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

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.

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.