BTS 13: From Veteran to 20-year Rich Technical Writing Career

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In this episode, we visit one of the most famous countries in the entire world, home to pop culture, nuclear warheads, and Donald Trump— The United States.

We didn’t go all the way in vain because we bring you loads of experience from Mr. John Kunney, a technical writer who has been in business for 2 solid decades in the US.

He weaves his great sense of humor with strong teachings as he takes it through his journey.

Stick with us as we unearth his story from start to finish.

Please introduce yourself 

Hello, my name is John Kunney. I have been in technical writing for over 20 years. I have worked in aerospace, power generation, and IG fields.

More emphasis on the IG fields because I have been working in that department for the past 6 years now. And I’m looking for the next opportunity.

How did you get into technical writing?

Well, I have always liked reading and writing but after high school, I joined the Airforce.  I liked to write when I was in school, and I thought about pursuing a career in writing. 

A portfolio builder for tech writers

But while I was in the Airforce, I still wrote in my spare time and a lot of people complimented my work. They said, “you know John, you could do this professionally”. 

So, after I got out of the military, I decided to get out and pursue a career in writing. The thing is, I wanted to be a creative writer at the time.

That’s why I got into college to study English and while I was there, I worked as a landlord in a house college. After getting my degree in English, I decided to go get a job. 

The reason was that I needed to pay bills and make ends meet, but since I hadn’t written a book yet, getting a job was more realistic.

So I went to an employment agency and I asked the lady there to hook me up with something available.

She took a look at my resume and then she noticed that I just graduated from college with a degree in English.

Precisely because of that, she sent me over to a technical communications firm where I worked as a proofreader.

I was proofreading for a few months then I switched companies a few times but I still maintained the proofreading role.

Later on, I decided to move to Atlanta Georgia where I looked for a technical proofreading job and in the course of that, I put my resume online.

 This was when I started getting some phone calls asking for a technical writer. I always said, “Oh no, I’m looking for a proofreading job sorry, this must have been a mistake”

Similar calls kept flooding in but then, there was this call that stood out.

This lady asked if I was a technical writer, and I said, “oh no, I’m a proofreader” but before I could repeat myself, she told me how much they were paying, and then I said… 

“Yeah, yeah, I’m a technical writer, uh, I’m a technical writer!

After I got off the call, I began to wonder why everyone thought I was a technical writer.

 At this point, I had to conduct an investigation into myself.  I had a book about technical writing and when I read it, I found something shocking. 

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All the while, I was always a technical writer but I didn’t know it. 

So, I took my resume and erased the proofreader part and I put in “technical writer” instead.

After that, I started getting more phone calls before I eventually got a job at a power generation company. I worked for them for about a year.

Then, in 2008 the economy tanked and I got laid off.  Soon after I found another job with a company called IGG. They were also contractors. 

From there, I went from one aerospace company to another aerospace company until I got the opportunity to work for IG telecommunications company.

 I worked for them for about six months and that was my first exposure to IG. Before then, I had never worked with IG before.  

From there, I went back to aerospace about 2 times. During those times, I was working as a freelance writer. Fun fact: I made more money as a contractor than doing full-time jobs.

I went back to full-time for about 5 years at a company called E Lead and then I left them and went to work for another IT company called IT 44, basically the same thing, IT.

 I worked with IT 44 for 8 months, then they affected layoffs and a lot of people lost their jobs including me. 

Did you begin to find love in this new career path since this wasn’t your initial intention?

I think maybe it wasn’t that I wanted to be a creative writer. I just wanted to write. This job was still a win. You still go through the creative process. 

 That’s what I wanted, I just wanted to write and I get a job where I worked with words all day long.

What would you describe as your writing weakness?

It’s not really a weakness, it’s really an allergy. One of my weaknesses is writing on technology I’m not familiar with and I’d have to learn about it from scratch.

There is certain software that I have never used and I’ve noticed that companies are requiring that of their technical writers but that is not to say that I cannot do it. 

If I don’t know the software, I can learn it. If there are instructions on them, I can learn them. 

What’s one of your best moments in technical writing?

It’s one of the companies that I worked with. They didn’t want me to write, they wanted me to edit. The best thing is, sometimes in the draft, there was only one issue. 

