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Recently my alumni association asked me the following question:

One of the most frequent questions we get from students in the English Department is, “So, once I get my degree in English, then what do I do?”  We hear if from panicked seniors facing down their last semester at college, from timid freshmen who love English but worry they’re making a risky career choice, and from everyone in between.

Here are my answers.

How has your education in English helped you professionally?

I left USM's Graduate program in English and went to pursue a Computer Science degree.

Here's what happened: It was Spring 1992. I was teaching English 102 (writing research papers) and I required my students to have an online resource as part of their references. At that time, the web was in it's infancy. (Mosaic browser came out in 1993.). My students learned about newsgroups, the web, and bulletin boards. Every one of them thanked me for the exposure, and, more often than not, had questions that I couldn't answer. They motivated me to learn more about computers. Initially, I went back home and took a C programming course as I applied to instructor positions. I discovered that I loved programming: if you can write structured things well, you can write structured things well. I ended up staying and completing a second undergraduate degree in computer science.

Later, a friend recommended me to a job because I had this combination background—English and Computer Science. The job was for a technical publications department. I was going to redesign their authoring and publishing process and move them from a traditional publishing environment (FrameMaker + WebWorks) to an XML publishing environment. The hiring manager liked me because I was a bridge between the writers and the developers.

At that job, I did data modeling, stylesheet development, and product selection. I designed the mission-critical tools, application customizations, and workflow processes. It was endlessly fascinating to me how much I could improve the lives of the writers and editors in the department and the end user customer's experience by stepping away from desktop publishing. Writers could write again; editors could edit. Neither was hampered by the constant formatting overhead. And, I could help by automatically creating stub documents that did their research for them. Less meetings keeping up with features that I could track in the software code base and identify for them automatically when they started on the next revision of the documents.

The experience was transformative for me. It launched me into the path I hold today. I'm the CEO and founder of Single-Sourcing Solutions. Our customers rave about our Jump Start program: our strong dedication to mentoring programs and community efforts makes our customers stronger and more self-sufficient faster. They tell us that they are able to sell more and spend less doing it -- something extremely important in this economy, but just as important in good times as well.

Any advice you'd like to give to current students majoring in English?

Don't limit yourself.

Understand the profession at which you're aiming. Know the tools of your profession and understand the direction that your in which field is moving. Learning doesn't end when you leave school. If you let it, you'll find your options limited. This is true of every field. People who stop learning and don't embrace technology change find it very difficult when economies sour.

We've found it difficult to find new hires with our skill sets. No one who does what we do is looking for work today. None of the writers or editors who use XML publishing skills are looking either. Everyone who does what we do, learned it on the job or their own time.

Step out of your comfort zone and learn something new.

XML publishing is not desktop publishing. It's not WYSIWYG ("what you see is what you get"), it's WYSIOP ("what you see is one possibility"). I can produce PDF as easily as I can produce Word or HTML or MS eBook or Palm reader, or text or .... It's all one automated step from the same source content. Who doesn't want that?

We work with Arbortext. They offer free software to educational institutions. If you want to learn how to author in XML or flash -- as several online-only companies do -- the get flash and start learning. Don't expect your employer to pay for you to learn. You need to be motivated to grow your skills. It makes you more valuable to your current employer and any future one you find. However, if you're still in school, push your university to get you the tools that increase your value. (It increases theirs if you do well.)

One last word: Technical writing certificate programs are few and far between but are not required for admission to the technical writing field.

But it helps.

Update: 11/2017

Two books just came out talking about how the liberal arts majors bring benefits to tech companies. NYT Review

Technical Communicators can help bridge the disconnect between Computer Science Data Scientists and the executive decision makers they support. MITSloan Management Review

Key Concepts:

case study, training and mentoring

Filed under:

Blog, Liz Asks