From Electrical Engineer to Technical Writer by Alan Houser

This week, we continue the series exploring how Washington, D.C. area technical writers broke into the profession. Alan Houser, consultant and trainer, and co-founder and president of Group Wellesley, Inc., enters the spotlight this week with his journey.

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Of course you want to be an engineer!

In my suburban western Pennsylvania high school, I loved my math and science classes, and I was always curious about how things work. And I loved to write. Many of my teachers commented “You’re such a good writer!”.

But my father was an engineer, so engineering was an obvious career path. And, who even knew about technical writing?

Alan in high school
Alan in high school

Discovering technical writing

I studied electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. But I didn’t want to give up writing. I knew I wanted to be the engineer responsible for the project documentation.

At Carnegie Mellon, I could take classes in technical writing! And I did; as many as my elective slots would allow.

Shifting focus, finding validation

As I completed my electrical engineering degree, I changed my focus. I wanted to be a technical writer with an engineering degree, not an engineer who writes.

After I earned my bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, I wanted to validate myself as a technical writer. I stayed at Carnegie Mellon and earned the closest master’s degree they offered, a master of arts in professional writing.

I earned my degree part-time, while I worked as a technical writer for the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science. I supported U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)-funded research projects, including speech recognition and super-computing.

I supported many brilliant researchers. I was tickled to learn that one of them later wrote the original Mac OS X operating system, and planned Steve Jobs’ bachelor party!

Striking out on my own

After Carnegie Mellon, I spent about a decade in Massachusetts. I worked for Hewlett-Packard, supporting workstation operating systems, and a company called Avid Technology that made video editing systems. Then, after returning to Pittsburgh, I worked for a company that developed software for natural-language processing and information retrieval.

At my “corporate” jobs, I was the writer who maintained the tools, templates, and publishing infrastructure. I had long wanted to put these skills to use as a consultant. In 2000, I co-founded Group Wellesley, which incorporated as Group Wellesley, Inc. in 2004.

As a consultant, I help organizations improve their processes for authoring, managing, publishing, and localizing their technical content. I love that I’m always working with different companies and organizations, all of whom have different goals, constraints, existing skills, and budgets.

Service to the Society for Technical Communication

During my time in Massachusetts, I was an STC “lurker”. I attended some chapter meetings, and valued the STC publications. I became much more involved in the Society when I moved back to Pittsburgh.

After serving in Pittsburgh chapter leadership, I moved on to the STC conference committee, where I served as program chair for 2009/Atlanta, and conference chair for 2010/Dallas and 2011/Sacramento. Then, in 2011, the STC membership elected me to the office of vice president, with automatic succession to president.

Alan supporting STC
Alan supporting STC

I’ll always consider myself privileged, and a bit lucky, to have served STC in these roles. If you had told me in 2008 that I would be STC president in 2012, I would have questioned your sanity.

I’ll always be proud of my three years served on the STC board of directors. I believe the actions and decisions of the STC board during those years set up the Society for its current and future success.

Call to action

You, too, may have the skills and qualifications to serve STC at the Society level. The STC Nominating Committee is accepting nominations for Society-level offices through the end of July. You can nominate yourself or another individual. To do so, visit the STC Officer Candidate Recommendation Form page.

About the Author
Alan is a consultant and trainer, and co-founder and president of Group Wellesley, Inc. Alan is a past international STC president. He is currently chair of the STC Nominating Committee and a member of the STC Intercom Advisory Board. Twitter is Alan’s favorite social media platform, where he is @arh, or email him at arh@groupwellesley.com.

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