On a particular write-up. There was one issue which was, it wasn’t written in simple English so that an international audience can understand it better. At that point, I introduced to my team the use of Simplified Technical English. 

What’s Simplified Technical English all about?

You see, there are certain words that we use in this country that means something different in another country: eg if I say follow the instructions. This doesn’t mean anything different here in America. 

However, there are other countries where you say “follow the instructions” and they say, “where is the instruction leading us?”

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That’s the kind of confusion we were trying to avoid. What we do with Simplified Technical English. We try to treat one word as if it only has one meaning. So instead of saying follow the instructions, you say “Obey the instructions”.

This way you eliminate the confusion. So I told them all about that. I was able to close off the gap in communications using that technique. 

Ahhh, which one? (*laughs)

What’s a bad experience that stood out for you?

I had a few but I’m not going to talk about all of them. I’d state a few.

So I got a job, a technical writing job and we were to write instructions.

My boss had no technical writing experience whatsoever. 

So, I wrote the instructions and handed them to my coworkers to review and they said everything was fine.

Whereas he (my boss) wrote documentation and when I looked at it and I knew for sure that whoever wrote this was not a technical writer. However, I could tell just by looking at it that I knew how to fix it.

I told him about simplified technical English and he goes “oh no, no, no, no. I’ve heard about that, you use that in aerospace”.

So I edited the document and asked for a second opinion and the people I asked said, I got it right. Then I took it over to the boss and he said that it was all wrong.

He goes, “I’d show you what you did wrong” and in my mind, I said “you’re not a tech writer, I am”

At that time I had 15 years of experience and he didn’t even have many years of experience. He broke a rule that you should never break as a technical writer.

The rule is: “The speed approves the document”

It didn’t matter what anyone said, what only mattered was what he wanted.

Documentation needs to be simplified, structured properly, and easy to read.

He made some changes to the article and I asked why and he said, they wouldn’t understand it.

I asked my coworkers and they said they could understand it perfectly. It was a train wreck because he kept rejecting it many times and he felt he had to teach me how to become a better technical writer.

So he decided to hold a “tutorial” and he was asking questions and he was trying to rush through everything.

Then he stood up and went over to the machine to show me how to check the labels and document them. He was expecting me to go after him but I didn’t.

I was sitting with a co-worker and I told her that this had to end right now. So, I walked up to him and told him, “I think it’s time that I leave”. After saying that, I left and never went back.

Another bad experience I had was at a company that thought I was an engineer and they wanted me to match up aircraft components.  

We’re talking about aerospace here, aircraft!

I told my boss the truth. I write manuals, yes but that doesn’t make me an engineer. 

Long story short, I ended up walking away from that one and the reason I did that was that that’s stuff that can put some people in danger and that was not going to be on my conscience. 

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What if I had matched up the wrong equipment and it caused the plane to crash?

 I always tell my mentees. When someone asks you to do something like that, walk away. 

How do you manage negative critique?

Well, there was this one time I had someone comment on the appearance of the document and not the actual content. 

Also, he made a correction that would have required me to disregard the standard guidelines for writing the documentation. 

When I refused to change it, he went over my head to my manager and tried to enforce the corrections he made. So she called me over and said to me “John, just give him what he wants so we can move on”.

I write the way that I have been trained to write and in the way I have been regulated to write. If someone has a problem with that, they have to go over my head to ask someone higher than me to tell me to do it differently. 

There are some cases when I will get that complaint and you wouldn’t need to go over my head because that’s my fault and we all have faults.

If you could turn back the hands of time in your technical writing career, would you want to change anything?

Maybe finding it at an earlier stage. Finding it in my 20’s because I found it in my 30’s.

I could have skipped the military, gone on to college at an early age, and then gone off to start my career.

What words of wisdom would you be leaving for new and existing technical writers?

Just keep learning but also be adaptable. You could change companies but you need to also learn to adapt to that.

Just keep learning new terms, software, words, etc learn the new technology but also be able to adapt to certain new situations.

Be diverse in the industries. So, you’re open to more opportunities in various industries for technical writing.

Also, be good in whatever industry you’re found in.

Connect with John

  1. Linkedin

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