Interview with Martha Sippel, President’s Advisor, STC RMC 2009-2010

How long have you been in the technical communication profession? Martha Sippel

MS: I’ve been a technical communication professional for 33 years.

How did you get your start as a technical communicator? If you made a career change, how did you go about it?

MS: I started communicating professionally as a geologist. After my career as a geologist (the second time the industry took a downturn), I decided to go back to school. I graduated with a degree in Technical Communication with an emphasis in Writing and Editing.

In the mid 90s, I was the first consultant in a telecommunications firm who interviewed SMEs to obtain accurate, updated information to develop IT documents. First I looked at books of lists and notes scattered around professionals’ desks that identified and “documented” critical backup, downtime, and repair procedures. It was a real eye-opener for me. I then researched, compiled, and prepared the first official user documentation for IT department operations and maintenance procedures, facilities installation, and department standards. This project was not only challenging but very rewarding. It was essentially the beginning of my “official” career in technical communication and usability.

Have you had other professional jobs outside the technical communication field? Did you learn anything from those jobs that has been useful for in your technical communication career?

MS: Yes, as a geologist, I began my communication career by describing topography and geology in more than 100 detailed technical reports. I wrote environmental evaluations, created detailed technical reports and maps, prepared and conducted training, and presented recommendations to management. My positions required disseminating extremely technical information in positive and easy-to-understand language to field workers, managers, and executives on a daily basis. This proved extremely challenging as the levels of understanding varied widely and the information needed to be crystal clear to ensure safety and economic success. These positions allowed me to demonstrate my ability to effectively communicate technical concepts.

As a proposal team lead in a GIS firm, I expanded my influence to implement document design standards. My final full-time position before starting my consulting firm involved managing an intranet comprising over 6 GB and more than 300,000 files. I managed all aspects of the intranet, including two intranet redesigns, content development and placement, conversion, posting, web application user interface design, enterprise-wide support, and day-to-day management.

What advice would you give to people who want to begin a technical communication career?

MS: The successful technical communicators I know hail from all avenues of work and have extremely diverse backgrounds. I encourage people who want to begin a technical communication career to evaluate their experience, spend time to update their resume in a modern format, research the types of work they would like to do, the companies they would like to work for, and network to find the right job or career. Did I mention tailoring your resume to the job you want to obtain? In addition, networking is critical because I really believe it’s who you know that allows you to get your foot in the door.

What do you feel is the most important skill for a technical communicator?

MS: I believe the most important skill is perfecting your active listening skills; the second-most important is being adaptable, flexible, and willing to learn new things.

What is your favorite thing about being a technical communicator?

MS: I like to influence the usability of designs. I especially enjoy demonstrating usable and unusable websites or applications to developers and upper management. I also benefit from working on innovative teams or being in brainstorming meetings where exciting ideas are flying around fast and furiously!

If you weren’t in the technical communication profession, what would you be?

MS: I would love to work outside again, maybe guiding people or groups on hikes or skiing trips? Doing something I love to do in nature and sharing it with others would be my ideal job.

Other than the STC, how do you stay current with technology and issues related to technical communication?

MS: I read everything I can get my hands on. I read online, buy books (or check out books from the library), and stay connected with very successful individuals. These people challenge me to learn something new every day and they inspire me to always do my best. I also volunteer a lot (maybe too much!).  As a member of STC, I volunteer at both the chapter and international level, most recently serving on the international Associate Fellows Nominating Committee. As a member of the Usability Professional’s Association (UPA), I am the content editor for the UPA UX (User Experience) magazine. This volunteer position allows me to contribute by editing (it’s a curse I have). I also learn a lot about different avenues of usability by working with the volunteer team of editorial board members and magazine staff to help authors make their information as clear and usable as possible. Giving back is a rewarding and important part of my career.

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