa­nies and shifted to an infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture role at a smaller com­pany. She was now work­ing solo with­out a strong inter­nal com­mu­nity but was able to stretch her reach in to new roles that had thriv­ing exter­nal com­mu­ni­ties. Unfortunately the com­pany went bank­rupt and Susan went back to Pixar as a Software Infrastructure Engineer.

On one level this new role meant reach­ing her goal of meld­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion and pro­gram­ming. They man­date was to find solu­tions for doc prob­lems and address tools and process issues. The focus was not just doc­u­men­ta­tion but the entire soft­ware life cycle. She worked on tools for the release engi­neer­ing team, the qual­ity assur­ance group, and more. At heart she still con­sid­ered her­self a tech­ni­cal writer.

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